Culture Kings backs down on Hosier

By Meg Hill

Streetwear giant Culture Kings, which sparked outrage last month by calling the police on street artists in Hosier Lane, has retreated and issued an “embarrassed” public apology. 

The back down came after the Victorian Socialists launched a campaign against Culture Kings following CBD News’s articles on the incident last month. 

Their campaign rapidly gained popularity, striking a chord with angry locals. The Facebook event for a protest action in the lane attracted thousands of hits in a few days and an agenda of street artists, DJs and other “creatives” lined up for the event.

Culture Kings caved quickly. It posted a lengthy apology on the event page. It was written by head photographer Todd O’Rourke and read, in part: “The incident that rightfully caused confusion and outrage with some of you, was due to one of our staff members not understanding the workings of the lane.”

“We are incredibly sorry and embarrassed by how this was handled … We have now made this education a part of our staff induction.”

“I completely understand the negative point of view with us being in the laneway, and the need to protect such a landmark location for painting in Melbourne.”

The apology included a proposal for deals with local artists to rotate different work on Culture Kings’ walls, or leaving the walls blank if artists preferred.

But the focus on staff missed the crux of what people were angry about. It was not just that Hosier Lane was an “icon” of Melbourne, nor was it just about the workings of street art – it was that this was one more example of private encroachment – businesses handed the key to the city at the public's expense.

Still, it was an almost unconditional apology. The Victorian Socialists turned its protest into a victory celebration, held in Hosier Lane on September 9. 

Few people know that in the 1920s a costume manufacturer was trading there. 

Almost a century later it appeared as if it still was: Culture Kings’ idea of streetwear is questionable enough, but the story that’s coalesced around it comes complete with a cast of eccentric characters and plot twists.

A game of charades played out but Melburnians were hardly amused. The story is an old one – and people are tired of it.

Mr O’Rourke flew down from Brisbane for the victory event, as did co-founder and owner Simon Beard, covered in his company’s brand name.

Mr Beard had largely stayed out of the picture so far, giving Mr O’Rourke the damage control role.

But when a member of the Victorian Socialists introduced the event and was summarising the background, Mr Beard was heard for the first time.

The speaker explained the intrusion of a private enterprise capitalising on the lane’s image while criminalising street artists and Mr Beard heckled over the use of the word “corporation” to describe Culture Kings.

“It’s not a corporation,” he yelled multiple times while Mr O’Rourke told him to stop.

He was objecting on a matter of semantics. Technically, Culture Kings is not a corporation, because it doesn’t have a board of directors. It’s a company.

But that wasn’t the point – and Mr Beard proved it, shaking off the costume of a businessman trying to do the right thing. 

What was revealed can be interpreted as arrogance and impatience for those who get in the way of profit, which is exactly what was implied by the use of the word "corporation".

Stephen Jolly, the Victorian Socialists’ candidate for the Northern Metropolitan Region, spoke afterwards. He has been a councillor in the Yarra Council for ­over a decade, much of which he’s spent on the picket line.

“Culture Kings have acknowledged they’ve made a mistake and it’s a big happy day, but the problem is: we’ve won this one, but there’s going to be more coming up,” he said.

“There’s a context to what’s happened here in Hosier Lane and that is we’re in the middle of a property boom, but we don’t own this gold mine.”

“It’s owned by the government and it’s owned especially by the developers, and when they look at Hosier Lane they see real estate. When they look at a sacred site, they see real estate.”

Mr Jolly listed a number of examples that had been threatened by developments, but saved and turned into Melbourne icons – the Abbotsford Convent, the Regent Theatre and Victoria Market.

They were saved by community pressure, picket lines, and construction unions voting up bans against dodgy or unwanted developments.

The proposed Apple store just across the road in Federation Square, where there was protest just 10 days after Hosier’s, was highlighted as another immediate example to fight against.

He tied in the public housing crisis in Melbourne and the lack of publicly owned areas with worker’s rights, the arts (raising a minimum wage for artists) and the need to rebuild alliances with the trade union movement. 

And the argument about jobs and growth, often used to justify handouts for private developments, falls flat when you think of the opportunities for workers in building infrastructure for social services, cultural spaces and public art.

Neon paint sprayed over a century-old cobblestone lane gives an appealing sense of disharmony. It’s almost a quarter way through the 21st Century, and confrontations between shady businessmen and combative socialists, elected representatives (suspiciously absent), may sound anachronistic. 

But history doesn’t move in a line. Nothing is safeguarded without people there guarding it, and no one is unmasked unless people are there to, at least, push them into a corner. Sometimes they do the rest for you.

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