One of the things I’ve found to be missing in Sydney is the noticeable lack of street art. In Los Angeles, where I grew up, graffiti decorates nearly every empty wall. In New York City, where I attend college, brightly-colored murals add pops of beauty amongst the otherwise-drab concrete jungle. In Sydney, however, walls are not seen as canvases. They are simply walls.
This missing artistic genre speaks more to the personality of Sydney than anything else I’ve encountered here. While it is generally a clean, pleasant place, Sydney does not have the vibrant, vivacious character that draws one into cities such as Los Angeles or New York. Sydneysiders are friendly, put-together folk who stick to their daily routines without any fuss. On a typical day you might find your average Sydney dweller on a morning run by Darling Harbour, grab their hot coffee (a “long black” or “flat white” perhaps), and head to a less-than-creative job at the a corporate office in the CBD. Good on them, as the locals would say––but there’s not much spice to the average Sydney life.
While graffiti may seem like a public nuisance to some, I think it represents the core and diversity of a city. It is a form of expression, giving a voice to members of the community who may not have other avenues of being heard. Whether it’s a well-known, highly regarded artist making a statement, a teen exploring their creative passions, or an otherwise ignored, disenfranchised individual leaving their mark for the world to acknowledge, street art is one of the most democratic methods of expression. The city becomes for and by the people.
Perhaps the lack of graffiti around Sydney also speaks to its obscured economic disparities. While it is a huge city that I probably will not get to fully explore in depth, the parts of Sydney that I’ve encountered have been unanimously, relatively well-off. There are very few homeless people (I have seen a total of two or three individuals since arriving in January), and little public discourse about economic disadvantage. In the United States, graffiti can often be used as a means of pushing back against the status quo. While the simple act of breaking the law (graffiti artists can face fines and even jail time for vandalism) already represents a form of rebelling, the content itself is a widely-used method to highlight problems within a society. Thus, although I’m sure under the surface there are a multitude of social issues that should be addressed, the glossy, non-graffitied surface of Sydney gives the impression of harmony and contentment.
Sydney is missing character. Maybe it’s already here and I’m simply not looking hard enough, but in most cities, the culture––art, music, language, etc.––is immediately recognizable, and is what defines the personality of a place. However, the lack of street art in this city represents a larger issue than pure entertainment for when I walk around each neighborhood. It raises questions of expression versus repression, societal clash, and community values. Whereas graffiti often points to these issues immediately, Sydney’s clean walls will force me to start digging a bit deeper. Without risking jail time or losing my visa over vandalization, perhaps I can transform Sydney’s white walls into a blank canvas.