Every traveller has their preferred method of seeing a new city. Mine is walking. I have found no better way to interact with a place, and its people, than to intentionally get lost, allowing myself the opportunity to find things that I would never see otherwise.
So when planning a trip to Melbourne, I was surprised and intrigued to learn that street art is one of the city’s premier tourist attractions.
Around the world, metropolitan areas are forced to deal with graffiti. In Melbourne, the approach has been to elevate it to an art form – to recognize “the importance of street art in contributing to a vibrant urban culture," as the city’s website puts it. Now known as the street art capital of Australia, Melbourne is host to several dedicated festivals each year, and private building owners and councils regularly commission new works.
As a traveller going “down under” for the first time, the question became, “Where to start?” Guidebooks regularly listed Hosier Lane as the street art epicentre, and Instagram showed more than 170,000 images tagged with its name. (The Melbourne Zoo, to put this in perspective, only had about 140,000 while Federation Square, a 1960s era arts and culture venue standing in for the city’s public square, had about 80,000. Social media had spoken.)
Once on the ground, I changed into comfortable walking shoes, grabbed my map (yes, a real “ink on dead trees” map) and headed out. Melbourne lived up to its reputation as one of the most walkable cities in the world. Hosier Lane was easily accessible – just a five-minute walk from the grand Flinders Street railway station – and is, as to be expected, a prime tourist location. But with more than 260 laneways (or lanes, as we call them) and alleyways dissecting the city’s grid-based system, equally interesting art appears in a vast number of other less crowded places.
Unfortunately for those wanting to follow in my footsteps, any advice on where to find the best works is bad advice. Street art is, by definition, transitory. The lifespan of a mural is typically short. What is here today may well be gone tomorrow, having been edited by another’s spray-paint can (as I discovered when I returned one morning to photograph a piece in better light). Recommending a particular location is a fool’s game.
The city has attempted to preserve what is obviously a valuable commodity. In 2008, it covered Banksy’s Little Diver with plexiglass. Later that year, silver paint was poured behind the protective screen and tagged with the words “Banksy woz ere.” Officials apparently learned their lesson, noting in the latest Graffiti Management Plan that, “By its nature, street art within the City of Melbourne is ephemeral – it is not meant to last … Archival of works through high-quality photography is a more effective preservation strategy.”
Translation: Always carry your camera and photograph great work when you see it.
While to some, this constant evolution may seem tragic – knowing that what you see and love in this moment may not be there for the next person – to me, it is comforting. The next piece of art will add a piece of that artist to the neighbourhood, creating a living history of the world in which it exists.
If you take the time to wander, you’ll find a range of artistic forms. Traditional graffiti tags appear next to stencil art opposite buildings covered in traditionally defined artistic styles. The motivation behind the art also runs the gamut: political and social commentary, deeply personal messages, commercial gains and artistic expression. There is something for everyone – and just as interesting there is something for everyone.
Melbourne Street Art Tours and Fitzroy Street Art Tours offer inexpensive walks with local “artists” as your guide, but I’d venture out on my own. The city is a safe and welcoming place. I found the people friendly and helpful, and my adventures led me not only to incredible art but also quirky coffee shops, wine bars, bistros and galleries. The unexpectedness added to the experience; the not knowing what I would find around the next corner added to the joy of discovering the next amazing work of art.
Regardless of how you choose to see it, Melbourne’s street art is not to be missed. The eclectic mix of visuals makes these lanes and alleys what they are: a contemporary art gallery curated by the public.