Adelaide's Forgotten Outlaws

OCTOBER 20, 2011

Having made illegal street art for years without being caught I’d started to forget that it was a crime. So when I was finally arrested I began to think more seriously about its criminality. This interest grew into a ‘side project’ which quickly blew out into the largest street art campaign I’ve undertaken.

I started by searching through the police documents at the South Australian State Records. The photography of the early 1920s stood out immediately for its technical qualities so I narrowed my search to the record GRG5/58/unit103.

I began selecting criminal’s mug shots based mostly on the immediate impact of the image. Whether through their defiant pride, amused irreverence or shamed humiliation some faces drew me in and those where the ones I chose. I was also attracted by the more innocuous offences, especially those that have since been decriminalised. Judging by their expression, the dubious offence of ‘idle and disorderly’ seemed as laughable then as it does now. Likewise, the supposed ‘offence’ of ‘attempted suicide’ or ‘sodomy’ seemed to confuse the convicted as much as their criminal classification offends us today.

By evoking the power of nostalgia and the notion of historic value I knew I could use these images to confront the idea of the criminal as an outsider, especially in the context of street art as a criminal act.

I began pasting up the posters at night before I realised it would be much safer during the day dressed as a legitimate worker. This approach also seemed more fitting to the theme of questioning the criminality of street art. So when I donned the high vis vest and went about my business I didn’t feel like a criminal, I felt as thought I was performing a public good.

Each paste up stood 2.5 meters tall and included the criminal’s full name, conviction, sentence and date. Overall I pasted up 42 individual mug shots (21 sets of 2) to the cost of AU$1170 in printing alone. The project was entirely self funded.

Eventually I was contacted by the Adelaide City Council and I admitted the posters were mine. The council agreed to stop removing the posters if I would take steps to legitimise the whole project through their ‘pilot project’ scheme. So I filled in an application, promising to track down every property owner and request permission to do what I’d already done (still in progress). I was also told I would have to remove the criminals surnames so not to connect surviving relatives to their criminal past. I’ve since been contacted by several relatives who actually enjoyed connecting the dots and were very encouraging towards the project as a whole.

Despite these obstacles I was very pleased by Adelaide City Council’s allowing the images to stay on the street long enough to be seen by the public for whom they were intended. I hope their open mindedness can extend towards the work of other artists.

Image by Frazer Dempsey