Newcastle Beach Tunnel

A tale of artistic persistence and vandalism.
When, 30 years ago, an enlightened Newcastle City Council chose to combat a graffiti epidemic with sanctioned murals, they called Birgitte Hansen. The local artist had built an international reputation for visual storytelling and her elaborate designs were already a common sight around town.
The infamous tunnel under Shortland Esplanade that joins Pacific Park to Newcastle Beach. Since construction, despite decades of murals, it remains a graffiti target and considered territorial by youth.
Upon arriving in Carrington from Purfleet in 1976, Birgitte had been assimilating the heavily industrialised surrounds and absorbing the union ethic of a city built upon coal, ships, and steel.
I had arrived as a fresh eyed outsider, astonished and also feeling I was back to what I’d grown up with. As a migrant I was blessed and cursed with the outsider inner eyes, and this duality of wanting to belong but standing outside was my companion during these years.
Within a decade Birgitte’s reputation was established as a high-profile trade union banner designer and nascent muralist. When she left Newcastle 22 years after arriving, the city was deeply affected by her legacy of public art: Civic Playhouse in 1980; Newcastle “Out of Workers Cottage” at Fort Scratchley in 1982; International Youth Year (1987) on the former Dairy Farmers building at Hunter Street West, which survived for 12 years. And, most famously, that Time Tunnel Mural in 1990 in our notorious Newcastle Beach pedestrian tunnel linking the ocean to Pacific Park.
Above ~ The old pavilion changing booths and a posing 'Belle' vandalised. Photo taken 19th February 2005.
Birgitte's website holds the original clean photo. Below is a digitally 'cleaned' version of that above, via a deftly-wielded clone brush.
The tunnel mural was commissioned by Newcastle City Council’s Sunset Town Art Committee that sought to familiarise Novocastrians with street art – something that, whatever its quality, to our provincial tastes was generally still mere “graffiti.”
Painting this mural the first time was a nightmare with constant harassment, vandalism, howling wind through the tunnel, thievery, and being so close to the public. After just 2 years it had been graffiti and vandalized and I was asked to come back and repair the mural,” said Birgitte. Young boys… thought it would be fun to throw large live crackers at my back while I was lost in concentration and they rode by on their bikes. And more crackers thrown at me from the road above the tunnel. Each morning I went to the site to with apprehension – was it still there? My paintings were urinated and spat on scratched out or spray canned, my purse with a substantial amount of money was stolen. It seemed to be a conducted effort to stop the mural existing. The youth were saying “our space”.
In 1998 Birgitte moved to the Blue Mountains and her elaborately illustrated home became a local icon. But Newcastle is as Newcastle does, and the now matured city has called its favourite artist home. Birgitte Hansen became a resident Novocastrian again in 2018. We are all the richer for it. Welcome home. lass.
Interactive panoramas
While Throsby was photographing the murals – a far more difficult task than it might seem – he experience a faint taste of the angst and cajoling that plagued Ms Hansen’s months, well, her years, of effort, both creating and repairing the murals. Apart from poor, uneven light - and unable to use a flash due to reflection - passers by were far too interested in a shy photographer. Eventually, inevitably, an old lady chaperoned in a wheelchair brandished her umbrella passionately, admonishing the entire tunnel and its illustrations by shouting – at me, in a thick European accent - “What!! Is this art? Is it??! This is NOT ART!” Her words were more apocryphal than she imagined.
South wall
If you click either image below, an interactive panorama opens in a new window. Use mouse or gestures to pan, drag, and zoom.
North wall
Panels below are on the south wall, and are from right to left (west to east)
Panels below are on the north wall and viewed left to right (west to east)
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