Layer upon layer Luke Cornish builds images to intrigue travellers stopped at traffic lights

Artists adding a splash of colour and humour to public amenity boxes at intersections across the Illawarra have painted more than 100 boxes in the past decade.

To reduce graffiti and vandalism, the traffic signal box program pays artists to design and paint street art onto the big metal box at every light interchange.

Artist Luke Cornish also known as E.L.K says there’s a big difference between street art and graffiti.

“Graffiti is letters and characters. It’s very much a culture, a subculture,” he said.

“Street art is very open, it’s about self-expression so it could be stencils or stickers or murals or yarn bombing, there are so many different facets of street art.”

Luke Cornish and his Archibald entrant for 2023

Luke Cornish and Councillor Yvonne Wheldon with his 2023 Archibald entrant at the AGNSW.(Supplied: Ruth McKenzie)

Whilst the Archibald contender sells his technically progressive, photorealistic artworks, he also shares them with the public for free on the boxes across town.

“I really enjoy working on the light boxes. It’s the perfect surface,” he said.

“It’s flat, it’s clean, it’s square, and it’s highly visible.”

Cornish, an established artist who has exhibited in the Archibald three times, has also got work in the national collection.

“I’ve travelled the world through my art, and I’ve been full-time for nearly 20 years,” he said.

“Some people think I’m just a hoodlum painting the streets, but they can think whatever they want, I am fine with where I am at,” Cornish said.

Community engages local creatives

The traffic signal box program has been running in the Illawarra for the past decade according to Alison Bradford, Wollongong City Council’s community development and engagement officer.

“At every set of traffic lights there is a big metal box that is usually grey or green and what we’ve seen in the past is that they are often quite graffitied, so this is a way to address the graffiti and then also beautify the area,” Ms Bradford said.

Alison Bradford outside the Wollongong Youth Centre

Alison Bradford says the traffic signal box program addresses graffiti and beautifies the area.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Ms Bradford said there was pleasure in taking something plain and mundane and often not recognised as an asset in the community, and transforming it.

A traffic control box with Australian native plants painted on it.

Across the Illawarra, artists have been busy painting.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

“The artists’ work increases the community amenity, beautifies the place and adds a real sense of community pride because it’s local artists that are painting the boxes,” she said.

“You’ll see people walking past with a smile on their face because of the artwork.”

A council spokesperson said the project received approximately $39,000 in funding through the NSW communities and justice department.

“It’s the first time this department has funded this project. A total of 77 boxes have been painted over the past 12 months,” they said.

Now, more than 100 boxes have been painted by paid artists.

A traffic lights controlling box in operation.

Original artwork covers many traffic light control boxes in the Illawarra region. (ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

Illusion of weightlessness

As the world opened up for him, Cornish was delighted to discover that street art was a pure form of expression.

A man spray paints a roadside box.

E.L.K created this astronaut image using 10 layers of stencils. (ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

“The first exhibition I ever saw at school was an artist called George Gittoes. He’s a conflict artist and that was life-changing, seeing that experience at 14, 15 years old,” Cornish said.

An imge of a stencilled astronaut in space.

Luke Cornish creates photo realistic images using multiple layer stencils and spray paint. (ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

“Oh, you can actually do that?

“They say if you can’t see it, you can’t be it, and we didn’t have people like that growing up in the suburbs of Canberra.”

Consequently, his work focused on war and the rise of authoritarianism, but this is not the message he’s tagging on the traffic signal boxes.

“I think everyone is at the point where we are just a bit fatigued by all this negative imagery coming through in the media, and the war and the destruction and the cost-of-living crisis,” Cornish said.

“I really just want to start putting out some positive imagery, it gives you something positive to look at when you are stopped at the lights too, you can’t look at your phone anymore.”

From street rebel to road warrior

Using a mix of handpainted and spray-painted designs Jyi Westaway, whose street name is Jyiro, has painted 30 boxes across the Illawarra.

A man stands in front of a large frog he painted.

Jyi Westaway consistently paints animals and occasionally people in his traffic box designs.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

“I got into a bit of graffiti when I was a teenager, but always had more of a love for art, and then I just stuck with it, just kept going, and got to where I am today as a full-time artist,” Westaway said.

Even now, the 37-year-old challenges himself, happy with the results.

A man stands near two traffic signal boxes he painted in Wollongong.

For over a decade and under the tag Jyiro, Jyi Westaway has tagged his art across the region. (ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

“Each box has a story, the boxes on Towradgi Road, their story is about my kids,” he said. 

“I’ve nearly seen accidents happen when people are stopping and looking at my artwork and they are getting beeps going it’s a green light you know, move on!

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