The ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ posters first appeared on the streets early this year and quickly gathered momentum, spreading across capital cities all over Australia.
The message, encouraging Australians to welcome asylum seekers and embrace multiculturalism, is the work of Adelaide artist Peter Drew, who crowd funded his campaign to put up 1000 of these posters across the country.
A few weeks ago, Urban Canvas Collective caught up with Peter Drew, as he was wrapping up the campaign.
UCC: Where are you at right now, and how has it all been going?
PD: Right now I’m in Adelaide. Next week I’m heading to Canberra to finish off the project. At this stage to whole project still seems like a blur and I’m struggling to distill some sense out of what it’s all meant. That’s really the challenge for me at this stage. Completing the project won’t be a problem but capturing it’s meaning so that I can move forward is what’s on my mind right now.
UCC: What were your aims with this project, and did you ever expect such an overwhelming response?
PD: Nope – I wanted to change the way moderate voters think about asylum seekers by reframing the debate towards Australian identity. If you can make people consider how fear is corroding our values we have a chance to implement a more humane system. Failing that, this project can always make asylum seekers who are already living here feel more welcome and less alienated.
UCC: Generally the response has been positive – what kind of negative responses have you encountered?
PD: Some people don’t like posters…go figure. It’s those people that have put up the most resistance on the street. I just pull down the poster and put it up somewhere else near by. Online there have been some people who get hysterically xenophobic on this issue but they’re generally ignored or drowned out by the voices of reason who support the project. Often I come across someone who’s not sure about the message and just wants to talk it through. I always have time for those conversations.
UCC: You stated once (for another project) that “I’m not doing this out of compassion, I just love the irony”. What did you mean by that statement?
I don’t think appeals for compassion are very effective when it come to immigration because the problem is fear, not a lack of compassion. We need to appeal to Australian’s sense of courage. Without courage there is no foundation for compassion.
UCC: ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ is a very political campaign – what make it ‘art’?
PD: I don’t really think about that. It’s just communication.
UCC: You have been arrested in the past for your street art activities, and this experience was subsequently the idea behind you ‘Forgotten Outlaws’ project. Did being arrested make you think twice about what you were doing, question its validity, or make you think about stopping altogether?
PD: I’ve only been arrested once and it just felt like a mistake, on their part. I told the judge that it was an art project and they weren’t interested in prosecuting me. At the end of the day they’re just posters. I honestly try not to upset people for the wrong reasons by putting up my work where it really isn’t appropriate, because that would detract from its message and it’s purpose to improve public space. In that sense, I feel confident that what I do is a public good and, with calm rational explanation, you can make it impossible for the legal system to disregard that.
UCC: In an ideal world, how do you think street art should be treated in the eyes of the law?
PD: There will always be laws protecting property rights. We can only appeal to the digression of law enforcement, councils and property owners to see past those laws and acknowledge the benefit of what we do. It’s up to us to make that benefit more and more apparent. I’m talking specifically about illegally installed public art. That’s what really interests me. It’s the type of communication that exits between our rights to protect our property and our rights to express our thoughts publicly. It’s an interesting space, full of tension. Without that tension it become less interesting, less powerful.
UCC: In 2012 you were involved in a film project titled “Who owns the street”, where you surveyed responses to this question from a range of different people. In your own opinion – who do you think owns the streets?
PD: No one. It’s like the ocean. It owns us.
UCC: Another thing that seemed to come up numerous times in that film was the notion of tagging being different to street art. Do you have a personal opinion on this?
PD: Tagging is the foundation to graffiti and there’s no ‘street art’ without graffiti. Without the illegal element, street art is boring. I like tags, not all tags, but generally I like them. Areas without any tags just seem lifeless.
UCC: The ‘Real Australians say welcome’ project seems to be keeping you quite busy at the moment, how much longer until its completed? What’s next on the horizon for you?
PD: I’m starting work on the next big project for late 2015 early 2016. It’ll be a combination of the current project and Adelaide’s Forgotten Outlaws. The way I develop a project is to come up with an idea that I really like then I get to work before I’m sure whether it’s possible.
UCC: Thanks so much for your time!
If you are keen for more information regarding the ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ campaign, you can visit the Pozible site here.