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Operation Shelldrake

James Alley talks about the mural project he has just completed with young people at the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre..

I never thought I would be painting the inside of a detention centre with spraypaint, it’s usually the kind of thing that might land you in there! 

In April this year I was invited to participate in Operation Shelldrake, a program involving the production of an ANZAC mural with young people in detention, produced in conjunction with the Australian Army. It was important to the overall program that the young people came away from the project with a strong sense of participation and an understanding of the ANZAC themes of strength, courage, respect and teamwork. Over four weeks we talked through ideas, developed sketches, and learnt techniques which were finally applied to a wall as a mural.

Sketch of final artwork

I have a broad arts practice which started with street art, which I became interested in through Hip Hop culture. Growing up in a small town (Bundaberg), street art and hip hop were an essential artistic expression. It gave me focus and helped formulate an interest in a creative career in a way traditional education couldn’t. After a degree in design, I began my career as an art director for Billabong, later as an illustrator and designer for Human Ventures. I now run small art and illustration studio on the Northside of Brisbane called Metagraphics and am also part of a hip hop faith community called Krosswerdz.

Using the arts to work with communities is a focal point for Metagraphics and ‘Operation Shelldrake’ was the perfect chance to give young people a positive learning experience. It was great to see the detention centre and staff so enthusiastic and supportive about the program. The great thing about mural work is that it involves a clear process of discovery, design and implementation. Young people respond well to the process and I notice they are often surprised by their own capacity. The final results are bold and big.

Artists working on the mural

Young people respond gradually to the artistic encouragement they receive. You can clearly sense their pride in their work and the excitement of producing something of value in turn instills within them a sense of their own value. When I was young I loved being part of a community that “left a mark” on society, it made me feel part of something bigger. Channeling a young persons’ energy into a positive project with a highly visual outcome rewards the participants with a lasting representation of team creativity, commitment and hard work.

Feedback has been great with the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre saying that “The mural exceeded expectations and it is a welcome addition to the school precinct”. I learnt a lot from the young people in this workshop and from the entire process. I was saddened to learn that approximately 50% of students at the centre are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI) while only 3% of the entire Australian population are ATSI. I also learnt that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ANZACS fought for our country while not being recognised as citizens, and that many were treated with disrespect upon their return. I was impressed by the respect given to me by all participants at all times, the high levels of participation from students and especially the inclusive and creative response to the ANZAC theme from ATSI participants. 

This process challenged me to learn more about our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and I am excited about further upcoming opportunities for more mural and arts workshops facilitation that focus on young people in detention.


James Alley

James Alley is an illustrator, designer and artist. 

After graduating in 2000 from QCA with a Bachelor of Design James worked as an Art Director at Billabong while creating and exhibiting locally and having his work featured in various publications. 

After a year working and travelling in London James came home to work on community focussed design projects at Human Ventures in 2007. Working for a social enterprise providing programs for marginalised young people and rural and indigenous communities nurtured a desire to use creativity for good and not evil.

In 2010 James started a design and illustration studio while studying and has completed creative projects for non profits, communities and businesses. 

When not creating or spending time with his family or friends James likes exploring how to connect community and creativity in meaningful ways.

You can follow James’ work here:

Feature image: Section of final art piece. Image courtesy James Alley