According to my union card, my occupation falls into the ‘Rural and Agricultural’ sector, yet this job leads me to engage with the streets of Central London every day. For a milkman, this might not be such a contradiction. But why would an artist and graduate of the Royal College of Art want to pursue this path? Access to studio time, an unencumbered mind-space, and the necessary resources comprise the Holy Grail of any aspiring artist. Plus, as one of my colleagues stated astutely, “you get the afternoons off, a nice van to drive, meet lots of interesting people … and they pay you, as well!”
The ‘milk’ had sustained me through my student years, so I knew the business well and, over time, had been able to assess the practicalities of pursuing a binary career. It was also a dying industry. By that time, I was an inspector at the local depot in Vauxhall and one of my duties was to assess rounds for closure. In 1980, I was told to evaluate the South Bank and Bankside rounds, which I was set on saving – and which I have been serving ever since.
This area has seen some of the most extensive changes within the whole city, in both built environment and demographic, and I have had the privilege of seeing these changes from my very own ringside seat. When, in the 1990s, the boroughs lost substantial parts of their population, I re-canvassed the round from serving homes towards serving small offices, just in time to witness the two most significant developments in South London at the time: construction of the International Terminal at Waterloo and the opening of the Tate Modern.
The former helped to isolate the areas to the south of the station from the administrative and tourist areas of County Hall and the river. In addition, a warren of 280 railway arches underneath Waterloo Station used to host warehouses, small businesses, and archival railway facilities. These were largely demolished and the local market in the Lower Marsh, which had thrived since the 1340s, was effectively closed down.
At the same time, the Tate Modern opening had a radically different effect. Before 2000, Bankside had been largely derelict, although with some interesting historical spots. From its inception, it had enjoyed a reputation of lawlessness and associated ‘industries.’ Or, according to a graffiti scrawl, “Welcome to South London – no tax man round here, my son.” With the arrival of the Tate the area became attractive to business, especially the creative industries. Southwark planners have largely done an excellent job of retaining the fractal nature of the built environment, especially south of Southwark Street. This continues to this day with a large influx of ‘refugees’ fleeing the high rents charged north of the river. At the same time, the area has seen the arrival of many new, mainly affluent residents.
My studio practice has largely mirrored these changes. I have met with outstanding kindness and support from the people I have come across. My first studio came courtesy of one of my customers – rent free and within earshot of Big Ben. Since then, I have set up studio in Greenwich and now at the APT studios in Deptford. More recently, my art has moved into the discursive and this is how the StreetSurfaces project came about.
In the mid-2000s, the UK experienced a series of water shortages. In London, this was ascribed to leaks in the old Victorian water mains. All of these were to be replaced, which require extensive roadworks. This digging activity, coupled with the installation of fiber optic cables and general utilities maintenance, turned movement in the city into a nightmare from 2009. Rather than submit to these frustrations, I decided to get creative.
Markings on the roads, outlining where work was about to take place, gave prior warning of these disruptions. The sheer proliferation of colors and symbols was something I had never seen before. Some were obvious, some bizarre, and the recent influx of Eastern European workers meant that some of these words were incomprehensible to those outside the loop. Taking photographs of these markings, as a way of documenting the phenomenon, seemed an interesting project.
I tried to contact the involved utility companies to see if there was an index or glossary for this ‘language,’ yet never received a reply. Even worse, any attempt to approach the workers only resulted in strange looks – as if I was clinically deranged. In this situation, there is only one thing to do: You have to make up your own rationale. By applying a logical inversion, and by using the signs and symbols as the only evidence, what was a reasonable explanation?
As my collection of photos expanded, so did my appreciation of the aesthetics of the road surface as a creative substrate. Its blacks have many shades, tones, and color speeds and its texture is constantly modified through traffic or weather-related erosion. And although the road markings start out bold, they rapidly fade into many shades of subtlety. The repeated digging and repaving of parts of the road results in an intriguing patina of almost infinite complexity.
Every day, thousands of pedestrians walk this surface, yet remain largely oblivious to the unique world of its visual and metaphorical content. By engaging with this lexicon, the average pedestrian can enrich the most tedious of journeys. For me, this imagery reflects the vision of the night sky, but everyone is free to develop their own narrative. Just like Arne Saknussemm in the Jules Verne story, let these markings lead you to your very own ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth.’
Paul’s StreetSurfaces project can be found at: http://www.streetsurfaces.co.uk/
Text: Paul Malone
Header image: A-Star/ photocase.com