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Courting controversy

With trademark oversized glasses, beanie and paint spattered overalls, Driller Jet Armstrong is the sort of man who invites – almost demands – a second look.

He’s one of the most recognised faces in Adelaide.
With trademark oversized glasses, beanie and paint spattered overalls, Driller Jet Armstrong is the sort of man who invites – almost demands – a second look.
And he’s worth a double take.
He is, of course, an artist. That much is obvious.
But scratch a little deeper and you discover someone with an interesting and perhaps challenging perspective of the world.
Someone not afraid to question the safe and comfortable place inhabited by much of middle Australia, someone prepared to speak his mind, passionately argue his cause and attempt to steer society towards what he sees is a better, more inclusive future.
It’s a big ask for a man armed with little more than a paintbrush and a fertile mind.
Driller is many things to many people.
To some he is an outrageous art vandal while others see him as a warrior, using art to fight for a host of social issues, particularly Indigenous reconciliation.
For a rebellious troublemaker he makes a very nice cup of tea as we chat in front of the wood fire in his Bridgewater house, a place he has called home with his wife for more than 30 years.
It’s difficult to imagine this warm and engaging 66-year-old sipping tea as one of the most divisive figures in Australian art, but 30 years ago he was swamped in controversy … and it has followed him doggedly ever since.
Gifted several unwanted original Australian landscape paintings in 1991 which had failed to sell at public auction, Driller painted a crop circle onto one and promptly found himself in the national spotlight and the Federal Court.

He was vilified and marginalised by many in the art world as well as the wider community…

He was accused of abusing the moral rights of the original artist with questions raised about copyright, appropriation and authenticity … even though Driller owned the paintings.
He was vilified and marginalised by many in the art world as well as the wider community, but his actions brought daubism into the modern vernacular … and he’s been adding to other people’s paintings ever since, revelling in the ability to make powerful political statements.
“I see these empty landscapes as symbols of terra nullius, visual symbols, with no sign of Indigenous culture,” he says.
“I use them as the background to make work about reconciliation, about land rights, about deaths in custody, about the stolen generation.
“All of these issues affect us as a nation and are preventing us from moving forward as a nation, especially while we are still tied to England’s apron strings.”
Like many creative trailblazers, he has emerged as a man ahead of his time.
Daubism has gained more acceptance in the ensuing decades, with UK street artist Banksy achieving international prominence and respect, selling his art for millions.
But Driller’s art is far broader than his brush and, with a life-long appreciation for music, he has developed a parallel career as a DJ.


Running his own nightclub, Sugar, in Rundle Street for the past 20 years, Driller has combined his two true loves of music and art.
Sugar is primarily a dance club, but also used its space to showcase visual arts – never charging artists to display their work or charging commission on sold lots.
His nightclub has played host to almost 900 visiting DJs and music artists from across the world in that time.
“That is something I am extremely proud of,” he says.
“Sugar has allowed me to meet so many fabulous people
along the way and give opportunities to so many young
people.” Combining running a nightclub and maintaining his art schedule has, not surprisingly, caught up with him and he put the nightclub on the market this year, ending a huge chapter in his life.
“In a way I’ve had enough,” he said.
“Covid really sucked the life energy out of me in trying to keep that venue afloat. “It’s just been very, very trying.’’
But with plans to take a year off to travel with his wife, Driller has visions of starting a new club or a bar with a heavy emphasis on music.
You get the feeling this son of 10-pound Poms ­­­– who emigrated to Adelaide when he was seven – will continue to rock the boat, no matter what future path attracts his artistic eye.
Anything is possible, particularly when you know this self-confessed “naughty boy” spent 10 years as a police officer after leaving school.
“What started out joining (the police force) for almost a joke, I did enjoy it,” he says.
“It taught me a lot, a lot about myself, about discipline.
“When I left 10 years later, I left as a better person.”
He sees the Indigenous Voice Referendum as an opportunity for Australia to also become better.
“I think this is hugely important,” he says.
“To bring us all together and to move on from our colonial roots.
“We’re doing something wrong, and we need to change what we’re doing and try something else.
“If it’s giving a voice to Indigenous people to come up with answers for their problems, then what’s wrong with that?
“It may not work, but what’s wrong with having a crack?”
Driller is a huge fan of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
“I think Albo is the best PM we’ve had since Bob Hawke,” he says.
“I think he’s great … although he’s got a lot more to do.”
But for all Driller’s willingness to talk about his visions for the future and his colourful past, he declines to reveal his birth name.
At age 26 he changed his entire name, consigning the original to history.
Driller, he says, came from a job advert in a newspaper ‘Drillers wanted’, Jet and Armstrong came from his interest in space and the first landing on the moon.
With a Neil Armstrong (the first man on the moon) reference Driller says, “it was a great name, until Lance came along”.
“But,” he laughs, “it took me until 40 to get my first tattoo, so I do have a cautious side.”

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