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Dare to dream: the guerrilla mural preserved for eternity

by Alec Smart


Newtown mural

The Heritage-listed mural on the side of 305 King St Newtown. Photo: Alec Smart


Most people familiar with the iconic I Have A Dream mural, a massive artwork on an exterior wall in King Street, Newtown, visible to south-bound traffic and pedestrians, are unaware it was NSW Heritage-listed.

Marrickville Council (since amalgamated with Leichardt and Ashfield), whose jurisdiction covered the west side of King St, made the decision to preserve it on 2 December 2014 with a unanimous vote at their Tuesday night council meeting.


Earlier, in March 2014, an independent Heritage Report commissioned by council declared: “The mural is of local historical, aesthetic and social heritage significance… It notes that the community maintains a sense of ownership of the mural, and anonymously repairs any damage to the mural that occurs.”

After the preservation announcement, Marrickville Mayor Mark Gardiner said, "Without heritage listing the mural is vulnerable to removal.”

 

Had the mural been on the eastern side of King St, which is under the jurisdiction of City of Sydney Council, the artwork would never have been preserved, because that authority had a different policy regarding preservation of graffiti art.

Because, unbeknownst to many, the enormous mural, which takes up the entire 3-storey side wall of 305 King St Newtown, was illegally painted during the hours of darkness in August 1991.


Newtown mural painters Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken
Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken in 1995


The guerrilla painters were Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken, part of a clandestine collective of mural painters that operated under the name Unmitigated Audacity Productions (UAP).

From 1991-1995, the UAP guerrilla artists group, which also included Tony Spanos and Matthew Peet, painted a number of murals around the Newtown neighbourhood, only one or two of which are still in situ.

 

Juilee told Neighbourhood Media, “The time I spent painting walls without permission was very specific to the Newtown area. There was an arc that covered ground between my home and where Andrew (my painting partner at that time) lived. We both needed to be able to work in an area that we could both walk to so it was a small but quite densely covered area for that time that we were doing it.”

 

Did they have to resort to covert methods to paint their murals or were the majority of them commissioned by house owners?

“A bit of both,” she revealed. “Andrew was a signwriter so he had no issues with upscaling things from a sign to a mural. But the last remaining big mural from that time was the I Have A Dream mural and that was completely covert. We had twice been refused permission to paint that wall so in the end we just did it anyway. It took a bit of planning that’s for sure!”

 

Newtown I Have A Dream mural

Fisheye view. Photo: Martin Lomo


They had twice asked Marrickville Council for permission to decorate the large wall on King St, but had been denied, because the prime site was utilised for advertising billboards.

Nevertheless, after sunset on Friday 2 August 1991, the daring duo began their clandestine composition around 7pm, working through the night. The plucky pair returned the following evening to complete the piece, which reportedly used $1000 worth of paint and took 27 hours.


Police were initially notified by a concerned by-passer, but Juilee, then 35 and a mother of three, feigned innocence after a Newtown Police sergeant questioned her about reports of graffiti artists operating in the area.

“Sergeant, we’re not lurking,” she responded, “we’re creating an artwork. And do I look like a graffiti artist to you?” The cheeky painters had even printed a fake letter of permission using a Marrickville Council letterhead.

 

Initially, the audacious artwork was height-restricted, because the duo only brought ladders. However, the following night collaborator Tony Spanos, described as an ‘eccentric millionaire’ who drove around in a gold Rolls Royce and whose family owned a meat export company, hired a mobile ‘cherry picker’ gantry to enable the two painters to reach the upper reaches.


Juilee Pryor Newtown mural

Juilee Pryor poses for a photo in front of her freshly-painted mural in Aug 1991

 

The mural consists of an Aboriginal flag along the bottom with a profile of planet Earth to the upper left, which copies a photo taken from the Apollo 8 space mission in Dec 1968, the first human-crewed space flight to circumnavigate the Moon (10 times).

Upper right is the familiar face of American Civil Rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, and across the centre are King’s prophetic words from his 28 Aug 1963 “I have a dreamspeech, and written in an historic Blackletter font.

A Biblical quotation from Genesis 37:19 appears on the far left: "Behold the dreamer cometh; Come now therefore and let us slay him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams".

 

On its completion they declared it a "humanist protest against the sterility of postmodern art!”

In the original version of the mural, there was no Aboriginal flag – that was added later. Instead, there was a collection of people beneath Dr King.


I Have a Dream mural Newtown

The first version of the mural featured a collection of people along the bottom. Photo: Juilee Pryor


The mural overlooks a small public courtyard owned by telecommunications company Telstra that extends for 50 metres. This is because the retail shops 295, 297, 299, 301 and 303 King St no longer exist, so there is a gap between 305 (the mural wall) and the next shop to the north, 293 King St.

Here a small pop-up market of traders frequently sell used books and clothes.

In 1995 Telstra proposed to develop this plaza, which would have seen eradication of the mural, but a public outcry thwarted their plans.


Even the owner of 305 King St, which consists of a retail store and apartments above, supported the preservation of the artwork on the outside wall, despite the fact he’s long had to forego the income from the advertising hoarding.

In a Sydney Morning Herald article dated 25 August 2011, the then 83-year-old Joseph Dekanic, said “I think the mural benefits the building and the area. On a philosophical level it means something to me. It’s about justice and progress and the betterment of people.”

 

Coldplay, the British rock quartet that are among the best-selling, highest-awarded bands in history, chose to film their June 2014 music video A Sky Full of Stars” guerrilla-style on King St, starting beneath the I Have A Dream mural. Carrying their instruments like busking troubadours, they led a crowd south down to the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre for a confetti-strewn singalong.


Screenshot of Coldplay performing in front of the mural for their A Sky Full Of Stars music video.

 

Prior to her involvement with UAP, Juilee, an arts graduate from Adelaide, co-founded The Art Unit in an abandoned building at 84 Henderson Rd Alexandria (now a motor mechanic) in 1982, which ran until 1985.

 

“Art Unit was planned in Adelaide as a project by my then boyfriend, later husband, Robert McDonald,” Juilee revealed. “We were both at Art School in Adelaide at the same time in 1980. When he finished his degree he moved back to Sydney and then I relocated to Sydney later to be with him to undertake what in hindsight I’ll call a really, really big adventure called Art Unit.

“We got one vacant factory at the beginning and then within a year took on the adjoining factory when that became vacant. This allowed us to really expand our repertoire from visual arts and so on to theatre as well as live music. It was a wild time and Art Unit was phenomenally successful and really a perfect fit for the times. In the parlance of the times … it really went right off!”

 

Within this former factory the collection of resident artists created sculptures, paintings and photos, printed posters, held exhibitions, and hosted live music nights, all featuring fascinating characters from Sydney’s talented underground art scene.

This reporter remembers visiting the premises in late 1983 to help print triangular-shaped posters for a second touring exhibition featuring album artwork of anarchist punk bands. Called Crass Art, and overseen by the nearby Black Rose Anarchist Bookshop, the framed collection of album covers and posters was exhibited in several major galleries nationwide, including the National Gallery of Victoria.

 

“Art Unit was a very personal project and when it finished it was over,” Juilee summarised. “There was no cloning the energy needed to make it work and it remains now as a memory of an extraordinary time in the service of meaning.”

 

A young Juilee with her camera beside her pink fire truck 'Lady Penelope', c1991


When was the last time she painted a wall mural?

“I haven’t painted a big mural since those long-passed days. I had so many other interests, plus a young family that needed my time. I was always a painter but was fascinated by photography for years and that took up a lot of my creative mind.”

 

What has she involved herself with creatively in recent years?

“I’ve become totally involved in creating a series of sculptures and am really enjoying where that is taking me.”

 

What medium does she prefer working in?

“The medium I use to make work depends entirely on what I’m thinking about and what I need to do to bring form to my thoughts,” she considered. “So it really just depends. But I love all the skills I’ve acquired and honed over the years.”


What are some of the artworks she’s most proud of creating?

“I’m proud of many of the things I’ve done but the I Have A Dream mural is certainly up there at the top of the list. Art Unit was also a brilliant thing to have done and been part of. Meanwhile, whenever I try something new and need to struggle my way to competence at whatever it is I’m doing, I feel a certain satisfaction with what I’m doing.”

 

 The iconic mural, familiar to all who drive down King St, Newtown. Photo: Alec Smart


What became of Juilee’s accomplice, Andrew Aiken, her primary collaborator and the instigator and leader of guerrilla graffiti artists UAP? In 1997 he surrendered to British Police and served an eight-year prison sentence in England for a murder of a busker he committed prior to emigrating to Australia in 1990.

Upon his release in 2005, he returned to his native Canada and joined a devout Christian sect in British Columbia.

 

Juilee Pryor website https://www.juileepryor.com/

Juilee Pryor Street Art Photograph Collection, City of Sydney Archives: https://archives.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/nodes/view/1894988

 

A selection of some of the wall murals Juilee Pryor was involved in painting in Newtown in the 1990s


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