Look! There’s a fight going on down the street. That’s what this sign seems to be saying. And it’s true. There’s a constant struggle for territory going on in the streets and almost every sign, symbol, graphic and graffiti marked on the roads and sidewalks is evidence of this struggle.
I made a video (actually, a photo compilation) on this topic last year. Called Street Writing, it’s been published in the on-line Interdisciplinary Themes Journal. Turn your sound on while you watch.
Hicks, Megan. 2010. Street fighting. Interdisciplinary Themes Journal, 1(1).
The ‘Look fight’ photograph was taken several years ago in Harris Street, Ultimo (Sydney). I’m delighted to say it’s been added as a guest photo on the ‘Submissions’ page of one of my favourite websites, Misplaced Manhole Covers.
Starting point - Smith Street, Surry Hills
In the ten years since I became obsessed with pavement inscriptions I’ve taken hundreds of photographs. With so many to choose from it’s not too hard to find examples to illustrate any point I might want to make when I write about the pavement as a medium for expression.
But what if I took a walk on an arbitrary route from an arbitrary starting point and photographed every picture, sign and scribble on the pavement along the way? Would that series of unselected inscriptions unfold as a coherent story?
I tried this as an experiment for the Open Fields forum at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney). I started in Surry Hills at a street with a very common name, Smith Street, and took a zig-zag route in a direction away from the centre of the city. I got as far as Waterloo, only about 2 km as the ibis flies, but I had taken more than 3 hours and photographed around 150 pavement inscriptions.
End point - Danks Street, Waterloo
I made a slide show of these Unselected readings in the order in which I found them. But here’s a confession: although I stuck to my arbitrary rules for the day pretty well, I did stop photographing every manhole cover and every wet cement inscription, because there were so many of them.
What did I find out from this experiment? Well, perhaps I will talk about that in future blog entries.
I’ve looked at manholes from both sides now, from down and up, and still somehow…
On 18 April I was lucky enough go on an underground tour of the Tank Stream. The Historic Houses Trust runs these tours twice a year in conjunction with Sydney Water and they are so popular that you have to enter a ballot to get a ticket. You don’t go far – just 50 metres upstream from the ladder where you descend into the underground tunnel. The Tank Stream was the original source of fresh water that determined the location of Sydney Town, but during the two centuries since then it has evolved from stream to open sewer, to closed-in sewer, and currently it is a stormwater drain.
Harrington Lane, near Hunter Street, Sydney
Sloshing along in borrowed gumboots, instead of looking down, as I usually do when I’m spotting pavement graffiti, this time I was looking up to see what manhole covers look like on the underside. Afterwards a Sydney Water worker helped me identify which covers we had walked beneath.
Cavendish Street, Enmore
Admiration of manhole covers became a popular pastime in the 1990s. Mimi and Robert Melnick’s 1974 Manhole covers of Los Angeles has become a collectors item, but their 1994 book Manhole covers and Jacopo Pavesi and Roberta Pietrobelli’s 2001 book Street covers brought cast-iron style to the coffee table. The minor mania for manhole covers has culminated in book titles ranging from Designs underfoot: the art of manhole covers in New York City to Quilting with manhole covers: a treasure trove of unique designs from the streets of Japan.
In picture books the manhole covers are brushed up for the camera, but like Japanese artist Genpei, I prefer the look of them in their natural state, with cigarettes and Smarties and tsubo gardens of moss, grass or weeds nestling in their grooves.
Road resurfaced, Cleveland Street, Chippendale
My very favourites are the pretend manhole covers that mark the place of the real thing when a road is being resurfaced.
I also love the website Misplaced Manhole Covers.
Rest in Peace Ruben Hoddy
It’s a big old house divided into a warren of flatettes, in an increasingly desirable inner-west neighbourhood. The last low-rent place in a street where the house next door was the first to hit the one million dollar mark ten years ago. It has its share of excitement – the police, fire brigade or ambulance visit at least once a month, sirens screaming. There’s often shouting – in the house or on the street. There always seems to be rubbish piled out the front. Other people in the street mutter about how they wish ‘those people’ would go. But someone died there last month and someone cared enough to memorialise him on the footpath.
In an earlier guest blog, Bradley L. Garrett revealed his excitement upon discovering a pavement penis. Well, there’s a lot of them about. These examples are in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern, where encroaching trendiness has turned a closed-off street beside the railway line into an official bicycle route and a parking lot for cultural-industry workers and the newer type of resident.
Older established residents and their offspring may well feel resentful. I choose to believe that these alterations of official traffic signs express a local belief that the car parkers and cyclists are wankers.
Liberty Street, Enmore
Rows of triangular marks have just been planted on roads in the Inner West. I had to do a bit of research to find out that they are Dragon’s Teeth. To date no fully armed warriors have sprung from the asphalt.
The lexicon of official road signs continues to grow. The rollout of this latest addition apparently began in mid-2009, when the RTA’s press release was dutifully rendered as a news story in the Sydney Morning Herald. These triangular markings are meant to indicate to motorists that they are entering a 40 kmh school zone.
The indignant Mr Peter Olsen, on his School Zone Santa.Com blog, reckons that “the Government has completely lost the plot on school zones. Static markings, including the proposed new ‘dragon’s teeth’ achieve nothing because they do not distinguish between school zone hours and non-school zone hours”, whereas if the school zone instead has flashing lights during the relevant hours “drivers are instantly reminded and can slow down, but then of course the Government can no longer collect speeding fine revenue from them”.
Note to apostrophe pedants: Dragon’s Teeth is the official New South Wales Government term for these road marks (see Technical Direction TD 2009 SR02). There is only one dragon involved. It is a particular toothy dragon.
If they won’t let you Reclaim the Streets any more, then Reclaim the Lanes instead. It’s a bit sad really. The RTL party on 13 February was small but kind of fun anyway, even if everyone was funnelled into just one lane not far from the starting point. There were balloons, bikes, and budgie smugglers. When it became apparent that the procession had come to a halt people started sloping off to the bottlo in Enmore Road for supplies. The music from wheelie bin sound systems was great. And someone stuck up their photographs of the Reclaim the Streets events in Newtown from 1999 and 2000 to remind everyone what it used to be like.
The back lanes of Enmore and Newtown are best known for their wall art, but there is stuff on the ground as well, mostly the signatures of artists who have done the wall pieces. I took photographs of RTL participants partying on the remnants of old pavement graffiti.
Pitt Street, Sydney
Sydney-based designer Dan Hill has been looking at the pavement. He is interested in capturing everyday examples of how the city assesses invisible or hidden characteristics of its infrastructure and he writes about this in his blog post Sensing the immaterial-material city. You can see Dan’s photos here. They include shots of people who appear to be sensing the city and he calls these people – with their traffic cones and their fluorescent work jackets – sensors.
Frederick Street, Petersham
Along with their various probes and surveying instruments, an essential item of equipment for these people is the spray can.
This January, edutainment was used by Waverley Council in an effort to prevent smokers from butting their cigarettes on the beach without resorting to fining them. As part of the campaign a chalk artist was contracted to draw pictures with messages on the promenade at Bondi Beach, complementing the official ‘No smoking on beach’ pavement signs. You can see one of these large yellow stencils in the background of this photograph.
Three days later, after a battering by weather and feet, the chalk artwork was looking a little the worse for wear but it had already done its job, attracting coverage in newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald, and probably also being passed around on social networks via tourist cameras and mobile phones.
In an article recently published, I talk about the way in which old-fashioned street art is used by advertisers as a starting point to disseminate their messages across a wide spectrum of new media.
Hicks, M. 2009. Horizontal billboards. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 23 (6):765-780.