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By Daivid Dale
Sydney Morning Herald
18 July 1998
travelling in a Sydney train this weekend, you may notice at the end of
your carriage a small sign that says: "At night, rave near the guard's
compartment, naked with a blue light."
Finding this an unusual recommendation when I saw it the other day, I
approached the sign and discovered that a few delicate dabs of white-out
had transformed it from an intended suggestion that passengers should
travel near the guard's compartment marked with a blue light. It was an
example of a branch of the graffitist's art which we might call alterati.
Since then I've seen the same invitation in several other carriages, which
suggests that the artists responsible were so proud of their wit that
they have gone around repeating the performance. It's certainly a great
leap forward on the most popular form of alterati in my childhood - a
little job with a razor blade that made those yellow bus poles seem to
display the invitation "PIS STOP". I find I am unable to condemn the perpetrators
for trying to bring a chuckle into the life of the city commuter.
I thought the pinnacle of alterati had been achieved a couple of years
ago when I noticed a small sign in the Paris Metro advising that certain
numbered seats were reserved for people mutiles de cul (wounded in the
bum). I was impressed by the tenderness of the transport authorities in
providing soft seating for the anally afflicted, until closer inspection
revealed that the sign actually reserved the seats for people mutiles
de guerre (wounded in war).
Another Metro alteratist's masterpiece involved changing the first three
words of the same sign (les places numerotees ) to les filles nu erotics
(naked erotic girls) and having them reserved for people wounded in war.
The cleverness of the Parisian alteratists lay in making tiny changes
to official notices with razor blade and paint pot so that the new wording
sounded as pompous as the original but much more ridiculous.
The former editor of Oz magazine, Richard Neville, managed to offend both
lesbians and neatness-lovers a couple of years back by observing that
"a city without graffiti is like sex without sperm". He need only have
changed the last word to "orgasm" to make the sentiment more acceptable.
He went on to say that "the only difference between graffiti and art is
If graffiti are inevitable in any city, as Neville seems to be saying,
then we whose walls are being messed up by them have a right to demand
that they serve a purpose. For the past couple of decades, we've been
sadly disappointed. Graffiti might have become colourful, but they've
been devoid of meaning -simply the "tags" of gangs, saying no more than
"I am here".
The ancient Italians (who gave us the word, from their verb "to scratch")
set a high standard. More than 3,000 messages have been deciphered on
the walls of Pompeii, including the personal: "O Chiusa, I hope that your
ulcerous pustules reopen and burn even more than they did before"; the
political: "Vote for Lucius Popidius Sabinus. His grandmother worked hard
for his last election and is pleased with the results"; the philosophical:
"No-one is a gentleman who has not loved a woman"; the ironic: "I am surprised,
O wall, that you, who have to bear the weariness of so many writers, are
still standing"; and the prophetic: "Nothing in the world can endure forever".
The history of graffiti in Sydney goes back much further. More than 5,000
sites have been discovered where Aboriginal people painted or carved on
the landscape (Sydney sandstone being ideally soft for that sort of thing).
The hundreds of engravings in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park include
whales (some up to eight metres long), wallabies and mythical beings.
There are also cave paintings and hand stencils, done with ochre and charcoal,
which are older than the pyramids of Egypt. The frequent images of men
and women leaping for joy certainly predate the arrival of the Europeans.
On the golf course at the northern end of Bondi Beach, more recent Aboriginal
graffiti include a small fish attacking a shark, which may be how the
Eora people of the area saw their relationship with the new arrivals from
Europe. The Europeans quickly made their own contribution to the rock
galleries. Preserved under glass within the Garden Island naval base in
Sydney Harbour is a rock on which are carved the initials "FM", "IB" and
"WB", and the date 1788.
"FM" has been identified as Frederick Meredith, steward to the captain
of the First Fleet ship Scarborough, who was assigned to look after the
vegetable patch on what was then an island. Perhaps we should add to Richard
Neville's observation about graffiti and art that the only difference
between vandalism and a tourist site is 200 years.
A whiff of celebrity can also turn graffiti into hallowed ground. Tourists
in Athens are taken on a half-day trip to see the spot where, in the 1820s,
Lord Byron carved his initials into one of the columns of the Temple of
Athene on Cape Sunium. It would have been a shocking desecration at the
time, but perhaps Byron felt he had a better claim to be remembered by
later generations than some old Greek temple.
Inside the Doge's Palace in Venice, you can visit the cell where Casanova
was imprisoned in 1756 and see where Byron recarved some graffiti originally
scratched by Casanova but worn smooth by tourists' fingers by the time
Byron went to see it. (What would happen if you or I tried to repeat his
kindly gesture today?)
Closer to home, tourists visiting the Jenolan Caves are shown the smudged
signature of Brett Whiteley, who did his graffiti during a tour of the
caves in 1949, when he was nine years old. You could imagine his parents
saying, "He's not an artist - he's just a naughty boy," except that they,
too, scrawled their signatures on the rock wall.
The motivation of the message is another factor that can soften society's
usual condemnation of the graffitist. Arthur Stace, who chalked "Eternity"
on Sydney streets for three decades until his death in 1967, is now honoured
with a statue in Kings Cross. That's because we know he was a metho addict
who had a revelation during a sermon on the subject "Where will you spend
eternity?" after he'd dropped in to a church for a free feed. His aim
in writing that one word 500,000 times was to make citydwellers slow down
Aside: the church where Stace found his avocation was St Barnabas on Broadway,
which has since had its own glorious career of signwriting. Its rector,
Robert Forsyth, used to write pithy sayings on a whiteboard outside his
church, designed to elevate the thoughts of passers-by (as all graffiti
should do). Then one day Forsyth noticed that the publican of the Hotel
Broadway across the road was putting up signs of his own in response to
the religious messages.
These were typical exchanges:
Church: "Money does not make you happy." Pub: "I'd rather be rich and
happy than poor and happy."
Church: "God made sex for marriage not for money." Pub: "Wish he had made
money for marriage."
Church (punning on the department store next door): "Free Grace brothers
and sisters." Pub: "Free David Jones too."
Church: "The best things in life aren't things." Pub: "Things are not
all what they seem to be."
Those signs started in a period when Meaning Mattered. Many of us like
to think of the 1960s as a golden age of graffiti because the words of
the prophets that were written on the subway walls showed wit and wisdom.
"Make love not war" was the supreme example. (A favourite of mine, scratched
on a wall in The Rocks around 1970, was "Keep The Pope off The Moon".)
But once "Shame Fraser Shame" faded away in the mid-'70s, Sydney people
seemed to lose interest in putting their political passions on public
display (with the odd honourable exception: you can still see this relic
of the early '90s on a wall in Bondi Junction: "War, famine, pestilence,
The standard bearers for meaningful messages in the 1980s were an elusive
band called BUGA UP (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy
Promotions). While others simply swirled with the newly available technology
of the spray can, the BUGA UP people transformed advertisements.
"New Mild and Marlboro" became "New Vile And A Bore". "Rothmans King Size"
became "Rot Man Lung Size". Even the government health warning was not
immune -it vanished entirely, to be replaced with "Accepting tobacco sponsorship
is hazardous to your integrity".
In the early '90s, BUGA UP's torch passed to feminist alteratists who
added the letters "in" to the word bra in the slogan "We think more about
what goes into your bra than your boyfriend". They were charged with vandalism
when they added the phrase "Even if you're mutilated" to the slogan "You'll
always feel good in Berlei" on a billboard showing a woman being sawn
in half. In January 1993, the magistrate Pat O'Shane refused to record
a conviction against the graffitists, on the ground that their addition
to the billboard was a legitimate response to an ad that made light of
violence against women.
So we can sum up the traditional justifications for graffiti; antiquity,
celebrity, humour, religious fervour and political passion. Can I now
suggest we add the word "subtlety" to that list? If graffiti are an inescapable
part of the cityscape, we can only hope that the Age of the Spray Can
is about to be replaced by The Age Of The Little Bottle of White-out.