Announcement

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

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

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

Palimpsest

(Warning: Another vocabulary lesson coming up)

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

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

City Road, Broadway, Sydney, 2012.

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

Bay Street, Broadway, Sydney, 2012.

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

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

Sgraffito

(Pedant alert – Vocabulary lesson ahead)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

References:

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

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

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

‘American Graffiti’, Wikipedia, 23 July 2012.

Tunnels

Piss Alley, Enmore/Newtown (Sydney), 2010

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

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

Graffiti Tunnel, Waterloo Station, London, 2010

 

Pedestrian underpass at Petersham Station (Sydney), 2009

 

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.

Cafés

Times change. Demographics alter. Districts evolve. And always there are people who would prefer things to stay as they are.

It doesn’t seem that long since the Newtown shopping strips of King Street and Enmore Road had stores that catered for all sorts of everyday needs – fruit and vegies, butchers, delicatessens, a Coles variety store, a department store with everything from gentlemen’s underwear to lengths of ribbon, a jewellers with wedding and engagement rings, tobacconists, electrical goods, and an army disposals store.

But the Greek bakery and the fish shop and a whole lot of other shops closed down and became cafés. And people complained in writing.

'Cafe quota filled', Enmore Road, 1999

 

The old-style shopping centre has continued its transformation into something that suits whatever the current population of residents and tourists happens to be. Just recently the ‘fish shop’ café and some other coffee shops have closed down. And people are writing to complain about that.

'Can we have another cafe here please. Can't handle another clothes shop', King Street, February 2012

 

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.

Keep going

Illawarra Road, Marrickville, NSW

Marrickville is an old suburb of Sydney and has narrow streets, particularly some running in a north-south direction, that are hardly adequate to function as the major thoroughfares they have become. Illawarra Road is like this. It’s a busy route linking the north side of the suburb to the Cooks River on the south side, and yet there are places where motorists travelling in opposite directions baulk at passing each other because of the tight space between the rows of parked cars on either side.

Someone has taken matters into their own hands on one stretch of Illawarra Road. If you are driving south there is a sign painted on the road that reads ‘Keep going’. If you are travelling north there is a longer sign that assures you that ‘2 cars can safely pass … please proceed’.

I am interested in what is really going on when people write their own rules and regulations on the pavement. In this case we can probably speculate that the person who painted these advisory notices is either a local resident who sees and hears cars stopping and starting outside their house all day, or a person who frequently uses this route and is often held up by timid drivers. What may to some extent may be an altruistic gesture, meant to assist motorists in negotiating this tricky bit of road, must also involve a large component of self interest.

Illawarra Road, Marrickville, near Sydenham Road.

Harbour Bridge resurfacing

In January 2012 Sydney Harbour Bridge is being resurfaced. Naturally I am interested.

The work is taking place over two weekends, or possibly three, depending on the weather. It is the first time in the Bridge’s 80-year history that the asphalt has been stripped back to the original concrete deck. Workers with small paint rollers on sticks will waterproof the deck with epoxy and large machines will lay a smooth asphalt surface over it. More about this on the NSW Government’s Transport website.

There were long traffic queues and cranky drivers on the first weekend as cars were diverted into the Harbour Tunnel. Presumably many people had not seen the mobile traffic signs and the advertisements that had been warning for months that the Bridge would be closed.  This weekend, after all the publicity about the delays last week, you’d think people would have got the message to take a longer route to cross the harbour. But apparently not, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. There were queues again today.

On Friday afternoon I drove over the Bridge some hours before it closed at 10.00 pm. My passenger took photos. To the left of the picture an electronic sign warns that the Bridge will be closed tonight. To the right you can see Lanes 1-3 have been newly resurfaced. The patchy asphalt on Lanes 4-6 is covered in graffiti for the instruction of the workers who will shortly be ripping it up.

Sydney Harbour Bridge partially resurfaced, 20 January 2012

Not Newtown

Pennant Hills, NSW, 2008

Pavement graffiti can be found everywhere if you keep an eye out for it. That’s what I always say, but looking back through my archive of photos I wonder if that’s really true. It’s easy for me to find pavement inscriptions because I live in the inner-west of Sydney where feral art and graffiti of all sorts is a common feature of the landscape. I have also travelled in regional New South Wales a fair bit, and have found some great examples on country roads and highways.

But what about the tidy or more conservative suburbs in the wider city? Do I have many photos of pavement graffiti from these places? The answer is No.

I guess there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, although graffiti is drawn on the asphalt acres of suburbia, it is less prolific than in Glebe/Newtown/Darlinghurst. Secondly – dare I admit? – on my daily rounds I stick to the inner city and rarely venture into the ‘burbs.

But here is a small selection of examples to show that submerged stories do erupt on the paved surfaces of the suburbs.

'F--- the pigs', Marsfield, NSW, 2008

And my End-of-year resolution? More walking in unfamiliar parts of Sydney.

'Smile - You are beatiful!', Manly, NSW, 2011

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