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.

 

Old Paris

Asphalt layers, Paris, 1899-1900, by Eugène Atget (From the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Yesterday a friend and I visited the exhibition Eugene Atget: Old Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As the small catalogue that comes with your ticket says, Atget relentlessly tracked down the vestiges of ‘Old Paris’ with his tripod-mounted camera. Between 1898 and 1927 he photographed everyday views of shopfronts, signs and street posters, courtyards, interiors, gardens, statues, docks and bridges. Many of these were destined for demolition but some still exist today.

Naturally I was just as interested in the surfaces of the streets as I was in the buildings that lined them, especially when Atget had captured them glistening with rain. Most of those in the photographs were cobbled, the narrow streets and laneways either sloping to drains in the centre, or cambered to kerb and guttering on either side. Not all of those with kerbs had sidewalks wide enough to walk along. In those times the whole width of the street was available to everyone – horse-drawn vehicles and handcarts, peddlers, bicyclists, strollers and shoppers. It was only with the advent of the motor car that pedestrians were irrevocably pushed to the side of the street.

For most of Atget’s career as a photographer, people appeared almost incidentally in his streetscapes. But in the early years he had often made people the subject of his pictures, recording disappearing trades and occupations. One of those early photographs shows  asphalt layers, or ‘bitumiers’, working on their hands and knees with hot asphalt and playing a part in the grand scheme to modernize the streets of Paris. You can read more about this photograph at Atget: The art of documentary photography on the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales runs until 4 November 2012. The framed photographs in the exhibition are not enlarged but are prints that Atget made directly from his glass negatives, around 22 x 17 cm in size. My friend and I spent four hours scrutinizing and chatting about all of the images. We have compiled a suggested list of equipment that anyone contemplating a visit should take along.

Reading glasses (for close examination of the photographs)

A magnifying glass (ditto)

A map of Paris

A French dictionary (mainly to work out what kind of businesses all those signs were advertising and what the street vendors were selling)

A folding chair or, better still, a wheelchair that you and your companion can take turns in using

A stepladder (for looking at those photographs that are hung a little too high)

Hearts

I spotted this heart – or rather, cardioid shape – on a road in Glebe (Sydney) a week ago. As I drove towards it I thought it must be a very clever piece of hot rubber graffiti, but when I took a closer look I wasn’t too sure. It might be paint or some tarry substance.

Anyway because it’s Spring, the season for romance, I thought I’d go back through the archives and share a few more photographs of love-hearts tattooed on the pavement.

‘I (heart) U BEC’, near Temora in southern New South Wales (Australia).

‘SKR + BKR’, Stanmore (Sydney), 2008.

‘I (heart) you lots anb losts’, Enmore (Sydney), 2010.

A heart on the corner of one man’s Epicenter of Love in Fitzroy (Melbourne), 2011.

Chalk power. Part 2.

Chalked tributes to Canadian politician Jack Layton in August 2011. Randy Risling/ Toronto Star.

In July, when I launched my Pavement Appreciation website, many people emailed to tell me about their own work, suggest references, or alert me to websites and pavement occurrences. My thanks to you all. A number of you told me about recent events where acts of defiance or public memorialization had been accompanied by pavement chalking.

For example, in July Occupy L.A. used the popular Downtown L.A. Art Walk as a stage for their own ‘Chalk Walk’ but things got out of hand the moment the first chalker was arrested.

Some weeks later Los Angeles artist Alex Schaefer deliberately chose to chalk protests against the collusion between banks and the state as an act of civil disobedience, and ended up in handcuffs.

Such events reminded Jacob Miller of the time in 2009 when he was arrested for protesting about the commercialization of higher education by chalking on University of Arizona sidewalks where he was a graduate student.

A quite different event occurred in Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, after the death of Jack Layton, well-respected and much-liked leader of the left-leaning federal National Democratic Party in August 2011. What began with a single chalked tribute on a wall became a spontaneous outpouring of public grief.

And in an act of memorialization, on 25 March each year in New York volunteers fan out across the city to inscribe in chalk the names and ages of the 146 victims of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in front of their former homes.

Chalk power. Part 1.

A pavement artist in Sydney, probably 1940s. (Photograph by S.W. Windrim, reproduced courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales, Call no.BCP 01193)

Most people are familiar with pavement artists. Beggars and buskers have been known to chalk pictures on the ground for money since at least the early 1800s. The history of pavement art is being documented at All my own work! , a site that has been researched by Philip Battle, himself a present-day pavement communicator.

But over the decades chalk has been used not only for earning money, but also for protest.

I have been using Trove to trawl through old Australian newspapers for references to pavement chalking. Although I have found earlier examples, pavement writing seems to have become more prevalent by the mid-20th century during the Great Depression. In July 1931 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that,

‘It would appear that in spite of the depression the chalk vendor is doing quite a brisk business. All over the suburbs there are notices chalked on the footpath about evictions, public meetings, rallies, and speeches’.

It wasn’t only happening in the suburbs. In August 1931 both the Sydney Morning Herald and the Barrier Miner reported that a procession of unemployed men had taken possession of the Town Hall in the mining town of Broken Hill (New South Wales). From the balcony of the Town Hall their leaders made speeches condemning Council alderman and the Town Clerk over the gaoling of a local man for chalking propaganda on a footpath.

The history of pavement writing, if traced through newspapers, is a history of crimes and misdemeanours since most mentions are reports in the ‘Court appearances’ columns.

In another one of the many examples I found, The Argus in Melbourne recorded a notable case in November 1934, where legal minds argued over whether ‘chalk-writing on a footpath’ (in this case a notice for a Communist meeting) could be described as ‘a thing’ within the terms of a by-law that made it an offence to place any ‘placard, board, or any other thing’ on any footway in the form of an advertisement. Although one magistrate accepted the defence lawyer’s argument that ‘chalk-writing could not be described as a tangible “thing”’, three other justices on the bench disagreed and the offender was fined £3 with costs.

In my search of old newspapers I have occasionally come across reports of footpath advertisements and other kinds of chalk writing, but political notices are mentioned much more frequently. This may well have been because police generally only bothered to arrest pavement writers if their messages were anti-government.

Convictions for chalk protests continue to the present day, and I will talk about that in a later blog post.

I have recently started a Facebook page, Pavement Appreciation. I invite you to visit.

Sadness

Me. Sad. Ded. Enmore Park, Enmore (Sydney), 2012.

Here is a graphic story published just recently in chalk on asphalt. I came across it one evening this week in Enmore Park outside the aquatic centre there.

The story is intense and personal. But who could have drawn it, and why here? At my place, our interpretation of the story has evolved the more we examine and discuss the words and pictures. I wonder what blog readers make of it.

Enmore Park, between the aquatic centre and the children’s playground, Enmore (Sydney), 2012.

Announcement

Squawk! It’s been a long time in the making, but my new website is now up and running. Pavement appreciation: a step-by-step guide to asphalt graffiti is the ‘creative component’ of my thesis. It showcases my collection of snapshots taken since 1999 and suggests that, if you follow my example and start exploring graffiti on pavements and roadways, you might gain some surprising insights into places you thought you knew.

I invite you to take a look. Please feel free to comment or like the site on Facebook.

(I found the chalk cockatoo this morning in Wilson Street, Newtown. I’ll be having some more to say about chalk in the next couple of blog posts)

Palimpsest

(Warning: Another vocabulary lesson coming up)

I am always interested in finding instances where someone has overwritten or commandeered a previous pavement inscription. A week or so ago I found two quite different examples not far from each other near Sydney’s Broadway.

The first involved a large hairy spider. An infestation of these stencils appeared on the footpaths in the Newtown-Chippendale area some time last year. But the example I came across recently in City Road has since been appropriated by both Mr Kat and Geko.

City Road, Broadway, Sydney, 2012.

Across the way, a chalker with something to say seems to have taken over the corner outside the Broadway Shopping Centre, writing long messages  then covering them over with new ones. On the day when I took my photograph the most legible message was ‘Does the cold make street people invisible’.

Bay Street, Broadway, Sydney, 2012.

The chalker’s activities bring to mind the idea of a ‘palimpsest’. A palimpsest is a page of a manuscript which has been re-used after the original text has been incompletely erased.  Because of the costliness and scarcity of writing materials, in former times manuscripts made of parchment, papyrus or vellum would be overwritten. The word comes to us, via Latin, from an Ancient Greek term meaning ‘scratched or scraped again’.

Perhaps everyone knows what ‘palimpsest’ means these days, but I did not encounter the word at all in my younger years. I am still uncomfortable with it. It does not roll lightly off the tongue, and using it in written text seems pretentious. Having said that, here I go. Despite my optimism about nearly finishing my ‘Pavement graffiti’ thesis (see my former blog about the light at the end of the tunnel), I have since been advised that I should re-write the whole thing in order to give it more cohesion. In his memoir titled ‘Palimpsest’ the late great Gore Vidal described his technique of palimpsest as involving “erasing some but not all of the original while writing something new over the first layer of text”. I think that’s what I’ll be doing with the thesis. The result, however, will just possibly fall short of the literary standard set by Gore Vidal.

Sgraffito

(Pedant alert – Vocabulary lesson ahead)

I noticed an article in the Sydney Morning Herald last week where the word ‘sgraffito’ was used – correctly – to describe ornate plaster work that has been uncovered during the restoration of Glebe Town Hall in Sydney: Peeling back the layers to reveal Glebe’s true history. Sgraffito is a centuries-old decorative technique used on ceramics and plaster walls. Apparently when Glebe Town Hall was built 130 years ago, artisans used this technique to carve a pattern in still-wet white plaster to selectively reveal the pink plaster below.

 

City of Sydney’s architecture design manager, Chris McBride, with the examples of sgraffito discovered at Glebe Town Hall. Photo: Ben Rushton (Sydney Morning Herald, 18 July 2012).

The word sgraffito (plural sgraffiti) comes from the Italian word graffiare, meaning ‘to cut or scratch in stone’. It seems to have been used in the English language in the 18th century to describe incised pottery, but by the 19th century the word graffito (plural graffiti) was being used to mean the kind of casual wall writing that had survived at archaeological sites in Italy (including Pompeii), Egypt and Syria, for example, or on churches and other public buildings in Europe from the Middle Ages.

Graffito/graffiti was not used in the English language to refer to contemporary inscriptions until later in the 19th century, but even so, in this sense it remained an infrequently-used term until the mid-20th century. Scholarly interest in the writing on toilet walls seems to have popularised the term in the 1960s and 1970s.

For my own project I have been trawling the digitised newspapers on the marvellous website Trove, looking for early examples of pavement graffiti in Australia. I have found plenty, but not by searching with the term ‘graffiti’. I had to use search terms like ‘pavement writing’ or ‘footpath writing’. Until the 1960s the word ‘graffiti’ does not appear in Australian newspapers except in occasional news items about archaeological discoveries. One of the earliest references to modern graffiti that I found was in a travel article in the Australian Women’s Weekly (!). Journeying through Hungary in 1969 the writer notes that she saw ‘modern graffiti slogans about American aggressors in Vietnam’ on a wall in one village.

By the way, the story goes that when George Lucas made the coming-of-age movie American Graffiti (released in 1973, set in 1962), Universal Pictures objected to the film’s title, not knowing what ‘American graffiti’ meant. Lucas is said to have been dismayed when some executives assumed he was making an Italian movie about feet. Although over 60 alternative titles were suggested, Lucas prevailed with his original choice.

 

‘Scratch the surface’, King Street South, Newtown (Sydney), 2010.

 

References:

David, Bruno, and Meredith Wilson. 2002. Spaces of resistance: graffiti and Indigenous place markings in the early European contact period of northern Australia. In Inscribed Landscapes: Marking and Making Place, edited by B. David and M. Wilson. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Fleming, Juliet. 2001. Graffiti and the writing arts of early modern England. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.

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

‘American Graffiti’, Wikipedia, 23 July 2012.

Tunnels

Piss Alley, Enmore/Newtown (Sydney), 2010

There is light at the end of the tunnel, I’ve rounded the turn, I’m on the final leg, the end is in sight, I’ve entered the home straight. I’ve also just about reached the end of my tether.  But huzzah! There is a definite possibility that I will finish this PhD project. I just have to polish the Pavement Appreciation website for you to have a look at, re-write a few chapters of the thesis, knock the bibliography into shape … well, it might take a couple more months yet, but I’m nearly there.

To celebrate this moment of optimism I am posting some of my pictures of graffiti on the floor of tunnels. I also have a few photos of wonderfully inventive graffiti on tunnel walls, made without the benefit of spray-can or paintbrush, but maybe I’ll save them for another time.

Graffiti Tunnel, Waterloo Station, London, 2010

 

Pedestrian underpass at Petersham Station (Sydney), 2009

 

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