If there was trouble brewing in Sydney in the late 70s and 80s, chances are Toby Zoates was the one at the stove.
A notorious shit-stirrer, prolific artist, political radical, sharp satirist, and gay activist – among other handles – Toby lived at the beating heart of a much scrappier city. It was a crumbling urban mecca of punk clubs, squatted warehouses, street protests and 24-hour cafes servicing the lost souls that tumbled down from the Cross.
“I lived at Kings Cross a lot, I just hung around there,” he tells VICE. “The Piccolo was open till dawn, so I stayed there nearly every night.”
The Piccolo Bar – an infamous night spot that opened its doors in the 1940s – still stands on Roslyn Street, though its grungy legacy has been smoothed over with a snazzy new fit-out; time-yellowed photographs and down-and-out regulars replaced. Vittorio Bianchi, the former owner, is one of Toby’s closest friends.
Known for its celebrity clientele, the bar was also a hub for artists and misfits, otherwise known as Toby’s people.
“A lot of my friends are sex workers, a lot of my other friends are musicians,” he says, gesturing towards a Kings Cross street scene. It’s one of over 60 pieces displayed in his solo exhibition at PASS~PORT store and gallery, a retrospective of his life’s work.
In the drawing, neon signs of now-defunct strip clubs are rendered in fluro colours above funky cartoon crims swapping cash for drugs and guns. In the bottom right corner Toby, with hair styled in signature liberty spikes, is being carted away by two undercover cops. It’s part comedy, part tragedy and pure Toby Zoates.
“I call it deadbeat realism and surrealism, together,” he says of his style. It’s an accurate characterisation of his impressive back catalogue – countless posters, drawings and paintings, iconic murals, a comic book, two documentaries, an animated short and a feature film – which blends harsh elements of city living with futuristic fantasy.
Toby grew up in Melbourne’s Olympic Village – a social housing community with, at the time, some of the highest poverty and crime rates in the city. Though he has a close relationship with his family now, there was violence and dysfunction in his home.
He came out in 1967, at the age of 17, when it was a crime to be gay in Australia, and remembers feeling “full of angst” as a “criminal queer” with the threat of police violence hanging over his head.
With a life of discrimination ahead of him, Toby decided to try an experimental psychological treatment recommended by a workmate.
“I only found out a couple of years later, but the whole scene was run by a cult – The Family and Anne Hamilton-Byrne, who is infamous now.”
Over four sessions, Toby says he was drugged with high doses of LSD while devotees tried to scare him straight. He wasn’t responding to the “therapy” so, in his last session, he was given a double dose of acid. “I truly went from hell, suddenly, to heaven. And in heaven I saw that,” he says, pointing to a vision of nirvana on the gallery wall.
Call it irony or destiny that a treatment designed to cure Toby of his homosexuality had birthed one of the gayest artworks imaginable – Dancing in the Garden of Pan – a painted scene of sexual liberation chosen as the centrepiece of his retrospective.
But after his unexpected breakthrough, Toby escaped out the back door, jumped a fence and ran away. He would end up running all the way to India. “It was fucking amazing,” he says of his time sleeping on the streets of Mumbai, Delhi and Goa. “That made me who I am. Books made me who I am. Psychedelic drugs made me who I am.”
Toby has published two books chronicling the events of his life – Vagabond Freak and Punk Outsider – with a third on the way. “I’ve been a really voracious reader of books, since I was young,” he says. “I started reading at 5-years-old and went through a huge comic book stage. Like all children, I had hundreds and hundreds … and of course it carried right through to what you just saw now, that comic book look at life.”
In his teen years, Toby drew inspiration from transgressive cartoonists like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) and Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead). He went on to study writing at the University of Technology in Sydney while producing silkscreen posters at the Tin Sheds Art Workshop, a Sydney University institution known for its avant-garde political posters.
“This is my first poster. 1977,” he says, pointing to a composition of fat, red letters dripping, blood-like, onto black and white protest photos. “We were trying to stop uranium from being shipped out of White Bay, and we camped there for maybe two weeks. Finally, they brought the trucks in with the uranium and we rioted. The police fought us and arrested us… I got arrested.”
Toby and his fellow demonstrators received hefty fines, so he decided to throw a benefit gig at the Balmain Town Hall to raise some money. He mocked up the poster and asked Mental As Anything, fresh out of art school, to play. “They did it for $50,” he recalls. “It was a wild night, it was fantastic, and we paid all our fines.”
Toby Zoates – the moniker – was born in 1978 when a commercial for Uncle Tobys oats set off a lightbulb in his head. The name would end up becoming synonymous with the squatting movement. Toby lived in the Darlinghurst squats for a year, painting the “Darling it Hurtz” mural that inspired the Paul Kelly song of the same name, before settling down in the Pyrmont Squats.
“I stayed there 12 years. Can you believe it? Skinhead attacks, junkies stole everything I ever had – it would have been cheaper to pay rent, seriously,” he says. “Fighting off the police, Channel Nine news crew came at one point, stuck TV cameras through my window.” These are just some of the trials and tribulations Toby endured in the squats, in between the good times.
Walking through his art show is like receiving a mini history lesson of Sydney. Defunct rock venues, riots, the rise of neoliberalism and the gay rights protest movement are all represented on the walls. Toby was part of Sydney’s first Mardi Gras demonstrations, a group known as the 78ers. He also belonged to the Prisoners’ Action Group and campaigned for women’s rights alongside activist and journalist Wendy Bacon.
But despite Toby’s commitment, and his productivity as an artist, he’s never slotted into any collective or scene.
“I’ve found it hard to get support in my non-career and it’s always surprising, unusual places like this that have backed me,” Toby says. “Mostly because I’m anarchic and I’m intersectional.”
“If you asked me who I am, I might say queer first, but I’d say I’m an artist, a traveller, a nurse, I’m into science,” he trails off. “It takes mad men and mad women to be visionaries and make art.”
The work that earned Toby perhaps the most notoriety, an animated short called The Thief of Sydney (1984), is set in a post-apocalyptic city ravaged by nuclear war. It follows Singood, a homeless youth who Toby cast from the Pyrmont Squats, into a psychedelic nightmare world where he steals oxygen to survive and crashes the “sound surfing Olympics” for a punk dance battle.
The Thief cuts between animation and live-action footage using a technique known as rotoscoping. It was painstakingly animated by hand, including the 20,000 or so cells and 30 backgrounds Toby drew and painted himself, and took five years to make. The 13-minute explosion of colour and sound was nominated for Best Animated Short by the Australian Film Institute in 1985 and won Bronze Dragon for script at Krakow International Animation Festival in Poland the same year. It was later picked up by Troma, the American production company that bought the rights to Toby’s feature film Virgin Beasts.
It would be impossible to cover all of Toby’s escapades here. He has the raw talent, wit, and life experience that most artists could only dream of. And, while mainstream success has eluded him, it’s earned him street infamy among youth subcultures, with his works revered by graffiti artists, skaters and art school kids.
“I’m surprised when I’m told this because, seriously, I’m a bum,” he retorts, but concedes that it makes sense considering he’s hung around youth subcultures all his life. Sharpies, mods and punks, to name a few. “I think a lot of the underground or subculture types, as far as I’m concerned, are really smart people because they don’t buy into, in the end, the destructive bullshit.”
To sustain his art practice, Toby earned his living as a palliative care nurse. He dreamed up the script for Virgin Beasts while working the graveyard shift at Callan Park Hospital and has worked in nearly every clinic, hospital or nursing home in Sydney. It’s an experience that taught him humility – “being a nurse all those years and cleaning people’s shit, I couldn’t think I’m the best thing since apple pie” – and the value of life.
“When you’re with someone who’s dying and they die, you really see it; they’re dead and it’s gone,” he reflects. “And I just thought well, I’m alive and I’m gonna go and fucking live. I’m gonna take life by the throat.”
When the Pyrmont Squats were shut down, in the early 90s, Toby was re-homed in Northcott Towers, in Surry Hills. “I gotta say, compared to my life in the squats, it was paradisiacal,” he says. While the hot showers were a welcome luxury, life inside the building that earned the nickname “suicide towers” has been far from easy. Still, it’s given Toby a stable base to work from.
With the PASS~PORT show wrapping up, his attention has turned to finishing his third book, which kicks off in the mid 90s when Toby says that he was framed for an armed robbery. It also covers his exploits in France, where Virgin Beasts was awarded joint first place at the Trash Film Festival. He’s given the book the apt name of Lone Stranger, a reference to Westerns and his perpetual outsider status.
Toby’s is a story of survival. He’s weathered extreme poverty, beatings, and police harassment, and avoided the hard drugs that felled so many of his peers. Art is his drug of choice. Determination, focus and intense work delivering the creative rush.
“I’m not distracted by love, drugs, even partying or whatever,” he says. “My high is this.”
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