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Writing's On The Wall: How Aussie Street Art Is Speaking Truth To Power

30 November 2019 | 1:18 pm | Joel Burrows

Joel Burrows speaks to street artists Luke Cornish, aka ELK, Van Rudd, and Peter Drew about how political graffiti is changing hearts and minds.

Political graffiti, and street art, has been around for literally centuries. It can be found on the walls of Pompeii and in the ruins of Ephesus. The first-ever picture of Jesus was carved into a wall, and he had the head of a donkey. Even in Sydney, the old North Head Quarantine Station has graffiti that could date back around to 1835.

However, even though political graffiti has almost always been a thing, it’s really coming to the fore lately. A bunch of Australian street artists, including ELK, aka Luke Cornish, Van Rudd, mononymously known as Van, and Peter Drew, and their political artworks, have been getting a lot of media attention.

Some political street art is popular partly because it looks dope. For instance, Van Rudd painted a mural of Scott Morrison and the Opera House succumbing to rising sea levels. The water is up to Morrison’s neck, and he’s Gollum-esque, clutching a piece of coal. It’s a captivating way of protesting the government’s climate policy.

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Rudd says these visual elements stemmed from a “gut feeling”. The idea of comparing ScoMo to Gollum “just came off pretty much that day when I was doing it. And there wasn’t much thought behind it. But you kind of know that people are going to get it”. 

Rudd’s spontaneity created an engaging piece of political art. “There’s something about the atmosphere of it being on the street that people don’t want to miss out [on],” he says. 

Luke Cornish’s stencil art is also visually compelling. One of his most recognisable works was at Bondi Beach. It featured 24 Australian Border Force officers, masked and holding automatic weapons. The text, “WELCOME TO BONDI” loomed over them and made the whole piece feel inescapable. 

Cornish says that this imagery, and its pro-asylum seeker message, upset some people in Bondi: “Some people genuinely, legitimately were confronted by seeing these dominating figures with automatic weapons.” 

However, despite this backlash, he believes that “the stars aligned with that piece”: “I needed an image that I could replicate multiple times, and soldiers was something I’ve been painting since I started painting. The aesthetics of the textures translates so well in stencil.”

Audiences really connecting with the messages of these works feeds into their popularity. Peter Drew’s AUSSIE posters are an example of a street artist’s politics resonating with the public. This series' starting point was a man called Monga Khan. Monga Khan was originally from India and applied for an immigration exemption to the White Australia Policy in 1916. Each poster features a photo of Monga Khan with the word “AUSSIE” written beneath him. This combo of text and photography denounces the insidious racism in Australian society. 

In 2016, the general public crowdfunded this series to the tune of $19,426. And the works were so successful that Drew published a book about his work called Poster Boy. He also received a lot of support when he travelled around Oz and put his posters in different cities. 

“I always get messages of people offering to help,” Drew says, “whether that’s driving me around, or having me stay with them, and it’s often very helpful. Especially when it comes to driving around cities I’m not as familiar with. Yeah, it does require help once the project’s running.”

These political artworks are sometimes, ironically, signal-boosted by their detractors. Cornish recalls Liberal councillor, Leon Goltsman, was offended by his Bondi mural: “He went on 2GB [with Steve Price]…… If he had just kept his mouth shut, no one would have ever seen it. So, as annoying as it was, the guy, he gave it the spotlight that it deserved.”

When right-wing critics call for the works to be destroyed, they can sometimes generate publicity. Van Rudd’s mural of Egg Boy, Will Connolly, breaking an egg on Senator Fraser Anning, was painted over after that kind of backlash. It was “obviously attacked by the far-right”, Rudd says. But that brought more media attention to the piece. Sometimes, when you try to censor these artists, you’re just providing them a megaphone.

The public nature of street art and just how accessible it is means there are no gate-keepers. The possible viewership is endless.

“It’s an immediate audience,” notes Cornish, “opposed to making art and putting it in a gallery where a thousand people might see it. You put a stencil up in Martin Place, and you’ll have 5,000 people see it in one day.”

Peter Drew adds, “In the gallery, you speak to the art world. Whereas on the street, you speak to everybody.”

It’s no wonder that political street art has gained a lot of media attention and has risen in popularity – it’s visually engaging; the audience believes in its message; it generates more publicity with any backlash; and it has an instantaneous audience. These street artists have a powerful medium, and they’re using it to make their politics heard. 

"Wars have been started with stencil art. But they've also been finished with it too." 

And if our leaders continue to ignore and contribute to major issues in our society like the climate crisis and the plight of asylum seekers in offshore detention centres, this street art will only become more popular.

All of these artists believe street art can change Australia’s political landscape. Rudd says, “There’s an unwritten feeling there, a vibe. You know when ELK did that one in Bondi Beach, that one? When I saw him post that, straight away I congratulated him... And I’d love it if there were way more street artists doing that.”

“What attracted me to Australian identity and street political art?” Drew ponders. “It’s growing up – you’re eventually going to have to come into contact with politics, and the big decisions being made for us. And we need to get involved with that. It’s just a part of growing up.”

Cornish also thinks that graffiti can improve Australia and our politics. “Wars have been started with stencil art,” he says. “But they’ve also been finished with it too.”

This story was originally published in the November issue of The Music. Pick up a copy of it on the street now or head here to read it online.