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)



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.

Bluestone symbols (Guest spot)

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.”


Some things written in drying concrete probably don’t deserve to be preserved – trivial thoughts impetuously scribbled. But other inscriptions are sincere and loaded with meaning. When someone declares their love in the concrete, what are they thinking? Do they mean that their love will go on forever? Or do they simply want create a permanent memento of this romantic moment in their lives? Or are they casting a spell in the hope that the object of their love will reciprocate?

Observant pavement-watchers can sometimes follow the progress of a love story over a period of time.

This wet concrete inscription was photographed on the night it was made in June 2008.

'I heart Mouse', Liberty Street, Enmore, June 2008

This stencil appeared not so far away three years later.

'Marry me Mouse', Enmore Road, Enmore, August 2011

I wonder if they are related?

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.

Unselected readings

Starting point - Smith Street, Surry Hills

In the ten years since I became obsessed with pavement inscriptions I’ve taken hundreds of photographs. With so many to choose from it’s not too hard to find examples to illustrate any point I might want to make when I write about the pavement as a medium for expression.

But what if I took a walk on an arbitrary route from an arbitrary starting point and photographed every picture, sign and scribble on the pavement along the way? Would that series of unselected inscriptions unfold as a coherent story?

I tried this as an experiment for the Open Fields forum at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney). I started in Surry Hills at a street with a very common name, Smith Street, and took a zig-zag route in a direction away from the centre of the city. I got as far as Waterloo, only about 2 km as the ibis flies, but I had taken more than 3 hours and photographed around 150 pavement inscriptions.

End point - Danks Street, Waterloo

I made a slide show of these Unselected readings in the order in which I found them. But here’s a confession: although I stuck to my arbitrary rules for the day pretty well, I did stop photographing every manhole cover and every wet cement inscription, because there were so many of them.

What did I find out from this experiment? Well, perhaps I will talk about that in future blog entries.

The date is set

09nNOV11-cP1070298 VancouverDateFace blogHow do I know when the sidewalks of Vancouver were last paved? Easy. The year is impressed into the concrete. Near one of these imprints I found an impromptu wet cement drawing. This piece of pavement graffiti was the first one I photographed after arriving in Vancouver for a conference. It reflected how I felt after the 14-hour flight from Sydney.

There is much more that can be read into this small example of the official juxtaposed against the unofficial on the corner of Seymour and West Hastings Streets. Vancouver, readying itself for the 2010 Winter Olympics, is a city I would describe as ‘orderly’, and yet you don’t have to spend too much time in the streets to discover that elements of disorderliness are not entirely suppressed. The Vancouver Olympics Protest Flickr group expose what they see as Vancouver’s problems.09nNOV11-cP1070294 VancouverFace blog

Autumn leaves

09nNOV11-cP1070398 VancouverLeafHow quaint, I thought. Someone has etched an autumn leaf in wet cement on the sidewalk. Then I noticed another, and then a whole slew of them under an almost bare street tree.

On many blocks along Seymour Street in Downtown Vancouver it is permanently autumn, thanks to these almost inconspicuous installations that must have been put in place when the sidewalks were paved in the late 1990s.

09nNOV11-cP1070404 VancouverLeaves blogVancouver has many examples of street art, most of it official, some of it unofficial (though, as you would expect, graffiti mostly occurs at the fringes of Downtown, not in the centre).