Tour leader Chris Hancock stands in front a mural in Croft Alley, a popular street-art laneway in Melbourne, Australia. // © 2015
Feature image (above): During Melbourne’s street-art tour, visitors will see several murals, including this one. // © 2015
A sickly sweet smell of paint was heavy in the air, and the vigorous rattling and occasional hiss of spray cans drifted down Hosier Lane, a narrow pedestrian alley (typically referred to as a laneway by locals) just a short walk from Melbourne, Australia’s central Federation Square.
Covered in a chaos of color, the multistory buildings that line the walkway host an extraordinary collection of artwork, from people’s faces and cartoon animals to political statements, paper post-ups and, of course, all sorts of graffiti. And while the attraction had certainly drawn a number of visitors, several young fellows were leaving their mark on the walls with spray cans right there in broad daylight — which isn’t entirely legal, but apparently no one has pressed charges for painting walls in that part of Melbourne for a long time.
Five of us in the laneway were following artist Chris Hancock as he explained different works on the building walls, telling stories about how some were made and pointing out his favorites.
“I love this one,” he said, showing us a cement replica of a Louis Vuitton purse with the word “fake” carved into its cover.
Hancock describes the immobile knockoff, perched on a low-lying windowsill, as an “installation.”
“I’ve seen so many people reach down and try to pick it up,” he said of the well-known piece by artist Will Coles. “The looks on their faces when they realize it’s just cement are terrific.”
Hancock is one of several artists working for Melbourne Street Art Tours, a company that offers regular guided walks through many of central Melbourne’s striking painted laneways. Launched in 2008 by Adrian Doyle — better known as simply Doyle in the art world — the tours are a great way for visitors to gain real insight into one of the Australian metropolis’ most intriguing visitor attractions.
“Some old people had already begun tours of Melbourne, including the famous Hosier Lane, but they were making up their information and making us sound like street criminals,” Doyle said. “We are more like street thugs, addicted to mark-making, so I decided to set up Melbourne Street Art Tours with the primary goal that it would be run by artists.”
Doyle worked closely with partner Piya Suksodai to get the tour product up and running, choosing artists from Melbourne’s Blender Studios to lead the outings.
“All our tour guides are artists, because street art is so ephemeral it can only be understood by someone in the scene,” Doyle said.
Demand wasn’t exactly through the roof at the outset, however. Doyle remembers having only one booking in the first six months of offering the guided walks. But later in 2008, a newspaper feature on Doyle and famed Melbourne street artist Ha-Ha helped boost bookings.
“Now things in Melbourne have really changed,” Doyle said. “Melbourne’s unique street iconography has become world-famous, with artists traveling the world and getting paid the big bucks. The raw street-art aesthetic has dripped into advertising, fine art and many other facets of Melbourne culture. The laneways of Melbourne are the cultural veins of the city — and the largest public art gallery in the world.”
Highlights of the two-hour-plus stroll through Melbourne with Hancock included a wonderful chance to see a large mural he painted on the walls of the famous Cherry Bar in AC/DC Lane, another alley loaded with street art and named after the celebrated Australian rockers. Hancock later pointed out works by the world-famous Banksy and well-known international street artist Invader. Both were pieces likely to be missed without an expert’s guidance.
And while Hancock also shared terrific insight into the techniques and strategies behind the work — including how artists often scale incredible heights to put pieces in the most visible places — the firsthand stories he shared about the often rough world of street art and graffiti provided a rich look at the tradition’s complicated past.
Commissionable to agents, Melbourne Street Art Tours are $69 per person and run Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. They start at 1:30 p.m. in Federation Square and end at Blender Studios, where clients can enjoy a beer and snacks with their guide before mingling with other artists as they work on current projects. The massive studio also offers travelers an excellent opportunity to purchase fabulous work.