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by Megan Hicks

Graffiti rocks 1

March 2009

We are spending a few days up the coast with friends from Brisbane, reminiscing about long-ago family holidays.  Nambucca Heads is a holiday town that has not yet been overdeveloped. The patrolled surf beach still nestles at the foot of a shrubby hill, not at the doorstep of resort-style towers. There are new blocks of holiday units throughout the town, but there are also camping areas and holiday houses to rent, some of them tiny 1940s bungalows still neatly kept and not overshadowed by ‘designer shacks’. There are quiet sandy beaches along the river and plenty of fish to catch. There are also many more restaurants and clubs, cafes and take-aways than we remember.

We discover that Nambucca Heads is now one of the few places in Australia that claim graffiti as a tourist attraction. It is not the clever stencil art of Melbourne’s lanes, or the brilliant wall pieces of Newtown, or the irritating tags of … well, just about everywhere. Instead, at Nambucca, it is mum-and-dad-and-the-kids kind of graffiti, painstakingly applied in house paint to the twin breakwater at the mouth of the river called the ‘Vee-Wall’.

The colourful shock of it rivals the exuberant municipal sea-life mosaic that dominates the cross roads up in the centre of town. It covers the breakwater rocks and concrete pathway like hundreds and thousands on a birthday cake, spelling out a cheerful greeting on the glistening waters of Nambucca River. Photographs of the Vee-Wall are featured on postcards and tourist brochures. Graffiti has become an object of civic pride.

We are staying in riverside units in the between-season. We nod to retirees doing the early morning walk on the breakwater, cluck admiringly at their little dogs, and share comments on the pictures and messages on the rocks. Even these oldies appreciate the folk art on display. At least, most of them do, but some don’t like graffiti of any sort, including our friend Frank, who harrumphs about the vandalism. He is particularly pleased with one rock where the family name Logan, in one of the few apparent instances of tampering, has been changed to Bogan. ‘That just about says it all!’ he crows. He doesn’t like the spoiling of natural rocks – natural rocks, mind you, that have been carted from who-knows-where and cemented together to form a totally artificial structure.

The next morning I bring my camera to record some of the paintings. We find stories of people who have enjoyed their holiday at Nambucca and want others to know it. Honeymooners who have returned to find they still love the place (and each other). Families who come back year after year, adding the names of new babies to the family rock. Overseas tourists who want to leave their mark – legitimately – on Australia. Teenagers who reveal their current crushes. Names, dates, tributes to Nambucca and thanks to God are here. Some are decorated with pictures of family members or the fish they caught. We come across one young woman from Tokyo who is painting a floral remembrance of her visit while her Australian friends hold the paint cans. It would take many morning strolls to read all the messages here.

On our last day we agree that we should stay here again. Next time we will all bring our fishing rods. I don’t think Frank would be impressed if I suggested we bring a few tins of paint as well.

Graffiti rocks 2

November 2009

We have heard that Seal Rocks is isolated but the scenery is spectacular. We decide to drive out and look at the lighthouse there. The tourist maps list this as one of the local ‘things to see and do’. The day is bright and hot but there are still some morning clouds in the sky. We have left the main road and are on our way towards the coastline when we come across words painted in large, faint letters across the roadway, perhaps 100 metres apart. As we pass each one I read it aloud and we realise that they must spell out a sentence.
I want to take photographs, so we turn around and drive back to find the beginning. After I photograph each word John drives me to the next one. While I am trying to get the best angle I must listen out for cars that occasionally come roaring down the road. The lettering is even and careful like an official sign, but done in paint, not that thick kind of road-sign coating. The sentence is meant to read   PUT   IT   IN   THE   BIN. 

This road passes through Myall Lakes National Park and I wonder whether it was Park staff who painted the sign. Was it worth the effort? I am always on the lookout for unusual messages on the bitumen, but wonder whether other people would notice this one as they speed towards the beach. My question is answered when I notice that someone has stopped to tamper with the last word. The alteration is rough but legible: PUT   IT   IN   THE   BUM.

I am tremendously pleased about discovering this addition to my graffiti collection. The morning has started well and now I can look forward to the proper business of the day’s excursion, which is meant to be about sea and sky and a historic edifice. But some distance further on we drive over more large words written across the road. I should not have to say anything: after all these years John knows that I will want to stop but I am forced to ask anyway. I tell him I must go back and record them all now. With the sky slightly hazy at the moment they are easier to photograph.  This afternoon on the way back, the sun will probably be blazing down and the dappled shadows of the trees will make the words difficult to make out.

We turn back to the first one and repeat the process. I photograph a word then hop in the car and he drives me to the next. But now I am torn. The tall forest on either side of the road is full of birds making unfamiliar calls. I want to stay and try to spot them. I want to dive into the car for my binoculars and scan the bush for them. In fact one of them seems to be following me through the fringe of trees as I trudge along the roadside. But I can’t push John’s patience too far. I must concentrate on what’s beneath my feet, not what is above my head. By now he is parked some distance away at the bottom of a dip, not far from where the bitumen ends and the road becomes gravel.

As I walk down the hill I am surprised to see a small group of people emerge from the forest. They cross the road in front of the car and disappear into the bush on the other side. A crocodile of another 20 or 30 people follows them. They are wearing hats and small back-packs and I guess that they must be some sort of bushwalking group.

It is getting hotter. The birds are still calling but I turn my attention back to the graffiti. Most of it is less carefully painted than the first lot. The lettering is not square and even, the spelling is dubious. For some words the road is not wide enough and the last letters curve down towards the dirt edges. They read PEACE   LOVE   INSENCE   SMILE.

By the time I reach the bottom of the hill I can see that the bushwalkers have climbed into two vehicles parked in a clearing – a minivan and a 4-wheel drive with a university logo on the door. The minivan is about to pull onto the road and I call out to the driver, “What was the best bird you saw?” He gestures that he can’t hear and I call louder. He replies something about not being able to hear above the chatter in the bus, so now I am committed to this silly conversation and must cross the road to stand by his window, my eyes level with the steamy, heavy-rimmed glasses on his flushed, perspiring face. He explains that they have been looking at plants, not birds: “We bring students here to study environmental ecology.” In return I tell him I am photographing graffiti for a postgraduate project but am tempted to look at the birds as well.

“The graffiti is about locals not wanting the road to be sealed”, he says. “They don’t want more traffic to Seal Rocks. And they don’t want a surf school to be built back up the road there.  They’re just for backpackers who come here to learn to surf – learn to drown, more like it – and drink too much and vomit everywhere.” Already my mind is turning on the repetitious curiosity of protesters using the sealed road to write complaints about plans for a sealed road all the way to Seal Rocks. “Good luck to you darling”, waves the lecturer cheerfully as he drives off. “I’d have to say pelicans are my favourites.” I think what an oddly commonplace choice for someone who teaches ecology and tramps through forests full of uncommon birds.

The last piece of graffiti is written twice so it can be read from either direction. I take photos of it and get back into the car, where John has managed to find a radio station to listen to. “What does it say?” he asks.  As we set off again I tell him, “It says SAVE SEAL ROCKS. It’s a seal of disapproval”. I realise that I was so enthralled by the runnels on the lecturer’s pink face that I didn’t think to ask him who actually wrote the graffiti. Was it locals or university students? He probably would have hedged around the answer anyway. “Is that what ‘No names, no pack drill’ means?” I ask John.

I hope that on the way back in the afternoon we might see the minibus again. But by the time we return the writing is almost invisible amongst the shadows on the road and we do not come across the minibus.

Megan Hicks

When Megan Hicks goes for a weekend away she doesn’t need to take any reading matter. She finds plenty to read on the ground.  Megan is undertaking a PhD in Media and Communications at Macquarie University. Her topic is Pavement Graffiti.

November 2010