Fitzsimmons mural vandalism provokes debate on graffiti art

Graffiti artists defaced the Shane Fitzsimmons mural in Erskineville, Sydney, within 24 hours of its completion, due to its association with an anti-graffiti campaign.

By ALEC SMART

A seven-metre tall mural painted at Erskineville Station of fire chief and national hero Shane Fitzsimmons has been defaced by graffiti vandals less than 24 hours after it was completed.

However, several members of Sydney’s mural painting and wall arts community claim that the artwork, to promote Graffiti Removal Day (GRD), was provocative and insensitive to graffiti artists. One of the comments written on the defaced painting said: “Mural Removal Day.”

Former NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was honoured with the large-scale mural yesterday, when a portrait of him by street artist Sid Tapia was unveiled on a large wall facing the railway station.

The mural, which paid tribute to Fitzsimmons’ leadership during the ‘Black Summer’ bushfires of 2019-20, followed on from his NSW Australian of the Year 2021 Award, presented on 9 November, 2020 at a ceremony in Luna Park.

Mr Fitzsimmons, who stepped down from his 12-year role as RFS NSW Commissioner in April 2020 to head up the new crisis management agency Resilience NSW, oversaw one of the most destructive bushfire seasons in Australia’s history.

The apocalyptic fires – fought on multiple fronts and in exceptionally high temperatures, with forests tinder-dry after a long drought – incinerated over 5.5 million hectares and 2,448 homes, along with 26 human lives and unaccountably high numbers of native fauna.

With a state-wide team of 74,000 firefighters and back-up crews, most of them volunteers, Fitzsimmons provided calm leadership and refuted claims the fires were not linked to climate change, scotched rumours that most were deliberately lit, and kept the public informed via regular press conferences.

“What continues to motivate me to this day, is that we saw this outpouring of humanity, of community spirit that dominated in our darkest times,” he said when he was nominated as Australian of the Year 2021.

Artist Sid Tapia (in white) visits his vandalised mural the day after it was completed. Photo: 7NEWS TV broadcast.

NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman yesterday unveiled the Erskineville Railway Station mural, with Fitzsimmons in attendance.

“Our volunteer firies and other emergency services showed remarkable bravery in battling the ferocious 2019/20 bushfires that ravaged NSW. Their heroism and the leadership of their Commissioner is very deserving of recognition,” Speakman said.

“Covid-19 has reminded us of the importance of our homes and taking pride in our precious neighbourhoods. Graffiti Removal Day is the time to pick up a brush and reconnect with your local community in a Covid-safe way.”

‘PR painting’

However, in a social media post after the Erskineville mural was completed, award-winning satirical mural artist Scott Marsh criticised fellow mural painter Sid Tapia’s association with the anti-graffiti organisation.

Marsh, known for poking fun at political and social leaders in his public works of art – repeatedly attracting the ire of fundamentalist Christians, who vandalise his paintings – dismissed Tapia’s involvement as a “public relations opportunity”.  

Tapia, the son of Ecuadorian immigrants, is a former pro-skater who has been sponsored by a range of clothing labels and leisure equipment companies.

Embracing Christianity in 2000, the mural painter and self-proclaimed ‘influencer’ now runs his own clothing label – Crown Street (named after the former Crown Street Women’s Hospital, in which he was born) – and continues to promote various brands, including Uppercut Deluxe men’s grooming products, Adidas, Sony, G-Shock, RVCA clothing (owned by Quiksilver surfwear), Copic Markers texta pens and Montana Colors (manufacturers of spray paint cans).

After his Fitzsimmons mural was defaced, Tapia told Channel Seven and Nine TV news reporters he wasn’t surprised by the vandalism, admitting he was “bummed” by it but “probably would have applauded it [the vandalism] when I was young”.

He added, “I expected it, but I did say, ‘It might be a good idea to get some security there, just in case.’”

He continued, “As soon as I woke up and was told about it [the vandalism], and even before that, I was discouraged because there’s so much negativity and misunderstanding. It was definitely tough emotionally, and on my missus as well, because we’re trying to bridge a gap [between the graffiti community and authorities].”

Mixed messages

Confusingly, Tapia continued to endorse graffiti writing while still defending his association with GRD.

“I know it looks ridiculous to team up with something with a name like Graffiti Removal Day, which is not what I’m trying to do … I’ve been given the green light to lobby for [a] name change as well because the initiative is great to be able to open up a lot of walls along the train lines to make the journey for commuters that much more pleasurable by supporting the arts and supporting graffiti writers.

“At the same time, I do understand what the graffiti artists are doing.”

On his Instagram profile, Marsh targeted Tapia in a dismissive critique of Tapia’s participation with GRD.

“Graffiti Removal Day promoting removing graffiti by painting spray painted murals,” Marsh declared. “There’s a lot to un-pack here. Imagine fashioning yourself as a ‘graffiti artist’, Sid Tapia, who was never actually been a part of the graffiti world/culture.

“You make a living painting murals with techniques created by that graffiti culture, with spray cans made by and for graffiti writers, even having a goofy graffiti font signature just to make sure your clients know ‘Hey! I’m the cool graffiti guy’.”

Mural painter Sid Tapia interviewed at Erskineville Station the day after his painting of celebrated fire chief Shane Fitzsimmons was targeted by graffiti artists. Photo: 7NEWS TV broadcast.

GRD claim on their website that “graffiti vandalism costs the NSW Government and residents more than $300 million every year”.

GRD Chairman Bob Aitken asserts: “Since we began in 2012, volunteers have removed more than 141,000sqm of graffiti, saving the community $10.4 million.”

On their Instagram page, GRD announced the new mural with praise for the graffiti artist who painted the commissioned portrait of Fitzsimmons.

“We are beyond thrilled to have held our official #GrafittiRemovalDay 2021 media launch this morning with the unveiling of this incredible mural dedicated to our ambassador and NSW Australian of the Year Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

“This mind-blowing artwork was created by international street artist Sid Tapia and the morning was attended by NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman, members of NSW Rural Fire Service, and media.”

At the unveiling, Fitzsimmons encouraged NSW residents to participate in the next Graffiti Removal Day on Sunday 28 March 2021 by volunteering their services.

“Volunteers are at the heart of Australian communities. I will forever be grateful to the volunteers who stood up to be counted during the worst bushfire season we’ve ever had. We saw courage and commitment from volunteers who continually put the wellbeing of their community before themselves.”

In praising Fitzsimmons, NSW Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock also urged participation in the Graffiti Removal Day.

“I encourage councils and community groups across the state to roll up their sleeves and get involved in this worthwhile event,” she said.

GRD hosts public clean-up events all over NSW, and provide volunteers (aged 12 and above) with paints, brushes and rollers to cover up graffiti sites. Over 600 sites will be targeted this year, with an anticipated volunteer force of several thousand personnel recruited to paint over murals, tags (signatures) and lettering deemed illegal.

Supporters of the event include controversial former 2GB talk show host Alan Jones as well as Rotary NSW, Scouts Australia, Girl Guides Australia and NSW Police.

Credibility questioned

Marsh continued his censure of GRD, questioning Tapia’s credibility and motive for accepting the Fitzsimmons commission from them.

“Now imagine you work for Graffiti Removal Day; you have absolutely no understanding of graffiti culture, no respect for graffiti or the people who paint it, in fact you want to lock them up and paint over as much of their work as possible and encourage as many people as you can to do the same, until there’s no more graffiti.

“You realise street art murals are really popular but don’t understand that it was the graffiti movement that created murals/street art. You think ‘Wow murals would be a great tool to encourage more people to destroy graffiti.’

“Then you find an artist with no integrity and no connection to the culture he feeds off every day. Sounds like a match made in heaven, the perfect PR opportunity.”

Reaction to Marsh’s condemnation was mixed, but most comments beneath his post agreed that Tapia was aligning himself with an organisation diametrically opposed to the culture that spawned him.

Several warned that Tapia was going to face a hard time in the future, with taggers and rivals likely to vandalise and overpaint his murals for the foreseeable future.

Marsh finished his post with the warning: “If a young graffiti writer starts destroying murals for no reason, I chase them down so it doesn’t happen again. When a half-stepping mural artist pulls down his pants and takes a poo on the subculture I grew up in and love, I do the same.

“Sid Tapia, I hope the Sydney graffiti community makes an example of you and your work … Graffiti built the house, you just live in it. Find a new subculture to feed off.”

It appears sections of the Sydney graffiti community have indeed made an example of the mural, although Tapia responded optimistically that he “would love to get it fixed up really quickly”.

Graffiti Removal Day was contacted for this article.

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