University of Melbourne Magazine

Art and soul of the community

  • Kaff-eine street art

    Kaff-eine (BA, LLB(Hons) 2008)

    By Kaff-Eine

    I dropped out of high school in year 11. Years later, a “friend” told me that she didn’t think I had the academic goods to go to uni; so I enrolled to do an Arts/Law degree at the University of Melbourne to prove her wrong. I’d probably be sitting in a nice office in an executive job right now, but for the fact that street art captured my attention, and then my heart.

    I graduated in 2007 and went straight into a policy role in a State Government graduate program. I had a great job, beautiful house, nice things. A couple of years after I graduated, I met some new friends, some of whom were street artists. I was intrigued by what they did, so I made a few drawings of my own, followed them at night, and began to paste up my own drawings.

    I loved it. No clients, no money, just night-time adventures in dark places, putting up drawings as gifts for strangers to think about or enjoy when the sun rose.

    People started photographing my street pieces and following my work online. They also contacted me for commissioned pieces. My work became larger, more intricate, more challenging and more frequent. I moved on to aerosol, painting directly onto walls, going out as many nights as the weather would allow.

    I was always very careful not to be identified or seen while painting. I usually painted with a “scout” who kept watch while I painted, and I often painted in areas hidden from public view, such as old factories, abandoned buildings and drains. I exhibited my work in group shows, sold artworks and gave interviews anonymously. The public didn’t know who Kaff-eine was, and that suited me perfectly.

    I found it harder and harder to keep up 40 hours in my policy career and another 40 in street art, so in 2012 I sold my house, quit my job and left the office to pursue my career as a street artist.

    In the two years since, my life has completely changed. I work seven days a week, and I absolutely love it. Every day brings new challenges and experiences. I have illustrated two children’s books (The Promise and Vera) released by Scholastic; I’ve held sell-out solo exhibitions and been in successful group exhibitions; I’ve collaborated with international graffiti icons; I’ve been invited to paint in Germany, France, the USA and the Philippines; I’ve helped raise funds for victims of Typhoon Haiyan by headlining live street-art events in Manila.

    I’ve also painted public murals in chaotic Manila shanty towns; and I’ve completed a collaborative project with young people in Berry Street schools, reinterpreting their stories of poverty, violence, abuse, neglect and hope as a series of wall paintings on Melbourne’s streets, rooftops and special places.

    I used to hide from the public, but that’s impossible now that I take on large public commissions, which take days to complete and sometimes require scissor lifts and traffic control. People in inner Melbourne are now pretty used to street artists doing their thing on walls, so I don’t get hassled very often.

    Occasionally someone will call the cops on me, thinking that what I’m doing is illegal, but most people are actually really supportive and lovely. Over a blistering hot week last summer I painted a long wall on Alexandra Parade in Fitzroy and every day the locals would bring me coffee, icy-poles and even meals. It was such a great experience; I felt so connected to the community. I loved hearing how connected they felt to their new mural.

    I love the freedom, creativity, autonomy, excitement and fulfilment I get from my street and public art. If one day everyone starts to dislike my art, I can always go back to working in a policy or legal role in an office. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet.


    HEARTCORE, a book of young people’s stories and the artworks they inspire by Kaff-eine, will be launched on September 25. All proceeds from book sales will be used to support Berry Street’s work with young people and families.


    Want to read more about street art?

    Elsewhere in 3010 online, University of Melbourne researcher Professor Alison Young explains why street art is so popular in Melbourne, and we count down five key moments in street art history.