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13 May 2024  •  Politics & Law

Chalk is Cheap

April, 2024. Kings Cross, Sydney. I walk into Fountain Newsagency and buy a twelve-pack of Crayola sidewalk chalk. It’s the last on the shelf — six dollars and twenty-eight cents.

By Lenny Drummond (he/him)
Chalk is Cheap

April, 2024. Kings Cross, Sydney. I walk into Fountain Newsagency and buy a twelve-pack of Crayola sidewalk chalk. It’s the last on the shelf — six dollars and twenty-eight cents. 

   'Liquid,' says the man at the counter. 

   'What?' I say. 

   'We have the liquid. It's better.' He points with an enthusiasm not typical of newsagency workers, towards three boxes on the floor. I see cartoonish-sized rainbow markers, with Liquid Chalk written on the packaging.

   'No, thanks. I like this one,' I say, paying and leaving the shop. 

Outside, I open my paper bag, and reach for my new purchase. It's hard to open. I drop everything else to pick at the tape that binds the cardboard lid. The paper bag blows away, faster than I can run after it. 

   'Fuck's sake,' I mutter, with gritted teeth. 

I focus. I manage to pry it open. A cloud of chalky vapour covers my nose, eyes, and forehead. I throw it onto a bench seat outside the Potts Point Hotel. I sit, rubbing my eyes, looking at the colours: white, blue-green, red, orange, yellow, sepia, sand, sky, violet-red. Then, there are purple mountains majesty, timberwolf and granny smith apple. 

I wonder why only three colours received poetic names, and also, what the fuck is timberwolf?

I haven't touched chalk since I was six or seven years old. I hate how it feels. It makes me shudder, like nails on a blackboard, or chewing a dry sock. I wanted to start chalking my neighbourhood. That is why I bought these oddly-named chalks. I love graffiti. I also despise it sometimes. I admire it as a form of anonymous and creative political commentary; I don't like the meaningless tagging of beautiful buildings. But, if it has a purpose, I'm all for it. 

Graffiti, or some form of it, has been practised by humans for millennia: the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, Wandjina rock art in the Kimberly, and local shit-talking in Pompeii, Athens, and Rome, are all evidence of an innate urge within us. If we can't speak, why not paint the walls, roads and spaces around us with abstract representations of our frustrations, desires, beliefs, and stories? 

After all, nothing is more concrete than, well, concrete. Concrete means nothing. Defaced concrete means something. On a catch-up call with my Dad, I told him I was writing this article. He said to be careful. I said I don't need to. It's not illegal. He said it could be. He also told me about Mr. Eternity. 

From 1932 until 1967, the word 'Eternity', written in copperplate lettering with yellow chalk, appeared on every conceivable surface in Sydney. From the West to the East, it was spotted by commuters. Street sweepers and council workers left the chalkings in place, as they quickly took on a mythological significance. In June 1956, a Baptist Reverend watched one of his cleaners kneel over, pull out chalk, and write 'Eternity' on the ground. That cleaner's name was Arthur Malcom Stace.

A Ward of the State from the age of twelve, Stace worked in a coal mine as a child, went to jail at fifteen for drunkenness, and worked as a liquor runner for his sisters' brothel. After hearing a sermon entitled 'Echoes of Eternity', Stace, who couldn't write his name, had a divine experience. He wrote the word, perfectly, on the church floor. He estimated he wrote it 500,000 times after that. He'd chalk up the streets at dawn — every day. The blackened sidewalks of Kings Cross were his preferred canvas. 

On New Year's Eve, in 2000, 'Eternity' was illuminated on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. All it took was the actions of a methanol-soaked skeleton man to embody the sentiment of the time. A sentiment defined by hope, after the devastation of the twentieth century, where it seemed humanity might finally do the universe a favour and keel over. Perhaps war might be over? Maybe, just maybe, the internet could advance our civilisation beyond conflict. This now seems to harbour a deep, sad kind of humour that makes me sweat a bit, cackle quietly, and also develop a knot of nervous angst in my back which I stretch out most mornings.  

As a bellboy at a hotel, I thought Stace's early-morning outings might be the best way to do this chalking thing. When the sun is moments from peaking over the horizon, or long dormant, I'm out there, walking the same streets Stace walked. I am venturing into soft civil disobedience for the first time. Maintaining some anonymity, whilst in the act, would be ideal. I am a coward. I extricate myself from conflict whenever it grabs hold of me, having done so since being a sickly, truant child. 

This is the most densely populated suburb in Sydney. With so many people everywhere, all the time, I thought this would be an effective way to communicate with the mass community. Gentrification and regulation have hit the Cross hard. It started with crackdowns and lockouts. The Government targeted criminal organisations, then punks and squatters, then sex workers, then users, then rowdy king-hit-prone punters, then everyone looking for a good time in Sydney. Now, it has ended with third-wave coffee joints, pricey bistros, divey hostels, and more shady tobacconists than there were strip clubs back in this district's red-light days. 

It has left the area with a largely indifferent population - blow-in corporate and start-up workers sporting activewear without exercising. They tug at snobbish poodles and lap up the Euro-feel of the streets. They are ignorant to the fact they have supplanted the down-and-out characters of a nearly extinct micro-culture. I too, am a blow-in. A privately-educated Mountains/North Sydney kid. However, living among these people in relative poverty, I am, in some sense, a reverse-gentrifier. I can't afford to live here, but I do because history is important. Culture is important. Especially in a degrading, technolgised sewer world like this one. It may be delusional, but it's the only way I can think of reversing this process, which is killing culture the world over. 

So, I have my concerns. All I have to do is chalk them into my physical surroundings. I have the tools to do it. I don’t want to repeat slogans, hashtags, and maxims I've heard on Instagram or mainstream media. Nor do I want to come across as preachy or elitist, like everyone else when they throw their two cents down the cyber-drain. 

I wanted to chalk something from my head. That flesh in the cranium. Exclusively my own. It has to be witty —this is the only way I might connect with someone else meaningfully. Where they might stop and think, what the fuck does this mean? Do I like this? Do I hate this? 

I had this experience three days before my purchase. I was picking up a book from Australia Post. Outside, on a retaining wall, someone had written, in yellow chalk:

The retaining wall was where I would start. But the fucking rain sets in, washing away the cutesy message, as well as my excitement for this whole thing. 

Chalk is fleeting, I learn. Any message I dream up can be easily washed away by the elements, or by contrarians. This could be a good thing, though — now the coward is speaking. If I put something out there on the streets, it will disappear. Unlike the words you're reading now, which will follow me electronically until I die.

The rain stops. On my walk to work, I take my chalk with me. I feel a little fear kicking in; my most immediate concern is being hungry. I'm in that awkward period of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle where I've paid rent, but I’m still waiting for my not-so-hard-earned cash. I stopped going to Woolworths a few weeks ago, opting for farmers' markets instead. Reading Tao Lin's Leave Society also made me increasingly sceptical of the pesticides and harmful chemicals used in most supermarket foods. The night before, I had Corn Flakes for dinner. I had Bushels coffee, five green grapes, and Corn Flakes again that morning. I'm not starving like many people are right now, but I can tell you that after a while, Corn Flakes begin to taste like pure misery. Abandoning my plans on highlighting gentrification, somewhat out of hunger, I take aim at the price-gouging criminals who have left me with a stomach full of cardboard.

It felt good, really good. As pathetic as it is to say, it woke me up a bit and got the adrenaline going. Years of going over politics in my head, speaking to nobody, being a news junkie, listening to argumentative podcasts through earphones, all seem to exit me, as something real and of my own creation entered the world. 

Even though it was early, there were plenty of people around. A whole line of them were waiting for the post office to open, right behind me. They were mostly looking at their phones, so nobody really noticed. But the feeling that people might be watching, waiting to see what you have chalked, is edifying. When I finished, underlining the bottom line, a few people looked over. If only briefly, I got them out of their online hypnosis. 

When I'm there, in front of you, you can't scroll past me. 

I’m an attention-whore, maybe. But who cares? I’ve made you look up from your screen. I’ve given you something to talk or think about besides pop music, influencers, or reality TV — all of which exist to sell you stuff. 

Another morning, I turned my attention to this little housing crisis we're going through. Sydney has more than 160,000 vacant homes. Some are owned by overseas investors, others by property developers waiting for land values to increase. Sydney also has around 25,000 Airbnb listings every day, which boast some of the best occupancy rates in the world for hosts. They’re raking it in. 

New South Wales has a public housing waiting list of around 60,000 people. Hundreds sleep rough every night, and hundreds of thousands live in precarious rental accommodations, with little to no rights. I often see homeless people sleeping on the bench seats in Fitzroy Gardens. This is sad. Not only will these seats contort your spine almost instantly, but they are also permanently caked in pigeon shit. Maybe in ten years, they'll be flipping these on the short-term rental market? 

The police presence in the Cross is comical. I can't walk to my morning shift without skulking past officers eating pain au chocolat at Café de la Fontaine, and drinking green juice — doing nothing except hanging out near their bunker, by the El Alamein Fountain. Occasionally, they will leave this fortress, to tell the homeless and drug-addled to move away from the steps of real estate agencies, marketing firms, and multi-million-dollar apartments. 

On the ground, near the fountain, I see a sticker, which seems like it would be hard to take off. It's an official advertisement for the Pet Shop Boys' new album, with autumnal leaves delicately strewn across it, like something out of a Ghibli film:

If the Pet Shop Boys can advertise their terrible new record, then surely I can chalk some words. At least mine will wash away, whilst those wash-ups will be stuck to the floor, like those black gum spots in every city, for as long as this civilisation lasts. 

Everything is legal in this world if you have money. It is as simple as that. The West End Boys can post bills because they have something to sell. How long before the night sky is projected with pulsating, vibrant ads, which you can't skip, that block out the stars and the moon? 

You’re walking home from a long shift one night. Above you, out of nowhere, someone sitting on their bedroom floor starts telling you about Better Help. This is the neoliberal hellscape we are hurtling towards.  

If you're familiar with the Australian graffiti scene, you'll know a writer called Jisoe. In a 2005 documentary about his sordid, but strangely romantic life bombing Melbourne's trains, he says something that stuck with me: 

“I know exactly why graffiti’s illegal. It’s because of the fucked up world that we live in, that’s run by fucking money. A fuckin train that I fuckin paint is illegal because I didn’t pay the fuckin train company for my advertisement to run on the train. I got my advertisement for free, because I’m a smart enough human to rock up and do something without paying for it, whereas everyone else, because they abide by rules and regulations, all they do is give their money up, and their shit runs all city man, because they paid for it.” 

These are wise words, and they hit hard — especially with all the 'fuckins'.

Not only do these café-society-officers look like animals, they act like them too. In packs. Like wolves. 

I remember my first night in my current apartment. It was two o'clock in the morning. I heard screaming: 'You fuckin ... don't touch me ... sorry, I'm sorry …’ was being shouted, in a repeated sequence, from the apartment opposite mine. 

Someone in my building must have called the police, because in a matter of minutes, in they came. Bashing like Stasi, on every door with fists, shouting. Their radios echoed throughout the hallway. I watched for a few minutes through my peephole. I opened my door slowly. There were about eight officers outside my door. Half of them looked like bodybuilders, the others like teenyboppers. They told me to go inside. All of them had their hands on their guns. After about fifteen minutes, a rescue team broke the lock to the door. I heard the following conversation: 

'Fuck, look, she's naked in there.'


'In the bathroom.'


'What've ya taken, sweetheart?' 

'Oi, put a shirt on. We're taking you to the hospital.' 

‘Don’t kick us. We’re trying to help you.

'Can you hear us? Hello? Open your eyes?'

One of the officers muttered something, and all of them laughed, very loudly. Through my peephole, I saw four male officers drag the woman out of the apartment, put her in an ambulance, and off they went. 

I think what disturbed me most about this was the laughing. I don't see how anything could be funny in a situation like that. Nor do I see why police arrived first, and not paramedics. It turned out to be a mental health crisis, which was handled with brute force, intimidation, shouting, and laughing. The woman, who once lent me her market trolley, was evicted two weeks later.

I chalked something with all of that in mind:

Then I took aim at something that had been pissing me off for a while. It may seem trivial in comparison to the previous target, but it hurts my soul in a different way. It's this terrible art gallery down the road from me. It's usually filled with rich people, gawking at what has to be some of the worst art in the world. It’s pure 'gentro-art.' 

This stuff looks AI-generated. It reminds me of those NFT chimps, or draw-by-number books. It's something that I can imagine Johnny Depp might hang up in his deplorable pad. It's an insult to this neighbourhood, which has been, and still is, home to some of Australia's greatest creatives. This chalking was the quickest to be washed away, not by rain, but by the gallery worker, who watched me do it while he was standing on a ladder, hanging another affronting painting. This blown-up photograph of a sexy, gothic, dark-academia-coded Batman is the primary piece on display at the moment — an indication of what horrors you'll happen upon inside. 

My attention then turned to Woollahra Municipal Council.  

Over the summer, I went for a swim at Redleaf pool, in Double Bay, almost every day. It quickly became a sanctuary for me. Settling back into city life after a stint living up in Newcastle was difficult. It kept me healthy, sun-kissed, and happy. 

When entering the Council grounds, you walk through a sandstone gate. In front of the council building are five flags: Australian, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islands, Pride, and one outlier. The Israeli. I walked past it every day. And every day I heard of the atrocities committed under that flag. Here, in my locale, my political representatives were hoisting it up with pride.

Since October 10, this flag has flown, quite ironically, alongside the Aboriginal flag, and in front of this local council building. Since when did people who argue about bike lanes take on extremist political stances, which are well outside of their professional scope? It seemed odd to me.  

Before chalking the place, I wanted to see if I could, as an active citizen, change what I believed to be an overstep on the council's behalf. Then, I wouldn't have to resort to civil disobedience to get my point across. I sent an email that was not responded to. A week later I called directly. I was told by a nice lady that my email had been responded to (it had not) and that I should review the minutes of the council. This was an unsatisfactory, Kafkaesque response, which angered me.

I caught the 324 bus heading towards Watsons Bay at about 9, on Monday morning. I got off at the Redleaf pool stop. I swim. It's pretty polluted that day, with all the runoff from a weekend of rain. I shower and change. Then, I head to the front, where Woollahra Municipal Council is written in huge metal letters on New South Head Road. Under the Israeli flag, I crouch down, getting chalk out of my bag. I plan to write 'ESTINE?' after the word ‘Municipal'. As I start, I hear someone shout: 'HEY! What are you doing?' It's a forty-year-old man with greased hair, on an expensive Bianchi bike, getting his phone out of his tight lycra shorts, ready to capture me in the act.

The coward instinct kicks in. I run across the busy road, narrowly dodging speeding SUVs en route to private school drop-offs. Luckily, the 324 is waiting for me like a getaway. I probably drew about five per cent of the first E. As the bus hurtled back Darlinghurst-way, I was furious with myself. I felt that maybe this whole chalking thing was a distraction, from university work and general boredom. It was all futile. Nobody would give a shit. The world's irredeemable. Everyone's either in the Metaverse or the kind of seven layers of hell where you scroll your way down, deep into a self-gratifying abyss. Then I started getting paranoid. Maybe the police will knock on my door again, only this time, they will drag me, naked and screaming and throw me in a cell for public defacement.

I woke up the next morning. My shift was at seven o'clock. It was six. I had an urge. I ran to the pool. When I got there, I had a different idea. What I was about to do would change nothing. Help nobody. Perhaps, it would make someone reconsider their assessment of the war. I was right the night before, in my awareness of this, being meaningless. But, it is better than doing nothing. Or scrolling, which is also doing nothing. 

This whole thing started with seeing something innocent. I remember seeing kids in my street, in the Blue Mountains, drawing big, colourful, almost psychedelic flowers, foxes, and owls on the roads, with chalk, and playing hopscotch. It was beautiful. It was awe. Laughter. Mountain breezes, smelling of eucalypt. Safety — something I took, and still take for granted. But elsewhere in the world, there are children who can't experience that same awe. They are far from it. They know nothing of it. They are being denied their right to it, and more pressingly, their right to exist. I channelled that awe. I chalked and hopped back on the 324. 


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