Sydney’s inner-west suburb of Newtown is famous for many things: eclectic boutiques, delicious food, cool bars and free-spirited residents. But it has also become a world-famous destination for fans of street art. With a masterpiece on every corner, most of Newtown’s walls are wrapped in scenes taken from books and political manifestos or inspired by daily life.
Located southwest of the city centre, and close to Sydney University and University of Technology (UTS), Newtown started as a poor student area. Low property prices and a vibrant nightlife quickly became a magnet for artists, including the famous UK-born, Sydney-based graffiti artist Steven Nuttall, aka Ox King, whose murals can be found all over Newtown.
“The combination of student housing and an amazing night culture made Newtown the perfect place for graffiti artists. No one cared too much about their walls, and that gave us a great space to experiment and learn to paint,” says Ox King.
Despite house prices in Newtown having skyrocketed since the 1990s, its artistic roots have stayed intact. Sophi, a local muralist from Book An Artist (BAA), an online agency that represents artists and illustrators in various cities around the world, claims that Newtown is the only inner-city area that has allowed street art to thrive. “I love Newtown, as it is eclectic and artistic, and King Street has it all – from good eats and nightlife to art.”
Wander through the Newtown streets and laneways for the most striking collages of shapes and colours. This is the largest open-air gallery in Sydney and, what’s more, the entry is free.
According to Ox King, being a graffiti artist is like any other job nowadays. Most of the murals painted in Newtown are not acts of counterculture, but regular art commissions. In 2016, the local council launched a programme called ‘Perfect Match’, which brings together building owners with blank walls and artists keen to paint them over. This is how the massive artwork by Alex Lehours came to life. It covers the whole wall in the carpark on Lennox Street, just behind the Newtown’s IGA supermarket. Sophi calls it “a perfect example of the most striking Newtown graphic mash-up style.”
Right on the other side of the parking wall is a striking mural of a beautiful, pensive woman with two cats. It depicts real-life Sydney socialite, Eliza Emily Donnithorne, who is said to have inspired the eccentric female character Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. Jilted at the altar, she chose to live life as a recluse. Ox King, whose bold colours and poetic imagery are plastered all around Newtown buildings, remembers how the idea for his artwork was born: “I wanted to create something cemented in the area’s history. As the couple that owns the house was about to get married, I planned to paint a bride, but then the council’s historians told me the story of Eliza, and I wove it all together.”
Located close to the suburb’s hustle and bustle, Camperdown Memorial Park is a tranquil public park with open green spaces. The walls and stone fence of the adjacent, nearly 200-year-old St Stephens Cemetery have become an outdoor gallery for street artists. In 2017, Ox King was commissioned to create a large-scale mural called ‘Wyrd Sisters’ on one of the walls. His artwork portrays three mystical women inspired by characters from Terry Pratchett’s book of the same name. “It is an almost pagan ritual scene of these powerful women, the witches, protecting nature,” says Ox King. Nearby, on the corner of Australia Street and Lennox Street is the Courthouse Hotel, a laid-back pub offering burgers and craft brews in a sprawling and leafy beer garden (a large cold Newtowner from the local brewery Young Henry’s is a staple here).
A stroll towards Newtown’s main alley, King Street, leads to the most photographed piece of street art in Australia – the I Have a Dream mural. The heritage-listed Newtown landmark depicts Martin Luther King Jr and his famous words, and has been featured in a TV documentary and a music video of “A Sky Full of Stars” by UK band Coldplay. The mural is a testament to the old, more ferocious history of street art in the area. Aiken and Pryor painted their work in 1991 without Council permission and against the law, over the course of two August nights, using a donated cherry picker to elevate them and a thousand dollars worth of paint. They called it: “A humanist protest against the sterility of postmodern art.” A few years later, the Aboriginal Flag was added at the bottom of the artwork. “It is so iconic, not to be missed!” exclaims local artist Sophi.
Further down King Street, on the corner of Bedford Street and Chelmsford Street, sits the fabulously decorated Asylum Seekers Centre covered in colourful birds. This artwork was created in 2015 by the local artist JUMBOist. Asylum Seekers Centre chief executive officer Frances Rush says that the mural wonderfully exemplifies the centre’s mission. “The building’s colourful exterior sends a strong message to people seeking asylum: you are welcome here. It is vibrant, warm and welcoming.”
The end of 2019 saw the inner-west becoming the region in which property prices grew exponentially. In a 2017 Guardian Australia article, Tim Gurner declared that Sydney millennials should stop going to hipster cafés to save money to buy property instead. This was not well-received by Newtowners, who feel they’re being pushed out by property developers and high rental costs. These much debated costs of city living are best summarised in this Newtown masterpiece called The Housing Bubble. Painted on the wall of the Urban Hotel by Fintan Magee, a world-renowned muralist from Brisbane, it depicts a man on all fours with a woman sitting on his back. She is trying to catch a little townhouse, floating away on a set of balloons. Muralist Ox King says this is one of his favourite artworks by Magee: “I really love it, as in Sydney we all experience our own housing bubble. I lived on Enmore Road for years, and this mural has always been a huge inspiration.”
A stone’s throw from Enmore Road, and splayed across a large building housing the Jivamukti yoga centre, is one of the suburb’s newest additions. It’s a collaboration between Ox King and another famous street artist, Phibs. Called A Rising Tide, the mural discusses the problems of climate change and the rising prices of land. The idea for this artwork was created together with the building residents, Deb and Paul, and is said to “reflect their connection to the Australian land, love of nature, music and culture.” Sophie, a local street artist calls it: “An insane collaboration and such a powerful narrative.”