Graffiti Laws ~ an unseemly rant

Filed under AusPol ~ by Throsby on  8 Jul 2013

Australia, one could cruelly suggest, is an ancient expansive continent run by a modern small-minded society.

The populace (reputedly intoxicated permanently by beer and sport) feign nonchalance as each tiny freedom is chiselled away by obsessive lawmakers. This, though cynically pessimistic, is not entirely untrue.

Newcastle’s State Government once published an excellent and comprehensive anti-graffiti web site that "aims to raise awareness about the harmful effects of graffiti vandalism and provide practical advice to fight against it." An odd mission – attempting to ‘raise awareness’ – aren’t the kids spraying enough? And as ever, property damage seems far more important than kids’ problems.

The site commendably tried to separate in the public mind the vital difference between art and vandalism. For most of us art was never a strong point, the distinction not at all clear. To the average Aussie Blue Poles remains to this day a wicked extravagance against the public purse.

Throsby watched their eyes glaze over upon hearing how much Pollock was paid to bomb canvas

Today the former that website appears condensed to a humourless half-dozen pages on the NSW Attorney General’s website aimed at expunging all vestiges of graffiti from public view and mind, other than how to rid society of it and punish offenders – to single-mindedly cast a criminal net over any kid who even imagined touching a spray can.

Ironically, a cousin site LawLink underscores Australians’ propensity to legislate ad nauseam rather than attack the roots of social ills.

Broad brush of graffiti laws

Are we complicit by displaying graffiti?

You will not find glorification of criminal behaviour on NewcastleOnHunter Street Art.

You will find questioning of what defines ‘criminal’ in the world of graffiti, pondering of when art becomes vandalism, or debating when vandalism is more a mischievous social probing and mere perceived damage, and tales of bizarre penalties and laws and outrageous statements by politicians.

NewcastleOnHunter is concerned only with artistic merit, the social conditions that make great graffito, and its effect on a locale.

Our images are intended as a completely neutral recording, and presented, please note, in the spirit of enjoyment, while learning all we can about a social phenomenon with often spiritual dimensions.

While allowing, also, for the very human appreciation of beauty in creative activities of questionable legality.

There is middle ground in all social interaction, from criminal to saint.

Everything is relative and endlessly subject to changing societal norms. For example, images of what anatomical interest once decorated European and British Christian churches?

Finally, rarely seen but always sought, our ‘recording’ keeps watch for often subtle, imperceptible, yet grand instances of historic moment or true genius marking the nobler elements of this ancient human pursuit.

Criminalisation of kids

We strongly question the degree of criminalisation wrought on kids by over-reaching draconian laws and almost hysterically-conceived penalties.

Street artists are neither gangs nor vandals. Gangs and vandals wield tools of artists for an entirely different agenda.

These two prominent groups shape the world of graffiti in the tiny public mind, with much overlapping and migration muddying the scene. The latter seem bent on excitement and peer approval to the far greater extent of taking unreasonable risks. Train graffitists appear to be middle ground between street artists and a criminal destructive assault on public property, especially railway trains, the ‘vandalism’ of which triggers salivary flow in news editors nationwide.

Street artists

Street artists range between cultural outcasts artistically expressing themselves and highly-talented, civic-minded professionals.

On city streets NewcastleOnHunter does not consider illegal artwork – especially of obvious and implicit merit – to be a crime against society, let alone civilization! Barely technically, perhaps, against property, despite the optimistic premise of caricatured legislation drafted by apparently lesser mortals than the arbitrarily defined transgressor.

And, where more practice is indicated, a crime perhaps against sensibility.

While the NSW State Government prefers to portray all graffitists literally as hardened criminals – making no distinction between street art and train vandalism – fortunately for our street artists, and our kids, the Newcastle City Council acknowledged in its Commitment To Youth  [PDF document]..

5.6.Cultural Diversity

The youth culture is made up of sub cultures which can at times be in conflict with each other, and can promote a negative reaction from other sections of the community.

This may be due to the dress code or behaviour attributed to a group which can result in a feeling of apprehension from other people. The negative perception of young people by other sections of the community can lead to a feeling of both exclusion and a belief that issues which are significant to that group are not viewed as a priority by the community generally.

While some sections of the community view all graffiti as vandalism, a distinction should be made between tagging in public places and graffiti art works in designated places. Tagging is the "signature" scrawl which can deface buildings and structures and is distinct from the works done in designated places which have enabled graffiti artists to develop their skills.

Artist, not gangsta

The kids over whom this net is miscast are at worst mischievous or thoughtless, doing occasional mindless vandalism, spraying indiscriminately down several city blocks. This is not art, nor are they artists – or criminals.

NewcastleOnHunter has in mind gifted artists, some perhaps socially-disconnected – even politically over-dedicated – to whom everything defining their self is transferred earnestly to The Wall.

These are the people heavy-handed state laws are hounding into criminality; laws directly damaging social tolerance and understanding in their uncompromising, over-stressed, indiscriminate branding.

While property developers erect residential and industrial eyesores that insidiously – with barely a word of protest – erode our environmental well-being by defiling the cityscape, artistic kids are pursued on the level of murderers and rapists (judging by the penalties!) for beautifying the ugliest corners those architectural atrocities.

NewcastleOnHunter is neither promoting or protecting "illegal" artists, nor are we interested in entrapment. We are proud to be a neutral but sympathetic agent trying to maximise education and understanding of awe-inspiring creativity by a castigated minority.


And yes, my fence is regularly tagged by some itinerant territorial nuisance – but I prefer his interesting nonsense to the Nazi store owner grilling my kid like he’s a drug dealer. Junior only wants to spray paint his bike. And your seventeen year old – an independent working adult member of the community – who needs a can of spray paint to touch up her car, now must endure the humiliation of producing proof of age .. and take considerable care not to act suspiciously.

Me? I’m more irritated by government fiddling that makes buying spray paint from the local hardware store an exercise in incredulous frustration.

Really, it’s just a can of paint!

Just how many niggling laws does it take to wreck a free society? We seem intent on finding out.

The law is an ass

We can and do question the law – and of course we have not only the right but an obligation to, because laws are born of social consensus which changes with the seasons and is easily manipulated by powerful interests. Entire nations have erred and gone to war due with consent of a weak-minded citizenry – their misconceptions parading as national beliefs.

NewcastleOnHunter is never impressed by sudden emergencies demanding fixative legislation that we have happily enjoyed the centuries without. There is too much hasty law making in Australia, and too little scrutiny of the individuals who benefit, and total invisibility of lobbyists creating such demand.

Why are graffiti artists being depicted as train-smashing thugs. There ARE train-smashing thugs. There are rapists and murders and thieves. And there are street artists. NewcastleOnHunter cannot grasp the draconian legislation and penalties against what are essentially naughty kids with spray cans.

NOT the vicious gangs of Sydney’s notorious out of control suburban wastelands, who employ spray cans with no more thought than knives or guns in pursuit of their mindless tribal quest.

NOT the layer of lost youth who never have and never will understand their place in life, the Universe, and everything. Youth who are little more than cunning, destructive, and selfish creatures – social imbeciles of little self-worth and even less self-awareness.

NOT (then, maybe) even the misled and mistaken artists swept into a fantasy world as heroes in their own lunchtime, who engage in pseudo-artistic terrorism, treading the twilight world between subculture and urban anarchy.

When is a law stupid?

When the cure is worse than the disease.

When the wrong people are swept up in a net designed to catch other species, who happen to occasionally use a spray can. When our children are humiliated. When the simple act of buying an everyday object becomes more trouble than its worth.

When something that was perfectly legal and normal yesterday, is suddenly, magically, a crime.

Lawmaking is difficult and complex, and while those involved might have minds like steel traps, downstream things get rather haphazard. A brochure at aimed at shopkeepers contained a "staff training aid" reproduced below. It probably seemed eminent common sense to the author, framing it in the bureaucratic thrust of his departmental brief.

Despite the mindless complacence Australians have toward rules and regulations (bred in a century of easy times and good living), this advice should be strongly opposed – not for the helpful spirit in which it’s intended, but for the inadvertent and dangerous path it can take a free society.

The ‘long bow’ being drawn here pertains to language. Lessons of history are readily lost – all too readily when not even taught at school. Inspiring my sad little rant is the instant association – and loud clanging alarm bells – when the sample below is taken with just a tiny grain of salt.

What am I suggesting? Welcome to the concept of Thoughtcrime

And the all-too-frequent calls from our leaders to be alert, not alarmed – to suspect strangers, to "dob in" a neighbour.

When a society ‘rolls over’ and accepts that mindset, it’s time to dust off the passport.

The poster above illustrates only how to:

1. Criminalize youth  
Make a bureaucratic career of inanity   
3. Create a black market and generate collateral crimes (theft of product)   
Dilute the fight against corporal and capital crime   
5. Erode quality of life by legislating intolerant suspicion to every corner of innocent daily life  
6. Humiliate young people
7. Waste shopkeepers’ time
8. Increase cost of doing business

Every product in the world has malicious potential. So, what’s next?

In May 2006 this legislative gem added another layer of institutionalised stupidity to our daily drudge, as yet another legislator sought more ways to justify his job:

  In order to do this, the Act and its accompanying regulation require retailers who sell spray paint cans to keep those cans either:

  • In a locked cabinet
  • In or behind a counter in such a way that customers cannot gain access to the cans without the assistance of shop staff
  • On a shelf of height 2.1 meters or more or
  • In any other manner prescribed by the regulations.

Consequent upon this fabulous improvement to our daily life – in the hope that vandalistic idiots will cease being idiots, and everyone else has to suffer more from effects of laws than from ‘the crime’ – when I recently visited my local hardware store to buy a can of spray paint I was confronted with a bizarre, if not surreal, implementation of choice #3 above.

The store owner chose to raise the shelving such that the lowest was 2.1 meters above the shop floor and I couldn’t read the labels, or even determine the colours. After the assistant hunted for a ladder tall enough to access the upper shelves, she called down from her precariously wavering and distant perch, 12 feet above the floor, the descriptions on each can in an absurdly futile pantomime … till I, frankly, gave up.

Do they not have more important laws to pass?

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