Aerosol Art around Canberra

... around Canberra

Shortcut: if you just want to see the images, click here.

Note to the reader: these pages started over two years ago. At the time I intended them to be a continuing record or aerosol art in the Canberra area. This has proved impossible for two reasons. First, there is a huge amount of new art appearing every month. Second, I have changed jobs and I no longer have the time to update the pages. If I get time (unlikely) I will be adding some of the many photographs I have collected, but this won't be soon. In the meantime, I'd encourage others to take up the challenge of recording the work. DN, 9 November 2000.

Not the sort of place you'd expect to find wall art...

If you live here or you've visited Canberra, you'll know it as a clean and neat city. Practically no billboards or large commercial signs. Few factories compared to most cities - the main industry here is government. Just office buildings, large and small, shopping centres and suburban housing. There's not a lot of graffiti - just the usual mess left by morons with spray cans on road signs or bus stop shelters. You won't easily find the aerosol work done by talented artists that you can see in other cities. But it's there if you know where to look.

A walk in the Bush

I was walking in the Bush a few weeks back, near where I live. Canberra is a tank in the Bushinterspersed with bushland so it's easy to find not far from most suburbs. At the top of most of the hills the planners have located water storage tanks to provide the gravity feed for the water mains. These tanks are large circular concrete structures, perhaps a hundred feet in diameter and thirty feet high. Just the perfect place for aerosol artists - plenty of free wall space, nobody to see what you're doing, and a quiet bushland environment with views to the mountains. Idyllic. Not quite your city railyards with security guards patrolling!!

As I walked up the hillside into the Bush - intending to see what effect the current El Niño drought was having - I noticed a few young artists hard at work with spray cans. It seems the aerosol art fraternity has discovered the water tanks in the last year or so. And they've been doing a very fine job decorating them. For a small city there are some really good artworks. I suspect at least some of the artists are fine arts or design students - they have real talent. I spoke with some of them. Like most aerosol artists, they're a bit paranoid about the authorities finding them. I found out later what is legal and what's not. Some of the best work is not legal, so paranoia is probably wise.

Why a web page?

Aerosol art is transient. It's out in the open at the mercy of the elements. It's subject to vandalising by philistines with spray cans. And the authories don't often differentiate between aersol art and simple scrawls, when they choose to "clean up" the place. So I thought a web site recording some of these art works might be a good idea: both as a record of the work and as an argument for its recognition.

How about the images?

The images on these pages I photographed all over the city and its environs. Some were on walls, others on the water tanks that dot the hillsides above the city. Some places provided an easy vantage point, others required climbing up steep rockfaces or other uncomfortable situations. The artist's first aim seems to be a place to pursue creativity without being caught. It's up to the photographer to find out how to record the image. Many of the paintings could be captured in a single photograph, while others required several photographs to record a single work. Connecting these together in one digital image has taught me a lot about how to use the software!

I've recorded over 200 images so far, though not all of these are good. What I'm putting up on these pages is my own judgement of the best works. Web server space is also at a premium, of course. I'll be adding to the image collection as I process the photographs.

I've set down some more information about the images, how I recorded them and processed them, here.

And what about the law?

Canberra has a reasonably enlightened attitude to aerosol art, though it's still one that reflects the bureaucratic and legislative perspective, not the artistic one. I've had several discussions with the authorities in charge of permitting and removing graffiti. They strike me as being very fair, though I think the legislation itself needs to be broadened.

What it allows at present is for an artist to seek permission to create a work of wall art, on one of the permitted sites around the town. (Artists: see below for details.) There are several examples of this, for example the Belconnen bus interchange, the Woden bus interchange, and the back wall of the Higgins supermarket.

Some of the art on these walls is splendid (see the image pages), although some of the "officially approved" works are perhaps a bit contrived. There's a freshness to "wild" wall art that is not always present in the permitted stuff. Maybe this is a result of the approval process. There's also a generic difference: the approved art tends to be pictorial, while the wild art is usually writing art - though this is not a universal distinction.

The role of the authorities

Everyone thinks of the authorities as the "bad guys" who prohibit wall art and destroy the art by painting over it. I've visited a few sites recently where there has been no over-painting for several years. Frankly, they're a mess. Faded writing, the good stuff all toyed, and no space left for new art. The authorities do have a role to play. I've set down some more thoughts on this here.

And Copyright?

Copyright for aerosol art images painted on walls is an interesting question, one I've discussed with a government legal expert. It's not at all clear whether you can or would want to claim copyright over an image that you've created illegally. For works that do have official approval, copyright probably subsists with the artist(s). For non-approved works, it's not clear what rights exist. What applies in one place may not apply elsewhere.

The general view seems to be that original artists have copyright over their paintings, legal or otherwise, and that  photographs are copyright by the photographer. Certainly on these pages there has been a good deal of artistic input subsequent to the act of photographing the original works. How these interests interact is not clear.  Subject to this being clarified, I claim copyright over the photographs on these pages. They may not be reproduced anywhere without permission. The page logo is all my own work, scanned from a pencil sketch and processed in Photoshop. Needless to say it is subject to copyright provisions.

See also here for some further thoughts about copyright.

The future?

Blanket prohibition of the wild aerosol art is a very bad idea. We have a real art resource in these works, in many cases with every bit as much merit as the works from conventional brush and canvas artists. It needs to be recognised as legitimate art, worthy of protection. There needs to be a way of approving art after it's been created, based on merit. Maybe the government needs to think about this. The arts establishment too needs to cast a wider net and recognise these works as art.

We'll see what happens. In the meantime, I can't tell you on which walls and hilltops to find the wild art. You'll just have to go see for yourself.

Other websites?

There's only really one place you need to go to find world aerosol art, and that's at It's a huge site with hundreds of images. It has the best collection of links to resources on aerosol art that anyone could want. Another extensive site with writing from around the world is the Graff Scene. For some local Oz links, plus info on paints, try here.

Now, to the Canberra aerosol art images...

Click here.


How to obtain permission, and how to find out where you can paint legally: Call the A.C.T. Government wall-art coordinator in the Department of Urban Services, on 6207 7617.

May 1998

Copyright David Nicholls 1998. These pages or images may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the author.You may link freely to the pages, provided they are not embedded in frames.

PANDORA Selected for inclusion in the National Library of Australia PANDORA digital archive of Australian online publications of national significance

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