To some it's graffiti, to others it's street art. Lisa Perkovic tours the inner-city frontline.
Parts of the street-art safari through Sydney's inner west are like any other tour: our guide, Chris Tamm, is know- ledgeable, the route well signposted and we finish with tired feet and well-used cameras. But most of the art is illegal, doesn't last long and the sightseeing is definitely off the beaten track.
Graffiti is the bane of citizens with white walls and a wish to keep them that way. But it has morphed into "street art" in some circles and is slowly being embraced as a form of artistic expression. Tamm's tours are part of a trend taking art appreciation to the streets. Laneways, railway tunnels and walls once scrubbed meticulous- ly clean are being left "decorated" with the growing understanding that graffiti can contribute to the culture of a community.
We begin by wandering through the laneways of St Peters. First stop is May Lane, the canvas for May Lane Art Project, an outdoor gallery space started by local businessman Tugi Balog. With a side wall running the length of the street, his building is constantly receiving a new paint job. When I visit, there's lettering by celebrity LA tattoo artist Mr Cartoon and some of our tour guide's own stencils. Tamm, though, is shy about showing off his work; he's more excited by the Teazer mural around the corner. According to Tamm, Teazer is one of Sydney's most prolific artists, famous around the world for bright, vibrant works. As with many artists, he's expanded into retail and has a shop on King Street in Newtown.
In commonwith Las Ramblas in Barcelona or Broadway in New York, King Street is a hub for people from all walks of life. Over rumbling traffic, Tamm points out "Hell Kitty" stickers, a gothic version of the loveable cat, created by "an old bogan lady"; tiny stencils by Mini-Graf, "she works on make-up counters" for a living; and sprayed television sets by KDC, "they love their acronyms, those Kids on Chemicals".
Tamm lives locally and is at home on this congested thoroughfare. He strolls casually across the street, pausing on the double lines to point out a paste-up in the distance. We peer cautiously left and right before scurrying across the road, stopping to look at the giant green platypus he's pointing out only when we reach the other side. This is not the first death run. Scrawled across fences and walls, much of the art is too close to the footpath to be seen from the safety of the kerb. The two-storey mural of Martin Luther King makes a good impression from a block away, from across the street you might miss the chalk stencil fading from shop eaves. I choose to squint from across the road rather than launch out between cars for the fourth time.
Leaving behind antique shops and yoga studios, we head down Enmore Road towards Marrickville, where Tamm advises us to expect more poetic and obscene street art. Near local stores Aftertaste and Reactor Rubberwear, we find a large mural with the title "it's like a jungle sometimes." Elephants look set to walk through intersections, while lions amble across a pedestrian crossing. Clearly one talented artist had similar feelings about the traffic.
Veering away from the main street, we loop around laneways where walls reveal the more sensitive side of street artists. Tamm says many of them don't condone tagging or the crude scribbles common in graffiti. Several walls in this area have been set aside for specific forms of art and on a corner I examine a wall dedicated to stencil art.
The politics of working over another's designs are tricky. Well-known pieces are respected and often repaired by other artists but the rules are not always followed. "The work is beautiful and we all take pride in the best pieces," Tamm says. Then he gestures at a stencil of a green monster with a vandalised face. "This guy wallpapers for a living. He sprays through a screen print. [The work is] amazing and now it's ruined."
The nature of street art is constant change altered by the weather, new designs or simply the effects of time.
Tamm discovers something new every time he walks the streets. "Once you start to notice [street art], you'll see it everywhere." By the end of the day we're all spotting our favourite designs, pointing out stickers on street signs and even stencils on gutters. A walk down the street will never again be the same.
Chris Tamm runs street-art safaris monthly, or on demand. Tours depart from St Peters train station and routes are tailored to individuals. For a two-hour tour the cost is $12 a person or $100 for a group of four or more. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See sydney.com for details on Vivid Sydney, a festival of creativity, on May 26-June 14.