Once, when waiting for a bus on Enmore Road, I observed a small, handwritten notice affixed to the wall behind me. ROOM TO LET it said, in large, irregular capital letters, written in black marker, then STENMO and a phone number. I puzzled over what STENMO might mean. Was it an acronym? Or perhaps the name of the person to call about the room? No one else was around so I read the word aloud, and all of a sudden it made sense. STENMO was Stanmore.
Although I saw the STENMO notice many years ago and it has long disappeared, every time I pass that spot I think of it. Stenmo took root in my imagination – a version of Stanmore linked to particular memories. Stenmo is nourished by thick, oil-sodden chips from the Stanmore Fish Shop, with its handpainted sign of a spiky blue wave. It is a suburb of lemons overhanging fences, a suburb made up only of back lanes. The mascot of Stenmo is the Bassett Hound that belonged to the old Greek men who used to congregate in Weekley Park. It was a large, furry slug of a dog that chomped at the grass as the men sat talking and it would snap whenever a stranger got too close.
I forever hope to find DIY advertisements as good as Stenmo. My search mostly takes place on community noticeboards, which I love and always stop to examine. Some boards are in supermarkets, with ads written on cards and slotted in between metal dividers, others are pinboards, messy with layers of tape and pins built up from past notices. The notices employ all methods of construction, from handwritten to professionally printed. Some are written in biro on lined notepaper, some have photographs stuck to them with tape, others are designed using Word templates and wacky fonts and printed out at home, some are simply business cards.
Most noticeboards have a predictable selection of objects for sale: bed frames, wardrobes and dining tables (or, often, “dinning” tables). There is usually a teenager looking for babysitting work. A room to let. Pets lost or for sale. Music lessons. Part of the appeal of these notices is that they are handmade, and while they can be sorted into categories, each notice gives many clues to the identity of its author.
It was this kind of curiousity that inspired Miranda July to visit people selling objects through the Penny Saver classifieds, a free Los Angeles classifieds weekly. She wrote It Chooses You about visiting particular Penny Saver sellers, and her fascination with this lo-fi way of putting messages out into the world. She meets people all over the suburbs of Los Angeles, from a teenage boy selling bullfrog tadpoles he breeds in his backyard to the loquacious Joe, a man selling fifty Christmas card fronts for one dollar each. (Joe ends up playing himself in The Future, the film July was writing at the time of visiting the Penny Saver advertisers.)
Even if I never call, just by reading classified ads I have travelled to the woman selling the dinning table in Belmore, or the person selling the car bra “to suit Nissan Maxima” for $270, at least in my imagination. Each ad is a key to another’s life, somewhere in the suburbs.
Most boards contain at least one ad that is unusual, or perplexing, or outright funny. Sometimes this can be due to the obscurity of the service offered or item being sold, other times it is due to more of a Stenmo type language distortion. One of my all time favourites is an advertisement for a large dog rescue.
The particular noticeboard Dogs Free was being advertised on is generally covered in advertisements from this same, large-dog-rescuing seller. Most of the time there are no other notices than theirs, which present a bewildering array of items, from rocking horses to appliances and medical beds. The ads are written on scraps of paper, on photographs, and sometimes directly onto the surface of the noticeboard itself.
Over time, items recur, whether the same ones or multiples, such as the rocking horse.
Recently I noticed, in addition to those on the noticeboard, there were ads written in green marker on the metal shelf underneath the nearby public phone. The ads are moving out from the noticeboard to consume the surrounding streets, even making it onto t-shirts, as seen in yet another ad for the rocking horse.
Sydney’s master of ads beyond the noticeboard would have to be an individual dubbed by my friend Lucas as “Bar Fridge Man” or by others “Sign Man“. If you’ve spent any time around the inner suburbs of Sydney over the last fifteen years, you’ll be familiar with Bar Fridge Man. Objects – bags, chairs, paintings, shoes, eskies, garment bags, belts, folders, a Dungeons and Dragons game board, anything, everything – became canvases for ads, usually for beds or fridges or larger domestic appliances, always written in white-out to cover the entirely of the object beneath.
It has been some years since I’ve spotted one of these ads, but for a long time no walker around Redfern would be spared a sighting of some domestic object branded with an ad for a queen bed or similar. Almost as compelling a conversation topic as the Olympia Milk Bar, Bar Fridge Man fuelled much speculation. Was it legitimate? Was it art ? Or could it be made into art? There was at least one exhibition of a collection of these ads at Slot Gallery in 2004, with an accompanying text linking them to themes in contemporary Australian art, and also the chalk messages of Eternity, written on Sydney streets by Arthur Stace hundreds of thousands of times between the 1930s and 1960s. Could “Single Bed $100” be the work of a contemporary, commercially-minded version of Stace?
Before getting carried away with interpretation, there were more pressing questions to address. What happened when you called the number? Here, stories varied. The person who answered laughed and hung up. Or, they responded seriously to the enquiry, but said the single bed was sold. Or they made arrangements to meet; a number of people claimed to have visited the BFM headquarters. Someone had even bought a bed from them. Was the person behind the ads really a nice old guy, bemused by the attention he received? Stories varied enough for there to be a sense of mystery about the ads, which had almost ceased to be ads altogether and become more of a game, or a souvenir. Plenty of inner west houses had a BFM advertisement on the mantelpiece, mine included.
I did feel a little guilty about removing the painting from its location – amid a pile of trash outside the long-closed Castle Connell pub on Regent Street – but there were so many of these ads around the place that it didn’t seem as if it would deprive the seller of customers. Some ads, placed in more out-of-the-way positions, remained for years, such as this folder, hung up above the electricity meters of a block of apartments on George St, Redfern. It remained, rusting and water damaged, for more than a year before finally disappearing, although it was readable to the end: white-out on plastic folder is a durable medium.
As someone who always favours the DIY and unofficial, these ads were like small deposits of treasure, the kind of urban secret that was a reward for those who looked closely. They drew attention to the otherwise ordinary pockets of space in which they were left, on the fences of vacant lots, in the corners of stairwells, in disused corners. The street was transformed into one, vast community noticeboard.
While no successor to Bar Fridge Man has yet arisen, the most recent trend in street advertising are ads offering to buy houses. They appear on telegraph poles and fences, for people to notice as they drive by. The message is usually the same: WE BUY HOUSES. Every time I see them I try to imagine their target market: the kind of person who has it together enough to own a house, but would sell it to someone advertising on a telegraph pole, with an ad written in permanent marker on a square of corflute.
[A note about phone numbers: I have obscured the classified ad phone numbers but left the bar fridge man number, as numerous photographs of their ads exist already online. I also left We Buy Houses, as these signs are visible on fences all over the suburbs.]