MY MUM’S COUSIN, Suzanne Brenchley, driving down Punt Road in Melbourne one day in 2004, glimpsed her ghost gazing out from underneath an archway of the Richmond Bridge. It was a long-forgotten modelling photograph of herself from the early seventies — enlarged, washed out, and ornamented with black tears streaming down the cheeks. For Suzanne, the sudden and unexpected appearance of the image from the past opened a floodgate of deeply personal memory, of youth, of ambition, and of the thirty years of an ending marriage for which her present self now shed real tears. For others passing in their cars or walking by, the poster was yet another layer upon the city’s ever-changing but permanently familiar street façade. Before long, its insubstantial fabric would begin to peel and disintegrate; it would eventually fade completely from the landscape, revealing again the bare brick wall of the bridge. The image was created by street artist Rone, and marked the first in an ongoing and now-iconic series of works focused on large-scale women’s faces. (You are always sure to catch a Rone along the Rose Street wall of Fitzroy’s Vegie Bar).
The street art movement in Melbourne has involved a wide range of forms: stencil art, drawn posters pasted on walls, objects, stickers, and painting. The current ubiquity of street art and its cousin graffiti means that unsanctioned inscriptions form an ever-present backdrop to city life.
Street inscriptions work to both construct new memory and to invoke remembrance of existing pasts. In the first instance, pieces of graffiti or street art create new layers or traces in the landscape of urban memory; they are written into the ever-fading, ever-renewing palimpsest of the street. In the second, the pieces conjure existing memory both by drawing on individual pasts and by spotlighting the city’s components and character (like the beautiful folk-inspired women pasted around Melbourne’s faded but glorious architectural details by Miso), functioning as both personal and public mnemonics.
Although so inherently laden with notions of memory, street art is by its very nature ephemeral or ‘anti-memorial’: physically fragile, it fades; exposed to the elements, it deteriorates; unsanctioned, it is often actively removed. This is a reflection of the fact that in the city, memory is challenged by the sole constant of urban life: change. Urban dwellers retrace the same pathways again and again, committing personal routes and itineraries to cognitive memory, yet our experience of these pathways can never be experienced in precisely the same way twice. Changes to the cityscape are not only visual, but aural, olfactory and — importantly in terms of street art — textural. Yet change hardly erases all remnants of the past. In fact, the past is in many ways parallel with the present of the city, whose citizens navigate a field punctuated by the legacies of past builders, architects and planners, conscious memorials to history, and the cogs of forward movement.