“There were always stories of running from police, getting chased by vigilantes, stealing spray paint or selling weed to fund yourself.”
On Enmore Road in Sydney’s inner west, a huge mural is splayed across the façade of the Urban Hotel. It’s called “The Housing Bubble” and it depicts a man on all fours, struggling under the weight of a woman who sits on his back. Above these two figures is a classic Newtown terrace house that’s floating away on a bunch of balloons. The symbolism is fairly straightforward: It’s a direct comment on Sydney’s housing crisis, the rapid gentrification of Newtown and the working class people who’ve been priced out of their neighbourhood.
It’s the work of Fintan Magee, a 32-year-old street artist from Brisbane who’s painted plenty of large-scale murals, not just in Sydney but all around the world. His work usually seeks to engage and challenge the local communities he visits and this one is no exception. It’s a public artwork that’s relatable to pretty much anyone who lives in Sydney, but especially the young renters who’ll never be able to afford a house in Enmore or Newtown. And the placement of the piece is particularly ironic: it’s on the frontage of a modern hotel.
“We had a little bit of trouble getting that design over the line with them,” Fintan laughs. The piece was part of a 2015 program by Marrickville Council called ‘Perfect Match’, which linked street artists with local businesses who could provide spaces for their murals. “I didn’t necessarily explain what it was about to them,” he says, “that was a little bit of a Trojan Horse.” Fintan still isn’t sure whether they saw the irony but he admits, “Street art, in its own way, contributes to gentrification.” For him, the bottom line is that everyone needs affordable housing and governments need to do a better job of providing it for the poor.
Magee’s work almost always makes comment on the pressing social, political and environmental issues of the times. His recurring themes include climate change, the migrant crisis and the plight of working-class people. Speaking to Fintan, it’s clear that he’s well read and stays informed of the news, but his understanding of these issues isn’t purely academic, it’s informed by his personal experiences.
“I’m first generation Australian. My father came from Northern Ireland which was obviously a conflict zone when he was growing up,” says Fintan. “[My father] was able to get to Australia pretty easily, but conflict and the need to escape conflict is part of my family story as well.” This partly explains his fascination with painting images of displaced peoples—such as Syrian children—as well as the boats and bodies of water that often feature in his work. Displacement is also closely interlinked with climate change, a subject which suddenly became visceral for Fintan in 2011 when his family home went under water in the Brisbane floods. And since climate change is such a global issue, it’s a theme he revisits often.
Street art has taken Magee through the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and more recently, French Polynesia. By researching the local issues and working them into his murals, he’s able to make his art relevant across the world. “I also want to challenge communities a little bit,” he explains. “Or make something that doesn’t necessarily make them comfortable or that stimulates them in a way that they’re not used to.”
Fintan’s art is usually designed to start important conversations about global issues, but it’s not immune from misinterpretation. Like the time in Moscow that an ex-military guy called the local equivalent of Today Tonight because his mural wasn’t Russian enough. “I had a guy flip out and start throwing paint everywhere,” Fintan explains. “He was saying I was an American pig and the mural should have been about Russia and it should have Russian colours and Russian themes.” Eventually, a TV news crew came down looking for an interview but Fintan just stayed up on the scissor lift and let the owner of the building deal with it. “In the end, we had permission to be there so there wasn’t anything he could do,” he says.
Like many successful street artists, Fintan started out as a graffiti writer, so being attacked for painting a wall wasn’t a foreign concept. “There were always stories of running from police, getting chased by vigilantes, stealing spray paint or selling weed to fund yourself,” he remembers. “It was all real petty crime stuff, but there was always that adventure, which I always found to be fun.” But when he got arrested for graffiti in 2006, he took it as a sign to slow down a bit.
After his arrest, Fintan went backpacking through Europe but again ended up spending a lot of his time bombing trains and walls. At 23, he returned to Queensland, enrolled to study fine art at Griffith University and began painting portraits on canvases. At first, he kept his graffiti and fine art separate, but eventually it just made sense to merge them. “It was just a matter of taking what I was developing in the studio outside,” he explains. By 2009, when Magee graduated, street art was more accepted by galleries and gaining traction with councils and businesses. This made it possible to make a living travelling the world painting walls.
I ask Fintan about the appeal of street art and how the movement is faring. “For me, the whole point of street art was really about breaking down or subverting the power that the galleries had and creating work that was more accessible to a day to day audience,” he explains. And there’s no doubt that Fintan’s large-scale, highly technical portraits are in high demand right now. The huge scale and public setting means that it’s the kind of art that people can appreciate regardless of how they feel in a gallery.
But while street art is having a good run, Fintan isn’t expecting the popularity to last forever. “I feel like every art movement has a shelf life. Often, something will have a big boom in popularity and then get crushed under the weight of its own success. Street art definitely isn’t immune to that,” he says. “The serious artists who are involved are going to work really hard to keep it relevant and work out where we can take it next and how we can keep it new and fresh. That’s going to be the challenge for us in the next five to 10 years.”
Talking to him though, you get the vibe that whatever happens to street art, he’ll be able to adjust. His canvas paintings seem to be selling and he’s mentioned pursuing sculpture a few times. In 2018, he’s got a solo show at Thinkspace Gallery in LA, as well as plans to visit Iran, Mexico and Haiti for public art projects. It’s clear that he’s got a tenacious work ethic, partly because he doesn’t want to find out about the nine-to-five first hand. “I get anxious if I’m not being productive because I do fear having to go get a regular job,” he says. “We never had much money as kids so I guess fear of poverty is a big motivator for me, man.”