If you’re a Melbourne resident, there’s a good chance that you’re aware of Hosier Lane – Tripadvisor currently has it ranked as a 4.5 / 5 star attraction for Melbourne with 136 reviews, 22,525 people have checked in at the location according to Facebook, and there are 19,526 photos tagged under #hosierlane on instagram. It’s touted as a point of pride of Melbourne, a bastion of creativity and personal expression. Melbournians have long regarded themselves as the more artistically inclined city in Australia, an intellectual and passionate populace who value creativity more so than say, the bland consumerism of Sydney or the supposed culturally ignorant nouveau-rich of WA. Hosier Lane fits into that self indulgent narrative quiet well, it’s a space that gains the inherent urban credibility of graffiti and street art culture without any of the associated risk that comes with pursuing those activities in an unsanctioned environment. Additionally, the space is very accessible – normally, the places where graffiti culture flourishes (abandoned buildings, train lines, drains, etc) are physically difficult to access and carry a degree of risk in doing so, whether that be from the law or from the homeless person’s accommodation that you just broke into. Hosier is directly across the road from Federation Square, and five minutes from Flinders Street station – which is about as central as you can be in Melbourne. As such it has become synonymous with the city’s identity, and a point of contentious pride. So recently when a proposal to develop a massive hotel on the strip that would encompass a walk through atrium adjoining the laneway to Russell street was put forward, people got upset. Facebook pages were started, e-petitions were launched, and the media caught the story – the rallying cry of the opposition is ‘Keep Hosier real’, but those opposing the development are missing the point. Hosier lane is not real, it’s a toothless tiger, beautiful to look at and without any threat – and it needs to go.
Before you dismiss me as a bitter cynic, let me lay out my case. I actually really care about the dialogue between public spaces and the people who interact with them, in fact I’ve stupidly based the past few years of my life talking about it. And over the past decade or so I’ve spent way more time in and around Hosier and the adjoining Rutledge lane than I’d care to admit in polite conversation. First, you’ve got to understand that Hosier lane as a destination didn’t appear in a vacuum – it’s evolved into what it is today due to a myriad of different reasons. If you cast your mind back to 2004 a distinct phenomenon was being cultivated in Australia that arguably found its strongest expression in Melbourne – a movement that’s referred to by the now cringe inducing moniker ‘street art’. Except at that point the phrase wasn’t the marketing buzzword that it has become, it was a description of a burgeoning cultural phenomenon that legitimately had aspirational intentions. An early generation of artists like Dlux, Ha-Ha, Tom Civil, Sync, Meek, LTMP, and Form started to use stencils as a means of expression as they were easy to produce, visually effective in an urban environment, and quick to execute illegally. The content of Melbourne’s early stencil culture was largely politically engaged – look at Form’s ‘Blank walls are criminal‘ (often misattributed to Banksy), Ha-Ha’s iconic appropriation of Ned Kelly as a symbol of graffiti culture, or Meek’s message of homeless solidarity. The cultural climate of Australia was conservative, John Howard was 8 years into his 11 year reign as Prime Minister and the country had entered the war with Iraq the previous year – and stencil art represented a quick and effective method of expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo. At the same time there was also a generation of artists experimenting with character representations that engaged with many of the same issues, people like Lister (Brisbane), Yok, Kill Pixie (Sydney), Reka, Kid Zoom (Perth), and others were using figurative painting expressions. Finally there was emergence of an alternative aesthetic of traditional graffiti, an anti-style that emerged in the early 2000s and had a profound impact on Melbourne’s graffiti identity as typified by crews like PVSN or the notorious 70k. In short, it was a time of aesthetic experimentation that was centered around an urban identity.
I first became aware of this culture phenomenon as a 15 year old with punk rock in my heart and upper middle class guilt in my head. There’s a charming naivety to the idealism of the early street art practitioners, much like those who believed that the sound of the Sex Pistols could shake the world on its foundations it was an pursuit of something pure and unfiltered. There was an undeniable energy that drove the early scene, everything was being defined and nothing was concrete – very few, if any of those who were involved with what was happening at that stage entertained the idea of being a full time artist. That was the beauty of it, there was unfettered freedom and no restrictions on what was or wasn’t possible. It was the aesthetic equivalent of Sniffin’ Glue’s 70’s rallying cry of “this is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band”, except it was “here’s a spray can, here’s a marker, here’s a backpack. Now paint something”. Of course this is all terribly idealistic and largely unachievable, but that’s part of what made it so compelling. The emergence of this aesthetic also paralleled the rise of internet cultures, and it had a profound affect on the spread and dissipation of information relevant to those pursuing it. Dedicated community forums like Stencil Revolution, Art Fucks, and the longstanding 12oz Prophet were complemented by platforms like Fotolog and Flickr. Conversations erupted on public forums, tips and techniques were shared, and works documented and critiqued. An organic scene emerged very very quickly, and it was largely focused on creating a free exchange of images and ideas outside of traditional avenues of expression. It sounds trite now, but at the time it was still a novel concept. You want someone to see your art or your message? Just show them, the space is yours for the taking.
Naturally, this expression manifested itself around some key urban zones. Among them; Franklin Street, AC/DC Lane, Centre Place, and Caledonian lane in the CBD, Canada Lane in Carlton, and of course – Hosier Lane. Hosier had an enduring appeal for a number of reasons, its proximity to Flinders Street station, the presence of Andy Mac’s Until Never Gallery (an early champion of the work as an art form) in the lane, and the fact that artist’s had studios in the area (including Ha-Ha and Adrian Doyle of Empty Nursery Blue fame). For myself and my friends it was an unregulated space, a haven where we could hang out, drink, and paint without being disturbed. Essentially everything you want as a teenager. It was a formative destination that I’m sure will be remembered fondly by a generation who spent time there, and I know personally that many of the people that passed through have gone on to pursue careers in the creative industries. But that’s the exactly the point, Hosier lane as an artistic destination was ultimately an incubator. It fostered some very early and very rough works from many artists who are highly successful now, but you will rarely if ever find them down there now. Much of the work that was created in that time is crude, both aesthetically and conceptually, and while it’s important it’s also of the time and place.
The cultural impetus at the time was one of transience and freedom, the notion of a Hosier lane committee is totally at odds with the initial spirit of the work that was painted there. The city is a living organic organism, and part of that equation is industrial progress. Sure, it’s nice to be nostalgic about the way things used to be – but that doesn’t mean that it should be hermetically sealed and preserved. The work was painted on the walls with a spirit of recklessness; it was never supposed to last forever. The current state of Hosier is appalling – quality work doesn’t exist or disappears instantly, while swarms of paid steet art tours and an endless sea of tourists and bridal parties flood the street. Until Never is on an ‘indefinite hiatus’, and the artists who had spaces near the lane moved out years ago. As a destination, it’s a shell – a testament to something that no longer exists. That’s not a negative thing either, the energy and idealism of the early street art scenes were never sustainable – nor were they intended to be. For many of those around that time it was their entry to creative pursuits, a gateway to engaging with art history and contemporary urban identities. It was an unfiltered studio, and all its residents have long since abandoned it.
The fact that Melbourne City Council is apparently pro-preservation is laughable. Victoria is a state that sends people to jail for painting graffiti, a state that not only makes it illegal to carry spray paint or even permanent markers without proof of intent for legal application – but also grants the police stop and search rights that extend to your car if they suspect that you MIGHT be carrying ‘an implement of graffiti’. Do you know how insane that is? Police can search your car without a warrant simply because YOU LOOK LIKE YOU MIGHT HAVE A SHARPIE IN YOUR POCKET. While it might be comforting for middle aged yuppies to get up in arms about ‘their city’s identity’ and the cultural validity of street art/graffiti – ultimately it distracts from the much larger and more prescient dialogues about those issues being played out in our city. Hosier Lane is nothing but the bloated corpse of a creative expression that burnt out long ago, and while its legacy is enduring – it’s not found on those walls near Federation Square. Sure it’s a nice place to take an instagram photo, but that’s not reason enough to save it.