Killing the culture that laid the golden egg

By Meg Hill

In a fairly foreseeable series of events, the move of monolithic clothing chain Culture Kings into Melbourne’s iconic Hosier Lane has proved antithetical to the preservation of culture.

There’s no lack of irony in this story. A corporate enterprise decides to trade on the currency of culture, even claiming to be the kings of such phenomena.

It moves one of its outlets into Melbourne’s most iconic laneways, co-opting the street-art it’s famous for to further its brand.

Before long, they call the police on street artists doing exactly what has created the Hosier Lane we know.

Strictly legally speaking, Culture Kings seems to be within its rights to do so. While there has been some ambiguity in the legal situation of Hosier Lane, a spokesperson from the City of Melbourne said: “While Hosier Lane is recognised as a long-standing street art site, written permission is required from the building owner.”

It seems, however, that until now, both owners and artists were happy to ignore such formalities in Hosier Lane as the street art’s large draw on tourists was mutually beneficial.

In fact, part of the appeal is the possibility of actually witnessing an artist in action and the creation of the lane’s newest piece.

It’s most likely that, in the future, artists reported by Culture Kings will be charged. This sets a dangerous precedent and will likely have a flow-on effect for laneway culture in Melbourne in general.

City of Melbourne councillor and chair of its arts, culture and heritage portfolio, Rohan Leppert, told CBD News that Culture Kings was “playing with fire”.

“The central city is a dense amalgam of private and public spaces, and there is an expectation that government, land owners and artists work together as custodians of the public realm,” he said.

“I’d suggest that no-one has a social licence to unilaterally determine the look and feel of a street-art precinct as iconic and democratic as Hosier Lane.”

The agency that negotiated the lease for Culture Kings’ Russell St tenancy (that backs onto Hosier Lane – where the clothing chain has created a back entrance) last year said that street art “was a key influencer in Culture Kings’ decision to relocate and would likely fuel further activation of the laneway”.

“The urban aesthetics of Hosier Lane are in line with the Culture Kings’ brand, creating a real synergy between the two destinations,” the agent said.

“We expect the move to inspire other big-name brands outside of the luxury retail market to seek out retail space in the precinct.”

The corporate speak – urban aesthetics, brand, synergy, activation – is just a bit too much when paired with Culture Kings’ infamously try-hard image encroaching the graffiti covered Hosier Lane.

The talk of encouraging further activation is particularly unnerving given recent developments. Previously, Hosier Lane has been fairly empty of private enterprise. The main tenant has been the Youth Project – which provides crucial services for the disadvantaged.

Culture Kings’ vision for the lane seems to be its “activation” by a number of private enterprises who dictate the direction of street art in the laneway – turning the walls into billboards.

That’s not too surprising, given the fact that it is a business. But that’s the point – corporations and artists don’t enter into these spaces on equal terrain.

Hosier Lane seemed to be one of the last bulwarks for artistic freedom – even if it was kept so informally.

Community group, Hosier Inc, said: "It is not only the street artists that have found it a challenge. As an association representing artists, residents, businesses and visitors to Hosier Lane, Hosier Inc welcomes and supports initiatives which upgrade the general amenity of Melbourne's laneways."

"Unfortunately, Culture Kings management do not see the need to integrate into the neighbourhood and have missed an opportunity to add to the area’s safely and amenity -they seek only to leverage what they can for commercial gain and to impose their brand on us all . Sadly our newest neighbour brings nothing that will enhance the area as safe and inclusive."

"It is a disappointing, but not unexpected outcome."

CBD News contacted Culture Kings for comment but didn’t receive a response by the time of publication.

Also see our Street Art column on page 18.

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