It’s a Wednesday during the Easter break. Not expected in Canberra until Thursday, so decide to get up early, take the train and walk Blacktown. To my surprise, the trip took just over 45 minutes. It felt like further away in my tired, pre-coffee head. The train is busy. I’m lucky to get a window seat to do a little trackside graffiti spotting: GRIME, SGK, SOUPS, BALLN, PST, FIBRO.
Arriving on the Blacktown platform, I’m struck by the heat. It’s only 10am and sticky and hot. The station is bustling. Which way to go at the top of the stairs? I take a left. The ‘Local Guide’ information board greets me: empty. The ‘Plan Your Trip’ display is also empty. This is going to be the real thing: no maps or pre-planning happening here.
Hitting the high street, I follow my nose down alleys, Patrick Street and David Lane. Some tags, stickers on dumpsters and a few throw-ups here and there. (For the uninitiated a throw-up isn’t the result of too much beer and curry. It’s a signature that can be ‘thrown-up’ quickly on a surface. Its stylised letterforms are more elaborate than a tag. Tags are usually done in more haste.) The morning light is forgiving to some of the sketchy hand styles.
Along the high street, centipede-like lengths of glass company stickers run down the edges of shop windows. On David Lane, tucked in amongst the cluster of sans serif contact details is a very clever sticker by Rizot & KEWL. I saw the same sticker on Oxford Street last week, those boys get around! I’m hungry. I drop into Vinnies and ask a volunteer where I might get good coffee and breakfast. She suggests Westpoint mall. I hate malls. Food can wait. I continue to wander.
Unexpected and actually quite beautiful, I take a moment to reflect on where I am and the installation above me (which turns out to be an artwork by Chrissie Ianssen and Majid Rabet).
My tummy grumbles. Recalling a patisserie beside the KEWL sticker centipede, I head back that way. Cannoli and coffee; breakfast of champions!
The friendly waiter then directs me to the Blacktown Arts Centre. Here, Paul Howard (curator), suggests a couple of spots painted by Spice, local writers and artists. Apparently most of the action is on the other side of the tracks.
In the backyard at the Arts Centre I find Jamie Eastwood and Ernest Aaron working on Brook Andrew’s Traveling Colony caravan. I chat to the guys about art, life and Blacktown. Aaron has a keen interest in street art and graffiti, so we discuss the scene from the mid 2000s: how things have changed, the commercialisation of street art over the years, and community attitudes to both practices.
Talking with Ernest about navigating the city, guided by street art and graffiti, he agreed that once you ‘see’ street art and graffiti your view of the urban landscape changes forever. Tags and pieces become legible and you begin to subconsciously endorse the marks of your favourite writers, crews and street artists.
Geoffrey Snyder described the experience wonderfully in his book, Graffiti Lives. Riding his bike over the Williamsburg Bridge in New York, Snyder was overwhelmed by a SENTO piece. He described how it penetrated the white noise of the advertising and graffiti that had surrounded him for years. The piece became legible; he ‘read’ graffiti for the first time. A similar evolution occurred in my perception one evening in 1998, in South of Market, San Francisco, and I’ve never looked back.
Anyway. Time to cross the tracks. To the other side. It’s hot. I’m over dressed and sweating. My Kangol bucket hat is black. Yes, it’s cool. But not cool. It’s past noon by the time I travel down the stairs into an immediate change of landscape:open, industrial, dry grassed areas with rubbish lined, wire fenced parameters. A couple of guys look at me suspiciously as I attempt to look like I’m not holding a $1000 camera with a $700 lens. I sit and pretend I’m waiting for a bus. Ahead of me, beyond an expansive carpark, is a wall of dense graffiti. This has to be work by Sydney graffiti legends Mistery & Chez. Awesome. Love their work.
I’m sure it’s hotter this side of the tracks. Ahead of me the Asian Foodmarket wall is maybe 30 meters long, the graffiti meanders from piece to piece. I guess you could call it a production but it feels like time has interfered here. Some pieces are more vibrant than others. Characters and letterforms weave a tapestry of colour across the building surface. The smell of rotting food wafts past. Around the corner, a large JASE piece faces trackside. This is getting exciting. Continuing down Humphries Lane towards Sunnyholt, I cut down First Ave, past a table of blokes talking about sport and eating pizza at the corner pizza shop.
The back-lane of the shops is ramshackle with wheelie bins, milk crates and tags. My kind of neighbourhood. I take a right down Prince Street and there it is, fresh as the day it was painted, a choice piece by Spice. Snoop dog, West Side and BYSA in fresh blue and red. I need a better look, so jump the gate. I forgot I was in Australia. Make noise! Long grass, hot day, snakes. Stomping around the grounds like an idiot, to get a better look at the work, I’m also treated to a wall of tags and throw-ups along the sky blue Tradelink building. Impressive.
On Third Ave, the landscape opens up and the fences get higher. Not receptive surfaces for street art and graffiti. A change of direction leads me to the Police Citizens Youth Club (PCYC). Another container covered with graffiti, faded and set into the landscape. The side gate is locked. Not such a good idea to jump a PCYC gate, right? So I don’t.
Heading down Boys Ave, I spot a giant mural in the distance. Oh my, this is looking good! An epic production by Mistery faces me. The work reads ‘See life differently.’ I do, Mistery, I most certainly do.
The AHFL Skills Development Centre next door is open. I’m sure this is the backyard where I’d seen some stencils through the fence. I ask the spotty young staff if it’s OK to go check out the yard. They’re all cool, but surprised. It suddenly occurs to me that with this camera get-up around my neck I might look like a wannabe urban explorer. Mortified.
Arriving in the backyard, there it is. A Banksy. The holy grail of street art! Of course, it’s not an authentic Banksy. Or is it? Who knows. Who cares? Same image, spray painted musical notes (not a balloon). But the anecdote is the same. Something beautiful lost, something ephemeral. Who would have thought? A Banksy in Blacktown.