Inside the world of the Illawarra's graffiti artists

This is forgotten land, snaking its way through a maze of freeway overpasses, intersected by power-lines and crossed by the railway.

It is a degraded landscape butting up against the steelworks, overgrown with lantana and brambles that hide industrial refuse, discarded bottles and bongs.

Famous in the closed world of graffiti artists – ‘‘vandals’’ if you will – the Figtree drains are a forgotten world populated by crews of teenagers and misfit loners who spray walls.

Along much of the almost twokilometres of concrete walls, the culvert is a chaotic miasma of rainbow paints and edgy tags.

Some of the words are clear – ‘‘What becomes of the broken hearted?’’, or an arrow pointing to a hole, large enough for a teenage body to squeeze through to a space the size of a large broom cupboard.

‘‘Bong room’’ reads the sign, and an inspection of the dirt floor inside proves the words do not lie.

Most lettering is so jagged, so designed, that the meaning is hard to make out.

Walk along the concrete drain, perhaps 20-metres wide with a slippery creek running down the centre, through  dark tunnels and you reach the railway line – another favourite location of the graffiti crews from Thirroul to Port Kembla.

A  train thunders over the bridge, its coal wagons littered with grey patches where graffiti has been painted out.

‘‘I wouldn’t go down there on your own,’’ youth worker Belinda Caruana advises.

‘‘Take someone with you, just in case.’’

She has worked with some of the big names in the Illawarra graffiti sub-culture – only about 20 in the hard core – and promises to put me in touch with three of them, anonymity guaranteed. They agree to an interview, but never turn up.

Caruana is a refreshing presence, a Shellharbour youth worker who inhabits that strange space between the legal walls sanctioned by councils and the illegal tagging of trains, shops and public property.

The abandoned mansion at Dunmore, half-finished then abandoned by failed developer John Kosseris, has been a favourite haunt in the south, just as the Bulli Brickworks has attracted artists with aerosols in the north.

‘‘I am here to put art on the streets,’’ she said.

‘‘I am here to get young people to creatively contribute to their community and turn abandoned areas into works of art.’’

She reckons tagging is ‘‘mindless boy behaviour’’ but also has perspective – if tagging is as bad as it gets, then that may be OK.

It’s not murder, violence or rape.

‘‘It’s a sub-culture and it’s a dangerous one,’’ Caruana said.

‘‘They will go to dangerous areas and just for the thrill of it on a dark and rainy night.

‘‘As long as they get a photo, they don’t mind how long it lasts.’’

Though there have been no deaths in the Illawarra, the risks of tagging trains were laid bare at a Sydney inquest in January, when apprentice plumber Tre Toman was caught off-guard by a train and sliced in two.

‘‘What became very clear ... was that it’s a matter of having an identity, of being seen by your mates, fellow painters, to get into places that are more dangerous, the better,’’ the coroner said.

His grieving mother said she would continue to visit the site of her son’s death every week to try to deter other people from trespassing and help prevent other deaths.

There is another way, but it’s probably only considered by the artistically talented vandals who grow old and need to make a living.

Luke  ‘‘Tekn’’ Chaplin, 28, grew up in Campbelltown and declines to go into exact details about what he was doing or where he was doing it.

He’s just taught a course for budding artists at Wollongong Youth Centre, for years the most dynamic venue for legal graffiti, and he’s hoping for more work.

‘‘It’s about that old school thing of getting yourself in the best location,’’ he said.

‘‘Even though it’s public art, it’s not for the public. It’s for the other writers out there  – ‘Cool man, you got a sick spot, you must have done some crazy stuff to get up there’.

‘‘Back then it was very secretive, you’d go by your tag and they wouldn’t know your real name.

‘‘You do most of your stuff at night so you don’t get to meet other people.’’

He was busted, but accepted that as part of the scene (‘‘You do the community service and that’s it.’’) but he wouldn’t do it again, advising young people to stick to the legal.

While the essence of graffiti is that it’s temporary, there are rules and they are occasionally enforced. They call it ‘‘having beef’’ with someone.

Tags can be replaced by throw ups (two colour tags) that can be replaced by pieces, that can be replaced by bigger, more ornate pieces.

If you’re a big name, you tend to get respected, like the Melbourne artist Rone, who painted the giant girl’s head on the Keira Street wall last year.

The piece was part of a project called Wonder Walls, organised by Simon Grant, who was careful to fix the politics so the piece would not be tagged.

Finally, after almost all illegal artists have refused to speak, there is one who is prepared to go on the record.

Jyi Westaway may be better known to the community (and police) by his graffiti name, ‘‘Jyiro’’, and likens graffiti to a drug addiction.

We meet thanks to the intervention of Matt Chilby, the owner of The Contemporary Printmakers in Balgownie, and photographer of the graffiti scene since 2008.

Though an artist, rather than a vandal, Chilby has close  ties with the scene.

Westaway started painting as a teenager and has had a couple of run-ins with the law, including one that resulted in a community service order for painting trains. 

‘‘The graf bug is like heroin mate. Once you’ve got it, it never leaves your system,’’ he says.

Heavily tattooed, he is now a father of a toddler and a bartender, hoping for work that is both legal and paid.

‘‘People perceive us as these big monsters, but we’re not,’’ he said.

‘‘Most of the guys would be happy to talk to you. They won’t stand by and say, ‘Who’s this guy, let’s bash him’.’’

Yet it’s clear that violence is also a part of the scene, particularly when crews invade each other’s territory, or when somebody breaks the code of silence.

Westaway is happy to admit that the mate who revealed his identity to police, paid the penalty. ‘‘I flogged him,’’ he says.

Laws against buying or carrying markers and aerosol cans have tightened in the past decade so activity has died off and moved to the legal scene.

For Westaway, and others like him, the rush of the illegal scene will always attract followers.

‘‘I had the mentality, when I got busted, go harder, not run the other way,’’ he says.

‘‘I love graffiti and I’ll never stop because it’s in my veins.’’

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