Secret Walls – a graffiti showdown

Finished artworks – Hancock on left, Reliable on right

What is it?

Secret Walls is a live graffiti showdown between two street artists. Armed only with black markers and paint, they have 90 minutes to each transform a large, white wall into a work of art. The audience watches as they sketch in outlines, block out shading and render detail, and contributes to the judgement of the works with the volume of its cheering. The winner proceeds to the next battle, where it all happens again.

Secret Walls was founded in 2006 by Terry Guy, starting life in a small bar in East London and since spreading to the rest of Europe, Russia, the United States and Australasia. The Australian events were initiated, and continue to be coordinated, by Shannon McKinnon. Last Wednesday, the first battle of the 2012 Melbourne tournament between Hancock and Reliable took place at The Order of Melbourne in front of an enthusiastic crowd of what we estimate to be 300.

What do we think?

Watching an artist at work is a unique experience every person should have at some point in their life. The technique of applying paint or marker or charcoal or pencil to a blank surface, the construction of layers of depth and detail, can be as revealing as the final work itself.

At the other end of the artistic spectrum, the National Gallery of Victoria recently announced that drawing and even painting within the gallery is permitted. Somewhat sheepishly admitting that this has been allowed for many years, though never strongly publicised, the NGV now steps into line with many other major art galleries and museums around the world. We can only see good things arising from this – amateur artists will learn directly from the masters’ works, experienced painters will study advanced form and technique, and the public will witness art as it happens.

Secret Walls takes this process a significant step further. The need to avoid detection during late-night train bombings, wall-taggings and team-murals imbues the street artist with a loose and rapid method of execution. When the fuzz is bearing down, agonising over the precise weight of a line is a luxury the street artist cannot afford. Combining this natural speed with the condensed timeline of a graffiti battle permits original artworks to unfold before our very eyes. Indeed, neither Hancock nor Reliable truly needed the full 90 minutes – the works were mostly laid down within 45, the remainder used for extra shades of detail.

Undoubtedly via pre-arrangement, both artists satirised the other, using their names, attire and images for clever word and picture-play. This was graffiti at a far more sophisticated level than “Daz Wuz Here”, not only in content but in execution also. Hancock used a clean style with clear influence from comic book art, while Reliable had a grittier feel dominated by jagged text and rough shading. We particularly enjoyed the small but elegant city behind Reliable’s central character, and the dramatic curvature of Hancock’s prison cell, a classic comic book technique. What follows is a short series of photos taken during the Secret Walls battle:

In the end, though we voted for both, Hancock earned a 116.4 decibel cheer from the crowd while Reliable could only manage 114.

The 2012 tournament comprises four Round 1 battles, of which last week’s was the first, followed by two semi finals and one grand final showdown. The battles take place once a month until November. We look forward to attending many more.

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