‘Sharply Dressed African American Man in Helicopter’: The Artwork 30/03/15 06:06
On the corner of Kiora Road and Karimbla Road, Miranda, there is one of the greatest pieces of graffiti art in The Shire, ‘Sharply Dressed African American Man in Helicopter’. The name of the artist who painted this piece is not currently known, but art lovers from the Sutherland Shire owe him/her a great debt of gratitude. The influence that this piece has had on The Miranda School of graffiti art, and the rapidly developing cultural movement known as the Shire Scene, cannot be overstated. Despite it’s standing in the Australian art world, and it’s importance to the local scene, thousands of ordinary people pass this artwork every day without giving it a second glance. This post is designed to wake all these ignorantly oblivious people from their cultural slumber and remind them that you don’t have to travel to the art galleries of Paris or New York to get your dose of culture. One of the most significant pieces of the last 10-15 years is sitting on a menswear shops wall just down the road from your house… and the best thing is it’s free to view.
The Miranda School
The Miranda School is an art movement that developed from the underground hip-hop and graffiti scene of The Sutherland Shire, in Southern Sydney, during the early to mid 2000s. Pioneers of the movement including ‘H8TR’, ‘Dexterus’ and ‘Shark-Boy’ started spray painting pop culture imagery on government buildings and empty spaces as early as 2001. These early artworks, although crudely painted, hinted at what was to come. The most prominent feature of these early pieces was the depiction of individuals from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds engaging in the more opulent, and excessive, aspects of our hyper-Capitalist society. This extreme contrast of rich and poor was used to highlight the hypocrisy, greed and inequality that exists in the West. This type of social commentary would eventually become the trademark of The Miranda School. Unfortunately for art historians, many of these early pieces were lost due to an overzealous local council and State Government, who would cover over pieces within days of them being put up.
With the advent of digital photography and social media in the mid 2000s, artists from The Miranda School suddenly found they could display their pieces online, which meant they began to develop a following from around the greater Sydney art community. Around 2007, artworks such as ‘Transvestite with Expensive Watch’ and ‘Aboriginal Female in Kitted-Out 4WD’, by ‘Dr Acula’, became some of the first pieces to gain critical praise outside of Sydney, winning several coveted prizes in the Australasian Art Extravaganza and the Georgian Graffiti Awards. Dr Acula’s success shone a spotlight on the emerging Miranda School and young graffiti artists such as ‘D8T R8P’ and ‘Snagglepuss’ have continued to make a real name for themselves, both locally and internationally.
In 2015, the graffiti art of The Miranda School is just one small part of what has developed into a greater cultural phenomenon, known as The Shire Scene. The Shire Scene includes musicians of the Caringbah-Hop style of music, such as ‘Ibis Love’ and ‘The Magnetic Scissors’, as well as poets, writers and, of course, artists. Today it is not uncommon for artworks by well known Miranda School artists to fetch 6 figures at auction. (‘Houso Talking on a Smart Phone‘ by ‘Dr Acula’ is being sold at auction in July and is expected to fetch upwards of $170,000). Despite the commercial success of these artists, many of the same issues that plagued artists 10 years ago still exist, not least of which is the removal of important works by the local council and extreme apathy or hostility by the local community towards the medium of graffiti art.
Why is ‘Sharply Dressed African American Man In Helicopter’ so Important?
At first glance, with an untrained eye, there appears to be nothing extraordinary about ‘Sharply Dressed African American Man in Helicopter’. It looks like your typical Miranda School graffiti piece. It’s not particularly well painted, nor is the subject matter particularly original. In fact, some people have gone as far as to state that it is a crude rip-off of ‘D8T R8P’s ‘Sudanese Refugee in Sports Car’. On closer inspection, nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, ‘Sharply Dressed African American Man in Helicopter’ has been dated to at least 5 years before any verified ‘D8T R8P’ artwork. Secondly, while there is similarity between the subject matter, there is a subversive, sexual element to ‘Sharply Dressed African American Man in Helicopter’ that isn’t found in any of D8T R8P’s pieces. In fact, to my knowledge, this type of sexual subversiveness isn’t found in any other known Miranda School piece, which is why art historians are intrigued, and why this artwork, despite all its obvious technical flaws, is such a culturally significant work.
What Do You Mean Sexual Subversiveness?
If you look closely at the helicopter’s pilot, she appears to be “pushing all the right buttons in and around the cockpit“, as one bemused punter put it. To phrase it in a more palatable way, the female pilot appears to be manually stimulating herself sexually. This type of overt sexual theme is not at all common in graffiti art of the area and era, which is why it is considered such a rare and unique piece. What makes it more intriguing is that this overtly sexual act has lasted unmolested for years, escaping the clutches of local council and ignorant young taggers. Professor Phillips from the Cronulla Flats Art Institute has studied this piece and believes he understands the unknown artist’s intentions.
“In one way the artist has gone against everything which the Original Miranda Crew stood for. He has painted what appears to be an advertisement for the menswear shop who’s wall it adorns, which in the eyes of his peers is a big no-no. In essence, he has sold out his independence, vision and his credibility for a pay-cheque, which probably explains the lack of a signature. However, in painting this piece on private property the unknown artist has ensured that it will escape the clutches of the Sutherland Council graffiti removal crew while those artworks of all his contemporaries have lost the war of time. By adding the sexual element, which is hard to see unless you are looking for it, but impossible to miss once it’s been seen, he is effectively giving a giant, lasting Fuck You to the local council and State Government who constantly remove his works, and a nod to his mates who may have accused him of laying down.”
The sneaky sexual content is only half the genius of ‘Sharply Dressed African American Man in Helicopter’. The other half of the equation is the real subversive nature of the piece, the placement. This picture is located
- Across the road from a church,
- Across the road from the community centre,
- A few hundred metres from a Primary School,
- 50 metres from the train station,
- 200 metres from one of the biggest shopping centres in Australia,
- On a busy intersection which 1000s of people drive or walk through every day
…and nobody can do anything about it. If you don’t like it you can’t write to your local member of parliament or call the council, this will achieve nothing because it’s on private property. Your only recourse is to complain to the menshop owner who’s wall it is painted on, the very same man who commissioned the piece originally. As Cronulla based comedian Rodney Foley pointed out:
In our PC age, where masturbation near a school will, at the very least, get you arrested and put on some sort of list, the chick in the helicopter can keep playing with herself for years and no church going granny, or precious children’s mother can do a damn thing about it. It’s absolutely brilliant! It’s pure unadulterated, spray-painted punk rock. That’s why I love this artwork.
No other surviving artwork from the era comes close to making this sort of statement against authority. No other artwork from the movement has gone that far before, and probably never will again. In today’s world where everything the established Miranda School artists create has been commodified and ticked off by their financial backers marketing department, the days of these type of underground, subversive paintings has passed us by. We won’t see another girl masturbating in a helicopter anytime soon because The Miranda School is no longer a movement, it is a business. As one art critic poiniently queried:
“Can you imagine ‘Snagglepuss’ painting something and not putting his name to it?”
Point made, loud and clear.
What You Can Do To Help Save This Valuable Artwork.
Unfortunately there are rumours of an ownership change of the menswear shop, and the future of ‘Sharply Dressed African American Man in Helicopter’ is once again uncertain. A fresh campaign from church, school and community leaders to have the piece taken down has slowly been gaining momentum amongst those in society too ignorant or apathetic to appreciate the treasure that we have right in front of us. Up until now the menswear store’s owner has resisted their calls, however the resistance cannot last forever. The menswear shop is a business, and with all businesses reputation is everything. If there is a strong enough campaign that threatens the business’ reputation then the artwork will inevitably have to go.
The ultimate goal of art lovers around The Shire is to take the decision out of the shop-owners hands. I believe that this piece of graffiti is of such cultural significance to The Sutherland Shire that it needs to either have a conservation order put over it, preventing the art from being damaged, or, if this can’t be achieved, it should be chiseled out brick by brick, to be proudly re-erected and displayed in the Sutherland Library and Entertainment Precinct. Both these options would guarantee the survival of this important piece for future generations.
In the meantime, it is important that we all do our best to raise awareness of just how culturally significant this artwork is. Local bands, including ‘Limbo Sanctuary’, have put their weight behind the cause by performing several charity gigs to try and raise awareness of the importance of ‘Sharply Dressed African American Man in Helicopter’. I believe it is up to the community to ensure that this piece of our cultural history is not lost and that people become aware of the valuable piece of art that they have on their doorstep.
So next time you’re stopped at the Kiora Road traffic lights, or walking along Karimbla Road, make sure you take a moment to really notice what’s on the wall next to you. Appreciate its unconventional beauty and the subversive nature of its subject matter. Maybe stop into the menswear shop and tell the owner just how much you appreciate his contribution to the cultural heritage of the Shire, because without his support, and the public’s support, soon all we’ll have to look at are photos of the wall on my website to remind us of what we’ve lost.
All hail the masturbating female pilot. Long may she live, in our hearts, in our minds, and in infamy, on the menswear shop’s wall.
– Damien ‘Ace’ Brown, President of the Kirrawee Heights School of Art, speaking at ‘Art in the Shire’ , 30th February 2015