Taking art to the streets

The drab and dreary Tocumwal Lane off Bunda Street was transformed recently into a homage to super heroes, with the Incredible Hulk, Batman, Ironman and more now scaling the sides of buildings. If we want to be a ‘cool capital’ we need more projects like this that make Canberrans – and our visitors – smile.

Although the term ‘street art’ is often associated with graffiti, it comes in all shapes and forms: from 3D images that trick the eye to ‘yarn bombers’ and guerrilla gardens. Acclaimed street artist Banksy is only the beginning.

In The Faith of Graffiti, Norman Mailer hailed graffiti as an art form that had evolved from Matisse and Picasso, and argued that writing one’s name, or ‘tagging’, was a primal, subversive ritual of identity.

But street art has evolved far beyond spray painted scribbles, and some of the most daring, provocative art around can be found in the streets and sidewalks of the world’s cities – and could be heading our way.

Polish artist NeSpoon decorates Warsaw with what she calls the “jewellery of the public space”, creating delicate and intricate designs in paint, wool and cement.  One of her favourite patterns is based on traditional Polish lace, which she uses to inject some beauty into otherwise drab urban spaces. Pavement cracks become little gems.

Germany’s Jan Vormann spent three years travelling the world – from Venice to Valparaiso, and from Toulouse to Taipei – repairing the holes in crumbling walls with lego-like construction blocks, introducing a fun way to amp up the cool factor on a tired building.

In France, the artist known as ‘Invader’ has creates pixelated pictures from tiles, which he then cements to walls of the world’s cities – 63 cities in fact – creating eye-catching mosaics that brighten up otherwise drab facades.  

Street art is often ephemeral – and that’s part of its charm. France’s Mademoiselle Maurice uses origami to create installations and paper sculptures that inject a rainbow of colours into otherwise grey streets, stairs and tunnels. Crafters are going crazy for ‘guerrilla crochet’, with renegade street artists covering everything from lamp posts to letter boxes in brightly coloured crochet creations. In a similar vein, “pockets of resistance" have broken out around London as guerrilla gardeners reclaim and cultivate land lying barren - from the dead zones in roundabouts to abandoned tree wells. 

In Canberra’s own Phillip, artist Lisa Twomey was commissioned to paint a fabulous mural that references some of the business uses of the building during its 44 history - including a mechanic, patisserie and lighting shop. Examples like this are really noteworthy not only because they’re sophisticated artworks, but because of the story they tell about Canberra.

These are just a few examples of how street art can brighten up our CBD, support local arts and culture and help us to create a city like no other.

So how do we encourage it? While Canberra CBD's recent commissioning in Tocumwal Lane is a great start, we need local businesses to start investing in street art for their buildings. The result will be exuberant, if ephemeral, expressions of creativity that help us enliven our city.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia