Melbourne’s Central Business District is characterized by the Laneways. Melbourne was planned by Robert Hoddle, the first surveyor general of the city, who had a vision of large sweeping roads, and Governor Richard Bourke, who wanted narrow streets. The result was a combination of the two, based on a grid system, and over 260 lanes and alleys creating a busy, bustling hive of activity with its own character.
A fusion of haute couture and glam grunge, it’s the proximity of so many variants that results in a collision of creativity. Full of bohemian ambiance, there is no right or wrong to the Laneways, it’s an area of easy adventure. So it is that amongst the grand facade of the Block Arcade with its gilded ironwork and glass domes, or the Manchester Unity Arcade and its Art Deco flooring, or the fashion labels of Howey Place, that a thriving art scene exists.
Melbourne’s street art is legendary. Consisting of stencils, paste ups and murals and primarily centered around Hosier Lane, Union Lane and Rutledge Lane, it also spills out down to the beach area of St. Kilda, and over to the bustling and bohemian area of Fitzroy. A combination of art and activism, with everything from social commentary by the Doctor to murals and decorative painting by Shida, the artists have become household names, Phibs, Vexta and Ghostpatrol being major contributors.
With support from the Victorian Government, sponsorship from Design Guide and multiple local businesses, the scene has thrived. There are the Urban Scrawl and Street Art institutions, a Stencil Festival, and in 2001 Melbourne Council began commissioning artwork. The famous Hosier Lane was even painted a black blank canvas to be renovated and rejuvenated by local artists. There are numerous festivals and events throughout the year that are both focused on the art, and the ambiance and exhilaration that it creates. The art has spread creativity elsewhere, and so February sees the Laneway Festival, which is all about bringing new music to the old alleys, the Stencil Festival is now the Street Sweets festival and encompasses multiple art forms, and there are lots of films and books about the scene.
What is the fascination? It’s a reflection of the ephemera of the city, the way that life and thus the surroundings in which it operates changes. Lives forever evolve, and so why should the streets in which life happens not modify and alter. The council have tried to preserve some of the creations, which may have inadvertently led to some losses. A Perspex screen put up in 2008 to protect Banksy’s Little Diver had paint poured behind it. Widely considered an outrage, there is still the undercurrent opinion that street art is not something to be saved, but is an ever evolving method of creativity, part of and reflecting the conversation of the street. By its nature it is transient and moving, which adds to and is part of the buzz of the Laneways.
There is a collective sense of ownership around the art and the space in which it inhabits, which thrives upon the fact that it is not housed within a gallery but on the gallery of the street. This means that the idea of freedom of expression and private property do not jar with each other but instead find an exciting meeting place in the art. And so although the creations are irreverent and experimental; although the art exists amongst heritage and history, it is not restricted or bound by this. In fact the heritage has been a huge influence. Melbourne Two Worlds is a mural exploring the stories and history of the Wurundjeri community and Neon Natives is a selection of native animals against a pattern that is part of the culture of the Kamilaroi people.
The interplay of the artistic surroundings and the excited and busy Melbournians, the visionary business owners and the creative cafes results in a feeling that goes far beyond just “big road, narrow road.” The Laneways in Melbourne are not just streets, the cafe culture is not just coffee, and the street art is certainly not just graffiti.