Grant Spencer

About Grant Spencer

Grant Spencer is a psychologist in private practice who wanted to be a writer who wanted to be a rock singer. He has a BA in Creative Writing and Literature, and continues to write poetry intermittently in order to avoid the panic over running his own business.

Old vs New; the subtext of Sydney’s street art movement

In a city of massive development and gentrification, our street art movement matters; it illuminates our history while opposing a skyline saturated in advertisement.



“I really like seeing her wings in the morning”. Out of context, this statement has an odd beauty of its own. Gianna said it dreamily to me one morning, possibly to herself. She was referencing the new statue of Winged Victory (the god Nike) that has been placed on top of a 20ft plinth outside the Marrickville Town Hall.

I was struck by two things. First that we have a relative scarcity of public statues and sculpture in Sydney. Not counting the Corporate Art that skulks phallic-like out the front or in the foyer of major Sydney buildings. All mostly curated for their violent or heavy imposition. Secondly, that this paucity is often made up for by the excellent street art we have (if you know where to look), even while it continues to be persecuted.

I use the word persecuted in full knowledge that someone like (Brisbane born street artist) Anthony Lister is making large sacks of money in New York. I can already hear the various taggers and graf artists across Sydney howling about being placed in the same breath as a man who doesn’t really identify as a graf artist. Even if he does preach about street art being the “last bastion of artistic integrity”. I was excited to watch over a couple of weeks his recent art “war” in Marrickville. Lister puts up a large piece (a vibrant, one-story tall clown’s face) in Marrickville, only to have it tagged over, which he returns to rectify by painting those tags into a beard. Within days, the beard was tagged over again with a “you suck” in small white writing within the tag. A little reading via Lister’s Google Search hits reveals an early lack of respect for tagging and the resulting violence (spent a few days painting over tags in Brisbane, very soon had his very recognisable car beaten up and “turned inside out” that day).

While I am on the side of colourful public art-work as opposed to the black and white hastily scribbled names that “won the day”, this changing face of my neighbourhood feels vital. I don’t need the back story as to whether Lister might be pissed about the vandalism of his piece or if the taggers are strangely self-righteous or they’re both just out for chuckles. I have no insight and nor do I want any. Both the raising of the Winged Victory and a street art battle give my neighbourhood life and the story unfolding allows my imagination to fill that space.

When in a gallery I sometimes enjoy reading the conceptual statement of an artist, and sometimes it limits the impression of a piece. Public works can suffer or benefit from the same. The benefit of a briefly glimpsed public work is that my own musings tie to it and my imagination is energised. All of a sudden, everything else in its wake that I observe becomes art. That abandoned child’s shoe or the empty building with all the cats.

I remember reading a great social theory that suggested that tagging and street art could be justified by the notion that in a capitalist society not all people will have access to the wealth of opportunity that allows someone to broadcast a music video, to be shown in a gallery or be able to afford a billboard for their company. That street art is merely a reflection of a society’s focus on rewarding or lauding those with a public voice. I love this theory because it reflects my own politics and profession. Many people can and will claw their way out of shitty circumstances, but many won’t. Aspiring to decrease those numbers is noble, expecting all people from those circumstances to be able to achieve those expectations is selfish and fascist.


That once public, the art lives between the space it exists on and the viewer’s interpretation. Growing like creeper vines over an abandoned warehouse in Marrickville, making beauty where there was none before.


That’s my paradox, however. I dislike most tagging. To my eye, much of it is ugly and it has a certain juvenile indulgence to it that seems lazy. Lazy as art, and lazy as an ego statement. Fortunately, though, I have enough sense that considering my privilege, my knee-jerk judgment of the value tagging is just straight up unimportant.

There are plenty of social expressions that will make us feel uncomfortable and it is everyone’s responsibility to look past the bullshit excuses you create for vilifying something like this and take time to understand what is at its roots.

There are a couple of small statues of young girls in the CBD, one is standing on his hands. I always slow down and grab his foot, or pat one of them on the head. Letting the art-work take me out of my day for a few moments; as if being swept downstream when I decide to grab onto a low hanging branch that I’m passing. This is the wonder of the unexpected and the power of public art. I would like to see far more of it. Bad and good. The bad helps me understand the work I really like and the good takes me out of my day and redefines the interpretation of my environment.

This article feels like an attempt at resolving the paradox of my reaction to art. One aspect inspires me to move beyond articulation, pushing me downstairs into my heart. The other aspect engages my intellect acutely and I sprint back upstairs, questioning motivations. Sometimes I want to touch the hooded bronze girl on the head and feel an urge to skip down through the suited crowd. At other times, I want to consider the social tides that lead to a hooded kid to hastily spray his name on a blank wall. I also like to imagine seeing that clown piece by Lister when I drive home and on seeing the kid tagging over it, pull over and beat the crap out of him. Then I have an instinctual repulsion of that image and question my own moral compass (and now I’m thinking about Art as a magnet, tricking me into new directions).

I recognise the violent fantasy as a passing thought sprung from my desire to protect something I consider valuable and beautiful.

Of all things I love this kind of mental acrobatics, I’ve been taken on a journey that does not have to exist in the mind of the artist.

That once public, the art lives between the space it exists on and the viewer’s interpretation. Growing like creeper vines over an abandoned warehouse in Marrickville, making beauty where there was none before.

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