Street art debate: a conversation Ballarat needs to have

IS graffiti art or vandalism? It’s a question dividing the Ballarat community.

It’s also an issue that is costing more than $250,000 a year to address and frustrating many business owners who have to clean up graffiti attacks on their buildings. 

According to City of Ballarat’s public art advisory committee head, councillor Des Hudson, a conversation about urban art is something the community needs to have. 

“Where there are legitimate spaces, acceptable designs and approval from the community, urban art can be an acceptable form of public art,” Cr Hudson says.

He cites the council’s traffic signal box art project as a great success in curbing graffiti and encouraging urban art.

Started two years ago with the approval of VicRoads, the $30,000 project has seen 20 signal boxes painted by Ballarat artists. 

The project is modelled on a similar effort by the City of Brisbane and links professional artists and community groups together. 

Cr Hudson says another 15 signal boxes will be painted by the end of this financial year at a further cost of $10,000.

“When you use public art to reduce the number of blank canvasses, it provides an opportunity for urban art to come out in public domain,” Cr Hudson says.

“Generally, it then doesn’t attract graffiti as it becomes sacred space.”

However Cr Hudson, who also chairs the Ballarat community safety committee, says not all graffiti can be considered appropriate or art. 

“For me, graffiti is tagging, it’s words and scrolls that doesn’t mean anything to anyone,” he says.

“It’s designed to damage property and generally make an area appear untidy.

“To that end, we would commend the work of Ballarat police in Operation Centaur, which is taking a hard line to people who participate in this form of vandalism.”

The council has also spent good money trying to clean the streets of graffiti.

“We have spent in excess of $250,000 a year on a graffiti removal program,” Cr Hudson says.

“That’s in partnership with the Department of Justice... we have received around $100,000 from the state government.”

Delacombe-based DJ Graffiti Removals owner David Jebb says removing graffiti from a wall can take between 15 minutes and three hours per square metre.

The costs, he says, can be anywhere from $20 to $45 per square metre.

“I remove the graffiti with biodegradable chemicals. Once its off, I use pressure wash (to clean up),” Mr Jebb says.

“But sometimes I have to paint the wall because the graffiti damages the painted surface.”

One Ballarat businesswoman – who doesn’t want to be named – says she has spent more than $2000 on cleaning up graffiti from her business premises in the past 10 years. 

“We got tagged once a year,” she says. 

“A lot of the time, depending upon the size, I’d get out there and remove it myself.”

“When it comes to removing graffiti, she says, Ballarat businesses need to be more proactive.

“I would appeal to business owners to remove it immediately themselves,” she says.

“They (graffiti artists) are doing it so that they can see their tags. 

“We need to encourage people to be a bit more concerned about the look of their business. That’s what makes our city look so much better.”

Shep Cannery owner Peter Corboy is also concerned with the appearance of his business, but he decided on a different strategy by commissioning sanctioned graffiti.

Mr Corboy says the colourful and vibrant mural on a huge shipping container kept on the side of his shop in Wendouree has attracted a lot of notice.

“It’s my way of stopping graffiti,” Mr Corboy says.

“The container was a big white canvas and someone would have come and put tags on it.

“I didn’t want to look at rubbish.”

Mr Corboy says he spent $50 and two hours scrubbing to remove a previous tag. 

The commissioned work, which was done by Ballarat artist Cax and two of the youths he mentors, cost $300 in paint. 

“It was something that was worth doing and looking at,” Mr Corboy says. 

The work has already attracted positive comments and lots of youngsters have come through for a look.

“I spoke to the kids who were doing it and they seemed really good.

“They had a passion for street art but just nowhere to do it.”

One passionate proponent for street art is 36-year-old Ballarat artist K23.

Somewhere in a leafy city suburb, the father-of-three will put a circle cutter to sticker paper, pick up some spray paint and begin creating.

Inspired by patterns in nature, the softly-spoken visual art graduate likes to produce work that reflects the bright colours of sunsets and flowers.

On first glance, the artworks – bright circles placed on top of each other – might seem random. But they aren’t, sometimes taking weeks to finish.

K23, as he likes to be known, has previously exhibited his work in galleries.

But these new artworks will instead be stuck on the back of signs, on signal boxes and in laneways – mostly in the dead of night.

K23 has been creating contemporary art for the past seven years, but only got into street art in the past two years. 

“I like to put art in the public spaces so it adds colour and pattern,” he says.

“Public spaces can be a bit dull and grey.

“It is nice to have some colour and art to look at.”

Street art, he says, brings vibrancy to the landscape and creates public discussion. 

“You reach a different audience on the streets than in a gallery,” he says.

“Art gets people thinking.

“Street art adds to our lives.” Reclaiming public spaces from advertisements is also a motivator for K23. 

The artist says he would never deface historical buildings, schools or private property.

K23, whose work has appeared in Melbourne, New York and the UK, says street art is a global phenomenon.  

Ballarat, he says, is in dire need of a legitimate space dedicated to street art.

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