Chimp – Organic Matters

When I heard about the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct mural being painted by Wellington artist Chimp earlier this year, I must admit I had to dive into social media to find out more about the artist. When I explored Instagram, the deft skill evident in his aerosol depictions of faces and native birds, infused with energetic insertions of graffiti and other eclectic forms, was immediately endearing and made me wonder why I hadn’t been familiar with his work. A few days later I made my way down to the large stretch of wall on Lichfield Street to watch Chimp in action. I stayed back and intently watched him paint. I was taken by the impressive technical prowess, the way it seemed he was sketching on the wall, layering back and forth to create tonal qualities that would be neglected by a viewer only witnessing the finished project. After seeing his friendly interactions with passers-by, even though I was wary of interrupting his progress, I went over and introduced myself and we started chatting. Chimp was friendly, down-to-earth and welcoming, even with a massive task in front of him and a deadline fast approaching. We tentatively made plans to try and catch up before he returned home and to record an interview. Unfortunately, due to the need to put in long hours on the wall and conflicting schedules, we missed our chance. Instead, we reconvened online and over a flurry of e-mails we chatted about the Justice Precinct mural, the differences between Wellington and Christchurch, and Chimp’s varied career so far. As a result, this interview is months in the making, but still worth the wait, providing insight into an unexpected contributor to Christchurch’s urban art, someone who it will be worth knowing about as his profile continues to grow on a national scale…

How does an artist from Wellington find himself painting a huge wall at Christchurch’s new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct? How did the commission come about?

I was originally quite surprised to hear from them when the email came through from the Justice Department. I thought I may have been in trouble or something before I read it! They had seen my work on social media platforms and liked it. It was quite flattering to hear from them and I really appreciated the opportunity.

I imagine most people would be a little wary of an unexpected email from the Department of Justice! Did you have to think about it for long? Obviously different artists will have different ways of analysing and reconciling who they work with, is that something you had already thought through with commissioned work generally, or was the Department of Justice a slightly different proposition?

It was a bit of a surprise, but I was mainly curious as to what it could be about. We organised a meeting to talk about the possibilities of the project and it sounded like an awesome opportunity to expand my work into the South Island. Having a lot of family in Christchurch made it an easy choice to head there.

What type of entities have you worked with in the past, and how do you reconcile the compromises you often have to make with work for high-profile organisations? Do you separate commissioned public work into different categories based on what freedom you are afforded, or do you try and ensure you can balance the client’s wishes with your own vision?

Just before the Christchurch Justice Department contacted me, I had recently completed a mural for the New Zealand Parliament Buildings. Throughout the design process, I find it easiest to see what the client is wanting in terms of the topic of the design and the aesthetic they want within the design. Sometimes clients reference parts of my previous pieces that they have seen. From there I create a design and send it through to the client and we alter it back and forth. I find this process the best for me to ensure that there is a balance between my vision and the client’s ideas. With the Parliament job, for example, they had said that they liked my birds incorporated with the graffiti art, so I sent through a design and they seemed to allow a lot of artistic freedom as the design only had a few minor tweaks from the initial concept image.

Glitch 3, Parliament Building (Basement), Wellington, 2017 (Photo credit: Alana Frost)
Glitch 3, Parliament Building (Basement), Wellington, 2017 (Photo credit: Alana Frost)

Speaking of that distinctive personal style, how did it develop? Is it from writing graffiti or working on the street, or is it something specifically developed as an approach to mural work? 

My parents were very supportive of things that I wanted to try while I was growing up, so when I decided that I wanted to move my drawing to painting on a larger scale, I was allowed to develop my style in my spare time on scraps of wood in the garage. That being said, working on a small piece of wood in the family garage to working on large-scale outdoor murals like the Christchurch piece definitely required years of practice and development in larger outdoor environments

Is your imagery based on a specific narrative or is it perhaps a reflection of the public nature of muralism, something that fits that responsibility? Who or what has influenced your style? Your Instagram profile acknowledges hip hop, and I think of the likes of Tristan Eaton and Martin Whatson as possible reference points too…

The images and ideas I depict are often unique to each space and each wall. When creating the content of a work, I try to tailor the design to the space and the surrounding communities of that particular area, while still developing my personal style and visual language. I often try to project my own ideas and narratives within a piece, but it is up to the audience to interpret their own meaning behind each unique design. I often listen to hip hop as I am going through the design process as the lyrics inspire me with narratives, quotes and ideas that I can interpret visually as my own. In terms of visual artists, Tristan Eaton is a big influence, as is Pose MSK, and James Dawe, they all experiment with composition, colour, and mixes of rendering quality.

Your work is highly refined, how have you developed your aerosol technique over time? Do you conceptualize your can work in a certain way? Because when I was watching you paint, it appeared quite methodical, very certain, like every mark mattered, working over areas, layering paint to create tones…

I love the depth created by complicated works and have great respect for artists who can balance it all into a resolved piece. I try to design separately before beginning a final painting, mainly because having a full understanding of what you are attempting to create once you are actually at the wall aids productivity and allows me to focus solely on generating quality rendering while having the confidence of knowing that the composition and colour choices work. In saying that though, there are some details, particularly line weight variations, such as fat cap flairs and ultra-sharp outlines, that cannot be generated by pencil or marker but only by aerosol. This allows the piece to grow somewhat organically especially once you are standing up throwing and extending your arm completely, rather than seated, drawing or on the computer. Time and practice have given me the experience to develop my own techniques for painting, I appreciate that spray paint is traditionally a self-taught obsession.

Fantail, Upper Hutt, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Fantail, Upper Hutt, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

As part of that self-taught element, how much do you draw from other influences; from looking at what other artists are doing, the effects they are creating, or their process? Or do you think in technical terms, like the actual physical potential of aerosol as a medium with very particular qualities, and work on technique based on that understanding? Your process, building form and tone through layers, is, to my mind, very painterly, and suggests you have an understanding of how the aerosol medium can be used…

My original drive and passion for graffiti and street art was rooted in the development of style, so I have tried to establish my own. I do think I take influence in every form though, whether it is subject, composition or technique. When teaching yourself all the influences you reference are based all on your own taste. I personally go through obsessions with different artists’ styles. For example, when I began painting with aerosol and focused on letterforms, I was influenced by Peeta’s sculptural abstract forms, but there wouldn’t be much evidence of that in my work now.

Spray involves building a skeletal sketch form, blocking in tones and layering details. Before I was getting opportunities to paint big walls I honed my skills painting canvases with aerosol only, no stencils, as I wanted to be able to paint everything freehand. This meant it took me a long time to produce sharp, well-proportioned work. But the skills I built up translate to big walls well. If you can paint a detailed portrait on a canvas with spray, the rendering quality on a wall is amazing. Brushes never gave me motivation to produce work because it felt like a chore. Even when I was just starting out, cans were addictive because you can throw so much paint around quickly. To me, it feels like the most powerful medium of creation and destruction.

However, as I grow as an artist I want to produce things that aren’t really possible with freehand spray, so I am looking at screen printing and have been producing digital work longer than I’ve been spray painting.

Tell us about the concept behind Organic Matters, the Justice Precinct mural? Are there symbolic reasons for the choice of specific bird life and flora? Does the absence of the collage-style fills significantly alter the way you conceive of the wall and how it might respond to the space it occupies?

Organic Matters is a play on the term organic matter. I’ve used this title to mimic the important activities going on within the Justice Precinct buildings while relating back to the natural subject matter. Using all native local birds and flowers, with the exception of the cherry blossoms, which refer to the gardens of Christchurch. For this particular client, the professional nature of the location and the range of people that will see the mural, the less provocative, stylised realism fills worked better than the graffiti collage style I often work with. Yes, taking away a part of the subject matter I use affects how I conceptualise a work. Instead, the design focused on expressing my style and originality through composition, line, and colour, rather than the higher visual contrast created by mixing subjects and rendering styles.

Organic Matters, Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Organic Matters, Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

You mention the type of people around the Justice Precinct as influencing the style. How were your interactions with people who passed as you were working? It is a very central spot, but also possibly populated with a diverse range of people at varying times…

The feedback was great. People who appreciate graffiti and street art were stoked with the process and can work, and everyone appreciated the birds, particularly the identity and life projected through the eyes. I had good chats with road workers, with people coming out of the police station, officers, lawyers… Overall it seemed like the people of Christchurch are very supportive of their growing urban art scene!

Organic Matters (detail), Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch. 2018
Organic Matters (detail), Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch. 2018

Did you have a preconception of the city before coming down? Were you aware of the scene down here, or at least the profile?

I have a lot of family in Christchurch, so I have visited many times growing up. But this was the first time as an adult. I’ve admired the street art festivals in Christchurch since the quakes and the graffiti scene seems to have exploded with the derelict spots providing canvases everywhere.

Did you explore the city? Or did you hit the ground running on the wall? Any favourite pieces or spots?

It was pretty much just two weeks of painting the wall, with a couple days of rain to relax and try some of the different places to eat in Christchurch. I would have liked to have painted with the locals and had a go on the giant cans [on Manchester Street], but it was straight back to University classes the day after I got back home. B List Tattoo looked after me with paint supply and even organised shipping the leftovers back for me, so that was awesome.

Even without getting to spend time painting with any local artists, how did you perceive Christchurch from Wellington in terms of the way urban art is part of each city? What is your take on the scene in Wellington?

I would say Christchurch’s scene is exploding with all of the exposed walls that can be seen from far away with all of the empty lots, whereas Wellington has tighter alleys and more hidden gems. As street art has become more accepted there has been significant growth in commissioned work while the streets are always being painted with fresh graffiti in both cities. Christchurch seems to be celebrating street art more than Wellington for the amount of large scale work being done and the dedicated events like Spectrum.

Social Woes, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Social Woes, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

Wellington’s smaller spaces would be more conducive to certain interventions, while you can see the natural fit of larger murals in Christchurch… I have always felt Wellington was a bit more varied in what you can find in the streets, that there was a wider range of approaches, would you agree? And what about the geographic lay-out, with the spread of the city, are there different scenes in different parts, like from the central city to Upper or Lower Hutt?

I think with the number of international pieces in Christchurch, as a result of the various festivals, there is a good variation of style. Although Wellington does have visiting styles too. I would say that urban art is more condensed and apparent within Wellington city. The Hutt has graffiti scenes which fluctuate, however, the buffing is relentless. Waitangi Park is the only free wall I’m aware of in the region which evolves constantly, with several abandoned spots which are also ever changing.

Mother Nature, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Mother Nature, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

You are currently studying, but not in the perhaps more expected visual arts field, is it some type of engineering?

Close, I’m actually studying industrial design. It sort of sits between graphic design and engineering, which involves creating product form and understanding function. It is a four-year degree with honours and has taught me a lot about empathetic understanding and catered design. I gravitated to industrial design from graphic design partially as a result of the overwhelming number of students studying graphic design and an interest in car design. Imagining a graffiti artist with an industrial design degree also seemed like an interesting thing to do!

Haha, sorry, I was a little bit off the mark there with engineering! Is there a valuable practicality that you can draw on when painting murals?

The main thing I have taken from industrial design is a greater understanding of creating emotion through form and how subtleties can be used to express ideas. Also, my perspective sketching is getting much better and I have one semester to go. Any creative degree educates you on critiquing work and I have personally found it an experience of exiting an ignorant bliss that I began creating art from and realising a harsh balance of self-critique and confidence.

So, once you have finished, will you still compartmentalize the two; visual arts and industrial design? Or in some ways will they move closer together? Will you likely freelance as an artist and designer, or focus on one or the other?

Industrial design is a niche area to find employment and I think it takes full dedication and drive to make it happen, just like working as an artist. I can see myself designing products under my own brand, if I found an idea worth pursuing in the future. I manufactured and sold skateboards under the brand Planetary from the age of fourteen until I was seventeen. But I would say my ambition is firmly in my work as Chimp and spray paint currently.

What were you doing with the Planetary brand? Was it deck designs? Clothing? What did it encompass?

Planetary was the first brand or alias I ever worked under. I built downhill skateboard decks intended for the twisty roads of Wellington and skateboard racing. From there I started trying to produce spray paint graphics but lacked the skills. So that led to the aerosol campaign. I learnt a lot and sold quite a few boards but found selling handmade functional products to a niche market quite stressful.

What has kept you occupied since the Justice Precinct mural, and what have you got coming up? Any plans to come back to Christchurch?

I’m currently working on a t-shirt design for Kathmandu, within the same artist line that Wongi and Shraddha produced designs for. I have a new piece in Moonlight, a group show in Auckland held by The Designers Institute and RAYDAR. My piece is called Between the Raindrops. A design I submitted for the QT Museum Hotel competition was selected, so I will be painting a room or two there. I am quoting a few jobs around Wellington at the moment that I’ll be able to get onto once University is finished, and I have a handful of private commissions I need to get done!

Between the Raindrops (progress shot), Aerosol on Canvas, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Between the Raindrops (progress shot), Aerosol on Canvas, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

That’s a fair bit going on! Did the Kathmandu t-shirt opportunity come about through the Justice Precinct mural?

It sure did!

What can you tell us about the t-shirt design? Was there a specific brief to respond to?

The brief was quite open, but the key points were encouraging or capturing a sense of adventure and comparing the countries and culture of Nepal and New Zealand.

And the QT project must be pretty exciting. That involves DSide, right? What have you proposed for that?

Dside was one of the judges and I was humbled to be chosen. I put together a few different options, but you’ll have to wait and see the outcome.

You also mention the group show, do you exhibit studio pieces regularly, or is it secondary to walls?

I’ve had one solo show and been in several group and duo shows, but I get more satisfaction designing for bigger spaces that everyone gets to see. Spray paint lends itself to a large scale too. Once you’ve learnt to paint small details with a can, the larger work starts to really pop from the detail that you can fit in.

So, do you think of studio work as separate to your wall work, or does it function like preparatory work, feeding into your outdoor practice?

They are certainly intertwined. Sometimes the experiments are done on public urban walls and sometimes at smaller scale privately. Ultimately both help me learn and the more you paint both the easier it is to adapt to either.

Thanks Chimp, I know people have really responded to your Christchurch wall, so hopefully we see you again down here soon!

Keep an eye on Chimp’s work and various projects on social media:

Instagram: @chimp.one

Facebook: @chimpartist

Web: http://www.chimpartist.co.nz/

 

Photo credits: Feature image: Sam Gorham, Organic Matters (detail): Reuben Woods, all other images: Alana Frost

Dcypher – Homecoming (Part Two)

If you have been following our interviews, you will know that we like to go in-depth, and that sometimes (okay, it is a pretty regular occurrence) we need to split our conversations into two parts. When it comes to Dcypher, that was always going to be the case. Based in Los Angeles, we not only had to make the most of the chance to catch up while he was in town, but it was also always going to be an inevitably wide-ranging discussion based on his lengthy experiences. After covering his recent projects in Christchurch and his move to Los Angeles and the necessary work to re-establish himself in a new scene in the first part  of our interview, in the conclusion of Homecoming we pick up on the realities of making a living as a full-time artist in Los Angeles, being close to the emergence of ‘blockbuster’ graffiti and street art exhibitions and the responses on the streets, how he keeps an eye on the street scene in Christchurch, his experiences painting in different cities, and his plans for the future…

How do you make a full-time career as an artist in Los Angeles? Is it a mixture of jobs, or are you able to be selective about what you do?

Yeah, well I’ve always looked at myself as more of a commercial artist. As I’ve grown over time I’ve always tried to adapt to certain jobs, to find ways of making money and that kind of thing, which isn’t always a lot of people’s drive as to how to go about it. It is a tough one, it does sort of change how you’re going about things. You have to take a step back and let other influences come in and whenever you’re doing work for whoever it might be, it’s always going to differ from your own personal work to a certain extent. I mean, a lot of people have figured out how not to do that, but it’s a tough gig to stick to your own thing and that’s all your going to do, you know?

You touched on how hard it was at first to be in L.A. and to create networks, to find opportunities. Do you think that in a bigger city it is in some ways harder to at least break through, because the pool is so much larger and more competitive?

No, I think the opportunities in a bigger city are far greater, and you can kind of pigeon hole yourself a little bit. But, being an outsider also kind of helps in the fact that you can navigate and come in from a bunch of different directions, meet various people and have people approach you and that sort of thing. So, yeah, I think it has definitely opened the playing field a lot more being in a bigger city and approaching it in different ways, you know, I commend folks who can pull that off…

Mural for 88 Monks in Echo Park, Los Angeles, 2016 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Mural for 88 Monks in Echo Park, Los Angeles, 2016 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

Obviously in Los Angeles there’s the longer history going back to the Latino gang graffiti, which pre-dates the graffiti that grew out of Philadelphia and New York, and then there is the emergence of hip hop graffiti and how it evolved in the area over decades, there’s the famous Saber Los Angeles River piece for example, these all give the city a significant place in the narratives of American graffiti writing culture. Recently, the city has become a setting for some organised reflection on those histories, notably the staging of the Art in the Streets show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2010, and now Roger Gastman’s new exhibition, Beyond the Streets, both of which have been pretty massive shows…

Yeah, they are huge for sure…

They both deal with broader urban art histories than just graffiti, which makes them interesting presentations, but simply in terms of their staging in Los Angeles, do you think it is as much to do with the importance of the city in these cultures, or is it more that ‘blockbusters’ are what L.A. does?

I think it’s a platform where, or it feels like it’s a platform where a lot of people can sort of come in and almost change the history in a lot of ways, and put people in a spotlight, people that might not have necessarily put in a lot of work. If you listen to the street, a lot of these guys weren’t necessarily the guys who were doing it, and there’s a lot of guys who get salty when they have been doing that shit for years and they have stayed true to the whole thing and been left out, because there are so many players in the game, you know what I mean? It comes down to how good you are at navigating the gallery thing, if that’s your M.O. There’s shit loads of guys who never get credited, who have done fucking insane amounts of shit, amazing work over the years, but have stayed underground and never really been put in the spotlight in that respect…

I was going to ask about that, what the ground level reactions were like… I remember reading that people were upset at how Art in the Streets favoured certain stories and as you say, left certain people out, so that was the feeling you were getting in Los Angeles?

Yeah, definitely. I obviously know a bunch of guys that weren’t involved but who should’ve been involved, guys who put in years and years of work. But it kind of just comes down to what groups you associate with and whether they are getting play or not. But everyone’s trying to do their own thing, and everyone’s got their own way of going about it and making their own stamp in history, some just sort of stay true to the game and keep it like, underboard, as opposed to above board…

It’s an unavoidable problem for any show of that nature. You are talking about too many diverse voices and participants to ever ‘get it right’. Also, once you start bringing in so many other influences, like the gallery worlds, and the new mainstream status of a number of urban artists, things evolve even further. Curating and condensing these histories is essentially impossible, right?

It’s always going to be the case. A famous New York graffiti writer once said: ‘Everyone has their own history of graffiti.’ No two peoples’ history of graffiti is going to be the same. To some extent, history is written by the victors, you know what I mean, so whoever is on top can kind of claim the history so to speak. Which is cool, you know, that’s part of it, but there are so many people doing their thing that there’s a million different versions of it…

In his book The History of American Graffiti, Roger Gastman recounts that he was told by someone who didn’t want to participate: ‘Anyone who tries to tell you the history of graffiti is either a liar or a fool.’ (Laughs)

I would totally agree with that.

We briefly touched on returning for Spectrum, but coming back now over the ten years you have been away, particularly post-quake, what is your take on what’s happening on the streets in Christchurch? Do you like to take a pulse of what is going on, or is it sometimes too hard to do that, especially if you come back for specific commissions that keep you occupied?

No, I always take a drive around and take some walks to old spots and stuff every time I come back to see what the next generation is doing. It’s awesome to see that people are still out there bombing and tagging, because that’s kind of like the essence of it all. And obviously with the earthquakes, it’s opened up a bunch of opportunities for both illegal stuff and legal stuff, which is cool, because I think they kind of should exist side by side to some extent. But as time goes on, it’s always something that’s going to be apparent, and there are a bunch of guys taking it very seriously which is good to see, and obviously getting away with it. (Laughs) It’s kind of something that gives the city a little bit more life, that’s the way I see it anyway…

Dcypher and Ikarus, Hereford Street, Christchurch, 2017

Following that period where the central city had a sense of freedom and there were a lot more spaces to explore, it now looks like those traditional spaces are becoming more popular again, back on the peripherals. Many of those empty buildings right in the middle of the city are slowly disappearing, but it does seem as though it has created a bit of a new energy in the writing scene with new generations. It’s interesting when you think about the different generations of Christchurch writers, and I guess you guys were maybe what, the second or third generation? If you classify it loosely…

Ahh, yeah, you are probably right there…

And now I guess there’s like another two layers or more on top of that, and its starting to build this sense of history, do you sort of feel like, even living overseas, you are seen as a something of a respected, veteran figure?

Yeah, I guess so. There’s not just myself, there’s a bunch of other people, that would be considered respected figures, but I guess I’m someone who has sort of taken it a bit further than other people would have be able to, just being in Christchurch itself. But yeah, there’s a bunch of other guys that are definitely respected figures. I do get hit up by younger generation dudes trying to paint walls and stuff, they are obviously smart enough to realise that if someone has been doing it for way longer than you have, you can learn something from them, you know what I mean? At the same time, I always try and stay humble with what I do, because I’ve been lucky enough to travel and see the amount of work that other people have put in round the world, what it really means to be revered… and being from the bottom of the world, to put yourself in that context is tricky…

New Brighton, Christchurch, 2018

Although, there are a number of New Zealand artists who are killing it, travelling the world, do you feel like there is more potential for people to be able to have that global success, to make a mark internationally rather than just locally, even while still being based here? There are multiple options now, you can move, you can stay, you can travel, you can even make a living here, there seems to be more choices than ever before…

Yeah, definitely. I think it is quite easy to get to a point where you feel that you’ve outgrown your environment to some extent, and the amount of opportunities that are available in New Zealand are still somewhat limited, and people are trying to branch out and do stuff in other countries and what have you, but at the same time you’ve got to remember where you’re from and try and bring it back full circle too…

In your case, you get to experience living in another city, and all that comes with that, including a level of home comfort, which is different to living out of a suitcase, which is the reality for a number of artists now, travelling between projects, festivals, events. I imagine that must get somewhat tiring at a certain point, although I’m sure its also an exciting way to live…

Yeah, being grounded in one place can give you a way better perspective of whatever that city might have to offer or whatever, but if you’re lucky enough to be able to travel and live out of a suitcase, that means you are doing something right…

For sure…

Even in visiting a number of cities in quick succession, you’re going to learn a shitload about being a fucking human, you know? (Laughs)

Colab with Taz Roc in Portland, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Colab with Taz Roc in Portland, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

Yeah definitely, you can’t help but be influenced by the places you paint, from the people you meet, to the physical environment, to the actual experience of travel itself, the journeys to get places, all those elements that come into it, they must all build up and inform your work…

Yeah, even being based in L.A., I still try and travel, to paint at festivals and do work across the United States. The States is a crazy place, where all the cities are so different, it’s insane. Like, you think you have Americans wrapped in a nutshell and you really don’t, you go to New Orleans, or you go to Seattle, you’re in two different countries!

What specific cities have you enjoyed painting in the most?

I mean, just painting in Los Angeles the most, makes it the most exciting place to paint. But I’ve painted in Albuquerque, Seattle, New Orleans, San Diego, and a bunch of other places, more so on the West Coast, and within the left-hand side of the United States. It’s awesome, it really gives a good perspective on that country, and again, the regional styles of all those places. But it’s somewhat interconnected as well, people are building bridges and making things happen between cities and getting influences and styles and techniques, what have you, from city to city, which is cool. Somewhere like Florida, where they have Art Basel and festivals and shit like that, is a fucking crazy place. There is a lot of crazy shit going down there. I was there painting a mural for Art Basel, and literally within like one hundred and fifty feet from where we were painting, there was a little gated neighbourhood where all sorts of crazy shit goes down. Some kid was shot at like five o’clock in the afternoon for his headphones, while one hundred and fifty feet away there’s hundreds of people painting and doing their thing and they’re not really part of that environment, but that environment still exists. There’s a lot of crazy shit going on in these tiny microcosms in the United States, it can be a dangerous place…

American Egypt wall, Los Angeles, 2016 Photo credit: Dcypher)
American Egypt wall, Los Angeles, 2016 Photo credit: Dcypher)

Living in the U.S. for almost ten years, do you feel like a Kiwi who lives in L.A., or a Los Angeleno from New Zealand?

Yeah, definitely a Kiwi who lives in LA. I’ll never renounce my ‘Kiwi-ness’! I’ve always tried to uphold the fact that I’m a New Zealander, I would never pretend to be known as an American in any way shape or form, even though I’m a citizen. The guys I paint with, the CBS guys, nicknamed me ‘Big Kiwi’, and I can never live that down, so, I would never consider myself a Los Angeleno. But a lot of people do, and it doesn’t take long for them to consider themselves Los Angelenos, even if they’ve only been living there for a couple of years, which is interesting. It’s such an amazing place where a lot of crazy, interesting things are going on…

I feel like with a place like Los Angeles, it would be easy to get swept up in the romanticism of it, and to identify with it…

People want to attach themselves to it and you will meet someone and ask: ‘Are you from L.A.?’ They’ll be ‘Yeah, totally, but I’m from Ohio originally…’

We kind of grow up with Los Angeles and New York as these iconic places, the settings for so much of our popular culture diet, that we have this expectation of them before we even visit, which might make it easier to adopt that identity when you do get there…

Yeah, I think, maybe your preconceived ideas of what a city has to offer are always wrong, like you always get to a city and it’s like: ‘Shit, this is not what I expected!’ A place like the United States is so diverse, so much crazy shit is happening constantly, it’s easy to align yourself with a certain aspect of the city, rather than a general idea of what that city sort of stands for…

Coming back relatively regularly, and maintaining that public profile through walls and projects when you do, have you ever thought about coming back and staging an exhibition in Christchurch, or actually just moving back?

Yeah, I just recently had a daughter so the idea of living in the United States for the rest of my life is sort of diminishing. You always want to have your kids experience life the same way you did to some extent, and schools and stuff in New Zealand are a little bit better than central L.A., so yeah, I definitely always considered coming back and producing work back home…

Detail of Wharenui Recreation Centre mural, Riccarton, Christchurch, 2016

You were part of the surge of graffiti culture in the early to mid-2000s, with the likes of Disruptiv, the popularity of hip hop summits, and even locally, you were part of Project Legit, and a number of other projects as well, do you kind of feel like there is a similar vibe now, albeit with this evolved concept of ‘street art’ and whatever that entails? It must feel like coming back and doing those types of things is actually achievable, not only because of the things you’ve learned in the ten years you’ve been away, but because of the environment you are coming back to as well, right?

Yeah, definitely, I think everyone here has been keeping the ball rolling, you know. When you move away you feel like nothing’s happening back home because you are so inundated with your own life…

Out of sight, out of mind…

Yeah, but every time I come back, I’m sort of floored by the amount of stuff that’s going up, different people really pushing the artform. So, I’m super stoked to be able to have that in my mind, that it is a possibility to move back and try and make something happen. Although, it is kind of daunting as well because the work opportunities in the States are far greater, whereas here you’ve got to hustle that little bit harder to try and get things going. But I feel you could, but that’s a period where you start to refine your thing and really nail it down.

Thanks for sitting down with us man, safe travels and see you back…

Yeah, cheers man…

Even though Dcypher is back stateside for now, you can keep track of what he is up to through his various online forums:

Facebook: @dcypherart

Instagram: @dcypher_dtrcbs

Web: https://www.dcypherart.com/

 

Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps

Street Wise Presents: Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps

Hosted by Exchange Christchurch – XCHC

Saturday, August 4, 3pm – 9pm

Exchange Christchurch – XCHC: 376 Wilsons Road North, Waltham, Christchurch

On Saturday, Street Wise and Exchange Christchurch – XCHC are joining forces with a bunch of other good folks to host an event that brings a number of communities together, and to celebrate the things that unite us and create a space where people, including the city’s street whānau, can come together and share food, experiences and skills. As part of the Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps project, members of the RAD Collective have helped transform the XCHC space, covering the walls in graffiti and street art in a transformative gesture that brings the outside in and encourages us to ask questions about our assumptions of the streets. This is only one aspect of the wider programme, but it is an important reminder of the way urban art can serve as a transformative, subversive communicative visual culture, one that traditionally has a connection to the experience and reading of public space in ways very different to the grandeur of large scale commissioned murals that might be viewed as having been co-opted as tools of gentrification.

We caught up with Preston Hegel from the XCHC to talk about the event, what it will mean, and how urban art has a role to play…

Preston, how did Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps come together?

It was inspired by Everybody Eats in Auckland and seeing the sensibility of diverting food waste and repurposing it, seeing people wanting to contribute, chefs wanting to volunteer some time to make it happen for people who maybe weren’t seen as worth being given that time. I didn’t think that was something we could pull off here, but I still knew that there’s a similar need here, people have immediate needs. Maybe we can’t organise diverting waste from supermarkets and the strategies that go into something like that, but I knew that there were probably enough people here wanting to help so that if everybody did their little bit, we could achieve something, which is why we are doing the potluck concept. The potluck idea is something we as a community do at the XCHC once a month. We all make a dish and put down the tools and just have a meal together. We all get to know what each other is working on. We all take the time to listen, and we always end up really excited and having a good time. So, I just figured, that works for us here, so why not try to do something like that for the street whānau. I don’t know anything about the situation here, I just know that it’s bad. So, I started to look around and see who was really doing the hard yards for the street whānau, and I came across Street Wise because they were new and are higher up on the thread of activity in the city. So, immediately I just reached out and said: ‘I don’t really know much about this, but we do have a building and we have a pretty tight community and were keen to help out if there are any opportunities…’ So, I met with River from Street Wise and we found similar things inspired us and that we wanted to achieve the same thing, so we put our heads together, out came a few ideas, and we decided on a date just like that.

Headlines are so often framed in ways that ‘solve’ homelessness by moving people out of sight, by banning begging in areas, but this approach isn’t about ‘solving’ anything, it is about a positive, communal experience, and central to this is bringing people together. Often, we pass by people on the street and we may contribute something, or we may not, but I think that ability to actually come together and share an experience is really telling. So, what does the actual event entail?

I think another thing to add to the ‘sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t’ thing, is that nine times out of ten we actually want to, we just don’t know how. So, this event is about addressing how you can help in a small way, because money isn’t really the right option, but some people don’t know that. You know, you see a sign that says this is what I need, and you are kind of like, ok, but it can be confusing. So, I guess the idea is to make that process a little bit easier, not that we’re going to be walking around the streets with our baked goods every day. The XCHC is a place where people are supposed to be able to come together and have the freedom to be themselves without judgement and to have a supportive community around you. No matter what someone’s creative practice is here, you’re surrounded by people all developing their own practice, so there’s a very automatic sense of acceptance and support. You come in and the walls are down, and that is kind of a driving idea of this event as well. This event started as a way to use food to bring people together, but then we realised that it was about much more than that, it was about being able to spend time in a place where you actually feel looked after and you actually feel like you have enough time to get to know people, so it’s actually more about a social setting. So, then we thought, what pieces of a social setting do we enjoy? What might others enjoy? So, things like haircuts, I love being cleaned up, I love talking to my barber, and just the pieces of it, you know you come out looking good, and feeling even better, on the other side. But there’s also that social element, and that was automatically part of it. We knew how much My Father’s Barber has been involved with the City Mission, and the regular things they do for them, so that was something we thought we could put out there and see if it was able to come together. It’s the same with coffee. I didn’t know this, but a real thing of choice for our street whānau is coffee. They love coffee, and I had no idea, and our roaster [Mark Chirnside of Chirny Coffee] is an incredibly talented young barista and all-round coffee lover, and when we said we wanted to do something around coffee, he was just like: ‘Can I give you the beans? Can I give you support? I want to be able to give one on one attention to people who just show up.’ The haircuts, the coffee, it isn’t just for the street whānau, it is actually for anyone to come in and be a part of. It doesn’t make sense for me to arrange an entire day for this particular community I don’t intimately understand, so the idea is to open this up and then it won’t feel like it is for them, it will feel like a day of activity for everyone.

And that comes back to the idea of the communal experience, it’s not about isolation in that sense, it’s about actually engaging together as a community in a broad sense…

And we see it in a lot of ways too, we see it with Arts Access and creative organisations helping disabled communities. If you do something for the disabled, then you are really singling them out, and they want to be involved in stuff as much as anybody, and it’s exactly like you said, it’s about coming together and not being about one specific community, the XCHC is a bridge between communities, between people…

In terms of the RAD Collective, they have been working out of the XCHC for a month, what was the idea of getting them involved as part of Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps?

The RAD Collective moved in about a month ago, and I was just so blown away by their ambition and determination. There are quite a few in the group and a number of them had been exploring quitting their jobs and focusing on their creative outlets full time, which is exactly what XCHC wants to support. You know, they are going into that vulnerable stage, they need support, they need some business, to be around other creatives to stay motivated and I guess with the showcase space not being used for the couple of weeks coming up to the event we had a perfect opportunity to give them the freedom to do what they do best. This is really what the XCHC is about, you really have that support to develop and produce your work but also to showcase it and the public can come and see what you are working on and get involved themselves, so it was really a perfect invitation to come into the XCHC as a whole unit and do what they do best and contribute to something that the XCHC cares about and they were all keen. They were grateful for the opportunity, to do what they do, to do something which I think is kind of unheard of in this city, I don’t go to a lot of cafés where people are painting the walls on a regular basis. But also, to get behind this event and what it represents, and they were so willing to do it.

You have touched on the duality of this element as well. As you say, there is a chance for the RAD Collective to exhibit in a unique way. You are presenting them with the chance to be quite authentic in their presentation, because often in that transition into a full-time creative role, formative roots can be washed out somewhat, things have to look nicer, have to fit a certain expectation, so there’s a recognition of where these young creative people are coming from. But, there is also an inherent reflection of street cultures, the streets as a space for people to occupy, and to utilise as a creative expressive forum, so there is a conceptual relationship too, right?

Absolutely, the ability to bring the best of what they do into where they work and in front of an audience in a supportive space, but also for the event, to bring a community into a space who aren’t necessarily used to this sort of space, to become a home, to give a positive space, surrounded by street art, and we are in that space there with them. I don’t know if I’m going to follow through, but one of the ideas for the night was for everyone to bring to the potluck a mat or a pillow and we’re going to put all the chairs away and we’re going to be on the same level and all eat together on that same level, and appreciate the art, we’re going to have music on the night and bring all the senses together, in an experience that shows that the streets have a different look and feel to them in a positive way.

It’s not just bringing the streets inside, it is also making us think about our preconceived perceptions of urban spaces as well. We are often conditioned to think that when we are surrounded by graffiti, we are in a dangerous space, but that’s a construction, not necessarily a reality. So that’s another value, by transforming an interior space it is playing with the expectation of an exterior space, our expectation of shared environments…

I’m completely blown away at how the RAD Collective took that to another level by hosting the Coffee and Cans event on the night the exhibition was being built. They gave the opportunity to people to engage with street art and graffiti and the whole process, to grab a can and give it a try, or to meet the artists who are behind some of the work in the city. I think that’s actually the point, not to just come in and enjoy it as a finished product, but actually inviting people to come along on that whole journey and how it excites us and inspires us in that process, and I thought that was such a cool way for them to do it. I’m not an artist, so I kind of assumed that an artist doesn’t want their work to be seen until it is finished, and with my experience running the studios here, that’s usually the case, an exhibition isn’t seen until it is all ready to go, so I don’t see things through this lens, but to see them do it that way was really cool.

For sure, it is an interesting landscape now, generally speaking, with process videos and public performance elements a significant part of urban art at a number of levels, it allows a new level of consideration, both for those who haven’t had a chance to be a part of it, but also for those who are fascinated by process. So, what are the key things you want people to know, to get out there, about Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps?

I want people to know that this project and having the RAD Collective here is a perfect representation of what the XCHC is all about and to explore that over this couple of weeks. As for the event, I really want people to know that it is about more than the XCHC and it’s a very small prototype of something that is being worked on in the city. Nick Loosley, who started Everybody Eats in Auckland, talked about wanting to spread across the country, so this is about eventually honing into that model of diverting food waste, which is so important for Christchurch right now, and leveraging the talent of the chefs in Christchurch. It is not a replica of what Nick has done, it is just something that’s inspired by what he has started, but I want people to know that there is more to come on that front and I want the city to be as active in supporting it as Auckland has been, so it is about being in on it, bringing a plate, if you can’t make it, make a donation to go towards helping make future Everybody Eats events in Christchurch happen.

Get along to the XCHC on Saturday and be part of a special event. If you can’t make it on the day, you can still contribute by donating, so find out more through the Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/230716677577645/

And check out a selection of progress shots from the RAD Collective’s take over of the XCHC for the Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps event. Photos courtesy of Josh H. Jones (@harryj_jones)…

A Tribe Called Exhibition… (or things that don’t go together, bright colours & black)

This Friday (August 3rd, 2018), A Tribe Called Haz stages a one-night-only exhibition of his twisted, humour-laced drawings and paintings, the first ever solo show for the young Christchurch artist. Hosted by the ever-supportive Christchurch institution Embassy, A Tribe Called Haz will be showing works that explore some new directions and mediums, while definitely retaining his unmistakeable punky vibes. To get an inside scoop, we briefly chatted with the A Tribe Called Haz about the show, how it came together, and what to expect…

This is your first solo exhibition, right? How did it come together?

Yep, it sure is. I thought it was about the right time. I felt like I was kind of lacking in the quality and content of my work and wanted something to encourage me to think about things differently and use different mediums. So, I was looking around for a place to hold an exhibition and I mentioned to a few people that I was keen on breaking the seal and having my first solo show. I ended up running into Tucker from Embassy at the supermarket one Sunday night and during our conversation I mentioned that I was looking for somewhere to house these works for a night or so. He was more than welcoming and down for the cause.

So, did you have a body of work to exhibit at that stage? Or are you still working on things?

I guess I was about halfway through, but I’m always painting so I’ll still probably be working on it right up until the night before.

So, do you have an idea in your head how it will all come together, or is it likely to be an evolving concept right up to when you hang it?

Tucker and I have already loosely figured out where everything’s going to be placed. They have hosted shows before, so they know what they can do. Knowing me, I am gonna be super pedantic about how everything is set out, haha!

Do you think a setting like Embassy is a good fit for your first solo show, rather than a more traditional exhibition space? Embassy always highlights the connection between various urban cultures when it hosts artists, sort of infusing the work with certain associations…

I do. A few of my works reference what they’re about. Like, I mean they’re a part of Christchurch skateboarding, they supply paint and they are down with local artists. I identify with everything they support, and I’m hyped that they are supporting me.

You mentioned how you wanted something to push your work in different directions, what can we expect to see in this show in terms of new developments?

I’ve transitioned from acrylic to watercolour, and there are a few pieces that feature both mediums. But watercolour is definitely the main one this time. That would be the biggest change…

How does watercolour alter the way you work? Is it about achieving a certain look more than anything, or is it just a chance to explore a different medium and challenge yourself to figure out ways to use it?

It’s more fun to work with and it creates a different look, although I still love the boldness of acrylic paint. The main reason to start using acrylic though was to try a different angle. It’s definitely changed the ideas that are portrayed with these works.

In terms of those ideas, does this show have a particular theme, or is it a continuation of the way your work kind of represents your mind and the various ideas that come out?

I’d say a few works have a layered, collage type of approach to them, but yeah, the rest pretty much stay true to the idea of representing what’s going on in my mind, haha!

Do you want to try and sum up this show in a sentence?

I’ll give it a shot… Things that don’t go together, bright colours & black.

Haha, nice work, see you on Friday!

What: A Tribe Called Exhibition: A solo show of work by A Tribe Called Haz

When: One night only! 6:30pm, Friday, 3 August 2018

Where: Embassy, 451 Colombo Street, Sydenham

https://www.facebook.com/events/283911552359067/

Dcypher – Homecoming (Part One)

Dcypher has been living in Los Angeles for a decade, but the Christchurch-bred artist has still made a significant contribution to the post-quake city’s walls. From commissioned works such as his cut-up patchwork of iconic kiwiana on the Wharenui Pool in Riccarton, or his on point ‘Welcome to Christchurch’ greyscale postcard for 2015’s Spectrum festival, to more informal jams and productions with his DTR crewmates, he has made the most of his sporadic trips home. Dcypher, of course, has pedigree, he is not some out-of-towner drawn to the opportunities in Christchurch, but rather an important figure in the city’s pre-quake graffiti history. Dcypher’s legacy now extends across decades and geographic settings, tracking the progression of an artist across the globe, and the transition between graffiti traditions and the new mural renaissance. Prior to heading State-side, Dcypher had already developed a notable local and national profile. From his role as a tutor and artist for Project Legit in the early to mid-2000s (an art programme that served to mentor young graffiti writers and provide legal opportunities for painting), and numerous local projects and commissions, to his regular inclusion in issues of Disrupt Magazine and even Askew’s 2007 book InForm, where, alongside Lurq and Pest 5 (although the latter had relocated to Auckland by that time), he was one of the few featured artists from outside of the North Island, Dcypher was able to fashion something of a career from his graffiti roots, a transition that might have been unexpected, even amongst the graffiti culture renaissance of the mid-2000s in Aotearoa. However, when he left Christchurch for the United States in 2008, he, like most people, had no idea of the monumental changes the city would endure just several years later, and indeed, the creative opportunities that would emerge in the recovery period. As a result, Dcypher has been returning to a different city, not only from the hometown he left behind, but also in comparison to the sprawling and stretching metropolis of Los Angeles to which he has become accustomed. That environment, coupled with the wisdom of experience developed over years of work, has ensured Dcypher’s output expresses a well-honed practice, striking and crisp, distinct but ultimately indebted to graffiti as the culture from which he emerged, a balance he continues to maintain. While he was recently back in town, I sat down with Dcypher to find out about his views on Christchurch’s current scene, his experiences as an artist abroad and what his future may hold. While the open-air setting of Smash Palace may have made the difference between mid-winter Christchurch and bright Los Angeles abundantly clear, it was obvious that while the man might not reside in Christchurch for now, he maintains deep connections to the people, places and unique characteristics of his hometown.

You have been back in town for a couple of weeks now, what have you been up to since arriving? From all accounts you pretty much hit the ground running…

I started the Lyttelton skate park mural with the rest of the DTR crew, Ikarus, Yikes and Wongi, pretty much a few days after I arrived, and that took about eight straight days of just painting. The weather was good though, and everything worked out. Then I just got straight into the Airport mural with the Oi YOU! guys, George [Shaw] and Shannon [Webster]. That was a good fucking two weeks of straight work. I think George added up five hundred hours or something, so, we had all of us working on it. It was all acrylic, which is pretty much the first time I’ve ever done like a full acrylic mural, so it was a learning curve for me. But yeah, the result was good, and yeah, I have just been trying to relax after that.

So, when you say acrylic, you mean with brushes rather than cans?

Yeah, brushes, rollers, trying to learn new techniques for fading without spray paint, that kind of thing… But mostly, yeah brushes and rollers.

Was that just a condition of working at the Christchurch Airport, because the mural is located inside the actual building, right?

Yeah, obviously with all the passengers and commuters within the airport, they can’t have spray paint fumes going about the airport, so they were pretty adamant about just keeping it all acrylic.

A section of Dcypher's mural at the Christchurch Airport, 2018
A section of Dcypher’s mural at the Christchurch Airport, 2018

Having made a career out of wielding a spray can, did it take a while to get your head around the brushes and rollers? Using a can would be second nature now, and you mentioned having to work on fading techniques, did it impact your stylistic approach as well?

Yeah, I had an idea that it was going to be the case, so I designed the mural with that in mind; using various techniques with acrylic paint to achieve the look I wanted. But in knowing that I was going to use acrylic paint, I had to design it and sort of tone it back a little bit and keep it quite simple, which isn’t necessarily my kind of style. The style that I chose was also something that I knew the Airport and the general public could palette. So, I guess it’s not necessarily my most interesting  work in that sense, but it was an awesome learning curve to be able to use acrylic. I mean, I guess we’ve always used acrylic paint from the get go alongside spray paint, so I’ve always had an ‘in’ on how to go about it, and I’ve always tried to mess around on canvasses and use acrylic paint on a smaller scale where it makes sense to use brushes. Spray paint only works down to certain scale…

I was just going to say, it’s kind of the opposite of cans, they are easier to go bigger, whereas with brushes, it’s easier to go smaller, although obviously rollers help with larger works as well…

Yeah, but just seeing what a lot people have been doing overseas, especially in Europe and stuff, as murals get bigger and bigger, people are starting to shift to using acrylic with brushes and rollers on that really large scale. It is actually easier to use acrylic paint than spray paint; it’s cheaper, it goes further, it’s faster, the longevity is better…

A lot of people I’ve talked to have mentioned environmental concerns as well, not completely moving away from can use, but it seems to be something people are wary of…

Yeah, I think, if you were an artist that had the opportunity to be able to do that, then that would be cool. But I think it is probably not really an environmental thing, it’s more of a technique thing, just because best results are the end goal, you know what I mean? And environment is secondary, like everything else that humans do! (Laughs)

Detail of the Christchurch Airport mural, 2018
Detail of the Christchurch Airport mural, 2018

I guess as well, the evolution of this contemporary muralism movement into its own beast, it means you are getting artists from different backgrounds now, you aren’t necessarily coming from a graffiti writing background or even necessarily that aerosol experience. Mural artists are increasingly switching between streets and studios, combining those two worlds, like, I think of the Spanish artist Aryz, as a prime example of that sort of approach, he is definitely taking muralism into a painterly direction…

Yeah, that’s who I was referring to before. That guy is definitely the best muralist by far at the moment. And he was doing a lot of that stuff with rollers and brushes, ten years ago, you know what I mean…

To see some of the latest stuff he’s been doing, it literally looks like a studio painting on a massive wall, the painterly quality brings a totally different element to it…

For sure…

You mentioned that the Christchurch Airport mural came about through Oi YOU!, you have developed a pretty good relationship with George and Shannon over a couple of projects, beginning with your inclusion in the first Spectrum show (at the Christchurch YMCA in 2015). What was it like for you coming back for that show? Experiencing something like that in your hometown, and having some international context for festivals and events, was it easy to get on board with what they were doing?

Yeah for sure, they totally went about it the right way. They could have just had international artists of a high calibre come through, but by also involving local artists to do their thing, people who have set their feet in the city, a long-time before they arrived, it showed George and Shannon understood having that as an important part of it all. Those artists being represented in the festivals was a strong point to get across, that there are people that have been doing it in the city for a long time before this stuff had come about…

Witnessing, and of course contributing to (as one of the headline artists) that Spectrum show as it came together, and thinking back over all the years growing up in Christchurch, were you still taken aback that it was actually happening in your home town?

Yeah, I always feel like whenever you leave somewhere, awesome things happen, and you feel like you are missing out! (Laughs) I was just stoked to be invited back to produce work. I could have been overlooked, going off and doing my own thing, so definitely, it was awesome to get involved and to have that event and be a part of it all…

Dcypher's Welcome to Christchurch wall, for Oi YOU!'s Spectrum festival, Welles Street, 2015 (photo credit: Dcypher)
Dcypher’s Welcome to Christchurch wall, for Oi YOU!’s Spectrum festival, Welles Street, 2015 (photo credit: Dcypher)

It must have been cool that all the DTR crew were involved as well [the exhibition even featured a DTR colab room, with portraits of the members in a darkened room]; to have that collective recognition as a crew as well as individually…

Those guys were all involved from the get-go, George got them all involved, I just kind of came in from the side, off the back of all that, which is cool. But yeah, it is awesome that they have been able to give an amazing amount of people opportunities to produce work and that’s kind of the essence of the whole idea and how it should go down…

As you said, the first thing you did when you got back this time was the Lyttelton skate park project with the rest of the DTR crew. You guys have a pretty lengthy history in the context of New Zealand, and Christchurch graffiti history, how is it getting back and painting together? Is it a different type of relationship than you have with CBS, your Los Angeles crew?

Yeah, you know growing up with a bunch of guys and painting regularly, there’s probably a little bit more of a brotherhood sort of thing. In the States, there are so many players that it’s a huge family and it can be hard to make those same types of connections. So yeah, working with those guys is always awesome, you don’t even have to think about it, you know, everyone’s already on the same wavelength and you just go ahead and make it happen. Whereas in L.A., there’s a disconnect so to speak, with guys you haven’t necessarily grown up with since you were fourteen years old, you know what I mean…

Section of the DTR crew (Dcypher, Ikarus, Yikes, Wongi) collaboration for the Lyttelton Skate Park, 2018.
Section of the DTR crew (Dcypher, Ikarus, Yikes, Wongi) collaboration for the Lyttelton Skate Park, 2018.

When did you leave for Los Angeles?

I left in 2008, during the global recession. (Laughs) I basically landed, and Obama was elected. People were crying and shit. It was pretty amazing to be in the United States for something like that, at that time, and to be part of it, to feel like you were a part of it. But being there wasn’t easy in the beginning, I was doing a lot of construction work, there weren’t a lot of opportunities. I was sort of working my way up, meeting a lot of other artists, painting various little projects. Doing things to prove yourself to people who have already lived and worked in the city for a long time and have their foot fucking firmly in the ground. Slowly but surely, I was able to become a full-time artist over there…

Did you have any connections before you went? Were you down with CBS before you went?

No. I had some good friends of mine who I grew up with in New Zealand, two American guys, whose father was based here through Operation Deep Freeze when they were kids. I grew up skating with them, doing graffiti with them, and they had moved back to the States. They were originally from San Diego, and one of them was, actually both of them, were in L.A. at the time I arrived, so I had two really good friends that I hadn’t seen for a really long time to go and start the whole thing alongside. They had already figured out a bunch of shit. To go to Los Angeles by yourself is a big undertaking, and to have someone there as a liaison to help you get through it and figure it out, is ultimate, so I owe a lot to those guys, for sure…

I remember your profile in InForm, the 2007 book produced by Askew featuring a number of New Zealand graffiti artists, you commented on how the Christchurch scene was really small and everyone painted together. That probably highlights how daunting it must’ve been to move somewhere like Los Angeles, which would be like ten or more cities the size of Christchurch…

At least…

Piece for the Pico Union housing corporation, aka the Grafflab, in Los Angeles, 2015. (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Piece for the Pico Union housing corporation, aka the Grafflab, in Los Angeles, 2015. (Photo credit: Dcypher)

That feeling of starting again, of starting over in terms of reputation, that must have been pretty strong…

Yeah, for sure. But it is refreshing, its humbling to have to work your way back up again. The calibre of work in the U.S. is fucking insane. Just the level of competitiveness is crazy. New Zealand has that kind of tall poppy thing, where if you think you’re better than everyone else, you are going to get cut down quick, you know. Whereas in America, if you think you are better than everyone else, for some reason everyone holds you up on a pedestal.

Do you think that is a unique thing to the United States, something about the mindset there?

It’s a combination of both freedom and capitalism that sort of drives people to do what they do. I mean there are guys in the States who do illegal graffiti and have done illegal graffiti for their entire lives and have never been snatched up, they have refined that shit to an amazing level, where they can go out and produce work without running into too much bullshit. But, at the same time, the competitiveness, you know, it keeps you on your toes.

It is sort of L.A. in a nutshell I guess. It’s a city of contrasts. I imagine anything can happen at any time, in any place…

Yeah, for sure…

Was the American West Coast scene an influence on you coming up? Or were you more inspired by New York and the East Coast, or maybe European writers? An American tourist remarked to me recently, not knowing anything about you, how one of your pieces here in Christchurch looked like something from Los Angeles. Has that West Coast, or more specifically Los Angeles style become more of an influence by living there? There’s that long lineage of ‘West Coast’ artists across a number of fields, and that specifically Los Angeles aesthetic that can be found in music, film, fine art, street art, graffiti…

To begin with obviously it was the New York influence, Subway Art and books like that, before the internet. Then once the internet happened, it was definitely European stuff. I was always more into East Coast hip hop stuff than I was into West Coast stuff, and I kind of liked the grimy, cold aspect of the East Coast. My Mother’s from Boston as well, so I have an affiliation to the East Coast. But once you get to California, and you get a little bit of the lifestyle, it’s definitely influential. It always has had its own style and everything going for it, but my eyes weren’t necessarily open to that. I did see a lot of stuff through magazines and stuff before the internet too, that was all West Coast, but at the same time I wasn’t really thinking about where in the States it was from. When I was young it was just what was aesthetically pleasing. So, I guess it did have an influence on me. There were a couple of guys I remember, like this guy Clown, who had some interviews in some magazines back in the day, who I’ve actually been able to meet since moving to the West Coast, which is pretty crazy. There were a bunch of other guys as well, and obviously all the CBS guys too. I think the Europeans have always taken what writers were doing in the United States and really pushed it in another direction, in more artistic directions, whereas the States has always kept that illegal, raw sort of graffiti, like you’ve got to keep it the real deal, there’s no using some weird technique, people shut you down real quick with that sort of stuff!

Extinction wall, Venice Beach, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Extinction wall, Venice Beach, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

It feels like the Los Angeles influence isn’t only apparent in stylistic terms and letterform traditions, but through the environment itself, it is also evident conceptually and in terms of the imagery you often use. I’m thinking of the architectural elements in a lot of your work, to me, they have the feeling that Los Angeles as a sprawling, built environment, with a certain physical nature, is influential. Do you think that imagery, and even just the conceptual approach to your work, has been a response to living there, to that landscape?

Yeah for sure, obviously as you’re developing your work, you are taking reference photos and stuff like that all the time, and Los Angeles being the insane metropolis that it is, it was kind of inevitable that that was going to find its way into my work, because I’ve always sort of been interested in infrastructure and cityscapes and stuff like that…

Do you see a connection between building letterforms and architectural forms? In terms of how a letter, or a piece, is built up and constructed, it feels architectural in how space is considered, and angles are created and used…

I think earlier on I thought about that a lot. I remember doing some really sort of structural letters that almost looked like buildings in the past. But I do kind of separate my graffiti style from canvasses and mural stuff. It is always in there to some extent, but I try and stick to traditional letterforms, developing it in my own way. I guess always having some sort of architectural element in the background was kind of where I started pulling that stuff from, you know, backgrounds for graffiti stuff…

As you get older, when it comes to your letterforms, is there less influence from what other writers are doing and more of a continuation of what you have already developed? That idea of constant refinement, which is something that comes from the compulsion of writing, from repeating a tag ten thousand times, to perfecting a certain signature letter? For you, is your style becoming more and more insular as you get older, entangled in your own history of writing, more so than really taking notice of other sources?

Yeah, for sure. Like maybe from guys I initially painted with, but with any outside source, it’s not a good look to be doing that. Like you say, you do a tag ten thousand times, fifty thousand times, and over time you start to understand how everything fits together, it’s like an ongoing puzzle, within your own mind. It just refines over time. There are certain aspects that you might see another person doing, but it’s probably more technique than it is style. Because with style, it is hard to adapt someone else’s style, you are always going to have your own style, it’s almost impossible to reflect another person’s style, but technique for sure…

Los Angeles, 2014 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Los Angeles, 2014 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

Like you were saying earlier, that from the pre-internet era, there were the influences of Subway Art, Style Wars, and there was what was on the walls around you, those influences were what you had, now with the digital age, you can see all these different styles, you can see writers from all over the world, in some ways it must be harder to develop a personal style amongst so much information…

Yeah…

Because so many things have been done, but also, you’ve seen all those things as well. You are nowhere near as isolated. Of course, that isolation meant that some really interesting local styles developed as a mixture of certain influences, like in Brazil, with the combination of hip hop graffiti with pixachao, or even Los Angeles and the influence of Cholo graffiti, but it is getting harder and harder to even see that happening because everything is available to everybody, everything seems more global.

Yeah, I think that graffiti has always had regional styles too. You could pick someone’s style from where they were in the world, even with the internet you could pick someone’s style; if you understand graffiti, you know someone from the West Coast of America as opposed to someone from the East Coast, versus someone from Brazil, versus someone from Australia, to some extent. Graffiti has always had its own specific styles, even within countries, it’s sort of like, ‘oh this is more of a northern style or a southern style’, which is awesome. It means the direct influence of what you are seeing in real life is what really has impact on your style, rather than seeing awesome photos on the internet all day long, which won’t ever have as much impact as walking up to a wall of a legend dude who has been painting twenty years in your city and just being like ‘Holy shit! That’s insane!’

To be continued Homecoming (Part Two)

In the meantime, check out Dcypher’s various platforms:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dcypherart/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dcypher_dtrcbs/

Web: https://www.dcypherart.com/

 

 

Kophie Hulsbosch – Future Proof

Kophie Hulsbosch might be softly spoken, often punctuating sentences with gentle laughter, but it is quickly apparent that she is driven by a desire to use her creative output for good. I was introduced to Kophie when I was preparing for our story about the RAD Collective, and as I got to know more about her, I discovered the diversity of her practice, from her clothing brand, Future Apparel, to illustration, via graffiti and surrealistic painting. In her own words, she isn’t someone who ‘just sits back and lets stuff happen’, and as such Kophie’s output is always entwined with her socio-political and environmental beliefs. But her work also reveals the exploration of identity as a constant theme to be unpacked. This exploration is not solely an act of self-reflection, there is a sense Kophie is interested in identity in a broader stroke, in what it means to be an individual amongst a collection, not just in her quirky characters and portraits, but also in the inherent nature of graffiti, and her vocal concerns about consumption, our complicit involvement and its impact on our surrounding environment. Another example of a young Christchurch creative emerging from the influence of urban art to explore a diverse range of artistic approaches, Kophie Hulsbosch is a reminder of the potential to connect a creative impulse with a desire to change the world, regardless of the scale of such actions. We sat down and discussed how art became a vessel for her beliefs, how these ideas were fortified in her practice, and the dark side of the ‘fast fashion’ industry…

So Kophie, let’s pretend this is a superhero movie, what is your backstory?

I came from Wanaka, surrounded by the outdoors and people skateboarding. Then, when I was about ten, I moved to Christchurch. I never finished high school, I dropped out in year eleven, it just wasn’t for me. I worked terrible jobs and I just kind of figured out what I wanted to do through that. In high school, I had only ever really studied in my art classes (laughs), so after working those horrible jobs, I decided to do the foundation course in design at ARA. I loved the course and decided to continue with graphic design. My goal was to be self-employed, but I also wanted to use art for social commentary, mostly environmental issues. After I completed my Bachelor of Visual Communication, I received a scholarship to do an honours degree in Media Arts. At the same time, I decided to launch a business, making use of the facilities at ARA and combining everything I had learned; drawing, branding and graphic design. I wanted to make some sort of environmental comment with my work, so after discovering that the clothing industry was the second most polluting industry in the world, I decided to re-purpose clothes. I guess I’m not the sort of person to just sit back and let stuff happen! (Laughs)

When did that drive crystallise? Did it take a while for you to realise the direction you wanted to go, or was it engrained in your worldview from a young age?

Well, I enrolled at ARA because I just wanted to get better at drawing. But when I was 11 or 12, I became a vegetarian, and that sort of set off my ethical conscience, because once you start learning about one issue, all these other things pop up that show how so many things are interconnected. I started learning about the impact on the environment of animal agriculture, and the associated social issues, and then when I did a philosophy paper at ARA, I started finding out how the world works and how messed up a lot of things are, and I started exploring how to potentially change it…

Importantly, you have utilised art to engage with those issues. Was that just something that made sense to you, to communicate and explore ideas? Is drawing a way for you to problem solve?

I’ve always known it is one of my strengths, in Maths or English at high school, all I would do was draw on my hands, and I would just constantly get in trouble. I just think it’s the only voice that I have, or at least it’s the best outlet I have to get the message across.

Gig poster for The Settlers x Local Elements, digital illustration, 2016
Gig poster for The Settlers x Local Elements, digital illustration, 2016

One of the first things I noticed with your work is the diversity; illustration, graffiti, figurative drawing and painting, design work, branding… Is it just in your nature to constantly explore different approaches, or is it necessary to express different ideas?

I think I just always want to try different things and learn. But sometimes I think I probably should focus more on one thing! (Laughs) But I just want to be creative in any way, and I mean, you can learn anything off the internet now. I taught myself how to sew on YouTube! There are infinite possibilities…

In some ways, the need to pigeon hole yourself has been broken down by the possibilities of the digital age to explore ideas and cross-pollinate. But would you proclaim yourself to be any one thing more than anything else?

I mean I started everything from drawing and illustration, just weird, obscure drawings and naked women! (Laughs)

There is a definite sense of the surreal or fantastic in some of your work, but there is also often a grounding in some sort of psychological reality, an exploration of identity, or that sense of social awareness that you’ve already talked about. Do you try and find a balance between intentionally expressing ideas and a subconscious approach?

Every project is different. Sometimes I think when it is from my subconscious, I look at it and I’m like, how did that come out of my head? But with graphic design work and commissioned projects, it is more controlled, I know what I’m doing. Most of the free stuff is influenced by hip hop, hip hop music and graffiti and those cultures.

Above the Clouds, ink and pen on paper, 2018
Above the Clouds, ink and pen on paper, 2018

What do you find the most attractive element of graffiti? Is it the creative element, the search for style? Is it the idea of the social communication? Or is it the act, the adventure of graffiti?

I think all three; I love the thrill, I love the idea that you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, and make spaces come alive. You see little areas and you’re like, that could be a face, or that could have a personality. The style is important as well, I mean I look up to people who have a really defined style and I always think of style over spots, personally…

With graffiti writing, obviously the issue of identity is a central concept as well, albeit couched within the expression of style. Do you make the connection between letterforms, style and the idea of identity?

I think my letterforms are probably the weakest element of my art, so I like to practice them a lot. But I try and paint every piece differently, so I never really have a particular style. Some of my stuff is quite creepy, and creature-like, but then other times it can be quite straight and sort of masculine. I like to make it look like a girl didn’t do it, whatever you think girly graffiti looks like, like love hearts and pink colours… I like to make my stuff look not necessarily feminine…

Christchurch, 2017
Christchurch, 2017

The discussion of gender has long been a part of the analysis of graffiti, at least from a scholarly approach, because there is this perception of graffiti being a very masculine pastime. When you think of the likes of Lady Pink, there is an acknowledgement of gender in her moniker. But, your name doesn’t have to be representative of reality, you can mask your identity when you write graffiti. By developing a personal style, that in itself can become the identity, is that your approach?

I guess so, because on my Instagram, and it is just my art Instragram, I never really post selfies or pictures of myself, because I like the idea of people not knowing who I am, if I’m a girl or a boy. People do tend to have a judgement if you’re a girl.

The pursuit of style can be all consuming, and with the digital age, the number of available influences has become so wide-ranging, that it seems harder to develop that distinctive signature in some ways, everything has a danger of seeming derivative, just because more people have seen more things…

The internet! (Laughs) I know back in the day, each town had a certain style, you would know if it was New York graffiti or whatever. Whereas now everything is just a massive collage of everything; every era, every style, and it is harder to find that identity, because there is so much that’s already been done. You have to think outside the box all the time, or just accept the fact that everything’s being re-purposed.

Queenstown, 2018
Queenstown, 2018

How did you become a member of the RAD Collective?

I was making clothes at ARA just before a pop-up shop. I was really stressing out and just running around the classroom getting things done. Becca and Jimirah (founders of the RAD Collective) came in to see one of my other mates, and I just had my clothes on the table and they were looking through them, and they were like: ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ Then a few months later they gave me a message on Facebook and said: ‘We are doing a thing. Do you want to be a part of it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’

What do you personally see as the greatest benefit of the RAD Collective? That type of network, people with different skills, and the energy it generates, must be really helpful in the transition from a learning institution into the ‘real’ world…

They have been so amazing. They have just uncovered countless opportunities for me. They look out for me so much. They are just always so supportive, which is really cool. They are trying to suss out a space, find walls and organise exhibitions… You can’t do all that stuff by yourself…

That story about meeting Becca and Jimirah also introduces your clothing brand, tell us a little bit about Future Apparel…

As I said before, the main drivers of the brand have been the environmental and ethical issues, things like the conditions for workers overseas, and the number of animals killed for materials. The crazy thing that I can’t understand is the environmental and ethical impact of the day to day things that we do. By consuming in the over the top manner we do now, we keep making it worse and worse and worse, but we kind of just accept it. I know people notice things, but we are so used to the consumer culture we live in, it feels like you have to abide by it…

Second hand denim jacket with Future Apparel design, 2017
Second hand denim jacket with Future Apparel design, 2017

There is an unwillingness to explore alternatives because they seem too hard.

Yeah, is it cognitive dissonance? Is that the one? (Laughs) Through Future Apparel, I want to change the mindset. My ultimate goal is to create a different culture around how we buy and consume, to encourage people to think about the actual human aspect of things when you buy. Like, with clothing, most of us probably think it jut appears on a rack by magic, you don’t see any of the process behind the item.

Is it important to find the balance between your creative outlet and the real-world application; to not be dragged down by the realities of the political side, to ensure that you remain inspired by your creative outlets?

Yeah, it’s a constant battle: I want to change the world, but then sometimes I don’t think I can do anything, and that the world’s fucked! (Laughs) Sometimes you feel isolated, because you see people around you and you tell them things, and they are like, oh that’s terrible, but they don’t really do anything, they don’t care enough to make it their life to change the world for the better…

I feel like it is a result of how we receive and process information in the digital age. The internet allows avenues of widespread and instantaneous communication, but we seem to use them for the worst possible things. The potential is so amazing, but the reality can be so mind-blowingly frustrating! (Laughs)

Memes! (Laughs) I think it is crazy how we have all this information at our finger tips, but it is used, I’m not saying by everyone, but it is used by so many people to just watch silly videos. I can post a selfie on Facebook and get 130 likes, and then I share something about the planet, about the extinction of sea creatures, and people give me like maybe two likes! I don’t know…

You must have learnt a lot about the tricks of the corporate world, what things have you discovered that have fed into Future NZ as a concept?

I have looked at the idea of green-branding and green-washing, and how a lot of brands are using these ideas to drive profits, even though they aren’t necessarily a ‘green’ brand, so that was something I wanted to avoid…

Explain the idea of green-washing a little bit…

So, with green-washing, someone like Apple Computers say they recycle their products for new computers, and they have this whole eco-brand called Apple Renew, but they are also bringing out new products every couple of months and trying to push consumerism while also trying to have this other identity of being eco-friendly…

So, they are producing a semblance of a response to an issue they have helped create and are still creating…

Or say toilet paper companies who say they are donating one cent from every sale to help save forests; it is like a pretend persona, just to try and drive sales. One of my lecturers suggested there is a chance to do some further research, he thinks the whole sustainability approach can’t work under the capitalist construct, that it will always be undermined by profit and exploitation, even if it is green-branded or a green product…

It’s not a fair battlefield, right? The field is being created by those who gain most. How do you fit your conception of graffiti and urban art within the issues of sustainability and ethical consuming? Do you see it as a natural way to address that uneven battlefield?

I wouldn’t say my graffiti is eco-based, because I know spray paint isn’t the best for the environment, but I have made paste-ups in the past, and I always have ideas of big signs I can put up everywhere, like guerrilla campaigns around the city. I do want to do that sort of thing, but I’m just figuring out how to get it across. I think it could be a really good form of getting a message out there. You are forced to look at it, with social media you can just scroll past it, like ‘meh’, but if it is in your face in the streets, if you are driving past it every day, you might think about it…

Live painting for The RAD Collective event Under the Influence, Boxed Quarter, central city, 2018
Live painting for The RAD Collective event Under the Influence, Boxed Quarter, central city, 2018

You recently had something of a run in with a well-known fast fashion company, what happened?

My friend sent me a picture of basically my exact design on a fast fashion shop piece. I didn’t really think much about it, but then I was lying in bed and I saw the image I created because I had put it on my wall, and I was like, it is exactly the same, like exactly the same: same colours, same font! I put it on Instagram and my friends got way more worked up than I did, Becca wrote a big post about it, and it got around a bit on Facebook. The New Zealand Herald contacted me, but I didn’t talk to them just in case, you don’t want to get sued. Then I found out about another girl from Australia whose work they blatantly ripped off as well, but she didn’t do anything about it, she couldn’t be bothered. So, I emailed them, I said, I think you’ve copied my design, and they basically replied that it was a coincidence and showed me their process. (Laughs) But they said like, ‘this was done at 11.50’. They gave an exact time something was done. When you’re doing your workbook process, you don’t write the exact time and date when you are doing it, unless there is something strange going on. But, I mean, it is what it is…

I guess in that situation, you have to decide how worthwhile the expenditure is, because it is a lot of emotional energy, right? But at the same time, it must be frustrating to think that as a result, companies probably get away with a lot, because their resources are greater. Did it also make you think about the role of social media? How when you post something, it is visible anywhere around the world and it immediately becomes so public?

I instantly thought of the recent thing with H&M and Revok, the graffiti artist, like they think they can just take anyone’s work because they are the rich big guns and they kind of have immunity because they are so well-known. But yeah, the most frustrating thing was the mass production side; they are making money from exploitation of labour and other ethically dubious practices, where I make one-off designs, re-purposed from fast fashion! (Laughs)

It’s the exact antithesis of what you want Future Apparel to be and to be associated with, which must have made it so much more frustrating than someone who was maybe trying to enter that world. In many ways I would hope it has steeled your resolve to opening people’s eyes to the realities of fast fashion and the alternative options that are available…

Yeah. I also think about how sustainable clothing tends to be elitist in a way, like it is always quite high-end and targeted towards more well-off people. But I wanted to also use street wear, skateboarding, hip hop, and cultures like that, and incorporate them all and make something for youth, because I feel like it’s a missed market. I want to make it affordable for that group and remove the elitism. So, like I know a lot of people my age, they care about this sort of thing, and they want to buy sustainably, but it is out of their price range, they are often studying and would never be able to afford one-off nice items…

Thoughts, acrylic, aerosol and nail polish on wood, 2018
Thoughts, acrylic, aerosol and nail polish on wood, 2018

You obviously have some long-term goals, but what do you have going on in the short term? You’ve got a few things on the go, right?

I’m illustrating a children’s book for the Crusaders (The Super Rugby franchise), it’s going to be in every school in New Zealand, which is pretty cool! But I’m not allowed to make the horses smoke cigarettes! (Laughs) The Under the Influence exhibition was obviously a few months ago, I exhibited two portraits and painted live at the event. Some of my projections were also in the courtyard. I haven’t worked on Future Apparel much, (laughs) but hopefully I will find time to do that. I’m also working with a sustainability company, but I can’t say much because they haven’t got copyright yet…

You’ve got some mural work?

Oh yeah, I’m doing a mural at BizDojo!

With that many things on the radar, have you reached that goal of self-employment? Are you sustaining yourself through your creative outlets?

I’ve got the student allowance at the moment, without that I’d be screwed! (Laughs) I’m doing a business course as well…

As an artist, and being that your ethical concerns are pretty central to your approach, do you find that you are an odd one out in that environment? I am always interested in how ethics and morality are incorporated into commerce-based education…

Yeah, I just can’t mentally justify having a business without making it for the greater good, like not just for profit, I just can’t wrap my head around being driven by making money at all costs…

There are probably a lot of people who are exactly the same way and yet there are those who see business as a by-word for profit-making, so it is an interesting challenge to become comfortable in an environment and reach the goals that you’ve set for yourself…

Yeah, maybe that could be something, changing the consciousness of business, maybe its compulsory to have some profits go to a charity, or help impoverished communities. I mean another big thing I looked at was the idea that profit was just another word for stealing…

‘Making’ money is really just ‘taking’ money…

I still think the majority of people think that if you are not making money, you are not doing anything. That’s something I struggle with… (laughs)

It’s the idea that our value in society is based on the money we make, which is flawed thinking…

Money is evil! (Laughs)

That’s sounds like a pretty good sign-off! Thanks for talking to us Kophie! 

Follow Kophie on Instagram via @kophie or @future_nz, or check out her website https://www.yoitskophie.com/ 

Featured image credit: Handmade Photography

A Tribe Called Haz – Garage Days

A Tribe Called Haz, the pseudo identity of Harry King, a young artist and member of the RAD Collective, is in many ways indicative of the alternative and do-it-yourself approach of a number of Christchurch’s young, urban creatives. A Tribe Called Haz’s twisted, low-brow imagery and raw, low-fi style is reflective of an outsider style; his background as a skater and graffiti writer more important than any arts training.  His strange, playful compositions and juxtapositions, collating his various influences, experiences and even momentary preoccupations, are wrapped in a subversive and often anarchic energy, full of bright, at times acidic colours, applied in swarming washes of acrylic paint. While his work is very much of the digital and internet age, it is also refreshingly hand-made, imperfect and intentionally unpolished. His work may not be pretty, but it is playful and punkish, reflecting his sense of humour and a desire to confront and unsettle unsuspecting viewers; to garner a reaction, good or bad, challenging the viewer’s ability to be in on the joke. After following A Tribe Called Haz on Instagram for many months, I was glad to get a chance to sit down with him and find out more about his work, how various influences inform what he does, and what impact being a part of the RAD Collective, and social media, has had on getting his work out there…

 

So, should I call you A Tribe Called Haz? It’s one of the longer monikers I’ve come across, but I feel like it should be used in its totality! (Laughs)

Yeah that’s all good! (Laughs)

I was recently talking to Becca Barclay, one of the co-founders of the RAD Collective, and she said that the running joke is to describe you painting in head to toe black denim, drinking a dozen Diesel bourbon and cola cans, listening to Bon Scott era AC/DC (which in my mind is being played from the radio of a mid-eighties Ford Cortina). While she admitted it is more a joke about stereotypes, would you say it is a fair description?

Ahh, it is about eighty percent true! (Laughs) Yeah, I do love a bit of black denim and you can’t go past Bon Scott, but I don’t really paint so much under the influence, even though that was tied into the last exhibition name. But yeah, it is mainly just me painting in the garage, so it does seem to fit!

But, of course you are made up of more diverse elements than denim and classic rock; you’ve been a skateboarder since you were young…

Yeah, I started skateboarding about 11 years ago.

And you have a background in graffiti as well…

Yeah, that came about through skateboarding as well.

You also work as a builder, right?

I’m a third-year apprentice builder…

So, amongst all those influences, have you had any ‘traditional’ training, or are you self-taught as an artist?

I did art at high school, so I think the highest I’ve been trained would be level two at high school. But I hated doing art at high school. I didn’t like being told what to do, or how to do it, you know, I feel like it is stuff you can pick up by yourself. I don’t really see the benefit in that type of thing. I think it is good that they teach art at high school, but I think it should be kind of like a free period, where you can experiment more.

So, your experience illustrates how influences like skating and graffiti can be as formative as a formal training, in both technical and conceptual approaches to making art, right?

Yeah, it’s definitely just that I like to follow my own path. I pretty much pull stuff out of thin air, or if I just see stuff that looks somewhat eye-catching, it inspires me to do something. I can’t really put my finger on it, but yeah, it’s a time and place kind of thing, and I kind of think that comes from things like skating and graffiti.

What explicitly do you take from skateboarding? Do you connect skating and making art? Is there a shared spirit between the two for you? Is there something in the physical, practical act of skating that translates, or is there a distinct influence in terms of skateboarding’s visual culture?

For me, skateboarding is just something that is free. There are no rules, no one’s telling you what to do. It’s something that can be taught, but it doesn’t mean you will be good at it. Even if you are taught how to do stuff, everything is different for everyone. But yeah, it’s the sense of freedom, it’s just like a good way to put my mind at peace for a wee bit.

Oscar the Moe, acrylic on paper, 2018

I guess the same could be said for the attraction of graffiti? It’s also about freedom of expression, in both similar and divergent ways. You mentioned that you got into graffiti through skateboarding, so did that mean you came at it with a less traditional approach, more San Francisco than New York? Or were you still drawn to the hip hop tradition of graffiti writing?

Graffiti and skateboarding can go both ways. There’s the punk side, and then there’s the hip hop side, and it all depends on who you are, you know? There are lots of punk skaters out there, and you see the old pentagrams everywhere and the anarchy symbols, that A.C.A.B. kind of stuff (an anarchic acronym for All Cops Are Bastards), and then there’s the hip hop sort of stuff, the bolder letterform-based stuff. In my eyes that’s real graffiti, the hip hop side. So, yeah, I lean towards New York for sure…

Do you think Christchurch has that sort of diversity amongst the local graffiti culture? It definitely seems, outside of some figures, that the hip hop tradition has always been the most prominent.

There is definitely some quirkier stuff out there, but overall the scene is more traditional. So yeah, there is a bit of a gap between the two, people can be set in their ways.

Although there is obviously an inevitable overlap in terms of influence, do you separate your work as A Tribe Called Haz from your graffiti output? Are they ever in conversation stylistically or thematically, or do you keep them distinct?

No, they are two separate things. You see a lot of old school graffiti artists, or graffiti artists in general, go through just being hardcore graffiti writers, and then they get to a point where they start doing exhibitions and they go off in a totally different way, and then everyone who is still about graffiti, who grew up idolising them, they kind of turn on them for doing that, and I think it’s just easier to keep them separate…

It means there’s a fidelity to both as well, you’re not having to worry about those distinctions: one is one, the other is the other. Which means they keep fresh when you jump between them. I guess it also means you can be as experimental as you want to be in each realm, and that each can take really divergent paths.

Yeah, they don’t have to correlate at all, it is kind of like a split personality kind of deal!

How did the name A Tribe Called Haz come about? Is it just a moniker or is it more of a concept?

I’d say it is more of a concept. When I first started out, I called myself Postal Services, it was just something out of the blue, it didn’t need to make sense, I just didn’t want to put my name to what I was doing. That way you can do whatever you want, and I chose Postal Services. I ended up changing to A  Tribe Called Haz obviously because of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, but also, back when I first started skateboarding, there was a guy and his name was A Tribe Called Steve, and I used to see that written everywhere, so I was like, I’ll see what I can do with this and it has just sort of stuck…

So, there is a lineage there, a reference outside of the obvious one that many people probably aren’t picking up on, a little bit a local/subcultural reference…

Yeah, like I never met the guy, but I could’ve been in the same place, who knows? That’s the cool thing about having a separate identity.

Untitled, acrylic on paper, 2018

Your work clearly has a sense of humour, it’s often a pretty acerbic humour too. It comes through both in the imagery and in the visual style as well. Stylistically, how did you develop that rough, raw aesthetic? Is it a natural direction for you or have you refined it through exploration? And do you see it as an important part of the sense of humour of your work?

I think with my style and stuff, most of it is just natural. I think it is heavily graffiti influenced, big black outlines of stuff and lots of bright colours. I don’t try and sugar coat anything and visually I just try and make it as simple and as eye-catching as possible. Its not even that I’m trying to make other people laugh necessarily, I guess its kind of selfish in that I’m just painting things that make me laugh.

You mainly paint in acrylic, do the mediums you use play a big part in how you conceive of your work? Do you see a specific difference between using brushes and paint from spray cans?

It’s mainly acrylic. I’ve never touched watercolour. I’d like to branch out a little more. I’ve used a lot of Indian ink and I’ve recently started putting gloss finishes and all that kind of stuff on works as well. Yeah, I’d say the mediums I use are an important part of my work. I like acrylic because it is easy. Pretty much every can of spray paint is acrylic, so it goes hand in hand, it dries quickly, it’s easy to use, all that kind of jazz. I guess I also like acrylic because it doesn’t look like spray paint too.

There is a certain colour quality in your paintings, colours that are quite harsh, and applied in a certain way, quite flat and thick, is that all intentional to create a specific effect?

I like to think of my use of colours and how I put them on paper as kind of bulky, I am trying to make the images quite dense I guess.

Untitled, acrylic on paper, 2017

Your images are a real mixture; scenes filled with strange going-ons, juxtaposed objects, pop culture references, phrases, mysterious characters, it seems like anything goes. But there is also a sense that whatever you are depicting, they can seem at once mysterious, obvious and filled with potential narratives that the viewer can unravel. How do you come up with your subject matter?

I like confusing people. I like making people think, and maybe if I can offend people, it would be good as well. I’m not really pushing the envelope at the moment with anything I’m doing, but I like that kind of stuff, I like controversy and really topical stuff. My pictures are just based on whatever comes into my head at the time, so they could be anything really, sometimes from my life, but other times just from crazy thoughts. I often do something and then think, this looks boring, I need to chuck some fun stuff in there, to sort of twist it. So that can make stuff pretty out there…

By working with controversial, confronting or bemusing imagery, are you trying to elicit a response from the viewer? To make them feel a certain way?

Yeah definitely. With controversy and people being offended by what they see, it’s all their choice, it doesn’t have to be what they make it out to be. Everything has got two sides to it, or even a third side coming from someone else’s point of view, nothing is the same to everyone…

If you can offend someone in some way, it also means they at least have to consider why they are offended, right?

Yeah, and maybe they can come around to see it from someone else’s point of view, and be like; actually, it’s not as bad as I think… Or maybe the more they look at it, the more they hate it, which is also fine. I just like getting reactions out of people, whether it is good or bad, you know, it is better than someone just looking at something and having no thought of it whatsoever. I would rather make something that someone looks at it and they might ponder on it, even if it’s in their head for a minute, it is still confronting them.

Does building play any influence in your work? Do you see a connection between the rigorous process of building something and the way you create a painting?

Yeah, well I see everything in layers, like you’ve got all your steps you go through to get a house to where it needs to be, and that’s the same with painting; you do your background, then you put whatever you want on top and then it’s just layering and layering. I think with building, it has made me think about other mediums and stuff, but apart from that I haven’t really taken those ideas too much further…

Have you thought about making three-dimensional work, actually building sculptural objects?

Not really, or at least it’s not on my radar at the moment, although I wouldn’t rule it out. In high school I did sculpture as a subject. I think I was in the last sculpture class that Hagley High ever had. I think I was one of the only students, there were three of us, but I was the only one in my year.

Untitled, aerosol on trampoline, 2018

Untitled, Aerosol on a trampoline, 2018

How did you come to be a part of the RAD Collective?

I met Becca Barclay about a year ago. She was really good mates with my neighbour and one night we were having a party and one of my flatmates, knowing she is a graphic designer, was like: ‘Oh, Harry draws…’ She came and looked through some of my blackbooks and was like: ‘This is crazy!’ I didn’t really hear anything for a while and then we ended up hanging out a little bit, and she said: ‘I’ve got this idea, I want to get this collective going, I want to do something in Christchurch.’ Eventually we moved into a flat, and now I live with her and Jimirah, the other co-founder of the RAD.

Without the RAD Collective, what avenues would you have explored for your paintings? Would your work have stayed in the blackbooks, or were you trying to find ways to get your work out there anyway?

I think I would still be floating around not really having any sense of direction. It’s good having something to work for and towards. It gives you fuel for the fire. I’ve had so many opportunities so far because of my involvement in the RAD Collective. I think I’ve featured in three exhibitions. Without the RAD, my work would probably have still been in the blackbooks…

It feels like in post-quake Christchurch young creative people have been somewhat empowered to make things happen, and I feel like the influence of urban art is part of that too, just as a source of inspiration, or an alternative approach. In the past it seemed like a battle to get things off the ground unless you were exposed to the more traditional networks. Now it feels like there’s more willingness for people to come together and put things on, and people who may not have taken that step are now exploring new ways to get their work out there…

Yeah definitely, especially with the RAD, I see it as having kind of a do-it-yourself mentality. If no-one’s going to put your work out there, then you’re going to have to do it yourself. You are going to have to try a lot harder, but I think that as long as you’re doing something, you know, you can’t go wrong. So, yeah, I guess Christchurch does seem to have sparked up a bit more of a start-up attitude and things are happening that might not have happened before.

Has being in the RAD Collective inspired you to explore any new ideas?

Yeah, I’m starting to dabble in digital art, like everyone! At first, I was a little bit dubious about it all being on computer because you don’t get the same feel, you don’t get the same effects, all that kind of stuff, but it’s a lot more accessible. You don’t have to carry around your paint brushes everywhere, you can be sitting on the bus or whatever and just be smashing stuff out. I’ve been trying to get back into photography as well…

I feel like your work would translate well digitally, but photography is an interesting direction, because it feels a little at odds with your visual style. Are there any particular influences or interests there?

It’s a little bit of everything, just day to day life. I like urban nature as well… I guess I’m mostly influenced by skate photographers and people from that scene, like Ed Templeton, and even Moki (another member of the RAD Collective), I really like how raw his photos are.

In many ways we are all photographers now, not only do we all have access to cameras, but because of social media, we are also a lot more aware of how we compose and publish pictures. But a lot of people are embracing traditional elements of photography, inevitably inflected with the social nature of ‘everyday’ photography, but with more awareness of the process. Are you part of the movement to reclaim photography a little?

I wouldn’t say reclaim (laughs), but I do like the old school 35mm, all that sort of stuff. I think the digital side has helped with that change, because even though it’s pushed it out a little bit, it has also sort of brought it back, the digital technology kind of became a gateway back to the traditional stuff. It’s definitely a lot more popular than it was when they started bringing out digital cameras and all that sort of stuff…

Like millions of others, Instagram is a primary way for you to put your work out there online and to gain exposure. Do you feel like your work is able to operate as effectively within that digital realm as it does in an actual physical presence, or do you still make your work for people to see face to face?

Yeah definitely, I wouldn’t say it is made for Instagram, but I will do a painting, take a photo straight away and try and get it up so a lot more people will have access to it, as opposed there just being all these paintings sitting in my garage and I would have to ring people, and be like: ‘Yeah, come round and see what I’ve done…’

Do you ever hesitate before posting something, or are you pretty quick to put stuff online?

Nah, I don’t really edit my output, but I might give it a day or two before posting, so I’m giving different posts a bit of space, a bit of breathing room. I never use filters either, it is always a case of what you see is what you get.

A Tribe Called Haz painting at the RAD Collective event Under the Influence, Box Quarter, April 2018 [Photo credit: Lindsay Chan]
The RAD Collective recently held the exhibition Under the Influence, and you and a few other RAD Collective artists painted live on the night. I know you had some nerves about painting in front of a crowd, so how did you manage? Did you get your music playlist right?

Yeah, I was really nervous, but it did give me a good adrenaline rush for a couple of hours! I ended up listening to Powerglide by Rae Sremmurd and Juicy J on repeat for two and a half hours, that seemed to work…

So, you didn’t listen to Powerage!

Haha, yeah nah, no AC/DC that night. It was a really good turn out to the show though, I think everyone involved was really pleased with the reactions…

 What else is on the horizon for A Tribe Called Haz?

My books are open! There is nothing concrete, but definitely more paintings and hopefully more walls. I need to hone the A Tribe Called Haz style for my wall work, but I’m keen to explore that…

Cheers man, keep up the good work…

Thanks very much…

Check out A Tribe Called Haz on Instagram:

@atribecalledhaz

Cover image photo credit: The RAD Collective

Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson – Travelling Man

Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson has undeniably been one of the faces of Christchurch’s blooming graffiti and street art scene. From his skilfully rendered large-scale murals, to his presence in festivals, interviews and documentaries, he has been a central figure in the presentation and reception of the culture’s popular emergence. It is a no-brainer that we were going to sit down for an in-depth interview with Wongi, but as they say timing is everything. With an upcoming trip to Nepal on his horizon, a result of his artist series t-shirt design for local adventure clothing company Kathmandu, we thought it would be best to save the long-form interview for his return. But, then we thought, why not catch up before hand as well, just to get some insight into the Nepal trip and how it all came together. Think of it as a primer, the base camp before the summit if you will…

So, Wongi, what is it, six days before you’re off to Nepal?

Yeah, about six days, possibly even less now…

You found out you were going about six months ago…

Yeah, at the end of last year sometime, it was maybe November…

Has that time gone quickly? Have you had an ‘I’m actually going to Nepal!’ moment?

Yeah, it has crept up really quickly. Just in general, you know, life gets in the way. I’m working away and doing things, and then next minute it’s boom, I’m going next week, so…

You have literally just finished a workshop in the last hour, and on top of painting jobs, you were just saying that you’ve got house renovations on the go, so things have been full on as usual, have you had a chance to consider what sort of experience this is going to be?

No, not really. I’ve just been so busy with work and everything going on, I just haven’t had the time to let it sink in. I have had lots of people asking me: Are you prepped? Are you ready? Are you amped? And I haven’t even had time to think about it. A bunch of my Kathmandu gear arrived a while ago and that was really awesome, just pulling it out of the box and everything. But even then, it was more just ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ at the product, not actually thinking: ‘I’m going to be using this in Nepal’…

 

Smash Palace, 2018

Over the last seven years or so, you have had some pretty amazing experiences; painting in front of royalty in Re:Start Mall; painting a large self-portrait inside the Canterbury Museum, being featured in the Rise and Spectrum shows, just to name a few. Amongst all these things that I’m sure ten years ago you didn’t necessarily expect, where does the opportunity to travel to a place like Nepal fit in? It’s not exactly somewhere that you would consider a traditional ‘urban art’ destination, and yet your art has given you the chance to go there…

Yeah, definitely, it’s such an amazing opportunity, but it’s not something I would have specifically saved up and chosen to do. There are many other places I would have chosen, but because of what it is, I’d be foolish to say no. It’s a once in lifetime opportunity to go and do this type of thing, so I’m diving at it. It’s amazing, really amazing.

The Re:Start colab billboards painted by Wongi and Ikarus for the Art Beat programme, 2012

The trip is the result of your relationship with the adventure clothing company Kathmandu, and your role as one of the artists, along with Shraddha Shresthra from Nepal, to contribute to their limited-edition artist t-shirt series. How did the opportunity to design a t-shirt come up?

That all came about because when Kathmandu opened their new branch and offices in the city centre they had already started the process for their limited-edition artist series t-shirts. Shraddha was the first artist to create a t-shirt, so as a part of their opening for their central city location, they flew her in from overseas to paint a mural in the neighbouring laneway as part of the whole event. So, since she was here painting in Christchurch, they wanted a local artist to paint in the laneway as well, so they got me involved, and that’s where my t-shirt came in. I think they just really liked what I had painted and my style, and I think that helped push me into being the second artist in the series. I also think as the Kathmandu brand was originally born in Christchurch, I think being a local artist helped as well…

So, is your t-shirt available yet?

It might be online currently, but the actual official release date is the 23rd or 25th of this month, I think. They are releasing it on the date of the 65th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary reaching the summit… so it all lines up…

You have a fair bit of experience designing and printing your own t-shirts, but I would suggest your photorealistic style, especially in aerosol, doesn’t necessarily translate as well into the more graphic qualities of t-shirt designs. Technically, you are a versatile artist anyway, so I’m assuming you are pretty comfortable taking on different approaches, but how did you find the process of creating the design, and how did it come out?

Yeah, it was really fun actually. With a t-shirt design I can’t really go to the in-depth level of the photorealistic stuff, so I pulled it back and went the other way with the more cartoony, raw graffiti style. I chose a big block format and filled it in with graffiti lettering and graffiti-styled characters. It’s got a bunch of things related to Christchurch and Nepal: I’ve got a Kathmandu bubble letter, it’s got Christchurch written in block letters within the brick format, and then I’ve got a bunch of different characters and things in behind it; some related to Nepal, like some yaks, temples, and Buddhists, then some things relating to New Zealand; the hills and ferns and that type of thing, as well as more traditional graffiti stuff; throw-ups and spray cans and all that kind of thing.

Boxed Quarter, 2017

I feel like the inclusion of elements of graffiti culture is important. Obviously the references to the locations, Christchurch and Kathmandu, are necessary, but as an artist with roots in graffiti art, it is also important to represent that culture too, because it is what got you where you are…

Yeah definitely. That creative freedom to celebrate my style and artistic background definitely helps build a good relationship with Kathmandu. They are a lot more understanding of that side of things, but I was also working with the design team there to make sure they were getting a product that they are happy to promote in that sense. So getting to work with their team, the back and forth process, that was really cool as well…

In the past, when you have produced your own t-shirts, you’ve been the designer, the printer, the distributor, you’ve done all of it…

Yeah for sure, that was a cool element, working with another team who specialise in certain products for their brand as well, so that was fun…

Does it make you want to do more limited-edition t-shirts?

I wouldn’t say no! It is an amazing opportunity, but it all just depends on certain factors. It boils down to the imagery that’s wanted, the level of creative freedom that I’m allowed, and of course, the company who I’m trying to work with, and whether or not I relate with them on a personal level. I’m an animal and nature person, an environmental person, so I think that also helped with the whole Kathmandu relationship, knowing that they are quite ethical with their products…

Did you research their ethical stance? Because it is important that artists know who they are working with…

Without a doubt. We had a general idea of how Kathmandu work, but when the proposal came in, we did a lot more research into it, just to make sure, because you don’t want to have yourself aligned with a company that you don’t agree with. So, yeah, we definitely had to make sure that that was the way it was, and that I wasn’t going to be associated with a company that isn’t thinking about the environment and all that type of thing.

As more and more opportunities come up for artists to work with brands, holding companies accountable in a way, making sure your ethics align is so important…

You don’t want to be associated with a brand that is working in a way you don’t agree with. So yeah, anything like animal cruelty, I’m not a fan of, but Kathmandu were really strong around their ethics with their clients…

In terms of the actual trip, what’s on the agenda? Will you get a chance to paint while you are there?

No, I’m not. We looked at it and we were trying to get that sorted, but I guess it just boiled down to the fact that there’s not a lot of time outside of the trek to actually get a painting in. Then there was the whole problem around getting artist grade spray paint into Nepal. We’re trying to tee it up to paint something for one of the schools I’m stopping off at on the trek, but then there’s the whole issue of being in the Himalayas, you are so far up in the air there is a lot of pressure involved and a whole heap of problems around that side of things…

Is there a chance to do something that doesn’t involve cans, like drawing workshops?

Yeah, they touched base on that, so there is still a possibility to have a draw with the kids type of thing, so that’s a potential option, but I don’t think the actual painting itself is going to happen…

To go all that way and not leave a mark in that way seems a shame, but I can understand the logistical challenges. Have you thought about how the trip, and the experience of the trek, might inform your work in a wider sense?

Kind of, it’s been in the back of my mind, just thinking about what the environment is going to be like. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the villages, and the temples and that type of thing. So yeah, I think it’s going to be quite a new experience and that in itself will give me a whole new angle to my art…

Rauora Park, 2017

I guess that reflects the rise of contemporary muralism and the globe-trotting mural artist, where all these different influences from different environments shape people’s practice, rather than just the specific setting you came up in. I mean it is a hard thing to put a point on, because it is likely to be a philosophical influence, more than a stylistic or technical influence, but still it is sure to be a unique experience and it will be interesting to see how your work evolves as a result…

Yeah, like you said, it’s hard to pin point the whole situation. I don’t know what it will be, but I know something will lend a big impact to that kind of thing…

I remember at Style Walls, you were joking that you will come back as this enlightened soul who always talks about your time in Nepal! (laughs)

Yeah, yeah, ‘that one time in Nepal…’ (laughs) Yeah, as long as I come back wearing shoes you know, not bare footing it around everywhere; ‘I’m just getting back to nature!’ (laughs) So nah, I’m looking forward to it, it is going to be amazing!

Lastly, it is going to be a pretty physically intense experience, I know you got a gym membership in preparation, have you been putting in work?

Yes and no! I went quite hard out for a bit, but then with a lot of work and everything, I haven’t had that time to go the gym and train like I should. I feel I’m pretty active with the work I do anyway, I’m always on my feet, up and down ladders, all that type of thing, so hopefully that is going to be enough to get my fitness level at least up to par. I was talking to one of the head guys from Kathmandu and saying ‘Yeah, I’m going to get my gym pass, I’ve been exercising quite a bit…’ and he just laughed it off and said how one of his mates who kind of helps with the treks, said: ‘Oh you don’t need to go to the gym, you work that out in the first three days!’ So, I’m kind of hopeful that will be the case!

Well, we look forward to catching up when you get back and hearing how it all went and talking more in depth, so go well…

Cheers, man, thanks for your time…

The shirt Wongi has designed for Kathmandu as part of the Artist Series and in honour of the 65th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary submitting Everest is now available online or go visit your local Kathmandu store. A portion of each sale goes toward the Australian Himalayan Foundation.

Want to learn more about Wongi?

Check out his website and follow him on Facebook.

[CROP] Project: Flash Intervention NZ

Christchurch photographer Heather Milne is our first guest contributor. We asked Heather to reflect on her experience partaking in [CROP] Project: Flash Intervention, a recent street art project led by the CHUZKOS collective, celebrating the diversity and inclusivity of contemporary Christchurch. After considering various sites, [CROP] eventually took place on the corner of Manchester and Lichfield Street in Christchurch central. Photographs representing the faces of Christchurch were pasted on to the giant spray cans that Oi! YOU and Gap Filler have repurposed as free legal walls for the Christchurch community. Read on for Heather’s  the project…

A concept, a bunch of cameras, giant jigsaw puzzles, and ten days to figure it all out.

[CROP] Project: Flash Intervention is a collaborative art project by CHUZKOS and a group of local creatives. Starting on 29 April 2018 with introductions and ideas, the street art installation combines the concepts of inclusivity and diversity to celebrate the evolving face of Christchurch’s population. The final artwork was installed on 9 May 2018. I was privileged to be a part of this project as a Christchurch resident, lover of street art, photographer, writer, and wheat paste chef.

Background

The quick-fire art project was coordinated by Boris Mercado and Idelette Aucamp from CHUZKOS. They’ve set up the [CROP] Project, which ‘believes in the power of collaboration, art and photography to empower and promote positive change ‘ and  uses ‘street art around the world to question societal issues, while paying homage to some of society’s most marginalised and often unseen individuals’. ‘CROP’ stands for Creative Resistance & Open Processes.

So, how did these noble and optimistic intentions work on the ground? Pretty well, it turns out…

The concept

Idelette and Boris initially planned on undertaking the project by themselves, but after being inspired by the creative energy of Preston Hegel from XCHC, the plan changed and the project became a collaboration. After a group of interested people responded to a Facebook post calling for people to get involved, an intro session at XCHC ensured the wheels of creativity started turning. Fast.

As Boris explains, the benefits of the fast ‘flash intervention’ style of street art are in the potential found in collaboration:

“This project again proves that initiatives based on collaboration are viable. And we can continue to break through the clutter and break away from the idea that art only belongs in galleries. I like how our project can keep contributing to the dialogue people have on the streets”.

The human face of Christchurch and Canterbury has changed since only Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe, then Ngāi Tahu iwi lived in the area. In addition to the mass migration from Great Britain, people from all over the world have emigrated to our shores for work, refuge, family, and love. Post-quake, Christchurch has experienced a new influx of immigrants; workers have flocked to the city from the Philippines, Ireland, Australia, the Czech Republic and many more countries. These new arrivals have helped with the city’s rebuild, contributing to New Zealand’s economy and enriching the culture in the process. So how does this reflect our identity? What do we look like now?

Two key themes of the artwork emerged – diversity and inclusivity. We wanted to create an artwork that provides a glimpse of who we are – a city and nation of people who need to promote unity, equality, inclusion and acceptance while also celebrating difference and diversity. We wanted to ignite conversations and inspire individual pride and the recognition of the various role people play in their communities and families.

Idelette sums up the importance of art and the use of public space as tools to encourage reflection upon these ideas:

“Art is a powerful tool of communication. By using public spaces as alternative platforms of communication, we invite people to connect with their environment, interact with each other and reflect on their own thoughts and opinions”.

What I found particularly beautiful about our group is that we were established artists, students, parents, people with day jobs and without, people born in New Zealand, people not born in New Zealand, people of different ages, genders, and cultures. Everyone was able to contribute something meaningful on practical, conceptual and spiritual levels.

Day 2
The group on Day 2.

Process

As a photographer who generally works alone, the process of a collaborative street art project was a massive and rewarding learning curve for me. I love a good three-month schedule with detailed creative briefs, a clear idea of target audiences, and defined responsibilities. An intensive ten day art project with everyone pitching in, changing ideas, and last-minute additions threw me into a bit of a spin. There was no time for my usual encumbering imposter syndrome and I was compelled to trust my photographer-instincts.

We rushed out and made photographic portraits of people. Idelette and Boris worked on graphic design, marketing, and finding a space for our artwork. Their level of trust in the latter was impressive – and their tenacity got results. The five giant spray cans on the corner of Lichfield and Manchester Streets were booked as the canvasses.

Because of the (very) low budget, the only way to print the artworks was as A4 pages – then we painstakingly put them together the day before the installation to form five large portrait murals. Or maybe that should be five giant jigsaw puzzles!

Organiser Idelette
Organiser, Idelette, putting together the pieces.
teamwork
Teamwork – putting the collage together.

Installation

Glaring sunlight, a brisk wind, flapping giant puzzle pieces, and the mucky qualities of wheat paste were all challenges to overcome on installation day. We were joined by Ravenhill Dance, Herbert Lewis, and Lana Panfilow with their gorgeous roaming dance performance thanks to connections made by a dance teacher in our group. The artworks went up, people came and watched, a school group visited.

We finished. We went to the Dux for a beer and a debrief. It was a good feeling.

paste up
Paste ups in progress.
paste ups
Getting the paste ups ready.
project
The project was put together in 1.5 weeks.
success
A successful paste up

The day after

Writing this the day after [CROP] was completed, I’m knackered, but excited about the connections I’ve made and the quiet whisperings of potential spaces we could work with in the future. I love the impact of the artwork we created – so many faces proudly representing our city in an accessible location for people of all ages, abilities, and cultures to see and interpret.

finished
The finished piece.

Final words from Idelette and Boris

A massive shout out to XCHC and Watch This Space for making everything run so smoothly and trusting us to do this project. Thanks to everyone who came to the open call, joined the group and provided creative input and contributed with each of their individual talents. We loved how much people really pulled together. We’ve since heard of three projects that will come from this one, which means the project has inspired!

Lichfield and Manchester
These pieces are located on the giant spray cans on the corner of Manchester and Lichfield.
Heather Joy Milne is a Christchurch-based photographer specialising in documenting photographing social change and the rebuild of the city. She’s passionate about the role that photography plays in storytelling and connecting communities, and is also a huge fan of penguins, coffee, and tiramisu. You can see more of Heather’s work at https://heatherjoymilne.weebly.com/ and find some of her articles at expertphotography.com and digital-photography-school.com.

 

Did you enjoy reading this article? Would you like to see more projects like these in Christchurch? Would you like to see more contributing writers on this blog? Please leave a comment below.

 

Jacob Yikes – Immersed (Part Two)

When I arranged to sit down with Jacob Yikes, I had a feeling it could be a lengthy conversation; I have long been a fan of his work and here I was presented an opportunity to delve deeply into his approach to making art, his reflections on how his work and life are intertwined, and as I realised as soon as I stepped foot in his studio, the new directions signified by the impressively-scaled works he had been busy creating. I wasn’t wrong, over an hour after we started recording, it was time to catch a breath. We covered a lot of ground, and it was quickly apparent that our interview would be a bit of a monster, necessitating two parts. Here, in Part 2 of our interview, we jump straight back in and pick up where we left off…

You said before that you have felt that some of these works have been speaking to you in some way, not literally, but kind of telling you when the time is right to work on them and when it’s not right. The process of giving them time and stepping back, which you can’t do to the same degree with a wall, does it lead to frustration, or has it been satisfying being able to work in that way?

It has both. There’s definitely frustration, but I guess with the frustration, because I will start multiple works at a certain time, that time has to be right. I think that is when I feel that, not like that painting is talking to me, saying I have to paint it (laughs), but it’s more instinctively, I will make certain marks and certain gestures with whatever materials I’m using and then I get to point and it almost says ‘that’s enough, don’t touch me right now!’ (laughs) ‘You need to move on from that part!’ While you’re in this head space doing that stage of the works, basically, because the paintings are in stages, I can’t jump from stage to a different stage, from another painting, so I find that working on one or two can be helpful, because now working on a bigger scale, it’s a lot harder to set up five paintings. It’s a big space but it’s not big enough for that, I’ll smash things if that’s the case! it’s just not going to work, so you put that stage down and while I’m in that head space, I’ll move to the next one and then it will stop but there will be a while in between sometimes of me going back to that painting because the feeling is not right. Again, I think it comes down to how I’ve approached the works in the first place, of them being really personalised in terms of so many things, like it’s a real sort of expression, I guess, it kind of changes the look of the painting too, to an extent. There’s certain marks there for a reason, I’m kind of like putting those pieces back together, well not putting them back together, but putting them together when creating the other stages of the works. It’s probably my own little consciousness telling me: ‘Don’t work on that right now!’ I do work quite sporadically, one minute I’m doing something then the next minute I’m onto the next thing and it is kind of just how I’ve worked. It’s even how I’ve worked outdoors sometimes, I could be doing something and I’m not having it, so I leave. But then I’ll go and start the rest of the wall at like four in the afternoon, because I’ve found for me, if I try and force it, just too much negative energy comes out, and I’m not having it. The painting won’t go anywhere from that, so those first stages are super important in the studio works, not so much in the big works because there is a different process to painting them, but there is still that erratic quality, I can only work on them at this point in time, I think that’s more doable in the studio, for sure, but I haven’t really felt that I’ve gone too far with any of the works yet, so I’m just going on that initial instinct with them at this point…

Mixed media on paper, 2018

Because of the intense concentration involved in the finer details of your work, I assume it would be easier to know when the time is not the right for that approach, but with the more gestural stuff, which is such a strong element of these works, there’s a real sense of your physical exertion, and in many ways it must be really necessary to have that ability to know when to stop, because it must be so easy to be swept up in that…

Yep, absolutely man.

These works really have that dynamic sense of the movement of your body, but it’s so different from wall work, which will often, and this isn’t specifically about your work, but often it’s the scale and the size that reflects that, rather than the texture, or those kinds of elements, but these works really seem to reflect your physical presence, either above or in front of a work and engaging with that surface. Do you see the differences between the way that your mark making reflects your movements both on a wall and in the studio?

Yeah, well, it’s all very freestyle, even with the walls too. When I would work on a wall that was a little more expressive with marking making and how I used the line work and stuff, as opposed to the more structured ones that had that room element going on, it was all kind of whatever comes up was coming out, and I will deal with it once it’s on there, to an extent, because I can always visualise what I’m trying to achieve with it, but it’s never ever going to look like that, it’s just a blueprint in my head, to get to that point. I’ve taken movements from painting large works and graffiti and put them into how I achieve those first initial marks and sort of bits, and it’s pretty much the same process in terms of how I attack it, it’s just narrowed down in the studio. I don’t have to step back fifty metres and check out what have I done, I can just do it there. Also, it is completely different mediums, so, while I know the technique to get to there, the result is going to be different. And that result, to be honest, has come about by experimenting. I didn’t one day decide I’m going to start throwing it this way and start putting it here, having a wrecked, half dry brush and doing that with it (gestures), it pretty much was just messing around for a long time. And I mean a lot of the stuff in the past especially, I’ve just biffed, it’s never really come out, and there’s a reason for that too. At the time I’d be pissed off and in a foul mood because I’d just wasted a whole day and a whole bunch of stuff, you know, and then that comes back to me doing things at a time in my brain or whatever, in my day, that I shouldn’t be doing it. I’ve always kind of been a workaholic to an extent, not to the point where I would say I’ve neglected any of my responsibilities, but I would sacrifice sleep to do this, so I’m trying to use the time I get, and if it’s not happening , then I pay for it in the end, because I’ve spent that energy trying to do something I shouldn’t have even bothered doing. But that negative energy, not all the time, but sometimes, I’ve been able to channel that into that first process of making the gestural bits on the paper, building it basically. The paintings essentially have been built the way I look at them, I create a background or a distant sort of space for these images to sit in and go from there. They are always at stages, but I can always fix mistakes, by working with them, not necessarily ‘fixing’ them, but you know, and again it comes down to me thinking actually, that’s meant to be there for a reason, that might not be how I want it be right now, but I can actually work with that. It’s not all the time, but there have been times where I’ve been: ‘O.K., I’ve just messed that up, hang on I’ll put it away for now…’.

Mixed media on paper, 2018

In reference to the idea that your works often have these landscapes and environments in which structures and scenes are built, despite how tricky those settings are visually or spatially, they feel like real spaces, like something to inhabit, when you are painting them, do you place yor self in those settings?

I pretty much put myself in there, and I’m still really trying to figure out what they are. I think they are an element of my subconscious, kind of a dream world that I can escape to, and I can have full control over. There’s not that much in life that you can have full control over, so I find them an escape, and I think that’s where a kind of therapy does come into my work. When I get to these certain stages, the final bits in these works, its like, I built the set and now I’m creating everything else that ties that all together. While each one might have similar attributes, they are always different, there is always a different concept behind them too, that’s just part of my style. That probably works with that idea, there are certain images in my work that have become quite popular, but each one has its own feeling when I’m doing it, so I engulf myself in those worlds…

With this scale, viewers will be able to feel like they are being enveloped, which raises the logistics and potential approaches to exhibiting works of this size. Over the years you’ve exhibited in a number of different places; Am I Confused? was at the Art Box, which presented a unique space…

Yeah, it was.

Detail of the on-site work created as part of Yikes’ show Am I Confused? at the Art Box site on Madras Street, 2017

It was quite a tight space in terms of how people were able to filter through, with these works it feels like they need a very specific environment in which to be exhibited…

They do, they do man…

Is that a challenge in Christchurch?

It is really difficult. It’s probably the hardest part at the moment, because in the past I have always done the hard work to try and get these shows happening and I like that, but it is hard. Finding a space in Christchurch is hard for anything, so finding the right space for this sort of show is probably going to present a few difficulties, but it’s so necessary. I have to find the right space because for my works at the moment, I’m trying to really put people in a setting as such, whether it’s in my head or whatever, or it’s a setting controlled by me, because visually I know what I want to feel from these paintings and that’s going to be completely different from anyone else seeing them, but if I can also add in the elements of sound and lighting that I want to, then that’s going to help to build the story of them a little bit. It’s a deal breaker for me, and I’m not going to show them until I can get those elements happening. Because of my process of creating these works and how I approach them, it would be so stupid if I didn’t show them in the complete environment. I would just feel like I didn’t achieve what I set out to achieve, if I can’t put those final nails in…

The ideas that you are talking about; the control of the lighting, the sound, that’s a sign of the maturing practice of exhibiting. It’s not about just finding somewhere that will let you hang pictures, it’s about a whole experience of creating an environment for people to view your work and for you to have more control over how it is received. I feel like, for the growth of the urban art scene in Christchurch, there hasn’t really been that opportunity, or an environment that has allowed that in many ways, so that is, as you say, a big challenge, but it’s absolutely necessary for these works…

So much gets put in behind the scenes too, with getting the sponsorship, getting all the little things, all the logistics of it, so you’re putting in a lot of work just to show them, so for me, it makes sense to put in that work and just push a little bit more. With these works as well, the subject matter, it’s really real this time, not that it ever wasn’t, but it’s something that I haven’t really addressed ever, so I know I’ve amplified that, I’ve amplified the scale, but the scale thing for me is only going to really work with those other elements, with the sound, with the lighting, and that will ensure it all makes sense. It’s a specific thing that hasn’t even probably come to be in my own head yet, but I know where it has to go, and I know what has to happen with it. Like you said, it’s something that hasn’t been able to be done with these sorts of shows. I’m not being offered a mint set-up, a humongous space with all these things, and I’m not even asking for that. To be honest, I kind of like the control I get with not having to deal with that, I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but at this point, I’m trying to build this profile for myself which isn’t just about what I’ve done, but it needs to be different. So, for me to do that, I just have to literally make these ideas that have been pushing at me, come to be, and I think that the easiest way to do that is to have that control. My partner’s really good, we’ve worked together on these shows for a long time, she does a lot of the background stuff as well, because at the end of the day if I can focus on this stuff, it is better…

And it’s going to come out in the work…

Yeah, and we’ve learnt that from trial and error, just from having these shows. I’ve had some good shows and some bad shows, but at the end of the day you learn from each one.

Yikes at work in his studio, February 2018

In terms of your growing reputation, and to some extent the reputation of the Christchurch scene, have you investigated the potential to show these works outside of Christchurch?

I’m sort of in discussions at the moment with a few places up in Auckland, so it’s definitely been discussed. To be honest I was battling the idea of just doing the show in Auckland, not here, but I still I want to do both, I want to make it hard for myself! (Laughs) So I think whether it will be a travelling show or I will produce enough work that I feel I can even have two that are kind of co-existing with each other, I’m not sure on the final details yet, but moving them out of Christchurch is definitely something that I think needs to be done too. It’s a daunting thought because I would feel way more comfortable just going to another city painting a giant wall! It’s different exhibiting works, you have to get people to turn up to these shows, because they are not going to stumble across it by themselves all the time like a wall, and I guess I invest a lot more into these things than I do a wall…

There’s a finite timeframe too, a wall can be there for the next ten years…

Exactly.

You might only have the chance to display these works for three weeks…

It’s about getting the works there too, I’ve not made it easy for myself with the scale, but it’s definitely do-able, it’s just a matter of really making it happen. But it’s in the pipeline for sure, I think I need to make it happen this year. I would like to exhibit a little bit more regularly than I have been, it’s not through lack doing any of the work, it’s just through pretty much having to deal with everything else you have in life. It’s definitely going to happen and I’ve made those first initial relationships with a few places, it’s just about taking it from there, and it’s something I’m going to do.

Without sounding forceful (laughs), I think it has to happen, you deserve that exposure, you’ve put in so much hard work and developed such a unique and impressive style…

Absolutely, I am my own worst enemy. I know that I have put in work, and I always will. It’s not like I’m done now, I’m just going to do this now, it’s not that at all, but I know that I am physically here doing stuff, it’s just what I do. I know that there’s only so much I am going to achieve by not moving it around. I don’t want to just let it all unfold, I need to really push that too. I think for me, I always want to put my best foot forward, it’s a matter of what I take with me, what am I going to run with. It’s about not being so indecisive about what I want to take out of Christchurch. It’s a funny one, it’s definitely something I’ve felt for a while, and not even to the point that I’m going to move away and try and make it away from here, I’m not going to approach it like that, I don’t feel the need to have to move away from everything to just start trying to do things…

With Christchurch’s recognition as an urban art location, it also needs to mean artists can succeed here and thrive everywhere, it’s not about becoming a breeding ground for people then to move away, which is the typical kiwi, Christchurch story, right?

It doesn’t need to happen at all, that’s the thing, it really doesn’t. Even in just the past four years, just by producing works outdoors, it shows that it’s all about what you do to make this place what you want it to be. It’s funny, I mean I think people have their own opinions on how they want to approach it, but if everybody thinks they have to move away, what’s left? And that’s kind of what happened in Christchurch, I know a lot of people who just up and gapped it, and that was their own personal thing, which is cool, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s happening here, it’s all about how you perceive it really, and it’s all about what you’re looking for too.

It feels like there is a growing ecosystem locally, there is more diversity in terms of what people are doing, there are things here that can help make it all more entrenched. I guess as well, it’s also about continuing to attract people here as well, not just with opportunities to paint walls, like festivals offered, but if there’s spaces for people to come here and exhibit work, that can prove important too…

I think it’s important to not just all be floating in the same boat. It’s funny, I think oversaturation of one thing just kills it, and each festival, if that’s what’s happening, needs to bring its own thing to it, because at the end of the day, it is what people who were living here were doing, it’s just painting walls, it’s a do-able thing in Christchurch, it’s probably a lot easier than any other city, so you can’t just come and do that , you’ve got to bring something else to the table…

Exactly, I think that’s a really good point, in global terms as well, festivals pop up everywhere, every week, the biggest challenge and the most important thing now is to be unique, to have an thematic or ethical standpoint in some regard, you know, say ‘this is what this represents’, it’s not just about getting colour photos in the paper, it’s about achieving some other type of goal, which is really important.

Yeah man, I think so.

Thanks for taking the time to talk, I must say, I’m really looking forward to seeing you exhibit these works…

Yeah man, in the next couple of months, or sooner than that, I’ll be releasing dates, but yeah, it’s coming up soon. We are just kind of doing all the finer background work now, bringing it all together. When I get close to a new show I always like to go out and do some public work as well…

Do the PR act!

It’s just a way of saying ‘I’m not dead, I haven’t become a hermit just yet!’

Thanks Yikes! 

Keep an eye and ear out for Yikes’ upcoming projects on Instagram and Facebook, as well as his website: 

@jacobyikes

https://www.facebook.com/jacobyikes.artist/

http://www.planetyikes.com/

Featured Cover Image Credit: three-six-six media