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

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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/

 

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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)…

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