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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Recapturing the magic

Parking space fly, Darlington, 2002.

Parking space fly, Darlington, 2002.

In my so-called office at home I am attempting to regain control. The room has been overtaken by stuff and progress is slow because I have neglected the fundamental rule: DON’T READ.

Amongst things that I have sinfully paused to read while culling superseded files, I found notes I took at the orientation day for new PhD students in the Division of Society, Culture, Media and Philosophy at Macquarie University in 2008. It was on that day, by the way, that I discovered I was not the oldest PhD student in the world, and that there were many other culmination-of-career candidates. Anyway, here’s one piece of advice I dutifully noted:

At the beginning, keep a journal of what you read and what you think about it. Your notes will be like Ariadne’s thread leading you through the maze. They will help you to solidify your thesis topic or even change your mind about what that might be.

"Suck shit up". Stanmore, 2003.

“Suck shit up”. Stanmore, 2003.

Well, I did start a journal, which became a series of A5 notebooks. The PhD has since been completed but, many volumes later, I still keep this journal, with notes on what I have read, seen, heard, talked about, and thought about. It is quite separate from my daily diary of appointments and humdrum domestic events. As a diversion from room-tidying I hunted out Volume 1 to re-read the first thing I had written in the journal. Here it is (slightly edited):

If I am going to do this project I am going to have to re-find my belief in the magical properties of the pavement. These last few years my writing and thinking have become prosaic. I have lost fun and wonder – beaten out of me by [my workplace]. When I first started photographing footpaths eight years ago, suddenly I could write poetry.

Over the next few years I did manage to recapture the magic as I enjoyed the luxury of exploring, photographing, reading, thinking and writing without the need to churn out memos, attend interminable meetings, play office politics, carry the dead weight of work-shy colleagues and endure the hysterics of others, attend to bureaucratic niceties and write formulaic justifications for every decision – and that was in what many (including myself) would have considered a dream job.

Once I left that job, how lovely it was on a nice sunny day to admire the sparkles in the asphalt and concrete, on a nice rainy day to enjoy the wavering reflections of the world on the ground, and on any day to seek out the messages people leave on the pavement and speculate why they leave them. And, in imaginary dialogue with scholars past and present, to discuss both the enchanting and the disheartening aspects of public places, and to consider what’s so special about the pavement.

"Bread is making birds sick". Enmore, 2010.

“Bread is making birds sick”. Enmore, 2010.

These days I’m a bit more relaxed about the pavement. I don’t feel I have to look at the ground all the time in case I miss something, but I’m still interested in what’s so special about other places in the urban landscape that are so obvious they’re invisible.

Poster history book. Petersham, 2014. All photos by meganix.

Poster history book. Petersham, 2014. All photos by meganix.

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)

 

 

No parking

Enmore, 2014.

Enmore, 2014.

This is a story about the struggle between the green and the grey, between leaves and asphalt, between street trees and street parking, between what ought to be and what is. In inner city suburbs like Enmore and Stanmore, Marrickville Council is caught in this struggle.

One of the most stressful aspects of urban living is the shortage of parking. Suburbs that sprang up in the Victorian era, when there was no such thing as a motor car, are now undergoing gentrification; households often have more than one car but few houses have off-street parking.

Given the convenience of public transport in area, why do these people need cars? Partly it’s snobbery. Does your solicitor join the plebs on a bus to work? Would your doctor be seen dead in a train? Partly it’s necessity. With both parents working, try juggling work hours, childcare drop-offs and pick-ups, and Saturday sport all over the city. However much people might agree in principle with the environmental benefits of public transport and bicycle riding, often these are just not viable options.

Stanmore, 2014.

Stanmore, 2014.

Shortage of street parking spaces is made worse by visitors to the area. Now that Enmore has become a ‘vibrant entertainment precinct’ hundreds of customers come in the evenings to attend performances or enjoy the many new restaurants, bars and cafes. And they don’t necessarily want to travel across the city in public transport at night to get home. So they infiltrate ever-deeper into residential territory to find parking for their cars. Residents jealously guard driveways (if they have them) and fume when they have to park blocks away from their homes. Marrickville Council knows all this and is trying to address the problem with committee meetings, surveys, community consultation, plans and projects.

Enmore, 2014. Enmore Theatre is in the background.

So why is Council intent on reducing the amount of parking in contested areas, rather than finding extra spaces? It’s because they are also committed to an Urban Forest Strategy that ‘recognizes the urban forest as an essential, living infrastructure asset and resource that provides a wide range of social, environmental and economic benefits’.

And this is what has prompted the demonstration project in Cavendish Street, Enmore, where large Lilli Pilli trees have been planted in structured soil in the roadway. I wrote about this project in my earlier post ‘What lies beneath’. And even though ‘permeable paving’ means that the space taken up by tree-planting ‘blisters’ is smaller than would normally be needed to keep trees healthy, there is no question that parking spaces have been lost. Residents of the street are supposed to have agreed to this arrangement, but they probably would have agreed to any scheme that saw the former huge, inappropriate and destructive fig trees removed from their footpaths.

Enmore, 2014. One tree gained, two parking spaces lost.

Enmore, 2014. One tree gained, two parking spaces lost.

Meanwhile parking pressure on nearby streets has been increased just that bit extra. What’s more, Marrickville’s draft Master Street Plan has Lilli Pilli (Waterhousia floribunda) or similarly large trees slated for some of these same streets. Given the narrowness of the verges, this must mean more in-road planting and more parking lost. Residents of these streets are not going to be too happy about this.

A 2013 survey of residents in the Marrickville Local Government Area found that most people like having greenery in their suburbs. Of course. But what the survey doesn’t mention is that householders also like to park close to their homes and businesses don’t want customers put off by lack of parking. Until a whole lot of things in the world change, this reliance on cars and the need for parking isn’t going to go away. In-road planting is an impractical component of the urban forest strategy and would have measurable social and economic costs. An ideological commitment to such a component would have a detrimental, not a beneficial, effect on the local area. Small trees, please.

Enmore, 2014.

Enmore, 2014.

What lies beneath

New trees have been planted in Cavendish Street, Enmore, but for pavement fanciers the interest lies in the method used to install them. The process was far more complex than simply plonking a tree in a hole. It involved such things as ‘in-road planting’ and ‘structural soil’ and ‘plastic cells’ and ‘permeable paving’ – all designed to address ‘multiple issues, including impact of trees on infrastructure, safety of footpaths, enhancement of the urban tree canopy, landscape amenity and urban water management’.* And preventing the road surface from cracking or caving in.

Marrickville Council seems pretty pleased with the project, which is the first of its kind for this municipality, and maybe for the whole of Sydney. It’s been interesting watching the process, but I have some misgivings.

Cavendish Street, Enmore NSW, June 2014

It all started more than three years ago, when Marrickville Council began removing very large fig trees from the footpaths on the street. Although enjoyed by birds and bats, these trees broke up the paving and invaded underground pipes. I wrote a blog post about local mourning when the first tree was removed.

Cavendish Street, Enmore NSW, October 2010

‘Tree replaced by cement!’, Cavendish Street, Enmore NSW, October 2010

The story resumes in April this year, and here’s how it goes. The Council excavates three huge rectangular pits in the street, digging deep down into the clay beneath the surface of the road.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Underground infrastructure, including gas pipes, is adjusted and gravel is spread in the bottom of each hole.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Next, a layer of large plastic cells is positioned in the pit and ‘structural soil’ is tipped in between them. Another layer of cells and soil is added, this time with a rectangular hole in the centre fenced off with plywood formwork. As I understand it, the plastic cells act as support for the roadway above; the structural soil is a mix of gravel and loam that resists being compacted and allows tree roots to spread and grow.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Over the soil comes a layer of geotextile then another layer of gravel.

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Cavendish Street, May 2014

Concreters build retaining edges around the central tree hole to form a ‘blister’. This will prevent cars bumping into the tree trunk.

Cavendish Street, June 2014

Cavendish Street, June 2014

Permeable pavers are laid. Rain falling on the road will flow towards this area of porous paving. This means that street run-off will infiltrate the tree pits instead of gushing down the gutters and into stormwater drains.

Within a day or so, on a nice rainy morning, advanced trees are lifted into the central hole, the formwork is removed and more soil is tipped around the large root ball. The three trees are Waterhousia floribunda ‘Green Avenue’, a cultivar of the rainforest Weeping Lilli Pilli that is expected to grow to 16 metres.

Cavendish Street, June 2014. All photographs by meganix.

Cavendish Street, June 2014. All photographs by meganix.

 

The project is not quite finished. A garden will be planted inside each blister. But the safety fencing has been replaced by witches’ hats and the official photographer has been sent to take photos for Council publications. As the unofficial photographer and busybody I’m rushing into e-print with this blog post.

In my next post I will talk about how my admiration for this aboricultural and civil engineering feat is tempered by reservations about the push and pull of local council policies.

 

*Marrickville Matters, December 2013, p.9.

Etiquette

'Dog-owner polluter', Newtown (Sydney), 2003.

‘Dog-owner polluter’, Newtown (Sydney), 2003.

In the city, life is complicated and boundaries are indistinct. Because people’s lives butt up against each other, behaviour is bound by rules of social etiquette. Feelings of loss and frustration are exacerbated when others overstep boundaries and fail to observe ‘the rules’. When this happens, people look for ways to re-establish their individuality.

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‘Another shitting dog owner’, Enmore (Sydney), 2001.

The lowly pavement – that shared space that belongs to everyone and no one – is sometimes co-opted by people attempting to assert themselves. The anonymous airing of petty grievances on and about the pavement is a satisfying way of alleviating feelings of powerlessness.

'Filthy dog owner', Enmore (Sydney), 2001.

‘Filthy dog owner’, Enmore (Sydney), 2001.

People paint ‘Bread is making birds sick’ on areas where other people feed pigeons; they chalk circles around dog droppings and write ‘Filthy dog owner’.

'Whose dog?', Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

‘Whose dog?’, Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

Their notices are rather like the notes that are left in the kitchens and bathrooms of workplaces and share houses to ‘Wash up after yourself’ and ‘Use the toilet brush’. Someone who ‘breaks the rules’ is rebuked, without the need for face-to-face confrontation. Pavement remonstrations are delivered and received with eyes lowered, and in this way public decorum is maintained.

'Who owns this?', Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

‘Who owns this?’, Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

 

For more about this kind of graffiti see:
Hicks, Megan, 2011, ‘Surface reflections: Personal graffiti on the pavement’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 1(3): 365 – 382.

 

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.

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.

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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