“We get to this spot, we jump a fence, we snip a fence, we boot a door open and we rush in there painting away. We’re doing this spot and, you know, we get 10 or 15 minutes, we've painted like six people in a row on the side of this train. And then we just hear this shouting….”
I’m sitting with Bailer in his Prahran gallery, Let’s Pretend, soaking in a tale of one of his many escapades. I should butt out of his cold open – perhaps we’ll rewind a little and let him paint some context.
“I was in Prague with my mate Rumba. Rest in peace, he was an international graffiti king. He was, sadly, I don’t think he’s around any longer. He was a unique character. I visited him in Leipzig, he just threw me the keys to his Audi and let me drive and, you know, they had a few graf shops in town. They were probably getting up to no good and laundering their money or whatever. They had their own DVDs, their own clothes, their own paint in these multiple shops, (whereas) if somebody in Melbourne goes, ‘I’m going to open a graf shop’ more than likely five years later they’re still talking about it, you know what I mean? And we’re there and he’s like, ‘We’re gonna open another shop’, and I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, cool’. And then the next day, we’re helping him put up shelves and shit in a new shop that they’ve opened when they’ve already got multiple. So these guys are doers. They’re not shit talkers.”
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“So him and his mates like Acid and Evil and Moner, these dudes they go hard, they’re real good painters. We went on a few trips, we went and painted in Berlin, we painted a few different places and we went to Prague one time. We went to this big hanger, and they’re like, ‘Okay, Aussie guy, there’s gonna be some guards. One guard has a dog. One guard has a fucking gun’.” This is embellished with Bailer’s best European accent.
“So I’m like, ‘Alright. I guess we’ll paint quickly then’. We run in, and it’s mixed, a hodgepodge crew, a couple of Polish guys, a Russian guy, a Spanish guy, a German guy. And Rumba he can speak a little bit of each language. So on the way there, he’s practising his Russian, trying to learn a bit more of each language so that when he goes and paints the systems in these countries, he’s able to communicate better. Anyways, we get to this spot, we jump a fence, we snip a fence, we boot a door open and we rush in there painting away. We’re doing this spot and, you know, we get 10 or 15 minutes, we’ve painted like six people in a row on the side of this train.”
We’re full circle now…
“And then we hear this shouting and there’s like, four dudes, and one or two German shepherds. I can’t remember as it was pretty hectic at the time but it was like, “Oh, shit”, and they’re surrounding us and shouting at us in Czech, or whatever they speak in Prague, you’d have to ask Rumba only he can’t tell you now – but he would have known what they were saying. I just knew they were mad. And we all went back to back and I’m shouting, and because there was like six of us and four of them they didn’t rush us – they kept a few metres back and flicked out extendable batons. Then when they came at us we all rushed at one guy so he stepped back and we made a gap and went through it, ran through that door, jumped a fence and then just hit the legs and we’re running running running running. We got away, nearly having a spew, not quite but nearly spewing you know? (And) Rumba is like ‘Okay, I guess we go to za other yard’.
Like ‘Fucking hell bro, can’t we go have a beer or chill or something?’ So we went to some other trainyard and we’re watching the guard doing laps then jimmied open a window and painted again. They’re like that, extreme dudes.”
Bailer is telling me all this because he has spent a decade compiling a book of photos and epic stories of the Melbourne graffiti scene, and I knew we had to get a tale that didn’t feature in his deluxe hardcover tome ‘Wall Stories’ (see his website, bailer.com.au). I have a feeling there’s likely a few more of these adventures up his sleeve, but the first thing I had wanted to know when we sat down was how he felt his artistry fitted within the five pillars of hip hop – because unlike the others, graffiti is a rather solitary pursuit with only what is left upon a wall to dialogue with passers-by.
“With street art it’s more of a conversation with the public, whereas graffiti is more of a conversation with graffiti artists. So the nuances in style and the differences in technique are mainly overlooked by the general public, who might say something like, ‘I like the colourful stuff, but I don’t like the tagging’. Whereas a practitioner of graffiti can see just as much style and skill in the tag as the elaborate burner1. And you can tell if someone can do an elaborate burner from one letter of their tag. So, it all starts with the tag, like, if you were into Japanese calligraphy, you can look at one calligraphy artist, and you can know the lineage, who their master was, what area of Japan they’re from (just from the brushstrokes).” Similarly with graffiti, “You can tell what crew they came up with, or what area or what line, and you can even tell if they’re an aggressive person, or if they’re a trendy person sometimes from their hand style, or if they’re an arty person. You can tell a whole lot of things just from their hand style.”
Perhaps you can even discern if someone has some oedipal issues I wonder, maybe Freud should have been spraying about mother issues on walls – Bailer picks this up and runs into the psyche of the brushstroke.
“Kind of! You can tell what kind of drugs someone’s on, their style has aggression in it, their style has sharp corners. You can tell if they’re a bogan, you can tell what their background is to a degree. The funny thing is people say, like I’ve just said, (that) street art is a conversation with the public and graffiti isn’t, but it’s like abstract art. Like a Jackson Pollock painting, Blue Poles or whatever; people are “Oh, wow. So amazing.” Really, it’s just an alcoholic guy wasted throwing paint at a canvas. And at the time, that was cutting edge, but now it’s a bit whatever. Cool, you splattered some paint while the canvas was on the ground. What’s it meant to mean? At the time it meant something because it was a fuck you to the scene. So to me, how is that any different to someone painting lettering in a way that’s abstract to the normal reader. To all the other people painting lettering, they can tell what goes into it.”
1 burner. 1. A large, more elaborate type of piece. The piece could be said to be “burning” out of the wall, billboard, or train-side. Because they take so much time and effort, burners in downtown areas are more likely to be legal pieces, painted with the consent of the property owner.
Bailer definition: A burner, like a graffiti masterpiece.