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)

 

 

Drift

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

It’s not many people who receive a commissioned artwork as a graduation present, especially one that is based on the topic of their thesis. How privileged am I!

beneath the pavement, the beach is the title of the work made for me by artist Kate Riley.

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

I had already admired Kate’s luminously detailed series of prints on paper that she called flotilla. Here are blue bottles (Portuguese men o’ war) stranded on the beach by a receding tide, their long tentacles drawing inky loops across the wet sand. So when Kate was approached by family members to create a work especially for me, she found inspiration at the intersection of our interests – the eyes-down scavenging for traces of life (and death) as we stroll along deserted beaches or busy streets.

Kate, it transpires, had enjoyed reading the post on my blogsite called Flotsam and jetsam. In that post I quoted author Tim Winton on the pleasures of beachcombing, because I found in his description strong resemblances to my own practice of combing the pavement for graffiti.

This is what Kate wrote to me:

‘I decided I would like to explore the “beneath the pavement lies the beach” idea … This segued beautifully into a consideration of how to use the structure of the work I had chosen, the small wooden boxes. By using both sides of the boxes I could use beach/ bluebottle/ seadrift imagery on one face of the box and pavement imagery on the other. The boxes can then be arranged and rearranged as desired. Using the ‘back’ of the box, as well as the front, also allows a push and pull of the surface that I find rather pleasing, and is suggestive of pigeon holes and display cabinets.

‘This piece is now a record of two of my favourite places and two of my favourite walks: the beach on the south coast of NSW on which I grew up, and the streets around Newtown where I live now. To build up a store of Newtown pavement images, I used the same process I used for my beach walk drawings:

‘I set aside a set period of time for a walk where I use my i-phone to take quick images of anything that catches my eye. In the studio I can then select and regroup the images to create a satisfying arrangement that captures the spirit of my walk. I know from your blog that you use the same, or a similar, process.

‘The ‘beach’ side of the work captures a moment in time. By the next tide the objects on the beach will be completely different. Any seadrift or bluebottles left will have dried, lost their colour and vibrancy. New marks and patterns will have emerged.

 

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail)

‘In contrast, the ‘pavement’ side is a glimpse of the layering of signs and markings that build up over time. Marks both intentional and meaningful (survey marks, messages official and unofficial …) and marks serendipitous and accidental (rust, cracks, wear and tear …) lie next to and over each other. Objects found there may be fleeting, but others can be (almost) permanent fixtures.

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail). All photographs by Kate Riley

‘Both sides were collected as virtual beachcombing to make a gift for you.’

Thank you Kate, and thank you to the family members who commissioned this most beautiful surprise. Thanks also to other family and friends for your gifts, both lovely and silly, your good wishes, and your company on what was the best graduation day I have ever had.

 

(beneath the pavement, the beach: charcoal pencil, pastel pencil, powdered graphite, ink, gesso and acrylic paint on seven wood panels, two of which are 15 x 15 cm, three 10 x 10 cm, and two 10 x 5 cm)

Your typical pedestrian

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My WordPress avatar is a pedestrian traversing the asphalt. Despite a continuous battering by passing traffic, you can see that my pedestrian still has a burning heart, thanks to an implant by the 90s band Junglepunks.

Pedestrian and Junglepunks stencils, Broadway (Sydney), 1999

Pedestrian and Junglepunks, Broadway (Sydney), 1999

I have met many such pavement people since I began my graffiti project way back in 1999, but I seem to have only mentioned them once on this blog site. A desire to revisit them has been prompted by some of the photographs in a new little book by Phil Smith, Enchanted things, where he writes:

‘The pedestrian figures here were all intended by some designer as generic representations; yet to the glad eye they display their eccentricities, amputations, stretch marks, wrinkles, prostheses and rearrangements. They serves as memento mutabis (“remember you will change”), a reminder of your body as unfinished business, inscribed into its path and subject to all that passes along it, a history made on the hoof.’

In this photo-essay Phil, an ambulant academic at Plymouth University, UK, urges us to undertake an ‘experimental pilgrimage without destinations’ where disfigured pedestrian figures are just a small sample of the absurd, ironic and accidental artworks in the urban landscape that, if we take the trouble to notice them, will rearrange our attitude to the world.

My Sydney pavement pedestrians serve to confirm that walking in the builtscape is no simple matter.  They don’t need Phil to tell them they should LOOK, LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT. But even if they have an opinion about what they see, they are made to shut up. It is sometimes permissible for them to manifest their gender or age status, but more often than not they are stripped to their naked genderlessness, a mere shadow of their supposed selves.

Although exposed to assault from all sides, they can hardly complain they weren’t warned. Even so, when cautioned to THINK BEFORE YOU CROSS and STEP SAFELY they generally decide to make a dash for it. Some do so with a defiant display of insouciance but others are so terrified by the traffic they jump right out of their shoes.

Pedestrian whose comments have been censored, Summer Hill, 2010

Pedestrian whose comments have been censored, Summer Hill, 2010

Wise walkers, Stanmore, 2000

Wise walkers, Stanmore, 2000

Unwise street crosser, Newtown, 1999

Unwise street crosser, Newtown, 1999

Left and right shoes left behind, Newtown, 2000

Left and right shoes left behind, Newtown, 2000

The more purposeful striders who stick to the footpath find they are obliged to share their way with cyclists and sometimes even elephants. Hidden trenches and falling manhole covers are additional hazards.

Casualties are high and many pavements are haunted by the remains of hapless pedestrians, last seen in healthy condition maybe twenty years ago, now reduced to making ghostly appearances from between the cracks in the asphalt.

Pathway parade, College and Liverpool Streets, Sydney, 2011

Pathway parade, College and Liverpool Streets, Sydney, 2011

 

Pedestrian in trench, Newtown, 1999

Pedestrian in trench, Newtown, 1999

Pedestrian under manhole cover, Chatswood, 2007

Pedestrian under manhole cover, Chatswood, 2007

Traces of a pedestrian, Berry, NSW, 2007

Traces of a pedestrian, Berry, NSW, 2007

 

Like my flat mates, I find it hard to keep up with Phil’s ambulant ruminations. Nevertheless, the next item on my reading list is another recent book by him, larger in size and no doubt equally challenging.  It’s called On walking … and stalking Sebald and its cover features an array of pedestrian figures. How could I resist?

 

Smith, Phil, 2014, Enchanted things: signposts to a new nomadism, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

Smith, Phil, 2014, On walking … and stalking Sebald: a guide to going beyond wandering around looking at stuff, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

A colourful story

This is a story about vindictiveness and vindication. On the face of it, it’s about gay pride and support for the gay and lesbian (LGBTQI) community. But it’s also about me, me, me and my Pavement graffiti project.

It all started with a pedestrian crossing at Taylor Square on Oxford Street that the City of Sydney Council painted in rainbow colours for the 2013 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in February-March. It was supposed to be temporary but Sydneysiders wanted it to stay.

Rainbow crossing, Taylor Square, Sydney, March 2013

Rainbow crossing, Taylor Square, Sydney, March 2013

The State Government declared it was a safety hazard and during the night on 10 April it sent in a crew to rip up the rainbow and repave the road. This is where the vindictiveness comes in. Many people saw this action as part of an ongoing campaign by  State Premier Barry O’Farrell to ‘Get Clover’ – Clover Moore, that is, the longstanding Lord Mayor of Sydney. Asphalt used as a political weapon. Here’s a newspaper report and video of the dastardly deed.

Rainbow crossing at Taylor Square replaced by grey asphalt, April 2013

Rainbow crossing at Taylor Square replaced by grey asphalt, April 2013

By the end of the week there were rainbow ribbons and flags flying around Taylor Square to mark the passing of the crossing.

Memorial rainbow ribbons, Taylor Square, 14 April 2013

Memorial rainbow ribbons, Taylor Square, 14 April 2013

But even more astounding, in protest against the Government’s action, a viral campaign to draw DIY rainbow crossings in chalk took off in Sydney, around Australia, and in other parts of the world.

DIY rainbow crossing, Forbes Street, just a few metres from Taylor Square, 14 April 2013

DIY rainbow crossing, Forbes Street, just a few metres from Taylor Square, 14 April 2013

Around where I live you can’t walk up the street without tripping over a rainbow.

Rainbow crossing outside Goulds Book Arcade, King Street, Newtown, 14 April 2013

Rainbow crossing outside Goulds Book Arcade, King Street, Newtown, 14 April 2013

And this is the vindication part. ‘Pavement graffiti’ may seem like an obscure and even unworthy subject on which to base a PhD and many people just don’t get it. But in the very week that I finish writing the thesis, along comes this hotly debated story to demonstrate that PAVEMENT MARKS MATTER. (It’s also left me wondering whether I should open up the thesis again and add an epilogue about rainbow crossings.)

 

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.

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)

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