The once heavily industrialised city of Newcastle in New South Wales has undergone a cultural renaissance over the past decade — and street art has played a key role…
There’s a whale circling the water tank on the Newcastle foreshore. A monster wave carries giant crustaceans into the city centre, while a scuba diver walks his pet shark in a tunnel near Merewether Beach.
It’s not just Newcastle’s downtown and beachside areas that carry such street art fantasies. The suburbs to the west are also in on the act. There’s a camel in Honeysuckle and an elephant in Hamilton. The Incredible Hulk glowers over Greenway Street in Wickham, and a raccoon surveys his forest home from a wall in Islington.
All around Newcastle, works of street art surprise and delight visitors to the city. There are murals, mosaics, stencils and paste-ups. You’ll see photo-realistic portraits and cartoonish caricatures, silhouettes and trompe-l’oeils — paintings that deceive the eye and tease the brain. Some of the paintings clearly reveal their origins in graffiti, others pay homage to comic books or advertising.
Here are some tips for exploring the vibrant Newcastle street art scene.
Where it all began
It’s all part of the seemingly unstoppable process of urban regeneration that has transformed Newcastle over the past ten years. It was in 2008 that a project called Renew Newcastle got off the ground, inviting and supporting initiatives to revitalise the struggling former steel town. Since then, Newcastle’s cultural renaissance has been unstoppable, and street art has played a big part in it.
In 2011 Street Art Walking was founded with a mission of ‘turning empty spaces into creative places’. The organisation is responsible for getting dozens of artworks onto public walls across the city, including a number of major murals.
Many of the outdoor paintings that adorn the city today are legacies from two festivals called Hit the Bricks, which took place here in 2013 and 2014. Since then, more and more works have appeared, some commissioned, some spontaneously produced. Laneways, fences, the end walls of terrace-house rows and factory exteriors have all become part of the urban canvas.
Artists to look for
One of the best-known names in Newcastle’s street art scene is Trevor Dickinson, whose interactive and Instagram-friendly paintings at Newcastle Museum invite viewers to enter their ‘narrative’ — such as becoming ‘The Lord Mayor of Newcastle’ or taking a dinosaur for a walk. Along with artist John Earle, Dickinson also created the underwater fantasy of the ‘Amazing Merewether Aquarium’, aka the Merewether beach tunnel.
Another prolific contributor to Newcastle’s street art is Alex Umpel, whose brightly coloured comic-style figures decorate many a surface around the city. Umpel is also responsible for a supersized realistic portrait of nineteenth century poet and Australian icon Henry Lawson, painted on a wall inside the historic Kent Hotel in Beaumont Street, Hamilton.
Sculpture also plays its part in Newcastle’s impressive array of public art. ‘Grounded’ at Nobby’s Beach remembers the seven weeks in 2007 when the shipwrecked Pasha Bulker was an uninvited guest here. ‘Resilience’ in the Newcastle Foreshore Park is a semi-abstract sculpture dedicated to raising awareness of mental health. ‘Black Totem 2’ outside the Newcastle City Art Gallery is a controversial piece by renowned Australian artist Brett Whiteley.
Where to find the best of the art
So, what’s the best way to discover and engage with the richness of Newcastle’s ever-evolving street art scene? One of the best ways is just to wander. As you explore the bars, markets, cafés, antique shops and craft studios that have sprouted up all over the ‘new’ Newcastle, keep your eyes open for outdoor artworks large and small. You’ll find that the urban canvas includes utility boxes, garage doors and garbage bins, as well as walls and pavements. You never know what you might find around the next corner!
If you want to give your search more direction, it’s worth knowing that there are some hotspots for street art. One is Beresford Lane in Newcastle West, which hosts a series of murals. Another is the industrial area around Foundry and Greenway Streets in Wickham. The shopping and dining precinct of Darby Street also has quite a few colourful paintings, as does the downtown Hunter Street Mall, where Newcastle’s renewal first kicked off. For specific details of where to find key sites, download the handy Street Art Walking map.
Whichever way you decide to explore the fantasy-land of Newcastle street art, keep in mind the words of artist Stu McDonald on a wall near the Hunter Street Mall: ‘Everything you can imagine is real.’
Need a place to stay?
Quality Apartments City Centre Newcastle is located right in the heart of the Newcastle CBD and offers easy access to everything the city has to offer. Choose from modern one and two-bedroom self-contained apartments — some with harbour views. Stroll to many of Newcastle’s most popular cafes, restaurants and bars.
Quality Hotel Noah’s On The Beach offers a sublime location on Newcastle’s most popular swimming and surfing beach. Enjoy spectacular ocean views from many of the hotel’s 90 rooms. The CBD is just a short walk from the hotel or take advantage of the free inner-city bus service. Jonah’s On The Beach — the hotel’s inhouse restaurant — is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph (Escape) and The Australian (Travel & Indulgence). In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.