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The Story Behind Sydney’s ‘Eternity’ Graffiti

For over twenty five years, from 1930 to 1956, the people of Sydney woke up each day to a one-word sermon—”Eternity”—handwritten in yellow crayon on footpaths, train station platforms, and perimeter walls lining the city’s many walkways and streets. Each day a fresh batch of graffiti rendered in beautiful copperplate lettering style  would appear at places where there weren’t any the previous night. Somehow, for twenty five years, a mysterious figure had managed to sneak into the city every night and leave his presence on the city’s walls and sidewalks. It attracted the ire of Sydney City Council at first, but as the weeks become months, and the months became years, the “Eternity” graffiti became an iconic symbol of the city. Pedestrians stepped around and over the words, and street sweepers and cleaners left the elegant writings untouched.

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The "Eternity" graffiti illuminated on the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of new year’s eve celebration in 2000. Photo credit: National Geographic

The mysterious figure behind the phenomenon, who was to become the most famous graffiti artist in Australia’s history, managed to keep his identity a secret until one morning in June 1956, when he was caught in the act. That morning, Reverend Lisle M. Thompson, who preached at the Burton Street Baptist Church, saw a church cleaner sneak out a piece of chalk from his pocket and write the word on the footpath.

Rev. Thompson approached the cleaner and asked, “Are you Mr. Eternity?”, to which the cleaner replied, “Guilty, your honour.”

Soon after that encounter, the Sunday Telegraph published an interview with the artist and the mystery that had baffled Sydney for over 25 years was finally revealed. The cleaner’s name was Arthur Malcolm Stace.

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A rare photo of Arthur Stace – "Mr. Eternity".

Born in 1885 in Redfern, Stace’s childhood and much of his adulthood was marked by abject poverty. His parents were alcoholics, and his sisters ran a brothel. In order to survive, he resorted to stealing bread and milk and searching for scraps of food in bins. At the age of 12, Stace became a ward of the state and for worked briefly in a coal mine. As a teenager, he became an alcoholic and was subsequently sent to jail at 15 for drunkenness. His twenties were spent running liquor between pubs and brothels, and working as a lookout for gambling dens. During the First World War, Stace found work as a laborer with the Australian Imperial Force, but his recurring bouts of bronchitis and pleurisy led him to be discharged.

Stace finally found his calling in November 1932, when he went to listen to a Baptist preacher named John Ridley give sermon. In a homily titled "Echoes of Eternity", Ridley declared: "Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney. You've got to meet it, where will you spend Eternity?". The words so captivated Stace that at that very moment, Stace pulled a piece of chalk he had in his pocket, bent down and wrote the word “ETERNITY” on the church floor.

Even though he was illiterate and could hardly write his own name Arthur, legibly, the word 'Eternity' came out smoothly, in a beautiful copperplate script. “I couldn't understand it, and I still can't,” he later told in an interview.

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One of the few surviving original graffiti by Arthur Stace.

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A modern take on the “Eternity” graffiti. Photo credit: JAM Project (left), Newtown grafitti (right)

For the next 35 years of his life, until his death in 1967, the reformed alcoholic woke up at the crack of dawn to scrawl “Eternity” in yellow chalk all over the city. Stace narrowly escaped arrest for defacing public property on some two dozens occasions, but each time he was caught, he had a well rehearsed defense for the police: “I had permission from a higher source”. Stace estimates he wrote his single word message an estimated half a million times over three-and-a-half decades.

Stace's word wound its way into Sydney's heart. Many contemporary artist incorporated the word into their own artworks, and ‘Eternity’ became a common motif in the Sydney street art scene. At the turn of the century New Year's Eve celebration it was proudly emblazoned across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Later, that same year, it was part of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony.

Only two original Eternity inscriptions survive today. One is on a piece of cardboard Stace gave to a fellow parishioner, and is now at Eternity gallery of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. The other, and the only remaining inscription in situ, is inside the bell of the Sydney General Post Office clock tower.

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Arthur Stace's grave in Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park. Photo credit: Sardaka/Wikimedia

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