Kings Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti: Melbourne 1983–93 has been a nine year labour of love for Duro Cubrilo. The mammoth book shines a light on the birth of graffiti culture in our hometown, which first took serious root on the wave of the early 80s hip hop boom. Importantly, Kings Way isn’t a stiff, crusty account of history written from the lofty perch of academia. All of the book’s authors and contributors were actually there, fueling the graff subculture at the very moment it started gaining heat. The result is a passionately personal, thoroughly detailed account of our underground art history, told by a knowing band of insiders. We caught up with Duro to find out more about the release and to get his rundown on the whole era.
Congratulations on your book. It really is an epic anthology of the graff scene in Melbourne from over the years. You’re pretty well known around these parts but for anyone else, tell us about yourself.
A new wave writer from the late ’80s and early ’90s that made an impact on the transit system following the lead of local neighborhood pioneers Fabulous 4, Kids of Kool, Wisp, Spy and Pest, to name a few. I gave up painting trains at nineteen but never let go of the dream. I have since made the transition to creative adventures in the commercial world.
How was Melbourne in the ‘80s? Obviously it’s very different to today… take us back in time and describe what the town was like. It all seems rather unsophisticated in hindsight. Ha ha ha!
I was a young tacker in the mid 80s so it was all new to me. I'd describe Melbourne as a small run-down town with multicultural groups of kids all over looking for mischief and adventure. MTV and the revolution of hip-hop was the catalyst that gave kids a new, exciting and energy-packed subculture to harness and identify with.
What do you think it is about this city that makes it such fertile ground for transgressive artforms like graffiti?
Possibly a collective consciousness that feeds off the city’s reputation as a cultural and creative capital. Conservative ignorance isn't as rampant here as in many other states throughout the country.
Obviously American culture was the spark that really ignited kids’ interest in graffiti, but in what ways do you think Melbourne’s scene developed its own unique flavour?
I think some of the early pioneering writers of the city such as Ultra Sub Art crew really understood the importance of the culture. The importance of style, originality and all the components of being a graffiti writer. Many of them really helped push the movement into original realms of style. There were many individuals over numerous generations that made an impact with what they did hence influencing unique, local styles over multiple eras.
Kings Way is an epic… How did you pull together all the loose ends? You must’ve nearly killed yourself to make it the most complete story possible…
Thanks mate! It was an endless and exhausting task. I knew it had to be bulletproof as I know firsthand how much it means to so many people. The hardest part was getting the balance right and glorifying the scene, not the individual, a difficult task when the whole scene revolves around ego and the writing of one's name! Having said that, those that made a heavy impact and shined brighter obviously have more of their work in there. It’s only a small portion of the real story and hopefully the seed for a million more books on this movement and time.
Book deals are also hard to come by in this day and age… who did you convince to put the book out?
Funnily enough this was the easier part as we had three offers in the end. It was pretty much complete by the time we shopped it around. Regardless of whether we got a deal or not it was going to get done! Melbourne University Press came across as the most enthusiastic and seemed the best fit so we ran with them.
And did you feel the eyes of the local graff world were watching? It’s ended up being quite hardcore in a way, very focused on the work and the detail.
Yeah I guess, someone had to do it, everyone’s got opinions just like everyone’s talked about doing a book. Hardcore is the only way it could be, if you lived through this era you would truly know how bombed out this city was.
Who were some of the most brazenly innovative and recognizable writers of the era? Who were the key people and crews setting the standard for graffiti art in Melbourne?
That’s a contentious question as 'innovation' was rampant and the book covers multiple waves, eras and style shifts. My personal favourites for letter style forms and innovation; Dskyzer, Tame, Paris and Acid. For hardcore train panel writers I can’t go past Mist and Saipan, and as for nut-bag bombers it would have to be Worm, Brink and Nasa. These are only a small handful, as the city was blessed with many more creative visionaries that chose this medium as a way to express themselves.
Tell us about Train Driver Ron. Are there any other stories you know of people from the transport authorities jumping sides and playing a part in Melbourne’s graffiti movement?
He was an older and iconic figure that was super down with the old school kings like Ransom and co. He was a train driver in the mid 80s and took a liking to the hip hop scene and the writers’ work, hence documenting it with quality images. There was another character also, Percy the transit photographer. His job was to photograph graf, mainly on trains and stations and to get sneaky snapshots of writers congregating. He was a funny Danny De Vito type, always dressed in a 70s bright blue suit getting around, hiding in the bushes with an SLR. If we could dig up this guy’s vault there would be a goldmine of lost treasure in there! All writers used to dream of getting access to the transit photos.
Given how territorial this type of stuff can be, how unified were the key crews? Obviously it was competitive but did that spill over into excessive friction? My memories of that time were that it was pretty tough, especially on the train system. You had to avoid certain areas without a posse.
In the beginnings it was all fun and new, that's how I remember it anyway. The older guys were always trying to keep the youngsters like myself from coming through the ranks but there was no real tension. Most times you would just introduce yourself with 'what you write?' to whoever looked the part; ink stains, hip hop laces etc. More often than not it would become a friendship and result in bombing escapades throughout the city. Post 80s, films like Colors and LA gangster hip hop shifted the focus from art, fun, and style to a much more violent and criminal intent.
Speaking of which, can you elaborate on how the train system connected different crews and what that meant to the way the artform evolved?
Being a planned out city all lines led to the city centre, making it easier for writers to connect from all over.
The ongoing obsession of lawmakers with eradicating graffiti from Melbourne’s streets has resulted in some of the world’s most draconian anti-graff legislation. How many of the artists you’ve profiled were brought down in some way?
The fact that graffiti art is always judged on its legality is partly the reason today's graffiti is out of control. We are talking about a subculture that is over 25 years old that kids to this day choose as their way of expressing themselves. The reality is that nothing will change until people understand what the subculture represents across all its components and accept it for what it is. I would say at least 95% of the people featured would have had some kind of run-in with the cops for painting their name. Even though there were many self-destruct types around, the system can definitely thank itself for making career criminals out of many that began with creative and expressive intent.
Do you think our cities and lawmakers are squeezing the rebelliousness and creativity out of young people at an earlier age? Melbourne City Council perpetually seems to sit on the fence. They like the international recognition and familiar patina of our laneways, but they still have to be seen to be ‘tough on graffiti’. Has it always been the same in this regard?
I think it’s definitely gained more public acceptance mainly due to the nature of the newer street art scene and the painting of pretty pictures that are more digestible by robotic society. Graf Art is not Street Art and will never have the same level of public acceptance for this reason. Graf was never created to please anyone other than the craftsmen of its letter forms and style constructions, and those that just want to rebel to remind the system that not everyone can be controlled.
I hate to be critical of such a killer book but I thought the fashion part of the book could have been expanded… did you face any dilemmas in deciding what to leave out or include?
I guess the book is too real to just be about the look. To a genuine writer, what they could produce was always superior to how they looked, that's where all these burners and intense productivity came from. They dressed for the mission, hence puffer jackets for sleeping out in parks and sneakers for getting chased etc. The book focuses more on the gritty writer lifestyle as that's what it was.
Street fashion at the time seems to have been a bit of a hotch-potch, with kids mixing their old flannel shirts and stonewash denim in with the obvious hip hop staples. It seems like a much freer time with less rules… can you explain some of the suburban trends that were happening at this time?
Hotch potch is a good way to describe it. I'd say a mish mash of Bogan flannel shit, disco shit and English Skin, Rude Boy and Sharpie shit and NYC b-boy street sport shit. All in Melbourne, work that out!
What were some of the shoes that were big around Melbourne during this time? Can you remember what you had on your toes? I saw a lot of Filas and all kinds of weird stuff…
Peril is the guy to speak to here, he was the hip hop fashionista that backed it up with the illest of burners. I remember Puma Suedes were fuckin hard to come by. Adidas, Converse, Nike Cross Trainers, Air Max, Stabs, KT26 if you were a broke ass, Reeboks, Filas. It was always a big thing to get someone that was going overseas to bring you back some goodies as there was fuck all cool shit here.
And finally, why no pics of Max and GJE’s work? Surely there were the OG graffers?
They do have stuff in there if you look closely and are acknowledged as some of the early stick name writers of the city. We did try to contact them but had no luck. I recommend checking out Rennie Ellis' Australian Graffiti, it’s a killer book for images of local and Australian graf that pre dates the hip hop influenced graf that our book focuses on.
Kings Way is available now at all good book stores, or buy online here.