Australia is home to some of the world’s deadliest snakes, but the hissing and rattles in this alleyway in Collingwood don’t belong to snakes, instead, they’re the sounds of spray cans in the hands of graffiti artists Resio (foreground) and Shen.
The air is scented with the fumes of paint that Resio, who wears a respirator while he works, describes as “cancer in a can.” At eighteen he wants to make a career as an artist so he’s mindful of the exposure to the toxic fumes, and with good reason. The people in the building with windows facing the alleyway complained earlier in the afternoon about the fumes and even asked them to stop painting for an hour or so.
Shen, who is nineteen, didn’t have a mask, and while he’s undoubtedly an amiable guy, he wasn’t about to stop painting. “There’s only twenty fours hours in a day and I don’t know about you, but I don’t have an hour to just stop and stand around twiddling my fingers you know,” He takes a step back from the wall to his work in progress, then continues. “I’d understand it if was breaking rules, but we’re outside and we’re not breaking rules here.”
The pair do indeed have permission to paint here, but that’s not always the case for graffiti artists. Shen, who didn’t want me to publish a picture with his face in it, has been doing graffiti for about six years and tells me about train painting and times where he has had to run from police.
“A lot of people say we’re wasting taxpayers money, but it’s not like if we stop your taxes will go down. You’ll still have taxes to pay, you know. If I stop someone else will do this. You can’t stop it really,” he says.
I take a few pictures while the pair continue to work on their pieces, colorful block letters spelling out their nicknames. I’ve never been any good at deciphering the unique and exaggerated lettering styles of graffiti, but Shen is kind enough to explain his piece for me, while I can only make out the R and S on Resio’s piece. I would call the works they’re doing “tags” but the pair correct me, calling them ‘graffiti pieces’ instead. The term tagging has negative connotations because of all the illegal tagging that most people consider to be ugly.
Shen accepts that tagging is unpopular but he’s quick to point out that all graffiti artists start by tagging. “It’s funny, we were painting the other day and this woman came past and she said ‘I like this, but I hate that tagging shit.’ I can’t tell you how many people have that reaction,” he says as he surveys the cans around him looking for another color. “Tagging is great. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting your name up. Everyone hates the tagging, but this stuff doesn’t happen without the tagging.”
For Shen graffiti is a hobby. “Some people like kicking a football, some people like computer games, others like taking photos, that’s their thing, their hobby. This is mine,” he says.
Resio isn’t quite as talkative as Shen, who clearly has a great deal of respect for the talent of his partner in paint. “You know how some people are good at things from a young age, this guy has always been good,” Shen says as he looks at Resio’s work. “I couldn’t draw a stick figure, but this guy is an artist.”
Resio shows me his Instagram account. “I do actual art as well, pictures and stuff,” he says quietly as he thumbs through pictures of his work on his slightly paint-spattered iPhone.
While Shen is content to call graffiti a hobby, Resio wants to make a living from his art. We talk a little about commissions and he tells me, “Sometimes clients just let you do whatever. But other times they’re like ‘I need a red bird, it’s this…’ and I’m like ‘yeah it’s cool but it’s going to cost you,’ and there’s nothing wrong with that I guess.”
Making a living from doing commissions might indeed be fun, but Resio is especially fond of graffiti that doesn’t come with a price tag. “This is more fun I would say. It’s more expressive because you get to do whatever because there are no rules.”
As they finish up their pieces the pair get ready to take a picture of their work. It will live longer as a photograph than it ever could on a wall. In just a few days the pieces may be gone, tagged or painted over by another graffiti artist.
“That’s for sure, especially this wall,” Resio says as he puts the final touches to his elaborate piece, “but that’s fine. We just want our photo, that’s it.”
Stand by this alleyway using Google Street view.