In the quiet hours of night in the early 1980s, often under the unreliable spectrum of moonlight, a generation of Adelaide teenagers were quietly pioneering new grounds with the hiss of spray cans.

Creating large murals filled with colourful characters and messages best understood by the young, the so-called “graffiti writers” had found an outlet for creativity that would see many go on to form hugely successful art careers.

A new book, painstakingly pulled together over 12-and-a-half years by Adelaide’s David Houston, sheds light on this mysterious scene, unearthing old photos and stories that capture a “raw” era that he was involved in, along with many other teenagers.

Adelaide’s David Houston spent 12-and-a-half years sourcing material and writing his book.(ABC Radio Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton)

“For younger people wanting to get involved, you could only really go by what you saw in the street, where you probably wouldn’t see a great deal,” Mr Houston said.

It was this emerging subculture between 1983 and 1993 that has been captured so vividly in Mr Houston’s book, Wildfire — Australian Graffiti Live From Adelaide, which features more than 450 glossy photos from the day.

Inspired by each other

Cut off from the world by the tyranny of distance and inspired by pictures in magazines and album jackets, these teenagers took to the streets to paint, sometimes with permission, sometimes without, developing a style that was influenced more by local talent than international artists.

A 1986 piece in Adelaide by Style.(Supplied:

Inspired by the “originators of graffiti” in New York and Philadelphia, a graffiti scene had already been growing in Melbourne and Sydney, but the era’s expensive travel costs meant Adelaide’s teenagers had little hope of seeing it.

“We were pioneering our own graffiti writing at the time, and certainly, some of those paintings were quite naive in their nature, but that’s their beauty as well,” Mr Houston said.

Some of his most vivid memories were of returning to a site in daylight to see what had been created under the cover of darkness.

Writers painted their jackets for a short period in the mid-1980s.(Supplied:

“Even if you were painting a legal wall, you might be finishing it off as the sun goes down, and it’s not until you come back the next day and see it in the right light that you can assess it properly.”

The poor light made it difficult to differentiate between some paints, like white and yellow for example, so some artists would write labels on their cans lest they did their “highlights and shines” in the wrong colour.

“And there are many stories of people going back to look at artwork they’d painted to see that there’s a big patch they’d missed,” Mr Houston said.

Teenagers gather at Goodwood Railway station in the mid-1980s.(Supplied:

The Goodwood walls

Anticipation also grew about going to see somebody else’s work the kids had heard about.

They’d go by public transport, sometimes following their nose to the smell of fresh paint.

“We look at the scene now and we can just Google whatever we want with images, but back then it was very rare to see these sorts of things,” Mr Houston said.

“Information was hard to find, so you had to go out and do the legwork.”

By 1992, graffiti styles had developed considerably, such as this piece by Rank in Unley.(Supplied:

An exception was the “Goodwood walls”, the bricked exterior of the Royal Adelaide Showgrounds, where graffiti writers would create their work and thousands of people using metropolitan trains at the interchange would see it daily.

Another favourite for artists were the old Redhen trains, particularly the 303 carriage, due to the fact its panels did not have any ridges and provided a flat canvas for writers.

“By the time the mid-1980s came around, there were only three or four of these original cars still running around and they were a prized target for graffiti writers,” Mr Houston said.

Adelaide’s Redhen train carriages were a regular target for graffiti writers in the 1980s.(Supplied:

Big names emerge

Fast forward to 2021 and graffiti has become synonymous with street art, with big names like Banksy and Australia’s Anthony Lister commanding big money for their work, murals getting commissioned all over the city, and even local artists who cut their teeth in the old scene, like KAB 101, having a laneway in Prospect named after him by the local council.

Jimmy C’s mural of David Bowie in south London became a shrine after the pop star’s death in 2016.(Reuters: Stefan Wemuth)

Another teenager whose work appears in Wildfire, known today as Jimmy C, has gone on to big things, having being praised worldwide for his 2013 London mural of David Bowie after it became a shrine to the late pop artist in 2016.

What was once a raw and edgy scene has become more mainstream, as have other movements of the day that had parents and authorities in a flutter, such as skateboarding and hip hop, although a subculture beneath the sanctioned surface remains very much alive and kicking.

A young David Houston taking photographs during the 1980s.(Supplied:

“I would think there seems to be lot more acceptance now,” Mr Houston said.

Even back in the 1980s, however, there were plenty of property owners who would allow teenagers to paint their walls — some even helped pay for paint — with the occasional deli owner allowing them to work provided they painted the shop’s name at the top.

“But there wasn’t any great remuneration going on by any means, whereas these days people are getting paid tens of thousands of dollars and being flown all around Australia and the world, when they could [before the pandemic],” Mr Houston said.

Breakdancing swept through Adelaide for a brief period in the mid-1980s and involved many graffiti writers.(Supplied:

Involved in something special

As a teenager, Mr Houston must have had a sense he was involved in something special because he had the foresight to take a few photographs along the way.

His book also draws from the photographs of others involved, who Mr Houston tracked down in various places across the world.

Rust shows off his collection of spray cans, circa 1987-88.  (Supplied:

I had photo albums sent to me from all over Australia, from Denmark, from London, information from New York, Adelaideans who have spread their wings and gone to greener pastures,” he said.

“Some may have only dabbled in this in 1985 and 86, so when I contacted them 20-odd years later, they were astounded and said, ‘You want to speak to me about what?'”

While some were reluctant to get involved because they had moved on, Mr Houston said most people were “absolutely ecstatic”.

The Goodwood walls on the Adelaide Showground boundary were a graffiti mecca.(Supplied:

One of his motivations to create the book was to show his son his life as a teenager, to give an insight into his own youth because he never experienced that with his parents who have since passed away.

He said many of the people he contacted felt the same way and wanted to show their kids what they did.

“They weren’t out to break rules and be criminals. That was the furthest thing on their mind,” Mr Houston said.

“We were just a bunch of teenagers going through all the same sorts of things other teenagers go through but with this background of spray painting and painting pieces, rightly or wrongly, and it developed over time.”

A 1992 piece by Kab and Sooz at Kings Court.(Supplied: