This week I chanced upon Pete McLean’s blogsite Art and About. Pete really does like to get about – in the natural landscape, that is – and his beautiful artworks include wood engravings as well as prints and rubbings from objects he picks up outdoors, such as bits of wood, mushrooms and leaves.
From time to time Pete makes ephemeral artworks in situ, composing handfuls of dried grass on a hillside, for example, or rearranging a drift of snow. But surprisingly he is also interested in the urban pavement and sometimes traces around fallen leaves on the footpath with chalk. For me it is interesting to discover one of those artists whose works you sometimes come across on the pavement without ever knowing who did them, or why.
But the blog post that originally caught my eye was a photograph of what Pete calls ‘concrete fossils, those special places in the suburban landscape where traces of leaves and other life have been recorded in the man made lithosphere’. Pete’s photographs reminded me of some I had taken in Stanmore (Sydney) a few years ago.
Leaf prints in Salisbury Road, Stanmore (Sydney), 2009.
I made a comment on Pete’s site, he replied, and I decided to write this post. But when I returned to his site to check that I had got things right, I found he had already written a post about Pavement Graffiti. Such is the incestuous world of the blogosphere. Thanks Pete and best wishes with your lovely creations.
It is a warm Sunday afternoon in October, and we are on the forecourt of Old Parliament House – now called the Museum of Australian Democracy. The air is thick with fluffy seeds from Canberra’s avenues of exotic trees. In some places they lie in the gutters like drifts of snow. But despite the pleasant weather there is that sense of manicured desolation here that sightseers from other cities find remarkable about the national capital.
Perhaps it is not fair to judge the scarcity of people on this particular day. Potential visitors to museums have probably all been sucked away to the other side of Lake Burley Griffin where Floriade, the annual spring festival, is in full bloom. We have chosen to avoid the flower beds and ferris wheels and instead are standing on the best example of pavement graffiti in the Australian Capital Territory.
The controversial Aboriginal Tent Embassy was originally established on the lawns of Old Parliament House in 1972, claiming to represent the political rights of Australian Aboriginal people. After being removed several times it has now been in place since 1992. There is an official Aboriginal Tent Embassy website, and you can also read a potted history on Wikipedia.
Today the tents and decorated sheds appear to be empty and all that there is to see are signs and flags, piles of firewood and a smear of smoke from the smouldering sacred fire. And of course, the decorated forecourt. Around its edges there are recently painted slogans and symbols, but mostly this expanse of paving is crowded with a worn menagerie of animals and plants painted in imitation of various styles of Aboriginal rock-art.
In their book Inscribed landscapes archaeologists Bruno David and Meredith Wilson draw parallels between Indigenous rock markings and graffiti. What better place than here at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy to reflect on their contention that all inscription, including modern graffiti and contact-period rock-art, is about the politics of turf. Inscriptions, they maintain, colonize space.
When I posted a photograph of an embellished ‘bicycle route’ stencil in Little Eveleigh Street , near Wilson Street, back in March 2010, I suggested that the bike rider with a giant penis was not simply a joke but an expression of tension between local residents and the ‘greenies’ who cycle through on the way to and from the city.
It seems I was not wrong. The battle between cyclists and locals has escalated in this neighbourhood. In August 2010 I posted another photo from Wilson Street, this time a verbal blast: Eco-cycle rapists. This week on a walk through Darlington I found another angry notice, still readable even though it has been hashed over: Attention bike Nazis no entry!
Wilson Street is a long back street stretching from Redfern Station to Newtown Station, and passing through Darlington and MacDonaldtown on the inner-city fringes of Sydney. It has been undergoing change for some years. Its corner shops have become art studios; Sydney University threatens to engulf it as it devours real estate to the north; and along the street’s southern side the former Eveleigh Railway Workshops – which would have provided employment for many residents of the little terrace houses in years gone by – have been turned into a theatre and arts centre. ‘Gentrification’ is the name of the street drama that is being performed here daily.
Whenever I visit Wilson Street it never fails to provide me with material for my pavement graffiti collection. This week, not far from the warning to cyclists, I noticed a worn little stencil in the middle of the road: Save the shark. According to other bloggers it’s been there a few years.
Near the ‘CarriageWorks’ cultural centre, some fairly recent wet concrete scratchings include an Aboriginal flag. In the background of this photo you can see the Skippy Girls painted on the corrugated iron fence.
Shared path, College Street at Whitlam Square, Sydney, 2011
The relationships between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians are fraught and while some people are pleased with the new cycle lanes and shared pathways being installed by the City of Sydney, others are not. So it’s nice to see that some people have managed to keep their sense of humour. Congrats to the anonymous stenciller for this embellishment of a sign on the corner of College and Liverpool Streets, and thanks to the good sports in the Cycling Strategy department at the City of Sydney for drawing it to my attention.
And while pondering the similarities (if any) between an elephant’s thick skin and the wrinkled greyness of the asphalt, I thought I’d dig out a couple more pavement pachyderms from my archives.
Elefant Traks music label, King Street, Newtown, 1999
Asphalt elephant, Queens Parade, Wolllongong, 2003
Since this blog has become something of a travelogue, I should write about Lord Howe Island, which I visited recently although it is not an ideal destination for someone hoping to study pavements and pavement graffiti.
A few facts and figures then. Lord Howe is a World Heritage island paradise located some 600 km east of the Australian mainland. Nearly all the roads on the island are sealed but there are only 10 km of them. There are very few kerbs, gutters or paved footpaths. The speed limit for the 100 or so motorized vehicles on the island is 25 km per hour, consequently there are hardly any street signs except for one or two Stop signs and several warning about Mutton Birds on Road and Woodhens on Road.
I kept an eye out for graffiti and traffic marks on the bitumen itself but found none. Well, almost none, except for one upside-down-pudding-bowl ‘silent cop’ (correct terminology: traffic dome) at the
T-intersection of Lagoon Road and Ned’s Beach Road, and some
angle-parking spaces marked out nearby.
The only other pavement embellishment I found was an exceedingly flat rat on the road outside the Museum (close-up view omitted in deference to the squeamish). Rats came to the island off the wrecked ship Makambo in 1918 and promptly set about making at least five native bird species extinct. Rat control measures have been in place since then. Although not totally successful, these measures are probably more efficient and certainly less random than squashing by car.
Evidently someone did not care for the message written on this concrete island in Enmore. As my previous blog noted, it read Bread is making birds sick. But now it has been haphazardly obliterated.
Walls and other vertical surfaces are the usual choice of background for graffiti writers. So why do some people choose to write on the pavement? Maybe because it’s easy – no need to scale walls or climb ladders. Maybe because the pavement is relatively bare – there’s more asphalt and concrete available than empty walls. Maybe because property owners don’t dob you in if you write on the ground.
All that is probably part of it, but there are other reasons as well. Many pavement inscriptions are site specific. Is this spot in Enmore a place where someone leaves bread for pigeons? If so, there’s not much point in leaving a polite little cardboard notice for them. Perhaps the glaring message Bread is making birds sick will have some effect in deterring them from polluting the street, attracting rats … and giving birds vitamin deficiency diseases.
Liberty Street, Enmore
Rows of triangular marks have just been planted on roads in the Inner West. I had to do a bit of research to find out that they are Dragon’s Teeth. To date no fully armed warriors have sprung from the asphalt.
The lexicon of official road signs continues to grow. The rollout of this latest addition apparently began in mid-2009, when the RTA’s press release was dutifully rendered as a news story in the Sydney Morning Herald. These triangular markings are meant to indicate to motorists that they are entering a 40 kmh school zone.
The indignant Mr Peter Olsen, on his School Zone Santa.Com blog, reckons that “the Government has completely lost the plot on school zones. Static markings, including the proposed new ‘dragon’s teeth’ achieve nothing because they do not distinguish between school zone hours and non-school zone hours”, whereas if the school zone instead has flashing lights during the relevant hours “drivers are instantly reminded and can slow down, but then of course the Government can no longer collect speeding fine revenue from them”.
Note to apostrophe pedants: Dragon’s Teeth is the official New South Wales Government term for these road marks (see Technical Direction TD 2009 SR02). There is only one dragon involved. It is a particular toothy dragon.
I figured this sign was not meant for me. Some private joke or invitation, but still I was intrigued. Sat 1st? Yes, I got that – the previous Saturday was August 1st. Queen Street? King Street? Crown Street? No streets of that name anywhere near this spot, the corner of Ross and Hereford Streets, Forest Lodge (Glebe). And as for the upbeat insect? No idea.
A month later I found an answer of sorts in Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, some three or four kilometres away. A notice chalked in the same hand for Surry Hills Markets, always held in Crown Street on the first Saturday of the month. So the notice in Glebe was meant for me … and everyone else. But I still don’t get the ant.
After the crowds have cleared the traces remain. The numbers on the road mark the starting line for the annual Great Goat Race in the main street of Lightning Ridge, NSW. The photograph was taken the day after, on Easter Sunday 2006.
The marked starting boxes are the only orderly thing about the event. With kids as jockeys and goats having minds of their own, the races are chaotic, smelly and funny.