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Melbourne’s shining attractions include cool cafes, contemporary galleries, designer shops and endless open spaces to watch the world go by. Yet many people are flocking to Australia’s southern capital to disappear down its dark and smelly back alleys. Among the dumpsters and discarded cardboard boxes, is some of the world’s best street art.

The city has emerged as an unlikely leader in urban art, being compared with Berlin, New York and Sao Paolo, and attracting urban art A-listers like Blek le Rat (the Parisian “godfather of the stencil”) and Banksy.

More than a dozen of the city centre’s laneways are an explosion of colour, with vast murals, stencils and paper “paste-ups” occupying almost every hidden corner. In the celebrated hotspot of Hosier Lane, you will easily find dozens of visitors, young and old, wandering the street as if it were a gallery, pausing to consider each artwork in turn.

Adrian Doyle, a successful artist and creator of Melbourne Street Art Tours, knows the paint-splattered laneways better than most, having “sprayed” his way across the city since he was a teenager.  Doyle’s artists’ collective, Blender Studio, creates some of Melbourne’s most vibrant underground art and his street artist-guided tours give an insider’s view of the best art laneways in the city.

“I’ve travelled a lot  to these places that are supposed to be the street art capitals of the world, like in South America, and they don’t compare to Melbourne,” he said. “In terms of the artwork, it’s not anywhere near the quality of what you get here.”

Throughout the streets, the scrawls, tags and basic shapes of traditional graffiti mix with elements of fine art. A careful observer can spot delicate hand-cut paper cityscapes, line-drawn images of soaring saints and mixed media installations using everything from mirrored glass to wooden chess pieces and empty Xanax bottles.

Even the stencil work, a staple of contemporary street art the world over, is remarkably rich and detailed. Local artist Ha-Ha uses up to 50 layers of paint in his pieces to create extraordinary depth and texture.

Works like these have given Melbourne an enviable urban art reputation. The laneways were voted the most popular cultural attraction in Australia according to an online poll by Melbourne-based Lonely Planet.

Yet, in a paradoxical twist, the city’s anti-graffiti laws are some of the strictest in the Western world.

Outside of the pieces specifically authorised by local councils and property owners, street art is illegal. Merely having possession of a spray can in parts of Melbourne is an offence, while graffiti vandals caught in the act can face fines of up to $26,000 Australian dollars and prison sentences of up to two years. With police stop-and-search actions now common throughout the city, it is riskier than ever for street artists to ply their trade.

This also means the city’s celebrated works were created illegally and are at risk of being destroyed. In April 2010, a valuable Banksy work in Hosier Lane was painted over by a council cleaning crew.

Despite the law, the trend continues to grow. Down a narrow alley not far from the sparkling city centrepiece of Federation Square is dark, pokey Rutledge Lane, where a wild riot of colour spills over every surface and stretches storeys high. On a recent visit, the scent of fresh paint was in the air as a 14-year-old boy from the eastern suburbs was hard at work on a huge pink, New York-style work of graffiti.

Nearby, his friend sat cross-legged on a dumpster acting as a lookout, eyes peeled for patrolling cops. They have no permit so even in the sheltered alley they have to be careful. “You can take a picture of him painting,” the lookout said to tourists wandering through. “Just make sure you can’t see his face.”

The laws are harsh, Doyle agrees, but it does not stop the artists, who appear in greater numbers every day to make their mark on the city. “This kind of art has to have an illegal element to it,” he said before flashing a toothy grin. “In the end, you’ve got to have your street cred, you know?”

Finding the best street art in Melbourne
The artworks on display are constantly evolving across hundreds of sites, but several laneways remain popular.

  • Hosier Lane is Melbourne’s most celebrated stretch of street art.
  • AC/DC Lane and Duckboard Place are home to a couple of Banksy rats.
  • Rutledge Place is a miasma of colourful graffiti pieces.
  • Union Lane has an impressive collection of large, accomplished murals.

Because Melbourne’s extensive network of laneways are off the main streets in quiet back alleys, exercise caution, particularly if investigating alone or after dark.

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