For the last 22 years, a collection of steel figures has stood watch over Marrickville in Sydney. A crafty gyros chef, a woman getting a blow-wave and an anthropomorphised banana – complete with a Carmen Miranda-inspired headdress – are just some of the quirky characters that adorn the shops of Marrickville and Illawarra Roads, relics of a bygone era and a ’90s penchant for audacious awnings and creative signage that still lingers on many local shopping strips across the country.

Originally commissioned by the (then) City of Marrickville as a novelty tourist attraction to coincide with the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the steel sculptures have become part of the fabric of the neighbourhood. While some of the original figures have since been removed (and are stored by council), more than a dozen statues continue to loom large on six shop fronts, adding a splash of colour and eccentricity to the streets.

It was Ces Camilleri’s first steel sculpture tableaux – a festive scene of galvanised glamour atop an Acland Street hairdresser in Melbourne’s St Kilda – that caught the attention of a Marrickville council official after it was featured in postcards, a travel book, a TV show and even Vogue magazine, according to Camilleri. “The disco dancing girl, she even went along to the TV show’s wrap party before I installed her – that was a bit of a buzz.”

It wasn’t long after, “sometime in early ’99”, that he was invited to Sydney’s inner-west to spruik the concept to local shop owners who were offered a chance to have 50 per cent of the cost of a custom-designed, one-of-a-kind sculpture, plus ongoing annual maintenance, covered by the council in its bid to draw Olympic tourism to the area. Camilleri had soon signed up seven businesses to take part.

The owners gave Camilleri complete creative control; he then went on to devise the unique additions to the streetscape. Speaking fondly of his creations and always referring to them as individuals, Camilleri says he tried to inject “love and humour and a bit of fun” into the scenes. His favourite is the hapless fisherman that still presides over Marrickville Seafood. “It’s a bit of a funny one, his motor is broken, he’s lost his way and he’s run into a shark.”

There’s also two gents atop a dentist (formerly a menswear store). Victoria Yeeros is still home to a cook busily slicing meat from his vertical rotisserie, while three punters enjoy a beer on the awning of The Royal Exchange. The flamboyant banana, once the mascot of Banana Joe’s grocery, now presides over a Woolworths Metro and the woman getting a blow wave is above the still trading Fernandos’ Hair Design.

Growing up in Ascot Vale in Melbourne, Camilleri studied at Niddrie Tech, training in carpentry and metalwork. He especially enjoyed the clay modelling classes. He says while he’s never had any formal sculpting training, “art has always been in my soul – it’s just a natural thing with me”.

Camilleri’s creative process begins with sketching before moving designs onto 2.4 by 1.2-metre steel sheeting – the “same material as your car door” – which he then cuts into panels before manipulating them like over-sized origami into the “figurines” as he calls them. Every strand of hair and shoelace is painstakingly made and individually fitted before the entire piece is dipped in a bath of pure zinc to prevent damage from the elements once installed. Then they’re sanded back and hand-painted with sign-writer’s paint, “similar to auto paint”, using both hand- and airbrushing. He says each figure took him about three weeks to complete.

After a 10-month creation process, the 17 steel figures, each weighing between 20 to 30 kilograms, and their respective accoutrements – tables, chairs, palm trees and even an entire front bar, were bubble-wrapped, bundled into a three-tonne truck and driven by Camilleri from his steel fabrication workshop in Melbourne to the streets of Marrickville to begin their decades-long reign. It took him about eight days to install the scenes.

Camilleri has continued to visit his creations for an annual check-up, never missing a trip until the pandemic hit. It’s now been three years since he last went to tighten their nuts and bolts, give them a good clean and touch up any paint damage. “I’m going to try and get up there around November, I reckon they’re a bit overdue for some love.”