By Joe Bourke
The City of Sydney has been accused of showing “disrespect” and “nonchalance” towards heritage by the president of the Potts Point Heritage and Conservation Society for taking too long to clean up vandalism in the area.
Andrew Woodhouse said Potts Point residents “expect a higher standard of care” from council after a “rise in graffiti” in Potts Point had left some private properties with graffiti on them for over 10 days.
“Council has the power and the money and the graffiti removal services to it, but it hasn’t [used them], so council is negligent,” he said.
“It’s been there for over a week. We’ve made two requests for some of the graffiti to be removed. We’ve made about 27 requests over the last three months for graffiti to be removed, but the graffiti removal service is too slow.”
A spokesperson for the City said they had “not noticed an increase in the instances of graffiti removed in Potts Point over the past 12 months”.
The spokesperson also pointed out that the City spends around $2.8 million each year on graffiti removal, an amount criticised by ex-graffiti writer turned artist Scott Marsh.
Mr Marsh said graffiti is a big part of urban life, and the best way to deal with it would be to accept it.
“It’s now such a major part of urban culture, living in an urban city, that it exists and all these people and politicians that get on their speaker box to try and get votes and say ‘I’m going to wipe out graffiti’ – they’re not because it’s impossible.”
Mr Marsh pointed to Melbourne as a city that has successfully integrated street art into its culture.
Melbourne City has a range of ‘street art tours’ and regularly commissions murals for its streets, but its website still lists “the need to remove unwanted graffiti” as a priority.
From a heritage perspective, Mr Woodhouse said graffiti reduces the value and significance of a conservation zone and that the quicker graffiti is removed, the less people would do it.
The City spokesperson said that their staff inspect graffiti hotspots every day and “aim to remove any illegal graffiti within 24 hours”.
The use of the word “aim” in the City’s promise was criticised as a loophole by Mr Woodhouse, who said this is barely ever the case in Potts Point.
Initiatives like graffiti walls, where members of the public are legally allowed to paint what they like, have often been called ineffective in stopping graffiti, but Dean Lever, co-founder of streetwear brand Well Dressed Vandals, said they do get used. Such initiatives are also seen as a way of integrating graffiti culture into the community in a safe and harmless way.
Mr Woodhouse said council should consider “devoting some pavement space for street art or even a special wall in a public place”.
The debate over whether or not graffiti ‘tags’ are art is never ending, but Mr Lever said that by its very nature, the argument for graffiti as art is strong.
“I think if somebody does it and says it’s art then that’s art. It’s like Duchamp when he made the urinal and put it in a gallery and said ‘this is art’ and people argued that and said it’s not or it is or whatever, and I think people still argue about it and that’s what made it important,” he said.
“Even some graffiti writers will say ‘it’s not art it’s just damage because I like damage’ but there are some people who can still see that and say ‘well actually that’s an artwork – you’ve picked a medium, you’ve picked your surface, you’ve made it a certain size and a certain point on the wall and therefore it’s an artwork’, but nobody’s going to win that argument.”
In the case of the graffiti tags in Potts Point, Mr Woodhouse said he was “extremely pro-art”, but the discussion of whether or not graffiti is art is irrelevant, saying art should not be at somebody else’s expense.
Mr Lever did caution graffiti-writers to be respectful of their surfaces and to consider who owned the building and if it was worth tagging in a certain place.
The City of Sydney’s tactics of painting rail corridors brown was also brought into question by Mr Marsh, who said the exercise was a waste of money.
“It just makes no sense whatsoever when you could have people going on the train on their way to work being able to sit there and look out the window and look at all different types of graffiti,” he said.
“It’s always changing. The tags will turn into pieces, the pieces will become more elaborate, and in 20 years time you’ll have a rail corridor which is full of free public art which everyone will be able to enjoy, rather than people going to work and having to look at a stinking brown wall.”