On 16 May 2017, Australia Post released a Street Art issue, with a set of four stamps celebrating the work of street artists including Adnate, Vans the Omega, Rone and Phibs, and Shinka. For reasons unknown, the selection only includes street art found on the streets of Melbourne and Adelaide. At first glance this stamp release seems to be a vibrant recognition of street arts influence on the cultural identity of Australia, it’s also highly problematic. What about the street art found elsewhere in Australia? Why aren’t other cities included in what is considered a national design?
And also, who decides the designs of stamps, and where do I apply?
Postmarks first came into use in the 1660s and were used by post offices to mark letters that had been received. Unsurprisingly, these were used a lot later in Australia, and the process of paying for postage was first introduced in 1850. After that time people naturally started collecting these stamps, because they didn’t have fun hobbies like trawling online shopping, or learning how to make pretty designs into coffee foam. The art of stamp collecting is an enigma itself, and the dedication to the practice is simply commendable. I can barely manouvre a pair of tweezers neatly to do my eyebrows - I don’t know how they manage not to rip their stamps to ribbons.
The first postage stamps produced in 1840 in the UK were named the 'penny black', because it was black and cost a penny. Oh, so inventive *eye roll*. Over time postage stamps became representations of national identity, as they were sent around the world on letters to lovers, friends, enemies, family members and criminals (because of course there’s a website dedicated to pen pal prisoners, see one woman's journey here). Australian stamps are considered in collecting circles as some of the most collectable in the biz, especially as they clearly chart significant events in history. This includes when Tasmanian stamps started deviating from portrayals of the monarch, instead favouring depictions of the scenery of the island in a range of bold colours. Tasmania (at that stage known as Van Diemen’s Land) were producing their own stamps, and made a choice to remove the standard depiction of Queen Victoria in favour of the natural environment of the region, from waterfalls to valleys, a unique feature to mark their post by.
Australian art has been used before by Australia Post to adorn their stamp collections and sets. The philatelic manager of Australia Post (philatelic is a fancy word for the research, study and collection of stamps) even admits that the designs chosen have tended to fly on the conservative side, recognising them as icons of Australian cultural history. The design studio has also previously turned to Aboriginal art for commemorative editions, including the paintings of Albert Namatjira and the Indigenous Culture series of 2009. This follows a history of contentious use of Aboriginal subjects or motifs in stamps and labels of national representation, as discussed here. This all considered, the current Australia Post team are obviously looking for innovative, contemporary subjects for their stamp designs. They also don’t particularly want to offend anyone. And maybe they want to grab the attention of a younger audience? Because nothing screams cool, cutting edge, contemporary designs like street art and faux spray paint, stencil font, in fluorescent orange. Obviously.
This collection has focused on four different portraits of internationally recognised artists including:
Vans the Omega - based in Adelaide and an Instagram favourite with an understandably huge following. He lists ancient scripts, architecture, nature and movement as influences in his detailed tumblr. It’s also incredibly refreshing to see an artist providing captions to his work on his site- discussing technical aspects of his work and inspirations.
Adnate - based in Melbourne and renowned for producing super realistic, large portraits, and works really closely with local communities and Aboriginal groups. His website details how important this community is to inspire his practice.
Rone and Phibs - the issue of their stamp also frames discussions on the transient nature of urban art and graffiti, as their portrait was painted over nearly 2 months after completion. They also discussed their practice with the Australia Post philatelic team for this stamps release.
Fin DAC - his works can be seen from New York to Australia, and are impressive renderings of Eastern women, and enter into a new dialogue concerning the male gaze and Eastern bodies; read more here.
Without detracting from the merits of the artists involved in this stamp series, especially because their works are absolutely brilliant, there’s a startling absence of street art from other cities. Where is the iconic ‘I have a dream’ mural from Newtown, Sydney? Painted in 1991, this huge work of art has been recognised for its influence on this prominent, local space by Marrickville City Council who unanimously voted to have it heritage listed in 2014.
Or how about the most recent efforts of Hobart City Council, Tasmania to encourage locals to interact with their city in new, creative ways and get them involved with the local community? By commissioning street art across four walls in the city, they aim to cut down on the amount of illegal graffiti being flung about willy nilly. This would have been a great call back to their original trailblazing stamp history, right?
The streets of Perth, Western Australia have also seen an emergence in colourful, contemporary street art ranging from huge council commissions to smaller, detailed works. This has inspired the Urban Art Map for Perth to create a walking tour of street/urban art, cataloguing these artworks by using Google Maps, and adding a sense of longevity to a medium that was originally considered fleeting. If it wasn’t quickly removed (especially by the local councils) it also easily lends itself to be written, or sprayed over by other artists.
Although Australia Post’s collection may seem innovative, it’s actually not the first time that street art or graffiti has been seen on stamps. In August 2016, French Polynesia announced their street art edition at the World Stamp Show in New York City, USA. I promise the World Stamp Show is a legit thing, the Comic-Con for over 50’s and the over zealous young collectors of tomorrow. Similar to Australia’s street art collection, the design shown by French Polynesia also borrows pre-existing street art and appropriates a large mural into a tiny, transportable format. This street art design hasn’t hesitated in its meaning, bringing in strong cultural references of traditional patterns, and wrapping the woman featured in traditional clothing and bed coverings.
There have also been international stamp collaborations as seen in a France and Singapore street art collectable edition, 2015. This teensy stamp takes on some weighty significance as an act of representing a political and historical moment and using street art as the common language between two nations. So, like, no pressure graffiti artists, but we all depend on you for the good of the world. It was also endorsed or rather ‘unveiled’ (I hope in a miniature red velvet curtain in the world’s smallest frame, the curtain cord pulled by ants) by both the President of France, Francois Hollande and the President of Singapore, Dr Tony Tan. Heavy hitters for a stamp, right? The design team behind each of these stamps can see though that street art is intrinsically linked to the cityscape, so it's refreshing to see they don’t crop the urban environment out.
Somehow, somewhere, someone started gentrifying street art. I once worked for a commercial art gallery in a small town and a random stranger came in proclaiming to be Banksy, promising to sell me his sprays ‘at a great price’. How did this 40-something man know the name Banksy? He never came back, so I never got the chance to ask. Is this popularity and appreciation of street art due to this enigma of a man? No, I think this issue is far too complex to give just one man (or woman!) and instead stems from a deeper appreciation by our communities to see more art, creativity and visual excitement in our urban spaces. It’s also why people go nuts for yarn-bombing because something so colourful and fluffy can’t be offensive, right? Is this inclusion of street art on stamps the next step towards us just openly embracing street artists with loving, open arms? I imagine it like that scene when Kate Winslet is readily embraced by all the folk in the third class deck of Titanic, and everyone dances and gets along so well… until there’s an iceberg.
Unfortunately we see another instance where street art is stuck in an awkward limbo between its origins in the subversive culture of graffiti, and being appropriated by big institutions. Street art is now lumbered with baggage; used by government-owned Australia Post, and given to an international dialogue of representation and national identity. So who’s going to latch onto street art next? Massive corporate enterprises in their advertising and marketing?