Out of your mind

'You must go out of your mind in order to come to your senses', Fitzroy (Melbourne), 2011

A tiny public garden on a busy street corner in Fitzroy has been adopted by a man who, by his own confession, is addicted to colour. Here is a person who truly values the pavement as a medium of expression and is not afraid of the challenge that cobblestones present to an artist.

'Meme Corner', Fitzroy (Melbourne), 2011

The garden’s passé railway sleepers and tired pelargoniums are no match for the vitality of his patterns, diagrams and aphorisms.

'Addicted to colour', Fitzroy (Melbourne), 2011

I look forward to seeing how his Epicenter of Love has evolved next time I visit Melbourne.

'Epicenter of Love', Fitzroy (Melbourne), 2011

Nostalgia

Pavement artist, Stanmore (Sydney), 2009

Not only do I write a ‘Pavement graffiti’ blog, but I will soon be launching a website called ‘Pavement appreciation’. This is all connected with a postgraduate research project I have undertaken on ‘Reading the pavement’.  If it all sounds like some sort of obsession then I’m afraid it is. I was recently forced to speculate that I must have had a revelatory encounter with asphalt as a small child.

This is not as silly as it sounds. The surfaces of roadways and footpaths are such an ordinary part of our everyday lives that we tend to ignore them through familiarity. But we could probably all look back to memorable moments that involved asphalt or concrete pavements and the marks upon them – scabby knees and other gravel-rash injuries, arrow chases through suburban streets, jumping over the cracks in the footpath so as not to be eaten by bears, sweaty handball games on courts painted on the school playground, mastering the art of drawing a hopscotch the right size and shape. Some Sydney people will remember being puzzled as a child at seeing ‘Eternity’ chalked on the pavement in the city.

When Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu) describes impressions in the present that revive similar sensations from the past he mentions not only the taste of the madeleine, but the unevenness of the paving-stones. Occasionally you find childhood recollections of the pavement in the works of other writers as well. Clive James, for example, in his Unreliable Memoirs describes daredevil feats in his pram-wheeled billycart and the ‘slide of the back wheels which got me round the corner unscathed, leaving black smoking trails of burnt rubber’. And in her essay Earthworm Small, Barbara Hanrahan tells how her family moved to a better part of Adelaide in the 1950s, but ‘I kept on wanting the old suburb. Cracked asphalt, corrugated iron stamped with the trademark of a royal crown, lavatory creeper and morning glory …’.

I wrote about some of my experiences with chalk and pavement in a journal article a few years ago (Eternal City). This nostalgia carries over into my present project, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. I am vindicated by British academic Elizabeth Wilson, who writes in her article Looking backward: nostalgia and the city, ‘Although the practice of academic research is meant to be an objective activity, one part of the ‘postmodernisation’ of such work has been a greater recognition of our subjective investment in it. The anthropologist and psychoanalyst, George Devereux, once wrote that all research is autobiographical, and this seems particularly clear in recent writings about urban space and cities’.

Hopscotch, Carlton (Melbourne), 2008

Newtown

 

'I have a dream' Square, King Street, Newtown, 2008

 

A while ago I came across this description:

King Street, Newtown is always more or less busy, but on Saturday night it is seen at its best and brightest.  Fancy a double line, more than a mile long, of brilliantly lighted shops; and “side-walks” so inconveniently crowded that it is often a matter of some difficulty to push one’s way through the throng of people on business and on pleasure bent.

The description seems fairly accurate to me, although it does not mention the vehicles that crawl up and down King Street on a Saturday night while their occupants ogle the crowds on the footpath. But that would be because this passage comes from an article in the June 1889 issue of the Sydney Illustrated News. King Street has been a commercial success for more than 150 years while the demographics of Newtown have ebbed and flowed.

Readers of this blog will have noticed that many of the pavement graffiti examples that I mention were photographed in Newtown. There are two main reasons for this – I live close by; and Newtown is a hub of graffiti activity. In fact, it was small esoteric stencils on the footpaths of Newtown that sparked my interest and prompted me to start my collection of pavement graffiti photographs in 1999.

Stencil publicising The Blair Witch Project movie, King Street, Newtown, 1999

Newtown was incorporated as a municipality in 1862. Cast iron roof-water outlets set into the kerb In King Street still bear the letters NMC, even though Newtown Municipal Council ceased to exist in 1949. These days part of Newtown is included in the City of Sydney, while the remainder falls within the Marrickville local government area.

Roof water outlet to gutter with embossed letters ‘NMC’, King Street, Newtown, 1999

I have discovered that this kind of information and much more is available on the Newtown Project website, which has been created by the City of Sydney Archives and various volunteers to bring together historical information about the Municipality of Newtown. The information ranges from Council Minutes to the history of the street-art group Unmitigated Audacity, whose works included the I Have a Dream mural. There is a self-guided walking tour and plus lots of early photos of Newtown streets, buildings and people – and  contemporary photos as well. Definitely worth a look.

Wilson Street

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.

Elephants on parade

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

Windows

Graffitied service cover, Surry Hills, Sydney, April 2010

I sometimes like to think of the pavement as a roof – the roof of the busy underground world that supports our day-to-day living. And if the pavement is a roof, then manholes (correct term:  maintenance holes) are skylights, and service covers are the shutters on those skylights. I wrote earlier about how I tried to peer down a chink in one of these ‘shutters’ to see the Paris sewer system below. How gauche can a tourist get?

Geoff Manaugh makes a good suggestion on his BLDGBLG site: how about installing ‘upside-down periscopes’? In vertically dense cities, he proposes, these would allow everyone to peer down into subterranean infrastructure, exploring subways, cellars, plague pits, crypts, sewers, buried rivers and streams. They would be a kind of archaeological ‘truth window’.

Feet

I’m sitting in a specialty shoe shop trying on different pairs and moaning about my crook feet. The shoe fitter says that it’s all because of the hard surfaces we walk on and goes on to tell me a slightly garbled story about this tribe of people in Africa who still go everywhere barefoot. I am inclined to think that people who habitually walk barefoot are not confined to Africa but I don’t say so. He’s doing his best to make me comfortable.

It is an annoying irony that I should have a fixation about photographing pavements and the writing on them, and yet I often have trouble walking any distance at all. In fact, when I took photographs of the Olympic marathon line remnants on Sydney Harbour Bridge, I was in a wheelchair. My daughter valiantly pushed me because I didn’t want a recent foot operation to prevent me taking part in the 75th Anniversary
Bridge Walk in 2007.

Wilson Street, Newtown, June 2008

Anyway, today’s photograph is dedicated to two distinct lots of people: those who always walk barefoot, wherever in the world they are; and the workers who maintain our roads and footpaths (and who sometimes have a joke when they are marking potholes that need repairing).

Nabbed on the footpath

Pavement advertising in Sydney has moved on since 1904. In that year bootmaker Joe Gardiner was nabbed by the police for whitewashing advertisements for his shop on the asphalt in Oxford Street near the entrance to Hyde Park. Joe’s fate is recorded in a correspondence file in the City of Sydney archives.

These days the footpath is a billboard, not only for small shops and garage sales, but also for corporations. In recent months NAB (National Australia Bank) has discovered the transgressive frisson of stencilling the pavement. At Sculpture by the Sea in November, advertisements on the Bondi to Tamarama walk made it evident that NAB was a sponsor of the event. On Valentine’s Day in February, city pavements were enlisted in a multiple media campaign announcing that NAB had split up with the other banks (whatever that means). Although these commercially creative works soon faded in the rain, their smeary remains are still visible in some places.

Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi-Tamarama, November 2010. In the background is Lucy Barker's installation 'Sea Cells'.

Defacing the pavement with any kind of marker is still illegal in the City of Sydney but, as I noted in an earlier blog post, perhaps council rangers have given up bothering about graffiti drawn with chalk or quasi-chalk.

Valentine's Day 2011, Newtown Bridge.

 

You can read more about footpath decoration and pavement advertising in two articles I have written:
Hicks, Megan. 2009. Horizontal billboards: The commercialization of the pavement. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 23 (6):765-780.
Hicks, Megan. The decorated footpath. Dictionary of Sydney.

Wacko stencils (Guest spot)

Canberra writer Doug Fry has been travelling in the USA. This is his second guest blog about Pavement Graffiti.

Wacko, the self-described “premiere pop culture emporium of Los Angeles”, is located in the Los Feliz area – a suburb that’s affluent by real world standards, but decidedly middle class in LA terms. The store is part of a trifecta of hipster shopping opportunities on the eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard – just next door is Ozzie Dots, a novelty costume specialist that also carries overpriced second hand clothing. Barely a block away is Goodwill, the USA’s (approximate) equivalent of Salvos/Vinnies-type thrift chains. So, if you need a costume for Halloween when you’re in LA, Ozzie Dots and Goodwill can provide the clothing – Wacko, on the other hand, will provide the accoutrements.

The store sells all manner of trinkets and novelty items (Japanese conceived, Chinese made), along with a decent selection of books – a lot of indie and one-print-run-only titles, along with more ‘mainstream’ books covering everything from the early days of punk to the final days of the Manson Family. Finally, there is a permanent gallery space tucked up the back of the store; when I visited, the gallery was displaying a series of airbrushed paintings that were, as best I could tell, attempting to convey Alice In Wonderland-via-Dante’s Inferno (with LSD as the catalyst, and Dr Freud as executive producer).

I never established why the steps and pavement in front of Wacko have become an apparent mecca for stencilling and graf. Sure, its customer base would undoubtedly include a good many street artists, but what’s the ritual here? Do they celebrate their purchase of a marijuana-themed toilet seat by adding their latest stencil to the sidewalk? Or did someone arbitrarily spray the space one night, and unwittingly spawn a meme? Is this customer-customised livery actively encouraged by store management? And how does the City of LA feel about this communal modification of its grimy pavement?

The decorated footpath

‘Pavements should not be dismissed as simply utilitarian. A close inspection of Sydney footpaths will reveal that they are seldom purely practical, and never plain. There is always some decorative embellishment embedded in the paving or applied to its surface.’ So begins a recent entry in the on-line Dictionary of Sydney. Naturally I find this article interesting, and that’s mainly because I wrote it.

Footpaths are a matter of civic pride. The state of the sidewalks is an indicator of a city’s wealth and progress. For appearances’ sake local governments not only upgrade footpaths in busy areas, often replacing asphalt with synthetic bluestone pavers, but they also commission pavement artworks. This mosaic at Erskineville Station has actual tools from the former Eveleigh Railway Workshops embedded in it.

It is also civic pride and the desire to make an area seem safe and well-managed, that prompts government authorities to outlaw graffiti. In Sydney it is unusual for pavement artists to be allowed to draw directly on the paving. Usually they are required to tape down some sort of plastic backing. This artist outside the Queen Victoria Building is an exception.

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