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Before the walls too were stolen from us: a personal essay on the monopoly of Phantom Billstickers

A personal essay by Maria McMillan on the monopoly of Phantom Billstickers.

 “…if they were all putting up their own posters it would be mayhem.” RNZ,  November 30, 2015.

 “We’ve been putting the New Zealand voice out there for some time.” NZ Book Awards website, March 21, 2016.

 Quotes from Jim Wilson, founder of Phantom Billstickers.

It used to be different. The city all colour and confusion, mayhem and madness, abandoned construction sites and the strips under shop windows and miscellaneous corners, all yelling and singing and shouting out. Posters and poems and notices talking to us as we walked past, early in the morning, or on long aimless days, or calling out to us while we swung in the starry arms of the night from band to party to home.

Hand-drawn notices for gigs for punk bands with clever rude names playing in someone’s mother’s garage. Bad black-and-white photos on posters for tiny theatres up rickety steps with upturned boxes for seating and smelling of the sea. Lines of poetry, random drawings, full moon drumming circles in a cafe courtyard, fundraising dinners, state asset sale protests, lesbian dances, letter-pressed notices on butchers’ paper for public meetings about awful things in Timor by someone determined, all the same, to make something balanced and beautiful.

There used to be the paste-up. We’d meet at the workshop, late on weeknights when it was quiet. We’d section off the city and go off in pairs, one with the stack of posters, one with the pail and brush, down the lift with the clanking black grill and into the night. We knew all the places, each with its thick hide of existing posters stiff with glue. An archive of the city that could now never be peeled apart into its component layers. We’d paste a rectangle a bit bigger than our poster, then put the poster on the wall smoothing it down, then pasted again on top of it. We prided ourselves on straightness, on no bubbles, on corners that would never curl up.

The black night, our hands cool and slimy, sometimes between the buildings a moon, sometimes the silhouettes of a couple of friendly musicians with their own bucket, their own stack. We had strict etiquette, you made room for everyone else, you never pasted over an event that hadn’t been yet, you didn’t obscure, you didn’t hide.

Until a stripclub opened in the centre of town and started putting up posters of a women on a chain, on all fours, alluringly in lingerie, alluringly in pain. Something silent about her. Something silenced in us. Those were fair game. We’d cover them up, we’d rip them down, until they threw a rock through the offices of the Refuge and Rape Crisis, showing for all their mincing words about loving women, about respecting women, they knew what this was really about. Until the strip club bouncer found us and kicked Frith, the smallest of us in the head and yelled at us Fucking feminists, fucking feminists, we’re building up our business, fucking feminists.

After that it all changed. Another team was out postering, but not their own posters. They had a van and money and would come every night and paste over every poster on a wall. A five-by-five block of A3 full-colour glossy posters. And when we put our one or two black-and-white photocopies on top of their block they complained about us spoiling their look. They told us they would just cover it up as soon as we were gone. They offered us small corners, a far edge, the periphery that no one paid attention to. They. Offered. Us.

We were losing everything. Railways and electricity, benefits and jobs. The ports were filled for the first time with raw logs to be processed somewhere far away. Ministries were filled with shiny new logos. These were the days when the government got experts to calculate the very minimum amount of money a family required to survive, the absolute least, and then set the benefit at seventy-five percent of it. These were the days when councils were told to act like companies, and government departments told to turn a profit, and we were told the market had an infallible mind and to mind it.

We needed to talk to each other more than ever. We needed to say particular truths to each other so we wouldn’t forget. We needed to organise, to raise spirits, to rally. The streets were our chatroom, our Facebook, our Twitter, our small press, our email list, our website, our gallery, our newsletter, our zine. They belonged to us, and to the nights smelling of paste and the people who would wake each morning to something new. To the goofy kid fresh from the country who saw that a city was a place which could be changed overnight by anyone with a Vivid and some glue.

And then it was gone. We would go out later and later at night trying to get there after the van. Trying to take up space. To be seen. But we would wake in the morning with our posters covered up. Morning after morning. Day after day. We gave up. It wasn’t worth it. They were A3-full-colour-glossy streets now. They were must-have-marketing-budget streets now. They gleamed with graphic-designed lustre. They had never been so boring.

We went away that summer, and while we were gone the Council gave exclusive city-wide postering rights to the company with the van. They did it without conversation. Without consultation. The walls belonged to a company now.

That summer Frith had concussion and for months, as we travelled, had headaches accompanied by a strange and glorious vision of a city, vivid and prowling with life, anarchic, blessed, belonging to those who lived there.


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