Fast-talking Tony Spanos describes himself in many ways:
“A little man with a lot of heart.”
“A 5’3″ Greek guy who might knock your ears out.”
“Not an activist. Not a graffiti artist. Not a raver. Just this wild guy with some money who doesn’t want to see kids get in trouble.
“A cat taking a nap. Alive, day and night. A man with a lot of stamina, a lot of energy.
“A sugar daddy.”
The last one is obviously a joke. A more accurate way of saying it, he says, would be “bankroller.” And Tony, the son of a millionaire, has put money behind a lot of things.
In the early 1990s, Spanos used his wealth to create a community centre, immortalized in Sydney rave history, as “The Graffiti Hall Of Fame”: a double-storey car park next to a butcher’s shop family in Alexandria in Sydney. For more than a decade, the space has served as a hub for grassroots youth and Indigenous organizations to raise funds, congregate and, intermittently, throw parties.
Sydney City Council may have viewed his business as borderline dispensary (and illegal), but for children in surrounding communities it was a safe space for artistic merit and freedom. . The Hall was a sanctuary for young graffiti artists, DJs and people looking to appreciate the early days of electronic music on the Sydney scene.
And Tony paid for it all – in more than one way. Although Hall was an undoubted hit among the youngsters, for Tony himself, he racked up multiple court cases that left his wealth hanging by a thread.
“I was the adult trying to help the kids have a good time,” Tony told VICE on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the alley of an artists’ space in St. Peters at Sidney.
Around us, semi-retired ’90s ravers scramble through the mud, amid printing t-shirts, building structures for speakers and sewing. A slightly eerie sculpture made of old, forgotten toys sits at the entrance, along with two stuffed stags, riding each other.
Weaving between animated tales of the early 90s, much of our conversation revolves around the community he aimed to build and the children who came to him for refuge.
“I was the rich guy who had the money and I was trying to give them an honest education. I would take them, pay them and divert them from the crime – the corruption there – that drives them to consume drugs,” he said.
There’s a striking humanity and empathy behind Tony’s eyes as he animatedly jumps from his seat every few seconds to re-enact scenes from when the graffiti hall of fame was born.
But before Tony launched the Hall in 1990, adopting the title of “unofficial social worker”, he was employed in the family butcher shop, run by his father, William Spanos.
“The best name for the Greek community in Australia for over 50 years,” says Tony.
His sister has just married a guy he doesn’t particularly like and, at 33, he decides to pursue his childhood dream: NASCAR.
In America, Spanos arrived at the Winston Cup where he says he drove, untrained, more than 200 miles per hour, scaring stupid and surviving professionals. He claims that the film thunder days, starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, was based on his life and that of his girlfriend.
“I was the type of guy who was always jumping off the highest rock, doing something crazy, bragging. I knew how to be mean,” he said.
“But the moral of the story is that I lived my dream and I stayed alive.”
When he returned to Australia, a changed man, it was on the round trip between “the rich region” of Vaucluse – where he was raised alongside multi-millionaires like James Packer, the Murdochs and the Fairfaxes – and Alexandria, where butcheries were located, that saw the comparative disadvantage between the communities.
“So I said, ‘From today on, I don’t want to go back to work in the butcher shop. I’m just gonna turn the parking lot into a Graffiti Hall of Fame and sponsor all the kids to live their dreams. Whatever they want it to be”.
It was around the same time that parties at the Hordern Pavillion were in full swing and acid house, brought in by British expats, began to diversify the rave scene. Tony would invite young artists, paying them as they went, to pulverize the two-level car park. Sometimes members of rival crews, which in the political world of graffiti was unheard of and somewhat risky.
“I was taking the crime out of graffiti and turning the minds of these boys. Take their graffiti and put it on the walls, rather than doing train stuff and thinking they’re tough and ending up in jail.
If a child had talent, Tony would ask him to paint the wall. He paid them salaries, bought them paint and they ended up with a portfolio, business cards and a photo album. Nor would they be arrested for it.
When Tony was charged in court with being ‘a businessman sponsoring illegal activity’, prosecutors asked for official memberships at the community center – he pointed to an exhaust pipe in the parking lot where all the graffiti artists painted their name; “They are there.”
“They started questioning me and I was ordered to hand over the children to the police,” Tony explains.
“But if I gave them the children’s names and addresses, they wouldn’t ask me for help.”
As the Graffiti Hall of Fame grew, so did the parties. He was teaching some of the kids in the community how to draw posters like the ravers did, getting them to bring friends, graffiti artists, create a DJ set list, set up a basketball hoop, and collect decorations in a storage. unit that housed the Sydney Opera House equipment.
“Every time I hired St. John Ambulance for $250, they were volunteers and were just there to talk to them about the drugs or whatever was wrong,” Tony explains.
In the morning, he opened a small take-out store next to the Meatworks and had a rolling bill where local kids could grab food for free. He also hired the kids during and after the party to keep the floors clean and make sure there was no broken glass. He cites distributing at least a dozen Volks Wagon Kombis to various children over the decade.
“The ravers, I liked them, they were healthy. They would dance alone. They would dance in their own space and groove. The guy with pimples would end up with the model because he moves well and he’s shy and he’s nice. And she sees her inner soul. It wasn’t greasy. »
The children showed up in their oversized t-shirts and baggy pants: the uniform of the 90s. Tony said it would sometimes be difficult to tell if it was a man or a woman.
“They needed someone with money. The government did not help. The only other people who could help are the criminals. They have money to spend on the kids and take them down the wrong path.
“It brought them to life.”
Pete Strong, member of the 90s DJ collective Vibe Tribe, watches as I chat with Tony. He listens quietly as we chat, or more accurately, as Spanos whispers in my ear – occasionally popping in to share a fun joke about Tony’s life.
As the conversation shifts to the police and closed parties, he laughs.
“At the Graffiti Hall of Fame, they had to draw straws,” Pete says.
“Tony would be in their face and it would be too much for them. So apparently one of the cops told Tony they would draw straws and see who should come down and talk to him.
In one story, Pete was hosting a rave in Redfern when the cops arrived around 8 p.m. “We just waited and they were gone. And we were like ‘why?’ Well, Spanos may have had a word with them. Maybe it was the cops he won over to the Graffiti Hall of Fame.
Tony had an interesting relationship with the police. There were those he called “good cops” and those he called “bad cops.” The former are those who turned a blind eye to the operation, the latter did the opposite.
Growing up, Tony says his well-connected dad sent generous amounts of meat to various police stations, which gave Spanos a bit of protection. As the old officers came out, this protection diminished.
“They used to bring down cops from other suburbs because the locals knew what I was doing was positive,” he said.
“The bad police were shutting it down and then putting all these kids out on the street…and the buses weren’t running until 6am.”
“I would say ‘What do you guys want me to do?’ What if I come home and leave you with this mess Or you can go back to the station and if something goes wrong, you know who I am.
After a while, the children Tony cared for learned to speak like him. I joke that he created a small army of Tonys.
“I would laugh watching them. The police would see so much innocence in them that they would let them go – but if they talked to me, they would be mean to me.
One night, Tony remembers one of the younger ones confronting the cops, only to realize that his mother was dating one of them.
“He was such a winner, because I didn’t know that either,” he laughs. “They had some of their own kids there. They were just kids from Sydney, not terrorists.
Tony found himself in court in 1994 for breaching noise abatement orders, as well as using the hall contrary to the site’s development claim. He won his first case, but was in and out of court until the room disappeared in 2004.
“They’re still trying to bankrupt me to this day,” he says.
“They achieved what they set out to do. They got the factory. They got the Graffiti Hall of Fame. I owned.
But Tony doesn’t seem as concerned about the bankruptcy as he is about the space he’s created for the kids: a drop-in center he says has helped reduce suicide rates and criminal activity.
As a self-proclaimed social worker, the people around Spanos were soft souls who, truly, had never had the opportunity, or the space, to figure out where they were going or what they could do. Constantly, he calls them all “champions”. Some of his children, according to Tony, became professional sports stars, lawyers and doctors.
“They’ve all grown up now. They have their own children. Some of them have grandchildren.
He shows me a picture of a group of men wearing basketball jerseys, pointing to three in particular, “See, they’re champions.”
Although Tony no longer lives in Sydney, opting instead for Queensland’s tropical Gold Coast where he teaches disabled children to surf, he remembers Sydney’s heyday of nightlife, the rave scene and finally the Graffiti Hall of Fame.
“At the time, they just needed to fall in love. They needed to play their music, they needed to feel the euphoria. They needed to have a good time and get everything out of their system.
“That was it for them.”
Follow Julie Fenwick on Twitter and Instagram.
Read more about VICE Australia and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, This Week Online.