In the middle of the inscription tradition

10 November 2015

Early contributions to the Q Station

Early contributions to the Q Station's tradition of inscriptions

Right now the University of Sydney is the place to be for studying the inscription tradition! The Quarantine Project centres around the 1600 historic carved and painted messages left at North Head by people detained there between 1835 and 1984.

While we don’t know why the very first internees decided to leave a lengthy carved message on a prominent rock face, they started a tradition that persists into the present. Worldwide, many instances of such mark-making seem to have created spaces or ‘galleries’ that encouraged others to leave their own contribution.

This is an enduring human practice which can be dated back to Antiquity, if not earlier. Indeed, the University’s Nicholson Museum, famed for its collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts, is currently hosting its own graffiti display.

Ancient Roman inscriptions in the University of Sydney

Ancient Roman inscriptions in the University of Sydney's Nicholson Museum

Memento: Remembering Roman Lives’ brings together carved and often painted memorials to adults, children and even slaves from the ancient Roman world. Many, in fact, were created to recall those who had died, and to smooth their passage into the underworld. While some are crude and others are rather better executed, each one links us to a long-forgotten identity and series of very human attachments. Together they create an impressive, if artificial, assemblage of ancient ‘street art’.

Spectacular street art in the University

Spectacular street art in the University's graffiti tunnel

Nearby, the University’s graffiti tunnel has become one of the most popular tourist sites on campus, second only to the historic sandstone quadrangle.

In this otherwise unremarkable covered walkway below the Badham Building, temporary graffiti has been tolerated since at least the 1960s. Students have used its walks to proclaim dramatic performances, political messages, visiting bands, romantic attachments, random thoughts, repetitive tags and elaborate artworks. Nothing endures: a part of the accepted tradition is that each work will be covered over by the next, in an endless series of overlays and oversprays. Signs at either end of the graffiti tunnel sternly assert that ‘notices, posters, signs and graffiti are not permitted around either end or beyond the enclosure in the middle of the tunnel’. Within its confines, however, taggers and street artists stand alongside visiting high-school students and giggling tourists who revel in scrawling on the walls of this sanctioned space.

It’s clear from the very public nature of the inscriptions across the Quarantine Station that the tradition of carving was similarly tolerated – if sometimes policed – by the quarantine authorities. Happily, in most cases subsequent authors respected the work that went before and didn’t efface or overwrite existing panels. In all of these circumstances, though, what was taking place was more than just the continuation of a tradition. It was also a conversation, connecting predecessors from the past to potential audiences in the future.