Melbourne’s trams have always been regarded as one of the city’s greatest assets and an international drawcard. It was therefore unsurprising that in the late 1970s a group of prominent Melburnians began to talk about using trams in a public art project. 
Old Treasury Building in collaboration with Public Record Office Victoria / 2015

Transporting Art Program

Initially, six artists whose work reflected an interest in the contemporary physical or social environment were commissioned to take part in the Transporting Art program. 

Each artist was asked to submit general plans indicating an overall concept for his or her tram, but were otherwise allowed complete artistic freedom.

Paints, brushes and other materials were provided by the Victorian Government, and each tram was first given a base coat by tramways employees. The work took place at the Preston Tramways Workshops.

Tram No 243,

The first tram to be completed featured colourful and exuberant imagery by the French-born artist Mirka Mora. Public reaction was so positive that the number of artists commissioned to paint trams was expanded to sixteen. 

“In painting my tram I not only celebrated art but also the people of Melbourne”

Mirka Mora,  1978

Mora’s work reflects a Chagall-like ‘joie de vivre’ mingled with the decorative qualities of folk and child art. Fairies, animals and mythical creatures on the outside, and Edward Lear nonsense verse on the inside. 
Each tram took about a month to paint. Erica McGilchrist chose to work the same hours as the men at the Preston Workshops, starting with the 7.30 am whistle and putting in a twelve-hour day.

Tram No. 407

“The ‘patchwork quilt’ design in primary red, blue and yellow is based on a generalized version of ethnic art – no specific country is intended. The myriad stitches symbolize the contribution made by women and the folk art style recognizes the varied, but often undervalued contributions of migrants to Australian culture. It was a tremendous experience on a human level.

My helpers – all middle-aged, all painters – were a Fijian Indian, a Lebanese and men from Macedonia, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia. I learned words from their languages. There was great camaraderie and a lot of singing.”

Erica McGilchrist, 1978

Tram No. 504

'Apostle birds are in flight, as if the tram has run into a group of them and they’re flying along the sides. Then I found the route was to be through Collingwood and Hawthorn football territory, and one cannot be one-eyed in that world, so there is a magpie and a hawk on each side.'

Clifton Pugh, 1978

Stewart Merrett has said that he constantly received inquiries from people wanting to see his work in progress.

Tram No 439.  

'I used the traditional figures of comedy, the clowns, the poets, the musicians and the magicians. I combined high class enamel with acrylic holographic material. A bloody hard job but a great adventure.'

Stewart Merrett, 1982

Bob and Lorraine Jenyns, Launched Tram No 723 in 1989

‘Melbourne has invented the mobile mural, the electric fresco. To fully grasp the originality of the notion, imagine waiting at a bus stop in Rome to take a ride on the Sistine ceiling’. 

Philip Adams, Broadcaster

The Transporting Art project, which enjoyed the support of the Premier and Minister for the Arts, Rupert Hamer, was funded by corporate sponsorship and was an overnight success. 

'Waiting for trams from now on could also mean watching out for the latest art trends’.

Mary Eagle. The Age, August 1978

The artists who participated in this groundbreaking initiative represent a ‘Who’s Who’ of the Australian art scene between the late 1970s and the early 1990s.

Tram No 726.

'The theme of the tram is the country and the city; two aspects of Melbourne life. Each side of the tram is a symbolic landscape of these different environments.' 

Jenny Watson. 1992.

Michael Leunig, Tram No 816. 1986

Mobile Murals and Electric Frescoes 

Over a period of fifteen years, thirty-six trams were painted as part of the Transporting Art program. The painted trams, each a unique artwork in its own right, provided an extra, eye-catching dimension to the Melbourne streetscape and achieved spectacular success. 

Contemporary art created in Melbourne was now part of a permanent, mobile display, and could be freely viewed by all.

The artists who participated in this groundbreaking initiative represent a ‘Who’s Who’ of the Australian art scene between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Howard Arkley, Mike Brown, Aleks Danko, Elizabeth Gower, Michael Leunig, Reg Mombassa, Mirka Mora, Lin Onus and Jenny Watson were just some of those involved. 

For many of the commissioned artists, painting a tram was a milestone moment in their career.

Celebrated Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig wrote about his time painting the No 816 tram.

Goodbye, 816

“In the winter of 1986 I painted a tram in the Preston Workshops. It took me three weeks to do the job and the weather was bitterly cold. I worked at night and alone and kept a supply of tea and food and red wine inside the tram. A large old pot-belly stove stood close by and kept me warm when I needed it.

It was a strenuous and simple task and I was happy to be alone there with my work and my nourishment, with paints and brushes enough and the dear old tram: tram number 816.

Midnight would often find me feasting and shivering and wondering about the history of this particular tram and the great cargo of people it had carried.

At Preston I would sometimes ring the driver’s bell, or pull the conductor’s leather cord and hear the little bell ring just for the fun of it, for the experiment. I walked along the roof, I wound the destination sign back and forth. I slept curled up on a seat one night. I did all the things a boy might do if he were alone with a tram at night”.

Michael Leunig

Tram No 816

'...only 816 itself knew about the mighty load of human circumstance and feeling, the sad and happy journeys, the arrivals and departures, the folly and suffering, innocence and delight, and the steady transport of these things along the dreaming tracks of the Melbourne metropolitan grid.'

Michael Leunig, 1986

Tram no. 837 

The images used on the tram were based on people I saw in real life, in magazines and on television. I used the shape of the figures to create a rhythmical pattern, so as to give the painting movement. The result is a balance between abstract and figurative elements. Terry Matassoni. 1992

There were many challenges, the first obvious one being the size of the tram. One soon realises how big a tram is!

Tram no. 829

'The design draws from Victorian aboriginal symbols (the square and round patterns) and the ochre colours are inspired by Northern and Central Australian aboriginal art. The Sulphur Crested Cockatoo (Yirritja) and the Red Tailed Black and Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo (Dua) represent the different groups at major gatherings in Victoria prior to European settlement'. Lin Onus 1991

Australian rock band Mental As Anything launched their painted tram in 1987. The tram featured a design by band members Reg Mombassa and Peter O'Doherty.
One side represented Reg's landscape of the Hume Highway from Melbourne to Sydney
The other side were Peter's motifs of everyday life.

Tram No 726.

'It tells the history of the world in the time it takes for a tram to go past.'

Peter O’Doherty. Mental As Anything 1987

Merrin Eirth's painted tram launched in 1987. 

Merrin Eirth changed the surface of the tram by fixing a mosaic of tiles to the sides. Eirth called her work Hello, Good-bye Desire. 1987

Tram No 738. ‘The Desert Tram’ depicts the abstracts of the desert, exaggerated and romanticized by their absurd difference from the tram’s environment; brilliant yellow, unfamiliar ant hill shapes, a suggestion of uneven ground. Painted by Jeffrey Makin. 1987
Tram No 814. 'The images on this tram consist of symbols representative of people’s domestic and working environments. They are presented in a way that is intended to give a sense of the wider meaning these objects assume in an individual’s life.' Philip Faulks. 1992

Tram no. 607

'I visualized the tram as an exciting and joyous object only seen briefly as it trundled past. I attempted the strongest intensity and vibration of redness that I could muster and to tune melody, harmony and rhythm in such a way that in the grey of Melbourne’s winter it could be like a riotous jazz band.’ 

Craig Gough. 1979

In 2013 the Transporting Art project was revived for another three years under the name Melbourne Art Trams, thanks to a creative partnership between Melbourne Festival, Yarra Trams and Arts Victoria

This exhibition is embeddable. 

Contact: media@prov.vic.gov.au

This online exhibition has been developed by Old Treasury Building in collaboration with Public Record Office Victoria (PROV). Public Record Office Victoria is the archives of the State Government of Victoria, Australia. 

The following PROV record series have been used in this exhibition: 

12620 Transporting Art Program (Painted Tram Project) Collection

12800 Photographic Collection: Railway Negatives: Alpha-numeric Systems

12903 Photographic Negatives: Railways: Box Systems

12907 Photographic Prints and Slides:Tramways

To access the PROV collection online, go to prov.vic.gov.au

LICENSE: EXHIBIT

Save for any third party material, all online galleries archival content exhibited by Public Record Office Victoria is held by the State of Victoria.

© Copyright State of Victoria through Public Record Office Victoria 2015

To request a copy or permission to publish an image or record, please visit the Public Record Office Victoria website. http://prov.vic.gov.au/copyright

Public Record Office Victoria has endeavoured to acknowledge copyright owners of any third party information, whom can be identified, and respect their legal rights. Should you wish to raise a copyright matter with Public Record Office Victoria, please submit an Online Enquiry http://prov.vic.gov.au/copyright  Public Record Office Victoria will use all reasonable efforts to address your query.

This online exhibition is loosely  based on the physical exhibition Transporting Art originally displayed at Old Treasury Building, 20 Spring Street, Melbourne.  http://www.oldtreasurybuilding.org.au/

Credits: Story

Curated Text — Kate Luciano
Online Producer — Kate Follington
Editorial Support  — Tara Oldfield

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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