If these scrawls could talk - Tom Sevil and Melbourne's Alt History

If these scrawls could talk

September 23, 2009

Original Article Here

Urban activist Tom Sevil leads a tour of political graffiti in search of an alternative history of Melbourne. Andrew Stephens reports.

TOM Sevil is up a laneway inspecting some 1970s graffiti. He likes these places. He's a stencil artist, graffitist and graphic designer, but also something of an archaeologist, because the work at hand here is but a fragment, partly buried beneath rich layers of history.

In white house paint applied with a brush, not an aerosol, this graffito no longer makes sense. It says: Frazer is a bottled toad in a trust - and there it ends, forever to remain a mystery, its final words obscured by years of others' graffiti.

This fragment, a bastardisation of a phrase from Shakespeare's Richard III, is more poetic than most of the illegible tags scrawled about the laneway. It might once have had something insightful (but misspelt) to say about Malcolm Fraser, then prime minister of Australia. But in this world of laneways and rapid-fire guerilla action, the scrawls, tags, posters and stencils are all ultimately temporary.

For Sevil, quality and longevity aside, it is all about political action.

This young man is gearing up to give a walking tour of such Carlton laneways this Saturday, exploring the way politics manifests itself in marginal places. Not just party politics, but politics expressed by citizens who feel disenfranchised by city authorities, capitalism and the world at large. These are the sites that give them voice.

Sevil has been working on author/activist Iain McIntyre's new book How To Make Trouble and Influence People, which examines how generations of Australian activists (McIntyre calls them ''troublemakers'') have pushed the boundaries of ''acceptable protest''. The spirit of that book is here as Sevil does the rounds of the laneways near where he lives.

One of the big stops on the tour is Canada Lane, off Cardigan Street, a favourite haunt for graffitists and stencil artists, even though it is easily visible from Swanston Street. One of its most notorious sections has been painted over four times since Sevil moved to Melbourne in 2001 after coming to the S-11 protests a year earlier and liking the strong tradition of activism he found here.

''Canada Lane was one of the earliest stencil galleries in Melbourne and was absolutely booming in 2002,'' he says wistfully. ''Now, with all the student housing disappearing in Carlton and the corporatisation of Melbourne University, the more political graffiti these days is happening in Coburg and Thornbury and West Brunswick and Footscray.''

Still, on the way here through other laneways we see a variety of work that stretches from the 1970s to the present. There's an ancient anarchist's ''A'', a beautiful stencil of a bird on a perch, many personal dedications such as ''We love Dave'' or the enigmatic ''MCD: More Core Division'', which turns out to be not a group of insurgents but, disappointingly, a clothing label.

In his book, McIntyre, like Sevil, argues that social progress does not come from ''enlightened'' politicians but from grassroots resistance to inequality expressed in highly effective ways such as graffiti. ''As well resourced as our opponents may be,'' he writes, ''they are vulnerable to the use of creativity, solidarity and humour. Indeed, these are often the only tools we have.''

Since the Melbourne City Council crackdown on graffiti, stencilling, posters and tagging in 2006, Sevil has noted a distinct change in the sort of work going up. The elaborate, colourful and beautifully designed murals and stencil-art that have become a tourist magnet around places such as Hosier Lane are now rare, giving way to rapid-fire tags and ''throw-ups'', quick two-colour graphic designs.

But Sevil doesn't like to comment on the change in quality. For him, it is all about bringing human nature into the city and changing the rectangular architecture dominated by what he describes as ''official graffiti'' - rampant advertising, corporate logos and signage.

''So often in the city I'll see a blank wall, the perfect blank wall: someone will come up and do a tag on it and within a week it'll be covered in posters and slogans and stencils. There's a connection between all of the graffiti. Tagging is a core language, which is for graffiti writers; it's internalised.

''Whereas I'd say the stencil art and murals and slogans are more broadly focused, trying to speak to a broader community.''

As we pass through the Carlton streets, Sevil talks about how intrusive and ugly he finds the cranes with their brightly lit signage, the skyscrapers with their corporate logos. He talks about the lurid rock posters that are allowed to go up everywhere, the huge advertising billboards. Why do authorities get so upset about graffiti but not about paid advertising?

''(Graffiti) has got a human made-ness to it,'' Sevil offers. ''It's messy, out of our control. So we react to it - that is what I find interesting. Why do we react to the human, handmade nature of graffiti where if something is in bright neon lights we don't react to it?''

He looks out at the sanctioned posters and billboards.

''Why am I being told to go and see some stupid Broadway musical in the city? What do I prefer - a local kid who's trying to express himself or a big promoter? It's an interesting debate.''

Carlton's Lesser Known Street Art Histories, Sunday, 1pm-2.30pm, $10. Bookings: 9660 9666 or melbourne fringe.com.a