Three lads get on a train. This is not a joke. Dressed in Stone Island, Helly Hansen, and Sergio Tacchini, they adjust to opposing ends of the carriage. Before you see the paint burst and curl from their wrists, you hear the rattling cans. They murmur to each other in pig latin. They don’t paint eye-catching images, or use more than one colour.
The brightly coloured lines the lads paint along the train panels are illegible tags; names or trademarks along the Metro train network. For the uninitiated, the names are either difficult to decipher or subconsciously ignored, because everyone is so accustomed to graffiti in Melbourne.
There are three ways to look at tags. Either you assume they’re thrown-up by assholes who vandalise public spaces, Instagram-unfriendly clutter à la Hosier Lane or that they're fucking fresh. I fall into the last category.
To get an insider's view, I met Muscles, a member of Melbourne’s The Subway Freaks (TSF) graffiti crew for coffee. “Tagging is a form of mark-making. I used to think that it was an activity of a delinquent rather than a lodge in humanity’s diary,” explained Muscles. “The documentation of an individual is more relevant than sustaining a white wall for the comfort of silence.”
Graffiti is an act of rebellion, or vandalism, that provokes the public by poking fun at the establishment—and it's been employed by larrikins for centuries. The earliest surviving depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion are a blasphemous icon scratched into a wall in Rome, titled The Alexamenos graffito. It depicts a young man worshipping a crucified, donkey-headed figure with crude Greek text that says, “Alexamenos worships his God.”
When I was 15, I would ride the Dandenong train line every morning, rest my head along the scratched glass while listening to Billy Bunks spit: “don’t look surprised at the tags that you blasted, of course they’re that toy you were maggoted fuckhead!” I’d look out the window at the rolling gallery of fresh throwies and anti-style pieces, marveling at how they're always adapting and reimagining the limits of typography.
It was heartwarming to see that in Dandenong, amidst all the junkies, burglaries and broken dreams, there were artists who devoted their life to a sense of fulfilment through graffiti. Especially when the state of Victoria has some of the harshest graffiti laws in the world and it is an offence to even carry spray paint or “graffiti marking tools” in public.
The first time I saw a live throw up was with my father. We were travelling by train into the city and a tall bloke in a black Adidas bomber jacket strutted through to the back of the carriage, acknowledging everyone onboard with a nod, before unleashing—with green and blue spray cans—what looked like a cross between a dance routine and a violent assault. He had obviously performed these movements thousands of times, and then—like a magician that disappears in a fog of paint—he left us with the letters “KSA” (Kickin' Some Ass).
Performance art refers to the practice of art in which the body is the medium, or it necessitates live action in some way. When a gang of lads “bomb” a train with a barrage of textas and paint, what you’re witnessing is not an act of vandalism. Instead, the train has replaced the gallery as an arena in which to perform. What the American artist Allan Kaprow would describe as an organised “happening.”
The cream of the graff crop are referred to as “kings.” These are technical artists who earn respect through full colour compositions called “burners.” So called “tags” or “throwies,” (two-colour bubble tags), are sometimes prototypes for “burners,” but they’re usually just implemented in “bombing,” which is the repetitive tagging of an area—usually “loops” (rail lines) or “panels” (trains). Then the dregs of the community are crossed out and disgraced with the ultimate disrespect when the word “toy” is scrawled over their work.
The downcast stereotype of the graffiti vandal is a classist view of a cultural movement that flourishes in the working-class outer suburbs. The cultural evolution of the Eshay or “Lad” subculture, often likened to the chavs from the United Kingdom, sprang from the western suburbs of Sydney in the late 80s.
Whereas the graffiti scene in New York had the Lo-Life movement—whose members would shoplift the freshest seasonal drops of Ralph Lauren to be adorned by graffiti gangs in Brooklyn back alleys—the Eshays were shoplifting a range of high-brow brands that included Ralph Lauren, Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger, and Lacoste, to disrupt society's expectations of who should be wearing brands endorsed by the David Jones demographic. The difference was that lads typically wore shorts and Nike TN runners with their “toff” polos.
But in recent years something strange has happened. Corporations have exploited the growing popularity of “urban” street art by commissioning large scale murals by established artists. Danish Chan is the planning director of the advertising firm, whiteGrey, who employ street artist to collab with brands. As he told the ABC: “artists have always had commissions and patrons. Whether it is galleries, or churches or brands, as long as the artist is proud…it doesn’t compromise on their ideals.”
But the graffers I spoke to disagreed. “A lot of graffiti writers are hitting the streets in a savage attempt to regain territory,” explained Muscles. “The strong divide between street art and real graffiti has become evident with the new mentality that throw-ups (quick bubble style) can go over pieces, a perception that has been adopted by many young writers.”
In 2016, a 30-year-old mural on Smith Street depicting women from Northcote was “capped” or disrespectfully tagged-over by prolific Melbourne graffer, NOST. The brazen tag sparked outrage, and incited people to tag over his name with comments that read, “no style, no concept, no talent” and “fuck the patriarchy.”
But graffers from within the community saw the piece as a full-frontal attack on street art, challenging our ideas about what constitutes substance, which for taggers is a long and complex tradition that has been spoiled by the consumer-friendly popularity of commissioned street art. To which Muscles asserted, “someone giving you permission to express yourself doesn’t make sense to me.”
There have been instances in which dead taggers, whose legacy is honoured by graffers by being left in peace, have had their names “capped” or painted over by street-artists and corporate murals. “When it comes to seeing throwies over murals and productions,” said Muscles, “many from the older generations struggle to come to terms with what they deem as graffiti violations. But in the end illegal graffiti will always triumph.”
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