When artist Lisa King took to Adelaide’s backstreets with a group of graffiti friends for her honorary first “throw-up” in 2008, it was an initiation as much as it was a groundbreaking DIY rebel moment in her career. Her figurative illustration, inspired by Japanese manga, sat alongside other tags and paste-ups and it felt good to see it up there. To anybody walking past, it would have been seen as another street art attack, but King was in fact one of the first females to find her urban voice among a chorus of men who ruled the graffiti scene at the time. “It was illegal and exciting to see my illustration up there,” King, who is a trained graphic designer, says. “My head was like, ‘What is this? I want more.’ It was a sensory overload.”
King, now 39 and living in Melbourne, works as a commissioned muralist and is known for her large-scale public works in Adelaide, Darwin and the US. Her beginnings in the graffiti and, later, commissioned urban art scene gave her a taste of the gender imbalance in both cultures, particularly the former. “I was hanging out with a bunch of artists in Adelaide doing graffiti. It was a new movement and I didn’t really know anyone, but being able to head to the street and do something like that felt amazing and that anything was possible,” she says. But that’s when the artist realised there were few women on the scene. “It’s where the guys hang out. They told me I could sit in with them and watch them do aerosol work, but I wasn’t exactly encouraged to do my thing. It was very territorial.”
She says she found it hard to find her place there because she felt the male artists didn’t make her feel she could use the same walls as them. When she did try to do more throw-ups, her work was tagged — a sign she wasn’t welcome.
Her next move was to open and operate Paperhorse Studios in Adelaide between 2008 and 2010, mixing with like-minded artists keen to find a place between graffiti, street art and gallery presence. She was inspired to move into urban street art thanks to Polish duo Etam Cru, who graduated from fine art school and became known for their graffiti brushstroke. Their work touched on Eastern European folklore, mysticism and sarcasm. Finally, here were artists King could relate to. Seeing their work gave King the encouragement she needed from afar.
She painted her first commissioned wall piece in 2010 at the University of South Australia student bar. The rest is history repeating. She recalls sitting in on many aerosol sessions with her graffiti friends, but didn’t feel satisfied on the sidelines. “Aerosol is hard to get your head around and it’s really intimidating,” she says. “The guys are so prolific and super intimidating, but it got to the point where I was like, ‘Hey, let me in.’ Their response was, ‘No, you can sit with us but you can’t be one of us.’” King decided to turn her fury into focus. “I understand there is grassroots solidarity and history in graffiti and it’s all about holding on to that culture, but it has to evolve,” she says. “From the get go, the guys knew the art I was portraying was super feminine and that I had my own voice. But I kept seeing my stuff get tagged. There is rivalry in the scene, but once the guys didn’t let me in, I was like, ‘Fuck you. I don’t need you, I will take my own path.’”
King’s most famous works include the front wall and a guest room at the Majestic Minima Hotel in North Adelaide in 2015, a portrait of David Bowie at the Maid hotel in Stepney in 2016 and the large-scale project Walls of Wonderment in 2017. She paints portraits etched deep in street culture influences — where the personal is political; gender, mental health and wellbeing are her focus. Last year, King was part of the exhibition “Here I am: Art by Great Women” at Ambush Gallery in Canberra, under the National Gallery of Australia’s landmark “Know My Name” program celebrating Australian women artists. She continues to work with Fitzroy street artist network Juddy Roller.
“The graffiti culture is full of rules, yet there’s no rules, at the same time,” says Street artist Rone [aka Tyrone Wright]. “It’s an arena with a lot of grey areas. You can paint where you want, but that doesn’t mean someone isn’t going to beat you up about it.” Wright started out in the graffiti scene in Melbourne in 2002. He is the first Australian street artist to have a retrospective of his work on show at Geelong Gallery — a sign that street art has hit the mainstream. He is known for his feminine portraits; the graffiti world appealed to him, but not the overtly masculine tone of it all. “You don’t want to paint over someone’s tag, because chances are you heard the guy tried to stab someone who did,” he continues. “While that never happened to me, I did hear stories like this. It’s also not very inviting to women. A lot of the graffiti stuff becomes egotistical schoolyard politics. It has its own social culture but doesn’t really open itself to everyone.”
From graffiti to street art and now muralism to public art spaces, Juddy Roller founder Shaun Hossack says the scene has come to mean many things over the past two decades. Social media has changed the way we interact with street art, he says, and the flipside is it’s also attracting those keen to riff on its glory for all the wrong reasons.
“Street art was a good vehicle for creative people who didn’t have institutional education to break through the emerging art scene to a more mainstream accepted platform,” Hossack says . “Now it’s seen as a monetary opportunity to help your career, and with that comes a lot of opportunists who get into this for the wrong reasons. They don’t understand graffiti, the history of the culture and where it’s come from,” Hossack continues. “It’s not rebellion anymore or illegal and isn’t something you do for yourself and keep to yourself. Now it’s seen as a commercial vehicle for success. I don’t know how authentic it is anymore. If you’re going to copy artists like Rone or Adnate, you won’t survive.”
King, who is often asked by emerging female artists for advice on how to break into the street art scene, says her journey was anything but easy. “I tell them to express themselves in a different way, tell your story, get political, make a statement art piece and change the way people think,” she says. “My experience was brutal, but my resilience got me where I am. It’s hard to give advice to younger women and stay put yourself in a shitty situation like I did. It’s still such a male-dominated industry, but the time is now for women to start conversations and be more political with their art. Because the world is ready.”