Just off Keira Street in downtown Wollongong, a kaleidoscopic mess of urban art murals sprawls across the back wall of the local Youth Centre. It’s a Friday afternoon and Anthony Jones is standing in the open with his back to the wall and a mask across his face. His right hand grips a full can as he chats to a bunch of local kids. “The Fact that I was able to turn this into an operable business that supports me full time, that’s my biggest achievement,” he proudly remarks as his young students listen intently. Painting walls is finally paying the bills for the artist formally known as Peske.
It wasn’t long ago that a young Anthony found himself staring at the walls of a prison cell, wondering where it all went wrong. “I had a fairly long stint. I was in there for fifteen months.” One year and three months. A long stretch with plenty of time to stare at the cold, blank walls and reminisce about the many mistakes made during a misspent youth.
It all started pretty early on. “I was from a young age a fairly troublesome kid, I caused my parents a fair bit of grief.” Hanging around with the wrong crowd in Wollongong got Anthony’s parents worried. They thought a fresh start might change his attitude so he was shipped off down to Melbourne to live with his Aunty.
He arrived in outer-suburban Melbourne at age fourteen and started hanging out at the skate park in Croydon with a kid called SED.
“That was when I started rubbing shoulders with graffiti artists.”
SED was the same age and seemed happy to show him the ropes. “He took me around Melbourne and showed me all of the hotspots; the laws, subculture.” Anthony was instantly hooked. “It was very graffiti orientated…, tags, throw ups, pieces, we literally did it wherever we could”. He felt at home in the graffiti subculture and quickly made a name for himself under the pseudonym Peske.
“It wasn’t law abiding but that’s where it all starts.”
Defacing property became a daily routine for Peske and SED. Their misfit band of counter-culture-graffiti-artists would roam the streets, touching up walls with a can of spray paint in one hand and a can of beer in the other.“ I can see how people could see that its defacing property and I can see that on the same token its total artistic freedom, there’s canvases everywhere,” says Anthony. Despite this, it wasn’t all fun and games. Anthony’s parents were shocked when his new love of grog and graffiti followed him back to Wollongong.
Anthony was out left on the streets of Sydney.
“I moved back up and my parents couldn’t cope… I was in refuges around Sydney. I was probably in around fifteen different refuges, I was in there for a max of two months at a time and for a huge chunk of that time I was just on the streets. I was just couch surfing… I was still painting and doing my thing in amongst all that.”
Anthony recalls ringing his dad at two o’clock one morning from a payphone in Sydney, begging for cash. “The way you’re going, you’re going to end up in gaol,” his father warned.
A cocktail of drugs and alcohol mixed with an aggressive temperament was a recipe for disaster. His father could see Anthony spiralling out of control. “The spin-offs of things they were doing ultimately landed me in big trouble.” Soon after the strong warning from his father Anthony realised that his graffiti habit wasn’t getting him anywhere. “I was thinking about it one day and it was after I had gone out painting and I saw my stuff around and for the first time I realised that it wasn’t really doing anything for me anymore, it wasn’t aligned with what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do anymore…you’re sitting there painting fences and it seems a little bit childish.”
It was a long time coming—vandalism, drugs, alcohol and now a serious assault conviction. For Anthony, the slamming of the cell door came as a rude shock—the kind of shock that snaps you into gear.
“I looked around and I thought, are you a gangster Anthony? Are you a gangster? I want to know, are you a gangster? Because if you are then this is the place for you, and this is the rest of your life, right here: you’re looking at it. These concrete walls and the barbed wire and all the fences, this is you man, sign up,” he said. “If it’s not you, then something needs to change, it needs to change right now and it needs to change in here. Because if you can start making a change towards a better future inside then you can mould who you are mentally and also physically to be able to come with what’s going to be put before you when you get out.”
The now fit and rakish Anthony Jones spent the remainder of his sentence steeling himself for a second chance at life. “Fitness played a big part when I was in gaol… I went in and I was all skinny and malnourished and now I had all this access to food and a large amount of time and I was drug free- so I was training.” Anthony was sporting both a healthy body and mind when he finally got to experience the pure, unadulterated joy of redemption.
“It was the most amazing experience of my life.”
Those first couple of months out of prison were the most important. “I needed to formulate some sort of game plan, on how this was going to be lasting change.” The first step was severing ties with all his old friends and joining the local gym. The transformation was clear for all to see: gaunt drug addict to bushy-tailed gym goer.
His positive new outlook and fresh love of fitness landed Anthony a job as a store manager for a supplement company in Albion Park. One day his boss approached him, “I know that you used to do graffiti,” he said. Anthony was initially shocked but his boss’ revelation was quickly followed by a request. “Would you mind doing a mural piece in Woonona, in our new store?”
He hadn’t picked up a can for five years but the request made Anthony curious. He was keen to give it a shot.
“I went out and painted the mural. I was there for a couple of hours and the boss said, here’s the money for the materials and here’s a little bit extra for your time. I jumped in my car and I put the money on my passenger seat and I was driving home and it was literally the craziest moment—I just got paid for doing something that I love, for the first time”.
It all of a sudden seemed like a no-brainer. The same creative outlet that once led him astray could provide a source of income and a platform for Anthony to express himself creatively.
He ran with the inspiration and formed his business, Urban Art Australia.
“Fundamentally what we do, we paint murals, that’s what we do,” he said.
After just two short years Anthony’s business is supporting him full time and his murals can be seen vibrantly sprayed on homes and shopfronts all across the Illawarra region. Business is booming and Urban Art Australia has gone a long way to shaping Anthony’s second chance at life.
Local Wollongong Youth Worker Claudia Boiano knew Anthony when he was young and has witnessed his transformation first-hand. “Anthony was able to turn his life around from being a troubled young person to a fully functioning adult that wants to give back to his community through his skill in art,” she said. Claudia and Anthony have recently facilitated an aerosol art workshop at the local Youth Centre and Claudia gladly remarks on the impact Anthony is having on the lives of young blokes in the area.
“He was able to articulate to the young people positive and encouraging lessons that also provided a safe environment that allowed the young people to express themselves in a creative way.”
The kid who grew up on the wrong side of the law is now showing a new generation of young people the right way to operate.
As he winds up his latest workshop out the back of the youth centre, Anthony explains his process to the students who are now hanging off his every word. “I try to get up and think what did I do yesterday that I can do differently today, to get more out of life, to get more out of myself, and to give more to the people that are around me”. The artist formally known as Peske, who got dirty with a spray can from age fourteen, has finally cleaned himself up.