ARTIST INTERVIEW, 2020 with Tom Groves from BACKWOOD GALLERY.
“We are all learning on this journey of life. As a non-Indigenous person living and working on Wurundjeri Country I would like to pay my respects and dues to the Wurundjeri community and in particular Elders past and present and to those emerging; to acknowledge the suffering and injustices that were and are faced by the community, and also to share my admiration of the strength and resilience of the community to survive and thrive, now and into the future.”
– Tom Civil
This new series depicts your iconic Stick Folk characters, what do they represent and how do you define them?
My Stick Folk characters have meant different things to me at different times and places. They have grown and evolved – and stayed the same – along with me. I like the idea of them encapsulating the many layers of a person. And also whether that person is now in the present, or from another time. I feel the multilayered meaning of these characters is their strength – whether representing an ancestral spirit or a powerful presence of our times – these images in this show feel to me to build a bridge between these worlds. The images talk to the anger, confusion and outrage of our times from people all over the world about social injustice, environmental catastrophe and personal struggle as well as the hope and camaraderie of people working together in their communities to make the world a better place. Although have all these feeling just been felt before and the crises of our time just feel the biggest as we are living through them? My print “Awaken” to me stands out as a linking print between the present and the past, the idea of our ancestors – and those no longer with us – being awoken around the fire to give us strength and guidance.
I also love how people can make their own connections and meanings with my Stick Folk characters and stories too, and that is part of the beauty and universality of the stick person motif around the globe. I’m always secretly fascinated in which stick person character people see themselves in, especially in the crowd of a painting – dancing, deep in conversation with friends, cheering in the thick of the action, or sitting alone…
Your work often depicts people, often in groups and sometimes isolated, how has the current pandemic affected the content of your work?
The pandemic hasn’t really changed the content of my work at all, although the pandemic changes the way you view the work I think? Particularly as we are living through these heavy restrictions on our movements and ability to congregate in any form now during Stage 4 restrictions here in Melbourne. And nearly all of my work focuses on people gathering together in person without any technology, and just trying to focus on the essence of people being together face-to-face, working together, playing together, learning together. It was really interesting painting this big mural out in Melton in Melbourne’s deep North West just as the virus was hitting Melbourne and the first restrictions were coming in. It was the first time we were realising the potential impact of this virus and the impacts it could have on our daily life – and I has there on the street painting this huge mural presenting society through the simple act of people gathering! It almost felt like I was painting a big sign of the beauty and importance of people being able to gather, and the need to for us all to work together to make this possible again – and hopefully in a more meaningful way, a truly celebrated way. It also has made me really value the importance and usefulness of public art and murals, as all the galleries and institutions closed down for the public, and people could still appreciate murals on their daily walks, bike rides and drives around the place during the restrictions.
Do you approach studio work such as this in a separate way to your work on the street?
Well they feed of each other. And sometimes my murals are very similar. But much of my mural work is done in collaboration. From working as a community art facilitator with a bunch of collaborators to doing community consultation sessions and taking on feedback with my own work on any mural project. These community projects are great, important and fulfilling work, but can also be hard work and sometimes you just want to do your own thing! But I have had the privilege to work on some incredible community projects recently. Such as working with the inspiring people at The Torch, who work with Indigenous inmates and recent release inmates from Victorian prisons, I got to work with lending my mural experience to help pull together a huge mural in the exercise yard in Melbourne Assessment Prison in the city with a talented bunch of guys who had been through The Torch program. I’ve also done three large murals with Ash Firebrace and the Wurundjeri Council over recent years which have been tough projects but really rewarding, me and Ash made a massive kinda sculptural mural along the Maribyrnong River on the fence surrounding a concrete plant, we also did a mural wrapping around the big waiting room in Heidelberg West Court and the entrance to the Koori Court there, and most recently did another big mural near the Yarra River at Yarra Bend with Major Projects Victoria under the Chandler Highway bridge upgrade over the river. Basically we have depicted the plants and animals and a stories of the Yarra River and joining waterways, generally Ash does all the animals and traditional work and I do the plants and bigger linking aspects of the mural. I’ve also done sculptural Stick Folk cut-outs attached to a fence surrounding a primary school and a bunch of other kindergarten and childcare centres over recent years too. Most commissioned murals require some kind of community input and this is part of the joy of the job, letting go of your art and trying to help a community create something for the spaces where they live, work and play and have to see everyday. But it’s so nice to get any chance to work on my own work, to keep developing my style, technique and stories in the shed or studio!
When one thinks of Sparks, one can imagine ideas, fire, excitement – where does this title come from? What messages are you aiming to communicate through Sparks?
Because sparks are fucking flying. The breaks are screeching to a halt. But we are only scratching the surface of the social inequalities that exist in our society. Although seeing things laid bare during this pandemic is incredible to watch at the moment. Things like the Liberal government doubling the dole, people have been screaming for this to be risen for so long and then the government just doubles it overnight – something they could have easily have done not in a pandemic but wouldn’t because of their neoliberal worldview. The government giving all homeless people accommodation… The stopping of flights… The stopping of the football! These are just a few things too off the top of my head. If only for relatively short periods for the moment, these are all incredible social achievements and just show that another world is possible – and achievable!
Your work has a certain aesthetic which places it in an Australian context. How does the land affect your process and output?
I’ve always been interested in how to make art or an aesthetic that celebrates and critiques ‘Australia’. An art based in the places I know and am from. To try and delve into the challenge to add to the ‘Australian’ story and narrative, and with keeping a universality which can hopefully be read around the world. And I think this has led me down this path to these simple Stick Folk paintings. I love that people can hopefully understand them in a popular sense no matter where they are from. Many of these paintings also refer to people in the land, in the bush, and with no technology. I have shown this with just the simple continued motifs of the three-line sedge or tussock grasses and the dot rocks.
For this exhibition you are presenting five new prints on paper. Can you tell us about the printing process and how these works came about?
I really love printmaking, and get so excited constantly learning new techniques and always seem to be pushing my friends to do more printmaking! I think basically I love talking about it because that is how I learnt, from my friends and art comrades. With this series I worked with my friend and incredible printmaker Kyoko Imazu to teach me some of the potential of copper etchings, the sugarlift process and the beauty of the aquatint box. I produced the initial drawing marks on the plates relatively quickly, painting using bitumen and sugalift directly on the copper plate capturing the look and feel of a bold painting in a print. Then the tones in the image are created with different times in the acid bath and new stages of painting. Such a great old sciencey technique and very hands-on way to make prints.
I feel printmaking has always been a part of my art practice, from photocopiers and zines, to street stencils, to wood and lino cuts, screen print patches and posters, drypoint etchings and now acid etchings. I love the connection to the past this kind of work creates. Printmaking has always been used as an accessible type of art form or communication tool.
For the exhibition, you have depicted groups of figures gathered around a fire. Has the recent bushfire disaster affected this series in any way? Can you tell us a little more about the recurring fire motif, what fire stands for, what it creates?
Fire has always been on the conscious of people in Australia. Our environment has evolved to need fire to survive. But the way generations of people since colonisation have altered and cleared so much of the landscape combined with climate change has led to this fire chaos. These paintings try to celebrate fire, to remind people of the beauty and social power of fire. And I was thinking from this view maybe a more respectful long-term approach could be had towards fire in this country and the environment.
Sparks again has multiple meanings. I’m also referencing the power and symbology of fire. The shear mighty power of our last summer bushfires…. My two paintings ‘The Aftermath” I and II, refer to the total exhaustion after those fires, from those on the front lines and society as a whole. The frustration of all the things which have lead us to this moment – mass land clearing, climate change and a disconnection in this country with the scientific realities and Indigenous knowledge systems. But fire is also knowledge. Fire symbolises the ancient simple human behaviour of gathering together as family, friends and community to eat together, to talk together, to learn together and to simply sit together and stare into the power of fire. My paintings ‘SPARKS’ and ‘Burning Bright’ refer to how society needs these fires, these learning and sharing circles. The strong foundations of care and understanding for each other, strong discussion, story telling and listening.
Your work is often socially or politically activated, what issues does this series of work address?
Sparks to me also refers to social movements. And how ideas are in the air and spark social action like spot fires. The incredible social movement against systemic racism in the US as well as conservative neoliberal right-wing governments all around the world has been like this. I try to paint stories and moments with my characters that capture in just a small way some of these associated emotions and physical feelings, often in the simplest and almost friendly and accessible way as to be not immediately obvious to many people. To hopefully allow people space to enter the dialogue. I think a lot of this again comes from the influence of painting community murals that often aim to investigate diverse local people and issues as well as being something beautiful and fun that people have to live, work and play alongside every day. The painting ‘Blue in the Face’ is like this, I painted this painting directly after getting off the phone from a dear friend who was telling me how amazing the Black Lives Matter protest was he had just been to in Sydney and how triggering it had been for him as an Indigenous man and how people in his family had suffered and died at the hands of the police and how he himself had been aggressively arrested and handcuffed and been given horrible racist verbal abuse from the police while he was in the back of a police divvy van, and then made to wait handcuffed alone in a police station. All this for a very minor, if any, offence. This painting for me expresses the anguish and frustration of hearing and reading about the constantly repeating stories of great injustices faced by Indigenous people in Australia at the hands of the police and the legal system.
I wanted many of these artworks to speak to the social organising that is happening and has happened in the past, from small groups of friends such as in “Plotting”, “Together” or “Thick as Thieves”, to small community groups like in “Affinity” to mass gatherings and civil disobedience in the street such as in “The Rabble”. Just to show the simple act of people gathering peacefully in unity for a common idea. It definitely feels like we are in a moment when we as a society have a chance to work towards different paths to the future…
Could you tell me a bit about the painting ‘Old Man (for Mr Peters)’
It’s a very special painting in this exhibition for me, I almost didn’t include it in the show. The painting is a portrait of a dear person to me, and many, who recently died. He was a senior Gija lawman who lived in Warmun in the East Kimberley. He held much Gija law, and believed very strongly that you should not use someone’s name after they have died, so that is why we now call him Mr Peters. He was an incredible and powerful artist with such a beautiful generous and open soul with such a creative mind. He was welcoming and loving to so many people, including me and my brother and family. My legend brother Ned who died from cancer in late 2010 lived and worked in Warmun for around 7 years and was really close with Mr Peters. And I visited up there a bunch of times while Ned lived up there and I also have done two big mural projects up there over the last 10 years with the Warmun Community, including working with Mr Peters. So I have a special family connection to Mr Peters and many Gija people.
Part of the tragedy of Mr Peters dying is that not long before he died a mining company Kimberley Granite Holdings did exploratory granite mining on his country without any consent and destroyed a part of a very important sacred and culturally significant site and also a place where ancestors were buried. It is hard not to see the connection to his death for someone like him. There is much energy to change the racist and outdated Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act and to prevent further huge scale mining by this mining company on Gija country, for more information and to contribute see www.garnkinynotgranite.com. The anger and sadness over what has taken place is part in terms of the uniqueness of this particular situation and because of how commonplace it is.
But again with this painting, in it’s simplicity, it aims to tell the story of many old people who have gained a seniority and authority in their lives from contributing and caring for their people and their country. The large white hat references this, worn like a crown. And how we can all only aim and work towards being like this in our lives.
Over the last 2 decades your style has become more and more refined, and now, in maybe its simplest form the message is stronger than ever. How has your background defined your current approach to art making?
Coming from a more self-taught, friends and studio taught and street background I love experimenting and learning new techniques all the time. I like figurative art that is accessible to a broad range of society, and it makes me happy to have great feedback from all sorts of people when working on the street and nowhere near an art gallery. I continue to want to create work that has a social responsibility and feeling of the times but also reflective of a broader sweep of time, that I hope binds people together and is part of building a strong culture here in Melbourne and beyond. Working in a variety of communities has also influenced my painting and images as well, and often in unexpected ways. Even in technical ways, such as moving toward using quality acrylic paint and brushes away from spray paint. I have grown to love the feel of painting with brushes, and the aesthetic of house paint, and this has all come from my mural work. Trying to work bolder and in a quality that could last well too, just in case any of my murals happen to be around for longer than expected! I really tried to keep things as simple as I could with this new series of paintings and prints, and just focus on the emotions of my Stick Folk characters and the small simple stories within the artworks.
I have had people say they see an Indigenous feel to some of my works, particularly in my simple Stick Folk paintings, and I am still working out where this sentiment comes from exactly, especially as a white man in this country trying to be conscious and vocal about cultural appropriation but also as someone who has collaborated and works with Indigenous people. Possibly because of my kinda storytelling figurative style and focus on the environment. Sometimes I think it’s because people don’t know my own personal references and history to my art making – things like moniker graffiti and tags, punk art, political graphics, stencils and woodcuts, outsider street art and community murals. For instance in this series I have painted all the Stick Folk in a white, an off-white stone paint to give a subtle texture and warmth. The white paint represents a few things, but firstly for me its history comes from the simple white moniker tag from a white oil stick or chalk on the street or train; such as the way Eternity was written by Arthur Stace across Sydney in the early to mid 1900s, or hobo train graffiti monikers across the US on freight trains, or early political paint brush graffiti in inner city Melbourne and Sydney in the 1970s. The white paint also alludes to an otherworldly dimension to my Stick Folk characters, like they are spirits – they are not opaque. I have always loved how for me graffiti and street art brings a certain human magic or mystery to the world. I often see characters painted on the street as mythical beings returning to the city. Living in cities and towns in Australia that are generally so barren of any kind of broad everyday public spiritual rituals or links to the beauty of the natural world, I see this as an important role of graffiti, street art, murals and public art. And this act, this art, has played a role in society forever. The simple act of visually showing that humans live here! It is a national tragedy that so much ancient art in this country has been destroyed, and continues to be undervalued and at threat.
Thank you for everyone’s support!
Over and out.
X Tom Civil
I thought it might be interesting to re-publish this interview I did with Fletch via email in the lead up to my exhibition LONG STORY at the end of May 2012. X Tom
Interview by www.INVURT.com – Tom Civil, May 2012
Fletch (INVURT): Remembering back some years, I recall when I first became aware of Tom Civils work. I’d heard about a screening on TV of a new documentary, Rash, all about the emergence of a whole bunch of new street artists in Melbourne. I was eager to check out what was happening over here (at the time I was still in Perth), and I sat through the entire thing, mesmerised by the ways in which artists here were expressing themselves and pushing their art in entirely new directions. Having only ever really followed graffiti until that point, Rash served as an early foundation for my passion for the Australian “street art” scene.
In amongst all the amazing stories and interviews in Rash, one artist in particular held resonance with me – Civil. This artist spoke of a lack of community based urban art across the country, and how he enjoyed contributing to the wider discussion, proposing alternative ideas and thoughts for the public to ruminate upon.
Over the years, Tom Civils work has progressed and morphed, however that one critical aspect has remained constant – the wish to talk to the public, to use his work as a way of communicating questions and ideas to the civilians of both the city, and the regional areas surrounding them.
Despite all the trriumphs, tribulations and trials along the way, Tom Civil still carries a torch within a constantly evolving movement. Whether it be via his art on the street, in a gallery, or through the independent publishing company he helped set up – Breakdown Press, its our opinion that he is one of Australians most important advocates of utilising public art as a tool for social awareness.
We really loved doing this interview, and we’ve been looking forward to sharing it with you ahead of Civils exhibition this week at House of Bricks – so read on for a small glimpse into the long story behind the work of Tom Civil …
FLETCH: You’ve been at this whole creative game for some time now, but how did you first get started with it all? What spurred you on to becoming an artist?
It’s always hard to say when things start. When I think of my earliest creative endeavours I’m always drawn back to those foggy, distant memories of playing, exploring and constructing as a kid with my brother and our close bunch of mates up at my Dad’s place in country NSW. Although this wasn’t art. That was learning freedom.
My Dad is a junk artist, ‘found object assemblage artist’ he sometimes calls it. He was the earliest inspiration, and continues to be, for me realizing the beauty and power of art and old rusty dirty junk, and also how art is good for keeping you sane and happy.
As an adult my earlier memories of discovering my own love of art was though punk art and culture, and particularly the art that accompanied the albums of my favourite bands. I’ve always loved lots of genres of music so I can’t just single punk out, but I loved collage and the DIY punk scene and got madly into ‘zines and the culture that surrounded it. I think in a way that was the start of my own personal art journey. This continued on into independent media projects, making flyers and posters for different campaigns, and out onto the streets.
Although, even to this day, I find it hard to call myself an artist – life’s strange like that.
Tell us about the differences between mediums that you use – you spread your work across painting, aerosol, prints and stencil work – what does each one bring to your work, and how do they all play across each other? How important is it for you to vary your processes?
I love playing with all mediums, particularly new ones to me. I’m fascinated by working with mediums that I’m not that comfortable with, and the images you can create through this process, and all the happy accidents along the way. I think also, because I never went to art school, I just get excited when I discover a new technique and wanna give it a go.
I really have to thank all my friends that have shown and taught me different skills over the years.
Your “stick dudes”, for want of a better name, are also hugely iconic – from such a simple image, you are able to put forth complex ideas, scenarios and perspectives that are hard to achieve in a more detailed piece. What is it about this simplicity that draws you in and why do you think they are so effective?
My stick people characters allow me to tell stories, and they allow other people to make up there own stories about them. I think that this is possibly the most important thing about art for me, telling stories, creating myths. I’ve been thinking about how possibly I’m some kind of folk street artist, or something, of late. Possibly all graffiti and street art is a kind of folk art? Often not really seen as ‘art’, but loved by so many people, and will be seen as one of the bigger art movements of our time in the future.
I often wanted to represent people in my painting, and to communicate across different cultural, language and sub-cultural barriers, as well as the fact people were often asking me too represent ‘community’ through different projects I was working on. I got totally addicted to drawing them, and people kept telling me how much they loved them, including my grandma, which I knew was a good sign to keep going.
I wasn’t that comfortable with drawing at the time and so developed my own style so I could represent community and different things that were happening around me. I now love drawing and realize how vital it is to the whole art process, and keeping a healthy mind.
I was also exploring the idea of being a civilian, and how to represent that? I still find it hard to draw my little people as the bad guy, you know the person in authority, the person with a gun; the police, the soldier. Although, now my people characters are developing in all different directions, and will hopefully continue to do so.
You are seen as a high profile social advocates within the Australian art and street art community, for example this week you will be doing a talk at RMIT on how street art is an appropriate medium to voice social concerns. Can you tell us a bit more about this topic, and why you believe it is important to you to speak up on such issues, and to also convey them in your work?
Well, thanks for saying such nice words to start with – there are so many people doing important work in this area.
I’ve always been interested in both politics and art, and how to find links between them. There’s so much going on in the world and I think we have a responsibility to get involved and speak up, while at the same time never forgetting our, my, privilege in the world as a relatively rich white man and the power dynamics surrounding this.
I continue to be fascinated by how graffiti and street art fit into this. Talking about graffiti seems to get to the core of the politics of space and the city. What avenues we have to communicate in, and how controlled or uncontrolled this should be. I love the anarchic participatory nature of graffiti and believe this should be protected.
You are also very active in regional communities and work on a variety of projects and workshops throughout the country, how important is it for you to expose communities to the power of art, and what have been some of the great experiences you’ve had travelling around doing the workshops?
I grew up as a kid in a country town, I suppose I still love the country and the kinds of people that come from the bush. I love being on the road, getting to know different parts of this country better, and learning the cultural variations that exist everywhere. It’s such a common misunderstanding about Australia, that it’s this homogenous mass. When it’s just so different everywhere, except for the KFC, Bunnings and 7Eleven on the corner.
I think one of the big changes I’ve seen since being in this graffiti game is the emergence of graffiti culture in regional centres. It’s just not that uncommon to see a tag on the sign into town, or a piece under the rail bridge in country towns. Murals are the new skate park, well kind of, well at least I think they should be. There is so much potential in regional Australia and, in years ahead, it’s going to be fascinating to watch as country towns turn into cities, throughout Australia.
We’ve seen the cool things you’ve been creating with Breakdown Press – publication is pretty different to art – what inspired you to found Breakdown, and what is the primary focus of the work you put out from it? Do you have any new projects in the wings?
Breakdown Press is sort of hold for the moment, but there’s a few ideas brewing. My partner Lou, who I founded and run Breakdown with, is finishing up her PHD in poetry at the moment and I’m just focusing on my art and living life – but we’ll see what happens.
I love publications and print: mass producing stuff, and getting it out into the world. Our aim with Breakdown was always to make publications we’d love to see ourselves that we thought we weren’t seeing enough of in Australia, and to produce engaging creative political publications and posters. Two things we are thinking of maybe doing is producing hand-made beautiful political posters (kind of in the vain of our comrades in the US, the inspiring Justseeds collective, but in our own style) and possibly a series of poetry books … we’ll see!
Sadly, your brother Ned passed away in 2010. Besides the unfathomable loss of a brother, he was also a long time collaborative partner of yours in a variety of cool projects, under the guise of Evil Brothers. We’d love to hear more about the work you guys did together, and the works you did as Sevil & Sons with your dad …
This is the long story. What my life has been all about. Trying to come to terms with the loss of my brother, my best mate, my crew and my moral compass when it comes to art and the world. Ned got into graffiti and street art before me and has always been my number one inspiration. He died on Boxing Day 2010, three weeks after being diagnosed with Cancer, just weeks after returning from a show we did together in Alice Springs.
The art installations and work in abandoned spaces I made with Ned are my most favourite things I have ever done. I am just so happy we took the leap and did them, culminating with an installation collaboration with our Dad, Tony. The Ghost Train installation Ned and I did at Carriage Works in Redfern, Sydney was incredible. I couldn’t believe we pulled it off. Ha ha. Ned had the brilliant idea to make spray-can torches that felt so real, just like a real can but with different coloured LED light coming out of the cap instead of paint! And we had collaborative stencil cut-outs in all the walls and as you walked through the tunnel – it was lit up with shadow puppets everywhere. All at the same time negotiating the tracks we built and the sound of the heavy gravel under your feet and the sound of trains.
Working with Ned in a gallery was always an experience. He would always have big ideas and demand to completely change the gallery context. The constructions he made before we started collaborating in the gallery with the Makeshift Collective (with Ned’s amazing partner Anna Crane, Emma Davidson, Anwyn Crawford, Marley Dawson and Pep Prodromou) were truly unbelievable.
He was a true street artist. Uncompromising, intelligent, respectful to the history of place, and had a powerful understanding of the impermanence of life and art.
There are so many other stories I would love to tell, but I wouldn’t know where to continue here. Least to say, we had many adventures together.
Your show coming up at House Of Bricks, Long Story, sounds as if it is a tale unto itself … we know you’ve had a both a hectic and tumultuous last few years. With your recent move from your long term stay at Seed Factory to your new space at the Everfresh studios, how is this new show, your first in five years, a culmination of all of these experiences?
All the art in this new show I have made since my brother died. After Ned died, I though, fuck art. I thought I’d maybe never do it again. Then maybe 3, 4 months after he died I picked up a pencil and started drawing, and couldn’t stop … Ned would want me to keep going, and I’m doing it for him.
The title comes from when people ask me what I’ve been up to, or what a picture’s about. My answer always seems to start with ‘It’s a long story…’ – so I though it was appropriate. It’s a culmination of a lot of image-making techniques I’ve been playing with over the years, but taken to a different level. Most of the images are memorials to Ned, to the things we loved and shared, to life, and to death.
Over the years, you have been witness to many changes in the Australian street art scene and culture – what are some of the positive things you have seen happen over this time, and what are some of the negatives? How different do you believe it is now, as opposed to when you first started out?
Things are the same, and things are different. I’m not sure if it’s me, or the world. I think a lot of political campaigning has moved from the streets and onto the web. I think we, as Australian street artists, have potentially a stronger more developed sense of identity. Things have merged: graffiti and street art. The CBD is bigger, richer, and more spread out. Interesting work can be found spread out over a bigger area now, probably mainly due to the fact people are forced in all directions due to higher rent. There’s a lot more deeper, more spiritual imagery generally in murals and characters. Actually the development of character graffiti in general is huge. I sometimes wish we had more street poetry and just general slogans written everywhere. I think we have some amazingly beautiful murals going on, and I reckon these can only get bigger and better.
I still believe in site-specific work, particularly in murals, linking into the history and people of the place, creates some of the most powerful and affecting work.
So what is next for Tom Civil? Will we hopefully be seeing more shows from you in the future, or will it be a case of “wait and see?”
I’d definitely like to do more shows, and I’m keen to do some bigger more ambitious murals too. But for now I just need to keep going, keep making things, and see what happens. Little by little, bit by bit.
Over and out.
X Tom Civil
Learning the City
(Published in CITY – Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy and Action Issue 1, Volume 14, 2010 http://www.city-analysis.net )
I came to graffiti unexpectantly. I moved to the city when I was ten years old. I’d spent my years before that, first as a baby on two different farms, then moved to the small country town of Uralla in NSW, after a short stint in apparently a squatted place just on the edge of town in the neighbouring town of Armidale. After moving to Sydney I spent my time at school with my Mum, while I spent all my holidays up with my Dad in the bush. My brother Ned and I spent our time divided between the the city and the bush. This theme later carried on into both our art practices in ways we both probably didn’t expect. We loved finding wild spaces within the city to play in. Probably from having the freedom and space as kids to build our own cubby houses as we’d call them, places to hide away from the world we could call our own. We made a tinned roofed rough cabin that was cut into the side of the dam with a wood fire and a chimney. One winter in the cold and snow we constructed a labyrinth of tunnels and rooms through the hay-bales Dad had bought in bulk to later sell from his place for peoples vegie patches and to feed horses and cattle.
Ned got into graffiti as a teenager. He and his mates used to paint pieces in the back shed at our place near the beach in Sydney. A beautiful part of the city where the ocean meets the CBD. After school finished I moved to Newcastle for 4 years and studied environmental science and geaography at the home of Australia’s largest coal port. The city has an amazing history of convicts, bikies, surfers and steel. I then moved to Melbourne in 2001, after attending the World Economic Forum protests, or S11 the year before. I pretty much straight away got into independent media projects and started working for The Paper a fortnightly free political newspaper. I got into zines, stencils and street art more generally. Graffiti just felt a part of the free uncontrolled media movement. As well as Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass at the time, there was a movement building to reclaim public space for the public. Skyscrapers, cheap student acommodation, advertising and increased surveillence are all part of the ever growing city lanscape around us. Graffiti – posters, tags, pieces, slogans, re-advertising, street sculptures, paintbombing – is a hands-on reclaiming of the achitecture of the city.
Things came together when I discovered the joy of painting in abandoned places. Old silo’s, a forgotten velura factory, a function centre, drains, a boarded up pub at the docks.
We kinda started organising to get people together to paint a place up then make a time for people to meet and all walk, ride and roll to the secret location. Shows like this under the title the Empty Show happened in Melbourne, Newcastle, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra as well as other places. Different people worked together in different places. Music was made, rooms were transformed, the buildings would become alive full of people exploring and staring in happiness.
My brother Ned was exploring abandoned, forgotten, places in the city too in Sydney. He built a magical walkway through a roofless little house that will never be forgotten. The billboard jams the crew were doing up in Sydney at the time were huge, unlike anything I’d seen before.
The city has taught me that people will always find a way to make places they can call there own. And that in this simple desire lies a positive and creative future for what we now call cities.
I have learned that our use of resources in cities is vast and the impact that this has on the natural environment beyond cities is devastating. And for people to have the education to understand a world view beyond the city communication is vital. The limited ways to communicate with those around us must always be protected. In a largely urban population we have to not lose sight of the role “graffiti” plays in this.