Disappearance of an artist

By Rhonda Dredge

The corner of Bourke and Swanston is a popular place for street artists. 

The city of Melbourne prides itself on its busking profile and the mall is the place to be.

Recently a poet set up a stand at the corner offering to write a poem on any topic. By law, she was required to have a busking permit.

A tourist soon stopped at the poet’s stand and put her artistic talent to the test.

Everyone looked on as the tourist assessed the poet’s composition then, a job well done, the poet left her crease to encourage a pavement artist who hadn’t been doing as well.

The two of them posed for a moment in front of the mall, he feeling despondent and not budging from his seat, she standing behind him, feeling the movement of the people and the glow of the buildings.

They could have been statues demonstrating that fact that there are two views of everything, depending on where you are standing at any particular time.

The next poem to come off the city’s production line was an obvious one. It was an ode to the camaraderie of the people forced to make their livings on the street.

Life can be tough for street artists. Tourists are usually receptive but there is fierce competition for lucrative spots. The City of Melbourne does a weekly ballot for places in the mall to provide some equity and requires that performers do auditions before granting permits. Not everyone is up to dealing with the authorities.

On February 1, the authorities turned against one particular performer. Kylie, an indigenous chalk artist who had been doing well, was surrounded by seven police officers just before 4 pm.

Some say that the rivalry inherent in the cultural economy of the streets was her undoing. The police put her in handcuffs while they searched her backpack then she was bundled into a divvy van.

Bronwyn Walker watched the incident unfold. She believes that Kylie was dobbed in by a street trader for not having a busking permit.

“She’s been here since I’ve been on the street,” Ms Walker said. “She teaches people how to live on the street. She was minding her own business.”

It wasn’t a pretty sight to observe a descendent of the original landowners of this country being surrounded by a mob of policemen dressed to the nines with weapons and devices.

The sergeant in charge of the operation defended the police action. He said they were speaking to her about another matter and that they hadn’t charged her. “It’s not serious,” he said reassuringly.

Some of those who watched the incident felt for the police. “They have a difficult job,” said one observer, who did not want to give his name to CBD News. He said that synthetic drugs are readily available nearby.

Ms Walker was more empathetic. “They should have let her go,” she said. “She doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s not a good sign.”

Police have been out in force along Bourke St since the tragedy at the mall. Two days earlier a silver Mercedes was surrounded by four police cars and the driver handcuffed while the car was searched.

The high visibility of the police in the city offers some comfort to residents and the handcuffing of suspects sends out a tough message but are street artists really that dangerous?

Soon after Kylie was removed, pedestrians were stepping on her artwork.

Five days later, the faded pattern of hands and snakes on the footpath attested to her former presence but she hadn’t been in the vicinity since her disappearance.

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