An almost unnoticeable incident while I was on my first Watershed Moments lockdown walk. A small inner west street on the rim of the Johnstons Creek catchment area sandwiched between the railway line and the north-south runway flight path. As I stand and take in the ambient noises, another sound catches my attention. Later I write a poem about it and submit it to a competition run by Walk Listen Create for their Sound Walk September celebration. It’s been long-listed and published on their website!
Another lockdown. A new walking project. I’m still fixated on Johnstons Creek, but this time I’m following the rim of its catchment area, a route that will take me along the ridges of Petersham, Stanmore and Annandale. And that is as far as I will get while restricted to my local government area.
I begin at the highest point west of the Sydney CBD before the Blue Mountains. You might call it Sydney’s upper inner west. It’s right where the landmark Petersham Water Tower is poised – this heritage-listed, concrete engineering marvel. This afternoon a group of currawongs is enjoying the rim of the tower and its updrafts.
Using Sydney Water’s stormwater catchment map, detailed down to individual blocks of land and house numbers, I head north along Crystal Street, stopping to turn around and photograph a relic of traffic signs past. It’s a ‘SLOW’ warning written in metal studs on the concrete. I manage to photograph it (not for the first time) during a traffic light-induced gap between vehicles.
Where Crystal Street crosses the railway line I am still on high ground. From the bridge you are supposed to be able to tell if it is snowing in Oberon, on the other side of the Blue Mountains. My friend who lives there says I should look for a green cloud. Today there is no faraway green cloud but I do catch late afternoon shafts of light.
The perimeter of the Johnstons Creek catchment area, as it is indicated on the Sydney Water map, is sometimes curved in places where old roads have followed natural ridges. But more often it becomes a series of straight lines at angles to each other, where streets have been laid out in a grid that disregards topography. In those places the map outline fudges the lie of the land in order to conform to the alignment of streets, lanes, buildings or water pipes.
I turn east off Crystal Street but come to a point where the map line darts between two houses. Since I can’t walk through people’s property (nor am I physically able to climb over back fences) I must backtrack and walk all the way round to meet the imaginary line in the next street parallel. I can see that this is going to happen over and over again on my series of excursions.
The last part of today’s trip takes me through some disappointing back lanes. In this neat part of Petersham there are wheelie bins in the lanes but no piles of discarded junk for me to cast my eye over, only the occasional mystery abandonment. It is starting to rain and I turn back.
Monday 28 June 2021
This is going to take a lengthy search. I am looking for images and mentions of graffiti that pre-date the explosion of informal public writing in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m concentrating on Sydney, but even within that narrow scope it won’t be easy.
Before the mid-1900s the term ‘graffiti’ was used for writing that had survived on walls found at ancient archaeological sites. It hardly ever referred to contemporary inscriptions in public places. So there’s not going to be much point in using Trove to scan the newspapers for references to ‘graffiti’.
Nor will it be much use searching through the catalogues of digitized photograph collections. When cataloguers are annotating images of buildings and streetscapes they note all sorts of things that might be used as search terms, but they hardly ever notice graffiti.
So I will have to look at images one by one in the collections at, for example, the Mitchell Library and the City of Sydney Archives. In the meantime I scrutinize the blow-ups of historical photographs that are currently being used to decorate building-site hoardings around town.
These blow-ups are not quite as they seem. Each of them is an element of an artwork called Double Take. Artist Rachel Harris has doctored the photographs by adding “unusual details”. There is a pair of them in King Street, Newtown. Look carefully and you’ll see that, alongside the shabby building and the stepload of kids, there is a modern bicycle, a basketball hoop, and … (no I’m not going to give away any more of the “hidden treasures”).
But what about the scribbles on the house and the paling fence? I am right to be excited because I’ve spotted historical examples of childish graffiti, or is this just another of Rachel Harris’s interventions?
Nevertheless, I’m on pretty solid ground regarding the graffiti on the accompanying photograph of the Hero of Waterloo Hotel. I’d say that pink scribble is definitely an early 21st century tag. And it post-dates Rachel’s digital trickery.
Apart from the Scallop Shell Trail for pilgrims I found another, less permanent trail on the footpaths of Antwerp. On Molenberg Straat these stencilled chickens and arrows led … where?
I think I might have found the answer on a sticker attached to a mooring bollard in another part of town. It is advertising ‘Ceci n.est past une galerie – a unique dinner concept’. Apparently this is a nomadic ‘restaurant’ where a small number of people share a table to eat, converse and view artworks in a private studio or house. The stencilled chickens I saw must have led to one of these locations. But was it the current one?
Some time in the past this arrow-shaped survey mark has been chiselled into the concrete kerb of Regent Street, Redfern (Sydney). It will last as long as the kerb does. But to make it more visible it has been painted blue. Eventually the paint will be weathered away. Last week there was a man surveying the boundaries of a property that adjoins the pedestrian laneway off Regent Street. So that he could see where the survey mark was through his theodolite, he had stuck a red and white post-it note next to it. The post-it note was probably gone by the next day, blown away by the wind.
I have only presumed that’s what the post-it note was for. I don’t really understand survey marks. I wish I had thought to ask the surveyor about this one. But anyway, I have contacted Scott Taylor at the Global Surveyors website and invited him to comment on this Pavement Graffiti post. According to a blog post by Scott about ‘Interesting survey marks’, surveyors like him are magnetically attracted to survey marks in kerbs, roads and bridges, and drive their friends crazy saying, “Look, there’s a level datum”. Here at Pavement Graffiti we understand this level of fanaticism.
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’.
Here is a graphic story published just recently in chalk on asphalt. I came across it one evening this week in Enmore Park outside the aquatic centre there.
The story is intense and personal. But who could have drawn it, and why here? At my place, our interpretation of the story has evolved the more we examine and discuss the words and pictures. I wonder what blog readers make of it.
(Pedant alert – Vocabulary lesson ahead)
I noticed an article in the Sydney Morning Herald last week where the word ‘sgraffito’ was used – correctly – to describe ornate plaster work that has been uncovered during the restoration of Glebe Town Hall in Sydney: Peeling back the layers to reveal Glebe’s true history. Sgraffito is a centuries-old decorative technique used on ceramics and plaster walls. Apparently when Glebe Town Hall was built 130 years ago, artisans used this technique to carve a pattern in still-wet white plaster to selectively reveal the pink plaster below.
The word sgraffito (plural sgraffiti) comes from the Italian word graffiare, meaning ‘to cut or scratch in stone’. It seems to have been used in the English language in the 18th century to describe incised pottery, but by the 19th century the word graffito (plural graffiti) was being used to mean the kind of casual wall writing that had survived at archaeological sites in Italy (including Pompeii), Egypt and Syria, for example, or on churches and other public buildings in Europe from the Middle Ages.
Graffito/graffiti was not used in the English language to refer to contemporary inscriptions until later in the 19th century, but even so, in this sense it remained an infrequently-used term until the mid-20th century. Scholarly interest in the writing on toilet walls seems to have popularised the term in the 1960s and 1970s.
For my own project I have been trawling the digitised newspapers on the marvellous website Trove, looking for early examples of pavement graffiti in Australia. I have found plenty, but not by searching with the term ‘graffiti’. I had to use search terms like ‘pavement writing’ or ‘footpath writing’. Until the 1960s the word ‘graffiti’ does not appear in Australian newspapers except in occasional news items about archaeological discoveries. One of the earliest references to modern graffiti that I found was in a travel article in the Australian Women’s Weekly (!). Journeying through Hungary in 1969 the writer notes that she saw ‘modern graffiti slogans about American aggressors in Vietnam’ on a wall in one village.
By the way, the story goes that when George Lucas made the coming-of-age movie American Graffiti (released in 1973, set in 1962), Universal Pictures objected to the film’s title, not knowing what ‘American graffiti’ meant. Lucas is said to have been dismayed when some executives assumed he was making an Italian movie about feet. Although over 60 alternative titles were suggested, Lucas prevailed with his original choice.
David, Bruno, and Meredith Wilson. 2002. Spaces of resistance: graffiti and Indigenous place markings in the early European contact period of northern Australia. In Inscribed Landscapes: Marking and Making Place, edited by B. David and M. Wilson. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Fleming, Juliet. 2001. Graffiti and the writing arts of early modern England. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.
Reisner, Robert. 1971. Graffiti: two thousand years of wall writing. New York: Cowles Book Co., Inc.
‘American Graffiti’, Wikipedia, 23 July 2012.
Melbourne footpath enthusiast Dimitrios Kianidis took the photographs for today’s post
I have found another person who likes to keep his camera pointing downwards – or at least, he has found me through the Pavement graffiti website. When Dimitrios Kianidis posted a comment on this site in 2011 he had already self-published a book called Footpath graffiti: Coburg & Brunswick. It contains nearly 400 photographs, mostly inscriptions in wet concrete. Leafing through them is like reading a funny little book of very short poems. Dimitrios wanted to capture the social commentary scratched in concrete. “Most are so-and-so loves so-and-so,” he tells me, “But there are other messages and drawings as well. My favourites are: ‘The Aborigines own this land’, ‘Santo and the Corinthians’, ‘I love Harrison Ford’, ‘RIP Blair 2006’, ‘RIP Cliff’, and ‘Dan is average!’ to mention just a few.” There are only a few copies of his book, but one of them is in Brunswick Library if you’re interested in seeing it.
But Dimitrios’s latest discovery is, as he puts it, ‘a whole language of numbers, letters and symbols carved into bluestone pavers’. The purpose of these inscriptions remains a mystery, although Dimitrios suspects they indicate the location of underground utility pipes and junctions. Any suggestions from knowledgeable blog followers would be welcome.
The ‘EA’ is particularly striking. “It is my favourite because it’s unlike any other that I have found. It’s beautifully carved and takes up the width of the paver and is visible from a short distance even to the casual observer. It’s in Albert Street on the pavement beside my favourite church too, St Patrick’s Cathedral.”
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.