Spray painting graffiti of my tattoo (sun and flowers) in Melbourne, Australia
Spray painting graffiti in Melbourne

What I Learned as a Graffiti Artist for a Day

I never thought I would ever one day be spray painting graffiti. Unless one was a legit street artist at the level of Banksy, I always thought graffiti was done by general ne’er-do-wells or teenagers looking for kicks. However as I walked the streets of Melbourne, I marveled at the diverse and rich street art everywhere and knew there was more to this underground subculture than what was portrayed in the media.

Colorful street art laneway (alleyway) in Melbourne

I saw a unique Airbnb experience for a “hands-on” street art experience. It differentiated itself from the other street art tours by offering an opportunity for you to create your own piece of street art. Curious to learn more, I signed up.

Our guide Nick was fantastic and extremely knowledgeable about the colorful world of graffiti. He has painted all over the world not only in Melbourne but also in New York and Copenhagen. The tour started out as expected with Nick guiding us around the city, explaining the history of graffiti, pointing out different pieces by local Melbourne artists, and teaching us how to interpret the various “levels” of graffiti (or graff as the Aussies would say since they shorten any word every chance they can).

The first level is the most basic, what we see the most often – the tag. It’s a personalized form of calligraphy which actually takes skill and style to craft one’s own style. Nick pointed out how one single letter like S could be done in so many different ways. It also takes time and dedication to present your tag all over the city, keeping it identical so that others in the community would recognize your brand.

Example of a graffiti tags in Melbourne

The next level is the throw-up. This is the second most common type of graffiti done with block or bubble letters and usually with 1-2 colors. Again, there’s a personalized style to the word that’s thrown up.

Example of a graffiti throw-up in Melbourne

The next level is a piece, defined as anything more complicated than a throw-up. It can range from a simple graphic to more commonly, a word painted in multiple colors with flourishes, making it difficult for the common eye to decipher the word.

Example of a graffiti piece in Melbourne – it says Porn

And finally, the last level is street art. These are the real art pieces at the Banksy level. These generally have a deeper meaning, usually some sort of commentary on today’s culture or politics.

One of the many pieces by @Lushsux who focuses on pop culture references

As you would expect, there’s an unspoken rule in the community that a lower tier piece should not cover or overlay a higher tier piece, especially if there’s respect for the person’s work. So if you ever see a piece of graffiti with nothing on top of it, the artist must have gained a lot of respect. Of course, there’s always some people who can be real dicks and not follow the “rule.”

Additionally, there are stickers or some pieces that are more involved or 3D by using normal everyday items or the existing pipes in that particular spot for example. Not every piece needs to be big. Sometimes, even the small ones can be extremely intricate in detail.

Example of a very detailed graffiti art piece in sticker form on a drain pipe

After learning about the nuances, for the rest of my trip in Melbourne, I definitely recognized a lot more graffiti all over the city, even started to see more and more pieces by the same artists. I explored and wandered down alleyways (or laneways as they’re called there) to find hidden gems. If I hadn’t done this experience, I would not have been able to appreciate or notice as much I did. There’s certainly no shortage of photo opportunities of all the street art in the city! I certainly took a bazillion photos myself.

One of the many street pieces all over Melbourne by Putos

As we walked around the city during the street art tour, Nick encouraged us to gain inspiration from what we saw to think about what we wanted to do for our own graff piece. He talked us through our ideas and helped bring them to life on a wall on Rutledge Lane off of Hosier Lane, which is super famous for graffiti.

Rutledge Lane, Melbourne, Australia

I decided to recreate my tattoo. I wanted something unique and different, something that’s never been seen before so what could be better than my own custom tattoo! Nick showed us how to layer the different colors of spray paint, draw lines, and fade in colors. By changing up the pressure on the spray paint can nozzle and how close you were to the wall, you could create any effect you desired.

Action shot of me spray painting my tattoo in Melbourne

As I drew my first few lines and shapes, I felt a little inkling of glee from knowing I was defacing public property. I suppose there’s a little bit of a rebel inside each of us. Spray painting graffiti allowed me to artistically indulge in sticking it to “the man” for that very brief moment in time. Overall I was surprised by how much easier the whole process was than I expected.

My tattoo graffiti ended up spanning across an entire doorway. It took roughly 2-2.5 hours to finish. Apparently, for someone with no prior experience, a piece of this size is not an easy thing to do.

My finished graffiti piece of my tattoo

Since we were doing this in public in broad daylight in one of the most famous places for street art, lots of tourists saw us at work. Surprisingly, we must have looked like we knew what we were doing! Many tourists came up to ask us questions and take pictures of us and our finished pieces so they must have thought we were real graffiti artists. For a brief moment, I felt like a mini-celebrity with all these strangers watching us work.

The doorway is also a popular Instagram spot for people to pose in the doorway with a graffiti background. So who knows how many photos have my tattoo graffiti featured? And I’ll never know… In today’s Instagram-heavy, validation-seeking world, it felt a little strange to create something knowing you’ll get no credit and not know how many people will “like” it.

Posing with my tattoo graffiti piece

After 2 weeks, when I went back to the doorway. My piece was already gone, covered up by someone else’s. I could still see remnants peeking through but it was more or less gone. As a result, I understood what it must feel like for the artists to create their work, knowing how temporary it would be. I learned that it definitely takes a certain personality to be comfortable with your artwork being anonymous and short-lived. I don’t think I necessarily have what it takes so I have a whole new level of respect for graffiti artists.

The whole experience was one of the highlights of my visit to Melbourne. It was fun and exciting to create your own piece of graffiti artwork and leave a personal mark on the city, however fleeting that lasted!

Side by side comparison of my tattoo with my graffiti piece

I highly recommend this Airbnb experience especially if you’re interested in artwork, graffiti, and/or being creative. Seriously, no artistic experience is needed at all! No one in my group had any beforehand and all of our pieces ended up looking quite amazing! Use this link to get $40 Airbnb credit towards your first trip, and book here for the specific Airbnb Experience that I did.

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