Thoughtful reflections on the ever evolving street art, murals and graffiti scene in Christchurch, New Zealand
Author: Reuben Woods
Reuben is an art historian, writer and curator. His PhD thesis explored graffiti and street art within post-earthquake Christchurch. He also serves as creative director and lead tour guide for Watch This Space.
Stickers perhaps have the broadest reach of any form of urban art, ranging from handmade to commercially produced, and extending from branding to political to purely aesthetic. Anyone can make a slap and anyone can apply a sticker, increasing their ubiquity in our urban environments. When we need to know anything about stickers, our go-to is Teeth Like Screwdrivers, sticker maven and founder of SlapCity. When we invited him to compile a photo essay, it was always going to be a collection of stickers, but what we didn’t realise was how wide-reaching his iconic pencil slaps have become…
We all love stickers.
From our childhood visits to the dentist, the skate shop, our international luggage or even a daily piece of fruit, stickers are part of our everyday life. For me it started when gazing into the cabinet of my local skate shop and spending what seemed like hours, and all my change, deciding which sticker I wanted. Then after buying ‘The One’, the agonising decision of how and where to stick it would follow. It probably only lasted one session before being destroyed, but that wasn’t the point.
Stickers are simple in every way. They may be the quiet, annoying, street art step-brother to graffiti, stencils and paste-ups, but their simplicity is undeniably appealing.
Stickers are cheap (or better still, free!). They are clean, discreet and you can make them by the hundreds. They fit into your pocket, they are visually compact and can be slapped up with the sleight of hand, quickly and in large numbers. This is their appeal.
Repetition works, and stickers are a perfect medium to demonstrate this principle. As long as stickers are being put up faster than they weather or are cleaned, they are accumulating. – Shepard Fairey
Stickers are the perfect medium for characters, typography, graffiti, illustrations, tags, politics or personal messages. Sometimes a sticker is just made to disrupt your eyeline, hidden in plain sight, fighting against the blandness of the modern cityscape, making passers-by search for a hidden meaning. Stickers are also temporary; the elements and scrapers making short work of their papery fragility.
The sticker family is a close-knit, friendly one. Sticker art started local; getting out and slapping up your own, spotting and recognising other’s work. Packs started being posted internationally; traded, swapped and collected. Now it is easy to get your stuff up in places you would never visit alongside artists you will never meet. You are able to collaborate on pieces and put up combos from artists from all over the world in your hometown. Stickers have made it into galleries and sticker-specific art shows continue to multiply.
Last month I ruminated that March was a strange month, of course, April was no less so, almost its entirety experienced in lockdown here in Aotearoa (only moving to ‘Level 3’ with two days to spare). The rest of the world was in a similar position, and with limited space within which to spread our arms, it felt like we started to notice things differently. Our immediate environment became unavoidable (those dirty windows, peeling paint or leaking tap), and the digital realm an escape where physical flee was impossible. As a result, this month’s list is compiled of those things I encountered in the suburban streets directly within my ‘bubble’, and those I enjoyed online. Surprisingly, in a month where the world essentially stopped and hunkered down, who would have thought a list of cool things would be so easy to compile!
Dr Suits gets slap happy…
The most ubiquitous presence of my suburban bubble has been the subtly diverse array of stickers and paste ups created during the lockdown by Dr Suits. Both tiny and oversized material variations on his abstract studio works on board and glass and his mural works, they are unmistakable, yet distinctive enough to make you stop and look closer. While they have a slick look from distance, their handmade qualities, pulled ink and vinyl cut-outs compiled together to form geometric and gestural collages, make them incredibly interesting to investigate.
Jen_Heads asks what time it is…
It wasn’t just Dr Suits representing Fiksate during the lockdown, Jen_Heads was also busy producing her iconic faces, including a large stay-at-home version featuring the questions we have all had swimming through our heads for the last five weeks… Surely it is beer o’clock, because I’m sure coffee time was like an hour ago, right?
Home – A stay at home mural festival…
Speaking of staying at home (and how can we not at this time?), the good folks at PangeaSeed and the Sea Walls events, along with Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls, created a unique response to the pervasive conditions, staging a mural festival where participants painted their own homes and shared across digital platforms. Alongside the ecological concerns at the heart of Pangea Seed’s spirit, this was also a consideration of how to unify artists and utilise art in this strange time. It proved popular, with hundreds of artists spread across the globe painting murals in their backyards and studio spaces. The programme also included conversations with artists and panel discussions, one of which I was happy to be part of, connecting with artists from far afield…
Artists share the love…
Lots of artists have been using their digital platforms to share their work, and some have even made their work, or specifically made things to be, available for people to use, a gesture of community. From Tom Kerr‘s lino cut sticker tutorial (see our post here), to Daken’s colouring in templates, and Mark Catley’s download-able Stormtrooper paste-up, artists have been sharing their talents and encouraging people to get cre-active (yes, I just coined a new term).
Kids take to the streets…
I have always believed in the human inclination towards public expressions and the lockdown, much like other periods of distress or great change, has seen people taking to the streets to leave their mark, express themselves of communicate with others. And I’m not just talking about the graffiti and urban art that I am normally fixated on. Footpaths have been commandeered by chalk wielding children, writing and drawing and subverting their function. Likewise, fences have been adorned with messages and symbols, symptomatic of the recognition of the potential of public space as a shared environment.
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Graffiti and street art have evolved into more than just the writing on the wall. Leaving alone the problematic expansion into commissioned work and mural festivals and the questions around authenticity and even gentrification, urban art has long been tied to other realms of expression. Of course, the documentation and discussion of graffiti culture as it emerged in the seventies and eighties by academics, writers and, perhaps most notably, photographers, ensured a symbiotic relationship between the art and these orbiting parties. Alongside these forms of investigation and documentation, filmmakers have had a strong presence (Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated of 1981 an early ‘graffiti film’). Both outsiders and those deeply entrenched within the culture have explored, expanded and told the stories of graffiti, street art and the artists who now defy catergorisation through moving image. While some films have attempted to expose many to the mysteries of urban art, others have preferred an informed audience and remained stoically more niche. Some have celebrated the superstars, others have used little known figures to reflect upon more intimate, yet accessible themes. As a result, urban art films reach from mainstream popularity (think Exit Through the Gift Shop) to less grandiose platforms like YouTube and Vimeo.
Following on from our ‘Book Club‘ a few weeks ago, we thought this time we would rope in a couple of friends to give us their favourite graffiti and street art films. We asked TOGO and Berst, both figures with their own experience of producing video content, to name the urban art films that have left the biggest mark on them. If you follow TOGO on social media, you will be familiar with his video productions; embracing chaos, exuding a sense of playfulness and yet always with a thoughtful philosophical beat at heart. It is no surprise that his selections also exhibit those traits. Berst’s Real Time series is a growing documentation of Aotearoa graffiti history, and is surely influenced by the films he has consumed. His picks reflect numerous personal revelations that have fed into his own philosophies and understanding of graffiti culture.
So here, in our opinions and in no particular order, are fourteen urban art films you should check out, starting with a few of our own our picks…
Watch This Space Picks…
Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression (2011)
Vigilante Vigilante , directed by Max Good (who co-wrote with Julien de Benedictus), tells the story of guerrilla buffers, those figures who exercise a self-imposed mandate to eradicate graffiti from city streets. The central premise is that their silencing of the streets is as ideologically problematic as the art they are removing. While it starts as a sleuth-like investigation into the identity of a mysterious buffer in Berkley, it soon expands to highlight other figures and the story only gets stranger and the characters more bizarre.
Martha: A Picture Story (2019)
When I saw Selina Miles’ documentary about famed photographer Martha Cooper, it was with an audience of people around Cooper’s age. However, as the film began, it became clear that Cooper was not your average 70-something. The film is not strictly urban art-focussed, but Cooper’s role in documenting one of the high eras of graffiti and the decades since has made her a beloved figure in the urban art world. And at its heart, Martha is a love letter to a determined, inspiring artist who refuses to submit to expectation and has no desire to slow down.
Beautiful Losers (2008)
Beautiful Losers is another film that isn’t strictly a graffiti or street art film, but in following the scene that emerged out of nineties New York around Alleged Gallery (the film is co-directed by Alleged founder Aaron Rose, with Joshua Leonard), it is tied to the anarchic spirit and influence of urban street culture, and of course features the likes of Steve ‘ESPO’ Powers, Barry McGee and Shepard Fairey. It is whimsical and funny, while also heartfelt, highlighting a time that continues to be so influential upon art and visual culture today.
Inside Out – The People’s Art Project (2013)
While Faces, Places, made with iconic Brazilian filmmaker Agnes Varda, won French artist JR more critical accolades, this HBO documentary, directed by Alistair Siddons, about the Inside Out project that won JR the TED Prize in 2011, is personally preferred, covering of one of the most enduring urban art projects of the last decade. It extends from the rioting streets of Paris to the earthquake stricken favelas of Haiti, exposing the community-centric concept of JR’s work.
Dirty Hands: The Art & Crimes of David Choe (2008)
It’s all or nothing for the wild David Choe and this film, the result of director Harry Kim’s multi-year trailing of the artist, is a case for living unrestrained and defying suppression. It profiles the artist’s life over seven of his most crazy years from big commercial success to a long stint in prison. The film offers a rare insight into an interesting individual who will questionably entice you out of that comfort zone.
The Antics Roadshow (2011)
A look at ‘famous pranks and acts of activism’, this documentary film directed by Banksy and Jainie D’Cruz, affirms all our unruly behaviour and questionable habits. Artists such as Mark Roberts, who streaks at major international sporting events, and Noel Godin, who throws cream pies at celebrities and politicians, are praised and celebrated in this thought-provoking piece of work. Bad intentions can bring good results. And remember, you can always rely on a golfer for a reaction…
Momo Bad Murals (2016)
In this short film, abstract artist MOMO travels around Italy in an attempt to paint bad murals. Illegal, fun and free, his aim is to care less about the outcome of the work and more about the experimentation. It’s an enjoyable and amusing film that reminds us to occasionally take a step back in order to move forward.
The Price of Everything (2018)
Nothing makes you want to paint the streets more than watching auction houses sell paintings for squillions of dollars. The Price of Everything delves into the contemporary art world, examining the relationship between creativity and commodification in today’s money-driven society. While the film, directed by Nathaniel Kahn, reveals how absurd the art market really is, it also provides a fascinating look into what makes art valuable.
Yes, it’s commonplace on lists like this, but none would be complete without it. Go watch it again and tell me otherwise.
Style Wars (1983)
What can I even say about this documentary that probably every single writer in the world hasn’t already said? It’s a timeless classic. It’s a documentary that captured a beautiful moment in history and gives us some insights into the early contexts of graffiti and hip-hop culture. This is definitely a documentary that I have watched quite a few times and happily watch again. Each time I watch it, I learn something a bit different about the movement. The quotes in this are also really memorable particularly the segments from the likes of Seen (“never mind probation…”), Cap (“Blood wars, buddy…”), Skeme (“You do doodle”), Kase 2 (Yeah, I vandalism alright…”), and Min One (“That’s never forgive action”).
I remember watching this for the first time and being blown away by the individual vignettes of each writer. There was a really good cross section of writers doing different things and for the first time, it gave me an insight into the writers’ lives. During this time, I was only tagging and just being introduced to piecing, so Earsnot is a notable standout with his daylight tagging and stories about racking. I was also particularly drawn to Toomer and Saber’s stories. They are examples of two writers who had dedicated themselves to the game and had made some major sacrifices to get up. There are also so many quotes that came from this documentary that my friends and I still say to each other today.
Piece by Piece: The History of San Francisco Graffiti, Documented (2005)
From memory, Piece by Piece was the first DVD I actually purchased and still have. It was accompanied by a little booklet which profiled a couple of main writers from the San Francisco scene. I read this book so many times during my part-time call centre job. I recall reading the Revok, Norm, Saber, and Reyes profiles many times over. It was the first time I actually got to see a city’s graffiti scene through so many different perspectives because they had interviewed so many people. Piece by Piece introduced me to a lot of ideas about inner city bombing, territory, catching high spots, and productions.
Kings Destroy (2006)
I watched this documentary at my friend’s house. I’m not sure how we got it but GBAK had more or less just formed as a crew and after a house party we went out bombing because we were so hyped. The message of this video was to go all city, and this really planted the idea in our minds of how to get up. It’s also one of the first videos that profiled one singular writer and had so many people vouching for him that it instantly gave him this kind of celebrity status. It was interesting because he also showed his identity but at the same time was also painting trains and bombing illegally on the streets.
Dirty Handz 3: Search and Destroy (2006)
The third of three Dirty Handz documentaries, Search and Destroy is definitely the most refined and well put together. The narrator behind the video gets you hooked the moment he starts speaking. It’s almost a video diary of a train writer. Crews like WUFC and SDK lead the way in this video for hardcore train painting in Europe and it is just jam-packed with action. It really showed me what was possible with teamwork and it had a bloody awesome soundtrack as well. It had some hip-hop music but mostly electro and techno vibes which was quite a different to the American representation of graffiti.
That’s our list, what have we missed? let us know…
The lockdown has given us time to get busy making and doing, and with the magic reach of social media and the digital realm, we have been able to see what some of our favourite folks have been doing to pass the time whilst stuck in a vacancy.
We came across Tom Kerr’s (DitchLife Tattoos) Instagram lesson on how to make lino-cut slaps (using his playful, deadbeat riff on the iconic, punk-ish aesthetic of Shepard Fairey’s ‘Andre The Giant Has A Posse’ as the example) and had to share. Enjoy…
How to make a lino-cut sticker in 5 easy steps:
Step One: Find an idea to copy (nothing is original anymore and all good ideas have been taken, so just rip something off and claim you are doing it as a reference to be cool)
Step Two: Do a draft first, either by hand or digital (when lino cutting, it’s best to go big if you want more detail, especially when first starting out. I went really small with too much detail because it was the last piece of lino I had)
Step Three: Transfer your design onto lino. I do this by drawing the design with pencil then placing it on the lino and tracing over the back of the paper, pressing the pencil from the other side onto your lino (this will also invert your design which is crucial if you’re including type)
Step Four: Cut out the design and cover it in paint or printmaking ink if you have it/can be fucked buying it (it’s really good so I recommend it).
Step Five: Get a sticker and press it face down onto your lino (use a rolling pin or your hand or whatever you want, tbh). I also use masking tape to mark our where the edges of my sticker should be to get ’em roughly in the centre.
Final tip! Don’t give up! If they look shit that’s kinda cool anyway and you get better every time! Happy sticker making ya’ll…
At the risk of losing the graffiti purists in the room, while the rebellious and dynamic aesthetics of graffiti were an awakening of how art could be more than what I had experienced as a child, it was stencil art that was a better fit for my personal mode of expression. There are numerous reasons; from the punk aesthetic of early styles, to the specific yet expansive potential of the process. It still embraced the physical nature of aerosol (hard and soft lines, over sprays), but there were also the intricacies of cutting, breaking down an image, and the plates that became stratified objects of interest themselves (from plastic sheets, to light card, or even cereal boxes, the chosen material reflects an important aesthetic decision). Importantly, there was also a conceptual aspect, beyond the stylistic and procedural; something harder to express but imbued within the apparent urgency of street stencils.
While I have spent many hours in small studio spaces cutting and spraying stencils, frustrated at the things that go wrong, exhilarated at the discoveries that unlock new directions, there is something about the presence of stencils in the streets, sprayed directly on rough concrete or worn surfaces. Street stencils are a contemporary incarnation of a primal mode of expression, utilising new cultural references and tools to navigate the current landscape, while exuding a sense of a longer, often political, always existential, lineage.
While it may be the accessible, iconographic visual language stencil artists have harnessed (such as the pop culture imagery almost universally favoured by stencil artists still finding their style) that attracts many, for me, it is this connection to history, the sense that a stencil still represents rebellion, revolution and anarchy. Furthermore, the mechanical nature of the process renders stencils democratic; anyone can cut a stencil and produce an image. Of course there are stencil ‘superstars’, but there are also countless anonymous stencils, reveling in that anonymity and the act of painting in the streets.
The following images have been taken from the last decade, from Ōtautahi, around Aotearoa and even abroad. Some are by well-known artists, others are completely anonymous. Some are fresh and sharp, others faded and obscured. Some are sprayed on surfaces that make the image harder to comprehend, others play off the graffiti covered walls. Some are figurative, some use phrases, some are explicitly political, others harder to decipher. But each is an example of someone acting out, becoming part of that lineage and grasping the inherent qualities of stencils…
March 2020 will be a month that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. There were a number of things happening, from art-related shows and projects, to the anniversary of the Christchurch Terror Attacks (and the perpetrator’s guilty plea), all with the hovering threat of the Covid-19 pandemic spreading around the globe. Then, in the final few days of the month, the country, along with much of the world, was sent into lock down. Social distancing became the catch-cry, and with it, social events and occasions were postponed, cancelled or digitised (Houseparty anyone? No, maybe Zoom?) With such an overbearing event casting a long shadow, in the coming years it may prove hard to remember anything else from this month, but we thought it was best to reflect on the things that still excited us and share that goodness, from projects that brought communities together, to small moments caught unexpectedly, this was March 2020…
Halves on an Exhibition – Harry King and Reece Brooker
March started with a sense of normality (despite what was happening around the world), when Friday nights meant you could go out and socialise. On March 6th, we headed down to Outsiders, the St Asaph Street skate store that for one night became host to Halves on an Exhibition?, a show by A Tribe Called Haz (Harry King) and Reece Brooker. King’s acidic and surreal style has developed over the last year, and his pop-up shows have an endearing anarchic and anti-traditional energy to match his work. Some of this newer body of work depicted seemingly post-apocalyptic landscapes that combined low-brow with decadence, devoid of presence and looking like the vacant scene of some horrific act, while others illustrated the clear influence of tattoo and skate culture with simple imagery. King’s art is proudly chaotic and laced with humour, but also shows an increasingly refined technical approach, his handling of line and watercolour notable in its confidence. Brooker was a new name for us. An arborist, his work added a different sense of materiality; painting circular panels cut from trees to frame his motley, at times fantastical characters.
One of my favourite things about urban art and particularly smaller urban additions, such as stickers, is the ability to make you double take and look closer. Those small interventions that make you think you recognise something, asking yourself, surely that isn’t… is it? In doing so we are surprised and made more aware of our environment, often left with an urge to investigate, or at least a nagging wonder about what we just saw and who might have been behind it. I had that experience in early March, casually strolling past Te Puna o Waiwhetu – The Christchurch Art Gallery on Montreal Street. As I passed the Bunker and Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s video arcade game inspired piece, a small circular sticker caught my eye. I did the double take as I passed, then stopped, back tracking. I was right, it was a nipple, an urban nipple on the lamppost. The sticker is one of a number of interventions under the Urban Nipple project (Instagram: @UrbanNIPPLE), intended to encourage the return of the banned nipple into our shared lives through humorous interactions, getting people to think about sexism and discrimination.
FOLT Skull Collabs
I first started noticing FOLT stickers a few months ago, from the handwritten tags and deconstructed skateboards to the block printed, angular graphic versions, and they have been a personal favourite since. Recently, that sticker profile has expanded to sculptural installations, with an array of wooden skull cut outs appearing around the city. In March, the skulls were fixed to various sites, inviting people to hunt out the various incarnations. The skulls include both exclusive FOLT productions and several collaborations, including with local artists Bols and Jen_Heads. Hopefully we can see more in the future, because if the attention of the lady while I was photographing one was anything to go by, they are intriguing additions to our cityscape…
TOGO – Toy Stories
On a personal level, my month was made by the arrival of TOGO’s Toy Stories publication on door step. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the limited run, and I am glad I didn’t miss out. It is a beautiful thing, the understated cover concealing the funny anecdotes and intimate photographs inside. It is full of humour and importantly exhortations and revelations, celebrating graffiti’s compulsive rebellion. A combination of specific stories of memorable nights and close-shaves, mantra-like prose detailing the realities of graffiti life and photographs of urban space from the creases (a sense of the embrace of the perihperies permeates the grainy images), Toy Stories jumped the pile of books I have been meaning to read and has already been digested…
These were some of our favourite things from March 2020, what made your list? Let us know in the comments…
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The Covid 19 enforced lock down period will have an undeniably massive impact on all facets of our lives, potentially permanently altering our routines. It is important maintain our mental health, and, for me, making and consuming art are vital aspects of my personal balance. I have been promising to catch up on the growing stacks of books at home for months and now I have this unforeseen time to finally make a dent. Urban art has a long relationship with the written word and documented image (graffiti itself is typographical, and slogan-based street art has a long lineage including The Gorilla Girls and John Fekner), from the early classics to the increasingly flashy publications of today. For an initially underground art movement, new publications (not to mention online content) emerge regularly, from big publishing houses or independent sources, echoing the complex (and at times contradictory) nature of contemporary urban art. Graffiti and street art books have spanned a range of approaches: seminal explorations of emerging creative cultures, academic studies, artist monographs, historical documents, surveys of themes and specific geographic locations, photographic collections and publications accompanying exhibitions and events.
We figured this was a perfect time to discuss some of our favourite urban art books. This is not a ‘best of’ compilation, nor are these entries reviews as such. It is intended to show an array of books, each with something that grabbed us; from the conceptual content to the pure beauty of the physical object, or even historical importance, these are the pages we love. There are also plenty more not included here, books we plan to share with you in the coming weeks on our Instagram page (think of it like a book club), so please let us know which books you would include on your list…
Subway Art – Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper (Thames & Hudson, 1984)
What else could start this list? Perhaps the most revered graffiti book of all time, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s 1984 documentation of the rising force of New York graffiti is responsible for inspiring waves of future writers. Tatty copies, sometimes photocopied, are regularly cited by graffiti artists as their introduction to the culture, used as a guidebook for early attempts. Part of the success of Subway Art comes from its accessibility, avoiding overwrought analysis and focussing on the visual images (Cooper and Chalfant are primarily photographers), but it was also perfectly timed, coinciding with the seminal documentary Style Wars (of which Chalfant was a co-producer with Tony Silver). To put it bluntly, if Subway Art isn’t in your collection, you aren’t doing it right…
Getting Up – Subway Graffiti in New York – Craig Castleman (MIT Press, 1982)
Craig Castleman’s 1982 tome on graffiti culture may not have quite reached the popular status of Subway Art, but it is, for some, equally as important. A sociological study of graffiti culture, Getting Up surveys the youthful graffiti subculture blossoming on New York City subway trains, documenting and explaining many of the concepts that remain central tenets of graffiti today. This might be more of a specialist read due to its academic nature (although it is concise and straightforward), but ultimately it is a reminder of graffiti’s extension beyond art or crime, and into something representative of an entire culture that has spread across the globe. Castleman’s candid interviews revealed the self-constructed community of graffiti and positioned it as a more complicated network than it was considered at the time.
The Faith of Graffiti – Norman Mailer and Jon Naar (Harper Collins, 1974)
To keep the theme of important early writing going, The Faith of Graffiti is another example of how graffiti writing was capturing the public imagination in the early-to-mid 1970s. While many dismissed graffiti as a plague that was breaking down civil society, others were fascinated by its mysterious nature and practitioners. Norman Mailer, the well-known writer and social critic, brought his own flair to photographer Jon Naar’s images of the infant graffiti culture. Mailer takes on the role of aesthetic investigator (or A1 as his tag moniker in the style of his subject), and interviews members of the subculture before considering the city of New York’s political response to the youthful art movement and even making art historical comparisons. In a sense, Mailer’s stature gave graffiti a legitimacy it was never seeking. The words though are only part of the book, Naar’s photographs providing the necessary visual vibrancy that give Mailer’s writing life and context.
Wall Writers – Graffiti in its Innocence – Roger Gastman (Gingko Press, 2016)
Roger Gastman’s Wall Writers accompanies a documentary of the same name about graffiti in its early days. It features an impressive number of interviews with key figures, including Cornbread, Taki 183, LSD OM, Snake I, Cay 161, Junior 161 and Cool Earl. It brings together the keys places, figures, groups and documentarians from the early phases of graffiti writing culture, including dalliances with the art world. Wall Writers unveils the social and historical climate that birthed graffiti as a subculture, including the birth of aerosol, the phenomenon of Kilroy Was Here, and advertising and social messaging. The fascinating social ephemera, along with the personal stories and photographs, make Wall Writers a beautiful production that comes close to what it was really like in those early days, perhaps just with cleaner pages.
The History of American Graffiti – Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon (Harper Collins, 2011)
Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon’s thick survey of American graffiti essentially takes on an impossible task, the authors even admitting as much, recalling one interviewee declaring that: “Anyone who tries to tell you the history of graffiti is either a liar or a fool.” But while it can never be definitive, it is most certainly exhaustive, with stories and images from cities and regions from coast to coast, and including more specific offshoots of the culture (including freight train painting, graffiti inside galleries and the rise of street art). With images sourced from a huge number of contributors, it is a fascinating insight into how graffiti has mutated in different areas, and yet how consistent influences remain central. Its compartmentalised format also makes it more easily digestible, allowing readers to jump into different cities rather than following a traditional narrative.
The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti – Rafael Schacter (Yale University Press, 2013)
Rafael Schacter’s compendium of Independent Public Art (a term he adapts from Javier Abarca) is a globetrotting survey of the new school of public art practices that have emerged out of graffiti and post-graffiti. From ephemeral interventions to technological approaches, the litany of terms considered is intriguing: emotional advertising, symbolic figurative graffiti, conceptual vandalism, hacktivism, bibliographic bombing, and existentialist graffiti to name a few. A reminder of how far these interventionist practices have come, it is thoughtful and yet approachable. Unlike The History of American Graffiti, which attempts a similar, albeit more defined, geographic scope, Schacter’s Atlas does not seek to recount a history, but to take a snapshot of these artists and their diverse practices, and in doing so, reveal the growing maturity of contemporary urban art as a form of new public art. Schacter also includes a selection of maps made by artists to represent their hometowns, with favourites including Momo’s New York journey and Lush’s typical caustic cartography of Melbourne. For good measure it includes Askew and BMD in the ‘Rest of the World’ section.
Trespass – A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art – Ethel Seno, ed. (Taschen, 2010)
Edited by Ethel Seno and featuring contributions from Carlo McCormick and Marc and Sara Schiller from the Wooster Collective, Trespass is a more cerebral exploration of the rebellious aspects of urban art. Less pictorial (although still a good looking book), it is the essays that consider the various strands of un-permissioned art (even the distinction between terms such as illegal, uncommissioned and un-permissioned is an interesting discussion) within the urban landscape that take centre stage, from legal status, public space, and counter-consumerism, to urban folk art and environmental approaches. Trespass importantly reminds us of the importance of transgression in urban art, a fact that can sometimes be downplayed in blockbuster shows, crowd friendly festivals and commissioned (and especially commercial) projects. To celebrate such aspects is not an easy task in a published book, where external forces may require concession, but Trespass is able to build an interconnected history of urban art’s disruptive potential.
We Own the Night – The Art of The Underbelly Project – Workhorse and PAC (Rizzoli, 2012)
Workhorse and PAC’s documentation of the secretive Underbelly Project, which saw artists invited to paint an abandoned network of subway tunnels in New York, is like a ticket to an exclusive party. The project itself was so clandestine that even artists were blindfolded as they were taken underground. The book is a revealing insight into an inaccessible gallery now closed forever (or at least until a new generation of urban explorers finds the tunnels and its painted walls). The eerie setting is perfect for a book, silence is a key quality and reinforces the isolation of the project, while the spot-lit images, darkened in the corners, provide a sense of being amongst the creepy surroundings, unsure of each strange creak and crack. Spanning several years, The Underbelly Project saw an impressive array of talent paint the aged concrete, from Logan Hicks, Ron English and dabs Myla, to Dan Witz, Lady Aiko and Remi Rough. Much like Trespass, We Own the Night celebrates the rebellious and outsider qualities or urban art.
Flip the Script – A Guidebook for Aspiring Vandals and Typographers – Christian P. Acker (Gingko, 2013)
Christian P. Acker’s typographic text is similar to a number of font-inspired books, but is also a fascinating insight into regional hand-styles across the U.S. It is sweeping in locations and time periods, painstakingly recreating letter forms to create a database of styles, revealing the various folk inspirations behind little details. Contributors present full alphabets of their signature style, while Philadelphia’s Wickets are a uniquely specific example explored in depth as well. As the styles pile up, it becomes impossible to not start imitating as the intricacies are revealed and the reason behind those little details become apparent. Acker presents graffiti hand-styles as folk-inspired calligraphy, type designer Christian Schwartz comparing his field recording approach to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s work with folk music in the 20th century. Flip the Script is also a beautiful book, bound in black cloth and restrained in a blue and grey palette, it is clearly a passion project.
InForm – New Zealand Graffiti Artists Discuss Their Work – Elliot O’Donnell (Reed, 2007)
Elliot ‘Askew’ O’Donnell is not only one of Aotearoa’s most revered artists (let’s be honest, he is a global powerhouse now), he is also a key voice in the discourses around graffiti and urban art. After founding Disrupt with Pest5/Johnny 4Higher, Askew was already acknowledged as a leader of the New Zealand scene by the early 2000s, and InForm, produced in 2007, was another string to that bow. A combination of a snapshot of the scene and a process guidebook, it features the country’s biggest names, interviewed and then photographed painting, their pieces documented at each stage from outline to complete. It is an impressive undertaking for its time and reaffirms the primary status of graffiti in New Zealand urban art culture. While Auckland is heavily featured, and as expected the heavyweight TMD crew, Ōtautahi is well represented by Dcypher, Lurq and Pest5 (who had relocated to Auckland by that time).
Toy Stories – TOGO (137k Gallery, 2020)
The newest book on this list, TOGO’s recently published Toy Stories might be one of my favourite things from 2020. The minimal cover, in TOGO’s signature pastel pink, conceals the energy that the nomadic artist is known for. Mischief and compulsion are central themes, captured in TOGO’s en scene photography and anecdotal writing, all based on real experience. Toy Stories makes apparent the feelings and sensory realities of graffiti and urban exploration, all with a combination of zine-like zest and elegant production. In many ways, this is a manifesto, part written word, part visual image, yet all direct, including the documentation of paint splattered garments and shoes, brushes, a balaclava and bolt cutters in a manner akin to a museum catalogue. Toy Stories is an impressive analogue addition to TOGO’s digital documentation of a graffiti artist’s life on the peripheries and a unique addition to Aotearoa’s urban art scene, a beautiful object as an artist book, and yet undeniably authentic.
So, that’s our list, what have we missed? Let us know in the comments and follow us on Instagram for more book club entries…
Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:
Josh Bradshaw’s Arcane Connection is the second in our series of photo essays, and for the man occasionally known as Uncle Harold, it is, at first glance, something of a departure. This series of photographs signifies Bradshaw’s exploration of a range of new artistic and creative directions, visually distinct and yet still connected to the established body of work produced under his well-known pseudonym.
For the artist, the similarities are both apparent, yet hard to define. Josh explains his struggle to define his expanding approaches: “I often find myself tripping over my words and struggling to make sense when explaining anything about my work or why I make it to anyone. It’s all the same thing to me, my photos, my paintings, my writings, my drawings, they are all the same. It’s all very obvious in my head, although I’m not sure many others would think the same.” However, despite his dismissive shoulder shrug, the connection between Bradshaw’s wider body of work becomes apparent through reflection.
The images collected for Arcane Connection are not just a survey of urban experience and immersion, they also reveal a deeper consideration. As Uncle Harold, Bradshaw has constantly transformed the ordinary, melting familiar icons and objects and forcing us to reconsider our attachment to the mundane. These images similarly explore the overlooked. Not only does Bradshaw re-contextualise the functional aspects of the urban landscape through a stark black and white geometry, he also reveals his interest in their suggestion of connectivity, movement and exploration. By repetitively documenting the ‘urban white noise’ of human constructions such as pipes, vents, drains, hurricane fencing and architectural forms, Bradshaw attempts to make sense of his surroundings and our increasing disconnect in the digital age. Arcane Connection is an invitation to do the same…
All photos are credited to Josh Bradshaw
Thanks to Jessie Rawcliffe for her help on this piece!
February flew by, right? I mean, it literally seemed like I blinked and it was over. But if there is anyone who can fit a lot into what seems like a little, it is Fiksate’s Jen Heads. The artist, MC, gallerist, and mother is always juggling a range of projects. So it was natural for her to compile And That Was… for February, after all, she has hosted international artists, been the creative force behind a cool festival presence, and taken in some sights and sounds. In no particular order, here are the things that made Jen’s February…
The honor of hosting international artists Robert Seikon and Anastasia Papaleonida at Fiksate was a highlight of January and February. Alongside watching them produce such high-caliber art, hanging out and getting to know them was awesome. We introduced them to faces and places around Christchurch, including our local beach, to which Robert responded: “super beach, very nice, very nice” (His accent was pretty epic!). They were the best people. <3
As part of their residency, I was able to facilitate a large-scale mural for Robert and Anastasia on private property for a pretty well-known local company. You can see the mural from the street if you are down Lismore Street (just respect their private property). It’s an amazing mural and using such bright colours pushed them out of their comfort zone. I feel Christchurch really lacks abstract murals, so this is an important addition to our city’s collection. I loved watching their process from start to finish. They work together so well, they are incredibly precise and fast. Inspiring.
RDU 98.5fm had stages in three festivals this summer – Beer Fest, Nostalgia and Electric Ave. I was asked to realise the design concept for their crew and stages, based around the star of the show, Ziggy Starlet – a 1987 Starlet with a full sound system and DJ booth installation, it had a retro race vibe. In a pretty massive task I produced signage, banners and props for them. I am pretty stoked on the results!
On a smaller scale, I found an aged Jen Head in New Brighton. It was like looking into the future…
As an MC, getting to meet and watch an idol of mine, Stamina MC, was a huge highlight! He performed live at the Sun & Bass BBQ gig at FLUX, Christchurch’s newest bar and venue, along with DJs Asides, Tbone and Patlife.
For the month of January Fiksate became a second home for itinerant artists Robert Seikon and Anastasia Papaleonida, the gallery’s first international residents. While Seikon is Polish, the couple are based in Greece, Papaleonida’s home country. That international flavor is further enhanced by their travels, with their arrival in Aotearoa following a stay in the Philippines and an exhibition in Taiwan. During their residency, I was able to spend time with the endearing duo. It was fascinating watching the two, who have been working together for almost twelve months, operate in the studio, each maintaining their distinct stylistic identity, while investigating the potential of collaboration. The artists alternate between a hyper-focus on their individual contributions and conferences around subtle details of composition and colour. But it is not just the studio where their collaborations flourish, with their work appearing on walls in numerous locations, including a number of works produced during their stay in Christchurch. While Seikon’s background in graffiti provides a lineage for this public practice, Papaleonida is relatively new to this approach, coming from a design foundation, bringing a unique consideration to their creative process. Their pairing has resulted in visually stunning works, where sharp, angular aspects contrast with organic elements, creating optical effects that invite the viewer to immerse themselves in the image, only to discover small, unsettling details that disrupt expectation, rewarding inspection. We caught up with Robert and Anastasia as their exhibition Long Trip of the Kokos drew near, taking in the sights and delights of Lyttelton, sitting down for a discussion about their experiences in Christchurch and New Zealand, their collaborative partnership and the differences working indoors and outside…
Welcome to Aotearoa! How long have you been in the country now?
RS: We have been here for one month already. It’s very nice.
What are your perceptions of New Zealand so far?
AP: Everything is very organized and super clean! You are in the middle of nowhere and there’s a bathroom with a paper, it’s like, what the fuck?! And in general, the people are super nice.
RS: It’s not only the toilets that are clean! The grass is cut everywhere, fresh walls are repainted, everything is clean. You get the feeling you are at the end of the world, that you are very far away. But everyone is super friendly, you feel comfortable as soon as you get out of the airport.
As artists, do the distinct atmospheres of different cities and countries start to influence your work?
RS: It makes a difference for sure. Here for example, during our trip from the North Island to the South Island, the landscape was changing almost every hour. The landscapes in New Zealand combine parts of European landscapes all together, which is very interesting for us. All the colors and shapes we have seen during this trip have made a big impact on us.
Both of you work in abstraction. What specific influences have fed into the recurring motifs in your work? Have they come from real world references?
AP: For me, it’s about landscapes, plants, organic things…
RS: For me it is both the natural landscape and the urban environment. But in this case, for this exhibition, I think mostly the landscape, because we have worked with the memories that we have collected over the last few weeks of being in New Zealand. Sometimes I like to be inspired by the city, but here it hasn’t been the case. If we work with a wall in the city, the surrounding area is going to inspire the wall, but for this exhibition the influence is mostly the natural landscape.
There is an interesting interplay between your individual approaches; Anastasia, your more organic forms that seem to reference the cellular and biological, while Robert, your lines and geometric forms seem more hard-edged. While those aspects are quite distinct, the colors seem much more of a collaborative component…
RS: We enjoy talking about color.
AP: Yes, on this trip we have worked a lot more with color. In the past we didn’t have the opportunity to do that much, we were working a lot with black and white.
RS: In general, we like to use black and white.
AP: But, after this trip, travelling in the Philippines and here, the colors we have seen have been amazing and we have started to mix more colours. With all the work we have prepared for this exhibition, we have mixed I don’t know how many colors…
RS: We haven’t used straight black like we have before. Everything is mixed with something…
AP: The vision that we have for the exhibition is to create an atmosphere that is unique, which comes through not using straight black like we have in the past.
This body of work has been created as part of your residency at Fiksate. You have noted the influence of your travels, but did you already have an idea of the work you were going to make when you arrived in Christchurch, or has the experience of the residency, the place and people, inspired the works as well?
AP: It has been interesting to work with other people around. For me, often when I’m working on something new, it takes time before I realize that something is happening for a particular reason. I can’t always see it at the time, but when I look back I can see that it came from somewhere…
I’ve noticed that your shared work station is very organized, from paint cups numbered in a spectrum of tints, to the way tools are laid out, is that something that has developed as part of your working relationship, or was it always evident individually?
RS: I think that is something we’ve both had from the past. Me, I always like to be precise and clean. We don’t even talk about it. We’ve got the same thinking in common…
Is that sense of order intrinsically necessary to make the work look the way it does, or is it just a comforting aspect? I’m sure you are both very particular about the clean lines, the perfect dots, the sharp shapes and the smooth gradients, so that organisation must be important in achieving those effects, right? In the studio you can control those elements a little bit more, but do you have the same level of preparedness and organization when you’re painting outdoors?
RS: Oh yes, I like to prepare my bag the day before, so I am ready to have breakfast and go. Then, the morning before painting, I check everything is in my bag; the roller, the sketchbook…
AP: You need this, you need this… Outdoors, it’s like a small studio because you are spending hours in that place and you need your stuff in specific places, so it is free for the wall and for your movements…
There is a physicality to the way each of you work, a physical activity that goes into creating the details, from precise movements to more sweeping gestures. I’ve noticed that when you are working in the studio, while there are times when you’re both working on the same piece, often one of you is active and the other is either observing or off to the side, is that simply to give each other the physical space for these movements?
AP: To be honest I haven’t thought about that before, but maybe, now that you’re saying it, it does work like that, because when someone wants to do something more precise, you need to give him the space to do it…
RS: It’s a good observation. When we work, for example when Anastasia is working and I’ve got a small break, I’m also thinking about the things that I will do next, I’m waiting for Anastasia to move so I can get another answer, you know? It’s like, this little bit here is developing, so what is going to happen next?
AP: It’s not like we are doing sketches and they are the final product. When we create something, we will always add something new, because that touch goes like that, or this line goes like this, and we look at the balance and realize that maybe something new needs to be done. I think this is very interesting because we don’t really know what the final image will be.
RS: We don’t really know what will happen.
AP: And you build that slowly with small moves, it becomes a surprise…
Anastasia, it feels like your dots would have a more spontaneous nature, while Robert, your diagonal lines would be more carefully planned and constructed. But, is that actually the case, or are you both more balanced in your approach?
RS: The biggest similarity we have is that when we are working, we are super focused. You go inside an element and nothing can disturb you. Both of us are very focused on the process of our work. I don’t know, even if the lines or the dots are repeated forms, they can be created from elements all around us, even though they are clean, they can be natural as well.
Your studio output will become the exhibition, Long Trip of the Kokos, but you will also paint several outdoor commissions as well, each in very different settings. Is it important to get out of the studio?
RS: We like to change the environment around us. After spending weeks preparing the exhibition, we have had enough of the studio. We couldn’t start next week again in the studio. I like to have a change when I’m painting, it’s refreshing.
AP: What we will do on these walls will be a continuation of the inspiration that we have drawn from already. Although, with the Cosmic wall [a commission at the warehouse of iconic funk store Cosmic], we will work with a lot of colours, which is something we haven’t done much together. That will be very interesting for us…
Do you ever reflect on being in the position where you can travel to places and leave something of a legacy through painting public works? Do they create a connection to place that average tourists don’t necessarily get?
AP: To be honest, I’m not thinking about that so much, that I will leave this wall as a legacy. It’s more about the process, the time that I’m spending doing it, the time that I’m painting, the people that are around, the interactions with people, the small talk, a question or a smile…
RS: And the moment you finish the artwork, that’s it. You are doing it until that final moment. I’m always crazy happy when I’m painting, when I’m doing something, then the moment I’m satisfied it’s finished, it is for other people from that point. I have made my thing, this is it. I’m very happy if someone gets positive vibes or can see something interesting, but I don’t need feedback. It’s all about the process, like Anastasia said, the process is going to stay in our memories.
The studio environment is secure, but also isolating, it is different from a public presence where those small conversations can more easily take place…
AP: It is very nice to have a connection with people, but also the work carries on, it is seen by people that you don’t meet, even if they don’t say anything, or they say or think something bad…
RS: But here we have been very surprised about how people have reacted to our art. We were traveling here without any expectations, we said: ‘let’s go to New Zealand and see what happens…’ But both of us are very surprised by how people have reacted…
In all of your travel, are there moments of engaging with people while working on a painting or mural that stand out?
RS: I mean, it doesn’t need to be anything special, it can just be small things, you know, you wake up and you see people and they’re happy in the morning…
AP: In Estonia, there was this old lady, every day she was coming and checking, without any expression. I mean every day, seven days we were there, and every day she checked with no expression. Then when we were finished, she finally said: ‘Yes, it’s nice.’
I wanted to ask about the title of the show Long Trip of the Kokos, what does it refer to?
RS: The story behind the title, comes from when we were in the Philippines. We saw a lot of kokos [coconuts] and they were traveling, somehow, they would go to the water, they were moved by the ocean, they would jump to the other islands. We thought maybe we are a little bit like these kokos, travelling and stopping here to make this small mark. This exhibition is the mark of these small travelers coming here to grow a little bit.
This is an audience that you haven’t really had much experience with, but based on what you’ve experienced so far at Fiksate, and the people who have come through, have you been able to get a gauge of what you might expect?
AP: You know, we don’t really know what is going to happen…
RS: We are not expecting anything, but we don’t really make work in that way.
AP: All the thinking was to make these works because of the inspiration this experience has given us. It isn’t about what we will sell, it’s more about what we would love to present.
RS: We like working in this very expressive way. We have thoughts. We start to talk about it. We have a conversation, and then we say: ‘OK, let’s do it, why not? Let’s see what will happen…’ We didn’t expect anything, but we have already very positive feedback.
AP: Yes, although I am still not sure about how the audience will respond to our point of view on abstract.
Right, abstraction has become more and more prevalent within both urban contemporary and mural practice, but New Zealand can lag behind in some trends. Fiksate recently staged their Urban Abstract show and that was perhaps quite new for a lot of the audience, who might have been more accustomed to letter forms, figurative stencils and illustrations, and representational murals…
AP: I was thinking about that, because in most of the cities we have visited, the murals are pretty figurative, abstraction doesn’t seem to be as popular.
RS: But the abstract things here are on a good level. Sculptures or installations, they seem to be in good taste, which we were happy to see.
Robert, you have investigated translating your work into sculptural forms, right?
RS: Yes but not a crazy big amount, I am just beginning to touch on this direction. I started some years ago. It is not super easy to do, but I want to keep going because it gives me different positive vibes…
It seems like more and more artists are translating their work in different ways, into objects, installations, using light, projections, etc. It seems that more doors are open for artists from the urban realm, due to the popularity and visibility of muralism. Anastasia, how do you think your work would translate into a three-dimensional, or kinetic form?
AP: I have worked with smaller forms of sculpture, but I am probably more interested in installations. I have a lot of ideas, and I’m going to keep going with other projects.
How do you operate in terms of having your own distinct paths as artists while still collaborating? Are you constantly working on your own things and then coming together for certain projects, or has it become more and more about the collaboration?
RS: We like to work in both ways, it depends of the project. Especially for this exhibition, it’s all about collaborative work. It’s nice for us to have the chance to involve our personal distinct paths and create something together.
AP: This is an interesting way to work because we have the opportunity for a dialogue.
It has only been just under a year that you’ve been working together…
AP: Almost a year.
That’s a relatively short time, so there is obviously a lot more to explore within your creative partnership. But long-term working partnerships can sometimes see the distinctions between each artist deteriorate, and a unified aesthetic develop, is that something you are consciously trying to avoid, or do you see it happening?
RS: That is a very open question, because already this year, new things have developed that can support our personal projects and we obviously have days when we want to create something by ourselves. The process is going here and the process is going there and we can mix those possibilities together. It’s super open for us.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year? When do you leave New Zealand?
RS: We leave on the 10th of February. We will go back home to Greece, and then we have something in Germany and a project in France, another project in Slovakia and that’s it for the moment. Maybe a small holiday after that…
It seems like travel is just an engrained part of the urban art movement…
RS: It’s not for everybody though. I’ve got artist friends who do not travel at all, they stay in the studio and that’s it.
AP: And for some artists it is not that important, I mean they feel better in their studio. It depends on the artist.
RS: For me, travel is the research about new places. From when I started painting, my city started to be like, OK, I’ve seen all the streets, all the nice places, I’ve painted here, I’ve painted there, but I need to search for more possibilities. I need to see different things that could inspire me, collect new knowledge and have that energy, this is important in my creative process.
How do you make your work resonate with different places? With abstraction, you aren’t using explicit cultural references, which can be a minefield anyway. Is your visual language such a personal reflection that it doesn’t necessarily need to display that connection to place in any overt way?
RS: I started to realize this a short time ago to be honest, I was traveling for many years and just reached a point where I’ve got things that I start to talk about and understand more. Now, I keep collecting those ideas as I travel, and they come out in my work.
AP: I think it’s important to observe what’s going on in any country because I don’t want to offend anyone. For example, in the Philippines, black is very bad. It’s the color of death. The associations of black mean you don’t use it. We tried to find it in the paint stores, but you couldn’t. When we went there, we didn’t realize how important it was to not use black, but we adapted over the month we were there and we started to realize more things that were important for people there, especially since we were painting a lot on small houses in the middle of the forest.
The chance to do research isn’t as easy for some artists, who might not have the luxury of a site visit or to acclimatize, especially if you are moving from job to job and have to hit the ground running in any new place you find yourself…
RS: The perfect situation is where you come to the place and you’ve got some time to prepare, not just going to a place with the sketch, painting it and leaving…
AP: Although it might not be possible, because if you do a big mural, you often need to give something to the people to see…
RS: Yes, but for us, we like to say, this is the sketch but by the end it is going to be a bit different…
Do you want to say thank you to anyone from your time in New Zealand?
AP & RS: Thank you to Fiksate Gallery for the trust and to all crazy positive people that we met during our stay in New Zealand…