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 comment on a graffiti supplies website recently:  ‘ 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. He 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’ appears – 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.

Flotsam and jetsam

Photograph presumably – but not necessarily – taken in Paris in May 1968. Original source not known.

Photograph presumably – but not necessarily – taken in Paris in May 1968. Original source not known.

‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’ – it’s the most well-known slogan from the May 1968 uprising in Paris. But what if it is misguided? What if the pavement is the beach?

I think the pavement is a littoral zone with tides of people and their vehicles washing backwards and forwards over it in their daily cycles of movement. Searching for graffiti on the pavement is like scavenging for sea drift on the sand.

Fish + “Sol”, Chippendale (Sydney), 2010.

Fish + “Sol”, Chippendale (Sydney), 2010.

Novelist Tim Winton, the author of Cloudstreet and Breathe, says he is ‘forever the beachcomber’. Passages in his book Land’s Edge  show just how much the search for pavement graffiti resembles beachcombing.

‘A long bare beach, like the sea itself, is capable of many surprises. The unexpected is what I’m after when I go trudging along the firm white sand  […] it’s the possibility of finding something strange that keeps me walking …

‘From the distance every found object is merely a black mark on the sand, and half the pleasure of beachcombing lies in wondering, anticipating the find …

‘Yet however comforting and peaceful beachcombing is, it ends up, like the sea, as disturbing as it is reassuring. In dark moments I believe that walking on a beach at low tide is to be looking for death, or at least anticipating it. You will only find the dead, the spilled and the cast-off […] The beachcomber goes looking for trouble, for everything he finds is a sign of trouble.’

Tributes to graffitist Ontre, hit by a train 2012.

Tributes to graffitist Ontre, hit by a train at Lewisham in 2012.

 

Tim Winton, Land’s Edge, Sydney: Picador, 1998, pp. 98-101.

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.

 

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.

Expletive deleted

Cadigal Reserve, Summer Hill

The signs, symbols and graffiti on the ground are all evidence of a territorial battle that is being waged among government authorities, property owners, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Now the stencils themselves are getting in on the act. It is clear that this walker has cracked up and has said something sharp to the bicycle. But a zealous graffiti obliterator has painted over his speech balloon and now we’ll never know what it was he said.

These particular stencils are on a pathway in Cadigal Reserve in Summer Hill. The pathway continues along beside Hawthorne Canal, which eventually runs into an arm of Parramatta River. 

The canal has a history of successive waves of pollution. Originally a stream called Long Cove Creek by early European settlers in Sydney, by the late 1800s it was fouled with house slops and the run-off from factories and slaughterhouses. The stink that it gave off was considered to be a health hazard and eventually it was excavated, re-aligned and lined with concrete in 1895 and renamed Hawthorne Canal.

But over the years the stormwater it collects has still been polluted with leaking sewage and dirt, horse manure, oil, chemicals, plastics, heavy metals and garbage washed off the roads and nearby rubbish dumps. And then, some time in 1990s, the canal was subjected to what some people regard as visual pollution – graffiti.

Hawthorne Canal, Summer Hill

Taggers and graffiti artists continue to express themselves on the walls and under the bridges there. Their marks have spread to the pathway beside the canal. Government authorities and a bush regeneration group have done much to improve the banks of the canal in recent years, so it is understandable that they might want to remove ‘unsightly’ graffiti from the asphalt. They can’t win though. More pavement graffiti has appeared since the last applications of grey paint. But I wish I had been there before they covered up that pedestrian’s outburst.

(Some of the information for this post was obtained from Hawthorne Canal – the history of Long Cove Creek, written by Mark Sabolch and published by the Ashfield & District Historical Society in association with the Inner West Environmental Group in 2006)

Tags in Paris

Rue des Deux Ponts

I did not know whether there would be much pavement graffiti in Paris, but I should not have worried. Despite the incessant street cleaning, there are tags to be found in many places, mostly done in white-out. Like the French language itself, they tend to be rather long-winded.

Esplanade des Invalides

Pont de la Tournelle

Reclaim the Lanes

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.

Tomb darers

09hmay27-cp1060557-wfreewaytagtombSome people take huge risks to put their tags up (or, in this case, down). And some people also take big risks to get a photo. These two examples are on the Warringah Freeway near Naremburn. It’s late afternoon and most of the traffic is heading north away from the city. But in the mornings the volume of traffic over these tags is enormous. So they have an audience of thousands – if anyone actually notices them. What’s amazing is how long they’ve lasted without being worn away. The photograph was taken in May and they are still there three months later.09hmay27-cp1060585-wfreewaytag