“Man, that definitely needs a touch-up,” local artist Driller Jet Armstrong says, looking at the three-storey mural painted on the side of a heritage building at the corner of Frome and Rundle streets.
“That sky was a really dark, beautiful purple, but now it’s a dirty grey, and you can see all the underpainting as well.
“There’s no time like the present to get it redone.”
Like the mural, Armstrong has had a colourful association with the city’s eastern corner.
The DJ, record label owner and self-described “inventor of daubism” – a controversial art movement whereby artists paint over others’ work – was a city council candidate at last year’s local government elections and also owns Sugar nightclub on Rundle Street.
He is lesser-known for his role transforming the old When I’m Sixty-Four mural – originally painted by local artists Barbary O’Brien and Carol Ruff to celebrate the Come Out Festival 1984 – into a daubist rework featuring kissing aliens, a train circling Saturn, tagged canvas schoolbags and a one-eyed owl, among other curiosities.
“Rundle Street was in its heyday when we did this,” he says of the now-faded painting.
“It was a lot rawer, there was a lot more artists, there was a few junkies.
“It’s a ghost town now.”
In Armstrong’s eyes, Rundle Street’s 21st-century gentrification robbed it of its former grunginess.
High-end boutiques, restaurants, bars and clubs now stand where the old East End market burst with fresh produce each morning, while sundown brought late night revellers to long-gone bars such as Tapas and Q.
But despite the changes along the popular city strip, Alien From E-Street Saturn has survived – a big, bold and now washed-out reminder of 1998 Rundle Street.
“It’s street art and street art really shouldn’t be there forever as the same thing – it should change a lot,” Armstrong says.
“It’s tired. It needs something. It needs to be worked on quite a bit because it’s looking quite unloved.”
Alien From E-Street Saturn came at what Armstrong describes as a “creepy” time in Adelaide’s history.
He says that the city, rocked by a series of murders, was increasingly wary and on edge, and the original painting of an ice-cream licking elderly man looking at a young girl on a pushbike developed an unintended, unwanted image.
“Paedophilia was never talked about – there wasn’t even a word for it – and then all of a sudden in the 90s there was a word for it and it became a thing,” Armstrong says.
“It (the original painting) was about celebrating play and that innocent depiction around that theme got terribly twisted over time, to the point where it became quite sinister.
“It blew up and that was when insignificant little murals in Adelaide can be unfairly tarnished with a meaning that wasn’t there.”
Armstrong’s daubism presented a convenient solution for the Rundle Street traders who wanted to retain the spirit of the original painting while dodging its new and uncomfortable connotation.
Armed with a $10,000 grant and the go-ahead from the Adelaide City Council, Armstrong enlisted local artists David Bromley, Chris Gaston, Brettski, Andrew Parish, Andrew Petusevics and Barbary O’Brien, who worked on a modern design that blended their styles.
“Not only did it become the world’s first daubist mural, which is obviously painting when you leave some of the old painting underneath and add to it, but it was the only form of art that would deliver what the street traders wanted, which was to change the mural but not lose it entirely.
“Brettski painted the owl on the post, David Bromley painted the seascape where the girl on the bike used to be and that guy going off in the distance on the pushbike.
“I painted the aliens in the spacecraft, Chis Gaston painted the train going around the rings of Saturn, Andrew Petrusevics painted the helicopter man…
“Can you see the three television towers made of metal on that ledge on the left above the old man’s head? They are the TV towers up in the hills on Mount Lofty. They were made by Andrew Parish.”
For Armstrong, Alien From E-Street Saturn marked a turning point in how society perceived daubism – an art form started in 1991 when the experimental artist controversially painted a crop circle over a painting left at Ayers House by former Premier John Bannon’s late father, Charles.
“He (Charles Bannon) heard about it and shit hit the fan and I got taken to the Federal Court of Australia,” Armstrong laughs.
“He was sick and I was copping a lot of grief from people – friends of his in the pub yelling at me.”
But the legal battle, which was settled outside court, didn’t stop Armstrong from pursuing daubism.
He has since prompted further controversy by painting Indigenous symbols over Australian landscapes, most recently in 2017 when he had an exhibition closed after being accused of appropriating a sacred figure to Aboriginal people from the Kimberly region.
“I was vilified and marginalised for doing it at the time – painting over other people’s paintings – because it was considered immoral to do that,” he says.
“Everybody was wrong, they were all wrong.
“There is plenty of historical determinants for my kind of work, most people don’t know what they are so that’s why they just jump to the conclusion that this is vandalism with no legitimate art history to back it up.”
Alien From E-Street Saturn also met controversy – albeit without a costly court case.
While painting the mural, an entrepreneurial and cash-strapped Armstrong saw an opportunity to earn some extra dollars with the opening of Rundle Street’s iMax Cinema.
“I went to the cinema and said, ‘I’ve got this three-storey scaffolding, would you like to put up some shade cloth with some advertising on it and for that privilege it will be there for three weeks and will cost you another $10,000’,” he recounts.
“They agreed to that, so they put up that huge three-storey-high ‘iMax is coming’ advertising on the shade cloth.
“Adelaide City Council came to me and said, ‘what’s that?’ I said, ‘what do you mean?’ and they said, ‘we never said you could advertise on it.’
“I said, ‘well you didn’t say I couldn’t advertise on it and not only that but if we’re going to be painting on there you’re going to need some protection, so if you don’t want that there it’s going to cost you another $6000 to get a whole new one made without any advertising on it’.
“They went, ‘oh yeah, we won’t worry about it then’.”
Armstrong is coy about the meaning behind Alien from E-Street Saturn, which is named after the spelling of Frome Street.
It is speculated that the mural builds on O’Brien and Ruff’s previous theme of adolescence and growing older in a world full of possibilities.
“I’m not going to say if that’s right or wrong,” Armstrong says.
“I think there’s a lot going on, so I think people can make up their own minds, their own stories.
“The artist can never be there to tell people what to think when they look at an artwork, so I like the fact that artists probably should just say nothing and let people decide for themselves.”
As for his call to rework the mural for a second time, Armstrong is adamant about playing a leading role.
“I’d like to do something similar but with a whole batch of modern artists – new kids,” he says.
“You’d basically have three lots of paintings together on the one wall, all dating back to 1984.
“It would give some vitality back to the place – give people a new sense of urgency or just a different perspective on life, which is exactly what Rundle Street needs.”
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