Overpainting: order vs chaos

On this often-overpainted wall in Enmore the graffitists currently have the upper hand. I am inclined to think their tastefully colour co-ordinated composition is more interesting than the layers of creamish-fawn paint that preceded it.

 The subject of overpainting is fraught. Everyone has something to say on the matter – wall owners, local councils, concerned citizens, hip and tolerant inner city dwellers, and of course wall artists and graffitists themselves. And as far as people making their opinions known, in this case actions often speak louder than words.

 In his blog post on the aesthetics of anti-graffiti interventions, Kurt Iveson categorises the patches of overpainting in not-quite-matching colours as ‘the new urban swatchwork’. This swatchwork does not produce any aesthetic integrity of its own, he says, and is just a visible indicator of the desperation of authorities to assert their authority. They’re not actually too fussed what the wall looks like, so long as it doesn’t have graffiti.

 

In the decades-long war against graffiti, overpainting can evolve into an entertaining competition between graffitist and the paintbrush-wielding authority. A series of photos of a wall in Mt Druitt is still funny, although it has been around for some while. Eventually one or other of the competitors gives up, which is, of course, the aim of this type of anti-graffiti measure – to wear the graffitists down.

 And of course it is not only wall owners and local authorities who paint over graffiti. Taggers and spray-can artists also paint over each other’s work. Sometimes this is a display of disrespect and an assertion of territory. Sometimes it is simply a natural progression in the world of informal street art, where the art is necessarily ephemeral.

 

But disfigurement of street art, and in particular legal street art, can also be a political act perpetrated by graffiti activists who regard street artists as the complicit foot soldiers of gentrification. Such street artworks, as people like academic Stephen Pritchard maintain, have a role in what is called ‘creative placemaking’, and as such are ‘the harbingers of redundancy, displacement, social cleansing, colonialism and racism’.

 In 2009 the daubing of a Banksy mural with red paint caused something of a public uproar in Bristol, UK, but a group called Appropriate Media claimed responsibility, declaring on its website that ‘graffiti artists are the performing spray-can monkeys for gentrification’. Perhaps it was similar – although unarticulated – sentiments that saw a genuine Banksy stencil in Enmore defaced with tags around 2008. Or maybe it was just ignorance.

 

So, in the light of all this, what is to be made of French artist Mathieu Tremblin’s street installations, which he called ‘Tag Clouds’? This series of artworks was executed in 2010, but in 2016 Tremblin’s photographs went viral, often reposted under one reblogger’s heading ‘Guy Paints Over Shit Graffiti and Makes It Legible’. For me they touched a chord and I happily shared the images on my Facebook page, commenting that the work reminds me of the process of writing. The original wall is like my first draft of an article, the ‘legible’ wall is my final version. It still doesn’t make sense but at least it looks neat and is kind of approachable

 

 

Some Facebook friends found them playful and funny, but I was surprised when some friends of friends appeared incensed. “Why digitise expressive arty jottings?” wrote one. Without anything but the photographs to go on, another declared, “The point of the art is to cover up the unwanted, messy, illegal graffiti and take away their meaning to discourage it”.

 I was inclined to dismiss these kinds of comment as the try-hard opinions of would-be ‘tolerant’ middle-class, middle-aged inner city dwellers. But then I decided to find out more about Tremblin’s work and I discovered an interview with him on The Creators Project site. It turns out that Tremblin’s work referenced tag clouds (remember them?), those visual representations of text data, typically used to depict keyword metadata (tags) on websites.

 As Tremblin says, tag clouds were still the main way to draw personal paths through contents, websites and blogs in 2010. In the early 2000s street writers used to share their work on homemade websites and CMS blogs that used tag clouds.

 But these days the big search engines and social media sites use algorithms to dictate the kind of content we see. Tag clouds are to a large extent a thing of the past, and the original meaning of Tremblin’s work became lost. Then in mid-2016 his images went viral when the website Design You Trust, reproduced them with their own interpretation, ‘Guy Paints Over Shit Graffiti and Makes It Legible’.

 Tremblin sadly reflects, “They made me look like the emissary of a solution against graffiti, whereas my intent was actually totally the opposite—I’m pro-name writing as I’m a former writer … They transformed my simple gesture of ‘turning a hall of fame of tags into tag clouds’ into an anti-graffiti hygienist lampoon”.

 Comments on the Design You Trust post ranged, as you might expect, from abusive to cynical, and were more about graffitists (artists vs vandals) than about Tremblin’s work itself.  Those that did comment on his interventions generally found them condescending and disrespectful, with the ‘corrected typeface’ turning organic graffiti into something that is ugly and tacky.  Much like the small sample of commentators on my Facebook page, they somehow missed the point.

 But even though I now know Tremblin’s original intentions, I still think his Tag Clouds are funny and clever. Maybe my interpretation was not so far distant from Tremblin’s intent because he proposes that “Tag Clouds is just a default aesthetic generated by computers where graffiti is expressing individual alterity; man vs computer; order vs chaos… Chaos is life!”

 Postscript. It has taken me a while to draft this blog post and during that time the wall pictured at the top of the page has once again been thinly overpainted with a shade of creamish-fawn. One up for the wall owner.

 

Apart from the images of the Tag Clouds installation, taken by the artist Mathieu Tremblin (2010), all images are by meganix and were taken in Enmore and Newtown in 2008 (Banksy stencil) and 2016.

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)

 

 

Flotsam and jetsam

Photograph presumably – but not necessarily – taken in Paris in May 1968. Original source not known.

Photograph presumably – but not necessarily – taken in Paris in May 1968. Original source not known.

‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’ – it’s the most well-known slogan from the May 1968 uprising in Paris. But what if it is misguided? What if the pavement is the beach?

I think the pavement is a littoral zone with tides of people and their vehicles washing backwards and forwards over it in their daily cycles of movement. Searching for graffiti on the pavement is like scavenging for sea drift on the sand.

Fish + “Sol”, Chippendale (Sydney), 2010.

Fish + “Sol”, Chippendale (Sydney), 2010.

Novelist Tim Winton, the author of Cloudstreet and Breathe, says he is ‘forever the beachcomber’. Passages in his book Land’s Edge  show just how much the search for pavement graffiti resembles beachcombing.

‘A long bare beach, like the sea itself, is capable of many surprises. The unexpected is what I’m after when I go trudging along the firm white sand  […] it’s the possibility of finding something strange that keeps me walking …

‘From the distance every found object is merely a black mark on the sand, and half the pleasure of beachcombing lies in wondering, anticipating the find …

‘Yet however comforting and peaceful beachcombing is, it ends up, like the sea, as disturbing as it is reassuring. In dark moments I believe that walking on a beach at low tide is to be looking for death, or at least anticipating it. You will only find the dead, the spilled and the cast-off […] The beachcomber goes looking for trouble, for everything he finds is a sign of trouble.’

Tributes to graffitist Ontre, hit by a train 2012.

Tributes to graffitist Ontre, hit by a train at Lewisham in 2012.

 

Tim Winton, Land’s Edge, Sydney: Picador, 1998, pp. 98-101.

Weekend at Walcha

Walcha is a small, neat, and sometimes icily cold town on the New England Tableland of New South Wales. A visit there on a cool (but not so cold) weekend in early November gave me the chance to do some sightseeing and inspect the town for notable pavement features. As it turned out my most interesting finds were in Fitzroy Street, the main shopping drag.

The wide footpaths outside the shops are paved with patterned concrete slabs. Very decorative but functional as well as they are deliberately designed to be non-slip.

All around the town there are public artworks and sculptures made from apparently local materials. These include several horizontal installations set into the patterned footpaths. Although they are artistically interesting, I gather that these ‘depictions’ are not appreciated by some older residents because they are not non-slip like the concrete slabs they replace.

Early on Sunday morning a contingent of Council outdoor staff was busy maintaining the roadway. One man was tracing the cracks in the asphalt by scraping out accumulated dirt with a pick.

Another worker came after him, cleaning out the dust with a leaf-blower.

Finally, the redefined cracks were filled with bitumen emulsion, leaving a kind of scribbly black writing on the grey surface of Fitzroy Street.

Being the tidy town that it is, Walcha does not have much in the way of graffiti. In fact there only seems to be one spray-can practitioner, whose few efforts are to be seen on several walls and one footpath.

A quest always enhances the experience of travelling.

 

Expletive deleted

Cadigal Reserve, Summer Hill

The signs, symbols and graffiti on the ground are all evidence of a territorial battle that is being waged among government authorities, property owners, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Now the stencils themselves are getting in on the act. It is clear that this walker has cracked up and has said something sharp to the bicycle. But a zealous graffiti obliterator has painted over his speech balloon and now we’ll never know what it was he said.

These particular stencils are on a pathway in Cadigal Reserve in Summer Hill. The pathway continues along beside Hawthorne Canal, which eventually runs into an arm of Parramatta River. 

The canal has a history of successive waves of pollution. Originally a stream called Long Cove Creek by early European settlers in Sydney, by the late 1800s it was fouled with house slops and the run-off from factories and slaughterhouses. The stink that it gave off was considered to be a health hazard and eventually it was excavated, re-aligned and lined with concrete in 1895 and renamed Hawthorne Canal.

But over the years the stormwater it collects has still been polluted with leaking sewage and dirt, horse manure, oil, chemicals, plastics, heavy metals and garbage washed off the roads and nearby rubbish dumps. And then, some time in 1990s, the canal was subjected to what some people regard as visual pollution – graffiti.

Hawthorne Canal, Summer Hill

Taggers and graffiti artists continue to express themselves on the walls and under the bridges there. Their marks have spread to the pathway beside the canal. Government authorities and a bush regeneration group have done much to improve the banks of the canal in recent years, so it is understandable that they might want to remove ‘unsightly’ graffiti from the asphalt. They can’t win though. More pavement graffiti has appeared since the last applications of grey paint. But I wish I had been there before they covered up that pedestrian’s outburst.

(Some of the information for this post was obtained from Hawthorne Canal – the history of Long Cove Creek, written by Mark Sabolch and published by the Ashfield & District Historical Society in association with the Inner West Environmental Group in 2006)

Tags in Paris

Rue des Deux Ponts

I did not know whether there would be much pavement graffiti in Paris, but I should not have worried. Despite the incessant street cleaning, there are tags to be found in many places, mostly done in white-out. Like the French language itself, they tend to be rather long-winded.

Esplanade des Invalides

Pont de la Tournelle

Maria in white

The intersection of two backstreets in Newtown is a smeary mess of white paint, but walk around it and you will find the right angle to decipher the name ‘Maria’. Close by, ‘Jen’ has written her name more neatly. What inspired Maria and Jen to leave their autographs here? Probably a tin of white paint found discarded nearby. There is no sign of the paint can now, but  the offending ‘paintbrushes’ are still on display – branches nicked from a shrub in someone’s garden, defiantly attached to a light pole on the corner.

Hot dawg

On a wintry day in Orange (mid-western New South Wales) my graffiti-sensing camera picked up the ghost of a boastful hoon, faintly discernable through the sheen on the wet asphalt in the council car park. Street dawg 94 seems to be making a reappearance after being painted over years ago.  

The dawg’s inscription is autobiographical. He has written himself into the landscape of Orange. I wonder if he revisits the site to remind himself of what he used to be?

May Lane

The wall art in May Lane is often in the news. This time it’s on page three of the Sydney Morning Herald because there is going to be a national tour of panels from this laneway in St Peters, setting off in October. It all started about five years ago with Tuli Balog encouraging graffiti writers to do pieces on the wall of his picture-framing factory. Kurt Iveson has written about it in his book Publics and the city (Blackwell Publishing, 2007).

But the graffiti on the pavement in May Lane is never mentioned. Walk up and down the lane, though, and you will find all sorts of deliberate and accidental art decorating the gutters, along with the signatures of people whose wall pieces have long since been covered over.

POSTSCRIPT  – Since I wrote this post, May Lane has become the subject of discussion at Marrickville Council (not for the first time). Here’s a report by an onlooker of the discussion at the meeting on 9 November 2010. It’s on the Saving Our Trees website, although I don’t quite get the connection.

Reclaim the Lanes

If they won’t let you Reclaim the Streets any more, then Reclaim the Lanes instead. It’s a bit sad really. The RTL party on 13 February was small but kind of fun anyway, even if everyone was funnelled into just one lane not far from the starting point. There were balloons, bikes, and budgie smugglers. When it became apparent that the procession had come to a halt people started sloping off to the bottlo in Enmore Road for supplies. The music from wheelie bin sound systems was great. And someone stuck up their photographs of the Reclaim the Streets events in Newtown from 1999 and 2000 to remind everyone what it used to be like.

The back lanes of Enmore and Newtown are best known for their wall art, but there is stuff on the ground as well, mostly the signatures of artists who have done the wall pieces. I took photographs of RTL participants partying on the remnants of old pavement graffiti.