On a brick wall directly opposite my house is a throwup of a bastardised maneki-meko – the Japanese beckoning cat that is said to bring good fortune. It’s etched out in chrome and matte black instead of its traditional gold. The tweaked out cat is smiling with one eye closed, and it carries a simple message inscribed on its paw – “Fill It In”. The artist behind the image is Lush, and he obviously takes his own advice to heart – because there’s hundreds of these guys in my neighbourhood alone, winking from walls, roller doors, and alleyways – they’re inescapable. They stand as urban talismans, an iconic graphic in lieu of letterforms – in the vein of Barry McGee’s classic screws, or Claw Money’s eponymous symbol.
That’s not to say that Lush doesn’t paint letters, on the train ride out to the suburbs to meet up with the prolific vandal his name chases me down the lines. Self-deprecating slogans shout down from the railway canyons, “Lush is toy” “Lush sucks” – quickly painted straight letters in pastel colours that are intended for maximum visibility. Lush adopts the negative vernacular of graffiti writers and revels in its use, he silences his critics by taking the words out of their mouths and putting them on public display, rendering the insults useless. It’s an atypical approach to a culture whose foundation is built on bravado and boasting – after all, it takes a certain amount of internalised arrogance to write your own name on someone else’s property, let alone to repeat that act thousands of times. But Lush isn’t exactly a typical graffiti writer.
He’s late to meet me at the train station, and I kill time watching a beatboxer busk to the passers-by (he’s a former world champion, according to his cardboard sign). I’m not on the platform for more than five minutes before a fight breaks out between three young men, allegedly over a stolen phone. Everyone stops to watch, beatboxer included, but the scuffle only lasts a few minutes before it devolves into shouted threats and aggressive posturing. The crowd seems disappointed. Eventually Lush emerges on the station platform, conspicuously inconspicuous in a jet-black Gore-Tex jacket and matching North Face boonie hat. We make our way back to his studio, where for the duration of our interview he alternates between making his trademark stickers with a trance-like focus and playing with a box cutter. Lush has styled himself as the antihero of the graffiti world. A self-described ‘graffiti asshole’ he holds a mirror up to elements of the culture that are open for criticism, but are often ignored by its practitioners. It’s for this reason that he’s faced opposition from both the general public – who hate graffiti, and graffiti writers themselves – who aren’t comfortable with the truths and flaws that he points out. Lush doesn’t roll with a crew, he doesn’t paint ‘70s influenced subway styles, and he’s not sponsored by any premium paint companies.
Graffiti is a blunt instrument of communication; it’s invasive and unwarranted – sneering and aggressive at the best of times. The mantra of the general public, “I only like the colourful stuff” is a constant affirmation of this – the ‘colourful stuff’ is the palatable, stylised iteration of the raw energy of graffiti. Lush isn’t offering something that’s easy to digest, his graffiti is the semantic equivalent of dropping your pants at the middle of a dinner party and taking a piss in the punch bowl – but that doesn’t mean that his work isn’t compelling. “I used to paint normal stuff for ages,” he explains, “but just painting letters, it gets boring.” An aversion to being boring is a consistent theme in conversation with Lush, a refusal to participate in banal culture – not just in terms of his practice but in a wider, all encompassing sense. “The whole thing is really childish,” he says of graffiti culture, “I mean it was created by kids.” He’s not wrong either, the legacy of the teenagers that painted New York transit in the ’70s is rich, but it’s also representative of a fringe culture that doesn’t exist in even close to the same form in 2014. Lush strips back the artifice and pretension surrounding graffiti culture. In a world where even the most hardcore subcultures are facing imminent coca-colonisation, there are divergent streams of thought as to how to mediate thier relationships with the wider world. Think of it in terms of the widespread acceptance of skateboarding – from its DIY roots to the trite reality of the X-Games. For every energy-drink touting, god-loving, gold medal winning reality star, there are a new generation of VHS obsessed gritty street skaters with no interest in mainstream recognition.
Graffiti culture is similarly at a crossroads, it’s now a viable reality to make your way in the world as a professional graffiti writer – a possibility that’s as far removed from the origins of the culture as imaginable. That’s not necessarily a negative thing, but it’s reductive to argue that graffiti is still the rebellious subculture of the youth that it once was. One thing that’s often repeated by practitioners of graffiti is that it is pursued by, and intended for, its participants exclusively. It’s an argument that’s initially presented in staccato bravado by a teenage Skeme in Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver’s seminal film Style Wars (“People who don’t write, they’re excluded. I don’t care about them. They don’t matter to me, it’s for us.”) “Generally most people are on the Skeme side of things,” Lush says of the graffiti world. “But that dude in the film is like 17 years old. If you’re getting your view on anything from a 17 year old you probably need to read further into what you are talking about or living,” he laughs. Conversely, Lush is keenly aware of the presence of the wider public when he’s painting. “I used to do pieces where people were shocked into stopping to look at it,” he explains. “If you do a normal piece no-one really gives a shit about it, but if you do some nasty shit that helps to get that name out there.”
The window for capturing the attention of the general public with graffiti is small. Ironically, the more it proliferates the less attention that people pay to it. The audience is by and large willfully dismissive of it when presented with the product in an urban environment. There are a few common methods of grabbing their attention, and the majority are employed frequently by street artists (as opposed to graffiti writers). Generally they rely on universally recognisable imagery, often couched in positivity – think of anthropomorphic animals, portraits, or the hall-mark witticisms of Banksy that can be internalised and discarded without breaking stride down a city block. Lush appropriates these tropes and uses their inherent familiarity to shock the passive viewer into engaging with his work – instead of images of kittens and profiles of beautiful women, we get dicks, BDSM, and cops getting their faces blown off. Out of context, to an average passer-by who doesn’t engage with the graffiti subculture they’re menacing, offensive, and discomforting – essentially everything that a true graffiti bomber espouses to be. Lush isn’t exactly comfortable with the ‘street artist’ tag, but he utilises much of the same methodology in order to get his pieces recognised. “It’s almost like bands who get called different genres, it’s just people trying to put your shit into a box so they understand it,” he asserts.
Similarly, his engagement with the internet speaks more to the street art approach – or a modern marketing strategy, for that matter. There’s an inherent virality built into his online works. While for most graffiti writers digital photography serves as a means of documentation of an ephemeral form of expression, Lush approaches the digital space as a conquerable terrain in its own right. The point of differentiation is that Lush creates pieces that are specifically meant to be viewed and appreciated in an online context, to the extent that they don’t necessarily translate when viewed in the physical environment that they were painted in initially. “There’s no one really using social media as a part of their graffiti effectively, in my opinion,” he tells me. “So it’s just a way to do a bunch of new stuff no one has done before.” This point was driven home for me when I came across a Lush piece in a back alley, a simple black and white filled arrow that’s pointing down – bearing the message “16 year old instagram graffiti fight club below this Lush™ arrow.” When viewed on your phone in an image stream it’s a telling critique of the online culture of uninformed commentary on graffiti that seems largely centered on Lush’s instagram account, but on the street it doesn’t actually make any sense.
It’s a strange state of being, where traditional graffiti binaries of transience versus permanence, regional versus global, passive versus active engagement, no longer apply. In the digital realm, Lush’s followers actively seek out his content – his audience are engaged and interested, irrespective of whether they react positively or negatively. There’s still a veil of anonymity though, Lush rarely engages directly with his 26 thousand followers – instead opting to post content and let them steer the discussion themselves. “I try to introduce arguments. It’s stuff people talk about but never put to paper,” he explains. When I ask if he reads the comments that his posts receive, he doesn’t hesitate. “Oh yeah, most of them – because they’re just retarded. I think it adds to it.” Obviously, Lush revels in critiquing the culture that he engages in – and as his audience has grown, so to has his platform for criticism. One of the earliest Lush pieces that caught my attention was from a few years back, a straightletter on Melbourne’s waterfront that read “I loved graffiti until I met other graffiti writers.” It’s a simple message, but it encapsulates his attitude perfectly. When questioned as to whether it still holds true, he doesn’t hold back – “Yes, because everyone is a fucking idiot.” Although Lush isn’t about to bow out yet. When I ask him if he’s considered quitting the answer is pretty simple, “You can’t say never, but I just don’t feel like I’m done yet.”
Of course, as Lush’s popularity has grown so has demand for his work. The antithetical notion of graffiti in the gallery space has long been beaten to death in both academic and casual circles for the better part of three decades. At this stage I think it’s suffice to assume that as long as there is a contemporary art market that graffiti culture will always have a uneasy relationship with its monetary structures. Lush sees the gallery environment as an extension of the other facets of his graffiti identity. “With a gallery show I can do all sorts of different things I can’t do otherwise,” he explains. “I’m not living to your fucking expectations of me,” he’s quick to add. The relationship between Lush and the outside world is largely what defines his practise – and it’s an interesting component of his work. His reflections on graffiti culture serve a dual purpose, to a graff-literate audience they’re a humorous meditation on their world – but to an outside audience they’re an insight into a culture that’s by and large closed off to them. To an extent, Lush offers a brief glimpse into the world of a compulsive vandal, filtered through his own vision.
Lush currently has an installation on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, as part of their ‘Melbourne Now’ show. His sprawling piece mirrors an inner city shopfront, replete with dumpster out the front, completely blanketed with stickers and tags. Aesthetically, it’s a simulacrum of any number of abandoned shopfronts that Lush has similarly claimed around the city – but because of the gallery context it’s deemed as being deserving of appreciation by an audience that would otherwise pay it no attention. Context is crucial to Lush’s work, and getting one over on the audience seems to be as much a part of the process as anything else. A few days after the exhibition opens I’m walking through the city streets late at night with Lush when he pauses to slap a few stickers on a nearby light pole. A girl that’s walking with our group recognises the name and asks if he’s part of the street team promoting his new show. Lush just shrugs.
Photography by Ben Clement.