IT was a still, dark night and a group of rebels gathered to plot their next move.
They sat, backs hunched, leaning over a cigarette-stained table, scheming in hushed tones.
Their faces were those of well-seasoned vandals – they smirked, grinned and grimaced.
At least this is what the Bendigo Advertiser fantasised the people behind Crate Man might be.
Instead we found a giggly crew of La Trobe University students.
And they find what they do with crates absolutely hilarious.
With beers in hand they swapped past stories about the fun they've had setting up Crate Man.
They laughed at retellings of night-time adventures as if it were the first time they'd heard them.
It’s not art for me. It’s just something to channel my boredom.The Purist
Despite the lack of sinister qualities, the one feature they didn't disappoint in was their strong desire to remain anonymous.
For that reason, we cannot disclose their names and instead have characterised them according to their roles within the Crate Man crew.
First there's The Purist, he's 30 years old and was behind Crate Man back in 2007. The Purist is the only "old timer" left in the current crew and his attitude to Crate Man is different to the rest.
Then there's a 26-year-old handsome fellow we'll call The Graduate. He likes to chime into discussion with well-worded phrases.
The Artiste is 23 and does visual art, graphic design and dance. She has ideas about Crate Man that The Purist doesn't quite agree with.
The Newbie is 20 and has never been on a Crate Man expedition. But she brings credentials to the table because she used to "run around at night and do dumb stuff" when she was in high school.
Finally there's The Young One. He's 63. He's been doing "s**t like this" all his life. But he's also brought some serious skills to the team. He's managed to get milk brand Parmalat to supply 250 crates so the team won't have to "borrow" them from unsuspecting outlets across town. And he's also wrangled a deal with the City of Greater Bendigo allowing them to set up Crate Man, unhindered, in the conservatory in Rosalind Park.
There are other members, apparently 20 in all, but these five arrived on time for the interview.
They are a motley crew, brought together by their love for the weird plastic giant.
“I think ‘motley’ is too good for us,” says The Young One, and they all erupt in laughter.
Crate Man began at La Trobe University almost a decade ago.
“You could say he’s a personification of uni life,” says The Graduate.
The Purist explains it’s a university tradition to use crates as beds, storage or any other kind of furniture. Crates are well-loved by Bendigo's university students.
They talk about Crate Man with such enthusiasm, it’s kind of daggy.
The question must be asked: Why do they do it? It actually takes a lot of logistical effort, not to mention the late nights and the fact that it’s not exactly legal.
“The people love it, they love the mystery of it. It’s impromptu – he just pops up with no warning,” says The Young One.
“He’s a local, he’s a character, he’s colourful,” says The Graduate.
“It’s a point of interest, people can get along and talk about it,” says The Artiste.
And of course they are attracted to the fact that it's not strictly allowed.
They excitedly tell of a time when the police drove by, just as they were putting the finishing touches to Crate Man near the university.
"We heard them laugh and say, 'nice', and they kept on driving," say The Purist.
He says he "cleared it through" with a few lawyer and police friends and knows they won't get into much trouble.
The Artiste says there are some career paths that don't look favourably on this sort of naughty night-time behaviour. This is the main motivation for their anonymity. They are protecting their future respectable selves.
But the risk is worth it because it's so much fun.
“It’s a buzz,” says The Young One.
The Artiste says she usually hates collaborating with other artists, “but when I do Crate Man with you guys, it’s amazing fun.”
The mention of the plastic man as “art” exposes some division within the group.
The Purist says it’s more about “getting up to no good”.
"We're creating something that people can have a laugh at and we can show our friends on our phones," he says.
The Artiste pops in at the mention of the word "creating".
"But that word you've just used, create, it's creating, and the way you lay out Crate Man - you gave him skin, you gave him clothes, you even went so far as getting a red crate for his heart, that's creating. Even though it's messing around for you, it's still art," she says.
The Purist holds his ground.
“It’s not art for me. It’s just something to channel my boredom. I need to do something or I’m going to drive my house mate up the wall.”
The Crate Man team is different from the vintage crew of seven years ago. The Purist seems nostalgic about the past.
“I was talking to the guys who I did it with before, the old timers. For us, it’s just a bit of fun - we’re not making a statement,” he says.
Much has changed for Crate Man in the past few weeks.
The Young One recently met with Parmalat in Bendigo and told him they were “sick of stealing crates.”
Parmalat already knew Crate Man as they had been on the list of locations the group "borrows" from.
“No doubt our crates have been part of the Crate Man story for as long as it’s been around,” Parmalat manufacturing manager Luke Barry says.
Mr Barry says the rebellious connotations behind the Crate Man image actually well-suited their sub-brand, Oak.
Oak ran a series of advertisements in which rebels commited a “reverse robbery” on stores that did not stock Oak milk.
Young people wearing masks stormed unsuspecting milk bars to place cartons of Oak milk in their fridges.
And so Crate Man and Parmalat are milking each other for all it's worth.
Not only does Crate Man now have a commercial sponsor, he's also in cahoots with the council.
The Young One has a connection in the Greater City of Bendigo parks and gardens department and was able to negotiate this.
Wasn’t Crate Man supposed to whimsically thumb his nose at the establishment rather than co-operate with them?
The council used to get very frustrated with the Crate Man crew because they had to rip him down and return the crates to their various homes.
Do these deals with business and council take away from the original appeal of Crate Man?
The Young One says no, “because we’re still going to be masked up”.
The Young Ones tells the group Parmalat passed on the news of their partnership with Crate Man to their head office in France.
“It’s a good feeling to be part of something that can travel that far,” says The Graduate.
“We’re international artists,” jokes The Artiste.
Again, The Purist remains unconvinced.
“That means something to you guys, whereas I’m just like, whatever.”
The group disperses for a photo shoot leaving The Purist alone with his beer.
He says he’s looking to hand over the baton of Crate Man to someone else in the next 12 months.