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The Moving Finger

By Daivid Dale
Sydney Morning Herald
18 July 1998

If you're 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 permission".

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 and think.

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, GST.")

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.