Longform // The Awakening of Forgotten Space

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INCREASING POPULAR AWARENESS of the presence of street art prompts a collective revision of neglected space — indeed, graffiti and street art are almost always associated with abandoned or interstitial spaces.

In Melbourne, graffiti tags appear ubiquitous; they are in backstreets, on building sites, factory walls, along the train lines, under bridges, and on street corners. For those who create this kind of graffiti and for those to whom its language is legible, it has the power to awaken into action those idle spaces in which it flourishes. Yet the audience of such graffiti is limited: personal tags usually either simply ignored by the wider community or vilified as aesthetically contemptible and symbolic of disorder.

Street art, on the other hand, is seen as more accessible and publicly inclusive — although sometimes carrying a political message, it is most frequently intended purely to delight the viewer or to vitalise a drab, colourless surface. Calling out to passers-by, street art draws a greater number of people into engagement with the city.

In Melbourne, this enlivening of urban space has been most evident in the central city’s laneways, where much of Melbourne’s most sophisticated and most viewed street art is created. Originally rarely even noted on maps, these narrow alleys and lanes were built to service the greater streets of Melbourne’s 1830s grid; their public neglect and concealed presence has made them ideal places for artists to put up unsanctioned stickers, posters, stencils and pieces in privacy.

Now, where once dwelled only rats and garbage cans, chic Melburnians sit at ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bars, cafés and restaurants (changes to the licensing laws in the nineties were concurrent with the rise of stencil art in Melbourne, both encouraging active reoccupation). Along with unsanctioned street art, official public art programs — like the Melbourne City Council’s Laneway Commissions — facilitate the development of the laneways. Under these influences, the once lost spaces of forgetfulness are reinvigorated and reaffirmed as lived spaces in which colourful graffiti art has become, for a segment of the population at least, a prized aesthetic; the laneways are now populated well into the night.

Alongside the rediscovery of forgotten urban spaces, it is also in the nature of all street art to reveal anew the very textures of those spaces. Walls, the basic but often unseen building block of the urban environment, become newly visible when painted or pasted upon, revealing the peculiarities etched into their façades by time. In the image of ‘the girl in the tunnel,’ the poster is pasted within an inset archway in the tunnel’s wall and its rounded shape mirrors the contour of the arch, emphasising its construction; red tears streaming down an otherwise black-and-white face underscore the bright, deep, crumbly red of the bricks.

Urban dwellers cognisant of the city’s embellishment begin to walk the city in a different manner: their gaze becomes conditioned to seek textural detail, increasingly receptive to these physical landscapes of the past and of the past’s reworking.

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