I have talked about ‘Eternity’ before, so please excuse my return to the subject, which has been prompted by two quite different sightings this week.
Arthur Stace, ‘The Eternity Man’, stealthily chalked the word ‘Eternity’ on Sydney pavements from the 1930s to the 1960s. Even though Sydney is often accused of being a shallow and superficial city, Sydneysiders still perpetuate the memory of Stace’s one-word warning. Last Monday, for example, I found it chalked on the footpath in Pitt Street near Bridge Street, just round the corner from the Stock Exchange. It was written neatly but the handwriting did not approach Stace’s masterly copperplate.
If you believe in the afterlife, ‘Eternity’ is a powerful reminder to examine the deeds of your present life to ensure you will enter the kingdom of heaven. It was a sermon by evangelical Baptist, the Reverend John Ridley, that inspired the recently-converted Stace to embark on his footpath mission. “Where will you spend eternity?”, thundered the preacher.
But even for non-Christian Sydneysiders, ‘Eternity’ has resonance. Is it simply that they embrace the novelty of a home-grown eccentric who mysteriously but doggedly left his mark on city streets for over thirty years?
Or is there some deeper feeling involved? Does Stace’s message touch on an unspoken guilt about the kind of legacy Sydneysiders will leave? In the very centre of the city is Sydney Harbour, so beautiful with its sparkling water and tree-lined coves, that is easy for people to be reminded how this place might have been before empire-building ambitions laid waste the bush and scattered its original inhabitants.
Perhaps I am wrong about this. Perhaps we should not look to cultural commentators like me, or historians, poets and artists, for an interpretation that explains the appeal of ‘Eternity’. Perhaps instead we should look to the manufacturers of facial tissues.
On Friday I lunched at a bowling club ‘bistro’ in Liverpool, a city some 40 km west of the centre of Sydney. Instead of paper serviettes there was a box of ‘Eternity’ brand tissues on each table. These are apparently manufactured in a Sydney suburb and the typography used for the name cannot be a coincidence. So for me it was particularly interesting to read the vacuous message on the box that was meant to complement the inspiring brand name: ‘Pursue in your dreams and anything is possible’.
In built-up areas the pedestrian crossing is a familiar feature of the horizontal signscape. William Phelps Eno, sometimes known as the ‘father of traffic safety’ is credited with introducing the cross-walk to New York streets in the early 1900s. Once motorized vehicles became popular, something had to be done to protect pedestrians from reckless drivers.
Sydney was one of many cities that soon followed suit. As early as 1912 lines were painted on the road at busy Circular Quay to provide a safe crossing area. Within a few years designated pedestrian crossings in the rest of the city were being marked out with metal studs or pairs of white lines. Designs for crossings have continued to change over the years.
For some people, pedestrian crossings represent order, civilization and safety. For others they represent repression and regimentation of people’s behaviour.
Some pedestrian crossings have achieved iconic status. The most famous is the crossing featured on the cover of the Beatle’s 1969 LP Abbey Road. Photographed by thousands of fans and tourists emulating the Fab Four crossing the road near their recording studio in single file, this ‘modest structure’ (to quote an official of English Heritage) has been given heritage listing for its ‘cultural and historical importance’.
The original photograph has been recently used in a pedestrian safety campaign in the Indian City of Calcutta.And then there’s the Rainbow Crossing at Taylor Square in Sydney’s gay precinct of Darlinghurst. When it was removed by the State Government some people were glad, with one newspaper letter-writer declaring that ‘compulsory pieces of public infrastructure should not force upon pedestrians political views which contravene their religious or moral conscience’.
However such views were drowned out by the groundswell of outrage that manifested itself in the DIY Rainbow Crossing protest. It is significant that this is all going on at the same time as the parliament of Australia’s neighbour New Zealand had done what no Australian government will do and legalised same-sex marriage.
Mind you, as Lawrence Gibbons in City News points out, having created a public relations coup with the DIY Rainbow Crossings, Lord Mayor Clover Moore is left with a dilemma. Under policies implemented during her nine-year tenure, any street art, graffiti or posters in the City of Sydney must be removed from any highly visible site within twenty four hours. Under this ruling, the council’s scrubbing machines should be out there right now removing the rainbows.
This is a story about vindictiveness and vindication. On the face of it, it’s about gay pride and support for the gay and lesbian (LGBTQI) community. But it’s also about me, me, me and my Pavement graffiti project.
It all started with a pedestrian crossing at Taylor Square on Oxford Street that the City of Sydney Council painted in rainbow colours for the 2013 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in February-March. It was supposed to be temporary but Sydneysiders wanted it to stay.
The State Government declared it was a safety hazard and during the night on 10 April it sent in a crew to rip up the rainbow and repave the road. This is where the vindictiveness comes in. Many people saw this action as part of an ongoing campaign by State Premier Barry O’Farrell to ‘Get Clover’ – Clover Moore, that is, the longstanding Lord Mayor of Sydney. Asphalt used as a political weapon. Here’s a newspaper report and video of the dastardly deed.
By the end of the week there were rainbow ribbons and flags flying around Taylor Square to mark the passing of the crossing.
But even more astounding, in protest against the Government’s action, a viral campaign to draw DIY rainbow crossings in chalk took off in Sydney, around Australia, and in other parts of the world.
Around where I live you can’t walk up the street without tripping over a rainbow.
And this is the vindication part. ‘Pavement graffiti’ may seem like an obscure and even unworthy subject on which to base a PhD and many people just don’t get it. But in the very week that I finish writing the thesis, along comes this hotly debated story to demonstrate that PAVEMENT MARKS MATTER. (It’s also left me wondering whether I should open up the thesis again and add an epilogue about rainbow crossings.)
Here’s another one of those pedantic vocabulary posts. We’ve already done ‘sgraffito/ graffiti’ and ‘palimpsest’. Now it’s time to do ‘pavement’ because I got another email this week querying why I use that term. In Australia, says my correspondent, we more commonly use the term ‘footpath’. Trouble is, dear correspondent, that this blog – and indeed my whole Pavement graffiti project – is meant for an international audience, and in any case I’m obsessed with graffiti not only on places where people walk, but also on the hard surfaces where they normally drive, ride, skate and park.
It’s a tricky problem of vocabulary that I have never properly resolved. But here is how I justified using the term ‘pavement’ in my thesis. It comes with a lengthy footnote:
“By ‘pavement’ I mean hard, paved surfaces in public places. These include roads (or ‘carriageways’ in older terminology), footpaths (‘footways’ in older Australian terminology, ‘sidewalks’ in America), public squares and parking lots. Their paving materials range from cobblestones and flagstones to tarmacadam, asphalt and concrete.
“Footnote: The term ‘pavement’ can be problematic in that usage varies across English-speaking countries. Respondents to my blog, Pavement graffiti, have pointed out that people in Britain usually think of the pavement as a paved footway; in Australia this seems to be the more generally accepted meaning as well, although the term ‘footpath’ is more widely used. In American English the term ‘pavement’ is used for ‘the durable surface material laid down on an area intended to sustain vehicular or foot traffic, such as a road or walkway’ (see the entry for Road surface in Wikipedia, accessed 3 March 2013).
“The Oxford English Dictionary’s list of definitions of ‘pavement’ covers all these uses. Condensed, the OED’s meanings (excluding the specialised mining and zoological uses), are: a paved surface or hard covering laid on the ground (used chiefly in technical contexts); paving or similar surfacing (used as a mass noun); the paved or metalled part of a road or other public thoroughfare or the roadway (used chiefly in North America and in Engineering); a paved footpath alongside a street or road (but the preferred term in North America is ‘sidewalk’) (see the entry for pavement in OED Online, Oxford University Press, accessed 20 March 2013).
“In my extensive reading of current as well as older references – mainly from Australia, but also from Britain and USA – I have seen the term ‘pavement’ variously used by both engineers and laypeople to refer to the paved surfaces of roads, of footpaths alone, and of roads and footpaths. For my project I have chosen to use ‘pavement’ in this last, broad sense because it is the only term available that can collectively refer to all the different kinds of hard surface laid down on the ground for ease of passage, whether by wheels, feet or hooves.”
Does that help?
How hotly motorists defend parking spaces as cities become more and more congested with cars. Loss of street parking is one of the major objections to the creation of cycle paths like the one in Bourke Street in Sydney’s inner city.
So the citizens of the city of Leicester in the UK must have had mixed feelings when a team of archaeologists started digging up a council car park a year ago. How many parking spaces were lost in that exercise? But today’s exciting news is that the remains discovered have been positively identified as those of medieval king Richard III, seriously maligned in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, and the last king of England to die in battle.
Asphalt paving is like a tombstone, not only over the remains of the famous like King Richard, but over the bodies of ordinary folk and indigenous people whose life and death resting places were overtaken by the establishment and expansion of cities. It is something I talk about in my article City of epitaphs in Culture Unbound 1: 453-467 (2009).
In the city, life is complicated and boundaries are indistinct. Because people’s lives butt up against each other, behaviour is bound by rules of social etiquette. Feelings of loss and frustration are exacerbated when others overstep boundaries and fail to observe ‘the rules’. When this happens, people look for ways to re-establish their individuality.
The lowly pavement – that shared space that belongs to everyone and no one – is sometimes co-opted by people attempting to assert themselves. The anonymous airing of petty grievances on and about the pavement is a satisfying way of alleviating feelings of powerlessness.
People paint ‘Bread is making birds sick’ on areas where other people feed pigeons; they chalk circles around dog droppings and write ‘Filthy dog owner’.
Their notices are rather like the notes that are left in the kitchens and bathrooms of workplaces and share houses to ‘Wash up after yourself’ and ‘Use the toilet brush’. Someone who ‘breaks the rules’ is rebuked, without the need for face-to-face confrontation. Pavement remonstrations are delivered and received with eyes lowered, and in this way public decorum is maintained.
For more about this kind of graffiti see:
Hicks, Megan, 2011, ‘Surface reflections: Personal graffiti on the pavement’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 1(3): 365 – 382.
It’s that time of year again – time to say thank you to all those people who have shown an interest in my pavement project. I hope your own projects, whatever they are, bring you satisfaction in the coming year.
Sydney Park in St Peters was formerly a brick pit and brickworks, then a garbage dump, and now it is an expansive park with great sky. Its footpaths have provided me with quite a few graffiti finds. So as my end-of-year gesture, here are a few relics from the archives.
Best wishes to all from Megan.
Yesterday a friend and I visited the exhibition Eugene Atget: Old Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As the small catalogue that comes with your ticket says, Atget relentlessly tracked down the vestiges of ‘Old Paris’ with his tripod-mounted camera. Between 1898 and 1927 he photographed everyday views of shopfronts, signs and street posters, courtyards, interiors, gardens, statues, docks and bridges. Many of these were destined for demolition but some still exist today.
Naturally I was just as interested in the surfaces of the streets as I was in the buildings that lined them, especially when Atget had captured them glistening with rain. Most of those in the photographs were cobbled, the narrow streets and laneways either sloping to drains in the centre, or cambered to kerb and guttering on either side. Not all of those with kerbs had sidewalks wide enough to walk along. In those times the whole width of the street was available to everyone – horse-drawn vehicles and handcarts, peddlers, bicyclists, strollers and shoppers. It was only with the advent of the motor car that pedestrians were irrevocably pushed to the side of the street.
For most of Atget’s career as a photographer, people appeared almost incidentally in his streetscapes. But in the early years he had often made people the subject of his pictures, recording disappearing trades and occupations. One of those early photographs shows asphalt layers, or ‘bitumiers’, working on their hands and knees with hot asphalt and playing a part in the grand scheme to modernize the streets of Paris. You can read more about this photograph at Atget: The art of documentary photography on the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales runs until 4 November 2012. The framed photographs in the exhibition are not enlarged but are prints that Atget made directly from his glass negatives, around 22 x 17 cm in size. My friend and I spent four hours scrutinizing and chatting about all of the images. We have compiled a suggested list of equipment that anyone contemplating a visit should take along.
Reading glasses (for close examination of the photographs)
A magnifying glass (ditto)
A map of Paris
A French dictionary (mainly to work out what kind of businesses all those signs were advertising and what the street vendors were selling)
A folding chair or, better still, a wheelchair that you and your companion can take turns in using
A stepladder (for looking at those photographs that are hung a little too high)