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 comment on a graffiti supplies website recently:  ‘ 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. He 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’ appears – 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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

Traces of leaves

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.

Not Newtown

Pennant Hills, NSW, 2008

Pavement graffiti can be found everywhere if you keep an eye out for it. That’s what I always say, but looking back through my archive of photos I wonder if that’s really true. It’s easy for me to find pavement inscriptions because I live in the inner-west of Sydney where feral art and graffiti of all sorts is a common feature of the landscape. I have also travelled in regional New South Wales a fair bit, and have found some great examples on country roads and highways.

But what about the tidy or more conservative suburbs in the wider city? Do I have many photos of pavement graffiti from these places? The answer is No.

I guess there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, although graffiti is drawn on the asphalt acres of suburbia, it is less prolific than in Glebe/Newtown/Darlinghurst. Secondly – dare I admit? – on my daily rounds I stick to the inner city and rarely venture into the ‘burbs.

But here is a small selection of examples to show that submerged stories do erupt on the paved surfaces of the suburbs.

'F--- the pigs', Marsfield, NSW, 2008

And my End-of-year resolution? More walking in unfamiliar parts of Sydney.

'Smile - You are beatiful!', Manly, NSW, 2011

Names set in concrete

In some of Sydney’s older municipalities the names of streets and parks were once set into the concrete footpaths. Reminders of a time when people got about on foot more regularly than they do now, some of these still exist around the suburbs. On this footpath in Chatswood, for example, the name ‘Lawrence Street’ appears to have been pressed into the concrete while it was wet.

Other examples are more elaborate. In parts of the former Municipality of Petersham (that is, Petersham, Lewisham and Stanmore) the name is embedded in the paving slab in contrasting red concrete. When one of these slabs gets broken you can sometimes see the wire formwork that holds the lettering in place.

Although many have been broken or mutilated over the years, local councils have begun to recognise the heritage value of these concrete names. The Marrickville Heritage Study of 1984-86, for example, lists street names on footpaths and kerbing as interesting examples of the type of works undertaken in the old Municipality of Petersham, adding that the remaining examples help to define the character of the area.

Despite the recent interest in preserving them, I have had some difficulty in obtaining specific information about how and when these pavement embellishments were originally made. However I did find from the Haberfield Conservation Study, prepared for Ashfield Council in 1988, that ‘blue and white enamel street name signs and red cement lettering of street name signs let into the footpath were … distinctive features’ of the model suburb of Haberfield developed by entrepreneur Richard Stanton between the years 1901 and 1922.

It seems likely that the Petersham street names came somewhat later. Now incorporated into the Marrickville local government area, the Municipality of Petersham was established in 1871. In 1929 its Council took out large loans to commence a program of paving its roads with concrete and replacing its asphalt footpaths with concrete at the same time.  These types of works became a major part of a program to provide employment for men during the Great Depression of 1930-1937.

By 1948 Allan M. Shepherd’s book The Story of Petersham was able to boast that “today only a very small proportion of the total length of all the footpath paving of the Municipality is not of concrete” and that “there are no unmade roads, lanes or footpaths, and every thoroughfare is in good condition”. Shepherd’s book does not mention the concrete street names specifically, but it is safe to assume that the making of these was included in that great concreting project of the 1930s.

For several years I have been monitoring a badly cracked ‘Liberty Street’ name in the footpath on the corner of Cavendish Street, Stanmore. In May 2010 I thought its days were numbered when I saw sprayed marks on the footpath indicating that Marrickville Council was going to construct a pram ramp on the kerb.

However some months later I found that the rectangle of old concrete bearing the name had been saved, although it was surrounded by incongruously white modern concrete and a straight cut had been made in it so that it could conform to the slope of the ramp.

Buffing

Here is one from the archives. Taken around 2004, it shows a graffiti removal contractor washing away a large painted message from a street in Stanmore (Sydney). It had read ‘Kylie is a dog’. The contractor told me he had been engaged by Marrickville Council and he supposed someone must have complained about it. By contrast, a hand-painted advertisement for the band ‘Vaticide’, done just a few metres up the road at around the same time, was left there for years and even got retouched at one stage.

Marrickville Council has a ‘moderate’ attitude to graffiti and limited resources to do anything about it anyway. With stuff written on the ground, unless it is in a high profile public place, rangers generally leave it wear itself away except if they find it particularly offensive of if someone complains about it.

Still, marking public surfaces, including roads and footpaths, is technically illegal in most places. One poor Brisbane citizen found this out just recently when he was prosecuted for trying to cover over a penis that had been painted on the road by someone else. The news item in the Courier Mail said that because he pleaded guilty he was only required to pay $100 of the clean-up bill plus a $300 fine!

Also in the What Is The World Coming To Department, here is another news item, this time from Melbourne. It caught my eye because it is about life in the street, although it doesn’t have anything to do with graffiti. ABC News reported that a man was arrested for taking a vacuum cleaner from a hard rubbish collection. Police said that stealing from a nature strip is considered theft of council property.

Where I come from, riffling through other people’s throw-out piles is called Neighbourhood Recycling.

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?