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'My rebel grandmother would approve' – a street art lesson in the laneways of Melbourne

Lindy Alexander
On Hosier Street in Melbourne, street art is legal - iStock

“Let’s do a sneaky one here,” says James Wilson. “This is one of Melbourne’s laneways where street art is tolerated if you do something nice.” The artist reaches into a brown paper bag and pulls out a can of spray paint. My heart starts to thump. I look around to see if anyone is watching.

Having met in the glittering marble lobby of Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, 26-year-old Wilson was easily distinguishable from other guests in his paint-speckled trousers, low-slung backpack and bleached hair. As part of its Melbourne Unlocked accommodation package, the hotel has partnered with The Blender Studios, one of the city’s renowned graffiti and art workspaces, to offer guests a private tour guided by local street artists.

We set off from the hotel towards one of Melbourne’s most famous laneways for street art, Hosier Lane. An artist in a bright red jacket was painting a portrait of a dark-haired girl. An open suitcase at the man’s feet had a sign encouraging onlookers to donate. “It’s another way to get paid for your art,” Wilson said. “This guy could paint a lot quicker, but he’s dragging it out to make more money.”

Walking past people taking selfies in front of the vibrant murals, we cut through backstreets to a quieter alleyway. It’s here that I’m watching Wilson prepare to embellish a thick, smooth concrete windowsill.

The laneway is empty except for a couple of tourists taking snaps of the city’s last remaining Banksy – a plum-coloured parachuting rat. Over the years, Melbourne’s Banksy stencils have accidentally been removed or damaged. It points to the ephemeral nature of street art; something Wilson accepts is part of the craft. “You understand your art won’t last forever,” he says. “An artist will paint over it or the council will.”

James Wilson's elephant stencil Credit: Lindy Alexander

With the proper permission, street art is legal in the City of Melbourne, but most artists don’t get the written approval required. That means there’s still a level of stealth required. “In the CBD there are three different types of lanes – ones where anyone can paint and no one gets hassled; ones where it’s not really allowed but its tolerated, and those where it is plain illegal and you know you’re not meant to be there,” says Wilson. 

Wilson gives the windowsill a generous dusting of black paint. He places a stencil on top, misting the wall with white paint, before peeling it off, placing another on top and then spraying black paint. Once finished, a small plodding elephant is revealed.

I’m astonished at the detail and depth of the image. “It’s like watching a photo develop,” Wilson says. “By using different stencil layers you get loads of detail.” Wilson learnt the craft of hand cutting stencils from prolific street artist Regan Tamanui, celebrated for his lifelike images of Australian bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly. 

Over the next few hours Wilson and I duck down sheltered passageways and doglegged alleyways ablaze with art. We chat about the difference between street art and graffiti (“graffiti and tagging is done for people within the scene and is still seen as very antagonistic behaviour, whereas street art is more for the public”). When he is recognised by a street art fan, he modestly appraises his reputation. “It used to be that you’d have to paint your stuff everywhere for people to know you, but nowadays you just need to choose the right hashtag on Instagram,” he says.

As we walk down a quiet laneway, Wilson turns to me. “Right,” he says. “Your turn.”

The walls are a jumble of picture frames and the space between the frames bloom with faded paint and torn paper. Wilson tapes a stencil of my face (I emailed photographs to the studio several days earlier) onto a tatty square of thick brown cardboard. He sprays a base layer of white before shaking a can of black paint and handing it to me. “Just mist it gently in short strokes,” he says. My heart starts pounding again.

Lindy Alexander's face, sprayed onto Melbourne's walls Credit: Lindy Alexander

At the top of the laneway people walk past, oblivious to the two individuals holding spray cans. I press the nozzle lightly, leaving a black haze over the stencil. “That’s it,” Wilson enthuses.

I pull off the stencil to reveal a shiny white face with glossy black features. I let out a laugh. With my face distilled into a few sharp lines, I can see my grandmother staring back at me. A rebel at heart, I feel sure she would approve of my foray into street art.