WATERSHED MOMENTS. EXCURSION 3. REVELATIONS.

4 July 2021

When I began my circumambulation of the Johnstons Creek catchment rim I was prepared for the unexceptional. Unlike last year’s explorations of the creek itself – when I found offbeat backstreets and mini banana jungles – on this series of excursions I expected that only the occasional quirky garden ornament or letterbox would relieve the familiarity of the suburbs I passed through.

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To some extent this is turning out to be the case, but on this third excursion I have a moment of revelation, and I also come across very large infrastructure treasure that somehow I had overlooked in all the years I have lived in the inner west of Sydney.

I started where the imaginary catchment line emerges from between two small, pretty and unremarkable brick houses in a style common to this neighbourhood of Stanmore. Nothing much is going on in the street except for an elderly woman taking in some sun on this cold but bright day.

I stand in the middle of the road and look southeast down the slope. From here I can see across to the other side of Stanmore, and beyond that what must be the telecom tower on the opposite ridge in King Street, Newtown. I am surprised to realise I am looking across the valley of Johnstons Creek. This may seem obvious – I am, after all, standing on the catchment rim – but momentarily I understand the topography of the area without the distractions of urbanisation. There is no way I can properly capture what I am seeing in a mobile phone photograph.

I do not walk down the slope, but keep following the ridge as best I can as it winds between houses, across streets, down back lanes. I am getting closer to the less respectable surrounds of Parramatta Road; graffiti and garage-door murals are starting to appear.

Then, beyond the Seventh Day Adventist Church, I spot another surprise. It is the top of a tall, brick sewer vent.                                                  

My route takes me through more twists and turns until I come to the entrance of Percival Lane. And there, on the next corner, is the magnificent sewer vent standing in the front yard of a little house. White wisps of condensation float from the chimney into the cold blue sky.

Just half an hour ago I had a flash of insight into this area’s geomorphology. But now I have reverted to admiring the monumental accoutrements of civilisation.  Later I will read that this is a ‘classicist late Victorian sewer vent’ with Sydney Water heritage number 4572732.

I have had enough excitement for the day and resolve to resume my walk on an overcast day when I can get photos of the vent and its house without the dappled shadows cast by street trees. I return to the car via a lane beside the Seventh Day Adventist Church, where earlier I noticed a rustic little table in a throwout pile. I will use it as a plant stand in my backyard.

Concrete Creeks. Excursion 7. The tip.

Sunday 19 April 2020

It’s over three weeks since we visited this light industrial triangle between Johnstons Creek and Pyrmont Bridge Road. There have been other excursions in between but now I’m back to find out what happens to the creek beyond the forbidding metal fence where it drops into an open canal behind Water Street.  Just a few neatly kept little houses remain here, tucked between hulking factories and warehouses, and we have come on a Sunday hoping to avoid large trucks squeezing into delivery bays. I walk down a driveway between two houses in Water Street and find that it opens onto a gravelled space bounded on three sides by buildings and on the fourth by a thick jungle of banana trees, castor oil plants, convolvulus and asthma weed. With no machete available I can only peer down the steep slope for glimpses of the canal wall, recognisable by its symbiotic graffiti.

Frustrated by the banana jungle we move east to a wider industrial street that leads directly down to the canal. I have never been on Chester Street before but later I will read that there was once a household garbage tip amongst the houses on this side of Johnstons Creek. It was the source of much friction between the adjoining boroughs of Camperdown and Annandale in the late 1800s. For fifteen years countless  newspaper column inches were taken up with reports of council meetings and letters to the editor on the subject of the Camperdown tip, whose ‘deadly effluvia’ made the creek filthy and ‘endangered the lives of the residents of North Annandale’. There are no houses here now and no tip. Instead there is a motor repair business with a wild piece of wall art.

We walk down the hill to a newly-built footbridge over the canal. On the other side of the dip the street climbs up between the Federation houses of re-gentrified Annandale.

Everything here looks new, but the two playgrounds  are roped off to prevent children from disobeying social distancing rules. This tiny canalside reserve is called ‘Douglas Grant Memorial Park’ in honour of an Aboriginal man whose original name was Ng:tja. The survivor of a massacre, in 1887 he was taken as a toddler from his North Queensland home thousands of kilometres away and brought up in Annandale as a member of his captor’s family. His story is told on two plaques.  It does not end well.

By taking a short walk along where this narrow park skirts a series of backyard fences, I can look across to the place where I had earlier tried bush-bashing.  The clear band of water that I couldn’t see from the other side reflects the sky, but the graffiti is old and dilapidated, as if the renovation of the area has made the canal too public for spray painters.

This nook in Annandale is a revelation to me. But not to locals of course. Not the cyclists and joggers intermittently crossing the bridge. The two young men casually shooting a basketball. The squealing children doing wheelies on their scooters. Nor the three teenagers sitting at a picnic table and idly chatting not quite 1.5 metres apart.

Concrete Creeks. Excursion 2. Where waters meet.

Saturday 21 March 2020

I have moved a short way upstream for today’s visit to Johnstons Creek. After inspecting the canal where it passes deep under Parramatta Road I am tracing it backwards and find that the next available viewing point is in a Stanmore street cut in half by the canal. A pedestrian bridge joins the two halves. The concrete waterway is flanked by factory walls on one side and backyard gardens on the other, whose overhanging trees hide shady secrets. ‘Call Your Mum’, urges a graffiti message. We set off to find what’s around the corner further upstream.

The streets in this commercial/industrial area are hot and lonely as if it were a Sunday afternoon but we are distracted by a café, open perhaps for one last day. Cautiously practising our new social distancing skills we order then sit out in a courtyard surrounded by closed studios and workshops that barricade us from the canal.

One last push on to Salisbury Road and I find what I’m looking for. This is where Johnstons Creek emerges from beneath its permanent suburban cover.  Surprisingly there’s another large drain that joins it. It’s time to go home and study old maps to find the sources of the creek and this underground tributary. They don’t always form such a lazy trickle. I’m later told that trainee volunteers with the local SES are brought here on ‘flooding hot spot tours’.

This week I was reminded that Sydney’s supreme suburban explorer, Vanessa Berry, has already tracked Johnstons Creek on her Mirror Sydney blog. Different eyes. We will compare notes next time we meet, whenever that might be. ‘Happy New Year Mate’ wishes another graffiti message in blue paint. Anxious strange year is more like it.

Concrete Creeks. Excursion 1. The sandstone bridge.

Thursday 12 March 2020

It is the beginning of social isolation and I have devised a plan that involves, not staying in, but getting out into the customarily deserted streets of suburbia. To keep me exercised and interested, but distanced, I will try tracing the paths of local waterways, most of them now hidden underground or confined to canals that lurk around back lanes. My Journal of the Plague Year will document a watery wander.

I start with Johnstons Creek, a notable watercourse on the inner western fringe of central Sydney.  It is named after Lieutenant George Johnston, who arrived as a marine on the First Fleet in 1788. Within a few years of the colony being established Johnston was granted a parcel of land and this creek formed the eastern boundary of his property.

My first excursion takes me to Parramatta Road, which crosses Johnstons Creek part the way along its course. Peering over a railing I can see the creek still flowing way down in the bottom of its ovoid stormwater canal. Before writing up this journal entry I learn from someone close to me that her graffiti crew used to spray here. But that was many years ago. I doubt there’s anything of hers visible now.

A Bicentennial plaque set into the concrete footpath tells me that a wooden bridge was built here in 1839. There are remnants of a subsequent sandstone bridge on the other side of Parramatta Road. More graffiti, including the name of a well known street artist who’s just recently been charged with sexual assault.

Banksy, Newtown and ephemerality

ADDENDUM. This blog post was the seed for a more detailed article in Nuart Journal, published in September 2019. You can find it at ‘Wall story: an 11-year visual record of a street art site in Sydney’.

Eleven years ago I photographed a fading piece of Banksy graffiti in Newtown, an inner west suburb of Sydney. It’s a version of the UK artist’s ‘Diver’ stencil and would have been done in 2003 when he made a secretive visit to Sydney. Back then I was concentrating on pavement graffiti and was not much interested in Banksy. I’m still not that interested, but anyone who writes about graffiti of any sort must eventually pay attention to the Banksy Phenomenon.

By 2008 Banksy was notorious enough for me to decide that I should photograph the Diver. It helped that there were two other types of graffiti nearby – a tile with hand-painted lettering fixed to the pavement (of course) and a mosaic of broken china stuck to the wall. All of these were along the side of Alfalfa House, an organic food cooperative that had been set up in 1981 at the corner of Enmore Road and Philip Street.

Only a few people knew about Banksy’s brief visit to Australia in 2003 and while the whereabouts of some of his stencils in Melbourne were known, I found it curious that so little attention had been paid to this one in a fairly busy street in Newtown, especially as one of his works on a wall in London had sold for some thousands of pounds early in 2008. But by the end of 2008 the Diver had finally received attention. The name ‘Vice Quid’ had been sprayed over it, whether out of ignorance or defiance I don’t know.

It’s possible an article in the Sydney Morning Herald had stirred up interest in the work. Even though the reporter had acknowledged that “Graffiti artists keep the whereabouts [of Banksy’s Sydney works] secret because there are fears the rocketing price of Banksy’s work means they might be broken out of the walls on which they are painted”,  nevertheless he had been quite specific about the location of the Diver.

When I privately expressed some dismay I was firmly told by a close acquaintance that it’s what should be expected. “It’s only graffiti. Graffiti’s not meant to last”. Not even Banksy’s. And it’s true. As I said in an earlier blog post – ‘Overpainting: order vs chaos’ – when taggers and spray-can artists paint over each other’s work, sometimes this is a display of disrespect and an assertion of territory, sometimes it’s a political act, and sometimes it is simply a natural progression in the world of informal street art, where the art is necessarily ephemeral.

Within a few months the wall was covered with tags, stencils, paste-ups and notices. The Diver, which had remained untouched for five years, was now barely visible.

A year later I couldn’t even be sure where the Banksy stencil was.

In 2011 Alfalfa House must have decided a makeover was in order. An artist was presumably organised to paint a mural on the side wall and it’s possible that someone, other than the artist themselves, thought this pattern was attractive. But, aesthetic qualities aside, in covering over what went before, the line had been crossed, from informal graffiti to commissioned art.

Notice, however, that the old wall mosaic and the pavement tile had escaped unscathed.

Fast forward to the present where the wall of Alfalfa House is now covered by a magnificent pastel-coloured work by well-known local street artist Phibs.  A remnant of the mosaic remains but the rest has been painted over. The pavement tile is gone, its lowly place now taken by a horizontal tag on the concrete.

But not even Phibs is above being scribbled on. So far the attempts at defacement have only been tentative.

Banksy’s latest notorious stunt was the semi-self-destruction of one of his works seconds after it was sold at a London auction for more than one million pounds in October 2018. Originally titled ‘Girl with a Balloon’ the work was renamed ‘Love is in the Bin’ by Banksy. It does not take much imagination to see the metaphorical connection between the shredding of a graffiti-stencil-turned-framed-artwork and the ephemerality of art on the street.

References:

Jinman, Richard, ‘Details emerge of Banksy’s Sydney visit’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 2008.

Wikipedia, ‘Banksy’.

‘Banksy’s Girl with a Balloon artwork self destructs after selling for almost $1.9 million at auction’, ABC News, 6 October 2018.

All photographs by meganix.

Graffiti tricks

 

This is going to take a lengthy search. I am looking for images and mentions of graffiti that pre-date the explosion of informal public writing in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m concentrating on Sydney, but even within that narrow scope it won’t be easy.


Before the mid-1900s the term ‘graffiti’ was used for writing that had survived on walls found at ancient archaeological sites. It hardly ever referred to contemporary inscriptions in public places. So there’s not going to be much point in using Trove to scan the newspapers for references to ‘graffiti’.

Nor will it be much use searching through the catalogues of digitized photograph collections. When cataloguers are annotating images of buildings and streetscapes they note all sorts of things that might be used as search terms, but they hardly ever notice graffiti.

So I will have to look at images one by one in the collections at, for example, the Mitchell Library and the City of Sydney Archives. In the meantime I scrutinize the blow-ups of historical photographs that are currently being used to decorate building-site hoardings around town.

These blow-ups are not quite as they seem. Each of them is an element of an artwork called Double Take. Artist Rachel Harris has doctored the photographs by adding “unusual details”. There is a pair of them in King Street, Newtown. Look carefully and you’ll see that, alongside the shabby building and the stepload of kids, there is a modern bicycle, a basketball hoop, and … (no I’m not going to give away any more of the “hidden treasures”).

But what about the scribbles on the house and the paling fence? I am right to be excited because I’ve spotted historical examples of childish graffiti, or is this just another of Rachel Harris’s interventions?

Nevertheless, I’m on pretty solid ground regarding the graffiti on the accompanying photograph of the Hero of Waterloo Hotel. I’d say that pink scribble is definitely an early 21st century tag. And it post-dates Rachel’s digital trickery.

The name

I am researching the history of a nineteenth century row of houses in Sydney’s inner west. It’s not my usual kind of writing gig but it has been interesting following the money. Wealth accumulated in good times by an enterprising immigrant from Yorkshire, shared with his son as a business partner, lost when the son’s extravagant ventures are caught out by a national financial depression.  What’s left is a smattering of properties that have been salvaged for heritage listing by repurposing – gentlemen’s residences divided into flatettes, a wool store fitted out as university outpost campus, a private mansion transformed into a Catholic educational institution.  

The buildings are notable for the need these colonial nouveau capitalists had to monogram their possessions. The firm’s name is embossed on the wool store – an understandable commercial imperative. But on the gateposts of the father’s 1860s villa his initials AH are stuccoed in botanical calligraphy so elaborate that they are barely legible.

 

The son’s entwined initials JH in more restrained but authoritative capitals decorate the interior of his opulent 1880s mansion. I can imagine the thrill of self-satisfaction this sleek young mayor experiences as he glimpses the stained glass panel on his way upstairs from the expansive vestibule of his domicile.

 

Fast forward to the late twentieth century and an upsurge of the monogram for marking property – though more likely someone else’s property or else a piece of public infrastructure. Taggers appropriate territory with marks that are generally illegible except to themselves or to cohorts that matter.

 I came across a graffiti supplies website recently, and this comment from a user:  ‘ I wrote the name test when i was in high school. I liked it cause every time i  saw the word test in a context totally unrelated to graff i creamed a little’.

 Here is the thrill of self-affirmation. This graffitist has gone for ordinariness over illegibility for his tag, and finds satisfaction when he sees,  not only the property he has marked,  but every single item where his moniker ‘test’ happens to appear – books, advertisements, notices, school whiteboards. His mind (and his member) believe that all these base are belong to him.

 At least what you don’t really own and have not mortgaged will not send you bankrupt.

Images by meganix, taken in 2017 in Sydney: Stanmore, Circular Quay, Newtown and Strathfield.

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.

Rainbow politics

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“The removal of the Taylor Square rainbow crossing created an even bigger stir than its original installation. To mark its passing, people attached unofficial rainbow flags to poles in Taylor Square and tied rainbow ribbons to safety fences. But performer and activist James Brechney had a fresh idea for an alternate location that somehow captured the zeitgeist.”

My exquisitely objective article on the history of the DIY Rainbow Crossing is now available to read in the Dictionary of Sydney.

Some time ago I wrote a blog post on the symbolism of pedestrian crossings. It’s here.

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(Photos by meganix, taken in Darlinghurst in 2013 and Summer Hill 2015)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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