Instead of scribbling “return to sender” on the mail of previous tenants, Tara Johnson turns them into works of art. (Instagram: @postwhisperer)
If you’ve ever lived in a house that gets inundated with mail for previous occupants, you’ll understand the commitment required to keep scribbling “return to sender” and taking them to the post box … again and again.
But for Tara Johnson the effort required to send lost mail home is even greater than normal.
She regularly invests an entire afternoon into a single misguided envelope.
It all started three years ago when she moved to a house in Flemington in Melbourne’s inner north-west and continued receiving mail addressed to a previous tenant, Michael Troon.
“I was getting so much mail for this guy who had clearly moved on and I was wondering what to do with it,” Ms Johnson said.
“I just had to keep sending it back and it just kept coming. It was an endless cycle.”
Ms Johnson had always enjoyed sketching but never really had the time nor reason to do it regularly.
So with the idea of a Princess Bride-themed return-to-sender artwork in her mind, she took out her pencils and watercolour paints and got creative.
“It was at a time when I really wanted a creative outlet and I wanted some kind of project,” she said.
“I decided that I was getting all these little blank canvasses in the post every day and that would be an ideal start for a little creative project.
“I got out my watercolours and it steadily progressed from there, from just a quick little sketch to these things that take a whole day occasionally.”
Ms Johnson, who now lives in Fitzroy, has a small studio in her loungeroom overlooking the busy street below.
She said art helped her to relax and forced her to take time out.
“It feels like a form of meditation almost because I can get lost in the watercolours and I have some music playing and can just be in that world for a few hours, especially as it’s a really low-pressure project.
“No-one’s expecting me to do it but I take joy in it and every now and then some more mail will come in and I’ll just put my ideas down on paper.”
She said the greatest joy came from hearing back from the people who received her mail.
So far it has happened three times.
“The first one was from the social media person at Specsavers. They got the Ghostbusters-themed return to sender. She got in touch with me and said, ‘We loved it, we passed it round the office and it made everyone’s day’, so that was exactly what I wanted to happen,” Ms Johnson said.
“Then there was the guy at a superannuation company. He got one and then found me on Instagram and sent me a message to say he loved it and put it up on his desk on display.
“Then another one at 2MBS, the radio station, I heard back from someone who said they were doing the mail sorting that day and it made their day. That was really good.
“I like to think that a mail sorter somewhere is getting a chuckle, or the postie is. For it to go full cycle is always the aim.”
A couple of times she has even been able to experience that feeling of surprise for herself.
“Occasionally I forget to cross out the address before I put it back in the post and I get the mail again with my own illustration on it so I have to post it out again,” she said.
Her work has been so popular among her friends and colleagues that they have started collecting their return-to-sender mail and passing it on for some artistic treatment.
“Everyone seems to be moving all the time and that’s always a really good thing for me because I get their mail,” Ms Johnson said.
“I’ve also got all my friends coming to me with their ideas … so it has become this kind of communal project which is great.”
Tara Johnson creates works of art on envelopes then posts them return to sender. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)
What to do if you’re receiving misguided mail
If you’re wondering what to do with mail for previous occupants at your house, Australia Post advises you write “return to sender — unknown at this address” and place the letter in a red post box or hand it in at any post office.
You can’t just ask them to stop delivering it. Australia Post must deliver mail as it’s addressed until the previous occupant submits a mail redirection request or updates their address directly with the senders.
If mail is addressed to a different address and has been delivered to you incorrectly, just place it in a red street box or hand it in at a post office — there’s no need to write anything on the envelope.
An additional tip from Ms Johnson is to cross out the old address to prevent any confusion in the sorting process.