Posted by Yvonne on 30.03.2012

Back in December, the ID/Lab crew went on a interesting tour of historic signage in the Melbourne CBD with Meyer from Melbourne Walks.

On a delightful tour through the city, we were shown a wide range of heritage letterforms, typography, murals, stencils and lightboxes. After the turn of the century, when stencil art first became prominent in the UK, Melbourne embraced street art, which caused a vast increase in public awareness of how our laneways are decorated. The resulting explosion of street art has been encouraging and is evident for all to see.

Can you decipher it?

Walking through the city and its laneways, it quickly became apparent how much of the city’s history is reflected in the signs people choose to adorn their buildings.

In the early days, Melbourne’s lanes were used for deliveries, as workshops and extensions of warehouses and factories, for night-soil collection and as tips for rubbish. They were poorly lit, and frequently used as makeshift public toilets, with urine being the ubiquitous 19th-century city smell, particularly in the theatre and entertainment precincts. During the 20th century, Melbourne’s lanes and alleys were recognised for their heritage character and as providing an important inner network of public space. These days the laneways add that special European feel to the city, and the smell of urine has luckily evaporated. Some lanes have been renamed, like Corporation Lane off Flinders Lane. It was renamed AC/DC Lane to commemorate the rock band whose 1975 It’s a Long Way to the Top film clip featured the band performing on the back of a truck travelling down Swanston Street. These days many of the laneways are used for the expression of art.

Heffernan Lane for instance is the site of artist Evangelos Sakaris. Sakaris’s work involved the instalment along the lane of contemporary street signs bearing excerpts of ancient Greek and Chinese texts, to highlight the connections between these cultures.

The rise and fall of Melbourne during the gold-rush, the various waves of migration, the emergence of street art, and the development of the iconic lane ways were all apparent in one of the most common and underrated forms of Melbourne’s cultural expression. During our walk we learned a good deal about the history of our great city. For anyone with a passing interest in the history of Melbourne, studying the way the cities lanes, street art and signage interact is well worth your time.