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Peter Drew’s posters can be seen on streets throughout Australia, throwing down a challenge to passers-by to consider our national identity. But far from being a strident activist, the artist is happy to question rather than lecture. “You’ve got to approach it with curiosity and the possibility that you might be wrong. There might be something you’re missing. You can’t forgo that possibility and bathe in the certainty of your convictions. You can’t be puritanical, because that is the worst thing of all.” By Hannah Kent.

Artist and activist Peter Drew

Street artist Peter Drew.
Credit: Wade Whitington

Even if you don’t know his name, it’s likely you’ve glanced at one of Peter Drew’s creations. The Adelaide-based artist is responsible for multiple poster campaigns, including “Real Australians Say Welcome” and the portrait of the emigrant hawker, Monga Khan, titled “Aussie”, both of which have become ubiquitous in Australian cities. Seek and you shall find them: on the corners of government buildings and major commercial towers, under bridges, pressed up against alley walls, appropriating major thoroughfares. By his own estimation, Drew has steadfastly anointed the urban landscape with some 3000 to 4000 posters.

The cafe we agree to meet at is small and crowded with noise. He comes in and we immediately agree we’d rather speak outside. The tail end of winter has been thrashing Adelaide with rain, and the brief respite of a sunny afternoon is too much to resist. We take our coffees and cross North Terrace, where we find a bench under the War Memorial.

It feels appropriate to speak in a public space. Drew is a street artist, after all, although he has recently taken some time out to write a memoir, Poster Boy. It’s an unexpected read, as much about his family’s history of dysfunction as it is about his obsession with Australian identity, although lacking the hard-nosed political agitation one might expect from someone whose work so inexorably pushes back against intolerance towards asylum seekers and the horrors of White Australia policies. Instead, it’s a reflexive account of personal uncertainty, contradictory impulses and individual growth, relayed with brutal honesty.

“I’m coming to terms with the fact that this book is not going to be what people might expect,” Drew admits when I ask him whether he feels mistaken for a political agitator rather than an artist. “I see it as being about the conflict between art and activism.” I ask him if he thinks the difference between art and activism lies in outcome. If activists aspire to education and policy change, what does the artist hope for?

He offers up conversation. “And you really need to participate in the conversation and actually attempt to empathise with the people who you strongly disagree with,” he says. “You’ve got to approach it with curiosity and the possibility that you might be wrong. There might be something you’re missing. You can’t forgo that possibility and bathe in the certainty of your convictions. You can’t be puritanical, because that is the worst thing of all.”

Drew admits that, as a street artist who – by virtue of his practice – is constantly on the move, these conversations mostly happen online. Although he is, at times, approached on the street while installing his posters. “The people who come at you on the street have something they want to say to you,” he says. “Everyone is familiar with online conflict: you can never really be sure who you’re talking to and how sincere they are. But if someone comes at you on the street, you can see how sincere they are. People are usually either pretty strongly for you, or against you.”

In his memoir, Drew relates several of his “countless” confrontations with people. “Almost always men, usually my dad’s age and often angry”, or young political activists who he describes as having “usually dedicated a whole semester to swallowing whatever world view best weaponises their angst, before setting out to fix the world”. Both the far right and the far left seem to find Drew infuriating, largely because of his appeal to the political centre. Both have threatened him with violence, have videotaped him, have defaced his posters. Yet it’s clear that Drew prefers this kind of street encounter to the emotional distance of online aggression and its hateful “tit for tat”.

“I’m quite aware that I enjoy conflict in some ways,” Drew says. “I think there is something about street art that attracts people of my temperament. People who like tension. But I like tension because it can be resolved, not for the sheer joy of destruction. I’m not like that.” Drew’s mum told him recently that he comes across as quite angry in his memoir. And it’s true that he recounts many of his own moments of confrontational aggression. “I tried to explain to her that the book’s not a PR exercise,” he says and laughs. “I’m trying to find out what’s underneath this stuff.”

 

Drew grew up in a family that, by his own account, placed emphasis on achievement rather than affection. A good student, he was “perfectly qualified to follow my half-baked dream of becoming an accountant” but dropped out within a month. He spent some time “quite happy to be a fuck-up”, though later enrolled to study psychology and philosophy at university because he had a strong desire to understand the world. “Really, I wanted to understand myself,” he writes. During his studies, he gravitated towards art, painting on canvas, but found it difficult to rely on an art market reeling from the global financial crisis. Determined to “find some form of expression that didn’t rely on the disposable income of art collectors”, he turned to street art and graffiti, shown the ropes by a housemate. Spray cans and stencils turned to “rollers” and paint, which turned to handmade screen-printed posters.

“Once you start making street art you realise that there’s this forum here, accessible to anyone willing to bend the rules a little bit. That’s what got me hooked. I don’t need to put my art up in the gallery. I can put it up in the street. I just need to figure out how to do that. I can’t ever see myself stopping making street art because there’s something very natural about it.”

Aside from the independence from galleries and collectors, the focus and physical work required is part of the thrill of Drew’s street art practice. As is its illegality, I suspect.

“That side of it is fun,” he admits. “It’s the urban landscape. It’s hostile in places. You’re not allowed to climb up on things. It’s really just a boyish thrill in some ways. When I was a kid, I was really interested in rock climbing, and when I’d come into the city I’d look at buildings and go, ‘Oh yeah, I think I could climb that building.’ There’s an element of that to it.”

Drew initially avoided making art that was overtly political in nature. “It lends itself to becoming didactic,” he says and grimaces. “It becomes propaganda.” But a move to Scotland to complete a master’s degree at the Glasgow School of Art changed his perspective. Some combination of suddenly being identified as “the Australian guy”, the physical and psychological distance from his homeland, and the “Stop the Boats” rhetoric rippling over from the 2013 federal election made him more fully consider what it means to be Australian. His first political poster, stuck up while still in Britain, read:

“Australia Says, STOP THE BOATS! To avoid Aboriginal Genocide STOP Great Britain’s illegal migration to AUSTRALIA.”

After his return home, Drew continued poster campaigns that directly addressed the government’s attack on those arriving in Australia by boat. He sought out then reproduced the illustrations and handwritten stories of asylum seekers as 24 large-scale posters on the streets of Adelaide. They appealed to people’s empathy, Drew writes in his memoir, but he soon realised that “the immediate effect of empathy is actually pain”. The images were great art but not great propaganda.

His next campaign, Drew decided, would remove this “burden of empathy” and – in true propagandist tradition – appeal to patriotism. In March 2015 he launched a Pozible campaign, asking for $6000 to help him print and install a thousand posters across Australia. The text – “Real Australians Say Welcome” – was inspired by the second verse of the national anthem: “For those who’ve come across the seas, We’ve boundless plains to share. With courage let us all combine, to Advance Australia Fair”.

 

To put up 50 posters a day requires a lot of glue. Approximately 15 litres, in fact, made from tap water and multiple two-kilogram bags of flour. The ratio, Drew assures me, is one part flour to five parts water.

“It takes a little while to cook up. But eventually it hits a certain temperature and all the gluten comes out, and it’s claggy.”

During his “Real Australians Say Welcome” campaign, Drew would cook glue in hostel kitchens in the evenings, then wake at 4am, take his bucket, high-vis vest, posters and brush on a train “heading in a random direction” and disembark at the last stop. “It’s a good way to do it,” he says, “because it forces you to work your way back.” On his return trek, Drew stuck posters on hoarding boards and abandoned buildings, government or corporate offices, but rarely on places of worship or private residences. It was a gruelling business, intensely physical. His feet blistered. He smelt. But he found the challenge intoxicating.

“I wanted to do something extreme,” he says. “I wanted to know how many posters I could put up in a week if I went to a foreign city that I didn’t know that well. There’s something totally intoxicating about that; at the end of the day going, ‘Wow, I’ve put up over 50 posters today.’ No one else cares, obviously, but I do.”

But people did care. The response to “Real Australians Say Welcome” was extraordinary. Lucy Feagins, editor of eminent design site, The Design Files, put out a call for people to create their own illustrations featuring Drew’s message, and #RealAustraliansSayWelcome was soon trending on social media, and storied across news outlets. Drew was featured on ABC’s Lateline, and his work since has been widely covered on television, in broadsheets and online. Since “Real Australians”, Drew’s reproductions of the photographs of historical immigrants granted exemption to the White Australia Policy – including Monga Khan – have received similar media attention. There is a hunger for his art, its controversy and the challenge his posters throw down to the passer-by.

I want to know whether Drew finds it difficult to maintain a clear demarcation between propaganda and art in his work, especially when it is so willingly appropriated by multitudes on social media. At what point does mimicry transform into actuality? I wonder if his sardonic use of the phrase “Real Australians” is at risk of being taken seriously by those who have responded to the campaign. What about his portrait of Monga Khan and his use of the word “Aussie” – what is political statement and what is artistic probing?

“First and foremost, I’m an artist,” Drew asserts. “That’s where my allegiance is, that is where I see myself. I see everything I do as art disguised as propaganda. Without spiritual aspiration, political art is little more than a visual commentary on power.”

He is more equivocal in his beliefs than I had anticipated. I had expected the evangelical forthrightness of an activist. But Drew seems reluctant to cast anything in black and white even when pressed: our interview is lacking in proclamation. His practice clearly comes from a nebulous position of questioning, rather than a campaigner’s manifesto of answers. He does not seem disappointed at the prospect of his posters effecting no political change.

“I get it,” he says. “Is this just slacktivism?”

Drew acknowledges that he often thinks about what an ideal outcome for a poster campaign would be. “I think the question is really, ‘What is the purpose of art?’ Art preserves a piece of not only the artist who creates it but all the people who participate in it. That’s what’s great about going to an art gallery and feeling a connection with somebody who died hundreds or thousands of years ago… their thoughts are churning through your neurons. I think that’s a miracle, in some ways.

“You can apply the charge of impotence to culture in general. You can say the same thing about any medium, from opera to novels. I don’t know if it’s meant to be making change,” he says. “What I’ve focused on is recent asylum seekers telling me that the posters have made them feel more welcome. I mean, yes, those are just feelings, but to me these moments become my anchor points, rather than ‘I’m going to shift policy’, which is much harder to do. I don’t mind if [my art] just makes people feel a certain way. Feelings are important.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "Conversation starter". Subscribe here.

Hannah Kent
is the author of Burial Rites and The Good People.