The Writing on the Wall

Managing the eternal battle for Sydney’s public walls.

More than 8,000 incidents of graffiti are reported annually to the New South Wales police. Indeed, it only takes a quick walk through the streets of Sydney to catch a glimpse of the diverse forms of graffiti and street art, from simple tags to elaborate murals. Some see it as art, while others decry it as vandalism. These differing perceptions make the management of graffiti and street art difficult for urban authorities.

Western Sydney University research led by urban geographer Dr Cameron McAuliffe, has helped local governments rethink their policies on graffiti and develop strategies that benefit the community.

“Street art is not a pure good, and graffiti is not a pure bad,” says McAuliffe. “They both play an important role in growing creative economies and building communities.”

For decades, many local and state governments in Australia have waged a zero tolerance ‘war on graffiti’. Many local councils have explicitly criminalised graffiti and have introduced harsh penalties as a deterrent.

In 2008, the NSW government established a Graffiti Control Act outlining a series of graffiti-related offences. This included the sale of spray paint to minors and possession of graffiti-related tools such as marker pens “with the intention that it be used to commit an offence”.

Yet while the war on graffiti raged, an interest in street art grew as the ‘Banksy effect’ – named for the famous British artist — fascinated the public.

“There’s a general consensus from government organisations that the community hates illegal graffiti,” says graffiti artist Matthew ‘Mistery’ Peet, who was involved in the research project. “But there are areas of Sydney that view it as a part of the community.”

“Initially I thought legal graffiti was a contradiction in terms,” McAuliffe says. “But many experienced graffiti writers had grown up and were looking for ways of doing their work without the risk of transgression.”

Despite graffiti evolving into a legitimate art form, local government policies have not caught up. Urban authorities have continued costly removal procedures, which have been ineffective at keeping urban spaces clear of spray paint.

McAuliffe says that the ephemeral nature of graffiti and street art instead demands dynamic management policies that are aligned with a community’s shifting values.

With Kurt Iveson from the University of Sydney, McAuliffe surveyed the graffiti and street art sites in the City of Sydney local government area. The researchers recorded and categorised various types of graffiti using a clear set of criteria. They used this data as the basis of an online graffiti register for the City of Sydney to help council staff keep track of sites and respond to community feedback appropriately.

Other research in metropolitan Sydney conducted by McAuliffe revealed that attitudes towards graffiti and street art vary depending on where it is located. These values can shift over time, for example, as existing graffiti is painted over by other writers or the property is sold. 

Need to know

  • Public attitudes to graffiti vary 
  • The nature of graffiti demands dynamic management policies
  • WSU research has informed 37 policy recommendations

To help the City of Sydney reframe its graffiti and street art strategy, McAuliffe and his team proposed 37 new policy recommendations. These included expanding legal wall networks, developing community engagement programmes, forming an advisory group and responding to complaints on a case-by-case basis.

Other Sydney councils are already putting more progressive policies into action, with Northern Beaches Council and Liverpool City Council establishing thriving legal wall networks. Blacktown Council has embraced a more nuanced approach to managing graffiti and street art, including the expansion of a legal graffiti youth advocacy programme, art exhibitions and a laneways art programme.

Peet says that there is still a need for more legal spaces to cater to the large number of graffiti writers and street artists in Sydney. “Many writers are still doing their work in abandoned buildings and storm water drains, which is a safety issue,” says Peet.

In addition to developing a graffiti and street art register for the City of Sydney, McAuliffe is taking a deeper look at how the community views graffiti and street art. This research sets out to explore the various ways people value graffiti practice in urban spaces.

The data will be used to inform local governments of different viewpoints in the community.


©   Cameron McAuliffe, ©  Cameron McAuliffe, © Wendy Murray

Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.