Underground graffiti: Sydney's street art

Underground graffiti: Sydney's street art

As street art makes its way into galleries, we talk to Sydney's modern-day Oscar Wildes -- both adored and persecuted for their expression -- in their natural home
May lane tag on the inner west's legal wall
Hip-hop tag on May Lane, St. Peters.

Australian graffiti writers such as Phibs, Mistery and Vexta are commissioned to paint in galleries. The Australian National Gallery featured works of the country’s most notorious artists in its recent exhibition, "Space Invaders." 

But there are thousands more who wander the Sydney streets at night armed with spray cans. The stakes are high: police match tags with known databases and can arrest on spray-can possession.

Graffiti artists are faceless and anonymous by necessity. They hide behind a tag, and are driven by a need to communicate: to claim a space and speak in colors.

‘Onion’: In drains and tunnels

Drain in Summer Hill that attracts graffiti artistsSummer Hill's notorious illegal art drain.

"Onion," arguably the city’s most prolific artist, spent his school nights in a Summer Hill drain near Parramatta Road. Here, tags mix with Sydney’s hip-hip, political graffiti.

“The police used to do raids,” he says, “(They’d) wait on the top of the hill and then come and bust a whole lot of people.

“People think it's ugly but I don't. It's people power. It says we exist, I exist, it's not another f---ing billboard for people to look at.”

Further south, at Sydenham Station, kilometers of tunnels are an unofficial gallery of Sydney's underground artists. Works from the 1990s sit beside pieces sprayed on a snatched piece of wall by kids last week.

May Lane: A legal wall

Adjacent St. Peters Station, 200 yards of criss-crossed laneways create the city’s most interesting gallery -- supported by local residents and businesses.

Founder of the May's Lane Art Project, "Balog," says tags are “unbelievable pieces of calligraphy.”

“(But) you have to understand all of the culture. There are so many people who f---ed up their lives doing it: they lost families, jobs, they lost friends on train lines,” he adds.

“It's not just about what goes up on the wall -- it's the intention behind it."

Of all the graffiti pieces on garage doors in St. Peters' May Lane, the sweetest is a portrait of a woman spray-painted by British artist N4T4.

British artist N4T4 brings his work to May LaneGarage art by British artist N4T4 on May Lane, St. Peters.

Newtown and Enmore

Some of the works have been on King St. walls for decades, while the paste ups and stencils change from week to week. The side streets are where it gets more interesting.

Turn off Enmore Road into Station Street, then corner into Gladstone Street. The wall is phenomenal: it mixes political, porno and straight-up stylized calligraphy. 

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Graffiti on Gladstone St, EnmoreStreet art on Gladstone Street, Enmore.

Faceless people, nameless streets

A French graffiti artist tells of the total exhilaration he felt after being out painting a train carriage all night. At sunrise, he watched his train crossing over the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

This is the essence of writing graffiti, he says -- the combination of freedom and creativity, and not giving a damn for the written law. 

A young writer, "Amines," started writing in train yards aged 12, and spends nights among “the fresh air and comfort of doing something I enjoy.

“When I get home early morning and put my head down to sleep, smelling like paint, and the image of what I just did still in my head, it is an awesome feeling.”

Still, there are others: “I don't do interviews. My wall is my interview,” says an anonymous artist.