Paint the town red

Art and class on a short break in Melbourne

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GRA­HAM ERBACHER

It has just gone 10 on a Satur­day morn­ing and we are hard at work with box­cut­ters carv­ing out plas­tic sten­cils. In a short while we’ll don face masks and aprons, vig­or­ously shake spray cans of paint the colours of Fruit Tin­gles and cre­ate graf­fiti in a Melbourne laneway.

That’s most un-Satur­day-like for me, rest as­sured. My small group is in the hands of Adrian Doyle and D’Arcy, artists of The Blender Stu­dios, fo­cus of Melbourne street art since the early 2000s and now a thriv­ing busi­ness run­ning work­shops, con­duct­ing pop­u­lar street walks and un­der­tak­ing com­mer­cial com­mis­sions. Our work­shop be­gins with a his­tory of graf­fiti in suit­able jive talk. Lots of things are “ace” and there are lash­ings of “death to cap­i­tal­ism”. That’s a tad ironic be­cause we are in a re­cep­tion room of the lux­u­ri­ous In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Melbourne The Rialto, in Collins Street, and I’m haz­ard­ing a guess my fel­low guests are not here to re­port crop yields from their out­ly­ing com­munes.

My group is road-test­ing some of the ex­pe­ri­ences that will be of­fered to en­hance a week­end at The Rialto. I’ve been a lit­tle wary of the street-art ven­ture, but here I am, sleeves rolled up, ab­sorbed, en­thu­si­as­tic, even a lit­tle com­pet­i­tive. I’m mind­ful too of the high prices works by street artists Keith Har­ing and the enig­matic Banksy at­tract. And just last month a piece by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for an artist record of $US57.3 mil­lion ($77m) at Christie’s in New York.

My only draw­back is that I am de­void of vis­ual arts skills. I’m not in a Vive la Rev­o­lu­tion mood, so the in­spi­ra­tion for my sten­cil is a doo­dle I’ve done for a life­time and gleaned from a free in­tro­duc­tory les­son to a car­toon­ing-by-cor­re­spon­dence course ad­ver­tised on the back of the old Aus­tralasian Post. It is the face of a bald man, which un­hap­pily has come to re­sem­ble a self-por­trait in re­cent years.

The laneway it now adorns runs be­tween the her­itage-listed Rialto and ad­ja­cent Grollo-built Rialto Tow- ers and, I has­ten to add, on the newer build­ing’s con­crete base. The Blender crew is at work on a spec­tac­u­lar mu­ral that will fill the wall.

Fear not, while it was fun, I won’t be spray­ing my “tag” on your front fence. Be­fore you dis­miss a visit, how­ever, you may care to know that one of the other “ex­pe­ri­ences” we road-test is a cock­tail-mak­ing class. I’m now pro­fi­cient at mix­ing a dark ’n’ stormy high­ball, made of dark rum and gin­ger beer but en­livened with honey from the ho­tel’s rooftop bee­hives. And I can shake to per­fec­tion an espresso mar­tini.

I’m all en­ergy for these ac­tiv­i­ties be­cause I have had the best sleep in a long time with my room’s magic mix of lux­ury mat­tress, pil­lows and linen (helped, too, by a night in which a cat and dog aren’t jump­ing on the bed de­mand­ing at­ten­tion, warmth or food). We’ve en­joyed a hearty break­fast at the ho­tel’s Al­lu­vial restau­rant, the sort that sets you up for the day.

The Rialto, at the South­ern Cross Sta­tion end of Collins Street, is a fab­u­lous struc­ture built to a de­sign by Wil­liam Pitt in Vene­tian gothic palazzo style in 1890-91, at the sun­set of the Mar­vel­lous Melbourne years fu­elled by the gold rush. The ho­tel oc­cu­pies this build­ing and the ad­ja­cent Win­field build­ing, in sym­pa­thetic style, and linked by a glass atrium. The en­closed area, over a one­time laneway, is at­mo­spher­i­cally lit in a rest­ful deep blue by night.

The ho­tel’s gen­eral man­ager, Erik Stuebe, is pas­sion­ate about The Rialto’s his­tory. It was once home to the Metropoli­tan Board of Works, but also the Melbourne Wool­bro­kers As­so­ci­a­tion and from 1904 the Wool Ex­change Sale Room. But it also hosted lawyers’ of­fices, the Map­ping Divi­sion and pri­vate apart­ments. Stuebe’s dream, with the help of lo­cal his­to­ri­ans, is to at­tach a plaque to each Rialto room with a his­tory of the busi­nesses and peo­ple as­so­ci­ated with it.

The ho­tel is honouring one of those char­ac­ters, Mrs D’Ebro, in a high tea it of­fers. She was a Toorak so­ci­ety lady and wife to Charles D’Ebro, ar­chi­tect of the Win­field build­ing (in truth, only the fa­cade of this re­mains). The

Street art in The Rialto’s laneway and its night-lit atrium, above; Pel­le­grini’s Bar, be­low

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