Vanguards and Vandals – The street art/graffiti dichotomy

Erin Wilson


As mainstream support of street art has gained momentum internationally over the past decade, Australian city councils have begun to reassess existing strategies and policies concerning the management of graffiti. While these policies are broad, money is often of primary concern: with the cost of graffiti removal reaching over $1 billion annually in Australia, councils are under increasing pressure to control this rapidly escalating expense.

Yet tensions and contradictions are becoming apparent as the growing popularity of street art introduces opportunities for financial and cultural gain. This raises questions about council control over practices stemming from tagging and writing—an oppositional culture of protest now increasingly associated with dollar signs.

We must question the implications of the commodification of street art on those involved in its practice as well as communities more broadly. While many cities renowned for their street art, including London and Toronto, have begun to grapple with the issue the city of Melbourne has emerged as a major battleground.1 The recently released City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018 is a key example of government bodies’ responses to the graffiti/street art dichotomy.2 It seeks to support this vibrant street culture while at the same time reducing the exorbitant annual cost of graffiti removal. The tension resulting from this intervention, attributed to its tough stance on graffiti management alongside the perceivably tolerant, even progressive treatment of street art, is a primary consideration of this debate. The complexities of funding or commissioning street art, and the inevitable backlash at the imposition of a system of value judgments and approval onto a culture that evolved in opposition to such institutions, is a contentious contemporary issue.

The City of Melbourne considers its street art to be of international significance and proudly markets it as such. Behind this façade of marketing however runs a network of difficult issues that stem from a seemingly simple conundrum: How is it possible for local councils to legislate in such a way that promotes the continuation of the rich and globally significant culture of street art, while negotiating the perception that graffiti writers are responsible for a form of vandalism?

In her article Negotiated consent or zero tolerance? Alison Young discusses the need for cities to adopt progressive graffiti management policies, highlighting the unfeasibility of zero tolerance approaches.3 In recent years, acceptance of this has resulted in an overhaul of past graffiti management plans that were focused on prevention and prosecution. They are now revised and expanded to include a range of confused and contentious definitions and policies regarding both graffiti and street art.

The City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018 is one such revision. Unlike various similar policies, this plan does not shy away from distinguishing between graffiti, which ‘can have a negative impact on community perceptions of safety and public amenity’4 and street art, ‘a celebrated part of Melbourne’s cultural fabric’.5 In fact, its definitions leave little room for interpretation. While the plan acknowledges the ambiguity of the terms graffiti and street art, primarily through the inclusion of quotation marks around every potentially controversial use of a term, it indicates a clear differentiation between the two. According to the City of Melbourne, graffiti is defined as ‘writing or drawings scribbled, scratched or sprayed illegally on a wall or other surface in a public place’, continuing: ‘The main type of graffiti is tagging. A tag is a calligraphic signature. Most tagging within the municipality is written in paint, but also with chalk, oil based crayons and felt tip pens’.6 A disclaimer stating that street art will be excluded from the graffiti management plan accompanies this definition. The policy asserts, ‘Street art is more elaborate than graffiti and includes painted works using aerosol cans, cardboard and paper paste ups as well as stencils’.7 While suggesting a clear distinction between street art and graffiti, based primarily on material devices, the plan does acknowledge that graffiti may at times enter the realm of street art. For instance, if seeking to ensure longevity for your tag, consider making it ‘elaborate’, perhaps by ensuring it is ‘encased within a broader framework’.8

The City of Melbourne has established these distinctions in order to fulfill two acutely different strategies for two subcultures, graffiti and street art, whose origins overlap. The prevailing view is that graffiti must be eradicated, ideally through prevention, but more realistically through removal. The removal of graffiti from private properties is free to owners and occupants in Melbourne, costing the City almost $100 million annually. This cost is likely to increase with the consistent rise in graffiti removal cases annually. Before the introduction of the current management plan, graffiti removal rose from 5,551 cases in 2010-2011 to 7,421 in 2012-2013. However, the amount of graffiti removed has decreased from 46,000 square metres in 2011-2012 to 35,000 square metres in 2012-2013, demonstrating greater instances of smaller graffiti. While graffiti removal is high, public requests to remove graffiti have dwindled in comparison, with 277 in 2007 down to 258 in 2012. The remaining 5,000-7,000 annual graffiti removals are at the discretion of the City of Melbourne’s surveillance activities, coupled with the policy of graffiti removal within 24 hours in areas of high pedestrian traffic.

However troubling the annual cost of graffiti removal in Melbourne may be, the issue becomes more complex when the City’s approach to street art is considered. While deterring graffiti activity, the City of Melbourne is working to encourage the continuation of Melbourne’s street art culture through initiatives such as the street art permit system (introduced in 2007) under which 27 murals were approved over six years. Similarly, 2012 marked the beginning of a City-commissioned project which catalogued 100 of the most significant examples of street art across Melbourne, leading to the conclusion that at least 73 of these celebrated works were created outside of the street art permit program. While the City of Sydney has begun to introduce measures to preserve works assessed as being significant examples of street art (such as through their Heritage Act9), the City of Melbourne highlights the impracticality of attempting to preserve these ephemeral works.

Yet, as outlined in the City of Melbourne’s new graffiti management plan, the city aims to ‘support street art as a graffiti reduction tool’ through the introduction of commissioned, large-scale street art in ‘strategic locations’, this being ‘subject to budget’.10 The policy references instances where the commissioning of street art in public spaces, on items such as post boxes, has essentially removed a surface that would otherwise likely be used for graffiti. The city claims a mural can save up to $1000 annually. This is based on the cost of graffiti removal at $15 a square metre and assumes multiple graffiti removals each year. However, the policy also recognises instances of graffiti appearing directly on top of street art commissions, resulting in the continual need for such murals to be ‘refreshed’. Commissions across the city have become targets for protest, sprayed with phrases including ‘commodification of culture’ and ‘writers against street art’.11 Causing further controversy, the City of Melbourne will aim to preserve street art that has been commissioned under their program. This raises many ethical and financial issues. The City of Melbourne is now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars commissioning street art in order to maintain the vibrant culture of Melbourne when the foundation of this culture is not the product of commissions.

Essentially, in an attempt to reduce government spending on graffiti removal, the City of Melbourne has intervened in street art culture, heightening tension between all parties involved. This tension has developed in recent years due to the increasing commodification of graffiti and street art, both in Melbourne and globally. Work that would previously have been removed under graffiti management policies is now selling for thousands of dollars. There is also money to be made from tours of notable street art throughout Melbourne. An assortment of tours, ranging from 2.5 to 4 hours and from $40 to over $100, demonstrate both the continuing interest in and increasing commodification of street art in Melbourne. Internationally, street artists regularly find their works selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Works by Banksy have sold for over $1 million directly off the wall, in some instances the wall itself has been cut out and sold.

In Gloucestershire, UK earlier this year, a three-bedroom semi valued at £300,000 was adorned with a £500,000 Banksy. This single act of graffiti made one lucky property owner very rich. Far more prevalent, however, is the negative impact of graffiti on property values, arising from the perception of graffiti-ridden homes as abandoned, decrepit, or resulting from unusually high rates of crime in the area. The disparity between highly acclaimed street art and graffiti, the latter seen as vandalism, reveals the paradoxes of this fraught public issue.

It is the divide between graffiti and street art, enhanced by this commodification of the latter, that is beginning to take an ironic turn. The costs absorbed by the City of Melbourne are not confined to the increasing instances of graffiti removal, but now also to the vandalism of commissioned or preserved works as a form of protest. While a Banksy has made the Gloucestershire mother unexpectedly wealthy, two similar cases in Melbourne did not fare so well; one Banksy was removed from Hosier Lane in 2010 by a cleaner unaware of its creator’s reputation, while another, stenciled in 2003, was destroyed in protest after the building’s owner had only months earlier attempted to preserve it behind a plastic shield. A similar protest occurred when the Victorian Government made the decision to restore a 1984 Keith Haring mural, which was subsequently vandalised despite remaining untouched prior to its restoration. This increasing occurrence of protesting through graffiti on commissioned murals forces the City of Melbourne to incur further financial losses.

Despite these divides and tensions, or perhaps at the heart of them, is the reality that a considerable number of individuals receiving recognition through commissions, whether public or private, will have originally engaged in the graffiti practices condemned by the City of Melbourne. The commodification of street art, and its distinct separation from graffiti culture as heightened by policies such as the City of Melbourne’s Graffiti Management Plan, may result in unintended consequences, fueling a fire in the underground graffiti culture as street art continues to engage the mainstream public eye. At the very least, the plan and the backlash it has begun to inspire raise issues around anonymity, taste and value, each of which councils are being increasingly forced to navigate.

It is clear that the issues surrounding the graffiti/street art dichotomy are contentious, as are public and government perceptions of these cultures. If the City of Melbourne and other global cities facing similar dilemmas wish to reduce the excessive costs of graffiti removal while continuing to benefit culturally from the mainstream appreciation of street art, they must evaluate the effectiveness of their current policies. They will need to grapple with the complexities surrounding the funding of conceptually accessible street art, and the likely backlash at the imposition of a system of value judgments onto a culture that evolved in opposition to such institutions. Ultimately, responses to the City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018 have demonstrated that we cannot have our cake and eat it too; we cannot have a million dollar street art culture without a million dollar graffiti removal price tag.



1. See Kamila Kocialkowska, ‘Toronto’s ‘Graffiti Management Plan’ adds fuel to the street art debate’, in New Statesman, November 8, 2012, accessed 30 August 2014, and Rebecca Cafe, London 2012: ‘Banksy and street artists’ Olympic graffiti’  BBC News, 24 July 2012, accessed 30 August 2014

2. City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018, accessed 30 August 2014,

3. Alison Young, ‘Negotiated consent or zero tolerance? Responding to graffiti and street art in Melbourne’, in City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, (14:1-2, 2010) 99-114. This article discusses prior approaches to graffiti management by the City of Melbourne.

4. City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018, p1.

5. City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018, p3.

6. City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018, p1.

7. City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018, p1.

8. City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018, p3.

9. City of Sydney Environment and Heritage Committee, Murals, Street Art and Graffiti as Heritage Items, accessed 30 August 2014,

10. City of Melbourne Graffiti Management Plan 2014-2018, p6.

11. Dow, Aisha, ‘Aerosol cans drawn in war on Melbourne’s artful dodgers’, in The Age, July 14, 2014, accessed 30 August 2014,




Erin Wilson is an emerging arts writer and curator. She is the 2014 - 2016 Balnaves Curatorial Intern at McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery in...


Search Runway