Street art doesn’t have to D-V-Ate from conservation

Street art doesn’t have to D-V-Ate from conservation

When Jimmy Beattie first started dabbling in graffiti art around 1996, there was no such thing as a professional mural artist. ‘It wasn’t even on the radar,’ he says. Yet, these days, business is booming for this self-employed Melbourne artist who works under the name of D-V-Ate. His work has taken him around the world, from street art festivals in Copenhagen to mural work in the US, producing artwork for major global brands, but his heart lies closer to home. These days, Jimmy works almost solely on conservation-focused commissions, mostly of local Victorian species.

As a kid, Jimmy spent time outdoors, going camping, and nature was always in his periphery. ‘I wanted to be a vet,’ he says, ‘until I realised that entailed sticking your hand up cows’ bums.’ It was six or seven years ago that he shifted his work to take on conservation-focused commissions. This has since become his specialty and primary artistic passion.

Birds are some of his favourite subjects to paint. ‘We have such an amazing variety of birds in Australia, in such an array of colours, and a lot of them are endemic to certain areas – even though they fly. I always find that funny. Birds are suited really well to murals because they have wings, so they can take on a lot of different shapes and compositions.’ He admits he’s also a bit of a perfectionist about it. ‘I try to make sure what I paint is correct, so if you’re a bird nerd, you won’t come and pick my mural apart.’

Silo art in the Victorian town of Rochester, featuring beloved locals the Azure Kingfisher and the Sugar Glider.
Silo art in the Victorian town of Rochester, featuring beloved locals the Azure Kingfisher and the Sugar Glider. Image: provided.

Growing up skateboarding, trying out graffiti was a natural progression for Jimmy. ‘I’ve always been creative and wanted to do something a bit different,’ he says, but he never imagined that a bit of experimental tagging could develop into prize-winning art.

Some airbrushing courses in high school taught him about realism and expanded his skill set. He gradually developed his street art as a hobby, until it developed into a few paid commissions. ‘For the first few years I just took on every single job – painting kids’ bedrooms, shop signage, festivals. I had to learn to paint all sorts of different stuff. It made me very versatile as an artist.’

In Melbourne, over the time Jimmy has been practising his art, there’s been a gradual shift in the way the public – and particularly councils – views street art. ‘Since the mid-2000s on, it started to become more mainstream, but you had to make your own opportunities. We were seeing what was going on around the world with big murals and things, but it wasn’t happening here. It took some artists to get those opportunities going in the first place, to open it up to councils seeing it as possible.’ Having been at the frontier of this evolution of public art, Jimmy says it’s been a huge learning curve for him and others. ‘You learn from your mistakes, talk to other artists, work it out as you go.’

Working on a silo mural. The curvature of the silo combined with the isolation and extreme weather make these murals especially challenging projects.
Working on a silo mural. The curvature of the silo combined with the isolation and extreme weather make these murals especially challenging projects. Image: provided.

Over time, the public and the media opened up to the possibility of ‘graffiti’ and ‘art’ coexisting in the same sentence, although Jimmy admits there are still camps of people who will never see ‘street art’ as ‘art’. On tagging, he says, ‘I really get why people hate it.’ But he doesn’t see a solid distinction between that and the kind of work he does now. ‘To me they are inseparable. Every famous street artist you talk to with a graffiti background would have started with tagging – it’s all part of the parcel.’

Defacement of murals by people tagging over them can be a problem, but to Jimmy, this too is part of the deal. ‘If it’s art in a public space, then the public has the opportunity to interact with it. There’s no 100% way of protecting art other than locking it away in a gallery.’ A graffiti-proof coating helps, but cleaning off the unwanted paint doesn’t fully address the issue. ‘If you take a Melbourne laneway and paint a big lot of flowers over it, that’s nice, but sometimes for the local people it’s also a wall they’ve been painting their graffiti on for twenty years and now you’ve covered it in flowers.’ This is where his graffiti background comes in handy. ‘If a council asks me to do something like that, I might say, well, why don’t I incorporate some graffiti elements in there too – that creates a bit of a compromise.’

A mural featuring the critically endangered Helmeted Honeyeater, along with some more traditional graffiti elements.
A mural featuring the critically endangered Helmeted Honeyeater, incorporating some more traditional graffiti elements. Image: provided.

If he does see kids out with paint cans while he’s working, Jimmy tries to engage and talk to them. ‘The more respected you are in the scene, the less likely kids are to mess with your work.’ Sometimes, it can act as inspiration to would-be vandals, he says. ‘Like, look what you could be doing instead.’

It’s this element of public interaction that also makes the murals such great tools for conservation purposes. Even the process of creating the mural involves interacting with the public. ‘Kids walk past and say, Mum, Dad, what’s that bird? And it starts a conversation.’

The worlds of graffiti art and conservation are not as distant from each other as one might imagine, either. ‘There definitely is a crossover,’ Jimmy says. ‘Some people I know through nature stuff, and I had no idea they had graffiti backgrounds, and vice versa. It’s what I like about both cultures, they’re so open to everyone – not restricted to just people with money or in certain areas.’ This is what he likes most about the work he does: ‘The thing about conservation is that everyone who is into it is a pretty awesome person. You don’t meet too many nasty people.’

A mural in Alice Springs featuring the Yeperenye Caterpillar - an important cultural icon for the Arrernte people.
A mural in Alice Springs featuring the Yeperenye Caterpillar – an important cultural icon for the Arrernte people. Image: provided.

Jimmy is now happy to be able to keep the nature murals for himself and pass on any corporate gigs to other contacts. ‘I’ve got mates who do corporate style stuff, and it pays really well, but they kind of hate it at the same time,’ he says. ‘The conservation work doesn’t pay as well, but it’s way more rewarding. It’s definitely worth it.’

Beyond the artistic enjoyment of painting local animals and plants, Jimmy takes on these jobs with the hope that seeing these creatures brought to life in their neighbourhoods can educate people and encourage them to take action to protect them. ‘I hope it can make a difference, I really hope so. It’s why I do what I do, trying to raise awareness about these species and these habitats and make people aware of how amazing the place they live in is.’

Calling attention to the endangered Hooded Plovers on the Mornington Peninsula.
Calling attention to the endangered Hooded Plovers on the Mornington Peninsula. Image: provided.

To Jimmy, as a new parent, conservation has taken on a heightened real-world importance. Having a child of his own has made him acutely aware of the rate of extinction we’ve been seeing in recent years. ‘It’s awesome that we’ve got what we’ve got, but we also want to preserve it for future generations,’ he says. ‘I’ve got a kid, almost a year old, and I want her to be able to go out and see a koala.’

Jimmy will be painting two huge 11 x 3.5 metre murals in Point Cook featuring local grassland, saltmarsh and Port Phillip Bay species as part of Remember The Wild’s Day by the Bay program for 2020. This work is generously funded by the City of Wyndham.


Banner image provided by Jimmy Beattie (D-V-Ate).

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