The Art of Graffiti Writing
This is the final draft of the forward I was invited to write for a new book by Brisbane photojournalist, Toks Ojo. Toks has photographed and collated a vast amount of current graffiti/street art in Brisbane into “Brisbane Walls, Graffiti and Street Art.” The book is due for release later this year.
2018 will mark 20 years since I began an alchemist’s experiment with graffiti. I invited graffiti writers into a conservative enclave to publicly demonstrate their art. It was a bold and maybe naïve move but it was the beginning of Jugglers, at that time a bi-monthly celebration of fine art, music, graffiti, comedy, poetry reading and coffee in, of all things, a north Brisbane suburban church context.
I was the minister of a large protestant congregation and I had begun feeling deeply frustrated with its sterile and utilitarian approach to the arts. Not only that church but the whole religious paradigm and its dualistic approach to life, spirituality and subsequently, art had become stuck. I needed a push through the door that was opening.
Jugglers effectively became my wide open door out of the restrictions of that paradigm into a new life where graffiti would feature as “the writing on the wall” and the metaphor for a new life, a life immersed in artistic and free thinking expression. I developed Jugglers with one of my sons – Harley – on the church property before we ever moved to Brunswick Street. Once we moved in 2002, he launched his own comedy career in Melbourne.
I have seen a range of changes in the development of graffiti in Brisbane over the past 20 years, and in particular, since 2011 when I took on the director’s role of Jugglers Art Space Inc. from my son, Randal. Randal guided the early growth and development of Jugglers since the move into 103 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley in 2002 from the church property and he led and developed a range of remarkable programs including gRafFic (Emerging Artists Development Program), a course initially linked to the Brisbane Magistrates’ Special Circumstances Court.
In Queensland, the charges for wilful damage, particularly for graffiti, are the most stringent in Australia. A new experiment in diversion programs via the Magistrates court meant we were set up to run short courses (EADP) in collaboration with the Department of Justice for referred offenders, thus working with them on artistic and personal development and the detour from a jail term. The Special Circumstances Court was defunded in the first year of the Newman Government in 2012.
The changes in graffiti writing in Brisbane in the last 7 years that I have seen have mirrored the world wide phenomenon of graffiti as the next art movement, embraced by town planners, architects and hipster inner city slick. A sudden influx of commission requests began arriving in my inbox, while friends I had supported through wilful damage court appearances and others who had found their voice at Jugglers suddenly found themselves in the spotlight, developing new business skills and even international rock star status. Trains and rail corridors still “got done” – and still do – but the gentrification and acceptance of more designer styles were suddenly appearing in every alley and wall in Brisbane.
It was somewhat ironic in 2015 that under strong anti-graffiti position that Premier Campbell Newman had taken, the Queensland Government funded Jugglers, in collaboration with Queensland Rail and Brisbane City Council’s Visible Ink to paint murals on QR infrastructure with aerosol for the G20 Cultural Events for the visit of such luminaries as President Obama.
We developed Jugglers as a multilayered not-for-profit organisation with one focus being on providing subsidised and at times, free art spaces for artists from a wide range of art genres. We offered our backyard space as a free, open, safe self-managed graffiti art studio. It didn’t take long for the word to spread that there was a place for writers and artists to make marks, and to make every effort to beautify the place. It was void of law enforcement and surveillance. We encouraged a mutual respect value where writers developed their own modus operandi, making it their place and their art. In some respects, this was a mirror of older crew values. Crews have long been a sub-group of our society with a kind of tribal hierarchy where younger writers learn from older elders. Respect for each other and each other’s work is highly regarded. This is not to say that there are not turf and ego wars, common in any art and testosterone fuelled practice.
Over the past 15 years we have welcomed hundreds of writers and artists and I have made lifelong friends from Brisbane and around the world. As an older non-writer I have found total personal acceptance by the writers I have met both on their turf and mine. The tunnel and back space has been covered with tags, characters and multi layered pieces from the inception until in 2014, when the back wall came down in the mother of all hailstorms and we found that the layers of fibro and paint were akin to multiple tree rings stories.
This book that Toks has created as a current 2017 narrative of graffiti pieces in Brisbane is a record of passionate artistic endeavour. Jugglers fits into the evolution of graffiti thrown up in legal and illegal spaces in a range of ways reflected by this terrific book. There are many others who have partnered with us and us with them for whom this is a significant work. As far as I know it is the first of its kind for Brisbane and it will become a book to proudly own and lend and refer to for writers, artists, libraries and art schools. It carries in it a sense of pride and identity for the artists and writers seen here, both identified and unidentified and as a means of remembering those who are no longer with us. Graffiti will never die and as someone wrote cryptically, “…it is the last bastion of freedom of speech.” Well done Toks.
Jugglers Art Space Inc
FB: Jugglers Art Space
Guido van Helten – and his completed work in Chernobyl, 2016.