Big Vision: The Sydney Murals of Carol Ruff

40000 years

The mural stretches across the long wall of the railway bridge across from Redfern train station. It is a reminder to all who pass that this is Aboriginal land with its figures and footprints and the two curving lines of text, lines from a song by Joe Geia of No Fixed Address.

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The 40000 years mural in 1983. Photo: Carol Ruff

The 40000 years mural, as it has come to be known, was designed by artist Carol Ruff in 1983. Ruff collaborated with a team of artists and locals to create a mural that would mark a sense of place and identity for Aboriginal Redfern. Carol and fellow artist Tracey Moffatt set up in an empty shop on nearby Lawson Street, inviting people to drop by with their suggestions for what to include in the design. The mural came to life as people contributed ideas, and Carol met with prominent members of the community such as Mum Shirl (Shirley Smith), and Aunty Mona Donnelly of the Aboriginal Medical Service to talk with them about the project. Aunty Mona Donnelly’s portrait is included in the mural beside the Aboriginal flag, a flag that was at the time only a little more than ten years old.

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Aunty Mona Donnelly and her portrait (photo: Carol Ruff)

That the Redfern mural, and many of her other murals from that period, have survived, is a surprise to Carol. “I never expected them to last,” she says, “they were painted with acrylic house paint, and then I would guarantee they would last about 5 or 10 years and if it looked rubbishy after that, well, maybe you should put something else up.”

But nobody put anything else up on the Redfern rail bridge wall. From the start locals loved the mural that pictured Aboriginal culture, history, and connection to the land. They kept an eye on it to deter vandals and as the mural deteriorated over time did “guerrilla repair work”, fixing it up and repainting bits and pieces. Even now in its faded state the images can still be read as you walk along it, following the rainbow snake that links the image. Soon the mural will be bright again. Plans are proceeding for its restoration, involving the complete repainting of the original design.

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The mural in its current, pre-restoration state, 2016.

The persistence of the Redfern mural, and other murals from the early 1980s, is the persistence of the energy and ideals of that time in public art. Carol Ruff was one of a number of mural artists working at the time whose work can still be seen around Sydney, including Peter Day of the King George VI mural in the Rocks, Merilyn Fairskye and Michiael Dolk of the Green Bans murals in Woolloomooloo, and David Humphries and Rodney Monk of the Public Art Squad, responsible for the Peace, Justice and Unity mural of hands and doves on Pilgrim House in central Sydney.

I went to meet Carol at her gallery in Clovelly, among a row of 1920s shops a few streets back from the ocean. The gallery was exhibiting the final show for the year and we sat surrounded by paintings, some on canvas and some on ukuleles, as the gallery hosts a triennial exhibition of ukuleles hand-painted by Australian artists. It was late afternoon and as we spoke magpies sung in the trees outside, and people walked slowly past the windows, returning from the beach.

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Carol Ruff working on the restoration of the Proud of Our Elders mural in Randwick. Photo: Carol Ruff

Carol is a painter, filmmaker and performer, in addition to her mural work which spanned the 80s and 90s. Before working as a mural painter she had studied fine arts and then worked a children’s theatre performer, travelling Australia telling stories at libraries and for arts festivals. After moving to Sydney in 1980 she joined the burgeoning mural-painting scene and became known for her figurative and narrative work which captured the communities within which they were painted.

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Carol in 1982 while working on a mural for the Adelaide Festival Centre. Photo: Carol Ruff.

The Redfern mural was painted at the height of a mural fervour that dominated the public arts in Australia in the early 1980s. The 1970s and 80s were an era in which art and activism were strongly linked in popular forms such as murals, or the posters produced by Earthworks or the Tin Sheds. Of murals Carol describes how “we were very into art for the people, getting the art out of the galleries, putting it on the public walls, so that everybody could access it.”

Painted Walls in Australia

The Painted Walls in Australia conference, held in 1981, discussed the flourishing of murals in Australia at the time.

Carol’s first mural project was in 1979, painted on the walls of the pedestrian underpass at Mount Druitt train station. It was a school holiday activity for local kids, who included in the design an object of primary importance to the life of a child in 1980: a Space Invaders Machine. After another school holiday mural project in Hobart, she moved on to community murals that linked ordinary people and everyday experiences with broader social struggles.

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Adelaide Festival Centre, ‘Aboriginals Discovered Cook’, 1982. Photo: Carol Ruff

Of the murals Carol worked on in Sydney and beyond – including Alice Springs, Townsville, Adelaide, and Port Moresby – many had a message of social justice, be it land rights, women’s rights, rights and recognition for older people, and community diversity. “We took the murals really seriously,” Carol says, “developing what would go into them and what wouldn’t, what was the right political position, and what people wanted.” This process varied from mural to mural, depending on the theme and the location. In Redfern the Lawson Street shopfront was the base for the mural artists. For the Randwick “Proud of Our Elders” mural it was the Coogee women’s baths.

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Proud of Our Elders Mural, Randwick. Photo: Carol Ruff.

Carol with Eve Glenn, Sarah McNamara and Barbary O’Brien, formed the “La Loop” mural group for the Randwick project, named after the former Belmore Road tram loop nearby. They would start their day doing laps at the McIvers Baths, the women’s pool built in 1886 at the southern end of Coogee beach, and it was here their ideas for the mural took shape. Pictured in “Proud of Our Elders” are two women connected with the baths, Doris Hyde, president of the Randwick and Coogee Ladies Swimming Club, and Alice Gundry who guarded the entrance, ensuring everyone paid the 20 cent entrance fee. The namesake of Wylie’s Baths Mina Wylie, swimmer and Olympic medallist from the 1912 games, is also present in the mural, depicted as a young woman, her bathing costume decorated with medals.

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After their morning laps the La Loop group went to the Randwick and District Historical Society at Sandgate Cottage, the sandstone house next to the wall where the mural was to be painted. “We were in and out of there all the time,” Carol remembers, “we went through a fortune on tea and finger buns”. Tea and buns fuelled their afternoon tea research trips and the cast of the mural took shape: Harry Read, an ex-jockey who once rode at the nearby Randwick Racecourse and was now the university gatekeeper; Ollie Simms, then the oldest Aboriginal woman in the La Perouse community; and at the top of the mural Greta Fyson, a woman from the nearby nursing home who spent her days sitting feeding the pigeons in the square.

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When Carol restored Proud of Our Elders in 2012 she was surprised how many people came up to her with stories about the people in the mural. “These were ordinary people, not famous people, but people came flocking down to say ‘oh we knew Harry Read’ or ‘we knew Doris’.”

While the murals in Randwick and Redfern have been candidates for restoration, the “Women On the Edge of Town” mural on the side of the Domain Parking Station has deteriorated. It was painted throughout October 1982 as part of the inaugural, state government-funded Women and Arts festival.

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The Women on the Edge of Town mural. On the stage area in front there were daily lunch time performances while the mural was being painted. Photo: Carol Ruff.

Carol describes the wall as “shaped like a piece of cake”, a long wedge extending down from the Domain to Wolloomooloo below. It was designed by Carol with Jan MacKay and Marie McMahon, who were later joined by Hellen Sky and Barbary O’Brien. The end closest to the city was painted by the artist Nora Bindul, who had travelled from the Northern Territory to work on the mural. At the far end  Ella Geia, a friend of Carol’s from Palm Island, is painted standing in a kitchen, a Torres Strait Island handkerchief painted with flowers in one hand. The mural also included Judy McGee, the singer, synthesiser and saxophone player from postpunk band Pel Mel, and dancer Sylvia Blanco, who went on to be a leading member of the Bangarra Dance Theatre. Although the mural had a broader scope than those painted within specific suburban communities, it was like all of Carol’s murals populated by real people and their stories.

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Art Network magazine cover, featuring the portrait of Ella Geia  from the ‘Women at the Edge of Town’ mural.

The mural was launched with a stage set up for bands, dancers performing on the surrounding lawn, and speeches reflecting on the Women and Arts Festival. Throughout October, as well as celebration, the festival had attracted a fair amount of criticism from those who believed it to be tokenistic. During the mural launch members of the Arts Workers’ Union stood up with placards protesting the premier, Neville Wran’s, “cosmetic job” and “festivile”, with one placard declaring “Wran farts on women and arts”. This moment Carol remembers with some chagrin, as she had been unaware the protest was to occur. “I got into a lot of trouble for that!”

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Opening of the “Women on the Edge of Town” mural. Image: Women in the Arts research study 1982.

A mural painted in Tasmania the following year also became a site of controversy. On this project Carol was working with another Sydney muralist known for her political work, Merilyn Fairskye. They designed and painted a semi-abstracted landscape on the side wall of a Coles New World supermarket in the Hobart suburb of Kingston, the first in a proposed series sponsored by the supermarket chain.

Coles New World banner

Merilyn Fairskye and Carol Ruff with protest banner on the site of ‘We Are Still Here’, the banned Coles New World Mural, Tasmania, 1983. Photo: Carol Ruff

During their time in Hobart working on the mural Merilyn and Carol discovered the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. It came as a surprise: a few years earlier the documentary film “The Last Tasmanian” had come out, with the story of Truganini, purportedly the last Tasmanian Aboriginal, who had died in 1876. At the centre Carol and Merilyn met Tasmanian Aboriginal writers and activists fighting for recognition. They decided to paint into the mural a newspaper text they had seen at the centre: We are still here. There are over 4000 of us, we have an unbroken link with the past. We are a people. We are survivors.

The artists approached Coles New World with their proposal to add the words to the mural, but were refused. “We basically graffitied it into our own mural,” Carol says, describing how they worked stealthily in the dark to paint the words into the design. The next morning, with the Aboriginal flag raised on the scaffolding, they were removed by security. The mural was then painted over. Despite its brief existence, “at the time it was the mural I was most famous for, the mural that never actually stayed on the wall.”

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These forbidden words were painted onto the wall before the mural scaffold was taken down, and the unfinished mural was painted out by the commissioner, Coles New World. Photo: Carol Ruff.

Many of the murals Carol has designed include text, like the “40 000 years” lyric of the Redfern mural, or the brief biographies of the people featured on “Proud of Our Elders”. Even on the much deteriorated Domain women’s mural many of the words painted into the design are still visible through the grime and spraypainted tags: we are our history, we are our culture, we are our land, we are now. The mural included messages about domestic labour, factory labour, and the health effects of increasing computerisation of office work. On the mural the slogans are presented amid the coffee cups, vinyl records and apartment buildings of everyday scenes.

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Migrant Woman Working Overtime on the Assembly Line from “Women on the Edge of Town”, in its current deteriorated state.

As we talk at the gallery Carol shows me through folders of photographs of her many mural projects. Here are the Mount Druitt kids and the Space Invaders machine in the underpass mural. And Alice Gundry of the women’s baths cutting the ribbon in front of “Proud of Our Elders” on the opening day of the mural. “She was blind,” Carol tells me, “so we had to put the ribbon in the scissors”. Across the black and white photograph the ribbon is hand-painted pink.

Looking through the photographs of the murals is a window into a time that Carol describes as brief and vibrant, “part of an intense political craze for public art that meant something.” She notes that while murals have returned to popularity they tend towards the decorative, rather than the political, and don’t have the detailed community involvement in the designs that was so important to her public murals.

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Bush Tucker Murals, Yeperenye Centre, Alice Springs, 1987. Photo: Carol Ruff.

It is the political messages and the power of community memory that has become the legacy of these 1980s murals, presenting an activism bound up with everyday lives and places, and a time of optimism for art’s role in social change. As Carol works towards the restoration of the 40,000 years mural, writing up its history, it is the history of the mural but also the history of the Redfern community.

While in some ways it is surprising the murals have endured for so long, in others ways it isn’t, for they are product and part of their environments. Along with the poems, stories, or songs that become important in popular memory, these murals create a connection to places and times, to communities, and to struggles that are still ongoing.

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Thank you to Carol Ruff for talking with me about her work, and generously sharing images from her archives. Thank you also to the Space, Place and Country research group at Sydney College of the Arts, who hosted the Refern Mural Gathering in November 2015.

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A Tour of 1980s Community Murals

In the permanent shade of the elevated railway the murals appear like dreams. They are a jumble of city memories, scenes from the past of this place. The forest, the working harbour, protests for land rights and against the redevelopment of Woolloomoloo in the 1970s. In the centre of one mural protesters march under the Green Bans banner, arms linked, feet mid-step. Surrounding the mural is the suburb they marched to save.

WLOO Mural 1

Elsewhere in the city are fading images of dinosaurs and people waving from the balconies of terrace houses. A woman with a parrot in a cage looks down from a trompe l’oeil window, a tiger chases a bird from behind the real trees that have grown to obscure the painted wall behind it.

Dinosaurs Redfern

These community murals are more than thirty years old, painted in the early 1980s by artists and locals. As well as the histories of people and places they retain the traces of a time of optimism for art and social change. They were works that celebrated resistance and the potential of collaboration, and capture a particular era of activism, energised by the culture of protest of the 1970s. Through actions like the Green Bans communities had successfully opposed the destruction of the urban environment for development. Activism carried over to the arts: post punk gigs in abandoned buildings; the political posters produced at the Tin Sheds in primary colours and bright fluoros, protesting nuclear testing and showing solidarity for workers’ and women’s rights.

Royal Nuclear Show

Though they were painted over 30 years ago a surprising number of 1980s murals can still be found around the city and suburbs. Some have been restored, others are now much faded. While there is no shortage of new murals these days the 80s ones have a particular energy and atmosphere that distinguishes them from the mostly decorative recent murals. The 80s murals are time capsules with a gentle and surreal presence suggesting other ways of being and thinking in the city.

In 1982 The Mural Manual was published, a guide to community murals by David Humphries and Rodney Monk which documented new mural projects across Australia and provided practical information on how to organise and paint them. Humphries and Monk, both mural artists, had established a mural company, the Public Art Squad, together in 1978. In the introduction Humphries wrote that murals provide “a release from drabness in the city, a splash of colour in the country, a shiver of unexpected pleasure wherever [they are] found. It allows ordinary people to communicate in unaccustomed ways, to put a personal stamp on their chunk of the world”.

With The Mural Manual as a guide, and after a few years of mural searching, documenting, and information gathering, here is a tour of Sydney’s 1980s community murals. I have noted the principal coordinating artists in the credits, but all were painted by a team of artists and community members.

1. Macquarie University Library (1978, David Humphries)

Macquarie Mural 1

Its sheltered position in the walkway underneath the old Macquarie University library has kept bright this oldest of the remaining community murals. The Mural Manual describes its theme as “the effects on Aboriginal land rights and the environment by the media, nuclear power and intellectual training”. Like many of these murals, it’s a mix of the serious and the surreal: the university campus is pictured like a moon base among a desert; a superhero graduate couple rise up above a forest of televisions which form heads for an army of muscular charging figures.

Macquarie Couple

2. Seven Hills Underpass (1979, Rodney Monk)

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One of the most prominent community murals in Sydney is in Seven Hills on the underpass beneath Prospect Highway where it crosses the railway line, making the mural clearly visible from all the trains going by. The mural has been repainted since 1979 but shows the same scene of green fields modified by development and factories and also a bizarre pop cultural lineup of Ginger Meggs, soldiers, and a man with a question mark for a head. Above them Superman powers up into the painted sky, fist aloft.

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The blue sky of the mural meets the real sky; Superman looks ready to leave his painted world and go off on a rescue mission. Up close the surface is peeling in parts and there are patches where the paint has peeled off to reveal the original mural underneath and its slightly different landscape of outer-space pyramids, a guess at a possible Seven Hills future.

Seven Hills Mural 1979

The mural in 1979: Photo from The Mural Manual

3. The Crescent Mural, Annandale, 1980 (Rodney Monk)

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The Crescent mural is painted on the railway embankment wall that runs alongside The Crescent in Annandale, where traffic feeds back and forth off the City West Link. Before the mural this wall had been a long stretch of bricks with a spraypainted slogan across it protesting the Whitlam sacking: Kerr-ist Cocky’s got an election (Kerr being the Governer General who dismissed Whitlam’s government in 1975, often caricatured as a cockatoo). The slogan reappears in the mural if you look closely.

Kerr-ist

Like the Seven Hills mural, the Crescent mural has been repainted (this one in 2004) and the design somewhat changed: the stealth bomber became a passenger jet, for example. The looming plane at the centre of the mural is one of its defining features, as is the painted tree trunk that joins up with a real palm tree growing on the embankment above, but there are plenty of details for motorists stuck in traffic to ponder (including a traffic jam of trucks with numberplates like GIVEADAMN and BUGAUP).

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In the 1970s, as elsewhere in Sydney, this area was threatened by plans for redevelopment and road construction. This faced strong community opposition and the mural is in part a celebration of this spirit, as well as an acknowledgement of local history and concerns. It’s also just plain surreal and funny.

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4. CYSS Mural, Rozelle, 1980 (Michiel Dolk)

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Image: The Mural Manual/Michiel Dolk

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This is Sydney’s mystery mural, unchanged since 1980, although now much faded and for most of the year hidden behind trees. In winter, after the leaves have dropped, the mural reappears and is visible from the street. It takes youth unemployment as its theme as it was painted on the wall of what was then the CYSS (community youth support scheme) – the building still offers youth employment services, though under a different name.

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The mural shows the frame of a house with people occupied in various jobs: a woman saws a plank of wood, a man washes dishes, another man makes a call from a payphone. At the top, one figure passes a yellow sphere to the figure on top of the mural, who is seated on the window frame of the real attic windows of the building. Now this sun is faded, barely visible. Lower down the colours are brighter, and if you look in among the trees, you will find the tiger.

Rozelle Mural Tiger

In 1980 Dolk, with Merilyn Fairskye and Jeff Stewart, also painted the ACI Glassworks mural in Waterloo, which commemorates the suburb’s industrial past.

4. Surry Hills Murals: What Bird is That? (1981, Peter Day)

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In 1981 Peter Day was the Surry Hills community artist in residence, and over this time he coordinated the painting of a number of murals. Of them one remains, a bushland scene on the wall of a terrace house that faces a tiny park. Repainted in 2012 the new design, like the old, tricks the eye, so for a moment, the wall becomes a forest.

The other two Peter Day coordinated murals in Surry Hills were the Bourke Street Park mural which had a similar trompe l’oeil appearance, where a wall opened out into a landscape of cliffs and the ocean. The other was the Welcome to Surry Hills map on the side of an electricity substation on Devonshire Street, now a block of apartments.

Surry Hills Now and Then

5. Proud of Our Elders, Randwick (1981, Carol Ruff)

Proud of Our Elders

Randwick’s Proud of Our Elders mural includes six notable locals: Ollie Simms, the oldest Aboriginal woman in La Perouse; Miss Wilhelmina Wylie, swimming champion and daughter of Henry Wylie who built Wylie’s Baths in Coogee; Alice Gundry, founding member of the Coogee Ladies Pool; Doris Hyde, president of the Coogee Ladies Swimming Club who “taught hundreds of children to swim”; Harry Reed, ex-jockey; and Greta Fyson, who “feed the pigeons every day in the park on Coogee Bay Road near the nursing home where she lives”.

The mural was repainted in 2011 as the original was fading, and Doris Hyde’s wise gaze continues to observe the residents of Randwick as they make their way along Belmore Road.

6. Women and Work, Domain (1982, Carol Ruff)

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The mural in 1982, and  photos of the women who worked on the project.

Of all Sydney’s 1980s murals this is the most degraded, in a peeling, sorry state, mostly covered by graffiti and signs for the parking station. It makes me sad to see it this way as it is one of my favourites: every time I pass by I expect it to be gone, but for now you can still make out some of the figures. Painted in 1982 it was part of the landmark Women and the Arts festival in 1982, which included around 1000 events and generated much creative work by women across the arts.

Womens Mural Pel Mel

Judy McGee from Pel Mel is still visible in her blue tights, playing her synthesiser, despite the door cut into the wall behind her. At the tallest end of the mural a woman stands in the kitchen with her dog, although she has now been imprisoned by an overpass.
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The text reads: “Migrant Women Working Overtime on the Assembly Line”

7. Green Bans/Woolloomooloo Murals, 1982 (Merilyn Fairskye and Michiel Dolk)

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Of all of Sydney’s 1980s murals the Woolloomooloo murals have perhaps the greatest status as political artworks. The pylons of the Eastern Suburbs Railway viaducts formed a gallery on which 16 murals about political and social issues – especially the Green Bans and redevelopment threats to the area in the 1970s – were hung. Eight of these have been preserved, although not repainted: the artists requested the works only be minimally restored to keep their patina of age.

Robin Heks; Merilyn Fairskye, Michiel Dolk,  Tim Maguire, designers and painters of the Woolloomooloo murals. Photo: University of Sydney Archives.

1982: Robin Heks, Merilyn Fairskye, Michiel Dolk, Tim Maguire, designers and painters of the Woolloomooloo murals. Photo: University of Sydney Archives.

The murals were the backdrop for the Midnight Oil video “The Power and the Passion” although, as related in this story of the making of the video, to the artists’ consternation the band didn’t ask for permission to film in front of the murals. Nevertheless, the video captures something of the atmosphere of these odd spaces underneath the viaduct, which itself carved up Woolloomoloo, although to nowhere near the extent of the planned developments in the 1970s which were halted by the Green Bans.

8. Redfern Bridge Mural/40,000 Years is a Long, Long Time (1983, Carol Ruff)

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The 40,000 years mural, on the railway bridge above Redfern station, is named after the lines from the No Fixed Address song that are painted on the wall. It’s a striking reminder of Aboriginal land and history, and visually underlies the tall buildings of the city which can be seen behind it. The mural is currently undergoing a restoration with images this time being painted on panels rather than the wall. The wall mural is currently much faded, but you can still make out the silhouettes of the Indigenous All Stars, the first Aboriginal rugby team from 1973.

Indigenous All Stars

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9. King George V Mural, The Rocks (1984, Peter Day)

At around 2000 metres squared, this is one of the longest murals in the southern hemisphere. It is painted along the viaduct leading to the Harbour Bridge as a trompe l’oeil. The painted arches of the viaduct trick the eye into seeing a vista beyond of the harbour in front of which, most strikingly, a hot air balloon rises. In front of much of the mural is a recreation centre which obscures it somewhat, although provides an unusual background to basketball games: the full mural can be seen in this aerial photo from before the centre was built.

King George Mural 1

10. Peace, Justice and Unity, Pitt Street (1984, Public Art Squad)

Photo: JAM Project, Flickr

Photo: JAM Project, Flickr

This is perhaps Sydney’s most high profile mural – literally as it is painted up above the city streets on the side of Pilgrim House. The mural was painted over altogether in 2001, before being reinstated two years later after the artists campaigned for it to return.

11. Think Globally, Act Locally, Redfern (1984, Public Art Squad)

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This mural, another by the Public Art Squad, can be found in Redfern’s Reconciliation Park on George Street. It shares the dove motif from Peace, Justice and Unity, and shows the residents of the terrace houses and public housing blocks of Redfern and Waterloo, as well as a couple of dinosaurs framed by the outline of a demolished house.

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Like many community murals, it includes groups of local people, long ago characters: my favourites in this one are the girl on the fence, and the man reading the newspaper which lists the painting’s credits.Redfern Dino 2
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Murals continued to be painted throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, among them notable works such as the Martin Luther King mural on King Street Newtown by Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken and the Tunnel Vision mural along the Domain Express Walkway by Tim Guider. Other iconic murals have disappeared, such as those that used to line the Devonshire Street tunnel at Central Station (Public Art Squad): now replaced by dull digital images of trains.

Others have disappeared completely, without trace, such as the oil tank mural of Matraville, painted in 1978 in a project co-ordinated by David Humphries and Rodney Monk. This mural was striking, rising up behind the headstones of the Eastern Suburbs cemetery. Across the tank was painted a blue landscape of ships and planes and dolphins, faces and structures, public memories mixed up into a dream landscape familiar and surreal.

It’s a testament to the work of the mural artists of the 1980s that so many of their works remain, although in some ways its not surprising. They have become iconic images from an era of protest and community engagement and the majority of their messages are as important as ever.

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