Many will remember the four black words scrawled across what was the Latec House and has now become the Pinnacle Apartments in Newcastle West. The phrase "This is Not Art" was most likely written by a risk-taking abseiler in the '90s.
From these words, a festival name was created in 1998, one which has continued every year since, with the exception of this year. This is Not Art festival (TiNA) typically takes place the long weekend in early October. This October 2-4 Newcastle will, however, be hosting a COVID-safe street art celebration, The Big Picture Fest.
The Big Picture Fest is not the first street art festival to come to Newcastle, and 'This Is Not Art' was not the first graffiti to appear in the city.
To conflate street art with graffiti may not be accurate, but it is a conversation starter in this town.
"I would define street art as art that's large scale in the public sphere. I would personally describe it, as soon as I hear it, I think of it as being legal. It's good that people are being paid and/or getting access to space," says local culture writer James Turvey. "True graff culture is illegal."
Street art, graffiti, murals, stencils, graff artists, toy, tags, pasteups: the vernacular around the ephemeral public art form is intriguing and sometimes difficult to define. Several big name artists have either gotten their start here or left their mark in Newcastle.
Graffiti is often found near train stations and scrawled across abandoned buildings. It's known for having crews, cliques, territories and egos. Turvey is hesitant to even discuss it; he said his words have no gravitas.
"It's almost like you have to earn your merit badge. There's kinda rules. You can go over somebody's work, but only if you can do better. But you can't tag over it."
Turvey knows of 20 graffiti artists in Newcastle, although they aren't always painting.
"At the moment I have seven friends in my sphere that are quite active. They're constantly looking for spots," he says.
Turvey's 38 and moved to Newcastle when he was 10. Street art and graffiti culture was always in the peripheral because he's a skater.
"We do often inhabit the same spaces. The wall at Newcastle south skate park, that was a legal wall. I met some lovely guys who are graffiti artists. They were nothing to do with skate culture; but there's definitely a mutual respect," he says.
Street Art Walking founder Simone Sheridan, originally from Mudgee, first moved to Newcastle in 2004. She'll never forget the graffiti wall by the beach when she arrived.
"Mudgee didn't have a lot of graffiti. Murals weren't a thing like now with the silo movement," she says.
"I was really taken aback to see graffiti culture along the beach. I loved it as a uni student."
She remembers if people wanted to paint the wall by the beach legally they just needed to get a card from The Loft, a council-funded youth centre on Wolfe Street.
"One thing that I love about graffiti is it makes you look in spaces you didn't look before, usually those forgotten spaces. I feel like graff writers see the land differently," she says.
Sheridan is passionate about making legal spaces for graffiti style art. She's learnt plenty over her time working with muralists, street artists, stencilists, graffiti writers, skaters and hip hop artists (who are often heavily involved in street art culture.) She's had mixed experiences working with different crews, out-of-towners, councils and property owners.
TiNA launched decades of experimental art, and in 2010 Sheridan was its festival coordinator. She created an art walk, "walkARTbout" which inspired her now Sydney-based Street Art Walking business.
She remembers her first TiNA street art event as being very temporary; they even had a budget to paint over it in case the property owners didn't like it.
On her tours, Sheridan discusses how mural and street art techniques are often learnt through practice in public space. Artists need to experiment with different surfaces, locations and heights.
Creative Keo Match recently relocated from Melbourne to London. Before that he lived in Newcastle, where he legally painted many walls. Match has never called himself a graffiti writer.
"I'm not part of the illegal scene, and I totally respect the hard yards of people who have come before, people doing stuff outside the law," he says.
He talked about the definitions of muralism, street art and graffiti.
"Look up the definition of street art. The Google definition says it tends to be illegal work, so street art is based around this idea that the work is not really supposed to be there,' he says.
One of his most memorable works was with Sheridan in the back of the old David Jones building with Mike Watt, Sindy Sinn and Grizzle. Match loved painting with them and creating new friendships.
"Those characters became a little bit of a noted spot that ended up in a few car commercials later on," Match says of the artwork.
He's proud of the one he did in 2016 on the side of King Street Hotel, the girl with the helmet. In the same weekend he also did work at the Green Roof and The Cambridge. He used a jackhammer to carve a well-known controversial character, Johnny Bongo into a concrete wall at the Cambridge. (Bongo had just died.)
He cut his teeth on a building across from what was Dark Horse Espresso in Wickham, knowing he was going to waste paint to get the skills. Before that he painted and workshopped with Numskull.
When he moved to Melbourne he met the "old guards" from Newcastle who had started out five years before he was on the scene.
"Guys like Bryan Itch, Luke Presto; there's a string of others who come in and out of Newcastle," Match says.
Melbourne-based Adnate painted murals on buildings in Newcastle including a huge recent work next to the Newcastle Interchange.
Adnate and Brisbane-based Soffles were both big names at Hit The Bricks festival in 2013, a part of the overarching design festival, Look Hear.
"That was a two-year project that I did with Carl Morgan. The first year we just kind of cooked it up as an idea because we had a big wall that was down in Wickham that we'd gotten hold of. I was friends with the guy who owned the building," Hit the Bricks festival coordinator Sally Bourke says.
She and Morgan both worked in the arts; they used their contacts to connect with building owners and turn Hit The Bricks into a big event.
"The deal was, we can't afford to pay you; there's no capital in this. This is a basic straight out collaboration. We'll get the wall space, come up to Newcastle," Bourke says.
She reckons Adnate's work LOOKUP in Wickham was the most remembered, (though it's no longer accessible). Askew One did a brightly coloured piece on King Street opposite the Moorings Apartments which is still up.
Bourke believes successful collaborations are usually a giving experience in which no one gains. When things get too commercialised and bureaucratic, street art is harder to organise.
"People get covetous and think 'what can I get out of it'; that's not what street artists do," Bourke says.
She said artists like Fintan Magee and Andate came for just a bit of fun and that's exactly the point. She remembers Magee and Soffles painting a big elephant on the side of the building in Hamilton.
"Soffles was extraordinary to watch because all the young kids love him. It was like having a rock star here, they followed him around all weekend," she says. "I think that's the interesting thing about street art too, even from my perspective as a painter, someone doing something on a big format, letting you in. It's a real sharing thing. People pick up techniques. It's a community thing."
But sharing and community are not always words you'll hear when you discuss graffiti; it's often simply about getting your name out and being seen rather than technique or craft. Bourke agrees that muralists and graffiti artists are two different things, and plenty of street artists and muralists start out doing graffiti.
Bourke has observed street art's capacity to pull in everyone in a way that other art forms don't. Not everyone in Newcastle cares to visit galleries.
"When people of all walks of life walk past someone doing a mural they'll always stop and they'll have an opinion. They'll love it or hate it but they're noticing differences in the built environment," she says.
She's thrilled to see that Magee is a headliner in the upcoming Big Picture Fest. Sheridan is happy so many local artists are involved.
The Big Picture Fest is sponsored by City of Newcastle and Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation. It's curated by Adelaide-based street artist Joel Van Moore (Vans the Omega).
They have heaps of street art planned, including Vans the Omega collaborating with local graffiti icon Tuns.
Becky Kiil is the festival director and owns walking tour business Newcastle Afoot. She's lived in Adelaide and Melbourne and appreciated street art in both cities.
"People who love street art are not necessarily from a graffiti or art background," Kiil says. "When I moved to Newcastle, actually the very first time I came, I did the drive along Wharf Road. I saw so many large scale buildings with large canvases and I wanted to put large scale art on them."