They’re coming at me from all directions, huge menacing beings who look like they’d take no prisoners – Batman, Storm Troopers with guns pointed, the Incredible Hulk ten times life-size, his green hands reaching out towards me, Wonderwoman kicking ass,

Wolverine in attack mode,

Gambit from X-Men, and Tank Girl!

Everywhere I look more characters are emerging as local artists bring them to life.

This is neglected Tocumwal Lane in downtown Canberra. It’s a lane that opens into a large rectangular “back stage” space that is known for its boring, but frequently tagged, beige walls, free parking, and stinky garbage dumpsters. But no longer.

There had been a few legal places in Canberra for street art, and a low-key street art community for years, but the Tocumwal Lane pARTy of March 29, 2015 was the city’s first official street art project.

You have to understand about Canberra, my Aussie hometown. When we moved there in 1962 the population was barely 60,000, most of whom were politicians, diplomats and public servants. Although work had begun on creating the city earlier it was interrupted by WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII, so when we arrived the town was really not much more than twenty years old.

All the colonies of Australia federated to form a single country in 1901. Sydney and Melbourne duked it out as to which would be the capital of this nascent country. The solution was to build a new city. An international competition for a city design was held, and was won by Walter Burley Griffin and Marian Mahoney Griffin, American architects. If you google who designed Canberra, the answer comes up, over and over, Walter Burley Griffin. Pisses me off that it’s only now, researching this post, that I find out about Marian’s contribution and that they were joint designers and entrants in the competition. Marian was instrumental in envisioning the design plans for the city. Why am I not surprised that in school, and in just about every history of the city you read, only Walter’s name is mentioned? Women in history – always erased.

Okay, rant over. Back to my story. The Griffins designed a beautiful garden city. Every street is planned, every street is tree-lined, there are gardens everywhere and big areas of natural bushland between the suburbs. The height of buildings is controlled so as to not obstruct views of the surrounding hills. This is a city that was never allowed to grow organically as most cities do. Everything is planned, everything is controlled. Back in the sixties outdoor seating at cafes and restaurants was forbidden. Can you imagine? In Australia’s climate outdoor seating was not allowed! It wasn’t part of the plan. One fearless cafe owner, an immigrant from Austria who knew European cafe society started putting seating outside his cafe. He was fined. He did it again. And was fined again. And so it went. He was determined, and soon gained the backing of the people of Canberra. Eventually the rules were changed to allow outdoor seating. Thank you Mr Gus Petasilka! Hidebound bureaucrat is not an oxymoron.

But to allow street art! That’s pretty radical in a city like Canberra. It came about of course in the same way that all street art projects come about: people get sick of the cost and effort required to clean up graffiti and tagging. Canberra, a relatively small city (its population now is nearly half a million) spends about $600,000 per year on graffiti clean up just in the downtown core.

And so the Tocumwal Lane pARTy was organised. Intoxicated by the energy, and perhaps a little by the spray paint fumes, and buoyed by the hip hop beats from the DJ, I join the party and watch the artists at work. There’s a cute Spidey emerging,

and master-swordsman Link from The Legend of Zelda.

Right next to Link, this artist is working on her creation of Japanese children’s superhero Anpanman.

A group of schoolboys are focused on creating a whole platoon of Storm Troopers using a complex system of stencils,

and fifteen-year-old Faith Kerehona, honoured to be working alongside some of Canberra’s more established street artists, has no trouble matching their skill and talent. Here she is creating a huge rendition of Gamora. Gamora, for those of you like me who don’t inhabit the world of comics, is a character from Guardians of the Galaxy.

And here she is being interviewed by the press along with another artist.

You may have guessed by now that the overall concept for this shindig is superheroes. The backdoor of Impact Comics opens onto the Tocumwal courtyard and has a huge painting of Batman on it, so the organizers decided to continue the theme. I have discovered a whole new world I knew nothing about.

A lot of people are hanging out. The bureaucracy may be a bit orthodox, but the people of Canberra are cool,

and they’ve come to see the show.

Kids are loving it too,

though there are a couple of girls who don’t seem as impressed as their brothers.

There are food trucks – burritos, and burgers and beer, and some picnic tables have been set up.

Hip hop, food, beer, and art. It’s a party and a pARTy!

Here’s another little bit of information about Canberra. If you google the origin of the name you’ll read that it comes from the original inhabitants, the Ngunnawal, and means “meeting place” though there’s no evidence to support this. No doubt the good burghers of early Canberra had to come up with something and decided to put that out as the official story. If you dig a little deeper (but just as far as wiki) you’ll discover that there’s a Ngunnawal word nganbra that means women’s breasts and refers to two of Canberra’s hills. It makes a bit more sense when you know that most Aussies and all Canberrans pronounce it Canbra. Nganbra could also be referring to the valley between the two hills, or the hollow between a woman’s breasts. I want to leave a comment on every article I can find about Canberra that mentions “meeting place” and say it doesn’t mean that you knobhead. The name comes form a Ngunnawal word and refers to women’s breasts! Women in history – erased again.

There’s plenty of great art in Canberra, most notably at the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. But when the underlying energy of the name of a place is women’s breasts, female energy, there’s bound to be untamed art eventually, free flowing art, fun art. Or maybe Canberra just grew up a little. Tocumwal Lane pARTy seems to have started a bit of a revolution, and there is street art to be found all over the city now. Canberra is no longer a boring public service town. It feels as if it has come of age, with great bars and restaurants, a thriving coffee culture (both indoors and out), and next year in March the first official street art festival. Although there had been some street art beforehand (strictly regulated of course) Tocumwal was really the beginning of it. I’m glad I got to be there for it.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.