The graffiti around the streets of Bowden in the 1980s was done prior to the tagging and the boom in street art in New York in the 1970s-1980s and prior to many councils encouraging street art in the city by designating walls or areas exclusively for use by graffiti artists.
The Bowden graffiti was text based, not visually conceptual as in the work of Keith Haring who painted wall murals in Collingwood, Melbourne in the mid-1980s.
There was no street art scene nor any sense of artists challenging art by situating it in non-art contexts. It was more an expression of the creative impulse to put the writing on the wall that set itself apart from the visual clutter of advertising; a form of expression that has its roots in Arthur Stace chalking out his one-word message “Eternity” half a million times in Sydney between 1932 and 1967.
I saw these words on the street as a form of playful street poetry, even if they didn’t play with metaphor or create multiple or possibly conflicting meanings. Rennie Ellis, the Melbourne photographer who published three books on graffiti between 1975 and 1985, observed that the words on the wall expressed a desire to say something, to comment, inform, entertain, persuade, offend or simply to confirm his or her own existence here on earth.
At the time, however, this kind of wall graffiti was seen as a form of petty vandalism–a destructive crime representing an invasion of public and private property–rather than street poetry. This graffiti was associated with the broken windows theory, vandalised objects, decay, and communities out of control. So graffiti is outlawed and public spaces are increasingly placed under surveillance.
Graffitist’s were seen as petty criminals. The rhetoric was that graffiti is associated with young people who under-achieve at school. Boredom, alienation, family and community breakdown, lack of leisure opportunities and youth unemployment were usually cited as causes.
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