The Writing on the Wall

Graffiti Sirens

“Sirens” by Hush




Why do all these words sound less offensive than illegal?

See here’s the thing: I love street art.

I’m not referring to the mindless repetition of a single tag across a public space — that’s about as impressive as a dog pissing to mark its territory.

I mean consciously created visual artworks.

On walls.

Walls that belong to other people.

Graffiti, from written words to wall paintings, has been around for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians did it, so did the Greeks. Any visitor to Pompeii would know that the Romans were bandits for it. From Ephesus in Turkey, to Tikal in Guatemala, to Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, people across antiquity have left their marks on walls, painted for posterity, or more likely scratched — which is, of course, the meaning of the Italian word graffiato, from which graffiti got its name.

Blue Bird by the elusive Banksy

“Girl with Bluebird” by the elusive Banksy

In modern times — particularly since the advent of the aerosol can — graffiti has been taken to a whole new level, raising it from vandalism to art. Part of street art’s appeal is that it is subversive: its very presence is usually illicit but, by virtue of its accessibility, it is able to elicit a response from the broader population. Street art is often political. Provocative. Daring. It’s bold and it’s brave and, despite its illegality, it can also be downright beautiful.

Street art is also intriguing because some of its greatest practitioners are shrouded in secrecy. From 1932 to 1967, Sydneysiders would awake to see the work of Arthur Stace wherever he chalked the word “Eternity” in elegant, Copperplate script on pavements throughout the city. During the course of his life Stace is estimated to have produced the word around 500,000 times, writing his way into popular culture as he did. His identity was eventually made public in 1956, but his work was immortalised when the word Eternity was illuminated on the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the 2000 New Year’s Eve celebrations.  The image was used again during the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics later the same year.

Blek le Rat's "Ballerina"

Blek le Rat’s “Ballerina”

More recently, Blek le Rat — one of the originators of stencil graffiti — produced his work anonymously in Paris for a decade before he was identified (and arrested) by French police in 1991 as he stencilled a replica of Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child on a wall. His style is distinctively Parisian, frequently depicting dancers and musicians, as well as style icons like Diana, Princess of Wales. Since 2006 Blek le Rat has held exhibitions of his work in galleries around the world, but has expressed his preference for working in the streets where it can be seen by a much wider audience than in a gallery.

The identity of influential Britsh street artist Banksy remains a closely guarded secret, despite numerous claims by various newspapers that they have discovered who he is. Banksy’s stencil art is often satirical, politically charged, and wickedly funny. In the words of Shepard Fairey, “Banksy paints over the line between aesthetics and language, then stealthily repaints it in the unlikeliest of places. His works, whether he stencils them on the streets, sells them in exhibitions or hangs them in museums on the sly, are filled with wit and metaphors that transcend language barriers.” Like Blek le Rat, however, Banksy also prefers to use the street as his canvas, stating that “when you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires”.

My dining room wall.

A metal print of Birgit Kinder’s “Test the Rest” on my dining room wall…complete with extra graffiti. The original has been repainted multiple times since it was first produced in 1990.

One of my favourite pieces of street art now hangs on our dining room wall — a metal print of a Trabant 601 breaking through the Berlin Wall from the famous East Side Gallery, a 1.3km-long section of the wall on Mühlenstraße in Freidrichshain-Kreuzberg that has been described as a memorial to freedom. Another metal print hangs in our hall, a montage of graffiti from various sections of the Berlin Wall before it came down on 9 November 1989.

And that’s where I think the lines of street art begin to blur: when it begins appearing on walls in suburban houses, or when its production has been given public approval.




Damn graffiti kids...

Damn those graffiti kids…

I remain torn between wanting to take my kids to see the gigantic Kosmonaut mural Victor Ash painted in Kreuzberg in 2007, which has — unsurprisingly — become a Berlin landmark, and wishing they could simply explore the city and discover the incredible urban art that has been created without approval.

Because that’s the thing about street art. You can hang it on your wall, you can stick it on a Pinterest board, but the best kind will always be the piece of graffiti you stumble across on the street — the one that the artist has put there to communicate directly with you and whoever else sees it.

On walls that belong to other people.

Out in the open.


In Praise of Pluto

Eris.  Ever heard of it?

Didn’t think so.

Eris is the reason Pluto — poor old Pluto — is no longer deemed worthy of being called a planet.

Horsehead nebulaIn the good old days (otherwise known as the Eighties), we learned about the solar system in school. Back in 1986, the reappearance of Halley’s Comet was not treated as a harbinger of doom, but as an unmissable opportunity to foist random space facts onto unsuspecting school aged children that was too good to miss. In educational parlance, it heralded the arrival of a “teachable moment” in gloriously action-packed colour, and our lessons were filled with tales of the Milky Way, black holes, quasars, nebulae (the Horsehead Nebula was a particular favourite), red dwarfs, Magellanic clouds and — of course — the planets. All nine of them.

Nine planets — just like the Nine Nazgul in Tolkein’s trilogy, or the nine circles of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. We even had a mnemonic to remember them, in order of their proximity to the Sun: My Very Elegant Mother Just Sits Under New Potatoes. (Admittedly, like many mnemonics it doesn’t make much sense, but the critical factor here is the presence of Potatoes…er, I mean Pluto…at the end, way out in the darker reaches of the galaxy).

But then in the early Nineties, Pluto’s planetary status started to wobble. Astronomers discovered the Kuiper belt, a ring of objects way out past Neptune. Big objects. Dark mutterings began to be heard in astronomical circles, that Pluto — named for the God of the Underworld, no less — was only a dwarf planet.

And then, in January 2005, a new body was discovered. And this object, as it turned out, was bigger than Pluto.

Yep, you guessed it: Eris.

In one fell swoop, Eris — appropriately named after the Goddess of Strife and Discord — sent Pluto packing from the planet list, relegating it to the ranks of TNO’s (Trans-Neptunian Objects) and forcing the International Astronomical Union to come up with a formal definition of “planet” at a conference in the Czech Republic in 2006. And while the cynic in me suspects that all those stargazing scientific types really wanted was a good excuse to visit Prague, the upshot of their Eastern European sojourn was that Pluto was down-graded. Reclassified. Failed to pass the planet test.

To say the decision to strip Pluto of planetary status was controversial would be an understatement — even in astronomical circles.  Apparently less than 5% of astronomers voted to support the new definition, which could hardly be construed as a representative sample in any dictatorship democracy. I, for one, would agree with Alan Stern, who asserted that “the definition stinks, for technical reasons” (and if you’re similarly inclined, you can read about why here).


This image comes from a Northern Arizona University article discussing their involvement in investigating the surface of…you guessed it…Eris.

Apparently, Pluto does not meet Criterion 3 of the IAU’s definition of planet: that the object “must have cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit”.

I mean, seriously people — is that it? If clearing the neighbourhood is all they needed Pluto to do, surely we could have sent someone out there to sort it out? The US Marines, perhaps? The French Foreign Legion? Hell, I think even the New South Wales Police Force would be happy to take on the task of clearing a neighbourhood.

To be fair, I do understand that the IAU had something more along the lines of gravitational dominance and of there not being other bodies of comparable size other than its own satellites in the vicinity — and let’s face it, Pluto is light years ahead of Earth on the satellite front, with five moons to our one. But even when the scientific definition is considered, the celestial finger is still pointing in one direction, and one direction alone: towards Eris. Because Eris is the body of comparable size to Pluto that stops it from clearing the neighbourhood.

My Very Elegant Mother Just Sits Under New…


But now, finally, true believers around the galaxy are being rewarded for our continued faith in Pluto: our favourite former planet is making headlines once again.

More than nine years after its launch (yes, nine…there’s that number again), NASA’s New Horizons mission, tasked with understanding the formation of the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt is rapidly approaching its destination. At the time of writing this, there are less than four hours before the New Horizons spacecraft flies closest to Pluto, when it will be only 12,500km from the Plutonian surface. The images the spacecraft will send back to Earth will be the first we have ever seen — which is arguably the most exciting thing to have occurred on July 14 since the storming of the Bastille in 1789.

I can’t wait to see those pictures!

Though I would imagine that Alan Stern, the aforementioned Defender-of-All-Things-Plutonic, is pretty keen on seeing them too. After all, he is the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission.