I'm standing in a small alley off McKillop St, staring at the side of a building.
"What do you see?" asks Bernadette Alibrando, my tour guide from Walk to Art. I scratch my head, perplexed.
"Bricks," I answer, knowing I'm failing dismally at my attempt to discern street art from vandalism.
But then I see it - the building appears to be breathing. I let out a cheer of excitement. I'm having my first real encounter with Melbourne's flourishing urban art culture and I'm instantly hooked.
Largely regarded as the cultural capital of Australia, Melbourne offers world-class art and cultural heritage institutions and internationally recognised artists, while imaginative design and architecture abound.
Outside mainstream culture, though, street art - some officially sanctioned - is also thriving.
Alibrando's Walk to Art tour helps bring the city's renowned street art to life for aficionados and novices like myself.
Her four-hour tour takes participants on a journey to hidden commercial galleries, artist-run initiative spaces and artists' studios in unnamed buildings that are the reward for climbing many stairs. At the same time, Alibrando, an art consultant by trade, helps make sense of the vast array of street art that adorns the network of narrow lanes criss-crossing the CBD.
Without her I would never have seen the breathing wall, one of the Melbourne City Council's innovative Laneways Commissions, or have known the difference between tagging, paste-ups, aerosol art and stencilling, let alone have an opinion on it.
With her jet-black pixie hairdo and trademark red lipstick, Alibrando started her tours after returning from New York, where she worked for pre-eminent gallery Silverstein Photography.
"In New York, art is part of everyone's culture and even little kids go to galleries on the weekend. There isn't this huge gap where people think if they're not educated they can't talk about art."
Our tour starts in Union Lane, one of the city's most renowned for street art and festooned with a vibrant, colourful mix of stencil, poster, sticker and aerosol graffiti such as the animated self-portrait by a street artist known only as Deb.
Alibrando points out the unassuming work of a young Melbourne artist who has produced a picture of a homeless person on a park bench. She describes the work as a mature stencil piece where the concept and the medium "marries the space".
Next, we head for Centre Place, a busy lane crammed with shops and cafes and bustling with shoppers, office workers on lunch breaks and intrepid camera-toting tourists, while above the shops, apartment balconies overlook the action.
This space is home to Citylights, an independent public art project that uses light boxes installed along the lane to illuminate artwork by local and international artists.
The project was funded by local artist Andy Mac, who is largely credited for the development of the city's street art. Thanks to Mac, Alibrando says, Melbourne is now recognised along with New York, Berlin, London and Barcelona in the street art movement.
From Centre Place, we cross Flinders Lane, before ducking underground to the black-marble and pink-tiled art deco subway station, Campbell Arcade (also known as Degraves Street Subway), built for the 1956 Olympics.
This station is home to Platform, Melbourne's oldest artist-run space, with regularly refreshed exhibits in glass cabinets. On one side of the arcade, an installation with three lamps is simply titled You brighten my day, which draws smiles from the hurrying passers-by.
"The good thing about Melbourne," Alibrando says, "is you've got accessible culture, so even people running for the train can see art without having to actually go to a gallery."
For Alibrando, good art is good art - regardless of where it is. One of her favourites is Miso (Stanislava Pinchuki), a 21-year-old artist living and working in Melbourne whose work is inspired by Ukranian folklore.
Miso's street art has been bought by the National Gallery of Australia _ a big achievement for someone so young. "I often walk my groups by Miso's gorgeous hand-drawn portrait paste-ups in the city streets. It gives me such pleasure to share these engaging works with others," says Alibrando.
As our tour draws to a close, we nip down Hosier Lane, also famous for its gritty street art, before resting our weary feet in the tiny but jam-packed Bar Lourinha.
Waiting for us is a glass of chilled Spanish rose and a cheese platter, which we devour while passionately discussing the merit, or otherwise, of the various works we've seen.
IF YOU GO
* Walk to Art tours, at $108 each, including a water bottle and wine and cheese, run on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2pm-6pm: 2 1/2-hour Express Friday tour, $78. Itineraries change regularly and include an hour afterwards for discussion. Bookings essential. Ph: 8415 0449 or 0412 005 901.
* To experience more of Melbourne's art culture, check into one of Melbourne's Art Series Hotels.
* Sister Bella, a New York-style bar offers a taste of Melbourne's hip laneway vibe. Or join local caffeine addicts for a cup of Single Origin Java at Brother Buba Budan, 359 Little Bourke St, ph: (09) 9606 0449. sevenseeds.com.au
Fly there with Air New Zealand Book now
Find out more at Australia.com