Hello Melbourne, where the narrow alleys that were once an afterthought to its main roads – built wide enough to turn an ox cart in –are now the heart of the city's life. Lined with galleries, shops, cafés and bars, these laneways are also a magnet for street artists, making them “the largest public art gallery in the world".
The back alley of Melbourne in which I am standing must have the coolest dumpsters in the world. Dazzling with lime green and silver spray paint, they blend seamlessly into the lime and silver swirls on the brick wall behind, like chameleons on steroids. Yet tomorrow, they may be another color, depending on the whim of an army of secret artists who prowl the bluestone cobbled passageways of the city, creating beauty out of the laneways that form an intricate spider’s web between the glass-and-steel office blocks of the center.
Australian street artist Adrian Doyle says Melbourne is “the largest public art gallery in the world” thanks to the creativity that has brought a spotlight to its once-forgotten backstreets. This is a city in which you have to look up and down, as well as at eye level, even if you live here, as everything changes, all the time. Often, a double take is necessary. Why? Because Melburnians will decorate anything, and not just with spray paint. In the chichi suburb of Fitzroy, I come across a metal bicycle rack sporting a woolly cover in the Australian flag colors of red, white and blue. This is the art of yarn bombing, where graffiti meets knitting. “We woke up one day last winter and 85 elm trees along Royal Parade were ‘wearing’ hand-crocheted scarves,” says my friend Gretchen, a life-long resident. “Everybody on the tram was smiling.”
In the edgy suburb of Brunswick, local artist Daniel Lynch creates whimsical faces and figures out of tin cans and other garbage, nailing them to lampposts to brighten the day of anybody who happens to glance up. Self- respecting cyclists in Brunswick ride trendy fixed-gear bikes, but none is complete without a basket sprouting a bunch of garish plastic flowers. Down the road, in Carlton, the city’s Italian suburb, I spot planters on the sidewalks sown with rosemary bushes and bay trees – guerilla gardening alongside the official ornamental blooms, the herbs wafting their Mediterranean scent among the aromas from the coffee shops and pizzerias.
Now one of the city’s biggest attractions
This rise in artistic expression has come hand-in-hand with the revival over the last 20 years of the inner city laneways, narrow brick alleys which form the perfect blank canvas for stencil art, dazzling murals and sculpture. The cool art, the burgeoning artistic community and the more affordable rents of the laneways have in turn attracted hip coffee shops, basement bars and up-and-coming fashion designers. Back streets that were languishing and forgotten have now become one of the city’s biggest attractions, for locals and tourists alike. “The laneways date back to the 1850s, a decade after the CBD (Central Business District) was laid out on a grid system aligned on the Yarra River,” says Gretchen. “The main roads were made wide enough for bullock carts to turn in: 33 meters wide. The lanes grew organically between them to be used for things like trash disposal and the “dunny man” who collected waste from the outside toilet at the back of each plot.”
Following the discovery of gold in Victoria in the 1850s, the population boomed and the service lanes started to fill with brothels, opium dens and shanties. Melbourne continued to boom over the next century but, right up to the 1990s, most of the laneways languished, grimy and forgotten. “In the 1980s, huge shopping arcades and office blocks began to spring up in the CBD,” says Gretchen. “Several lanes were destroyed and people began to realize we could lose an important part of the city’s working class heritage and character if something wasn’t done. Every laneway has a story to tell.”
From the 300-meter Eureka Tower, I can look down on that original Melbourne grid system, although much is hidden by tall towers, lit with the logos of insurance and accounting firms, dwarfing those thought high in an earlier age: a sturdy 1950s bank, St Paul’s Cathedral. I can see busy, boxy Federation Square and the lights of Melbourne Cricket Ground and, beyond, sprawling suburbs and neat parks, the whole cut by freeways and the limpid, brown Yarra River. Almost beneath my feet is Princes Bridge, linking the city center and the tree-lined St Kilda Road that runs out to the booming seaside suburb of St Kilda itself. On the far side stands the Victorian Flinders Street Station, a layer- cake of red brick and cream-yellow stone topped with a copper-green dome. Past the train station bustle the city’s trams, spilling tiny people to fill the neat rectangular grid of broad streets and disappear into its narrow alleys.
“Melbourne is a city of villages tied together with a tram network that slows the city down,” says local urban planner Gilbert Rochecouste. “We are one of the few cities that did not remove its trams and they have made Melbourne into a slow city. Cars sitting behind them can't do more than 30km an hour and have to do those crazy hook turns so as not to block them at junctions.”
Transformed into other places for big blockbusters
Back on the ground, Gretchen and I plunge into the laneways ourselves, determined to discover something beyond the familiar. Locals here may make a beeline for a favorite café – and everybody in coffee-and-hot-chocolate-crazy Melbourne has at least one of these – but they do not necessarily know the back streets. Gretchen is a production sound mixer and knows her native city inside out, having filmed all over it. Victoria has a thriving movie industry and Melbourne’s alleys are often transformed into other places for big blockbusters. “We turned this laneway into Paris for I, Frankenstein,” she says, as we tour a grungy alley behind the Supreme Court. “And Rankins Lane doubled up as New York for Predestination, a film with Ethan Hawke. We filled the drains with dry ice to create the look of steam coming out.”
I stand in Literature Lane, puzzled, looking for any reference to literature. There is a giant, yellow mural featuring a kangaroo, a crocodile and black and white clenched hands. You need a lot of imagination to interpret some of the art. Otherwise, it is a bleak back alley with a pool hall at one end. But opposite, Little La Trobe Street is a street art treasure trove, with dazzling images of koalas, fish and birds sharing space, incongruously, with zombies and a magnificent buffalo.
We wander into Drewery Lane, once called Brewery Lane but renamed in 1872 after London’s Drury Lane. Similarly creative spelling proclaims Baroq House, one of Melbourne’s most exclusive nightclubs with a fearsome door policy (“Only the beautiful need apply,” says Gretchen). In Drewery Place, a dead-end sub-alley of the main alley, a gay Asian couple sits opposite an exquisite stencil of a crouching, naked man, quietly appreciating the scene while they eat their lunchtime sandwiches. Further along, there are more stencils at ground level on the brownstone walls; a little girl skipping, the black and white sketch beautifully illuminated by a dusty beam of sunlight, and the same child stroking a leopard. The images are tiny but perfect.
The shops and institutions along the laneways are as individual as the street art. On the corner of Lonsdale Street and Barry Lane, we peer into the window of Wunderkammer, an emporium of framed butterflies, antique globes, skeletons, miniature steam engines and “scientific curiosities”. In Anaessia, a block north on Little Lonsdale Street, frothy lace dresses line the rails and pink ballet shoes dangle from chandeliers. Everything here is different, original, thoughtful.
A Vietnamese restaurant, from which garlic aromas waft enticingly
Some of the laneways have become highly successful, transformed from forgotten back streets into prime real estate. Hardware Lane really buzzes, not least due to the presence of Campari House, a famed Italian bistro that has been here since 1968. The rest of the lane is an eclectic mix; a meditation center, a Helly Hansen outdoors store and a Vietnamese restaurant, from which garlic aromas waft enticingly. We stop for lunch in tiny Postal Lane, named because it runs along the back of the gracious old General Post Office, built in 1859, the building’s shell retained to house an upscale shopping center. We slurp noodles in a ramen bar overlooked by ancient signs that have been left on the solid brick walls; one says “Beware of motor cars” while another bids passersby to “Commit No Nuisance”.
The laneways have certainly come a long way from their lowest point in the 1990s, when Gilbert was first hired by the City of Melbourne to “reposition” Flinders Lane. Once the heart of the city’s rag trade, it had fallen into anonymity but today is a lively cluster of boutique hotels, coffee shops and bars. “Many laneways were just places to dump rubbish, do drugs, throw up or other unsightly things. They were a Sleeping Beauty ready to awake,” he says. “The lack of vehicle traffic was an opportunity to use them to link up the public transport network. There was a three-pronged attack in the city center. The council extended footpaths, calmed traffic, planted trees, and put in public art, beautiful lighting and signage. Owners were given support in “Postcode 3000” to build apartments.
“Finally, we got rid of the “6 o’clock swill”. We had dozens of pubs but the liquor laws meant they all closed at 6pm, putting thousands of drunk men onto the streets. Suddenly you could go for a meal and, instead of having to bring your own, you could buy a glass of wine. That was a radical thing and a big shift in nighttime culture, with young entrepreneurs opening up bars and small venues in the laneways. That created a domino effect, a real revolution. With more people living in the city because of Postcode 3000, we reached a critical mass.”
Already burdened with graffiti, the laneways were a prime target for young street artists who started experimenting with stencils. In 2001, the City of Melbourne’s Laneway Commissions scheme was launched to try and bring order to the anarchy by encouraging the use of laneways for public art. A building owner can now apply to the City of Melbourne to commission street art, or help protect existing art. Artists are encouraged to work with property owners to make their artwork legal and to create spaces for new art. Graffiti ‘tagging’ – spraying your signature on top of existing art, or just on a wall – remains illegal.
A priceless stencil by Banksy was painted over by council cleaners
Such street art is by nature temporary, as Melbourne City Council found to its cost in 2010. A priceless stencil of a parachuting rat by British artist Banksy, whose pieces can sell for six figures, was painted over by council cleaners sent to scrub up Hosier Lane. “Unfortunately the contractors were not made aware by us that that was an important piece,” Council chief executive Dr Kathy Alexander told a local radio station. “It is the nature of graffiti art. It’s very vulnerable to other people’s work.”
The laneways have become such an attraction that they have spurned a cottage industry of books, maps and walking tours. The problem is, though, that they change all the time. An artist may create a work of almost impossible beauty, only to have someone else spray over it.” Eril Deighton, 80, is a photographer who has made a small business out of street art greeting cards, living proof that its appeal spans all generations. “I was walking along Hosier Lane one day and decided to look for things to photograph,” she says. “My aim is to get a photo before a piece of art gets tagged. It’s not much use then. There was a beautiful painting of Ganesh in Hosier Lane and someone tagged it. The girl who painted it was asked back and has now re-done it. Some of the art is just beautiful. I started producing cards, just for fun, and now I sell them through shops and galleries.”
Street art is not confined to the city center. In the leafy streets of Fitzroy, wealthy homeowners have commissioned the top street artists to adorn their houses, and not in a subtle way; facades and garage doors are embellished with angels, sea monsters, psychedelic faces and on one white cottage, a beautiful blue eye design. In Wood Street, a smart road lined with plane trees and purple agapanthus blooms, a house on the corner has a pretty Victorian lacework balcony on the front – and a giant-sized, photo-like cartoon of a bearded man in bright pink all along the side. The piece is by Glasgow-based artist Smug One, like Banksy, reclusive but a legend in the world of street art.
What I love about Melbourne is that nothing is predictable or ordinary, especially in the laneways; “The harder it is to find, the groovier it will be,” says one local. On Russell Place, through an unassuming front door is the wonderful Gin Palace, a basement bar of crushed velvet, deep leather chairs and animal prints. There are 60 gins on the menu and a cool, relaxed vibe, like stumbling into a gorgeous living room where there is an amazing party in full swing.
A statue of the Virgin Mary perches on top
Other hangouts are just pure whimsy. Chuckle Park, in a tiny lane off Little Collins Street, describes itself as “one of the shiniest diamonds in the rough that is Melbourne’s laneway scene” and is, in fact, eccentricity itself; a fake grass floor, red plastic seating, plants growing in jars strung overhead and a vintage caravan at one end dispensing jugs of Sangria, sliders and meatballs. A statue of the Virgin Mary perches on top of the caravan, swathed in plastic flower garlands. Lunchtime crowds are drinking merrily. On Tattersalls Lane, there is an even weirder bar, Section8, housed in an old container with wooden palettes for seats and abundant graffiti. Potted palms soften the grungy look, while urban grooves entertain a crowd who act as though it is perfectly normal to be sitting in what is effectively a wire cage, on bits of old wood.
Some laneways, created as tourist attractions, are invariably a disappointment and living proof that you cannot really manufacture something as spontaneous as either street art or atmosphere. Dame Edna Place is the biggest letdown. The street sign is surrounded by lights, as befits Melbourne’s best-known lady export – "and average Australian housewife" from Moonee Ponds – and there are some brassy stars inlaid in the pavement but there is not a graffitied gladioli or a painted possum in sight, just bare walls and a smell of drains. ACDC Lane, another manufactured laneway previously and boringly called Corporation Lane, is more successful and clearly a setting in which the rock band’s fans are happy to express themselves with a spray can. A wedding party is in full swing here, the bride in cream satin, posing for photographs against a wall of spray-painted monsters on motorbikes, her peach-clad bridesmaids teetering in high heels on the smooth bluestone cobbles. Glamor-meets- grunge wedding pictures are clearly big in Melbourne, as we spot other brides along the way.
Such is the obsession with laneways, genuine or manufactured, that variations on a theme are developing. Multi-story, multi-use buildings in the city center are now known as “vertical laneways”. I visit Curtin House, an elegant Art Nouveau building squeezed between a convenience store and a Taiwanese restaurant. The building has variously housed a gentleman’s club, the Communist Party headquarters and a sex cinema and was bought in 2000 by entrepreneur Tim Peach, who said at the time, “I wanted to bring the building back to life – and that didn’t involve apartments.” The eclectic assortment of businesses inside is certainly worth of laneway status; Cookie, a hip Thai restaurant; a selection of young fashion designers; a Kung Fu academy; The Toff in Town, a burlesque and jazz bar; and on the top, a rooftop cinema and bar, with deckchairs overlooking the city rooftops. The stairwell, elevator and even the pipes are plastered with stencils, stickers, slogans, and spray paint.
Even the locals don’t find them
“I used to hang out in Curtin House in the 1980s when it was a squat,” says Gilbert. “My friend had a thousand square meter floor plan with ten toilets. There are dozens and dozens of rooftops like that and to get to them you go through cafes, bookshops, fashion houses... They are the secrets that allow a sense of wonder and surprise, a sense of discovery. Even the locals don’t find them, which is great. People need a sense of place in their own city.”
With the laneways, horizontal or vertical, now such a firm part of Melbourne, I wonder what the future will bring. “Melbourne could be one of the world's great eco-cities,” he says. “We have been working on reducing the carbon footprint of hundreds of buildings and the future is green precincts. It is not just about reducing our green footprint but also about reducing consumption. That is a double-edged sword because you have to keep consuming to grow but there is another form of consumption around creativity and culture. We have good things and we have to work hard to protect them. We have to become citizens in our cities and participate in democratic life. Our model for the future has to be socially just, inclusive and sustainable.”
“In the laneways you feel at home because you are gathering in a small space, like gathering around a fire,” he says. “We have forgotten the art of small. People become humans again. You delight in rubbing shoulders, sitting close by, watching people. There is a sense of discovery, of moments. Those things are very rare in life and the laneways give a taste of what is possible, of how to live in communities. They make people happy and that is our greatest journey: the one towards happiness.”