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‘A very Adelaide thing to do’: who is behind the city’s googly eyes wave?

A serial prankster has been leaving a trail of novelty oversized googly eyes across metropolitan Adelaide, from fast food and liquor store mascots to one of the city’s most recognisable colonial monuments.

The eyes first appeared in the early hours of 11 January, when a pair of suburban Dan Murphy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken stores on opposite sides of the city were found sporting matching looks of bug-eyed confusion. Management of the Port Road Dan Murphy’s store sighed and shook their head when approached for comment.

While the Eastwood KFC branch swiftly removed the eyes from its big bucket, at Dan Murphy’s the eyes remained fixed to its founder’s face for several days – perhaps in quiet recognition of the prankster’s audacity, or because staff had yet to procure a tall enough ladder.

After circulating on various local social media channels, the prank went viral when Twitter user @rAdelaidegrl shared the images to her feed. “I only tweeted it because it made me laugh at the time, thought it might make some of my overseas friends laugh too, and never thought it would gain traction like it has!” she told Guardian Australia. “I do actually live in Adelaide, though, and thought it was a very Adelaide thing to do.”

The big googly eyes, which appear to be readily available online for around $10 a pop, were seen again when a van belonging to a Jim’s Mowing franchisee was spotted with telltale dilated pupils peeking out from beneath the bucket hat.

On Monday night, the mysterious artist hit another famous colonel – William Light, the man widely credited with selecting the location of the South Australian capital in 1836 and laying out the city’s streets and parklands.

That plan, and the hilltop statue overlooking the city, have come to be known as Light’s Vision. So known is Light among many South Australians that since 2016 Adelaide’s city council has opened its meetings with an acknowledgement of Light’s Vision, sandwiched between an acknowledgement of the Kaurna people, whose country the city was built upon, and the Lord’s Prayer. The monument was also referenced in Paul Kelly’s 1985 song Adelaide (“​​I spilled my wine at the bottom of the statue of Colonel Light”).

It’s not the first time the 115-year-old statue has been a target; in June 2020 the messages “no pride in genocide” and “death to Australia” were scrawled in red across the statue’s plinth, part of a wave of colonial monuments around the world that were amended or uprooted by activists in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. Adelaide’s then-deputy mayor condemned the act and proposed installing CCTV around the statue, a plan that never eventuated.

“Colonel Light’s googly eyes have been removed,” Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor told Guardian Australia on Tuesday. “However, I think we all need a laugh at the moment and the googly eyes appearing around Adelaide have certainly given people a chuckle.

“We’ll certainly ‘keep an eye’ on things and, as always, we don’t condone graffiti, offensive messages or property damage.”

For South Australians, the googly eyes have provided a welcome respite from rolling headlines about rising Covid-19 case numbers, aged care home outbreaks and widespread ambulance ramping in a state that has remained relatively virus-free for nearly two years.

One social media commenter likened Light to Jebediah Springfield, the founder and namesake of The Simpsons’ hometown, whose statue was vandalised by Bart Simpson in an early episode. Another invoked F Scott Fitzgerald, comparing the boggle-eyed visages of Colonel Sanders and Dan Murphy’s to the billboard advertising the work of optometrist Doctor TJ Eckleburg, which looms ominously over the characters in The Great Gatsby.

In Fitzgerald’s novel, the billboard is a metaphor for the eyes of God casting judgment over the murky morality of 1920s America. At the time of writing, it is unclear what deeper meaning can be gleaned from the vacant stares of colonels Light and Sanders – but one can’t help but read a new air of accusation in Light’s eternally outstretched arm.

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