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Taking On Melbourne’s Walls With Amanda Newman

Amanda Newman is a mural artist and signwriter, who’s built her experience across a wide range of painting pursuits before relocating to Melbourne and illegally painting its walls and gifting her art to the people of the city.

With the change of scenery, Amanda has committed herself to pursue her art as she wants it, and the people of Melbourne have given her resounding encouragement to persevere. Brashly heading out to beautify the streets, she paints first and asks permission later, a tactic which is proving extremely productive.

Since she’s been in the country — just 10 months –, she has gifted a mural to bushfire relief that raised more than $5,000, and she has painted more than a dozen murals of inspiring figures sharing powerful quotes to passers-by.

Impressed with her grit and totally adoring of her work, we got Amanda on the Street Art Unearthed podcast to chat about what she’s been up to in Melbourne, where she got her painting stripes, and what her plans are now in Australia.

Check out the podcast with Amanda Newman, or read on for excerpts from the chat.


From NYC to Melbourne to COVID

We’ve been here almost a full year now. Seven months of that was lockdown. It’s been a bit difficult. Technically, right now, the creative industry is actually illegal. We’re not allowed to work. The policy started opening up, I believe, so they started with maybe certain parts of construction. Obviously, essential workers have always been allowed. But yeah, creative industries are the lowest totem pole, so we actually can’t work.

I was just getting on my feet when COVID happened, so just as I was starting to get some commissions, everything shut down. I’m starting to get some inquires for post lockdown, hopefully, some of that will work out. But yeah, for the most part, it’s just been going out on the streets on my own just to keep busy.

I actually consider myself more of a tradie than I do an artist. It’s a bit iffy. I think actually right now I don’t even know if I would be able to be a tradie because a lot of construction isn’t allowed too — unless it’s essential. I actually stopped looking into it at a certain point.

Foot in the Door

My very first job was actually, it started when I was still in university. I got an internship, and I actually just typed in mural into, it was the college’s job board. Something popped up, and there happened to be this big mansion that was down the road, and there was a big mural, and decorative finishes company had come into New York School, and they were working there, and they needed interns. So I started doing that, and that was for about a year. That was where I just got my first sense of what it was like to be in that world, and I felt super lucky because it was, like, total chance that this job happened to be there and I was hired for it. Yeah, it was like my dream job right out the bat.

Yeah, it was awesome. Then that internship ended, and from then on, I knew that that was it for me. I wasn’t going to be doing anything else. So I just started going out on my own and trying to get small jobs here and there.

Hustling Pre-Social Media

This is all before social media, so I am so envious of people who are out there and have social media to market themselves now. We took out an ad in the white pages in the telephone book.

I think it started out being word of mouth, like friends of our family and then friends of them. Then it just went from there. We were doing a very small job for a local restaurant; just some little stuff and there was a bigger company that had come in to do some big murals on a wall. So just by chance, again, we happened to be working in the restaurant when the employees for that company quit halfway through, and so they needed other people to come, this was me and my best friend at the time, they needed artists to come and finish that job. So we jumped in, we did it. That was actually a company that did a lot of theme park work.

First wall that got them their theme park roles.

Art Directing in South Korea

I spent a few years actually, quite a few years, just travelling around. It would be either like they would be redoing an area of the park, so they would put finishes on all the buildings or just a lot of random, very large scale painting jobs.

In Korea, they have a big theme park called Lotte World. I guess there had been some kind of fatal crash on one of the rollercoasters and so the way that they approached it was, okay, we’ll shut down the park. We’ll do a rebrand and do a makeover on the park.

Somehow I got invited to do it, and I still don’t really know how. But I ended up going there, and this time I wasn’t actually doing a painting. I was, I guess like art directing the theme park. So there were themes of, I think I was about 25 at this point. There were teams of Korean artists, and so I would just show up to site every day, and I had my own translator. We all were, I guess you would call it friends. I felt very close to them but I also, we did not speak each others’ languages, so we needed this one translator in order to have a relationship.

Yeah, it was interesting because my entire success hinged on this one person and whether or not he felt like translating that day. He was young, like a 19-year-old kid. It was just his summer or whatever.

It was interesting when we would go out after work, and I would try to hang out with my new friends, but he wasn’t getting paid, so he wasn’t going to keep translating. So I would just be sitting there like, hmm. But yeah, somehow I pulled that off.

That was two months in South Korea, and then a couple of years later, I got an opportunity to go pretty much the same thing in Singapore. They were shutting down Universal Studios and just giving it a revamp on some of the buildings. Again, I had a local paint crew, and they spoke mostly English, so it was a little bit easier. But yeah, and that went well too. So those were two highlights, I would say, with my career.

Experiencing Gross Misconduct

A lot of the theme park work around the United States, I was not quite as independent, so I was sent with teams of blokey guys… So that was definitely challenging. I would often be the only female in the company or on the job site, and I even got myself a fake engagement ring at one point. Just to be like, just please don’t talk to me.

There was one story, as I was thinking about this, there was one story that sticks out to me that kind of expresses pretty much how working in that environment was. So my very first theme park job was me and my friend, we were flown down to Universal Studios in Florida, and it was a two-person job, and it was our first, we were so excited. So we asked the guy who hired us, who was at the company who was sending us, we were like, “Okay, well, do we need to wear a uniform? Is there anything special that we need to get?” He was like, “Yeah, you should wear all white. Can you guys make sure that you’re wearing all white clothes?” We were like, “Okay, sure.” We had usually just worn paint clothes, whatever. But painters’ whites, that’s a thing.

So we went to Target and bought a whole bunch of white clothes. So we show up on-site the first day, and we’re the only ones in white — no one else. There were painters, construction workers, everyone there. No one’s in white. It’s just us. So we feel a little bit stupid at that point but whatever. We thought it must be some kind of thing for our particular job. We didn’t know.

Cut to about ten years later, so the guy who hired us, he was a big part of my life because he hired me so often. We were out to dinner or something, and he just casually mentioned, “Oh yeah, that time when I sent you to Florida, and I had you guys wear all white, it was just because I had a fantasy, like a Catholic boy fantasy. I just wanted to see you guys in all white.” This guy was like 40 years older than me. He was almost a father figure, but he just said it casually. So that’s how I found out ten years later.

We were these two innocent girls, just whatever, we didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. So that kind of expresses what it’s like to be in that world or it might not even be all of the gross sexism stuff, but it’s always there.

Pushing Back on Toxic Environments

Now I just don’t say yes to jobs like that. Even if it’s a new job, if I think that there’s going to be gross misogyny or whatever, or just a job I don’t want to do, I just don’t do it anymore. It’s not worth it.

I kind of wish I was a little more outspoken about it because I think I am, but I’m not sure that I’ve even, to this day, figured out the right way to go about it. Which is why I avoid the situation entirely at this point because it’s this weird thing because if you speak up, then you’re considered a bitch or “we’re not going to hire you anymore”.

I do speak up, but usually, it ends up with me quitting. So I think I probably could be more graceful, I just haven’t figured out how to. I was raised in this culture for 20 years or whatever. It’s been ingrained in me to just smile and nod and laugh, so that is what I do. I just, “Ha, ha, ha, I’m one of the guys.” Then that night, it will sink in. I’ll be like, wait a second.

I let it get to a point where then it’s like my breaking point, and then I’m suddenly like, “I quit. You’re the worst.”

I think it’s getting better, and I’ve also noticed in Australia it seems… it might just be the people I’m working with, but the younger generation seems to be better, a little bit. I think maybe it’s gradually dying out, hopefully.

Going After What She Wants

When we moved, both me and my husband, we had this mindset that we were not starting over, but we were just going to do what we wanted and follow only what we wanted to do, and just go after that.

It was sort of like, okay, we’re moving. It’s a fresh start. I’m not going to do these jobs that I don’t want to do. I’m not going for this. So for me, I was like, well I’ve always wanted to paint murals. I have painted murals throughout my career, but I was really doing murals that other people wanted and weren’t necessarily in my style. So I just like, feet on the ground here, I was just like, okay, let’s do this. It took me probably about a month to get up the courage to do it because anything I’d done in New York had been done with permission by the shop owner or for a mural festival or something.

I will say I was more scared in New York to just go out and do murals, so I only did a couple of those. In Australia, I don’t know if it was my mindset or it was something about Melbourne or what, maybe a combination of both, but it feels much more accepting.

Thriving With Illegal Street Art

The first one that I did, it was a wall that I just kept walking past every day, and it was a fresh, beautiful wall. I was like, all right, that’s the one. I’m just going to do it. So I just rocked up, started painting, got through an entire day without anybody bothering me. Then it was the second day, and it was almost done, and then I think it might have been the maintenance guy came out of the building, and I was like, “Oh, just painting a mural.” Because I also do it in broad daylight. I’m not going to be going out at like, 1 AM, in a black hoodie. I’m just going to own it. I’m just going to do what I’m doing, and I have faith that what I’m doing is making something more beautiful and it’s not vandalism. Of course, that’s up to interpretation but own it.

I was like, “Oh, I’m just painting this mural here.” He was like, “You can’t do that. You need to stop.” I was like, “All right.” So he went away, and I was like, oh, but I’m almost done. Just painting, I was like, I just need to finish it before I leave. He came back again. He was like, “You need to stop.” I was just like, “Well, can I talk to the owner or something?” He’s like, “I’m here to wash this off right now. You need to stop.”

He told me that the management company was in the building, so I had to go around, blah, blah, blah. I went in, found the management company, walked into this random office and was like, “Hi, I’m the person that’s painting your wall.” He was not happy with me. He was like, “Okay, yeah, you can’t do that.” “Well, you know, I just… It’s already done. Maybe I could show you a picture.” He was like, “I’ve already seen it, it does look okay. It does look good.” I was like, “I was just wondering if maybe you could at least just let me finish it. Then if you don’t like it, I’ll paint over it. It’s fine.” He was just like, “Ugh, hold on.” So he called the building owner, and I heard him talking and being like, “Well, it does look kind of good.” He came back, and he’s like, “Okay, we’ll let you keep it, but if it brings any more graffiti to the area, then we’re going to erase it.” So this was almost a year ago now, and it’s still there. That one gave me the courage to keep going.

I don’t like the feeling. I don’t enjoy that adrenaline rush. I feel like people do, but that’s not my kind of calling. I think my body shuts down into this like, “okay this is business mode”, and then I stop feeling anything. I’m just, “okay, get this done.”

The next one I did I actually painted Greta Thunberg. So I finished her, and I got away with that one. There was a wall next to her, so then I was painting on the other wall when a guy rolled up, and they were like, “Oh, what are you doing?” I was like, “Oh, just painting.” He was like, “Oh, okay. Just making sure you’re not painting over this one,” pointing at the Greta one.

He was here to protect it. “The council was super, super happy about it, so I’m just making sure that you’re not defacing it.” I was like, “Oh okay, well, I actually did that one.” So he protected it, and he waited for me to finish the other one and protected that one next to it.

So yeah, it was coming straight out of the gates, a couple of really good, positive experiences. So that helped me with the curve to keep going with it.

Selecting the Muse for the Message

I have a list of people who I intend to paint, and then it’s just a matter of finding a wall that fits with them. But then also the timing of it because sometimes people just aren’t appreciated as much, just like a timing thing.

Michelle Obama is someone who I’ve been wanting to paint forever, but it’s not a time for her right now, so I’m waiting to see if there might be or maybe I’ll do her tucked away somewhere sometime, just to do her. But I have a whole bunch of people like that.

Typically, I’ll be agonizing over okay, who’s going to go on this wall? Because I’ll find a wall and I’ll be like, I need to do it before someone does something instead. So I’ll be sitting there just agonizing over it, and then I’ll just check Facebook or Google, and something will pop up about something that just happened, and then I’ll immediately be like, oh okay, well I’m going to do that person now if it feels right. That’s usually how it goes.

I do consider it to be political. However, there’s a balance I feel between being… because I want to get these messages out, but I also want them to stay out. The goal is to have them last as long as possible. So it’s like if I can temper it down and make it a positive message and make it something that’s a little bit more mainstream. Then they have more of a chance of sticking around.

You won’t see me painting negative things just because that’s not what I want to put out into the world and I feel like that’s the type of thing that would get painted over a lot quicker. Not all of my thoughts about the future are positive, but that’s what I paint.

Facing the Public

It’s been very, very positive for the most part. I mean very, very positive. There have been a couple of things that have been, well, there have been a couple of comments online about Cathy Freeman and then also Adam Goodes, who are both aboriginal figures who I painted. It’s very much just their issues. You know what I mean? I don’t engage, but I think okay well that’s an issue with you because you’re mad that I’m painting Cathy Freeman, you know.

Then there was one. I painted Dujuan Hoosan. He’s an aboriginal boy who, he was the youngest person to speak to the UN I think at 12 years old, and he was really outspoken about getting a good education for indigenous kids so that they can actually be engaged. So I painted, this is the only one where there was possibly a bit of negativity toward it, so I painted him in a council that tends to be a little bit more conservative, and it was painted over within two or three days. I mean, the message I painted with him was, “have hope”.

It could have just been that they are very on top of buffing walls and could have been innocent, but it also could have not been. So that’s borderline where it was a little bit like, ugh.

I went back after that one, after I found out that it had been buffed, and I was freaked out because I hate doing graffiti, I just hate it, but I scrawled on the walls really quick, “indigenous and black lives matter”. To get the point across. Like, come on, what are you doing?

Surviving the Downtime

I think I’m just very used to shutting off when things are slow and just being okay with it. I think it’s all about your mindset, and so back at the beginning, I think there was a time when I had three months straight of no work at the beginning and slow in between that. That’s the point when you can be, when people ask you, “Oh, what do you do? What’s your job?” Then you start to doubt yourself, and you’re like, well, I can’t tell them that I’m an artist or whatever it is that you are. Can’t tell them that because I’m not actually doing that, but the thing is that you actually are that. Just because you’re not doing it right now doesn’t mean that that’s not who you are and being for me, an artist, a self-employed artist means that you are going to be doing nothing sometimes and that’s actually part of the job.

Mentally being okay with that and getting to the self-confident place where you can just say to people, “Oh yeah, I’m an artist or a writer.” So for me, I approached it where when you work for yourself you don’t get holidays, you feel like you don’t get paid time off. You don’t get any of that. Usually, when you get work, it’s a lot of work. When it rains, it pours. So I just view it as, okay, I don’t have work, I’m on holiday now.

Of course, there’s a tonne of work behind the scenes that’s not just painting, so first I get that done but then if there’s no more work, then I’m holiday. You can’t feel guilty about it.

I remember back several years ago; my husband had his friends from Australia visiting us in New York, so they were living with us for I think a month or two and it was a time when I had almost no work. I was just so embarrassed because I wasn’t quite at that confident level yet and so I felt so embarrassed that I was just home all the time.

It’s definitely a mental thing, and it takes some time to get to that place where you can do that. And also, I don’t know that faith is the right word, but the faith that work will come because I think a lot of people… because I get that anxiety too. I think everyone gets the anxiety; it’s just a matter of how you handle it. I get anxiety all the time. Ultimately I have overcome it every time, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do that, it’s just a matter of getting there.

What’s Next for Amanda Newman

There’s a couple of promising community type commissions that might be in the works. It might involve going through workshops with kids and showing them how to paint murals. I absolutely adore that.

I hope other stuff comes through, but yeah, as of now, it’s just a whole lot of nothing.

I’m sure I’ll find another wall and be painting that sometime soon. It’s been good because I’ve actually explored a lot more than I would have if I hadn’t been in the 5K lockdown because I kind of saturated my normal running route and I find the walls on my run. It forced me to venture all the way out to places that I would have thought were too far for me, but they’re actually within the 5K. So yeah, it’s actually been good.

Written with excerpts from the Street Art Unearthed podcast episode with Amanda Newman.

Follow Amanda Newman via her website, Facebook or Instagram.



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