Graffiti in hiding

Sometimes graffiti is hidden in secret places, sometimes it is in plain sight but its meaning is hidden.

Not so long ago a Sydney builder was surprised when he pulled up an old carpet and found two large messages painted on the floorboards underneath – so surprised that he posted photos of them on his Facebook page.

It’s not all that unusual for renovators and demolishers to find hidden graffiti left by tradespeople at some earlier date in a building’s life. But these personal statements composed by two young sisters in 1983 are extraordinary both for their size and for the detail of their content. They are like secret/not secret teenage diary entries concealed by floor covering.  Those girls wanted someone in the future to read all about them, but they could never have anticipated the mediatisation of their words via digital photography and social media.

Hidden graffiti can be revealed not only by accident but by determined sleuthing. Researcher Susan A. Phillips, for example, photographed pencil, charcoal, and scratched graffiti hidden under the bridges and in the drains and culverts of Los Angeles. Written mostly by people who were “transient, ethnic minorities, or queer” these marks were up to a century old. Phillips spent over twenty-five years collecting images and stories for her remarkable book The City Beneath.

Phillips remarks on graffiti’s versatility as a clandestine form of expression. The condensed messages she found in hidden places were most often related to the name of someone or something, or were sexual words or drawings. But there was also enigmatic writing and what she called “odd hieroglyphics”.

Odd kinds of graffiti whose meaning is hidden are sometimes referred to as cryptic graffiti. These might be written in secret places, as Phillips’ examples were, but it are just as likely to be easily visible in public places. One practitioner of cryptic graffiti is the Hawaiian artist who rather unimaginatively calls himself Cryptik. This person hand-paints Eastern philosophy iconography on Western walls. His Cryptik Movement “is dedicated to helping humanity evolve towards greater awareness and understanding through public art”. While his walls are aesthetically pleasing they do not represent his philosophy in any obvious way.

A few years ago The Age journalist Tom Cowie wrote about some “cryptic drawings appearing on Melbourne footpaths”. When interviewed, the artist, Astral Nadir, explained that philosophy was his inspiration and that the theme of space and forests was a recurring motif.  Nadir called his marks ‘glyphs’ but, curiously, he maintained that his work was not graffiti. I would disagree – of course it is graffiti. But I do agree with the journalist that ‘cryptic’ is an appropriate term to describe Nadir’s work.

The origins of the word ‘cryptic’ ultimately lead back to the Greek kryptós, meaning hidden or secret. But since its first known usage in the English language in the 17th century, the term seems to have always carried connotations of ‘hidden meaning’ rather than ‘physically hidden’. Common synonyms offered by the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus are: ambiguous, dark, enigmatic, equivocal, obscure, and vague. But the thesaurus cautions that, while all these words mean ‘not clearly understandable’, ‘cryptic’ implies a purposely concealed meaning.

A common type of graffiti seen on roads and footpaths everywhere is made by surveyors who, aided by remote sensing devices, draw maps of the underground with fluoro spray-cans. I am tempted to use the word ‘cryptic’ for this writing because for most passersby like me it is meaningless. But for the government agencies and utility companies who need to know where tunnels, pipes and cables are buried, the survey marks impart important advice. They do not purposely conceal information but deliberately reveal it. They are not cryptic.

There is one more type of graffiti I want to mention that is cryptic. How could I not? The history of the worldwide phenomenon of ‘name’ graffiti that began as New York subway-style ‘writing’ in the 1960s is a history of encryption. Graffiti forms – including the ubiquitous ‘tag’ and the wall-sized ‘pieces’ that use highly stylised calligraphy – encode a graffiti artist’s street name or their ‘crew’ affiliation and make territorial statements. Their meanings are understood only by the cognoscenti.

Libraries of books have been written about these forms of graffiti, but I still like to quote Robert Reisner, an academic graffiti historian from the 1970s. Reisner was not interested in what graffiti looked like. His books were basically compendiums of old-fashioned graffiti transcribed by him and given some sort of sociological or linguistic explanation.   He dismissed the “recent phenomenon of the spray-can artist” because its content was “relatively unimportant”.

Reisner had no inkling that ‘name’ graffiti would become international, dominating worldwide public places for decades.  He complained that the spray-can art itself had become the message. He was right about that. But he did not understand that the message was meaningful, with the meaning intentionally hidden in the aesthetic possibilities of invented lettering and unconventional spelling.

Images and references

‘After pulling up some old carpet, Camperdown [Sydney, NSW]’, two photos by Vince Righi on VSR Construction Facebook page, 2020. 

Phillips, S. A. (2019) The city beneath: a century of Los Angeles graffiti, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

POW!WOW!HAWAII 10 Year Anniversary, photo on Cryptik web page, 22 February 2020.

Peace on the streets, Vandalog – A Street Art Blog, 16 August 2012   

Cowie, T. (2018) The story behind the cryptic drawings appearing on Melbourne footpaths, The Age, Melbourne, 3 December 2018. 

Photo Instagram @astral_nadir

Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, ‘cryptic’ synonyms.  

Survey marks, Surry Hills, NSW, 2009, photo Megan Hicks.

Reisner, R. (1971) Graffiti: two thousand years of wall writing, New York, Cowles Book Co., Inc.

Reisner, R. & Wechsler, L. (1980) Encyclopedia of graffiti, New York, Galahad Books.                               

Hicks, M. (2013) Pavement graffiti: an exploration of roads and footways in words and pictures, PhD Thesis, Macquarie University, NSW.

Juxtaposition of carefully explicit and extravagantly cryptic graffiti, Enmore, NSW, 2008, photo Megan Hicks.

Remembering the museum

Early last month I visited the Powerhouse Museum on the last day before it closed indefinitely.  I perused the 1001 Remarkable Objects exhibition but most of the other galleries had already been gutted. Government obfuscation means that there are conflicting reports on what kind of venue it will turn out to be when and if it reopens. My visit prompted me to look back at several contributions I have made to the written history of this once great Sydney museum.

Protestors’ flier with the Powerhouse Museum in the background, Harris Street, Ultimo, February 2024 (photo Megan Hicks)

Nearly twenty years ago the Powerhouse produced a large and handsome book to celebrate its 125th anniversary. The authors of its chapters ranged from museum staff to academic historians. The diversity of their topics covered not only the sometimes colourful history of the museum, but the  spread of its vast collections, representing as they do science, technology, design, decorative arts and social history.

Yesterday’s Tomorrows published in 2005

My colleague Martha Sear and I, both of us curators at the time, wrote a chapter titled ‘Prescribing’ where we followed the museum’s intermittent efforts to encourage health and hygiene amongst the general populace. Indeed its first name was the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum. Original exhibits included an arrangement of sanitary appliances, such as toilets, sinks, ventilators and pipes, for the instruction of tradesmen and householders.

From the early educational displays of human bones and papier-mâché anatomical models as well as plumbing, through the eugenically ideal Transparent Plastic Woman of the 1950s, the confused 1980s Mind and Body gallery, and on to exhibitions about contraception in the 1990s and sustainable futures in the early 2000s, Martha and I found a common philosophy underpinning the museum’s intentions in its health and hygiene displays.  

We concluded that, despite changes in its name, site, and governance, and despite the evolution of international museum trends, the Powerhouse and its precursors had always assumed an admonitory role in those displays. That is, it insisted that visitors were responsible for managing their own health, and it showed them what it regarded as the means to make informed choices about how to achieve that.


Transparent ‘Chocka Bits’, modelling an array of medical implants, went on display in the Mind and Body gallery, which opened in the new Powerhouse Museum in 1989. Although it was fabricated as an exhibition prop it was accessioned into the museum’s collection in 2004. The anonymous author of the entry in the museum’s catalogue wrote candidly and poignantly, ‘Chocka Bits has been retained for two reasons. Firstly, it is a tangible link to an exciting period in medicine when implant and transplant science and technology burgeoned. Secondly, it is also a link to an equally exciting period for museums, when the Powerhouse was at the forefront, both in Australia and internationally, of innovative approaches to exhibition technology and techniques’ (2004/112/1 Display figure ‘Chocka Bits’. Commissioned by the Powerhouse Museum 1989.  Photograph Ryan Hernandez)

But even though the purview of Yesterday’s Tomorrows was wide, I was disappointed that the book gave little attention to the viewpoint of visitors. Once our chapter had been signed off I saw the opportunity to go on and fill a research gap. Across the world few studies had been made of people’s experiences of museum visits made before the 1980s, which is when the field of visitor evaluation emerged.

With encouragement from Bruce Hayllar at the University of Technology Sydney I conducted a series of interviews with people who remembered visiting the Technological Museum (as the Powerhouse was then known) as children or teenagers between 1935 and 1969. Over those decades the museum suffered from lack of funds and its didactic and overcrowded exhibits barely changed. 

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (popularly known as the Technological Museum) in Harris Street, Ultimo, in the 1950s. It is not far from the site of the present Powerhouse Museum (State Library of NSW)

I do not have much of a following as a researcher/writer but, of all the articles and chapters I have published, my study of young people’s experiences of the Technological Museum is my most cited work. That’s probably because there are – or were – more students and researchers interested in visitor studies then there are aficionados of pavements and pavement graffiti. Nevertheless I thank Bruce Hayllar for prodding me into making this a much better article than it might otherwise have been.

By taking a phenomenological approach to the interviewees’ fragmentary long-term recollections I was able to capture an insight into the lived experience of museum visits from a young person’s perspective. I concluded that there were three themes characterizing their experiences. These were City Life, Adulthood and Independent Discovery. Linking these three themes was the fundamental experience of Growing Up. For young people of the period 1930- 1970, visits to the Technological Museum contributed to their transition from childhood to adulthood.

For a retrospective visitor study of a museum that was at the time old-fashioned by world standards, that was a pretty remarkable finding.

A young person pores over a model of an engine in the Technological Museum in 1957 (State Library of NSW)


SCORRANO, Armanda (2006) (Book review) Yesterday’s Tomorrows: the Powerhouse Museum and its precursors 1880-2005 [etc ]. Public History Review, 12, 111-113.

DAVISON, Graeme & WEBBER, Kimberley (Eds.) (2005) Yesterday’s Tomorrows: the Powerhouse Museum and its Precursors 1880-2005, Sydney, Powerhouse Publishing with UNSW Press.

HICKS, Megan & SEAR, Martha (2005) Prescribing: salutary instruction at the museum. In WEBBER, K. & DAVIDSON, G. (Eds.) (2005).

HICKS, Megan (2005) A whole new world: the young person’s experience of visiting Sydney Technological Museum. Museum & Society, 3, 66-80.