Banksy, Newtown and ephemerality

Eleven years ago I photographed a fading piece of Banksy graffiti in Newtown, an inner west suburb of Sydney. It’s a version of the UK artist’s ‘Diver’ stencil and would have been done in 2003 when he made a secretive visit to Sydney. Back then I was concentrating on pavement graffiti and was not much interested in Banksy. I’m still not that interested, but anyone who writes about graffiti of any sort must eventually pay attention to the Banksy Phenomenon.

By 2008 Banksy was notorious enough for me to decide that I should photograph the Diver. It helped that there were two other types of graffiti nearby – a tile with hand-painted lettering fixed to the pavement (of course) and a mosaic of broken china stuck to the wall. All of these were along the side of Alfalfa House, an organic food cooperative that had been set up in 1981 at the corner of Enmore Road and Philip Street.

Only a few people knew about Banksy’s brief visit to Australia in 2003 and while the whereabouts of some of his stencils in Melbourne were known, I found it curious that so little attention had been paid to this one in a fairly busy street in Newtown, especially as one of his works on a wall in London had sold for some thousands of pounds early in 2008. But by the end of 2008 the Diver had finally received attention. The name ‘Vice Quid’ had been sprayed over it, whether out of ignorance or defiance I don’t know.

It’s possible an article in the Sydney Morning Herald had stirred up interest in the work. Even though the reporter had acknowledged that “Graffiti artists keep the whereabouts [of Banksy’s Sydney works] secret because there are fears the rocketing price of Banksy’s work means they might be broken out of the walls on which they are painted”,  nevertheless he had been quite specific about the location of the Diver.

When I privately expressed some dismay I was firmly told by a close acquaintance that it’s what should be expected. “It’s only graffiti. Graffiti’s not meant to last”. Not even Banksy’s. And it’s true. As I said in an earlier blog post – ‘Overpainting: order vs chaos’ – when taggers and spray-can artists paint over each other’s work, sometimes this is a display of disrespect and an assertion of territory, sometimes it’s a political act, and sometimes it is simply a natural progression in the world of informal street art, where the art is necessarily ephemeral.

Within a few months the wall was covered with tags, stencils, paste-ups and notices. The Diver, which had remained untouched for five years, was now barely visible.

A year later I couldn’t even be sure where the Banksy stencil was.

In 2011 Alfalfa House must have decided a makeover was in order. An artist was presumably organised to paint a mural on the side wall and it’s possible that someone, other than the artist themselves, thought this pattern was attractive. But, aesthetic qualities aside, in covering over what went before, the line had been crossed, from informal graffiti to commissioned art.

Notice, however, that the old wall mosaic and the pavement tile had escaped unscathed.

Fast forward to the present where the wall of Alfalfa House is now covered by a magnificent pastel-coloured work by well-known local street artist Phibs.  A remnant of the mosaic remains but the rest has been painted over. The pavement tile is gone, its lowly place now taken by a horizontal tag on the concrete.

But not even Phibs is above being scribbled on. So far the attempts at defacement have only been tentative.

Banksy’s latest notorious stunt was the semi-self-destruction of one of his works seconds after it was sold at a London auction for more than one million pounds in October 2018. Originally titled ‘Girl with a Balloon’ the work was renamed ‘Love is in the Bin’ by Banksy. It does not take much imagination to see the metaphorical connection between the shredding of a graffiti-stencil-turned-framed-artwork and the ephemerality of art on the street.

References:

Jinman, Richard, ‘Details emerge of Banksy’s Sydney visit’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 2008.

Wikipedia, ‘Banksy’.

‘Banksy’s Girl with a Balloon artwork self destructs after selling for almost $1.9 million at auction’, ABC News, 6 October 2018.

All photographs by meganix.

The name

I am researching the history of a nineteenth century row of houses in Sydney’s inner west. It’s not my usual kind of writing gig but it has been interesting following the money. Wealth accumulated in good times by an enterprising immigrant from Yorkshire, shared with his son as a business partner, lost when the son’s extravagant ventures are caught out by a national financial depression.  What’s left is a smattering of properties that have been salvaged for heritage listing by repurposing – gentlemen’s residences divided into flatettes, a wool store fitted out as university outpost campus, a private mansion transformed into a Catholic educational institution.  

The buildings are notable for the need these colonial nouveau capitalists had to monogram their possessions. The firm’s name is embossed on the wool store – an understandable commercial imperative. But on the gateposts of the father’s 1860s villa his initials AH are stuccoed in botanical calligraphy so elaborate that they are barely legible.

 

The son’s entwined initials JH in more restrained but authoritative capitals decorate the interior of his opulent 1880s mansion. I can imagine the thrill of self-satisfaction this sleek young mayor experiences as he glimpses the stained glass panel on his way upstairs from the expansive vestibule of his domicile.

 

Fast forward to the late twentieth century and an upsurge of the monogram for marking property – though more likely someone else’s property or else a piece of public infrastructure. Taggers appropriate territory with marks that are generally illegible except to themselves or to cohorts that matter.

 I came across a graffiti supplies website recently, and this comment from a user:  ‘ I wrote the name test when i was in high school. I liked it cause every time i  saw the word test in a context totally unrelated to graff i creamed a little’.

 Here is the thrill of self-affirmation. This graffitist has gone for ordinariness over illegibility for his tag, and finds satisfaction when he sees,  not only the property he has marked,  but every single item where his moniker ‘test’ happens to appear – books, advertisements, notices, school whiteboards. His mind (and his member) believe that all these base are belong to him.

 At least what you don’t really own and have not mortgaged will not send you bankrupt.

Images by meganix, taken in 2017 in Sydney: Stanmore, Circular Quay, Newtown and Strathfield.

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.

Parramatta Girls Home

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Writing graffiti can be a way of claiming or re-claiming territory. That is what has happened at the former Parramatta Girls Home, as I found when I visited the site this week. I did not go with the intention of photographing pavement graffiti, but I unexpectedly came across the letters ILWA and the silhouettes of children sprayed on footpaths and concrete verandahs there.

The former girls’ home is part of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct whose history of incarceration and ‘care’ of women and children extends from 1821 to 2008. Numbers of inmates at the Parramatta Girls Home peaked in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as courts committed hundreds of girls every year to spend months or years in the facility.

Sent to this institution at the age of 15 for being ‘in moral danger’, Bonney Djuric is now an artist, activist and historian. In 2006 she founded the support group Parragirls and was inundated by responses from women still living with memories of the physical, sexual and psychological abuse they suffered there. Now the Director of the Parramatta Female Factory Memory Project, Bonney has been instrumental in the campaign to preserve and dedicate the Parramatta Girls Home and the adjacent Female Factory as a Living Memorial to the Forgotten Australians and others who have been marginalised by society.

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One of the buildings, renamed Kamballa in the 1970s, is now the centre of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project, and it was Bonney who sprayed the ghostly silhouettes on the concrete in 2013 as a way of reasserting the presence of those forgotten children who passed through the institutions on this site.

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More puzzling is the symbol ILWA, also sprayed by Bonney at the same time. It mimics graffiti scratched into the woodwork at the Parramatta Girls Home, she tells me, and stands for ‘I Love Worship and Adore’. Bonney showed me examples of the original graffiti, some of it dating to the 1940s, on doors that have been preserved. Not only a message of affection, it also represented solidarity and resilience amongst the girls. It was a way of asserting ‘I am here’.

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In a blog post several years ago I wrote that all inscription is about the politics of turf. Back in the days of the Parramatta Girls Home, the girls who scraped their messages into the woodwork would have understood that theirs were assertive acts of defiance, but they could not possibly have imagined that years later their marks would be regarded as significant documents that offer an interpretation of the site that is as important as official archival material. Nor would they have imagined that their marks would be deliberately copied as a way of reclaiming territory on their behalf.

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Roadworks retrospective

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Pothole marked for repair, Newtown, 2008. Photo by meganix.

 

Comedian Dave O’Neil has been to see the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition, From the sidewalk to the catwalk, at the National Gallery of Victoria. He liked it because he’s into seeing what one person can achieve in a lifetime. But as Dave says in his newspaper column:

“It’s kind of sad that it’s mostly famous people who get exhibitions and accolades.

“Gautier rightfully gets his time in the sun, but what about other people who have contributed to society in some of the less glamorous fields? Wouldn’t you love to see an exhibition tracking the life of a road worker?

“Someone who goes around fixing potholes and other structural problems in the roads.

“Imagine the before and after shots of carefully repaired roads, a map pinpointing all the achievements and major works over the years.

“I can see a Next Wave Festival highlight already. I’m putting in for funding as soon as I finish writing this column.”

Yes please, Dave.

Glebe (Sydney), 2004. Photo by meganix.

Glebe (Sydney), 2004. Photo by meganix.

Dave O’Neil, ‘Man about town: celebrities are not the only ones who deserve an exhibition about their life’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 2015, The Shortlist, p.2.

 

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.

 

Playground of memories

Children on a billycart with a trailer in the Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley, 1961.

Children on a billycart with a trailer in the Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley, 1961.

When I need a laugh I pull out my copy of Unreliable Memoirs by Australian ex-patriot polymath Clive James. The whole book is funny but one of my favourite passages involves concrete footpaths, billy carts and rubber tyre marks. Oh, and poppies.

The pavement often appears in people’s reminiscences of childhood. This is not remarkable, especially if they lived in inner city areas when they were young. After all, children are close to the pavement and playing on it is an everyday experience – or at least it was when children had more freedom. There were games like hopscotch and chalk chase that needed to be marked out on the hard surface, rhymes and chants about avoiding the cracks (or break your mother’s back), and hot sticky bitumen roads that were torture to cross in bare feet in the summertime.

Even in the sprawling suburbs where spacious backyards were the norm, streets served as a communal playground for ball games and competitive races that could only be staged on paved surfaces. Clive James played with neighbourhood kids on the footpaths of Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney.

James has been in the news lately. He is suffering from a terminal illness and The New Yorker has published an emotional new poem written by him as he contemplates his death. Also this fortnight there has been the two-part documentary Brilliant Creatures: Germaine, Clive, Barry and Bob on ABC-TV. So as a tribute to him I reproduce here an excerpt that introduces the episode of the billycarts and poppies. If you haven’t already read the book – or even if you have – I recommend you track down a copy.

Other children, most of them admittedly older than I, but some of them infuriatingly not, constructed billycarts of advanced design, with skeletal hard-wood frames and steel-jacketed ball-race wheels that screamed on the concrete footpaths like a diving Stuka. The best I could manage was a sawn-off fruit box mounted on a fence-paling spine frame, with drearily silent rubber wheels taken off an old pram … Carts racing down the footpath on the far side had a straight run of about a quarter of a mile all the way to the park … Carts racing down the footpath on the near side could only go half as far, although nearly as fast, before being faced with a right-angle turn into Irene Street. Here a pram-wheeled cart like mine could demonstrate its sole advantage. The traction of the rubber tyres made it possible to negotiate the corner in some style. I developed a histrionic lean-over of the body and a slide of the back wheels which got me round the corner unscathed, leaving black smoking trails of burnt rubber.

Clive James, Unreliable memoirs, London: Picador, 1981.

The billycart photograph is in the collection of Museum Victoria. Reg. No: MM 110102

Poetry and pavement marks

 

bill bisset is an experimental Canadian poet whose work attracts both praise and controversy. This photo was taken in the carpark at Sydney Park, St Peters (2010).

bill bisset is an experimental Canadian poet whose work attracts both praise and controversy. This photo was taken in the carpark at Sydney Park, St Peters (2010).

Pavement writers love poets, and poets love pavement writers. A blog about pavement graffiti might seem a prosaic sort of thing to write, but I am in good company. There are plenty of poets who have found inspiration in the marks on the paving. For poets these marks are associated with memories of childhood life, expressions of the inner life, the playing out of private life in public, and the sordidness of life in the gutter.

Today I offer you a selection of some favourite works by Australian poets, and one song. These are only excerpts. (The photos are from my archives)

 

If we went back to school

everything might seem small.

We could begin again. Pick it up.

Start over. Scribble initials

in a chalky love-heart

on melting asphalt

or something concrete …

Michael Brennan, ‘Postcard’, from The imageless world (2003)

A back lane in Newtown (2008).

A back lane in Newtown (2008).

 

Tar flowers is what grows best in Newtown

Tar Flowers

in concrete gardens

where we draw our best pictures

with bits of tile that fell off Mrs. O’Leary’s toilet roof …

Terry Larsen, ‘Tar flowers’, The Union Recorder (University of Sydney), 2 October 1969, p.49 (1969)

Eternity Boy, Enmore (2001).

Eternity Boy, Enmore (2001).

 

… ETERNITY he’d heard great preachers shout

And shook to hear, but say it he could not.

No, it must come like moonlight or like frost

Silent at night like mushrooms quietly growing

To wake the wicked and redeem the lost;

Like white feather in the dawn wind blowing,

Perfect and white, like copperplate in chalk …

And that was when Arthur Stace began to walk …

Douglas Stewart, ‘Arthur Stace’, (c.1969)

 

Enmore back lane (2008).

Enmore back lane (2008).

 

… All writers wait in patience for the chance

to etch their names before the concrete sets

they know that galaxies are speeding further

apart, and faster: that deep space

is overcrowded, that dark matter

spills over into skies …

Gloria B. Yates, ‘Before the concrete sets’, The Mozzie 10 (5), p.12 (2002)

On the street where you live, Marrickville (2010).

On the street where you live, Marrickville (2010).

 

So what I said is what I said

And what you said is what you meant

And when you left my house in the morning

You wrote your message on the cement

You put the letters and the numbers under people’s feet

You took all the dealings and feelings and wrote them on the street …

Megan Washington, ‘Cement’ on album I believe you, liar (2010)

Blood on the flagstones, King Street, Sydney (2011).

Blood on the flagstones, King Street, Sydney (2011).

 

… The boy on drugs, his bandages slipping,

argues and pleads all day with the parking meters.

The filthy children of Christ lie on mattresses in the sun,

the pavement scrawled with graffiti, in excrement and blood …

Dorothy Hewett, ‘Sanctuary’ from Rapunzel in suburbia (1975)

 

 

The swagman artist

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Ernest Reynolds was a street showman, a colourful character who made a living as a pavement artist for over 30 years. His home town was Adelaide in South Australia and he claimed to have travelled the world as a seaman and artist. On the tramp around country towns in Australia, he drew such crowds that he often rated a mention in local newspapers as ‘the swagman artist’. His career as a ‘pioneer in chalks’ began in Sydney around 1900 and by the 1930s he was setting up his pitch in places like Adelaide, Mount Gambier (SA), Broken Hill (NSW) and Kalgoorlie (WA).

Described by reporters as a ‘picturesque personality’, Mr Reynolds called himself ‘a travelling artist and scientist’ and made pronouncements about scientific matters including, for instance, the geological origins of the Blue Lake in Mount Gambier. In Sydney, he said, he had been decreed the world’s champion pavement artist in 1930, and he liked to be referred to as the King of Pavement Artists.

He also told reporters that he was a descendent of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous 18th century English painter. But his most famous pavement art work was a rendition of William Holman Hunt’s 1910 religious painting, ‘The Light of the World’, which he could do in 6 hours 18 minutes. Once, after this picture had been on the pavement for several days in Broken Hill, the Barrier Miner newspaper reported that ‘ one devout woman … to prevent its desecration by the feet of the multitude, visited the spot with scrubbing brush and soap and washed the pavement clean’.

 

The Light of the World (1853–54) is an allegorical painting by William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door.

The Light of the World (1853–54) is an allegorical painting by William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door.

 

Reynolds made amusing comparisons about the generosity of various towns. In Sydney, he said, the people hurry past and ‘let you starve on!’ And in Mount Gambier he told a reporter that the public did not seem to be aware of the fact that he was doing this work for a living. The journalist duly wrote that ‘he would like them to realise that a silver coin would be acceptable’.

The drawing at the top of this blog post is copied from another blog Cipher Mysteries. Blogger Nick Pelling found Ernest Reynolds while hunting down another person named Reynolds (it’s complicated) but does not mention where he found the picture.

But I first encountered Ernest Reynolds in yet another blog, All my own work! – a history of pavement art by Philip Battle. I have since found out more by searching for newspaper articles about Reynolds in the National Library of Australia’s marvellous resource, Trove.

Philip Battle’s stories about screeving – mostly in Britain – are based on meticulous research and his posts feature wonderful archival illustrations. Philip is now turning his blog into a book, and he is hoping to raise a modest sum to publish it through crowd funding. Perhaps you would like to help him.

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