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Street artists struggle with Sydney’s stingy walls

Members of a leading women’s street art collective talk about the significance of street art to the Sydney community and the issues that continue to stifle young talent.

By Iain Salvador

Image of one of Stay Fly’s pieces that dot the cityscape of the inner west

With a few flourishes of spray paint, an artist in nondescript blue overalls makes her mark on a black wall in a pub. Once an overlooked wall that was not given much attention is now a fierce bubblegum haired woman, staring down anyone who walks past.

This is just one example of the work by Stay Fly Sydney – a self-described “battalion of fierce female artists” that have been carving a name for themselves in Sydney’s community street art scene.

The artists of Stay Fly envision a bright future for their street art. However, they find themselves on the frontlines of many issues surrounding the relationship between street art and the community.

It continues to be a source of both adoration and contention by Sydneysiders; seen as adding character to the visual landscape by some and a crude meaningless eyesore to others.

While Melbourne has consistently played up the important role of street art in its tourism campaigns, the lack of legal walls and places for new talent to cultivate their craft has left these artists frustrated that Sydney is lagging behind.

Stingy with walls

According to Iresh Stella, head of the Stay Fly collective and street artist from Milan, Sydney is struggling to give many artists legal walls for them to cultivate their talent. She argues that councils have not done enough to encourage the art form’s growth.

“There is so much talent willing to step in and I think the city’s not doing anything for it,” she says. “I do find that it would make such a difference if there were legal walls.”

The role of legal walls has been an ongoing source of tension with some councils choosing to tear them down. In 2009 Parramatta council pulled down the last of its legal walls, while Newcastle council did the same two years later.

Parramatta council insists it saw a drop in graffiti rates by 50 percent and Newcastle council reported a similar decline.

On the other hand, Iresh believes that without opportunities, the ‘art’ in street art won’t flourish. “It really depends on the sort of freedom we give to people to express themselves,” she says. “If there’s no opportunity, of course, there’s going to be more criminalised types of graffiti.”

An artwork in Sydney’s May street area where legal walls have been encouraged by local councils

Meanwhile, other cities like Victoria and Adelaide appear to be making it easier for people to obtain their own slice of the city to spray paint.

I went to Adelaide for example and straight away we got a legal wall and painted every day. Why do we get to do that in Adelaide when we don’t have that in Sydney?” she says. “People are asking for it you know? I work for a spray paint company and people come and buy spray paint and they asked me where can I  go and practice. There’s one place that I can tell them.”

Eyesores or Important touchstones?

Fintan Magee’s piece “Housing Bubble” satirises the plight of first-time homebuyers trying to break into the market

Sydney’s political street art has had continued significance to many communities, especially in less affluent neighbourhoods. The political nature of the art form has given many activists a platform for powerful messages.

Another member of Iresh’s collective, Merindah Funnell – a mural artist and illustrator of Wiradjuri heritage, believes that street art remains a potent form of activism for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“It appeals to the masses, everybody sees it. You don’t have to go to an art gallery, you don’t have to see fine art,” Merindah says. “It’s something that’s there in the streets wherever you’re going in life.”

She recalls her favourite piece of activist art based on the seminal words of Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.

“It’s such a powerful message,” she says. “It’s saying: ‘whose land this belongs to’. While it’s everyone’s land we’ve got to give recognition to the first people.”

The piece which adorns a large wall in King St, Newtown, was added to the heritage list by Marrickville Council in 2014.

In a rare coming together of council and artist, the council’s independent report described the piece as having “local, historic and social heritage significance.”

Despite advertising agencies and city councils finding new ways to use the medium, Sydney street art remains a point of contention.

“They see it as ‘nice graffiti’ but I don’t think they’re attracted to it as much as hipsters,” Iresh says.

Out with the old and in with the new – striking a balance

Seeing the appeal that street art has to the millennial demographic, advertising agencies have capitalised on the art form to promote new releases of movies, tv shows and video games to a market that is increasingly shunning traditional forms of advertisement.

A fault line about the ephemeral nature of the art form has come to the fore with artists still unsure as to how to approach such a delicate issue.

For Lotte Smith, a screen print and mural artist for Stay Fly, one piece’s controversial disappearance and reappearance highlights the crux of this issue.

Nestled in a small alley along Enmore road is a striking piece by Colin Bebe about the ups and downs of life. ‘It’s like a jungle sometimes’ was a loving tribute from Bebe to a friend who committed suicide.

Colin Bebe’s mural piece on Enmore Road at the centre of a controversy about advertising and street art (Photo cred. Newtown Graffiti Flickr)

In September of 2017, the piece was at the centre an incident when a company looking to capitalise on street art’s hipster appeal ignited uproar.

“The drama started when an advertising company that employs artists to make murals painted over it without permission,” she says, referring to Apparition media’s promotional mural for the movie Mother (2017).  

In a Facebook post, the company profusely apologised for the oversight, saying:

After we complete the final stage of this mural, we are going to restore the original mural in collaboration with the artist and we have agreed to cover all costs, assist him in painting it and get the story of the mural out there to as many people as we can.”

Lotte continues: “I like the ephemeral nature of it. It’s like an open gallery in that it’s always changing and you’re always getting showcased new art. But at the same time, the reason why this was made is a really moving subject matter.”

To Merindah, the ever-changing nature of street art is just another unique aspect of the medium but she also recognises that some pieces should be preserved.

“There can be respect for some artworks in certain ways but it’s like a game. It’s to have fun with it,” she says.

Iresh believes that the balance lies in the thing they’ve been fighting for all along more walls for more people to paint on.

“When there’s legal walls where people can practice, you can go over and over and take your photos,” she says. “I think every artist would be so much more inclined to paint walls that are going to stay there.”

“It’s a beautiful feeling to see a piece that you’ve done a long time ago still resisting.”