Pavement pedantry

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‘The path of least resistance’, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 2012

Here’s another one of those pedantic vocabulary posts. We’ve already done ‘sgraffito/ graffiti’ and ‘palimpsest’. Now it’s time to do ‘pavement’ because I got another email this week querying why I use that term.  In Australia, says my correspondent, we more commonly use the term ‘footpath’.  Trouble is, dear correspondent, that this blog – and indeed my whole Pavement graffiti project – is meant for an international audience, and in any case I’m obsessed with graffiti not only on places where people walk, but also on the hard surfaces where they normally drive, ride, skate and park.

It’s a tricky problem of vocabulary that I have never properly resolved. But here is how I justified using the term ‘pavement’ in my thesis. It comes with a lengthy footnote:

“By ‘pavement’ I mean hard, paved surfaces in public places. These include roads (or ‘carriageways’ in older terminology), footpaths (‘footways’ in older Australian terminology, ‘sidewalks’ in America), public squares and parking lots. Their paving materials range from cobblestones and flagstones to tarmacadam, asphalt and concrete.

Footnote: The term ‘pavement’ can be problematic in that usage varies across English-speaking countries. Respondents to my blog, Pavement graffiti, have pointed out that people in Britain usually think of the pavement as a paved footway; in Australia this seems to be the more generally accepted meaning as well, although the term ‘footpath’ is more widely used. In American English the term ‘pavement’ is used for ‘the durable surface material laid down on an area intended to sustain vehicular or foot traffic, such as a road or walkway’ (see the entry for Road surface in Wikipedia, accessed 3 March 2013).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s list of definitions of ‘pavement’ covers all these uses. Condensed, the OED’s meanings (excluding the specialised mining and zoological uses), are: a paved surface or hard covering laid on the ground (used chiefly in technical contexts); paving or similar surfacing (used as a mass noun); the paved or metalled part of a road or other public thoroughfare or the roadway (used chiefly in North America and in Engineering); a paved footpath alongside a street or road (but the preferred term in North America is ‘sidewalk’) (see the entry for pavement in OED Online, Oxford University Press, accessed 20 March 2013).

“In my extensive reading of current as well as older references – mainly from Australia, but also from Britain and USA – I have seen the term ‘pavement’ variously used by both engineers and laypeople to refer to the paved surfaces of roads, of footpaths alone, and of roads and footpaths. For my project I have chosen to use ‘pavement’ in this last, broad sense because it is the only term available that can collectively refer to all the different kinds of hard surface laid down on the ground for ease of passage, whether by wheels, feet or hooves.”

Does that help?

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‘New ashphelt’, Broadway (Sydney), 2013.

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.

 

Christmas in Sydney Park

Sydney Park, December 2012

Sydney Park, December 2012.

It’s that time of year again – time to say thank you to all those people who have shown an interest in my pavement project. I hope your own projects, whatever they are, bring you satisfaction in the coming year.

Sydney Park in St Peters was formerly a brick pit and brickworks, then a garbage dump, and now it is an expansive park with great sky. Its footpaths have provided me with quite a few graffiti finds. So as my end-of-year gesture, here are a few relics from the archives.

Sydney Park, 2010.

Sydney Park, 2010.

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Sydney Park, 2010.

Princes Highway, St Peters, beside Sydney Park, 1999.

Sydney Park, 1999.

Sydney Park, 2000,

Sydney Park, 2000.

Best wishes to all from Megan.

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.

 

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.

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.

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

 

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.

Surface reflections

Northumberland Avenue, Stanmore, NSW. February 2012.

I have just had an article published in the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture called ‘Surface reflections’. It’s about personal inscriptions on the pavement – that is, one-offs written by people who might not dare put graffiti on a wall, but who are driven by some momentary urge or temporary preoccupation to mark the pavement.

I suggest that this kind of graffiti can sometimes reveal the hidden unconscious of a place.

The journal is a print publication and could not include many photographs, so I have made a slide show of all the examples I mention in my article. You can view the slide show here.

Hicks, Megan. 2012. ‘Surface reflections: Personal graffiti on the pavement’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 1(3), 365-382.