When walking the world's big cities, we're often told to avoid back alleys. In Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, the go-local advice is to get lost in them.
In Melbourne's alleys and laneways, you’ll find some of the city’s best street art and graffiti. Guide your search just so and you'll also pave a path to some pleasant eating and epic coffee-drinking experiences, too.
Exploration and comprehension of a big city without some sort of thematic anchor can be tricky. To focus our time in Melbourne at the end of our Explore Australia trip we decided to use street art as our theme. We searched for a self-guided street art walking tour and found this long-standing one to anchor our route. Although it proved a bit dated, its path provided us with an easy route in and around central Melbourne, and tipped us off to a handful of laneways and alleys that serve as a live playground for Melbourne's graffiti and urban street artists.
Turn a corner, let’s say on Hosier or Rutledge Lane, and find yourself surrounded by laneway walls with paint so thick you can peel it. Layers of living urban canvas history. Turn another corner and you might find a collection of industrial garbage bins turned functional art. Street murals of all sizes tower and stretch across the city's Victorian and new industrial brick facade.
Images such as the one above are serious, but others are fun and light. Everything hints to represent a deeper story, a lingering urge to speak the mind. Street art lives as social commentary and offers a visual snapshot of the prevailing, and sometimes dueling, mindsets at any particular point in time.
Along our street art walk we detoured to other well-known sites and got pleasantly lost along the way. We stopped to sample some of Melbourne’s famous cafes, brunch joints, fish and chip huts and dumpling houses, but we always returned to the original route to see what, if anything, survived of once-famous works. We followed our curiosity to see what the next alley or brick wall might hold. And we used the same street art lens and approach as we explored other neighborhoods like Fitzroy and Collingwood.
We sometimes found ourselves staring at a blank brick wall where a mural had once been, or even searching for a building which no longer exists. This is the fleeting essence of street art that is a metaphor for life: it's here one minute, gone the next. Whether it's a commissioned piece of art or something informal, guerrilla, or rogue, street art is the ultimate ephemera.
Now, why use street art as a way to explore a new city?
How a city expresses itself in public art says a great deal not only about the artists, but also the community that allows or even invites the art to exist. These expressions are a reflection of the current cultural and socio-economic pulse. Alleys and lanes covered in graffiti visually engage and further stokes creative fires. To look up and find a wall staring back at you can stop your thoughts in their tracks.
While we’ve enjoyed consuming world street art and graffiti for years, our comprehension of it has grown over time. Diving deeper into the street art culture in Berlin has helped us appreciate not only the artistic and creative and physical talent required for street artists to bring their ideas to bear, but also the depth of social and cultural thought behind their art.
Cosmopolitan. Hip. Cafe-filled. Tasty. All words to describe Melbourne. But it's the heaps of street art and the companion atmosphere of expressive freedom that seems the guiding undercurrent of it all.
When someone says “Melbourne,” our memory of getting lost in its street art filled laneways conjures first. For us, it was an experience in and of itself, as well as a pathway to getting our minds and arms around the spirit of one of the world's most popular cities.