Street art has become a marker of how sophisticated and cutting edge a city is in the 21st century. The quality of a city’s street art acts like a barometer of its ‘hipness’. City councils have stopped power-washing ‘graffiti’, and turned to promoting it as part of the cultural matrix. There’s never been a time when it’s been more fashionable, or the lines between street art and commercial interests have been so blurred.
Street artists can expect commissions that see them travel the world to create their distinctive pieces on walls thousands of miles from home. Businesses commission artworks for the interior and exterior of their buildings, helping to define their brands in the process. Festivals of street art are held to entice leading artists and, on the back of their work, street art tourism.
We’ve come a long way from Rudy Giuliani’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy in 1990s New York, when graffiti was seen only as a precursor to an ever escalating series of more serious crimes. Giuliani would have conniptions if he was to visit modern-day Perth.
Perth, long considered a street art laggard in Australia, has spent the last few years trying to make up ground on the more illustrious street art scenes of Sydney and Melbourne. Since the ground-breaking Form Festival in 2014, Perth has been trying to set the pace in Australian street art. It’s thanks to the Form Festival that I came across a very familiar ‘face’, the work of Belgian artist ROA.
The giant snake that took up the side of a large building was as instantly recognisable as it was impressive. A true statement piece. Later on, as I wandered around the centre of Perth, I came across another ROA trademark animal, a big rat on the side of another building in the Central Business District. This area is a hotspot of urban art, and there are several streets filled with works by different artists.
There are a couple of other areas of the city where street art has proliferated with the official blessing of the city authorities. They all have a wide variety of national and international works. Starting with the Form Festival in 2014, this was a deliberate strategy to raise the city’s profile, and to make Perth a rival for cities more famous for urban art.
This public flourishing of street art has left Perth with a newly transformed cityscape. At times it feels a bit like you’re walking through a curated city, like an open air gallery, at other times it’s a bit like being on an art treasure hunt. A walk around the city will unearth a wealth of artworks; alleyways are turned into canvases, and nondescript buildings become the site of art pilgrimage.
At its best, this is what makes street art so exciting and, in Perth, it’s done well. It may lack a little of the anti-establishment meaning that made urban art ‘cool’, but these striking images make a stroll through the city more of an adventure.