The ACT decided years ago that a smarter way to deal with what some saw as the urban scourge of graffiti was to give over some public spaces to the mostly young scribblers and aspiring artists wanting to leave their marks on the world.
Since 2005 the walls, culverts, drains and other urban edifices have become public canvasses, and the ACT Government has now added a further three, bringing the total to 30 across the city.
The new spaces are two walls of the Tuggeranong Parkway underpass in Weston totalling 560 square metres; the Streeton Drive underpass, near Hilder Street, also in Weston, 1.6 metres x 71 metres (for a total of 113.6 square metres); and Tharwa Drive underpass in Tuggeranong, 2 metres high by 45 metres wide (90 square metres).
A government spokesperson said the sites were usually located on ACT Government assets in public places such as underpasses and toilet blocks, which are usually out of sight from residential property.
The basic aim has been to divert graffiti artists from more visible public spaces and reduce the amount of graffiti generally. It has also given artists legal places to hone their skills and develop larger, more complex works.
The spokespersons said feedback from the community and artists themselves showed that these walls helped reduce illegal graffiti, although it was difficult to say whether they cut the amount of graffiti overall.
”There are many variables, for example, our graffiti contractors that remove graffiti have improved over time, with better technology and more experience, so they are able to clean more graffiti within the available budget than in the past.”
The spokesperson said the walls also helped graffiti artist connect to their community, and discouraged them from acting illegally.
”Generally, graffiti artists are very positive about it,” the spokesperson said, saying some interstate graffiti artists have even travelled to Canberra to legally paint.
The spokesperson said the sites were usually self-managed, with older artwork being replaced by fresher and hopefully better work, but contractors do monitor the sites to check for offensive graffiti and will paint over it if necessary.
Occasionally walls are painted over if they looked like they needed a refresh.
Street artist Geoff Filmer, responsible for some of the most striking works around town, including the colourful water tower on Mt Mugga Mugga, said the legal graffiti sites had been a boon for the city’s young artists, many of whom had gone on to make a living from art, even if that wasn’t the original purpose.
”I started on those legal walls, not because I wanted to become a mural artist, it was because I enjoyed hanging out with my mates and creating art,” he said.
That building of community was an important part of the culture the walls had created in Canberra, Mr Filmer said.
”That wanton vandalism and tagging your name comes from a place of being disconnected from your community,” he said.
While some sites are out of the way, he has worked on others where passers-by had struck up conversations.
”It can have that positive re-enforcement from the community,” Mr Filmer said.
He said the legal walls provided a great outlet, as well as a way to build a profile and resumé if one wanted to take it further.
”If they weren’t there I definitely would not be a commercial artist,” he said.
Some popular sites such as the Woden drain even attracted artists from outside the ACT who contributed to the work on display, happy to be able to work legally.
But because the sites are all over Canberra, the neighbourhood kids could easily find their own walls to practise on.
”They are invaluable resources, it’s such a wonderful thing that the government has done,” he said.
And while art can be subjective and there will always be those who can’t help but tag distinctive places, Canberra’s tolerant approach appears to be more productive than waging a constant war on the young and not so young who take up the spray can.
Expect more blank canvasses. ”We are always looking for more appropriate sites and often take suggestions from graffiti artists,” the government spokesperson said.