"He knew this kind of building; the tenants would operate in the interzone where art wasn't quite crime and crime not quite art."
There is a paradoxical attitude towards graffiti in Melbourne, with the embracing of it as a tourist attraction and simultaneous zero-tolerance enforcement of draconian anti-graffiti laws. Or perhaps it is not a paradox. Iain Sinclair (reputedly Gibson's favourite writer) notes in Lights Out For the Territory how he prefers the civil disobedience of a crudely inscribed tag on a tube seat to the more elaborate gallery-sanctioned 'graffiti art'. I am inclined to agree with him. Is deeming graffiti to be 'art' a means of empowering it, as implied, or a means of co-opting it into the bourgeois culture narrative, and of thus castrating its disruptive power?
Certainly Banksy is unlikely to create anything as 'confronting' as the youth who scrawled "YOU'RE A CUNT" on an empty Evening Standard headline board I once saw in Hackney. Brutal scribblings. And so the more Melbourne's glossy tourist brochures feature edgy snaps of stenciled laneways, the more wedding couples pose in front of urban etchings, the less power graffiti has as the language of the powerless and the more it becomes the language of officialdom; a codified norm requiring permits, printed on coffee mugs, hanging in exhibitions opened by politicians.
Support for a small-scale quasi-official graffiti scene does not contradict anti-graffiti heavy-handedness, but rather is the perfect compliment to it. "Why can't they just do it on a community wall or something?" cry liberal bourgeois anti-graffitist when accused of being reactionary. By not rejecting the whole form, but rather adopting a tolerably minor portion as legitimate, conservative forces (often self-identifying as liberal) are able to identify all other graffiti that does not conform to such constricting definitions as illegitimate and worthy of harsh suppression. In this way they are able to remain back-slappingly open-minded ('but we do like graffiti when it's art' i.e. when it conforms to our comfortable restrictions) whilst eliminating all illegitimate, non-bourgeois friendly markings. The aim is to strip graffiti of the status Gibson describes, a disturbing, ill-defined anomaly in traditional notions of what is crime and what is art, and rigidly dissect it into the moral (art) and the immoral (crime). There is but one response:
"YOU'RE A CUNT"