“The Koala Is Back On The Disco Dong”: Byron Bay’s Controversial Sculpture Is Under Siege

On Thursday, Council will decide whether to remove the sculpture, taking into account the high cost of removing the stuffed koalas community members keep throwing at it.

disco dong byron

Update 22 August 2019: Byron Shire Council voted today to decommission the disco dong. The sculpture will be removed soon, and the 5000 aluminium birds that make up the artwork will be offered for sale to the public for $20 each. Any money raised will go towards the cost of decommissioning the sculpture. 

On July 29, 2019, someone posted a cryptic message to Byron Bay’s community Facebook group. “The Koala is back on the disco dong”, the message read, followed by two emojis crying with laughter.

If you haven’t been to Byron Bay recently, that message is likely mystifying. To locals, though, those eight words spoke volumes about an ongoing, almost year-long community dispute — one that has cost thousands of dollars, inflamed passions, and divided the public. The source of said dispute? A sculpture installed on a roundabout last year.

That sculpture is the aforementioned “disco dong”, so named because it looks unfortunately phallic, a little like an aluminium foil-clad dildo (it was meant to depict a lighthouse). The koala referred to in the post is a stuffed toy koala, one of several objects passers by have thrown, draped or wedged onto the dong in recent weeks. It’s a baffling form of protest, but it’s having an impact: a recent Byron Shire Council report reveals that the koalas and their accomplices are quite literally tearing the sculpture apart, costing the council thousands of dollars in maintenance and safety checks. Things are about to come to a head at a council meeting on Thursday, where councillors will debate whether to take the sculpture down.

For fans of the sculpture, not to mention the artist Corey Thomas, that’s a real shame. But there’s a lot of strong feeling about the disco dong in Byron, and a fair few residents are actively campaigning for the artwork to be toppled.

“I think a lot of people in this community are angry and embarrassed by this sculpture, as there was no community consultation,” Natalie, who is responsible for the immortal phrase “the Koala is back on the disco dong”, told Junkee

“It’s hideous, it’s too tall and out of character for the area. Byron Bay residents are very determined people, they will not give up the fight to have it removed.”

byron disco dong

Left: the artist’s concept sketch for the Lighthouse sculpture (Byron Shire Council). Right: the actual sculpture as it stands today (Photo by Francesca Von Reinhaart).

Natalie’s not alone in holding that sentiment. Byron’s local Facebook group, as well as the letters section of local newspaper The Echo, is full of passionate responses to the disco dong. “The thing is people-unfriendly and simply awful,” Ron Curran wrote in a letter to the paper in July, urging people to “join the push and sign the petition online for the removal of the ‘dong’ and everything that its unnatural and dehumanising presence represents.” Nearly 1500 have signed the petition so far.

Other letters seized on the disco dong as evidence of Byron Shire Council’s incompetence. “Readers may have noticed the koala who took up residence within the Disco Dong recently,” another Echo reader wrote in July. “The koala was hanging peacefully, not disturbing anyone. Nonetheless, someone at Council decided that removing him was a priority, more important than mundane tasks like road maintenance.” Indeed, photos and videos of dilapidated roads are regular, popular content in Byron’s community Facebook group.

“This is just one example of the stupidity, there’s many many many I could go on with.” – Hans Lovejoy

“This is just one example of the stupidity, there’s many many many I could go on with,” Hans Lovejoy, editor of The Echo, told me when I asked him about the council’s role in the disco dong fiasco. “The deeper meaning of what’s going on is about incompetence at government level, rather than people being upset and throwing things on an art installation.” He pointed to community concerns about recent developments, the construction of a bypass, and roads maintenance, before returning to the topic of the sculpture, noting that the $50,000 grant for its creation could have been awarded to a local artist, but wasn’t.

“So no, I don’t think there’s a lot of support for it. I reckon there’s a lot of people who are very angry,” he said. “It’s either a big phallic symbol or it’s a big finger, sticking it up to the people that come into that town every morning.”

“The whole principle of design and urban architecture is that one in every three designs you do will end up looking phallic. You have to understand that. And once you go from there, you sort of cross those ones out, and you try and do something else. Why isn’t it a whale, or something that represents Byron Bay a little bit more than a stupid phallic symbol of a lighthouse? I dunno, it is what it is.”

Will The Disco Dong Be Dismantled? Either Way, It’s Going To Be Expensive.

On Thursday, Byron Shire Council will meet to discuss the fate of the disco dong. Cost is one pressing concern — a safety inspection of the sculpture on July 16 held up traffic for hours, and cost approximately $8000. That safety inspection saw one stuffed koala removed from the art piece, but Byron Council confirmed that they have since had to remove a second stuffed koala and an Aboriginal flag, and pleaded with passers by not to climb the artwork. As of yesterday, at least one stuffed koala, a stuffed kangaroo, and an Aboriginal flag remained hanging from the dong.

“While Council recognises people’s right to protest, the sculpture was not designed to be climbed and in light of the likelihood that this behaviour will continue, with the attendant risks outlined above and in the engineer’s report, the sensible course is to elect to de-commission The Lighthouse,” a report to Council concluded, noting that parts of the sculpture are already falling off.

byron bay lighthouse sculpture disco dong

An Aboriginal flag and a toy koala hang from the Lighthouse sculpture (Photo by Francesca Von Reinhaart)

Byron’s Public Art Panel, meanwhile, recommends that the artist be given a chance to make some changes to the sculpture, especially given that there were a number of disruptions when it was originally being erected. Many in the community agree, pointing out that it must be brutal for the artist to be subject to so much vitriol. Corey Thomas declined to speak to Junkee, but this week’s council agenda reveals that he has offered to work for free to “complete” the sculpture.

As to what completing the sculpture entails, the details have been kept confidential. Still, while the artist may be working for free, the estimated cost of traffic and safety management, structural inspection and more totals to around $30,000. That’s compared to the cost of decommissioning the sculpture (estimated to be between $11,000 and $13,000, or closer to $20,000 if the sculpture was being maintained to erect somewhere else in future).

Either way, then, it seems Byron’s disco dong has been a very expensive cock-up.

Feature image: Left image submitted anonymously, right image by Francesca Von Reinhaart.