Overpainting: order vs chaos

On this often-overpainted wall in Enmore the graffitists currently have the upper hand. I am inclined to think their tastefully colour co-ordinated composition is more interesting than the layers of creamish-fawn paint that preceded it.

 The subject of overpainting is fraught. Everyone has something to say on the matter – wall owners, local councils, concerned citizens, hip and tolerant inner city dwellers, and of course wall artists and graffitists themselves. And as far as people making their opinions known, in this case actions often speak louder than words.

 In his blog post on the aesthetics of anti-graffiti interventions, Kurt Iveson categorises the patches of overpainting in not-quite-matching colours as ‘the new urban swatchwork’. This swatchwork does not produce any aesthetic integrity of its own, he says, and is just a visible indicator of the desperation of authorities to assert their authority. They’re not actually too fussed what the wall looks like, so long as it doesn’t have graffiti.

 

In the decades-long war against graffiti, overpainting can evolve into an entertaining competition between graffitist and the paintbrush-wielding authority. A series of photos of a wall in Mt Druitt is still funny, although it has been around for some while. Eventually one or other of the competitors gives up, which is, of course, the aim of this type of anti-graffiti measure – to wear the graffitists down.

 And of course it is not only wall owners and local authorities who paint over graffiti. Taggers and spray-can artists also paint over each other’s work. Sometimes this is a display of disrespect and an assertion of territory. Sometimes it is simply a natural progression in the world of informal street art, where the art is necessarily ephemeral.

 

But disfigurement of street art, and in particular legal street art, can also be a political act perpetrated by graffiti activists who regard street artists as the complicit foot soldiers of gentrification. Such street artworks, as people like academic Stephen Pritchard maintain, have a role in what is called ‘creative placemaking’, and as such are ‘the harbingers of redundancy, displacement, social cleansing, colonialism and racism’.

 In 2009 the daubing of a Banksy mural with red paint caused something of a public uproar in Bristol, UK, but a group called Appropriate Media claimed responsibility, declaring on its website that ‘graffiti artists are the performing spray-can monkeys for gentrification’. Perhaps it was similar – although unarticulated – sentiments that saw a genuine Banksy stencil in Enmore defaced with tags around 2008. Or maybe it was just ignorance.

 

So, in the light of all this, what is to be made of French artist Mathieu Tremblin’s street installations, which he called ‘Tag Clouds’? This series of artworks was executed in 2010, but in 2016 Tremblin’s photographs went viral, often reposted under one reblogger’s heading ‘Guy Paints Over Shit Graffiti and Makes It Legible’. For me they touched a chord and I happily shared the images on my Facebook page, commenting that the work reminds me of the process of writing. The original wall is like my first draft of an article, the ‘legible’ wall is my final version. It still doesn’t make sense but at least it looks neat and is kind of approachable

 

 

Some Facebook friends found them playful and funny, but I was surprised when some friends of friends appeared incensed. “Why digitise expressive arty jottings?” wrote one. Without anything but the photographs to go on, another declared, “The point of the art is to cover up the unwanted, messy, illegal graffiti and take away their meaning to discourage it”.

 I was inclined to dismiss these kinds of comment as the try-hard opinions of would-be ‘tolerant’ middle-class, middle-aged inner city dwellers. But then I decided to find out more about Tremblin’s work and I discovered an interview with him on The Creators Project site. It turns out that Tremblin’s work referenced tag clouds (remember them?), those visual representations of text data, typically used to depict keyword metadata (tags) on websites.

 As Tremblin says, tag clouds were still the main way to draw personal paths through contents, websites and blogs in 2010. In the early 2000s street writers used to share their work on homemade websites and CMS blogs that used tag clouds.

 But these days the big search engines and social media sites use algorithms to dictate the kind of content we see. Tag clouds are to a large extent a thing of the past, and the original meaning of Tremblin’s work became lost. Then in mid-2016 his images went viral when the website Design You Trust, reproduced them with their own interpretation, ‘Guy Paints Over Shit Graffiti and Makes It Legible’.

 Tremblin sadly reflects, “They made me look like the emissary of a solution against graffiti, whereas my intent was actually totally the opposite—I’m pro-name writing as I’m a former writer … They transformed my simple gesture of ‘turning a hall of fame of tags into tag clouds’ into an anti-graffiti hygienist lampoon”.

 Comments on the Design You Trust post ranged, as you might expect, from abusive to cynical, and were more about graffitists (artists vs vandals) than about Tremblin’s work itself.  Those that did comment on his interventions generally found them condescending and disrespectful, with the ‘corrected typeface’ turning organic graffiti into something that is ugly and tacky.  Much like the small sample of commentators on my Facebook page, they somehow missed the point.

 But even though I now know Tremblin’s original intentions, I still think his Tag Clouds are funny and clever. Maybe my interpretation was not so far distant from Tremblin’s intent because he proposes that “Tag Clouds is just a default aesthetic generated by computers where graffiti is expressing individual alterity; man vs computer; order vs chaos… Chaos is life!”

 Postscript. It has taken me a while to draft this blog post and during that time the wall pictured at the top of the page has once again been thinly overpainted with a shade of creamish-fawn. One up for the wall owner.

 

Apart from the images of the Tag Clouds installation, taken by the artist Mathieu Tremblin (2010), all images are by meganix and were taken in Enmore and Newtown in 2008 (Banksy stencil) and 2016.

Rainbow politics

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“The removal of the Taylor Square rainbow crossing created an even bigger stir than its original installation. To mark its passing, people attached unofficial rainbow flags to poles in Taylor Square and tied rainbow ribbons to safety fences. But performer and activist James Brechney had a fresh idea for an alternate location that somehow captured the zeitgeist.”

My exquisitely objective article on the history of the DIY Rainbow Crossing is now available to read in the Dictionary of Sydney.

Some time ago I wrote a blog post on the symbolism of pedestrian crossings. It’s here.

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(Photos by meganix, taken in Darlinghurst in 2013 and Summer Hill 2015)

Back lanes

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In the inner suburbs of a city that is undergoing renewal and gentrification, some of the last remaining places of grotty charm are the back lanes. This is despite the fact that corrugated iron fences have long since been replaced by roller doors and high brick walls, and showy bougainvilleas hang where once there were vines laden with chokos free for the taking.

In the main street old-style hairdressing salons run by one lady for over fifty years are transformed into dinky diners, but round the back leaky pipes still ooze a permanently green and greasy trickle into the gutter of the rear lane. In side streets, tiny terrace houses are supersized with architect-designed extensions upwards and outwards, but outside the back fence the garbage bins, now made of colour-coded plastic rather than galvanized iron, smell much the same as they always did.

Close to the city centre, civic planners reinvent laneways as pseudo-hipster destinations. Their surfaces are recobbled, their spaces commercialised with coffee cart umbrellas, and their walls redecorated with commissioned art pieces. In suburbs on the urban fringe, some back lanes that were once the rat runs of the dunny man have been spruced up to match the tidy rear ends of new apartment blocks and town houses.

But beyond the reach of the pre-dawn street-washing truck, there are still lanes that resist trendification or homogenisation. Morning strolls down such insalubrious urban remnants reveal evidence of unsanitary night-time activities – broken bottles, a clump of cat fur, a limp condom, a squashed rat, a syringe, a rivulet of piss, a splatter of curry or sweet and sour – fresh or regurgitated, it’s hard to tell the difference.

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 Amongst this pure grunge though, such lanes can also yield up visual surprises and take-away treasures. There are accidental artworks to admire, in the form of paint spills and rubbish stacks. There are unpotted pot plants with concrete root balls, and illegally dumped junk piles to pick through or kick through for additions to your domestic decor. Or you might collect a milk crate for standing on as you pass through on your way to the Mardi Gras parade. And in old industrial precincts, where owners allow their businesses to run down in the hope of getting rich when the area is rezoned for residential development, there is always the possibility of finding a replica of Duchamp’s Bottle Rack.

The side walls of little old factories and those new brick fortifications on residential properties are perfect canvases for real graffiti and spontaneous wall art. Some pieces stay in place for decades, others are subject to constant renewal in keeping with the revolving door of current issues and social media topics.

 What all this means is that within our evolving cities there are still recalcitrant places that resist the facadism of new civic planning and design. Behind the scenes, the messiness of back lanes contributes to the urban/suburban landscape in ways that reflect the actual complexity of human lives.

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(Photos by meganix, taken in Marrickville and Enmore, 2016)

 

The blog ‘Pavement Graffiti’ was created in 2009. In March 2016 I changed its appearance. Posts written before March 2016 did not handle the change well and so may look a little peculiar.

 

 

 

 

 

Recapturing the magic

Parking space fly, Darlington, 2002.

Parking space fly, Darlington, 2002.

In my so-called office at home I am attempting to regain control. The room has been overtaken by stuff and progress is slow because I have neglected the fundamental rule: DON’T READ.

Amongst things that I have sinfully paused to read while culling superseded files, I found notes I took at the orientation day for new PhD students in the Division of Society, Culture, Media and Philosophy at Macquarie University in 2008. It was on that day, by the way, that I discovered I was not the oldest PhD student in the world, and that there were many other culmination-of-career candidates. Anyway, here’s one piece of advice I dutifully noted:

At the beginning, keep a journal of what you read and what you think about it. Your notes will be like Ariadne’s thread leading you through the maze. They will help you to solidify your thesis topic or even change your mind about what that might be.

"Suck shit up". Stanmore, 2003.

“Suck shit up”. Stanmore, 2003.

Well, I did start a journal, which became a series of A5 notebooks. The PhD has since been completed but, many volumes later, I still keep this journal, with notes on what I have read, seen, heard, talked about, and thought about. It is quite separate from my daily diary of appointments and humdrum domestic events. As a diversion from room-tidying I hunted out Volume 1 to re-read the first thing I had written in the journal. Here it is (slightly edited):

If I am going to do this project I am going to have to re-find my belief in the magical properties of the pavement. These last few years my writing and thinking have become prosaic. I have lost fun and wonder – beaten out of me by [my workplace]. When I first started photographing footpaths eight years ago, suddenly I could write poetry.

Over the next few years I did manage to recapture the magic as I enjoyed the luxury of exploring, photographing, reading, thinking and writing without the need to churn out memos, attend interminable meetings, play office politics, carry the dead weight of work-shy colleagues and endure the hysterics of others, attend to bureaucratic niceties and write formulaic justifications for every decision – and that was in what many (including myself) would have considered a dream job.

Once I left that job, how lovely it was on a nice sunny day to admire the sparkles in the asphalt and concrete, on a nice rainy day to enjoy the wavering reflections of the world on the ground, and on any day to seek out the messages people leave on the pavement and speculate why they leave them. And, in imaginary dialogue with scholars past and present, to discuss both the enchanting and the disheartening aspects of public places, and to consider what’s so special about the pavement.

"Bread is making birds sick". Enmore, 2010.

“Bread is making birds sick”. Enmore, 2010.

These days I’m a bit more relaxed about the pavement. I don’t feel I have to look at the ground all the time in case I miss something, but I’m still interested in what’s so special about other places in the urban landscape that are so obvious they’re invisible.

Poster history book. Petersham, 2014. All photos by meganix.

Poster history book. Petersham, 2014. All photos by meganix.

Roadside greetings

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By early November you know that Christmas is coming. As the weeks roll on the decorations become thicker and more splendiferous. More glitter. More greetings. More Barbie heads.

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I’m talking about Maurice’s decorations on the streetside furniture in Annandale, an inner west suburb of Sydney. Maurice Jappanarid Ponza is a Sydney character always in seasonally adjusted costume complete with appropriate head gear. He is often a pirate, sometimes a cowboy, an academic or a wizard, and at this time of year his daily choices include variations on Santa, elf or Christmas tree.

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For years he has been darting into the traffic to wash windscreens, initially at Johnson Street and Parramatta Road, more recently at City West Link. This year there seems to be some problem with the windscreen washing but he’s still there intermittently, taking donations in exchange for his photocopied Christmas card. Sydney loves its personalities and Maurice has appeared in student short films like Adam Rosenberg’s award-winning ‘Maurice’ and Sam Barnes, Bek Hawkey and Laura Cosgrove’s ‘Window man’. He even featured this year in an ABC TV Lateline segment ‘Behind the squeegee’.

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Happy Christmas or Happy Whatever-You-Choose-to-Celebrate from me to you, the people who look at the Pavement Graffiti blogsite and the Pavement Appreciation Facebook page. Thank you for your friendship and support. Special cheerio to Mark McLean who has his own way of noting the beginning of Christmas as he traverses the stormwater drains of Hamilton North (in Newcastle, Australia). May the road ahead be filled with little surprises for all of you.

And thanks to Maurice for providing the festive scenery for this blog post. Best wishes to him and all the city’s fringe entrepreneurs.

It's a sign. It's a sign. All photos by meganix.

It’s a sign. It’s a sign.
All photos by meganix.

Asphalt rules

Man in the moon, Broadway Shopping Centre car park (Sydney), April 2015 (photo: meganix)

Man in the moon, Broadway Shopping Centre car park (Sydney), April 2015 (photo: meganix)

Today is the anniversary of the launch of this blog. It was on 3 May 2009 that I wrote the first post and welcomed readers to Pavement Graffiti, “where asphalt rules and grey is good. The focus is on roadways and footpaths, and ‘graffiti’ means anything written, drawn, scrawled or stencilled on them”.

Centennial Park labyrinth (Sydney), November 2014 (photo: meganix)

Centennial Park labyrinth (Sydney), November 2014 (photo: meganix)

Back then I had embarked on a PhD at Macquarie University, also titled Pavement Graffiti. Six years on, the PhD has been achieved, there is a gallery of images on-line at Pavement Appreciation and a Facebook page of the same name, academic articles have been published, magazine articles too. From time to time journalists stumble upon the blog and ask my opinion about graffiti, Eternity or, as happened this week, walkable cities. The blog does not have a huge following but I am grateful to those who have given long-standing support or have simply shown a fleeting interest.

'Happy BDay Lolz Grace', Watsons Bay (Sydney), December 2014 (photo: meganix)

‘Happy BDay Lolz Grace’, Watsons Bay (Sydney), December 2014 (photo: meganix)

My interests have broadened to encompass a concern for the disappearance of strange spaces, areas of decay, and layered sites under the pressure of urban renewal (or urban homogenization). I am now an Adjunct Fellow of the Urban Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney.

'Go vegan', Queen Victoria Building (Sydney), October 2014 (photo: meganix)

‘Go vegan’, Queen Victoria Building (Sydney), October 2014 (photo: meganix)

But I still retain my fascination for the pavement and am currently waiting to hear if my article on ‘Imagining the pavement: a search through everyday texts for the symbolism of an everyday artefact’ has been accepted for publication. Watch this space.

'I love same sex love', Sydney Park, St Peters, February 2015 (photo: meganix)

‘I love same sex love’, Sydney Park, St Peters, February 2015 (photo: meganix)

And do, please, continue to enjoy the literary adventure of reading the street beneath your feet.

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Tributes outside site of Martin Place siege (Sydney), December 2014 (photo: meganix)

 

Destruction and adaptation

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In Sydney’s Angel Place, Michael Thomas Hill wants us to experience longing for nature long since lost and destroyed. His ‘Forgotten Songs’ installation charms us with its hanging bird cages and piped calls of native birds. But the sting is on the roadway where brass plaques inform us that the birds we are listening to “once sang in central Sydney, before Europeans settled and gradually forced them away”. The list of bird names inscribed there is like a wartime honour roll that we should follow along the laneway, lest we forget. The name label for the Regent Honeyeater is coincidentally positioned beside a manhole cover that, if opened up, would reveal the Tank Stream coursing beneath the lane in its modern-day guise as a stormwater pipe. Not only have trees been felled, Hill is reminding us, but the natural features of the landscape have been obliterated by the pavement itself.

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But be careful what you want us to wish for, Michael. Regret the loss of charming songbirds and what do we get instead? Squadrons of honking ibis – swampland birds that have flown back from the countryside to learn the art of city living. Street smart and urban savvy, these scavengers revel in consumerism’s cast-offs.

 

Inner city ibis, Surry Hills, Sydney (All photos by meganix)

Inner city ibis, Surry Hills, Sydney (All photos by meganix)

Michael Thomas Hill’s ‘Forgotten songs’ installation belongs to a class of text-laden public artworks on the pavement that reproach us for wrongdoings past and present. I have written about these in an article called ‘Words of regret’ in Issue 3 of Sturgeon magazine, which has just hit the stands.

 

Black Santa

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Black Santa was an Erskineville man, Syd ‘Doc’ Cunningham, who used to distribute presents to rural children every Christmas. Syd would sit outside the Woolworths supermarket in King Street, Newtown, collecting money and toys throughout the year. Around Christmastime he would give a Christmas card to people who dropped money in his bucket.

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After Syd died in 1999 a bronze plaque was installed at the spot where he used to set up his folding table. On it was a depiction in relief of his plastic bucket.

Syd (Doc) Cunningham plaque, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 1999.

Syd (Doc) Cunningham plaque, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 1999.

In 2000 the footpath was repaved, with synthetic bluestone pavers replacing the asphalt.

King Street repaving, 2000.

King Street repaving, 2000.

Before the works commenced the plaque was removed. But in the place where it had been glued to the footpath, somebody wrote an impromptu memorial to Black Santa in red chalk.

'The Black Santa Claus' hand-drawn plaque, 2000.

‘The Black Santa Claus’ hand-drawn plaque, 2000.

After the repaving was finished, the original plaque was reinstalled, and it’s still there today. The supermarket itself has changed hands a few times. Currently it’s an IGA. And Syd’s plaque has become the focal point for beggars who keep his memory alive by collecting for themselves.

Syd Cunningham plaque, long since reinstalled, 2008.

Syd Cunningham plaque, long since reinstalled, 2008.

Funny thing though. Just a few days ago, someone wrote a post about the plaque on the Republic of Newtown Facebook page, adding, ‘ Sadly, the plaque was removed when the footpath was resurfaced’. Somehow this person had failed to notice that the plaque was put back fourteen years ago. That Facebook page got many comments and even though several noted that the plaque was still there, quite a few comments demanded that the plaque be replaced. Sentimental indignation prompted by misinformation. It happens.

 

The plaque in the same spot, next to the IGA supermarket, December 2014.

The plaque in the same place, next to the IGA supermarket, December 2014. All photos of this spot in King Street are from the Pavement Graffiti archives by meganix.

 

The demon blacktop

Paint splash, Botany Road, Redfern, 2013. Photo by meganix.

Paint splash, Botany Road, Redfern, 2013. Photo by meganix.

Glossy black dance floor or ashen skin or something else entirely? The asphalt pavement stirs the poetic imagination of some writers but the hard truth spoils the romance of the blacktop.

It was Vladimir Nabokov who wrote , ‘Voraciously we consumed those long highways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors’. Australian author Jessica Anderson says of one of her characters, ‘… in her visual memory of Sydney as a city predominantly blue and green and terra-cotta, there had been an element missing. And here it was, this ashen skin covering not only the road, but the footpaths as well’.

Unfortunately that dark covering is making Sydney hotter because it absorbs heat and radiates it back out. Sustainability campaigner Michael Mobbs has the figures to show that suburbs with black roads and few trees suffer badly during heatwaves. It’s called the urban heat island effect, and to counter it the City of Sydney is conducting trials in Chippendale using lighter-coloured surfaces on some roadways. The pale pavement is open grade asphalt filled with concrete slurry.

Pale pavement, Chippendale, 2014. Image from City of Sydney website.

Pale pavement, Chippendale, 2014. Image from City of Sydney website.

Mobbs has been monitoring the trial. He says it reduces the temperatures by two to four degrees on a hot day, and predicts that during heatwaves there may be six to eight degrees difference. Death rates rise in cities during heatwaves, so that difference could save lives. Glary though.

Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita. 1955.

Jessica Anderson. The impersonators. 1980.

Asphalt and umbrellas

This week I have been thinking about the role the pavement can play in our thoughts and feelings about particular places and times in our lives. Long after the Hong Kong pro-democracy protest is over, and whatever the outcome, the gritty surface of the city’s public spaces will figure largely in the memories of the people who took part. The asphalt has been a major player in the drama of the so-called Umbrella Revolution.

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Slate.com

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NBC News

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The Telegraph (UK)

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The Telegraph (UK)

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The Telegraph (UK)

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Global Grind

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Protestors themselves remove slogans and graffiti from the street. Getty Images

 

 

 

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