An article in the weekend magazine giving a brief view of the history of some student traditions that have come, gone, and some of those that remain. There’s a lot not mentioned … things that have been banned, like the Knox howl. And there are also traditions not so commonly recognised, like naming flats. This is unique to Dunedin, it’s pretty special.
The creation of identity and a sense of place was not at the forefront of my mind in 1991 when my flatmates and I named our flat Mouse House. It was because we wanted to name it something, and our flat was infested with mice.
Nine years later, an exploration into the history of print culture in New Zealand while studying through library school provided a lens through which to view the ephemeral nature of the student flat names, names that colourfully dotted my then community of North Dunedin. Some names endured but many instances of this print phenomenon were fleeting. I was intrigued, and continue to be, by the names, the materials used to build the signs, and the stories behind them.
I’ve been taking photos of flats for ten years. I’ve selected a small number here try and reflect the range of ways people have named their flats over the last decade. Some are beautiful, some are disgusting, some are witty, some are puerile – but all are creative, inventive and reflective of the individuals that made them, and those who came after; those who respected their efforts enough to keep these signs, or restore them, or rename them … or replace them with something of their own imagining.
The names themselves are generally reflective of contemporary political or pop culture, some are sexual in nature or are evocative of drinking behaviour. As to their physical nature, sometimes the signs are professionally crafted, sometimes they are hand painted, sometimes they are spray painted on the fence or written straight on the window in vivid. It varies.
Distance and nostalgia provided me with a different perspective on the experience of flatting, and in particular, flatting within the immediate campus environs. This is a unique environment – the highest rental area in the country, a suburb of “young ‘uns” all experiencing living away from home for the first time. It has struck me, on reflection, that there may be more to naming a flat than just having a bit of a laugh.
The naming of flats occurs for many reasons: inarguable because it’s fun, but latterly, because it is perceived by some of the residents of North Dunedin that this is a tradition, that it is part of the culture of being a Scarfie. Your perception has become a reality, it has become a tradition. It is one of those “colourful” aspects of student culture that is presented to the rest of Dunedin society, it’s a display of individuality, a mark of identity.
“We all come from some place, and we all live in some place. Our identity and our very sense of authenticity, it seems, are inextricably bound up with places we claim as ‘ours’.”
[Excerpt: Gentry, Kynan. “Place, Heritage and Identity” in Heartlands : New Zealand historians write about where history happened. 2006 Auckland pp13-26.]
Naming flats is about creating a home, an identity, a sense of place. This exhibition is about this place, North Dunedin. A home away from home. It’s about being here, and being part of something incredible. You’re part of it. You’re living it everyday … this is My Flat Your Flat Our Place.
Sarah Gallagher, ex-Scarfie, librarian, web junkie, flat names archivist.
[These photos were exhibited at OUSA Art Week 10-14 Aug 2009, at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.]
Be part of the project
A book is in production about the named student flats of North Dunedin in an effort to preserve and promote this ephemeral aspect of student culture in Dunedin.
If you have stories to tell about named flats you’ve created or lived in, I’d love to hear them.
●Flick me an email
●Check out the Facebook page called “Dunedin Flatnames Project” where people are sharing their stories.