Hello 413 Local Gallery!

I recently caught up with Jay ‘Daken’ Skelton in advance of the opening of his new exhibition space 413 Local Gallery, based out of A.J. Creative Glass on Tuam Street. We sat down at Switch Espresso in New Brighton as he took a break from painting a wall in the café (featuring a gnarly giant octopus no less) to give us the low down on his vision for 413 Local, how it came about and what has inspired him in the process. The new space will open on October 4th with a group show of local artists, Hello Christchurch, a celebration of connections to and reflections upon the Garden City…

Jay, you are in the process of opening a new exhibition space, 413 Local Gallery, how did that opportunity come about and what approach will you be taking to shows?

I work with my parents, they own their own business, A.J. Creative Glass, and they came to me about three or four months ago and asked if I wanted to take part of the big showroom at the front of the store and turn it into a gallery space. They know that I have always wanted to do something like this, and like anyone in my position I guess, I jumped at the chance. So, now we are in the process of building walls that will make up this exhibition space and building towards our opening show. As the name suggests, I want people to represent their local, wherever they are from, whatever represents them as a person or as a community, and to show it through their art, whether that’s painting, drawing, sculpture, or any other medium…

Does that mean showing artists whose work explicitly deals in those themes, or encouraging artists to engage in such ideas through the shows the gallery will host?

I think it is a little bit of both. In the beginning, I want the first couple of shows to focus on local artists and to give them a stage to show their work, representing Christchurch obviously. But as we grow I would like to bring in people from other countries or different parts of the country and the work itself doesn’t have to be focused on where they are from, but I feel like any artist who makes art, there is a little bit of them that goes into it, you know what I mean?

That creates an interesting platform, what people or spaces have informed the gallery’s identity, because that idea of community might share a kinship with certain types of galleries, while your own experiences might suggest connections to other ‘art worlds’, particularly the rising kind of urban/low-fi scene that is growing in Christchurch…

There are a couple that come to mind straight off the bat. One is Fiksate obviously, everyone there has been super kind to me, and I’ve been part of shows there with so many different people from so many different backgrounds, it has been inspiring. Also my time at ARA, formerly CPIT, is still important to me, especially the experience of being in a classroom with really diverse classmates, like being one of only three males and the rest of the class were female, as well as the fact that people were all from different countries and backgrounds, that was definitely inspiring in terms of my relationships with people. I think people’s stories impact me a lot, and knowing what makes someone ‘them’ is so important…

You have a graffiti background, and I think you would also pretty proudly fly your ‘pop culture nerd’ flag as well…

Yep!

Do you think that those interests will influence the type of artists and work you show? I know we all like certain things and gravitate towards them in our expressions, so will your passions inform the identity of 413?

Definitely, but I’m actually looking at this space as a bit of a transformative moment for me. I have always done very bold, very colourful, graffiti, comic book, cartoonish stuff. I want to keep that, or at least keep some elements of that, but also, I want to add some more aspects, to try and bring my graffiti background into a more refined process. So yeah, I’m kind of like a butterfly, you know, I want to try and evolve…

 

Switch Espresso cafe table painted by Jay "Daken" Skelton, 2018.
Switch Espresso cafe table painted by Jay “Daken” Skelton, 2018.

To emerge from your cocoon, wings spread out! (Laughs)

Exactly! (Laughs)

There is a sense that there is much more freedom for artists to engage with a wider array of things. Are there any particular artists who have inspired that desire to evolve? For example, I’m such a fan of Revok and the directions he has gone in over time, from graffiti to process driven abstraction, is there anyone like that who has been an influence?

It’s funny that you say that, because Revok is someone I follow closely on Instagram, because I find it so interesting how far he has taken it, from being such a hardcore graffiti person to pretty much now doing straight up abstract art. Also, Chimp’s show Aliases at Fiksate, the jump that he talked about, how he was just a graffiti guy and now trying to go more into the contemporary area, I found that quite interesting. Off the top of my head though, it’s really hard to name people, there’s are heaps of people who influence me in that way!

Yeah, like, here’s a million things, pick three! (Laughs)

Yeah!

So, tell me more about Hello Christchurch, which opens on the 4th of October, who is involved and who are you excited about?

We have thirteen different artists, I think. We’ve got the likes of Porta (Clint Park), Uncle Harold, Josha Holland, Morepork, Louann Sidon, oh, and my dad’s in it! My dad growing up did a lot of art projects, but he never really committed to being an artist. He doesn’t consider himself an artist, but I think he is an artist. There is a whole bunch of people, and I’m looking forward to seeing all of them. They are all going to bring something different and exciting to the table.

The show’s title, and its expression of a connection to place, reflects what you talked about in your vision for the gallery. When you developed the idea for this show, what were you hoping to encourage artists to think about?

Hello Christchurch, it’s an opening, so it’s literally a ‘hello’. I guess I wanted people to look at where they live, and how it makes them happy, to think about the things that they see around and feel about Christchurch and how they put into those things into their art. I told everyone that they could do anything they wanted, use whatever material, as long as it relates back to Christchurch in some way, even if it is the smallest thing, just something that relates to Christchurch and what it means to them.

Have you had any previews of work yet?

Funnily enough, no! I have no idea what anyone is doing, except my best friend, who works at A.J. Creative Glass with me and is in the show, and my dad, they have kind of given me a rough idea of what they are doing, but I haven’t actually seen it! The only person’s work that I’ve seen is my own…

You are going to have about three weeks to hang everything from when you get the work, is that right?

Two weeks, I think…

What approach will you take to curating the show? A group show means you must honour individual works and give them space, but at the same time try and expose interesting links, even though the artists haven’t necessarily thought about how their work relates to others in the show, especially since you have given them such a broad allowance.

Yeah, I feel like it will be a bit of both really. You want the work to make its own statement, but at the same time it is a group show. But because I haven’t seen any of the work yet, I obviously don’t know how its going to work together. That’s kind of the challenge, it’s kind of the fun for me, finding out how things fit together. Figuring out how people connect, it’s the same thing as making the works connect, but on a visual level, you know what I mean? Colours really affect me a lot, I think about them all the time, so they will definitely affect how I group the work; what colours complement each other, which fight with each other…

I look forward to the show and to the gallery getting up and running and being a new voice in the city. It’s great to see a new space and a new energy, I can only assume you feel excited for the journey to begin…

Definitely, you know being part of the Christchurch art community has always been a really amazing feeling, it has always felt really supportive. I want to make someone else feel that, I want to be the support for someone else, and that I’ve been given the opportunity to do that is beyond awesome. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity, so I plan on making the best of it. I have been struggling at times, it has its ups and downs, but again, it is all part of the fun, it’s part of life!

Follow Daken on Instagram and Facebook

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Hello Christchurch opens at 7:00pm, Friday October 4th, at 413 Local Gallery, 413 Tuam Street.

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Nick Lowry – The faster you go, the bigger the mess… (Part Two)

In the second part of our interview with Nick Lowry, we continue with a free-flowing dive into the physicality and urgency of painting, the influence of music, the process of collage and the need for creative diversity within tight-knit communities…

Talking about some of the formal elements, your letterforms seem to have become increasingly abstracted. The dissolution of letters into blocks or blobs or half circular forms, is that the result of thinking about letterforms, or moving away from letters?

I think when I paint graffiti, I’m using my arms a lot and I’m gesticulating a lot and I think my letter structure mirrors that…

They mirror the physicality?

Yeah, like a dance. I’m really wiping the wall, or I’m doing some crazy contemporary dance in my head and I’m articulating that with my hands. I try to be as fluid as possible. I hardly spend any time on my sketch, usually it’s just my fill colour. Why would I go back over my sketch and change up my letter structure if that’s my impulse? What I’ve just sketched is how I’m feeling obviously, so I’m just backtracking over my own emotional involvement by touching it up.

TEPID piece, central Christchurch, 2019
Tepid piece, central Christchurch, 2019

It comes back to that urgency and violence, and if you are redoing it, you are losing a lot of energy, right?

Yeah.

Having an idea beforehand and trying to replicate it is a very different approach to trying to make something that reflects a specific moment and emotion.

I don’t premeditate. I’ve chucked away all my sketch books, even from when I started. I chose to throw them away. I have photos on my computer of recent pieces, but I’ve lost hard drives of stuff from up until 2016. I feel like I want to get to a point where I don’t want to take any photos of the graffiti at all.

That would really make it about the singular experience of doing something in that moment, right? It’s no longer about a catalogue or a body of work…

I think that’s why I did it. Most people would cry if they lost their books, because they really love them, but for me, they are just collecting dust and getting eaten by rats. They are a ball and chain…

There’s a freedom in letting go?

Yeah absolutely.

In so much of your work there is a dynamic quality, a sense of action and movement, from the lines whipping across the plane, to this lovely flickering quality that your more recent works have, and even white highlights, which seem to be a recurring, enduring fixation.

That’s why I paint as fast as I can go, because I don’t want to lose that. I’m scared that it’s going to float away again.

TEPID and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019
Tepid and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019

Is it an interest in the use of shimmering light, of reflections and movement?

That’s a good word, shimmering. That’s precisely what I’m trying to create in my pieces, movement and the feeling that each piece is its own entity. I used to try and paint with traditional colour schemes, but now I’m looking at soft gradients, not even reflections, I’m just trying to create an emotional response through the colour palette, and I think by doing that I can try and put life in these pieces, and a sense of movement and electricity.

Those soft gradients have become definitive, or at least distinctive, and they often set your work apart from others around them, kind of dissolving the harshness and angularity of some other styles. There’s something about those soft gradients and transitions that ties to those wavering outlines and organic letter shapes as well, all of which make your work stand out…

Man, that makes me really want to paint again! (Laughs) Yeah, I guess those wavering lines are the gradients I’m trying to create, these beautiful soft gradients. I’m trying to be as clean as I can with the fill, as fast as I can, but as dusty as I can, and I think the wavering lines add to that sense of motion…

"Heron" mural, Christchurch, 2018
“Heron” mural, Christchurch, 2018

It seems to me that a lot of these qualities are related to the nature of aerosol, or the possibilities found in aerosol. There is a high level of can control obviously to get those effects, but there is also a freedom and that comes about through aerosol having certain characteristics, right? Is that something that interests you?

It did… I think it did, but now I feel like, especially with my outlines and details, my gradients, I need decent paint, because you can only achieve that with certain levels of paint, and colours that hold well to the wall. Although all the blacks and whites are generally acquired from wherever, just cheap brands that I’ve scabbed. Actually, a lot of my pieces are roller fills. I’ll do the base, you know, if it’s an orange with a softer yellow or lime green gradient over that, or whatever, and generally the heavier colour is a roll fill. And I find roller filling fun because it adds to the element of really smashing and grinding something down. I look at graffiti as sculpting as well. I think it is quite sculptural, you can start with a base shape and you just kind of chisel and shape it down with detail really.

Being that you have worked across so many fields, what experiences really stand out for you?

I guess with all the art forms that I engage with, there’s at least one or two things that stand out. When it comes to graffiti, a fond memory of mine is painting a piece in the open during the day illegally on the side of a dam in Margaret River and then hearing the alarm going off as I’m painting, finishing it, scrambling off, climbing out and then watching that thing wash down! With graffiti, I like the element of getting yourself into crazy situations, not that I focus on getting up or hitting the craziest spots, but the situations that I put myself into and walking around in really obscure places you wouldn’t usually go. It’s not so much to find a place to paint, it’s more the idea of exploring. You go out with the intention of painting because you have paint with you, but painting is only twenty percent of the time, the experience and everything else is what you are taking in visually and is filling the senses, filling that void of whatever I have! I don’t know what that is, but obviously I have one and I need to fill it! I think that’s eighty per cent of the reason why I do anything. With set design, I’ve had some pretty amazing jobs recently and looking back, I think it’s probably doing kids shows, anything for children. If you can deliver something to children that is going to stay in their minds forever and inspire them, I think that is so important. I still think about shows my parents used to take me to, shows at the Mill Theatre and all that, and I can still remember every detail. I do a lot of music videos as well, and I’ve had really good responses to the stuff I’ve been producing with some really good crews. I think the satisfaction of that and seeing yourself in another format is really satisfying and doing it all to music I like as well.

Still from the Aldous Harding music video for The Barrel, from her album Designer, art directed by Nick Lowry, 2019
Still from the Aldous Harding music video for The Barrel, from her album Designer, art directed by Nick Lowry, 2018

When you are working on music videos, that relationship between the visual and the musical, does that make you reflect more on the influence of music on your visual arts practice? Music has been an enduring influence, right?

Forever, yeah…

You talked about the influence of punk and metal; can you define that influence visually?

I think it’s like when you are eating food and you kind of see with your nose. So, for me, with music, you can visualise certain energies in your mind. Music has always been this driving force for anything creative I’ve done, subliminally…

Is music always playing when you work?

Or not. Sometimes when I listen to music for days and days and days on end, just constantly, when it comes to making art, I try and tone down the amount of music or just don’t listen to it at all and just let that energy just come back out because I’ve done all the thinking and I just have to kind of let the process flow…

Which suggests reflection on the experience of listening. For some people listening to music becomes a background accompaniment, it fades into the background. It’s there and is driving action but not necessarily reflection. It sounds like for you it is actually a reflective thing as well…

Yeah, we are sponges, right? Whatever we expose ourselves to exists within us, and I think sometimes it’s nice to have that negative space and have nothingness around us and I think that’s when we can be in our most creative space.

That energy of the act of painting that we were just discussing, there’s obviously an echo with the energy of music, do you kind of see you paintings as musical in a sense, not overtly, like painting a song, but in terms of the rhythms and energies…  

Absolutely, and I think for most people it’s the same, most people that paint or have some sort of visual expression, also love music and need music around them, and I think that is probably one of the driving forces of what I do.

Having talked about the why your interest in certain forms fluctuates, what has captured your energy currently? Are there any significant developments you see on the horizon?

Yeah, I mean I’m drawing a lot more now and I haven’t painted in a while. When I was in Perth five or six years ago, I used to paint a lot, and I was also painting graffiti, but I think I’ve kind of let painting go and now I’m trying to get back into it. I feel like I’m on the brink of dropping my guard on that again. Because I do put up boundaries, like I have with graffiti right now, I’m just like, I want to do something else. I think the painting one is about to come down, I’ve slowly started just playing around with stuff, heinous stuff, it’s not good, but it’s a start! (Laughs) I’ll just keep painting over and over until I feel like I’m juicing up again, you know?

Untitled, mixed media on canvas, 2019
Untitled, mixed media on canvas, 2019

Are those elements of the gradients and colour schemes, the line work, are they still as strong?

Absolutely, I’m exploring the loose lines, and the very brushed fast geometry that doesn’t have to necessarily make sense but just exists, because if it did make sense, what’s the point of looking at it? It’s like watching a TV show that is not interesting, when it’s easy to watch and it has just been laid out for you.

You are not challenged…

But if you create something that doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist or something that doesn’t even make sense, I think it’s more interesting because it’s up to the viewer to make sense of it…

What about your collage practice, do you see that as distinct to painting and more akin to your experience in film?

For me, collage is a very fast, quick way of expressing myself but also setting boundaries, you know? You are playing around with images that already exist.

Untitled, collage on board, 2019
Untitled, collage on board, 2019

Do you apply the same element of urgency that we were talking about with your graffiti? Are you chucking them together quite quickly?

It’s all false perspective. I like the idea of having minimum images but creating the maximum depth possible. I think emotionally they are so fucking aggravating, and I really like that. They are really harsh to look at, they don’t look right, but… It’s hard to describe. Because I do them so fast and because I’m doing them with a blade, there is a physicality and I’m really having to scratch myself and grind into it and rip and tear, and there’s that element of violence that I really enjoy, that we all have in us, and it’s very human, it’s just how you get it out.

Like graffiti in a way, right? The need to get something out, and to do so in a certain way, it is lost on some people who shut themselves off from it, but it is an outlet for a very human need…

It’s very primitive.

Which is why I still find it strange that people are so emotional in their response to and vilification of graffiti…

I kind of like the idea that it is vilified, if it was loved by everyone, what would be the point?

True, and that’s often overlooked by people who don’t get that side of it, channelling it into positive directions is good in some cases, but it also means that it is not what it was. Is there anything you want to tell people about?

I have recently provided art direction for three music videos about to come out, so people should see them. But, mostly, I think I just want people to get off Instagram and see the art for themselves, to be in front of it and smell it and touch it. I just want to try and promote that, to promote that regaining of the sense of uncontrolled-ness, and how we should all be less homogenised. Socially we should be forming a greater sense of community, but creatively we should be pulling away from each other, if that makes sense…

We can be together and unified as communities, but creatively, the more diversity the better for those communities…

Yeah, and I think this is the time to do that in Christchurch as well. We’ve had to band together and now we have to create a split, to form new dynamics within our communities and cultures so we can then really start to get the ball rolling and become a creative powerhouse as a city. Also, I think, in Christchurch, get on your bike! Like literally, get on your bicycle and roam around and check it out, because there’s a broader part of Christchurch that people don’t explore or don’t know exists, or they do, but they are too scared to get out there…

TEPID and Dove colab, central Christchurch, 2019
Tepid and Dove colab, central Christchurch, 2019

We often avoid getting outside of our comfort or routine, and that’s the beauty of walking or cycling, you can easily verge off down a side street, go down an alleyway, do things that will lead to experiences that are unexpected, but can be quite life affirming.

Definitely, and it’s a slow down as well, it slows you down to be able to accept everything that you come across. I love Christchurch, it’s sometimes hard to live here, but it does have these beautiful aspects about it that are undeniably so good!

Follow Nick on Instagram or visit his website www.nicklowry.co.nz

 

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Nick Lowry – The faster you go, the bigger the mess… (Part One)

When I arranged to sit down with Nick Lowry (at times known as Tepid), I wasn’t sure where the conversation might lead. This wasn’t a reflection of Nick’s temperament, he is a chill guy who is instantly likeable, instead, it was based on the reality that his work is spread in so many directions that there were almost infinite possibilities. When we started to chat, it became pretty obvious that we would sprawl across various topics, shifting back and forth, an apt reflection of Nick’s process as a maker and doer. As a graffiti artist, muralist, painter, collagist, set designer, art director, sticker maker and more, it was fascinating to see how he distinguished these practices, but also had a defined understanding of his creative impulses in a singular sense. It was quickly apparent that Nick’s compulsion to make things is driven by a deep urge, one that doesn’t necessarily require explanation or understanding, but instead is a very human condition that invokes all the contradictions of our nature. By the time we came up for air, an hour had flown by and we had discussed a raft of ideas around graffiti, surfing, music, scenic art, exploring cities, and overthinking things. It is no surprise then that this has become a two-part interview, and here in part one, we start with the diversity of his work, his introduction to graffiti and his thoughts on his hometown of Christchurch…  

From graffiti, stickers and mural works, to set design and film art direction, diversity is kind of a hallmark of your work. What was the earliest creative impulse for you? Was graffiti a gateway into other creative practices, or was it more of a vehicle that harnessed your existing creative impulses?

I think it was more of a vehicle. It was probably intrigue that sparked it off. When I was twelve years old, I had a babysitter, he was probably sixteen, and he wouldn’t feed me until I smoked a joint and watched him paint freights in Belfast, which is pretty funny. So, for me it was almost this hatred of graffiti because I wasn’t getting fed unless I helped this guy out, you know? I hated it until I was about sixteen when I became mates with some guys who were painting, Fader, Astro, Raws, Venom, all those dudes. They were all mates from university. I was watching what they were doing, and I was like, this is actually a really intelligent form of art! Up until then I had always been drawing. I’d been drawing forever. I was really into, strangely enough at a young age, interior design. All through high school I was always building dioramas. So, at an early age I was exploring set design, scenic art and that sort of thing. One of my first jobs was a scenic artist in the Riccarton Players Club, at the Mill Theatre in Addington. Before that was destroyed. So, I think there is a real cross-over for me between graffiti and scenic art, in that there is a really blurry line. When I paint graffiti, I don’t paint for the ‘getting up’, I paint purely for the way colours work and for the names that I’ve chosen over the years. It’s simply a vehicle for style, like it is for a lot of graffiti writers, I guess. Like I said before, I’m just creating these little worlds and the diversity of my art just comes down to how I feel on any particular day. Some weeks I put a lot more effort into collaging or into graffiti, or into set design or muralism, or realism, or just hustling for work. I’ve never been fully immersed in anything. I don’t want to be typecast. I don’t want to be known for anything. I just do it for myself, and everything I do is simply an outlet.

There must be a consistent thread through it all though, something that unifies everything in some way, can you see the way they all interrelate?

Oh definitely…

Not only aesthetically or stylistically, but in the practice and process of each, is that something you think about?

Yeah, I guess I don’t really think that deeply into it. It’s almost like with a creative act, the more I think about it, the less I want to do it. For me being creative is a way of not thinking at all, and that’s why I probably don’t produce as much as I should. But I don’t want to have to think about producing a lot of things, because for me, that just creates pressure and I don’t like that! (Laughs)

TEPID roller tag, central Christchurch, c.2012
Tepid roller tag, central Christchurch, c.2013

That freedom is important?

The freedom of it is really important. It is what it is, and if one week I make fifty collages and for the next three weeks I don’t do anything, it’s because I’ve transferred my energy into something else. I like to surf a lot, and that is one of my most creative outlets. If I’m not making art, I like to do that. I also like to run a lot, and that is strangely another creative outlet because a lot of thought processes go on during that time. I think having physical outlets is really important.

There is a physicality in wall painting and in set design as well, so there is inherently a connection between physical activity and the act of creation in those instances. Conversely, in the case of running there is a sense of freedom, physical but also by extension mental, while surfing offers a physical creative performance…       

It’s a release of a certain type of energy. We get a taste and I think we always want to feel that energy again. I like having a diverse range of things that get me to feel differently. I don’t really think about achieving a consistent style, but sometimes, if I look around this room, if I blur my eyes a little bit, I can kind of see something. I don’t really know how to describe it. I don’t really think about what I do to the point where I can do that.

You talked about leaving things and letting them evolve subconsciously, before coming back to it when it has worked itself through…

Yeah, I just sort of nurture it in my mind and come back to it.

Do you see your work in a progressive sense? Can you look back over time and see a lineage, or are there various trajectories between different points because of that willingness to leave things? For instance, is muralism a progression from graffiti?

I think my muralism is quite immature and unrefined. it’s one of those things that is more of a hobby. Muralism is probably the hardest thing for me, because I am quite critical of what I do, and I prefer to do things for myself. With a mural, you have so much pressure to create something that’s for the viewer and I generally don’t care about the viewer! (Laughs) But at the same time I would like to produce more, and over time it is getting better and I am trying to refine the style. But I don’t visit muralism as much. Maybe I will in the future, but at the moment it isn’t a massive priority. Whereas I think set design is helping me to evolve that further because I have to work within a limited space, and I think that kind of helps set me up mentally.

Mural for Underground Coffee, Durham Street, Christchurch, 2019
Mural for Underground Coffee, Durham Street, Christchurch, 2019

You mean when you are designing a set you are working within a defined space and creating a defined world? Which to me, kind of echoes graffiti and muralism in that you are trying to create something within the space around you…

It’s too much. With muralism, there is almost too much you can do. You aren’t restricted by physics. I like being bound and restrained; you know? If I was given three colours or something and told to only use those colours, perhaps I could manage it. But I think with muralism, it is too easy to overthink it. With set design and art direction, you are given a space and an actor or dialogue, and you are confined to that, and that’s how I like to work.

Did you train in set design at all?

No, I studied graphic design, video post-production and editing.

How deeply do you think about the conceptual approach to set design? Are you constantly thinking practically, in a real-world sense, or do you explore an abstract concept beyond the visual and how an environment might be multi-layered?

Definitely, and I think that’s the beauty of it, you are creating a world through which someone is going to speak their dialogue and it doesn’t have to be literal. In fact, they want it to be as non-literal as possible, so the actor then has a space from which to bounce off, I guess.

You’ve got to achieve that balance between the nuances of each approach…

You also have to think about lighting and shadow, and the way those elements work, so there are a lot of things to consider.

This all leads me to back track a little bit. You mentioned that you didn’t come at graffiti through the traditional ways of Subway Art and Style Wars, or even hip-hop culture necessarily…

No, it was the direct influence of my peers, this supposed babysitter! (Laughs) Just being there when it was being done. My direct influences were my friends, watching things getting destroyed, skating and things like that…

TEPID piece, Christchurch, 2019
Tepid piece, Christchurch, 2019

Does that mean you had more or less of a recognition of the importance of graffiti as a sub-cultural and even historical phenomenon?

I soon learnt. Once I formed that obsession with tagging and throw ups and all the rest, I quickly picked up every book I could, watched every film I could, researched every writer throughout history and then formed obsessions with certain writers and created heroes and stuff like that. So, I soon schooled myself and became obsessed with graffiti and street art.

Were you conscious of the idea of graffiti as a political act and the themes of identity and contestation? Or was that aspect always secondary to the draw of being creative? Although creativity through destruction is political in a way…

I think the importance of graffiti and my understanding of it was about being in a moment in time and the way you deliver it, the aggression behind it and being with other writers. Not to sound like graffiti is a macho thing, but you are with the crew and you are outdoing each other. I liked the idea that there was this aggressive, ‘fuck you’ element to it. The punk influences behind graffiti for me were the main thing when I was younger…

You mentioned the punk influence earlier, which is often overshadowed by hip hop, but punk is a significant influence on graffiti and street art culture…

For me, Christchurch metal was a big influence, which I guess is like the punk ethos. I was a young metal head, but I had a broad spectrum of friends, a lot were really goth, but a lot were also really G, so there was a cross over. But we were all hanging out together. There were skaters and goths and G’s at parties, everyone was hanging out together. I didn’t want to box myself into any one circle. For me, graffiti was a thing that didn’t exist in any boxes, because my social circles didn’t fit into those boxes…

Handmade TEPID sticker, central Christchurch, 2018
Handmade Tepid sticker, central Christchurch, 2018

Christchurch is a small city, so it is more likely that those scenes will intermingle, right? Speaking of Christchurch, what impact has the city itself had on you as an artist? How big an impact do you think the quakes have had on the city’s creative communities?

Well, I spent a lot of my twenties away from Christchurch, in Perth, in Margaret River and in Broome in Western Australia, exploring the desert. I also spent a lot of time in Indonesia and exploring the Philippines. So, when the February 2011 earthquake hit, I was here for two months, and I was like, I don’t have to be here. I had travelled enough to know there was more out there and I could access that with a $400 plane ticket, so I was out…

So, those experiences travelling, have they influenced the way you think about the post-quake city? Has painting pre-quake given you a certain take on the city now?

I enjoy Christchurch’s dark underbelly and industrial vibes. I think it has this very rigid, grey stone element that I quite like, but that a lot of people despise. The city is kind of a juxtaposition of these lovely blue skies and then this grey, sterile, and weathered architecture, which I don’t know, is just kind of a strange mix. And then we are surrounded by natural beauty, if you are willing to go find it. I think it is the most schizophrenic environment to be in, you know? (Laughs) We have this white and seemingly uncultured city, but then we have these explosions of music, like you were saying before, the amount of music that comes out of Christchurch is phenomenal, explosions of art and artists and everything else. There is something in the water in Christchurch, for sure, for a population of 400,000. Maybe it is that energy of where we are geographically?

Since coming back to Christchurch in 2015, have you found new directions have opened up for you as a creative?

It has opened so many doors. I think Christchurch has changed, it’s not as gritty and grimy as it used to be. But for a creative, someone who is on their own, trying to hustle for work, it’s amazing. You can create so many opportunities for yourself, whatever you can envision in your mind, you can achieve, it just depends on how far you are willing to push yourself.

TEPID and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019
Tepid and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019

Does that surprise you, based on your experiences when you were younger?

I think those avenues probably existed then, but the situation didn’t allow us to have that train of thought. Whereas now when you come back and you are left with limited things to do, you really have to, in order to dig yourself out of a hole, you really have to dig, but you don’t have to dig too far to get what you want out of it. There are so many possibilities. There is not a lot that exists in Christchurch, so if you have an idea and you want to get it, you will get it.

It is almost a perfect storm because of the opportunities presented by the recovery, but also, I think, in our contemporary digital world, you can access and experience so many ideas that people are exploring all over the place and translate them to this environment if you want. The inspiration coupled with the opportunity is perhaps unlike any other time…

Definitely.

Although, I guess that can create a sense of homogeneity.

It can be a little bit homogenised sometimes.

I’m interested to talk about some of the more recent work you have been making, and particularly the features of fluorescent colours and wavering lines…

It’s kind of more painterly…

"Teeth" mural, Arcadia, central Christchurch, 2019
“Teeth” mural, Arcadia, central Christchurch, 2019

What is the inspiration for that?

Um I guess, physicality. If I’m making something, I don’t want it to look perfect, I don’t want it to look like it is clean cut or fresh. I was obsessed with painting like that in the past, but I found that as soon as I tried to paint more fluidly, I enjoyed it more. I think it’s more human to paint as rushed and as aggressively as possible. It’s like that classic car crash advertisement: ‘The faster you go the bigger the mess.’ The bigger the mess is awesome! So, much to the bane of all my mates who I paint with, I fucking rush my paintings. I always rush my graffiti, and it’s not because I want to get in and get out, it’s because I feel like I want to spew it out, I want to vomit my shit on the wall, you know? I don’t want to think about too much, because I think you can overthink things and you can overcook it. It’s not like graffiti is ‘get in, get out’, because I’m not doing anything illegal at the moment, sadly. I wish I could, but I’m just an old man! But when I do paint a piece on a wall, I just literally want to smash it…

Is it a need to replicate the energy you get when you do paint illegally? By painting with that speed, there’s an energy that echoes being somewhere you aren’t supposed to be, doing something you aren’t supposed to do, and the work will reflect that…

Definitely. I painted illegal graffiti when I was younger and I got caught enough to be like, fuck! But graffiti is graffiti and if you are not rushing it, why are you painting it? That’s the whole expression, to smash it out. It is a violent art form. As chill as you are, I think the point of graffiti for me is to make it look like it’s going to smash you in the face. I like things that look violent and have that emotional response, like you are going to get fucking sliced or whatever. But then I like to create these really funky colour schemes as well, with really soft gradients, which is my connection to nature, so maybe one day I want to die on the hills violently! I don’t know, maybe I want to get eaten by a shark? Maybe I try to create pieces that look like a violent beautiful death, or something…

Stay tuned for Part Two…

Follow Nick on Instagram or visit his website www.nicklowry.co.nz

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Juse1 – Elemental Tools

Back at the beginning of the year, Ikarus shot me a heads up that Wellington  and Aotearoa hip hop legend Juse1 (TS crew) was in town for the second annual New Zealand International Tattoo Expo and suggested I try and interview him. Much like Ikarus, Juse has a lengthy history in graffiti, but his exploits also spread across the realms of hip hop, notably as an MC. On his last day in town we finally got to sit down and have a chat, grabbing a coffee while local artists VROD and Sewer prepped a wall for a colab in the Hereford Street space. Not only is Juse a dope artist, with a can, a microphone or a tattoo needle, he is also a thoughtful figure whose experience has given him insight into graffiti writing, hip hop culture, the relativity of creative processes, and the importance of learning throughout life. Sitting down for a while and listening to him talk, it was clear that he has a lot of wisdom to pass on to the upcoming generations, much like he acknowledges having learnt from his influential mentors…

I know it’s your last day in town, but I will still say welcome to Christchurch! I was looking through your Instagram feed, and one of the things that I got to thinking about was the idea of tradition. Not in a regressive way, your work is always fresh, but there is a clear respect and reverence of the traditions of a lot of the different realms that you occupy, right? Is that a big thing for you?

Yeah, not always consciously pushing it as tradition, but I guess it’s my foundation and it’s something that I have learnt. I always found that when you plant a foundation and you decide to build from it, it is always going to influence some way or another the work you might be doing ten years, thirty years later. I guess in a way, I’ve never been one to drastically jump, whether it be my [graffiti] style or my rhymes. I guess it’s me as a person as well, I kind of tie that not only within hip hop, but also being of Samoan culture as well, it does play as an influence into my creative aspects. The culture is something that is sort of engrained in me, so it comes through. Learning history for me has always been really important, and I guess the more knowledge you gain from history, it influences what you do and how you go about doing things, and how you approach it from all the different perspectives you have, you know what I mean?

You mention those two elements: graffiti writing and rhyming. I have recently been reading a lot about pre-hip hop New York graffiti, the early seventies and the guys who were just as much listening to psychedelic rock, soul and disco, stuff like that, and I was thinking, New Zealand’s possibly a bit different. Because of the time graffiti arrived, you almost can’t remove it from hip hop, right? Hip hop and graffiti are so tightly entwined. Did you get into writing through hip hop as a culture, or did graffiti provide a pathway to the other elements of hip hop?

For me, it came with hip hop. Visually I saw graffiti first, like in the eighties, around my neighbourhood. There were dudes getting up and doing full pieces when I was a kid, but I didn’t know what it was because I was a kid. But when I actually started to get into it, and found out what it was, it was through hip hop, through early Source magazines, through album covers, stuff that my older brother would bring home. I was young so I couldn’t access it at all. Everyone caught a tagging buzz in like 1990, and from there, we just kind of grew. Like you were saying, it is linked with hip hop, but graffiti in itself, the energy of it, can relate to so many things and I guess that’s why so many people who don’t necessarily come from a hip hop background can relate to it just as well. It’s kind of universal in that way. The energy of graffiti is to get busy, it’s a movement in itself, but it can attach itself to all these different genres…

Juse1 on the mic at the Villains hip hop show in Hamilton
Juse1 on the mic at the Villains hip hop show in Hamilton

It has all these off-shoot variations…

Yeah, but personally, it was through hip hop for me. It was through the album covers and the magazines…

When people think about your hometown, Wellington, nowadays they probably think of the trendy hipsters…

The cafes! There’s a lot of coffee there, bro! (Laughs)

But Wellington is also such a key place for hip hop in Aotearoa; the Upper Hutt Posse, DLT… When you look back, do you appreciate that importance?

Yeah, I really do man. Growing up there, before I started travelling around and meeting other scenes, I took it a bit for granted. But going away and coming back, I realised that the city and the scene itself was special. I mean the city, in terms of the environment, allows for people to see each other often. It’s not a big city, but geographically it is centralised, and if you have got to do something, you all come to town. You can stand in the middle of Wellington and guarantee you are going to see at least three people you know. In regard to the hip hop scene, that was a real way for people to link, because everyone could get to one point, and just share whatever they had. I think with the hip hop scene in Wellington, I’m lucky enough that generations before me are still active and are still around, you know what I mean? It’s something I’ve noticed a bit more than in other cities. When I say generations, I mean people who go way back, watching That’s Incredible! [An American television show from the early eighties that became an important early influence on New Zealand hip hop due to performances by b-boy crews] There are still dudes that turn up to the graf walls, or the MC jams or battles, and you still see them. The benefit of having these local pioneers around is that the knowledge is shared, and the scene just grows from generation to generation…

That must be important due to the fact that comparatively, New Zealand has a smaller cultural history in that regard, right? Even looking at those older scenes around the world, many of the older participants kind of disappear and then pop back up, especially now that there are more platforms of exposure, if you think again about the figures from the early New York scene…

The guys who disappeared and then popped back up…

Yeah, like all the photos of Taki 183 at different events over the last few years. I think there was even a photo of Taki and Cornbread meeting for the first time not too far back…

That’s crazy! (Laughs)

So, in places where there is an older culture, those figures can ghost away and become legends, but when they are still around, as you say, it helps feed the culture, the traditions, but it also helps people develop because they can see that historical lineage, right there…

Yeah, if you ever had questions, they were around. The thing Wellington was known for across all the realms, was a being a little bit hard-headed in regard to teaching. If you weren’t doing it right, you were told you weren’t doing it right, you know what I mean? It wasn’t necessarily, do it like me, but just that you’re not doing it right, if that makes sense. It was a harder form of guidance and if you got shut down, you weren’t expected to stop and disappear, you were expected to go work on your shit and come back better. That was kind of the teaching through all of the elements of hip hop, from DJ’ing to b-boying, to writing and MC’ing. Even fashion sense, like if you were trying to rock some new shit and nobody was feeling it, you got told: ‘That’s just wack, bro, don’t come back to the gig looking like that!’ (Laughs) In a way a lot of people, from outside the scene, thought that it was quite snobby, or kind of elitist, but to me it was just a firmer hand to teaching, you know? It wasn’t as cutthroat as people thought it was, but it appeared that way. I definitely see why people can see it that way…

'Cake' piece by Juse1, 2016
‘Cake’ piece by Juse1, 2016

Does that approach help crystallise your own views? That hard-headed-ness, as you say, it’s not, ‘do it this way’, it’s just, you’re not doing it correctly, and surely that helps crystallise an approach in your own head because you are being forced to think about it more and more….

Yeah, it does…

So, did that ensure that you developed a strong, enduring philosophy about letterforms, and how you make letters? Obviously for a lot of people, there’s a science behind their construction of letters, and some people talk in great detail about how they build depth and use negative space, those sorts of things. Is that something that you have developed through that expectation of having to go away and perfect something?

Yeah, definitely, like not just in the elements of hip hop, but life in general, you’ve got to keep learning and studying, especially if you love what you do, and you want to rock it for a while. You should take your own time and discipline to really break down exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it, and yeah, it definitely relates to that teaching that if I wasn’t doing this right, how do I make it right? Not just to please someone else, but for yourself. How can you get the best out of every letter for example? Like, if you’re doing a five letter wildstyle, one letter itself has to be dope before you start doing the next letter, then the next letter, then the whole thing is going to be dope. So, stripping away all the bells and whistles of a letter really helps. For me, each letter, each angle, each arrow, has to be on, you know what I mean? That teaching definitely helped with that, you can’t just be throwing shit around, because it doesn’t really have a foundation or a sense of why it comes from there…

Semi wildstyle by Juse1, 2018
Semi wildstyle by Juse1, 2018

The other aspect is that when it comes to things like composition, colour, balance, those formal aspects, the beauty of graffiti is that it’s not beholden to established ideas that that they would teach in painting classes, right?

Yeah, like red and pink don’t go together, that sort of shit?! (Laughs) Graffiti writing is anti-establishment in most ways…

Yeah, so in graffiti you can find any sort of combination that pops or reflects some idea or reality, or is simply created out of necessity, right? You had these colours, it was what you could get, so that’s what your painting…

That’s it, that’s what you had. But also, the drive was to be seen, to be noticed, so smashing together colour combos was how you achieved that.

At the same time, because you’re not necessarily subject to the normal expectations, you do need that kind of guidance I guess in some way, but you’ve also got that freedom to experiment within all of those things as well…

Yeah, that’s it. You need some knowledge of foundations in all aspects of life.

'Juser' piece by Juse1
‘Juser’ piece by Juse1

Having been active for quite a while, what’s your take on Wellington’s, and more broadly New Zealand’s, graffiti scenes at the moment? Can you define scenes from city to city anymore, or is it becoming too difficult?

Nah, it’s muddy! I’m not saying that it’s wack, but in previous eras you could see definite influences from prior writers instantly. Nationwide you could see it, from generation to generation to generation. You could almost see what the writers were doing at the time, and who they were looking at around the local scene. I’m not saying they were biting, but the influence was there, the style was there. You could define writers from Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, all quite clearly. I’m just talking about New Zealand at the moment, but on a global scale, I think now, you can’t really tell who is from where, because people take influences from everywhere, and put it into one piece, which again isn’t a bad thing, because everything changes and everyone experiments, and with graffiti, it opens up. It’s a realm where there are no rules. I suppose, it’s like, you could do what you want, just make it look dope, you know what I mean? I guess for me though it started changing, and the internet has had a huge influence. You have more access to stuff than ever; you can see shit from anywhere. But the other thing, the biggest thing, is that people stopped learning from other writers, and started self-teaching. To an extent that can be detrimental because you don’t really find out the whole knowledge on it…

Things aren’t just done for one singular reason, right? There’s always more going on as to why something is the way it is, and you need that depth of knowledge to really push it further, otherwise you are only getting that first layer…

And even on top of that, it had a wider effect on crews, because people were going out and learning from pictures, they didn’t really need other people to bounce ideas off or get energy from. I notice a lot of writers are solo these days, they don’t really roll as big crews anymore. Crews had heaps of roles back in the day, like for protection, if you go to a wall in numbers and shit, it became about strength in numbers to a certain extent. But at the same time, the unity of writers is kind of breaking down, it’s more about: ‘I’m doing this’, ‘I’m going to do that…’ So yeah, it’s kind of muddy in the sense of style and influence…

'Cake' piece by Juse1, 2015
‘Cake’ piece by Juse1, 2015

There’s possibly also more mobility as well, right? Like, going back to that global scale, it’s easier to travel now. Also, while it is still a youth culture, it’s not only a youth culture, because you now have people who make their life travelling and painting, right? So, there is definitely a different sense of fluidity and the flow of information and influence is making it all a different game… What about Christchurch and what’s going on here in terms of what you have seen over the last few days?

I’ve been here for a few days, and it’s been a while since I’ve been down, like four years I think, so having a look around is good. I was talking to Ikarus, who obviously is one of the main dudes here, and the older guys in the scene are doing a good job from what I can see, because there is a lot of influence. There’s a range of styles around which is cool as well. But also, people are putting a bit of effort into their burners. When you see people getting down next to each other they make the whole piece work, and you can tell there’s a bit of teamwork going in there, there is a shared understanding. I also haven’t seen much crossing out or capping. You guys have got way more walls than ever now, so there’s probably no reason to cross out people! (Laughs) But I like what I see in the Christchurch scene, there are dudes that just specifically do characters and do them well, there are guys that do backgrounds, and then there are guys rocking letters. There are still a lot of hits around too, which I like, even though there are a lot of legal spaces, people are still bombing and tagging. It looks healthy…

Because of the story here, the murals get all the attention, but of course, when you are thinking about the scene from within the culture, that whole spectrum is important, right? There are the hits, as you say, the handstyles, as well as the throwies and rollers, and when your eyes are open in a certain way, you get as amped seeing a nicely executed throw-up as you do a massive piece…

Yeah, for sure. A throwie, man, if the flow is all there, if you can tell they did it all in one line, man! One-line throwies, whoever masters that shit, that’s hard to do! Especially depending on your name. So, yeah, the scene here looks healthy, man. I guess on the flip side, compared to Wellington, there are dudes who are definitely in the scene, bombing and tagging, but not really pushing it much further, if that makes sense. And of course, not everyone wants to. Some people just want to fuck shit up, and that’s cool, that’s the energy of hip hop. There were a few crews coming through a few years ago, but they all seem to have stopped for some reason, and it makes me wonder why? I’ve been talking to Ikarus about what he’s been doing here, and it’s been good knowledge, it’s been good bouncing energy off someone who has been around the same time as me and has seen everything.

I was talking to Berst a while ago, and he said he found over time that there is this kind of five-year cycle for crews to blow up, to become really prominent, and then disappear, and a new crew comes up. I found that interesting because it is sort of indicative of a certain age range, of ‘growing up’…

Yeah, life comes up! Families and shit, jobs, and then people either stop or they keep pushing. I’ve known some real dope writers, from all ends of the scale, some real style masters, and they just stopped, they don’t paint anymore, and again, it makes you kind of question, why?

Changing direction a little bit, you are down here for the Christchurch International Tattoo Expo, which is another of your creative outlets. There is a strong relationship between graffiti and tattoo. In my mind at least, there are several things that suggest why that relationship was fostered; there’s sort of an outsider quality to both, there’s the idea of that alternative canvas, although in each case very different canvasses or spaces to master, and then there are skills you learn writing graffiti that translate into tattoo, like that certainty of line and mark-making. I’m always fascinated watching someone write a tag to see the refined and certain flow of movement of their hand and arm, how almost intuitive or engrained that movement is. Does that relate as a big part of that transition between graffiti and tattooing?

That definitely does, that fluidity of line and being sure of it, because especially when you’re painting you’ve got to know your start and stops and techniques, and so that mindset comes into play. I say mindset because the physical aspect of it is different, with tattoo you have a 3D surface, so a straight line is no longer a straight line, it’s a curve, and its permanent! (Laughs) It moves, and it cries, and it bleeds, it does all that shit! (Laughs)

Custom freehand tatau by Juse1
Custom freehand tatau by Juse1

It also has a different scale, right?

That’s the other thing, going from painting something humungous to miniscule, that’s kind of a mindfuck at first! But composition is important for a writer anyway. You’ve got to transform your outline from an A4 sketch to a painting a couple of metres wide, so you’ve already got that transition of blowing shit up. The same mindset applies to bringing it back down. I feel like it doesn’t take too long to adjust if you have a writing background, because tattooing is a natural progression for a lot of graffiti writers. But I also think tattooing, like graf, allows all walks of life into it, you can come from any background and make something dope. Definitely, the technical side of things, drawing and just being active, in that sense, translates really well into tattooing. Even the idea that when you are bombing, or painting, you don’t actually touch the wall, you don’t touch the surface, and in a way when you are tattooing you don’t really touch the skin, the needle does, but you do float a bit. So, there are those elements that translate as well. People bug out about how you can go from a fat cap to a fine round liner, but it’s good, I find it really good for me in the sense of balance. If I’ve been tattooing all day, I find it relaxing to go out and bomb something big. It’s different. Switching energies is good. Then vice-versa, before I was tattooing, I was actively doing a lot of painting, commissioned works were my day to day, and to sort of swap that for day to day tattooing, it was a nice shift, you know…

'Tiger Style' custom Wu Tang ink by Juse1
‘Tiger Style’ custom Wu Tang ink by Juse1

Is the blackbook work the middle ground that sits between the two?

Yeah, that’s the grey area! Fuck, that’s a good way to put it…

What about that flow of influence? Do you now find that one influences the other more, or is it quite an equal flow? Does what you are doing tattoo-wise start to influence more of your writing, or does what you are painting influence the tattooing?

It hasn’t yet. For me, with writing, I’m still pushing my own development in letter style. I’ve always been a fan of wildstyle, like well-balanced interlocking, overlapping, twisting around wildstyle. That’s something that even though I’ve been doing it for twenty years, I still don’t feel like I’m mastering what I want to do in my head, so every piece I do I’m pushing a little bit toward that. When it comes to tattooing influences, I guess, the only part that has come through in my writing has been my Samoan background and adding elements of that to my graffiti, and there are a couple of reasons. I was doing that before I was tattooing. Guys like DLT, Daniel Tippett, Opto, Agent and also the legendary FDKNS crew, and for a while, Phat1, they were using moko within their work, and I started using tatau and elements of the Pacific. Dyle was another cat rocking his Tongan patterns in there too. This was in letters and not just in backgrounds and stuff. What I noticed was that nobody puts the Pacific on the map in regard to writing. We could rock letters all we want, but if you put it up next to another piece, you are not going to necessarily say these guys are from Aotearoa or the South Pacific. So, it was more about claiming our identity of who we are. Our original influence was from New York in a big way, but it was important for us to put our hands up and say we love to do this too, how can we make it our own? Not through style necessarily, but by adding what we know is who we are to our work, and I don’t mean just putting some island background, or some trees, I mean adding to the letters, adding to the piece, creating something out of that…

Juse1 in mid-burner action, tatau forming the fill...
Juse1 in mid-burner action, tatau forming the fill…

Actually changing the letterforms, because the letters become the vessel, right? They are a form to subvert, so by making those relate specifically to that cultural influence is important and unique…

Like having a taiaha for an ‘I’, or a hook or a weapon as a letter, because letters are symbols, alphabets are full of symbols, and the way they can interrelate like that is awesome. And it actually works, I’ve had people from New York, pioneers of the game, say: ‘I really like what you guys do…’ They don’t understand it at first, but they like it. (Laughs) But once we told them, they would be like: ‘Oh shit, amazing!’ So yeah, we are adding an older artform on top of an artform, to grow and create something new, which I think is dope…

Absolutely, and there is a rich visual culture to draw on from Polynesian culture. You also just touched on something that I have to ask about, looking through your Instagram feed, there are pictures with Crazy Legs and members of the Wu Tang Crew, in hindsight, is it hard to believe some of the people you’ve met?

Everyone! I count myself blessed in many ways, in that not only through the graffiti side, but also through the MC side, I’ve met a lot of people I’ve literally learned from, through their albums, through their artworks. I never ever imagined that one day I’d be touring with Ghostface [Killah] or having a cipher with the RZA, or one with the GZA, on separate occasions, smoking a joint with Method Man, meeting KRS One, Nas, all these cats bro. Then on the graf side, and even the other elements, I’ve met Mr Wiggles, kicked it with Crazy Legs. There’s too many to name. I kind of forget, and I’m like, fuck that actually happened! But one of my mentors, Kerb1, he told me many, many, many years ago that real hip hop is a small world. I didn’t really get what he meant by that. But now, twenty years later, I think it means that the energy that is shared amongst like minds, means names and fame don’t really come into it, because real recognises real. If you can get on a certain level, and connect on a certain level with that person, it’s good…

'Style So Sick' TS Crew colab, Juse1, Ceaper, Kerb1 and Reakt
‘Style So Sick’ TS Crew colab, Juse1, Ceaper, Kerb1 and Reakt

Do you think that is partly because hip hop was born, specifically in Washington Heights, but in those neighbourhoods, those boroughs, and that mentality of small scenes, even though it went global, hasn’t really changed in terms of understanding or connecting with people…

That’s what it’s about. The elements are tools, and the tools connect communities and people. When people say hip hop, they think of the music of course, because that’s the most commercially recognised thing. But when you break it right down, hip hop is about community, and it’s about people, without people there’s no hip hop, you know what I mean? Hip hop was the tool to help celebrate people being together, or how to connect with another person. So that mentality, from a small borough, no one thought it was going to go worldwide when they started it, but the energy that was created is recognised throughout the world because it happens everywhere, and like you say, that’s what brings people together…

The need for connection is universal. Nearly every subculture has that power to a degree, but for hip hop it is so holistic, because it combines music, dance, visual arts… It takes all the cultural ideas you need to make a deep, sustainable culture, rather than just one primary aspect. Having those four elements makes it so cohesive and inclusive…

It makes it accessible to everyone too, like if you can’t dance, you might be able to paint, if you can’t paint, you might be able to scratch…

I think I remember reading in a Source magazine article years ago a description of the four elements, with the MC as the bratty little sibling who makes all noise…

The loud one! (Laughs)

The DJ was the quiet studious middle child…

The watcher, the observer.

Then graffiti was the black sheep, the older one who left home…

The one who bailed! The rebel who leads everyone else astray! That’s sounds about right! I like that description!

Juse1 character next to VROD piece, New Brighton, Christchurch, 2019
Juse1 character next to VROD piece, New Brighton, Christchurch, 2019

Thanks for sitting down, it’s been awesome to get some insight from your long involvement in the game, and across different realms too…

It’s not as long as some people, but I’m still there! (Laughs)

Sure, but for some people five years is an age…

For sure, I never thought our crew would hit the twenty-year mark, but we did, and we are looking at thirty years soon. Three of us started the TS crew back in 1996, and I never thought it would develop into what it is now, so yeah, it’s a good thing. But like I said, having those pioneers still around has been important. My bro Kerb, he’s been around since 1983 and he’s still writing to this day, he is still a huge influence in what our crew do. So yeah, I guess it is a long time! (Laughs) I’ve been around a bit, but it’s a crack up, these young cats that Ikarus hooked me up with while I’m here [Sewer and VROD], I was telling them about some of the history here, and they were like: ‘Oh, have you been to Christchurch before?’ Twenty years ago was my first time here in Christchurch, I was here in 2000 for the Hip Hop Summit. They were like: ‘I was born then!’ (Laughs) It’s good though, to meet the next generation and kick it with them, to see where they are coming from. I need to do more of it in Wellington…

Make sure to follow Juse1 on Instagram and Facebook …

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Jacob Root – Distranged at the XCHC

Over a year ago, we profiled young stencil artist Jacob Root, otherwise known as Distranged Design. In that interview we discussed his entrance into the world of stencil making, his experiences in group shows, and his goals for the future. On Saturday, at the XCHC, he presents his first solo exhibition of work, Distranged. We caught up with Jacob to discuss the show, how it came together and how his practice hs developed in various ways since we last sat down…

Jacob, it has been a while since we last caught up, what’s been happening?

I have just been getting more and more into my stencil work, adding more layers, more details, just practice, practice, and more practice. I’ve done a couple more murals as well. But really just getting to grips with the finer details in my work…

Are there still some specific influences who are helping to define your style and technique? Or are you focussing on developing a sense of independence?

I feel like I’ve found my own way and grown my own style now. I am sort of adding my own feelings and influences, through movies and music and stuff like that. I’m liking that a lot more because I’m not taking little bits of people’s stuff trying to find my way…

I guess most stencil artists, as they develop, need to reconcile the balance between process and imagery. Is one more prominent than the other for you?

I think just finding an image and seeing if I can change it into my own style is quite cool. I am adding more of my own details to the stencil image, like adding flowers and things like that to the hair, trying to find a different way so it doesn’t look like every other stencil artist’s work.

Jacob Root painting Biggie Smalls at a private residence, 2018
Jacob Root painting Biggie Smalls, Debacle Flat, Dunedin, 2018

With that said, is there anyone whose work you really admire?

My favourite artist currently would probably be Tristan Eaton, I just like how his stuff has so much going on. It’s not just a face, it’s got heaps of other different details in it, details that some people would never even notice…

So, his influence is more about the construction of images than stylistically? Because his graphic style isn’t quite suitable for stencilling…

J: Yeah, definitely, I just like how his stuff isn’t hard blocks of lines and stuff it all kind of flows really nicely, which is something I’m trying to add to my work, not look like a background with something hard on top of it…

Tristan Eaton is a good reference actually, as he shifts between smaller scale studio work and his large-scale murals. Having spent a fair amount of your time in a studio space recently, are you finding that as a prefered site to explore and define your style, or are wall works and murals still a chance to push your work and experiment with new ideas as well?

The studio is great. I’ve just moved into a flat, so I have a whole garage now, which is better than a wee shed. I can do bigger pieces and paint over them if they don’t work, so it’s just practicing, practicing, practicing, finalising new ideas and adding to them…

Jacob Root's studio, 2019
Jacob Root’s studio, 2019

What mural works have you completed recently?

My last mural was the Gloucester Street mural of the new Christchurch Synagogue, which was cool, but it was all hand painted and the people who commissioned it had a specific design in mind, so it wasn’t something I’d probably do again. But after my exhibition, I’m looking forward to doing a few more murals of my own designs…

Christchurch Synagogue mural, Gloucester Street, 2019
Christchurch Synagogue mural, Gloucester Street, 2019

Your mural works have progressively gotten larger, especially from the smaller Chorus boxes you painted early on, what has that process been like? Do you want to explore the potential to go even bigger?

Yeah, I’m pretty keen to do something similar to the Synagogue piece in size, except with stencils. It is just finding a way of doing that, finding a good routine or whatever. But I think the bigger the wall, the easier it is to crank it out because the stencils don’t need that much detail, the viewpoint is from further away…

The main reason we are sitting down today is to talk about the show you have coming up at the XCHC, Distranged. Tell us a little bit about the show and how it came together…

This is my first solo show. I got asked by the XCHC if I would like to host it there, so they’ve been really cool about organising it. They’ve helped out a lot, which is really cool, and made it a whole lot easier for my first show. It’s a bit scary. I’m a bit nervous, but it has been cool getting to spend three weeks in the studio just cranking out pieces for it…

You have had works in group shows, at places like The Welder and CoCA, did you have to sit down and think about what a solo show might say as a body of work, as opposed to a singular contribution to something?

I’ve kind of been thinking about how to take my art to the next level, and I thought a solo show would be a good way to go about it because with group shows, most of the people who are going to them are looking at the top artists, they didn’t really come for my work. With this show, people are coming to see my work, which is pretty cool.

That raises the question around promotion and how you go about getting your name and this show in particular, out there. How have you found that side of it?

I’ve been making posters and posting everywhere on social media, getting friends to put them up all over the place, things like that. My family and friends have been helping out a lot as well, telling their friends and their friends’ friends about it, which has been pretty cool. It’s been a pretty fun journey so far.

I saw the short teaser video that went online, it looked great. How was that experience of putting that together?

It was cool!

Did it take a bit of time to get used to being told to do things for the camera?

Yeah, it was different being told what do, just sitting there, clinking cans together and stuff, it was pretty funny. But I quite liked how it turned out. I’m definitely keen to do more of that.

So, will that video become something bigger, or was it just a teaser for the show?

At the moment it is just a teaser, but we are looking into doing a longer ‘short film’ in the future.

Is there a discernible theme to Distranged? Is it an exploration of certain images, or is it an exploration of your style?

It’s kind of both; it’s an exploration of my style along with images of celebrities. I enjoy painting celebrities, mainly female celebrities, just because I feel they make for more interesting images.

Pink, aerosol and mixed media, 2019
Pink, aerosol and mixed media, 2019

Within that idea of ‘celebrity’, is there a commentary that comes with that? Is it a straight-forward celebration of these personalities, or a sort of critique of the cult and reverence of celebrity in today’s society?

I quite like how not everyone is going to like the same celebrity. I quite like the conflict between that, where someone might say, I really like that piece of Scarlett Johansson, and then somebody might walk in and not like it at all, I quite like how it differentiates from other people’s perspectives, depending on their perception of that celebrity.

What about the collusion between the chosen subject and the stylistic depiction? You’ve talked a lot about developing your own style, but is there also an attempt to infuse stylistic flourishes that relate to the figure you have selected to paint?

I do some research on them, and I pick out what colours they might wear, their passions and things like that, then I add those elements into the background. I’ve just done a Karl Lagerfield piece and that’s fully gold, because he was renowned for his use of gold and black, and then I added a couple of quotes in there too. I’ve been trying to hide quotes in the backgrounds of a lot of my works, they don’t stick out or anything, but I know they are there. They are more something for me, I guess…

Untitled, aerosol and mixed media, 2019
Untitled, aerosol and mixed media, 2019

Are they stencilled or freehand?

They are stencilled.

Because last time we talked, we discussed the backgrounds of your work at that time and the construction of this kind of urban surface that you then stencilled over the top. You have also been using a lot more materials, like gold leaf, so there has obviously been a bit of development of those background compositions…

Compared to where I started, with lots of random colours and stuff, I feel like I have refined my colour palette, I have also added acrylics, crayons, heaps of different media in the backgrounds. I just keep going until I’ve cut the stencils basically, and then I have a go at it and if I don’t like the background, I will just start again.

Kit Harrington, aerosol and mixed media, 2019
Untitled, aerosol and mixed media, 2019

What’s going to determine the success of this show for you? What’s the best outcome? Is it about selling works, or is it about going through the process and figuring out what it takes to put this type of thing together?

I’m just pretty stoked that I’m able to do a solo show. I’m just happy that I’m giving it a go. It’s not really about selling works, it’s about people seeing my work.

I always like to ask, because we’ve talked about the studio works and some of the commissioned murals, is there any desire to do any guerrilla street stuff?

I was thinking about, not like Banksy-style, but just some little singular stencils around the place. But that is something I will probably look at in the future, just little bits here and there, but I won’t put my name on them…

You like the idea of maintaining some secrecy? I will keep an eye out! Do you view your stencil plates as kind of works themselves? Obviously, they are an integral part of the process, but the audience doesn’t really get to see them, yet they can often be really interesting…

I have thought about framing stencils before. I’ve had a few people ask if they can have the stencil plates with the artwork after I’ve sold it, but I think that’s more because they don’t want it remade. But most of my stencils are just a one-time spray, then they are munted after that because they start peeling and stuff. I’m trying to find a way of making stencils last longer…

Let everybody know the details of Distranged

It opens on Saturday the 13th of April, at 5pm at the XCHC on Wilsons Road in Waltham. It will go for a week, but the opening night is the one I’m looking forward to the most. I also have to thank the people who have helped put it together, including the XCHC, Scapegrace, HireKing, and 27Seconds…

Thanks for sitting down, I look forward to seeing the show…

Follow Jacob on social media:

Instagram: @distrangeddesign

Facebook: @Distrangeddesign

 

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Caelan Walsh – Stepping Out

Caelan Walsh is a thoughtful guy. The often faceless and pseudonymous nature of graffiti writing leads to perception of graffiti writers as senseless destructive forces. Caelan is eloquent and intelligent, and importantly, well-versed in the complexities and contradictions of both the world of graffiti, but also of the public perceptions. He also represents the tensions graffiti writers feel when moving into the realm of commissioned work, and the dreaded sphere of the ‘street art muralist’ (dum-dum-dummm!). In the latter stages of last year, with support from Watch This Space, Gap Filler and the Enliven Places fund, Caelan produced a sprawling ‘kiwiana’ mural on Tuam Street. Walsh segmented the long wall into an angular geometric grid populated with icons of Aotearoa; from a gumboot wearing farmer, sheep, and a rugby-playing kiwi, to a horde of sunglass-wearing penguins, a tuatara, a pohutakawa tree, and the tino rangatiratanga flag. Laced with bright colours and patterns that differentiate each segment, the playful comic stylings are a perfect fit for the still in-progress area, with Gap Filler’s pump track sitting directly in front. After a long back and forth to actually sit down and chat (this seems to be a theme with my interviews!), when we did, Caelan deftly jumped between a range of topics, including graffiti history, the various ‘moods’ of the culture and how he navigates those divergences, and his experience on the pump track wall…

Let’s start by talking about the ‘kiwiana’ mural you completed along the Gap Filler ‘Roll with It’ pump track on Tuam Street. How did that project come about?

Thanks to you guys! (laughs) I kind of got thrown in the deep end on that one! It was the first properly commissioned wall I’ve painted, full stop, and on top of that, it was also the biggest wall I’ve ever painted, so it was obviously pretty intimidating. That’s why I came up with the idea of sectioning the wall up into smaller parts, each with different images and colours. Along with trying utilise all the space effectively to avoid it getting tagged through. I could look at it as twenty-two smaller pieces rather than one big wall, which would have been more intimidating…

I imagine that the idea of segmenting it up into pieces was necessary when you haven’t had a lot of experience working on commissioned murals of that size. Your background in graffiti means that even with bigger pieces, you are often collaborating, and as such you are using a smaller space rather than the entire wall, so is that must have been quite a big change…

Yeah, definitely. There were other challenges too. I’m horrible at working with colours. I just can’t put them together. So, a lot of the time when I’m painting, I’ll push other people to come up with a colour scheme, so it’s like: ‘Cool, whatever you said, we are doing that 100%’! But, working on my own and having to conceptualise that on a larger scale, it was definitely something that I couldn’t plan ahead. A lot of the colour choices were made by starting with just picking one colour up and going from there. Obviously, then in the section next to it I would use a different colour to create that contrast and develop it from there. Then I would step back from the wall and think, oh I haven’t got enough pink in that section, I’ll work with pink now…

Pump Track mural, Tuam Street, 2018. Photo Credit: Manjot Kaur
Pump Track mural, Tuam Street, 2018
(Photo Credit: Manjot Kaur)

Do you approach graffiti pieces with that openness to change as well? When you are working on a piece, do you have a strong idea of how you want it to look, or are you open to change as well?

With graffiti, I really have quite a strict idea in my head of how I want the process to work, and how I want it to sit on the wall. But I also don’t like to complete a sketch because I feel as though then it has become its own entity, and then you are just replicating something until it’s completed on the wall and there’s not really much fun in that. So, sometimes I’ve gone to walls with three different sketches and I might like different parts of each one and there will be other ideas in my head as well. So, I guess if you were to look at my sketches, they would look like big scribbles, but they will turn on different lights in my head…

So, when you are drawing or sketching for a piece, it’s not so much about creating a plan as it is exploring ideas that you can then explore further on a wall. But with a commissioned mural you often have to show a more developed idea and some kind plan, which means they are necessarily distinct processes for you…

Yeah, I think I was pushed a lot more with the mural work because obviously the owners and everyone involved wants a proper idea. With Graffiti, my basic style or structure is in my head, I can see it already on the wall, but when I’m explaining a mural to people, often I can tell that they don’t really get it until they physically see a drawing of it. So, that was a big challenge for me, because like I said, I don’t like finishing sketches, I like it to be more open, especially going from ballpoint pen to using a spray can, there are completely different effects involved. I am definitely more confident with a spray can than a brush or a pen. I can’t show that I’m going to shade here or have some drips going down here…

Collaboration with Tepid and Dove, New Brighton, 2019
Collaboration with Tepid (left) and Dove (centre), New Brighton, 2019

Technology is making that transition easier though, at least in some respects, right? I was recently watching a video of someone using a Posca pen with a Crayola add-on airbrush piece, to create the effect of a tiny spray can painting a stencil. Obviously, there are problematic elements to the embrace of technology, but it must at least make some of that transition easier…

I think with some of the programmes they have on iPad’s and that sort of thing now, it is crazy the different ways you can digitally replicate how you would paint on a wall. It is not something I’ve had a chance to muck around with a lot, but in some of the work I’ve done with Dove especially, he’s used that technology to map out how something would sit on a wall, and that just makes a crazy difference when it comes to actually visualising a large-scale project…

Collection of sketches, 2018/2019
Collection of sketches, 2018/2019

Do you have a process to scale up from a sketch to a wall? Often artists have a specific approach that is slightly different depending on the individual…

For me, it’s the same with everything; graffiti, murals, I just start by taking steps. I step out the length of the wall. Say it is twenty steps and then for example, if it’s piecing, and you’ve got four people, sweet, you’ve each got five steps, and I just mark it out and work from there…

Even that simple approach, it essentially represents one of graffiti’s core attributes: the ability to solve problems. There’s always been that DIY nature, where you can do more with less by problem solving. You are constantly having to overcome problems when you are painting graffiti or making art in the streets in that manner, and that’s why I guess that transition to large-scale work is so achievable, because of the skillsets you pick up painting without permission, or painting without the support mechanisms of a studio space, or a commission…

In terms of proportions, even with my graffiti, my work is quite mathematical. I guess it ruins some of the natural flow when you explain it, but I’m literally looking at the first line I did on the wall and following it from there. I’ve got maths going in my head, like, that width between each line is twenty centimetres, so I should make it about that the whole way through. I’m stepping back and judging widths of the letters themselves and the space between them along with the thickness of each individual line itself. So, I’m actually thinking about how certain attributes that come later will affect the piece as well, especially adding shadows, it’s something a lot of people seem to struggle with, but there’s almost a mathematical formula to how a piece sits on the wall. I also use shadow to help add dimension to my pieces rather than one flat image sitting on a wall, so it is a series of intertwined connections overlapping and underlapping each other.

Game and Dove, Christchurch, 2017
Game piece with Dove character, Christchurch, 2017 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

With drop shadows and those types of effects, it is literally mathematical, right? It is about the angle created by the light source, the angle you are trying to project and those types of things. It’s also something where you can fall onto either side, though, right? You can be looser, more chance driven, and all about how it looks and feels, or you can be more precise and adhere to spatial relationships and certain effects that you are trying to achieve. Your graffiti letter style is kind of angular and quite strong in its line work, do you that comes out through that kind of mathematical approach?

Like you said, you can go either of two ways with it. I’ve probably wished I was more comfortable doing a more natural approach, but like I was saying earlier, my pieces are very controlled. To add even more mathematics and numbers, I’m also always trying to add my work into a certain slot of where I feel comfortable. Like, I want to do pieces at the moment, I need to do everything in my head that justifies it being a piece, to then fit into that slot where I can be like: ‘O.K., now I’ve done forty-seven pieces.’ If it’s missing certain elements to it, then I can’t class it as a piece.

So, there’s a classification process going on in how you are building your body of work?

Yeah, so, it’s something that I’m almost forcefully trying to do. I’m sort of restricting myself. I’m not going out as much and doing more creative stuff, stuff off the top of my head, because in my mind, that would fit into a different slot. Which is perfectly fine, it’s just my sense of control makes want to be able to categorise what I am doing…

Social piece, Auckland, 2010
Social piece, Auckland, 2010 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

Is there an end goal in mind then when you are taking that approach?

Like you were saying, it is just building a body of work. Not so much to show other people, it’s more just self-confidence, knowing that I have got that body of work behind me. That will allow me to feel more comfortable going out and doing weirder, less-appropriate sort of things…

Does it give you a good sense of how far you have progressed already? Does it become obvious to you?

Yeah, with my letters at the moment, I do make some dramatic changes, but generally speaking, each piece I paint, I’m trying to develop one letter. So, there are four letters in the name I write, right now I’m working on developing the ‘O’, so if you look back at previous works, the other letters will be the same, but the ‘O’ will be different. The next piece, I might decide I’m happy with the ‘O’, so I will start developing the ‘D’, so then, like everything, you will actually see the natural progression of how it’s changing. Right now, I’m actually reverting back to a lot of my earlier work from the beginning of last year, stylistically, because I feel like I drifted off in the wrong direction and now I’m going back to that body of work and seeing where I was going with that. That’s why having that control of doing a piece is important I guess, I can see where I was going wrong, or what I need to do instead. Even with that amount of control, you still make mistakes. I’m not particularly happy with my style at the moment, I think it has sort of regressed a bit over the last few months and that’s why I’m looking at the older work and hopefully bringing it back…

Character piece, unspecified location.
Character piece, Auckland, 2016 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

That’s a really mature, thoughtful approach. Was that compulsive element, repeating a tag or developing letters over time, was that always one of the attractions of graffiti for you? And how do you relate that sort of approach to commissioned projects? Do they require a slightly different approach?

You could definitely say I am a bit obsessive compulsive and that definitely is evident in the way I paint. With the commissioned work, I think as long as you get the O.K., I’m a lot more open to switching things up. The pump track mural, I did control that a lot as well, specifically to ensure it had that more comic effect, with very bold colours. There were a lot of parts, especially the birds, where I would have liked to have thrown in more detail, but it would have taken away from the rest of the mural. Although I knew there was more that I could add, I had to control myself and let it be what it was. But now, after doing that, I’m definitely a lot more confident in being able to wing it a bit more, to chuck my own flavour in there. There are definitely challenges that come with painting concepts and ideas that I have never really attempted on paper, let alone a wall.

Commissioned work also generally allows more longevity. You can often physically revisit a work over a longer period. Does that affect your thinking as well? Which reminds me; we were just told that your mural will stay in place for longer than originally thought as well, the project has just been extended, which is good news! So, what is that shifting mindset like between a work that might only be there for a day and then disappear, and a work that is somewhat more protected? For someone who is so analytical and thoughtful, is it tricky constantly being reminded of a work, thinking I could’ve done this, I could’ve done that…

Yeah, absolutely, especially with that mural, because I was working between a lot of other commitments. There were a lot of hurdles I had to get over, so it ended up taking a month and half of on and off days. So, yeah there were a lot of sleepless nights thinking about something I really wanted to do before I forgot about it. I was borrowing my friend’s ladder, and near the end I just got him to pick it up so I couldn’t really do anymore work without having to organise more stuff. It was almost a case of someone having to just take the can out of my hand and be like, that’s enough, it’s’ done.

Collaboration with Dove, Hereford Street carpark, 2019
Collaboration with Dove, Hereford Street carpark, 2019 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

I guess when you are having a jam, generally you are looking to finish within a shorter time frame, although there are other reasons you might finish when you finish, but with the longer time afforded a commissioned work, it is probably good to have some limit imposed on you…

Yeah, well, graffiti is incredibly speed-based, especially in New Zealand. It is almost frowned upon to spend any longer than a day on a piece, although, in my opinion, if your piece needs three days of work, then put three days in, make it the best possible.

Some of that comes down to the spot though, right?

It’s definitely tossing it up a little bit. But yeah, with my pieces, especially doing the fill and the initial outline, I am sweating trying to just get it done, to get the piece up on the wall. Then I will spend the same amount of time just tidying it up, stepping back and looking at it. My main goal is to try and finish it before everyone else, so I’ve got that five or ten-minute window of being able to step back and look at it. I took a similar approach to the mural as well, but with no experience or any time frame to go off it was really hard for me to tell what speed I was meant to go.

You mention the New Zealand scene as a whole, you are based here now because you are studying here in Christchurch, but you are from Auckland, right?

Yeah, born and raised.

So, growing up in Auckland, what influences were the strongest impact on you growing up? What got you involved? Auckland is so different from Christchurch, what were the biggest things you noticed coming down here?

Well, since coming down here, I’ve always looked at Christchurch as almost being in a time warp, almost ten or fifteen years behind. Not as far as skill goes, there’s some amazing artists down here, but the train tracks down here now look like how Auckland looked in the early 2000s, and that was the era that got me into graffiti, so I love the scene down here, it’s what we’ve now lost in Auckland because of the buff…

The Christchurch Rail Corridor, 2017
The Christchurch Rail Corridor, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Caelan Walsh)

It’s almost nostalgic for you… (laughs)

Yeah, and the creative energy, with so many blank walls, like in Auckland, every spot has been done to such a high level, that it is almost like: what’s the point? It’s already been ‘kinged’, someone’s already done something better, whether it’s a stomper, a tag, a piece, it’s already been done. Down here, even along the train tracks, you’ve got walls that have literally never been touched. Whatever you do on it, it’s going to be the best thing that’s ever been done on that wall…

There are two ways to look at both of those things as well, like you say, if somebody has already done something amazing, it’s either what’s the point, or there is a real drive to try and better it, or, when the are no precedents, you’ve got the freedom to do something without expectations, or you can get lazy and the level gets pulled down…

I guess from my point of view, being a bit older, I can really see opportunity down here. When I was younger in Auckland, I didn’t appreciate how lucky I was to be a part of that scene at that time, even in the early 2000s, I remember thinking, I wish I grew up in the 90s! Then when the buff hit in 2011 (when the Rugby World Cup was staged in New Zealand), it was like, oh crap, we were painting in the golden era of Auckland graffiti and we took it for granted! We should’ve been out doing pieces on all these spots instead of tags! But down here, it’s different for me, with that maturity that comes with age, and a desire to just do pieces, just being able to have that confidence in my style, I can quite confidently make a wall look better than it was…

Which again is a mature attitude, it is not what every writer is trying to do…

I do contradict myself quite a lot, and I still feel a lot of the different moods of graffiti. I think it’s important though, it can be very restrictive sticking to one set of views. But, generally speaking I like to paint for the act that I am making the wall look better than it was. It might not be publicly appreciated, or aesthetically pleasing to everyone, it’s still graffiti, but its better than the tagging that was on the wall before. This is also my general argument or, I guess, defence if I was to be approached by the public.

Canvas works, 2018
Studio works, including a benchtop and painted fridge, 2015 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

For most people, it is the legal issue, the private property issue that is the most upsetting, and that is what leads them to say they don’t think graffiti is aesthetically pleasing, and that is sort highlighted by the way a buffed wall, with patches of mismatched paint, is clearly not an aesthetic improvement…

I find that very ironic, there are some very bad clean up jobs around that look worse than the tagging itself did. A particular example of this for me is when people tag using their fingers on a dirty wall or window, obviously it is still vandalism, but it is simply moving dirt around on a neglected surface that no one has taken the time to maintain. I would argue the wall was not aesthetically pleasing to begin with and the tagger simply pointed that out. With that said, I do hear the argument, even from writers, that they would be pissed off if their fence got tagged. But for me, I’m a pretty placid human being, if someone did paint my fence, I would go and paint it out and get on with my day, it’s not something that really stresses me out…

A fence is an object that defines territory, and as such it invites responses in some way, right? I’m not saying a fence deserves graffiti, but it does say: ‘this is my space, keep out!’ So, both because of that symbolic presence, as well as the physical form, something is likely to end up on them… it’s almost inevitable, even if it is not necessarily pleasing.

It comes back to that core emotion that people look for from graffiti, why people paint, we’re looking for that mental reaction. nothing beats being in the city at two or three in the morning, with no one else around, you’re walking down the middle of the street, and whatever you want to write on, whatever you want to climb, no one is stopping you, the city is yours, you own it…

[American graffiti historian] Roger Gastman has written that at its core, graffiti is about young people exploring the city, and as you say finding that freedom, those boundaries seem to vanish. On the flip side of that, how did you make the decision to take on commissioned opportunities? Were you influenced by what other people were doing? Did it germinate in Auckland, or was it more a case of the opportunities in post-quake Christchurch? Was it something you always thought you might do, or was it something you came around to?

Like I was saying before, I contradict myself a lot. I go between wanting to be a reclusive vandal and wanting to screw society up, to wanting to make society better, make it more beautiful, be a part of the wider community, go to events, talk with people. In Auckland, I guess, I got into the concept of tagging, not that I ever thought I would do it, but my older sister, who is in her late thirties now, a lot of her friends were ‘gangsta’ taggers, they don’t tag anymore, they have all moved on to actual serious crime, a lot of them are in jail now. But I was opened to that at a young age, and a lot of them were amazing graffiti artists, classic old school wildstyle painters. I can remember being eight years old, and trying to copy a drawing I had found, and I was just drawing heaps of arrows, and being like, how do you do this? That lasted maybe a couple of days, then you move on to the next little game or whatever. But then I revisited it as a teenager. One night I was staying at my mate’s place, and he was like alright, we’re going tagging. I was like, what’s that? I thought only people from the hood did that? Which is a racist view, really, that only poor neglected kids go out tagging. Why would a proper citizen, from a private school, who has the opportunity to be successful, start tagging? But ever since then, I caught the bug for it.

That’s what they have said about New York, that because hip hop was very Afrocentric, everyone assumed graffiti was the same, primarily the realm of poor black and Hispanic kids. But the reality was that graffiti was broader, it wasn’t as defined by your position in society as some of the other elements of hip hop…

It’s kind of funny, when you get more involved in the world, people still have that view, that it’s brown hood rats out tagging, when its just as likely to be middle-aged men with full-time jobs and families. Some of the most prolific taggers I knew in Auckland as kids are looking at owning their own home, or already own it, dealing with full-time job, a lot of them are sober of everything and they are still out every second night painting. I remember seeing an article years ago about Deus from Auckland, and the article was so racist, the actual headline was like: ‘Taggers are not just brown, poor and from South Auckland’, or something like that, and then it had a picture of Deus, an older white guy with missing teeth, quite an eccentric guy, dressed like he’s a bit homeless, and he’s one of New Zealand’s best artists, the complete opposite of the stereotype of what people think of graffiti, and he is at the pinnacle, especially of character work in New Zealand…

What are your next goals? You have talked about this cataloguing approach to pieces, and this increasing commissioned work, is that just a case of balancing the two, or does one become a focus?

I think that the commissioned work motivates me to do other things, because I don’t want to be known as a muralist. I enjoy painting murals, but as soon as I allow myself to be known as a muralist, or a ‘street artist’, that’s what really opens up my work to getting destroyed by younger taggers. So, there’s that certain aspect of keeping up my rep, whatever rep or street presence that may be. I’d like to let people know it’s cool, if you want to do it, take the opportunity if you can…

Some people decide it’s one or the other and go for it whole-heartedly, so actually deciding to do both and how you go about contending with both worlds is quite challenging…

I was having a discussion with Juse from Wellington, and we were saying it takes maybe like ten or fifteen years into your career before you can really know your work, which to some people sounds like a hell of a long time, but in art and graffiti, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. If you look at people like Askew, he has been doing it since the early nineties, but its only just in the last like five years you can see that he has really found his purpose and found comfort in doing what he wants to do, and that’s more than twenty years of work that’s got him to that point…

The penny doesn’t necessarily drop quickly, right?

Yeah, like I remember starting out and being like, I’ve done graffiti for like two years, I’ll be good soon! My first piece was around the beginning of 2006, so I’ve been doing it for over ten years…

Pure Mongrel Fitness, commissioned work, 2018
Pure Mongrel Fitness, commissioned work, Christchurch, 2018 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

It’s a constant journey of self-discovery, right? You admitted earlier how there are always elements of your work you are unhappy with, and that is kind of what makes it such a long journey. It’s about your own standards, developing ideas, there is no end goal…

It’s bloody hard, you know? For anyone thinking of taking this up, it’s a big commitment, and you are never going to be satisfied. There’s always another spot, another piece, a different colour scheme, there’s always something. There are so many people in this scene, even since I got into graf, the scene is crazy big, and every country has a heap of cities and every city has suburbs. There are some amazing artists from all walks of life doing it, constantly pushing boundaries. I don’t think anyone could have imagined where graffiti would go…

It’s crazy, when you think about the roots in Philadelphia and New York, and now everywhere has its own scenes and micro-scenes; the hip hop tradition, punk, skateboarding, trash, anti-style, and then within all of those, you’ve got people doing different things, and with so many people…

It’s like all art, everything is influenced by your surroundings. We have the internet now, there’s obviously a lot of hate for it, in some ways it’s not as natural, but at the end of the day, it has just opened the doors of where you can take influence from, we’re no longer taking influence from our scene or street, we’re seeing every single suburb in the whole world…

The key thing is that if you are taking influence from somewhere, you need to know why something looks the way it does. If there is a cultural influence, there is a responsibility to understand that influence, and you also need to understand the relationship to space and place of where you are, and how it relates to what you want to do. There are a lot of things to acknowledge…

That’s exactly right, New Zealand has a great example of that; the tagging style ‘straights’, which is actually a very, very refined, rigid typography which takes a lot of discipline. It developed in the early nineties, from an old FDKNS member’s trip to Los Angeles I believe, and he came back with a lot of photographs and that developed this style and it’s since become a completely unique New Zealand style. Like you said, without understanding it, you could copy it and it would look like straights, but it’s not straights, it hasn’t got that discipline, and you need to understand why the letters look like that. Even now in Auckland, there is a West Auckland style of straights, an East Auckland style of straights, and you can’t just mix the two together, which I noticed in Wellington or Christchurch, where people just kind of copy the idea of straights, and there’s something missing from it or added to it. It makes it unique I guess, like Christchurch has its own form of straights, Wellington does too…

Straights, Auckland Rail Corridor, 2003 (Photo credit: ill_jill)
Straights, Auckland Rail Corridor, 2003 (Photo credit: ill_jill)

But they are not strictly the form that developed in Auckland, which brings its own specific influences…

Even just growing up in Auckland, if you showed me a set of straights, I’d be able to tell you what era it was done, because every year it is changing, or there was a particular style or letter that was pushed, and that was another thing, I guess, biting, copying was sort of expected with straights, if you were pushing it, you were expected to know what went before…

Perfecting it rather than pushing it because it is a specific visual language you are aiming to replicate. Shifting focus, tell me more about your field of study, because there is an interesting connection…

I’m doing a Batchelor of Criminal Justice, which is a Criminology degree essentially…

RCH container mural, March 2019
RCH container mural, March 2019 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

Did your graffiti writing background influence your decision to go in that direction?

Yeah, not so much in the sense of actually writing graffiti, but the consequences of it. I’m not embarrassed to say I do have a criminal record, I’m very strong in my morals, if I think it is right, I’ll do it, even though it might be against the law. I think I’m pushing eight or nine times just on wilful damage charges. Just dealing with the court system, I’ve seen a lot of people who have been abused by the system, just because they have a lack of knowledge of how to deal with it. I’ve been lied to, I’ve been taken up the garden path, and told we won’t charge you, and then you admit to something and it’s like sweet, you’re under arrest. I don’t know about other countries, but in New Zealand they don’t teach your rights enough in school. I think every school should have some class about knowing your rights, because Police and anyone with authority can abuse their power…

I’ve always believed that any education programme should have some moral or ethical philosophy component. If we had more people who understood, not only their rights and how the justice system works, but who also have the ability to make up their mind about what is morally and ethically right, it would go a long way. So, when you finish, will you try and connect those worlds?

Obviously, I do have issues with a criminal record, which does impact where I can go for now, it will take time, but I will get where I want to go. I definitely want to end up doing some sort of social work. I’m already putting myself out there as someone willing to talk to people. I’ve gone to a lot of my friends’ court cases as support, because it’s a scary, intimidating thing going to court, even if it is just for drinking in public and its just a $200 fine, it’s still really intimidating. So, just having someone there, telling you it’s all good, that the worst that can happen is you might get home detention. They are thinking they might go to jail for two years, so it’s important to have someone who can say it is alright, don’t stress out and be confident with what you are doing. I’ve always found the worst punishment is not knowing, once you get charged, you got a couple of hundred hours of community service, O.K., I will knock that out, and move on. But that few months of: Am I going to get charged? Could I go to jail? Just getting stuck in the system is an incredibly scary thing…

Thanks man, it’s been really interesting, I look forward to seeing what comes next for you… Do you have any shout outs?

Yeah, shout out to Watch This Space obviously and Gap filler, also my boy Dove, the FOK and AOC crews and anyone in Christchurch that is doing their thing at the moment. And thanks to Cent for documenting the scene and helping out with some photos!

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Joel Hart – Dopamine

In basketball they talk about being a triple threat: a player who can score baskets, defend, and provide assists for others. This concept is fitting when it comes to Christchurch artist and designer Joel Hart, not just because he has his own history in the sport of hoops, but because he is also a true all-rounder. A talented and popular artist, whose captivating work is found on walls both in the streets and in galleries, he is, to top it off, a heck of a nice guy, unassuming and relatable. It has been a goal to sit down with Joel to discuss his work and career for a while, and the opening of his new show Dopamine at Fiksate provided a perfect opportunity. For an artist whose work embraces a number of processes and materials, and as a figure who perhaps represents an alternative entry into the worlds of muralism and urban contemporary practice, there was no shortage of conversation…

What was the inspiration for the title of this show, Dopamine?

Where did it come from? I can’t actually remember…

I did a bit of research, and from what I have read, bearing in mind my limited scientific knowledge, dopamine refers to chemical neurotransmitters in the brain and they impact a range of emotions and capabilities, including the ability to see and obtain rewards, which was interesting to me, is that what you had in mind when you came up with the title?

Yeah, it is that idea of the visual experience, when you see something cool, and it releases that dopamine feeling, and I guess that’s how I like to explain my work, it’s very much about a visual experience…

You see your work as a very visual, visceral experience, and the immediate response triggering an emotional response?

Yeah, I think so, so that’s where Dopamine came from.

Just Motion, mixed media on canvas, 2019
Just Motion, mixed media on canvas, 2019

The show opens March 15th at Fiksate, and having talked to you for a while about a solo show, it feels like a long time coming, do you feel that way?

Yeah, it has been over three years since I had my last solo show, so all these ideas that I’ve been pulling together, it has been a long, long time coming. But it also feels like it has snuck up really quickly as well…

That long gap must mean there has been a fair amount of progression in your work, which must be more satisfying than successive shows of the same stuff, but at the same time, it must mean that there is a lot to try and condense into one coherent show that explains that progression. The ability to have a solo show in a dedicated urban contemporary space, like Fiksate, must be satisfying too. Did you feel a different responsibility than you feel painting a mural, having work in a group show, or even a booth in an art fair, a responsibility to have a more coherent, cohesive body of work and presentation?

Yeah definitely, you want to be tying it all together as a consistent body of work, which is really hard to do, because I’m constantly working with a lot of different materials, I’m pushing towards sculptural elements, there are layered works, and there are works on metal as well. I’ve tried to work around the female portraits, which is mainly what I do anyway, so that consistency ties it all together, the themes are similar…

The female face has long been a central icon of your work, what is the allure? Is there an inherent commentary?

I was thinking about that the other day, and it sort of stems from my journey as a graphic designer building into the art works. I’ve worked for magazines, I’ve done a bit with photographers and fashion magazines, I worked for a student magazine as well, which was more of a grungy, underground culture, and then I’ve worked in screen printing as well, so it all plays a part, and the images I work with have come from various elements of all of those worlds and experiences…

Tragically Hip, mixed media on copper panel, 2019
Tragically Hip, mixed media on copper panel, 2019

Does the imagery work in relationship with the formal material approaches? The use of layers, the reflective surfaces, the fragmented effects, do they intentionally combine with the beautiful faces, and the other references to make a statement?

Yeah, a little bit, the faces come from a way to build on my stencil stuff. The face really builds the emotional quality of the works, and that’s why I started to build around those images. That probably doesn’t answer your question!

Are the faces you depict drawn from media, like magazines or advertising?

Yeah, a little bit, I suppose that is my background, commercial art, design…

Have you ever considered photographing subjects yourself?

It has always been on the list of things to do. At the moment I just destroy magazines and images and signs and that sort of stuff and fuse it all together. But maybe being able to focus on a specific angle I want, or a look that I want, and being able to build around that from the start will be a lot easier to make a more consistent look, rather than pulling a lot of stuff from everywhere. Sometimes it is hard to build a narrative around a piece when you’ve got all this stuff floating around. I could pretty much build an image from this room, I will see it in my head, all the objects and signs and textures around us, I will pull it all together, but I guess I have always tied my compositions together by building them around faces.

I recently saw a newer work of yours that depicted a male figure, is that a first? Is there a reason the female face has been a more prominent motif?

I’ve done probably half a dozen male figures, but probably most of my work features female figures. I guess I kind of feel like you get more emotion from female eyes, especially in high fashion photography, the lips are more interesting, I don’t know, I guess that is what I’m more interested in working with. Some of the recent stuff I’m playing with allows me to see my work as a snapshot of a larger story, some of the works in this show have a broader narrative, and the faces I see as just something more to explore the formal elements I’m working with…

Those other elements include text, skulls, animals, patterns, natural elements like flowers and foliage, so what is the relationship between all of those aspects, especially the text, it often seems that a piece of text will have an apparently evocative connotation, but at the same time they can be quite ambiguous in relationship to the other pictorial elements, there is a duality between meaningful and meaningless…

Yeah, I quite like to do that, I will have this idea for the visual side, and then I might hear a line in a song, or see something written in a book, just something small, a couple of lines or something, and I will cut it out, and then the text takes quite a prominent role in the piece.

Tragically Hip, mixed media on copper panel, 2019
Hush, mixed media on brass panel, 2019 (Photo credit: Joel Hart)

Often the text forms the title of your work, right?

Yeah.

With the typography of the text, are you playing around with that, or using the found visual? Is the text both a signifier as language and as a visual form?

I have always had a big interest in typography, especially in my commercial design work, but the text I use in my work is more often found than a decision to use a trendy, disposable typeface, or even one that is timeless, they are often a bit low-res…

That process of collation, putting all your ideas and images together; scanning, compiling, composing, is there an equal balance between that process and actually producing the work from that sketch?

Oh yeah, there is lots of preparation and planning, so probably sixty percent is that preparation, and forty percent is the application. But in saying that, a lot of the new processes I’m working with, the structures and layers, they are making it more like fifty/fifty…

Within the structures and layers of your compositions there is also a gestural and apparently free-form mark-making, which almost seems at odds with your design background, how open are you towards the end goal when you are making work? Do your sketches reveal how something will look, or can they change over the process?

The scanned image will pretty much be the final product, but in saying that, once I start, I might cut bits out. It is a pretty loose process but the actual appearance of the face, I’ve got the scale right, I’ve got the stencil size right, so that element will generally look like the sketch. Going into my street works, it is really helpful to be able to show a client how a piece will look. So, I guess my smaller works are similar to my larger works in terms of process.

I always remember Porta saying how he respects your ability to solve problems, that you handle things on the fly and find solutions. Is that something you take pride in? Having watched you paint, particularly outdoors, you are use a raft of techniques, from stencils to screen printing directly onto the wall, and in your studio, I imagine it’s even more diverse, because of the extra freedom that kind of space provides. Is a challenge a necessary part of the art-making process for you?

I was saying to someone the other day, I need a challenge, I’m always trying to push the boundaries. It is kind of why I got out of design, because I found I was just doing the same thing over and over. But at the same time, I guess the problem-solving element comes from my design background, where you are solving a problem for a client essentially; they have no collateral or visual presence and you are solving that for them. So, I suppose it comes from that. I guess I like to always explore ideas, and on a wall, you know you will learn something new every time. In my studio works as well, I will be like: ‘Next time I will be able to do that, because I can see where I want to be heading…’

Supreme Supreme mural, Welles Street, 2017
Supreme Supreme mural, Welles Street, 2017

You can see a larger tapestry?

Yeah, like heading into some sculptural work is a massive learning curve for me, working with steel, with timber, engineering stuff…

Is that something you are leaning into yourself? Or do you have people helping you? A lot of artists will work with fabricators and technicians these days, but I feel like you are more hands on, that you would want to be on the tools…

I’m very hands on, but I have very limited knowledge in that area. So, I’m just learning different things, like welding, not that I’ve done much, or steel fabrication, getting ideas and asking questions to see if it is possible to do stuff. The work that comes from it will still be my style, I still want to work in layers, but I am interested in making things that can occupy public space…

Is there any work in Dopamine that represents that direction, or is it a longer-term goal?

It’s probably more of a longer-term goal, but I’ve got a couple of things I’m trying to pull together, so hopefully I can pull it off, but it’s only a couple of weeks away!

Escaping Reality, perspex, 2019
Escaping Reality, perspex, 2019

You have been working with layered plastic and copper sheets, what other materials have you been working with? What are you seeking from these different materials, especially as they become more and more important parts of your work?

Yeah, I’ve been playing around with iridescent lighting effects, with film, and mirrors, and just playing with how light can sit in a room. That’s something that has always interested me, spreading the layers out so I can work with shadows, exploring the angles of shadows and light, and how light reflects off surfaces. I’ve always been interested in repurposing things, ever since I was a kid, I loved finding stuff and making something. It’s experimental, playing with different things…

When you decide to use a copper surface or a mirror surface, how do you decide what type of image to use, and how do you develop the relationship between those two elements?

It sort of just comes naturally, because it just starts as a rough sketch and develops from there. I’ve got all this material in my studio that I think will work with something later, so if I know I’ve got a piece of mirror that’s six hundred by six hundred, I can sort of build my composition into that mirror. Often, I will just put something aside, like a rusty bit of steel, and once I start on piece, it will be like, oh that will be perfect for that…

Obviously, you enjoy the ability to experiment with these materials in the studio, but do you prefer that environment to working on a mural? Do they feed into each other, or is there a preference?

At the moment, I’ve been stuck in the studio, so I can’t wait to get outside on a wall. But then when you have been on a wall for a week, you can’t wait to get back to the studio! It’s quite nice to have that balance. And it’s good to have the design, not that I do much at the moment, but it is sometimes quite nice to do some of that, to have a more structured brief.

In terms of public, or street works, you aren’t from a street art background as such, but your work definitely has the urban contemporary aesthetic and obviously stencils form a massive part of your work. Have you ever had a desire to do smaller, intervention-style stuff? More post-graffiti street art, rather than the larger muralism?

I’ve always been interested in it, and being a stencil artist, you would have thought I would have had that background, but I don’t know, I was always inspired by graffiti, but I never really liked the idea of painting someone’s wall, I don’t know! But I love the history and I guess I just have always taken it more as a studio practice…

Untitled, New Brighton, 2017
Untitled, New Brighton, 2017 (Photo credit: Joel Hart)

What was your introduction to stencilling? I always ask that, and there  always seems to be a common entrance point, like making a stencil of some type of pop culture icon, and then progressing from there. What was your early influence? Was there a particular artist who influenced you? Which stencil artists do you look at now and respect?

I think I saw Rone’s early stencil stuff, it might have been in Wellington? At that stage I was studying graphic design, so I had the tools to make a stencil, and then all my work started to look like that, I used that aesthetic on every project. Then I started cutting and I always just used fashion magazines, because I had them around, and my Nana always had them, as a kid I remember she had stacks of them, so I would cut pictures out, female models in black and white, and I always liked that look for stencil stuff. Logan Hicks was a massive inspiration for me, the massive scale stuff and the process of learning how to break it down…

To break down an image and build it back up? That always fascinated me as well. Did you have those moments where the penny drops with your process and the whole image changes, it unlocks the potential of what you can do with a stencil?

Yeah, it’s amazing right? I got up to twelve-layer stencils at one stage, but I realised I only needed three or four, sometimes only two, I don’t need all those layers to get across what I’m trying to do. Logan Hicks used to do massive thirty-layer stencils, but he basically said you don’t need to do that…

I admire the approach of artists like Flox, Alice Pasquini or C215, where there are only one or two stencil layers, which serve as just like a defining marker over the top, while the gestural painting plays underneath to build the composition…

That’s sort of how I do my larger stuff. I have one stencil essentially and cut the black lines and the grey and white lines, all as one, so its all lines and then you are pretty much colouring in once you take the stencil away…

This all makes me think that your stencil work could be a really nice surprise if it was made on a smaller scale in the streets. The transition between street and studio shows that your work can scale up and down, so it is a real possibility…

It has always been in the back of my mind, I’ve just always been so busy with commissioned works and stuff, it’s just taken off, so I’ve been pushing that…

Untitled, Colombo Street, Sydenham, 2015
Untitled, Colombo Street, Sydenham, 2015

Your use of screen printing, has that been influenced by stencilling, or has it influenced your stencil technique? Do you delineate between the two? Because they form big parts of both your public and studio work…

A screen print is just a stencil essentially, just a different application, pushing the ink through instead of spraying it. But I worked as a graphic designer for a screen print company for a while, so I got the basics of splitting my image, then breaking down that image further for t-shirts and stuff. I didn’t really think about using it in my art work until later on, when my wrist was killing me from cutting stencils, so it just came from a negative really. It has become a main feature of my work, the main detail is in the screen print and I will then stencil behind it, if that makes sense. I also use kind of a grungy approach to make a screen, I wouldn’t use it commercially, like some bits wash out when you are trying to hold it, it’s quite a back-yard process…

As a stencil artist, do you have that feeling of inadequacy around can control?

I’ve always used stencils and relied on stencils, so I’ve tried a little bit but I’m not very good with a spray can. You watch people do it, like Wongi and Yikes, and it’s like, how they can do that! In my past I would do pencil or charcoal drawings, so I’ve got that drawing background, but it’s just another thing, even with a stencil sometimes, it’s hard to get the effect you want…

With your use of digital approaches, how much do you find that you draw in the ‘old-fashioned’ way now? Do you try and keep that habit up or have you found it less necessary?

I used to do it lots, just because that’s where it started for me. But even with my sketches, you can hardly tell what they are now, they are just quick scribbles. I would like to bring it in more, it would be like going in a circle, because the roots of what I do come from drawing, I used to do pictures of people’s dogs and kids, they would commission me to do that, and that’s where it started. I worked for an architect as well, way back, drawing renders of houses and stuff, so it has all come from that…

It has always been there?

Yeah, but I’ve found other ways to do it, I don’t know, I guess it comes from that experimental approach of every time I do something, I try something new, and it has been replaced. I always have my tablet, and I always draw, but it is straight onto the screen, I guess it’s the way it is going….

How did the show at Fiksate come about?

It is exciting for Fiksate to be in town now. It is really cool to see where it started and where it is heading, it feels like a big step up. It’s a really cool space and I really like what all the guys are doing there. They are also really nice people to deal with, and I guess that’s the main reason. It fits my work perfectly too, as an urban contemporary space.

As a specialised space, it must be helpful to not have to compromise, or to have to put extra work into finding and transforming a space. How does the experience with Fiksate relate to previous experiences?

My original thought for this show was to have a big warehouse, and to run it all by myself, but working with Fiksate, I can focus on the art and not the space and the marketing, they are taking care of that. I think Yikes said the same, it’s nice to focus on the art for a change, because there is a lot more that you don’t think about behind the scenes…

All the little stuff, right? A lot of urban artists are using alternative spaces, like DSide and Extincted, where he made a fake gallery, or the Underbelly Project in the subway tunnels of New York, or Hanksy’s (now known as Adam Lucas) take-over of an empty Los Angeles mansion, was that your thinking around a warehouse space?

Yeah, absolutely, you always want to push your work and display it places that blur that line between inside and outside worlds…

Popular by Demand, mixed media on perspex and board, 2019 (Photo credit: Joel Hart)
Popular by Demand, mixed media on perspex and board, 2019 (Photo credit: Joel Hart)

Blurring that distinction between gallery and urban spaces?

Yeah, for me, I really want to show how I can tie together all the elements of my work, the outside works, the studio works, the sculptural elements that I am really interested in. Like, how Vhils makes the image out of the wall, that really interests me…

The idea of urban excavation…

Using what is there and building on that…

The last few years have been pretty crazy for you, right? Your work was included in the Australian Stencil Art Prize touring exhibition, and despite not being at all comfortable, you were featured on a reality television show, what has been the most unexpected thing to happen over the last few years?

Being on The Block! I hated it, aye! I was so nervous! I hate the idea of it, but I like pushing myself outside of my comfort zone because if I don’t, I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere. So, it was a good way to meet people and push my brand out there…

It is important to help grow your profile, but a show like Dopamine will ultimately be more important in terms of your artistic development, a cohesive body of work is a more important proposition than just putting your name out there, right?

I suppose so, yeah. Like we were saying before, pulling together all these ideas I have and trying to show them in one body of work, and, as opposed to sending bits out, or working on this project for this show, it’s different. It has consumed me for a few months, it is all I have been doing…

I assume you can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, and for someone like you, are you straight into the next thing, or do you take a step back and relax?

Nah, I’m onto the next thing. I’m always thinking of what I’m going to do next. I’ve got a couple of murals to do and commissions to work on, and of course I will be trying to develop the sculptural stuff…

What sort of experience have you had working outside of Christchurch? Do you see that as an inevitable and exciting pathway?

I haven’t done that many street works outside of Christchurch and I would like to, just to get out and see more of New Zealand. I would like to do that more, so it’s been a goal of mine to make contacts over the last six months. I am also looking at maybe Australia, and approaching a few galleries there to do some stuff…

Untitled, Kaiapoi, 2018
Untitled, Kaiapoi, 2018 (Photo credit: Joel Hart)

Have you looked at the festival circuits? There seems to be a new event every month, and in increasingly surprising places, so it seems like it could become a more viable option, right? With the likes of Street Prints, Sea Walls, and various other independent events, you could potentially be all over the country…

I haven’t been a part of them, but I would like to, I just haven’t had the opportunity yet. I haven’t really pushed it though, so if it comes it comes about, I will just say yes to everything, although that’s how I ended up on The Block!

I guess it could’ve been worse, it could have been Married at First Sight, right?

That’s addictive bro!

I can’t say I’ve exposed myself to that addiction yet! I’m fascinated by the different backgrounds of people, and part of your story is your time as a basketball player. Do you see any overlap between playing high level sport and making art? I know a lot of people might not see that connection, in fact they are often set up against each other, but I’ve always had a relationship with sport as well, and I’ve always thought about the aesthetics of sport. Basketball in particular has that mixture, with the branding and the visual identity, but then as well, the physical performative element of sport and the repeated perfection you search for, searching for your stroke when shooting, your handles of the ball, did you ever think about the connection between the two? I know you kind of moved between the two rather than occupying both, but do you see that connection?

Yeah, I definitely do, I always think about how I got to where I am as an artist, and my former career as a basketball player. I have always had an addictive personality, and if I do something, I want to do it as best I can. I did that with my basketball, and you end up training three times a day, it consumed me. I loved it, it was all I did. But then I don’t know, I stopped, I had kids. Whenever I was on basketball trips I was always drawing. I never had a style, but I was always drawing cartoons and typography, and then as soon as my basketball stopped, my art career took off. I always had my design background, or trade I suppose, and then I put all that hard work, that training mentality I took from basketball and I applied it to my art making, and I just didn’t stop doing it. I wanted to learn new techniques and master them, just like you perfect your skills in sport. Like you said, the aesthetic side all links together as well, the branding and design work and the aesthetic side of sport all work together.

Speaking of that visual branding in basketball, do you a team that you really like their branding and visual culture?

I like the Golden State Warriors and how the logos went from being eighties-styled to being really colourful, back to being really simplistic. As a kid I used to draw all the logos and laminate them and stick them on my wall…

I did that as well!

I suppose that’s the process, the aesthetic side of it. I like the singlets as well, the design of singlets, how they have gone back to really simple concepts, with bold colours…

To finish, what can people expect from Dopamine?

I can’t compare it to my last show, but I kind of see this show as a big progression from that show. My finishes are different, it’s just a lot different really. It’s more experimental I suppose, I see it as a stepping stone for me to show some of the stuff I want to be doing. There are quite big pieces that I have been working on, and a few more prints. I’ve only done one print before, so there will be a few more prints…

Prints are accessible, which is why urban artists have embraced them. Have you worked with a printer to get the standard you want? I imagine it is really important to get the right image quality and replication, especially since you have such an interest in surface textures and finishes. Was it easier because of the digital rendering process?

I kind of mix them together a little bit. The prints are a bit of digital and screen print, so there is that tactile feel. That’s something that interests me as well, from that design perspective, the combination of the digital and the real. So, it should be quite interesting, no one print will be the same…

I’m sure they will be popular! Thanks Joel, good luck for the show!

Cheers!

Dopamine opens 5:00pm on Friday, March 15th, at Fiksate Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street, running until April 25th.

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Jonny Waters – Dizney Dreamz

 

When I sat down with Dunedin-based artist Jonny Waters the morning before his new show Dizney Dreamz opened at The Anchorage, it was the first time we had met in person. Yet, even outside of the collection of social media messages and e-mails we had exchanged in both arranging an interview and as part of other exhibitions Jonny had been a part of, such as CAP’D at Fiksate in 2017, I had been encountering Jonny’s work for such a long time, I kind of felt like I knew him already.

From Christchurch to Wellington and more recently Dunedin, in addition to the digital realm, his stickers, fridge magnet installations, paste-ups and more recently graffiti and character paintings, as well as his studio works, have always been distinctive and memorable, showing an exploratory, inquisitive and playful nature (a fact exacerbated by the various monikers he has employed). This sprawling body of work is reflective of his own journeys, and, for me at least, has provided touchstones of different time periods (like a Christchurch chalkboard message from 2010 that was recontextualised, and protected, by hurricane fencing in the wake of the earthquakes, indeed it is still there today) and places (I still remember literally stumbling upon a small sticker in the fringe of the Wellington CDB a few years back and immediately making a connection between similar versions I had photographed back in Christchurch).

We caught up with Jonny on his return to Christchurch (where he lived and studied for several years) for his new show, which features a new batch of quirky cut-out characters, playful riffs on his love of nineties cartoons, their recognisable silhouettes framing transformations that rip apart nostalgic expectations. We spoke about these works and their relationship with his previous work, his experiences in different cities, and mixing his roles as both an educator and an urban artist.

Jonny, your show Dizney Dreamz opens tonight (January 25th) at The Anchorage…

Correct.

You are currently based in Dunedin, how did an exhibition in Christchurch come together?

It’s been in the pipeline for probably four or five months. I was looking for a space in Christchurch, where I wanted to have a show. I’ve had lots of shows in Dunedin, but I really wanted to push for a show in Christchurch because it’s close to home. I grew up in Ashburton and left when I finished high school to study here for three years, and those three years were super fun and I learnt a hell of a lot and made some amazing connections and friends. So, I wanted to come back here and have a show to, I think, spread my wings a little bit, but also to get back to my roots a little bit more, you know? To be back on the old Canterbury soil…

You are working with Kin Art for this show, how did you make that connection?

Yeah, I’m working with Justin from Kin Art. I’m pretty sure Justin hit me up on Instagram, and he said: ‘Hey, I’m actually in Dunedin in a couple of days, do you want to meet for a coffee?’ So, we met, had a yarn and then he came to the studio, and checked out the works. At that stage, Mickey and Minnie (two of the works in Dizney Dreamz) were half or three quarters done, and he really liked the look of those. I showed him the other cut-outs. Obviously, they were unpainted, but he was really keen to talk about having a show. Then a few months later I came up to The Anchorage, checked out the space and the size was perfect.

It is an interesting space. It is a café, but it offers a decent environment to show work, it’s not like those cafés where there is not really any suitable or even defined space for work…

It’s got a clean aesthetic. It’s functional for people to walk around without being in the way of anyone else. It works really nicely as an exhibition space and a café space. It has nice walls as well. I like that it’s got different sections, so you can show this work over here, that work over there on that wall, and kind of split things up a little bit…

I want to come back and talk about Dizney Dreamz in more detail, but I’m also interested to talk about your background. You mentioned that you grew up in Ashburton and came to Christchurch and studied at CPIT, or what now is ARA, but since then you have lived in a few different places, and I have to admit I have stumbled across your work, under various identities, in a number of cities. Has art, and in particular, urban art, always been a way for you to get to know a new environment?

I think so, definitely. A lot of people may not agree with this or may have a different opinion, but it is actually a lot easier to meet other writers or street artists and link up with them and become part of their community and their environment than it is to try and connect with people in the art world, generally speaking. I don’t know whether that’s the traditional elitism or that feeling of exclusivity, but I have definitely found that. A lot of people have this weird stereotype of: ‘Oh, big bad graf guys, isn’t it scary to reach out to them?’ But ninety-five percent of the graffiti and street art people that I have met have all been the most lovely and nice natured people, so that’s been a really good foundation to discuss art and graf and to find spots to paint. But a lot of the time, the people that I’ve met through graffiti in the different cities that I’ve lived in have been in touch with the art world as well, not the fine art, high art world, but the low brow, funky, weird, illustrative, urban contemporary thing… It all depends. The artists that create urban work in every city shape the feeling and vibe of the environment. A classic example is the BMD guys when they were going full gas in Wellington. They created an environment that felt more friendly, creative, playful and relaxed.

Just a Kid with a Vision, fridge magnet installation, Poplar Lane, Christchurch, 2010
Just a Kid with a Vision, fridge magnet installation, Poplar Lane, Christchurch, 2010

You are now based in Dunedin, you have lived here in Christchurch, briefly in Sydney, and in Wellington, does that ring true for all of those places? How does each city compare in terms of their own distinct vibes and scenes? Obviously, this can depend on timing and who you connect with, but how have you found different cities?

I think each city has a really different flavour, but I think that depends on who you hang around with as well; the people that influence your view about where you are going, whether you push it one way or go in another direction. Unfortunately, I haven’t painted here that many times. I’ve painted a few times with Gerald and Hurls, just my regular mates in the crew, but my graffiti and street art foundations are here through mostly stickers and random wall installations. There are also more guys in Christchurch who are just into bombing, which is awesome, I respect that one hundred percent, but I just can’t afford to live that type of graffiti lifestyle. It’s always been a more fun outlet for me, the legality of it comes secondary. But Dunedin is so chill. It’s like, we’ll go for a paint, we’ll buy a box of beers, it’s more about hanging out, it just so happens that we’re painting as well. In Dunedin we have also got so many spots that you can do that, it’s like a grey area. Yes, it’s illegal, but the cops aren’t going to arrest you, they are kind of safe spots in a way. I don’t think they mind because it keeps it somewhat ‘contained’. Wellington is similar as well. There are a lot of spots you can go paint and not worry about people stressing out. I’ve painted a lot up in the gun emplacement barracks up near Brooklyn, and people are always up there walking their dogs or having a few beers at a picnic, and they are cool, they are interested in what you are painting, they are not like: ‘What are you doing?’ I prefer a chill vibe and would rather not get paranoid about shit.

Does that also allow you to be a bit more adventurous in what you do?

What I enjoy doing is mixing it up and being deliberately quirky. If every tag I have done is slightly different in some way I think there’s something funny about that and creates a style in itself. Same thing with pieces. I literally paint how I’m feeling on that given day. I might have painted something I have actually sketched out beforehand maybe 2 or 3 times max? It’s fun to say: “Well what could I have a crack at today to mix it up”. Sometimes it looks good, sometimes it looks shit! (Laughs)

Did your experience within educational institutions impact your feeling of a city as well? Because you also studied in Wellington, right?

I did, I was at Teacher’s College in Wellington at Victoria University.

And here in Christchurch you were studying visual arts?

I did a Design degree. At ARA you’ve got three streams, and I think it is still the case: Multimedia, Visual Communications and Visual Arts. I did Visual Communications, so basically a Graphic Design degree…

Was that environment important for you, not so much from an educational perspective, but a social one? Did you find yourself surrounded by a certain crowd, or in a certain creative community, that changed the way you think about art?

Changed the way I thought, or fostered it?

Either. Was it there that you started to think about the streets as a site in which to work, or was that already happening?

It was interesting, because I grew up in Ashburton, where you are not surrounded by any urban art whatsoever. The only time I ever got to see any urban art was on the internet or when I came up to Christchurch as a kid, and that cemented quite a strong idea of what I thought about Christchurch’s identity. I loved it, and I’d try to talk to my dad about it, and he’d be like: ‘That’s just bullshit!’ So, I was like, ‘Oh, cool, so it’s bad as well! It’s rebellious!’ Aside from that, it had a real impact on me and that’s why I started doing stuff outside of my normal artwork under different names. But the guys who I went to ARA with, they had a bit of an influence as well. We all started going out doing stickers and stuff like that, but we each had our own interests. In the classroom or studio, we all developed our own niche and our own approach. I guess we figured out the ways we each operated best and what mediums we preferred and that sort of thing, and that was completely supported by our tutors. I specialised in things like 3D studies, design things but pushing them into an art world. I also liked illustration, and I really enjoyed life drawing. I was putting an artistic twist on graphic design, whereas other guys were getting way more into typography, web design and stuff like that. I was always swaying towards art…

Did that reflect a desire to be using your hand, rather than technology?

I hated the computer. I got sick of it. I just wanted to draw all the time, so I was like, I will just scan it in and chip away at these works, I’ll literally just use Live Paint, Illustrator, whatever, and be like: ‘Cool, that looks awesome!’ I did this final year project, Monster Mash, a big alphabet poster, all the letters were really weird and quirky and humorous, a little bit distasteful, not P.C. It was purely illustration, the only graphic design that was involved was how they were laid out and the type face chosen for different titles and stuff. That is sort of where I headed in the end, and I wouldn’t change anything about that. Honestly, some graphic design I find tedious. I don’t like computers so much… Did I mention I don’t like computers so much?

That ‘Do-It-Yourself’ quality has long been a part of urban art culture; did you make that connection?

Definitely, I think it has always been pretty obvious. The crossover, the look of the different characters that I draw, is really obvious. I didn’t think so back then, but it is. I mean there is always going to be a crossover, and some artists do it really well, they have a really natural crossover in their aesthetic for the urban stuff they do and the art practice work, but for me I think it is unavoidable. (Laughs)

It is also interesting that you started with more of a post-graffiti, character-heavy style, and then moved into letterforms later…

Yeah everything at the start was character-based.

Alphabet (detail), digital print, 2017
Alphabet, digital print, 2017

Often your lettering has embraced characters not just as accompaniments, but as part of the letterforms themselves…

I’ve always loved that, creating, making characters out of type. That Monster Mash poster, that sort of thing. It’s almost like problem solving: how am I going to create this letter that is still a letter but is also really funky and cool, weird and quirky, you know?

That is at the heart of graffiti, right? How do I take a letter and recreate it where legibility is no longer the primary goal?

I guess I’m not necessarily taking the traditional approach, but yeah. I’ve had a lot of traditional dudes, who follow that path, say to me: ‘That’s really cool, you’ve got your own twist on it.’ Then, I’ve got other people who would be like: ‘What the fuck are you up to? You’re like dissing the culture of graffiti!’ I think these days there so many people doing amazing weird shit that you have to be open to change.

Mural on the 'LegenDairy', Dunedin, 2016
Mural on the ‘LegenDairy’, Dunedin, 2016

But people have been pushing letterforms so far for a while now, so you aren’t alone. There are the likes Augustine Kofie and Remi Rough, who have taken their work towards the abstract, but it’s developed from letters…

Exactly, it’s the same with what Askew is doing, a lot of his abstract patterns all developed from letters…

As a teacher, how do you balance celebrating the rebelliousness that was a vital recognition when you first discovered urban art with the responsibility of teaching?

The two worlds? That façade? You’ve got to be a careful with what you say, how you frame things…

I’d love to be able to say to every kid, this is important because it is illegal, or it developed from illegal roots…

Because the artist did illegal stuff for ten years, that’s why this is important! (Laughs)

So, how do you approach that with students, or in the workshops you run?

When I was at Kings High School (in Dunedin), for three years I ran a street art camp. All year ten students had to choose a camp each year, there was no art camp, nothing cultured, it was all sporting or academic, science camp and stuff like that. So, I was like, stuff that, I’m going to create an art camp! Every year we came up here to Christchurch, we did a graffiti workshop with Ikarus, and then we always had a look around at the street art. That was when all the big walls were still up, you had Lister, Owen Dippie, all these amazing walls to check out. We would do a trip out to New Brighton as well. The boys really loved that trip, it was great. It was letting them in and showing them who you are, but only so much, you know? It wasn’t like I was taking them out and showing them how to do a tag, it was framed in a street art context. It just so happened that I chose graffiti to be framed within that…

But that’s the challenge now, right? Urban art is so complex now. There are so many approaches…

It’s such a melting pot…

But those rebellious roots need to be acknowledged…

Sure, especially with the way the street art movement is sort of being defined as ‘more important’ now…

It’s easy to take kids to see amazing big murals, and the artists are amazing, but it’s important for kids to not think that that is what street art is exclusively…

Exactly, and that is what I tried to ensure, actually doing a graffiti workshop and learning about letterforms, about painting a piece, not a character, not a ‘street art’ painting, they were actually learning about a graffiti piece. Shout out to Ikarus for all those workshops as well, because he was amazing with all the kids. Even in the classroom, the kids know that you are in that world, that you are part of that world, but they don’t know much more than that. I was always really careful about any specifics, and generally I was pretty quiet. I wouldn’t say like: ‘Oh, I painted this sick piece in the weekend, you should go and check it out’, you know? I was very much, this is me as an artist, this is the work I do as an artist, and I sort of left that stuff out of the spotlight when it came to anything professional or school related…

I guess the most important thing to do would be to let them make their own decision around the socio-political motivations for making art that isn’t permissioned. If a young person is able to decide that they believe in something enough to do it in a certain way, that’s empowering for them.

Exactly, and the thing is, if a student was getting into graffiti, I would never deter that. I would actually support it, and probably, if I trusted them enough, and they trusted me, I would give them some advice, a heads up, and you know look out for them a little bit. But there is a very, very, fine line. You’ve got to stay professional.

Just because of urban art’s longevity, we are now seeing more and more people in ‘upstanding’ positions who have grown up writing graffiti, or making street art, and not just as artists, but in other realms as well.

There are lots of people moving within these different worlds, like Berst is in education as well.

And it isn’t just that direct crossover, but there are more people who recognise graffiti and street art’s validity and importance as visual cultures.

As forms of expression…

Coming back to Dizney Dreamz, we’ve touched on that illustrative and character-based approach, which is very evident in these works; these sort of grotesque, surreal, re-imagined cut-out Disney characters. A lot of the influences and ideas we have been talking about come out in these works, there is a trace of your work over time in these works…

I think so, but in a cohesive way. Obviously, it helps that they are all Disney characters, but they have all got a similar aesthetic in the way they function as pieces as well. There are different linkages, the pieces flow with each other, I think that there are certainly a lot of those influences coming together, but it’s also about how they interact with each other in this specific show. There’s a little bit more thinking involved. When I’m doing all the sketches for these pieces, figuring out how I want to design them, there’s always so many different options or varieties with how things can go. There will always be one piece where I’m not happy with that, or that’s not right…

Goofy, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018
Goofy, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018

That relationship between each other is even more important when the added context and information of the street is removed as well. There is more emphasis on how they work as distinct objects of display.

Exactly.

Rather than each character being framed within a block or a canvas, they have an autonomy or sense of independence through the cut-out shape, and that allows that flow through each one to another with those whips and angles and lines. The eye is led around each piece and on to the others as well…

They are just really interesting to view. That space they create, negative or positive, is really interesting. I’ve always wanted to choose characters like Mickey and all his mates, because they are really interesting silhouettes. They are so recognisable, so I’m able to communicate almost instantly. Most people are aware of Mickey and these Disney characters, so you’ve got that initial connection sorted, and from there you can go further and get closer and get a feel for what the work is about…

Yet, because the silhouettes are so recognisable, you are then surprised and intrigued because that recognition is blown apart by the detail…

Exactly, it might annoy some people because it ruins their image of Mickey Mouse, or whatever character, but the whole idea is about nostalgia. The early nineties or mid-nineties, for me, was super cartoon-based, it’s got a real strong place in our subconscious and I think that’s what nostalgia does, it’s like a collection of dreams, and hence Dizney Dreamz. I think the work in this show is trying to change the way we feel about our own nostalgia. So, if anyone sees a silhouette of Mickey Mouse, they know straight away its Mickey Mouse. Then, whether you like it or not, you get a feeling like: ‘Oh when did I last see Mickey Mouse?’ It’s all tracing back, but it’s recreating an experience when you see these works, it’s like reinterpreting nostalgia. I’ve had this fascination for a little while and it started with a show at Kiki Beware in Dunedin, it was really off the cuff, and I wanted to do some paintings on cut-outs. I don’t even know why I thought of it, but these silhouettes were so cool. That show was smaller, there was Bugs Bunny, a smaller version of Mickey, Sonic the Hedgehog, Speedy Cerviche from Samurai Pizza Cats, Chucky from Rugrats. They were awesome, and a lot of the feedback I got was that these were something new, that people had never seen shit like that before. So, I was kind of inspired after that, I guess. Then I eventually got to planning my first solo gallery show, Tooney Lunes, taking Looney Tunes characters, fifteen of them, and turning them into warped, fucked up characters. It sold really well, it had big numbers going through, and I was feeling pretty positive and good about it. Then this show follows on, and the whole crux of the idea about it is trying to manipulate your feelings of nostalgia towards characters or things that you may be attached to…

Art Bimpson/Bart Simpson, from Neo Nostalgia, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2016
Art Bimpson/Bart Simpson, from Neo Nostalgia, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2016

That sense of the grotesque, which has been a feature of your work for a long time, aids that approach…

Yeah, I never thought of them as grotesque, more playful. But now that you mention it…

Yeah, there are limbs coming out of unexpected places, that then disappear into each other, there are wrinkles and bumps…

They are all smiling and everything, but it’s like, are you happy though? Are you really happy? (Laughs)

Are you attracted to that imagery because of the fun you can have in creating it? It allows you to do almost anything you want, because you aren’t seeking perfection or beauty…

I think again, it’s like a problem-solving thing, like I said with the letters; you’ve got this silhouette, you’ve got the frame work, what are you going to do to make it look interesting? It doesn’t necessarily have to look pleasing to the eye. It’s good if it does, but it doesn’t have it at all. In regard to inspiration, I’m really inspired by Kaws, I’m really into his work, and I think there’s probably some similarities in taking familiar characters and changing them, morphing them and layering them. Another huge inspiration is Rob McLeod from Wellington. He works with cut-outs as well, my work would probably be more Pop, with brighter colours, whereas his works have gotten more subdued and darker. Some of his stuff has got pretty grotesque and quite dark, so he’s a huge influence. But my favourite artists are Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Francis Bacon, even if it isn’t as obvious in these works…

Sketches from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on paper, 2018
Sketches from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on paper, 2018

With someone like Basquiat, there is an urgency in the mark making, but there is also an often a violence that comes through, an unease…

Even when you’ve got those happy colours, this doesn’t feel right, you know? (Laughs) That’s how I feel when I look at Francis Bacon’s work as well, you’re a little bit unsettled…

Which is what you are trying to do through the lens of nostalgia, right? Speaking of Kaws, considering you are working with cut-out shapes, longer term, have you thought of expanding into three-dimensional sculptural pieces?

Wow, I don’t know. I’d certainly be open to the idea of things like that, but I just love painting. I love painting in two-dimensions. These works are still two-dimensional surfaces obviously, and I don’t think I will ever lose that attachment to painting, but I’m not really into the traditional canvas thing, at the moment anyway. I might go back to it, but I want to keep exploring other ways of creating paintings that are two-dimensional, but different in some way.

I suppose it comes back to the fact that you were more interested in drawing and painting even when you were studying graphic design. These cut-out works have that certainty, that sharp line work, but there is always a sense they are created by hand…

There is no mechanical quality.

Donald Duck, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018
Donald Duck, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018

Yeah, there is no mechanical production, which can become hard to replicate in that sculptural process. When you start dealing with fabrication and manufacture, that process impacts that freedom.

Exactly. But I don’t know, I probably need like a month to reflect and think about where things might go. I want to have a few more shows this year, wherever it might be, whether it is in Dunedin, or in Sydney, when I go over there for a cousin’s wedding, I might try and tee something up there. I feel like maybe the cut-outs may have done their dash, but with these ones, the whole idea was to be bigger in scale and because of that I could play around in media. There’s spray paint in there, there’s a thicker use of paint, there is a little bit more of an abstract quality to the layering. I think that’s almost pushing it as far as this sort of aesthetic can go, because the previous ones were really flat and clean, and in some ways, it looked really nice. But I really like the layering and detail that has come with these works. I don’t know how much further I could push that…

Are you more likely to develop those ideas in the studio, or on walls? How much influence do those different approaches feed into each other?

I think they are always cross-contaminating. It’s what you are confident with; I wouldn’t use spray paint in these works if I didn’t feel comfortable with that medium, because it’s high risk. You don’t want to fuck up a work when you want to have a decent show. So, it’s a confidence thing. It’s what you are safe with, which sounds bad, because people say art should take risks, but I think there is already that risk-taking in other elements. When I’d finish cutting in and doing the different layers of these works, I thought about doing some splatters and stuff like that, like a big line through it. I thought about seeing how it goes. I did a few tests of that idea a few times, and it looked cool, but it actually detracted from the design too much. It took too much away, it drew the focus away too much to the action of doing that, so I was like, nah I’ll keep it subtle…

Wile E. Coyote, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018
Wile E. Coyote, from Tooney Lunes exhibition, Dunedin, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2017        

Are you still trying to create a character that has a sense of being able to function as a working body? The silhouette gives that suggestion, and while the details subvert any expectations, you still read them as functioning, albeit mis-formed, creatures…

Yeah, I still want them to function as a whole.

Any shout outs?

Shout outs to The Anchorage for hosting obviously, big thanks to Justin and Kin Art, thanks to Watch This Space for the interview. Big ups to Christchurch in general, I’m loving being back here and having a show!

 

Dizney Dreamz is at The Anchorage until February 23, 2019…

Follow Jonny on social media:

Instagram: @jonathanwatersart

Web: www.jonathanwaters.me

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Berst: The Faith of Graffiti (Part Two)

In Part One of our interview with Auckland’s Berst, we discussed his approach to teaching graffiti, and in Part Two that theme continues, along with a deep dive into the way graffiti has developed over time and across the globe, including New Zealand, his advocacy for graffiti, the challenges the culture faces, gentrification and the commodity of culture, and the importance of ideas…  

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

In terms of Aotearoa, how distinct can we be when we are talking about the history of graffiti? Do you see distinct scenes in specific cities more so than an overall feeling, or is New Zealand small enough that it can be condensed down to an overarching scene?

Are you talking about stylistic lineage?

Yeah, but also in terms of a more social history of the culture. Like, do you think different scenes have had both distinct stylistic trends, and specific social developments? Or is the scene small enough to mean that that overlap occurs around the country, both stylistically and socially? And I’m asking this because in Christchurch, this city has that position of being younger and smaller than particularly Auckland’s graffiti culture, so when you travel and talk to people, do you see a distinction between the places that you go?

Well, I think first and foremost, in terms of a stylistic lineage, it usually goes in five-year cycles. Like every five years, there is a new crew that emerges that fuels something, that’s kind of what I’ve noticed…

A five-year cycle?

There’s a five-year cycle where crews form, and they make some sort of impact and they do something, and they are active…

Do you think that is related to a time span of maturity for a writer, age-wise? Or just a natural period of growth, influence, assimilation and repeat?

Yeah, definitely, definitely, you know most of the writers I hang out with now, they are anywhere between eighteen and thirty-five, mostly, so that’s the kind of age bracket of people who are writing. So, there are now kids that are beginning at eighteen and I’m totally disconnected from them. l don’t know what they are up to. But anyway, with stylistic lineage, I feel like we look back fifteen years, there used to be styles passed on because of who people painted with and associated with and were influenced by. One thing we talked about in the past is regional styles, and I think, particularly in Wellington, that’s probably the best case-study. A couple of crews down there, they were really influenced by hip hop, and they proactively worked together to have an integrated look and way of doing things, so their pieces were really traditional, classic New York looking stuff, whereas in Auckland we had quite a few writers where international writers came over and that kind of shaped their styles…

Like the German influence?

Yeah, that shaped the scene, definitely. I’m not too sure about the Christchurch scene and other cities, but I definitely know that for me, at that very early period of time, it was kind of just Auckland and Wellington, they were the two main places. When the internet came and remixed everything and you know it became so easy for one person to look overseas and say: ‘O.K., what’s happening in Brazil? I’m going to take a little bit of that aesthetic…’ So, definitely, styles are changing quite fast and it’s become a bit more hybridised for everybody, I don’t think you can trace the history as easily…

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

There’s an interesting danger there as well in some sense, right?

In terms of appropriation?

In terms of appropriation, obviously in regard to cultural sensitivity, but also when using something as a building block for your own practice or style, without any real understanding, it can become problematic in your development conceptually…

That is what happens when it’s an organic kind of art form, whereas with something like Pop Art, which was developed within, or at least formalised inside institutions, when you are in art school, they will say you do Pop Art like this. So, there’s an educational aspect of studying Pop Art in University, but then it could also maybe stifle creativity because you think that you have to make art a certain way, if that’s the aesthetic you are wanting. But with graffiti, each person is different from the next. In general, you would say most people start looking at New York graffiti first as a foundation, because you need letterform and structure, but I think nowadays people aren’t necessarily looking at those guys for inspiration. But you know, an artist said to me in one of my Real Time episodes: ‘New York, that’s the real deal in terms of style.’ Everything that is being painted now is just a replica, an interpretation of that in its various manifestations. That is still the core, that is still what we are trying to do and that’s still our bible, the blueprints of what we’re trying to create. So yeah, its an interesting one, I think partially that’s what I’ve been trying to do with some of the Auckland writers, is influence them. Going back to this idea of religion, its about practice and is also about preaching certain types of principles, and I’m not religious, but, what I’ve realised is most important is actually passing down ideas. So, you know, at the end of last year I actually brought together ten graffiti writers and I had a meeting with them about all sorts of shit, from the law, to style, to painting pieces, getting up. When I get back to Auckland I’m meeting with another ten. What I’m actually doing is developing an army…

Yeah? (Laughs)

I’m meeting another ten, and then next year I might bring together another ten. Then suddenly I have a whole new generation of thirty writers to work with. But most importantly, it’s about leaving behind some ideas, be it around style and how to construct letters, or how to do graffiti, ways of getting up, putting it into this context or making a living from it, you know? It’s mostly because the people that come to those meetings, these younger guys, they do only have that one perception of what graffiti is: ‘I tag’, or ‘I bomb’, ‘I get up and write everywhere’ and that’s their only conception of what it is. I’m just trying to open that a little bit…

Graffiti’s public perception means it largely is unable to rebut to any charges brought against it, it doesn’t often get a platform, but there is also a perception that graffiti writers aren’t necessarily thoughtful…

A perception from the community?

Yeah, that graffiti writers aren’t eloquent enough to express ideas around what they are doing, which isn’t true, I find a lot of young graffiti writers have very crystallised ideas of why they write. Talking to young people, do you find that there is that real sense of understanding, even if it is only that one perception, but there is understanding there of the complexity of graffiti that the wider public often discredits them from having? That maybe they just express them in different ways?

Well, one thing that I say quite often is that there are two things to take away from graffiti: the first is to make the statement that graffiti is not art, as we talked about before, and secondly, that graffiti often leads to other forms of crime…

The Broken Windows theory…

Yeah, the Broken Windows theory, and I’m O.K. with that, because I do partially believe that if there is a bit of graffiti somewhere, someone is likely to paint some more graffiti beside it, because it didn’t get buffed. So yes, I do believe that to a degree, but not fully, as I would also argue that graffiti can also lead to creativity. In many cases where I’ve interviewed artists for my own work, that has been the case, the journey. They haven’t taken a formal art destination route to becoming an artist, they have gone through graffiti and it has led them there. So, it proves that it is possible, right? We see graffiti and street art and all these other forms of public art, urban art, and its place in transforming a city post-whatever, there are many things occurring, not to mention the massive street art festivals, that are changing the perceptions. I definitely think that graffiti has the potential to lead people into a career as an artist, but of course it depends on each person. But, equally at the same time, I believe that there is something that works against that as well, because writers are also painting illegally, you know, balaclava over the face and painting trains, that’s also perpetuating an ideology of what graffiti is and who they are, and what they represent. So, there’s that social connotation towards graffiti and once again it is tough, because it’s an art form that’s contradicting itself in many ways, it is art but I’m going to go break the law here…

Berst, Tauranga, 2017
Berst and Haser, Tauranga, 2017

Yep, but that comes back to the question of how exclusive art and legality are, whether they are mutually exclusive…

No, of course not, of course not…

That’s the thing, they don’t define each other…

It could be art and still be illegal. But yeah, I think, once again, it comes back down to the context of what that is. My fight, my advocacy for graffiti is not necessarily to make it legal, to make it mainstream, to make people accept it or appreciate or even validate it, because I know that there are things that are working against graffiti that keep it in its pure essence of how it is manifested. In some ways part of me doesn’t want it to be accepted because when it is accepted…

It loses something…

It loses something, right. It’s kind of like in some ways street art is something that is mostly created illegally, when it first began, but equally if you were to teach street art in school, you know, you can teach someone to do an intervention in a space, you can teach them practical things, you can teach what it means working outdoors, the subject matter people use…

But teaching the motivation is a different thing…

Yeah, the context is really important, because that should then shape how people perceive it. It is actually a conversation I had with Ikarus just the other day. He was saying that there was a mural somewhere, Owen Dippie’s Elephants, and recently the Council painted out the little tags and throwies in the background which were by some really prominent graffiti artists, and they were actually part of the wall that Owen Dippie wanted, and Ikarus was saying that he was pissed off about the Council painting them out. But then, when you go into an exhibition room or a gallery and people do throw ups and tags and bubble letters, then suddenly some old man will appreciate it because it’s in that context. The reality is in their minds that it’s the context, the setting. The perception of how they see it is quite different, because in this context I see some money, some value to it. But on the street, it looks like the stuff that is illegal, even though it is legal, and it’s: ‘Oh no, I don’t like that!’

Yeah, we are conditioned to accept things in different contexts…

So, there is that thing where the community doesn’t quite understand it, or value it in art, and I think the space and context is the real big factor in that…

That context becomes important when you are talking about something that doesn’t have to change form to occupy either space, which adds confusion for a public audience, because they are looking at the same thing, right?

In a different place, it will be received differently, absolutely. But equally, I asked Ikarus and Wongi, why does it piss you off? You’ve done a throw up on a legal wall while people still do it illegally, and then you put it in the gallery and they appreciate it, like that’s kind of to be expected, because that’s what they see illegally, so its kind of like there is no point being upset about it…

Berst, From the Ground Up, Sydenham, Christchurch, 2013
Berst, From the Ground Up, Sydenham, Christchurch, 2013

You are probably most notably remembered for your presence in Christchurch for Spectrum a few years ago, although you were also here for From the Ground Up and Rise as well. How often do you get down here?

Yeah, this is my fourth time, or maybe third time, coming down here. I haven’t really had the opportunity to travel around New Zealand all that much. Most of my travel has been spent overseas. But, I’m also doing my doctorate, I’m six months away from finishing, so I’m kind of in that peak period where I probably shouldn’t even be running a workshop, and I’m also working full time, so it’s hard to travel…

That must be a hectic schedule!

It’s been a bloody juggle, to work, stay focussed, do projects, balance my relationship, you know, and also do the PhD, so not too much travelling. But again, taking this idea of religion, when the doctorate is over, I plan to do this kind of tour thing, where I am painting and preaching and starting to link up with people, not just from Christchurch, but from all over New Zealand, and just spread some ideas. I still recall, there was this writer I linked up with in Rome, his name was BRUS, dope writer, very good, and he did an interview with a spray paint company who supports him, and they asked him about his best painting experience. He’s a veteran graffiti writer, he’s painted just as long as me, but he said: ‘One time this guy from NZ, Berst, he came over to Rome, that’s probably my most interesting experience because we actually collaborated together, we worked on each other’s pieces and I’ve never worked in this way.’ And that’s actually an idea of working together, not just: ‘You work here, and I’ll work there.’ That’s not a collaboration, that’s just painting together. So that’s one of the practical approaches I take to painting graffiti. People like Askew, we’ve worked together collaboratively to develop ideas, explore certain aesthetics, approaches to breaking traditional ideas of graffiti that were established over fifty years ago. I want to revamp that, to ask why do we have to do it that way? I tried to take that approach with BRUS and he was appreciative of that, and so what I take from that, was not what I created with him, but the fact that he experienced that idea of how to approach something, and I think that’s really important. If I can have that same kind of impact on the future generation of graffiti writers here in New Zealand, that’s a great thing. A lot of people I interview always talk about the people that influence them, and a common theme that emerges is: ‘Oh, the moment this person came to New Zealand, or the moment I linked up with this person, we were doing things in this way now, it’s evolving, instead of doing one piece, we were doing ten, instead of using three colours, we were using twenty colours…’ So again, it’s about ideas…

Yeah, ideas push evolution and development…

Ideas are hard to come by, because there are so many people who do graffiti now that go out to do graffiti that is just graffiti, just the standard thing that you would do if you were doing graffiti, in terms of style and the approach, for me the thinking is about how can we do that differently?

Berst, Christchurch, 2018
Berst, Christchurch, 2018

The chance to see what people are doing in different instances, that must allow that idea to be reciprocated as well. Not only are you out preaching as you say, but you are also obviously receiving a heap back from all these people…

Totally, I’m not claiming that I know it all or anything. My mind is still a sponge, which is why once again it is all kind of two-fold. For the Real Time episodes, I’m trying to preach and spread the knowledge, and create the resources, but equally I’m learning. When I interview Wongi, I learn something. That’s the motivation, because you actually have to take initiative, to want to learn, to open your eyes, to get a bigger perspective on this whole thing, because most people when they come into graffiti are very tunnel-visioned: ‘Oh I just want to tag, fuck art’, people have those kinds of attitudes. For me, the learning part is really important, which is why I make a lot of these videos, because, it got to a point, where if you go on YouTube now, ninety percent of the videos are just people painting hardcore graffiti, which is cool and it builds the ethos of what graffiti is and it maintains the roots, but you watch this three-minute clip of someone tagging the whole city or somebody painting trains for like an hour, doing really hectic stuff, but you don’t learn anything from it. I don’t get anything from that, you know what I mean? We were talking before about reality shows, and it is almost like you are living your life through someone else, you’re watching someone paint a train, so what? I don’t get anything from it…

That’s a very different experience from painting or being with someone when they are doing it as well, right?

That’s different, yeah, that’s the buzz, right? That’s the adrenaline…

So, what is your take on what’s happening in Christchurch at the moment? What have you seen this weekend, doing the workshop with writers of different ages and experiences, filming Ikarus and Wongi, and exploring the city, what’s your take? Especially now as we’re sitting a long time after the earthquakes created an environment where graffiti, and urban art more broadly as we’ve talked about, has really shifted into a more visible position…

One thing that I’ve heard Wongi and Ikarus say, as locals, is that the perceptions have changed post-quake, that all the dickheads have left, the real conservatives, like the ‘graffiti is tagging, and tagging is vandalism’ people, you know? I think there is less of that, which is great, and I think sometimes it’s like a cause and effect type thing, which happens. It is not a positive thing that there was an earthquake, but it does restart something, a cycle again, and you can ask: What are we going to do? How are we going to rethink things? How can we do things differently? Sometimes things need to do that, and when I think about Auckland, at one point in 2010, the Rugby World Cup eradicated all of the graffiti, it took away all of the history, years and years and years, and that really challenged a lot of writers. A lot of people gave up. A lot of people moved on. A lot of the young kids stopped doing quality things, because they were like: ‘I’m not spending this much to have it painted out in six hours, what’s the point?’ In some ways it regressed, we saw more tagging and bombing and just quicker things. But now there is graffiti again, and it’s staying up and people are trying to make quality things again, so there is a cycle…

Berst, New Brighton, Christchurch, 2018
Berst, New Brighton, Christchurch, 2018

There’s a cycle and a maturation process that runs through, like you were saying earlier…

Totally, so while I was upset that people didn’t invest in doing quality stuff, that’s just what happens. So, I think of it as the same thing happening here in Christchurch, except you guys had an earthquake. After that everything just got graffed the hell up, which personally I think is quite cool, because it’s just such a pure thing for people to take space and interact with space in its various ways. I think the beautiful thing as well is graffiti as kind of guardians of the streets. You see people painting murals, people from all sorts of artistic backgrounds, coming like a flock of birds to the space because there are opportunities and potential for things. But at the same time, kind of like we talked about, we need to be careful as artists, to make sure that we know what we are fighting for and what we value when we are making art and not losing the ethos of what we want the context of our art to be, as opposed to just wanting our art out there. We are talking about this idea of curation and a panel of council people responsible for public art that have no art background necessarily, or understanding of it, that are making decisions, like, I want a portrait, I want a landscape… So, we just have to be careful about becoming too conservative, because that is the position councils will take, they are not going to do anything offensive or that’s going to get attention. They just want something nice and pretty that’s going to fit in and not piss anybody off. There’s that part that’s also a positive, but you have to be aware of that. I think equally, when art gets involved, let’s say a mural or something, this idea of gentrification arises as well, so it could also have negative consequences. Like a real shitty derelict suburb, nobody wants to live there and suddenly you put up lots of art and then a cool café, and then suddenly an apartment block and then it’s a hip place…

And then the family who has been living there for generations can’t afford to live there…

Exactly, and then they might even get rid of the art, because it’s now a really expensive area…

That’s actually something that I’ve thought about as well…

It becomes about real estate and that previous graffiti wall, we don’t want that anymore, that’s not going to suit the area now…

In some ways, I wonder if that discussion of art gentrifying areas is actually misplaced, it is still developers and the like, they are still the agents of gentrification, right? Can you actually blame the art for the gentrification?

But the real estate agents are exploiting that art, right? Because they are aware of the cultural value it has, the human capital it has associated with it…

The cultural capital…

That’s what art is, it may not have economic, monetary value, at least at the street level, but it’s culture, it is a manifestation of culture and what it represents…

Berst, Tauranga, 2017
Berst, Tauranga, 2017

I guess that comes back to the important idea of graffiti maintaining that outsider status…

That’s what I’m talking about…

It’s still a form of culture, but because it can maintain an antipathy to mainstream, it has the ability to combat that process of capitalisation as well…

I am aware that I’m deeply rooted in graffiti and what makes it pure, but I’m also willing to step out of that frame of mind into these new spaces because I want to push the boundaries and I want to open the door while I’m still grounded here. I want to be the tester that goes into the water. If I fail at doing something, if it doesn’t work, at least I can report back to the graffiti community and say I’ve tried this, it didn’t work, or maybe it did, or maybe try it this way. But I think maintaining the purity of it is very important, and if you have it any other way it just falls into the dominant ideology of art and for me that’s what I’m thinking, how is graffiti an outsider thing? Why is it different from other fine arts? What can we do to keep it different? Why does it have to be the same? Like, if everybody did it and accepted it, would it even be cool to still do what we do?

There’s got to be that distinction…

Would it even be cool if painting freight trains were legal? I don’t know…

That’s kind of the beauty of graffiti, that question, that balancing act will continue to play out as it evolves, as new generations enter the culture and redefine it. Thanks so much for sitting down with me, it has been a blast! Any shout outs?

Shout outs to Ikarus, Wongi and Emma, my boy Alpha, for linking up with me over the weekend here in Christchurch, I really appreciate that, and shout out to GBAK and TMD, my two crews back up in Auckland!

Cheers man…

 

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

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Berst – The Faith of Graffiti (Part One)

Without descending into exaggeration, Auckland artist Berst is perhaps the most significant figure in contemporary New Zealand graffiti. A member of two leading crews, TMD and GBAK, not only is he a formidable artist with a deep understanding of the visual potential of graffiti, Berst is also an eloquent, thoughtful and insightful voice when it comes to the underlying issues resonating in the culture, a complete advocate for the most enduring, widespread and misunderstood art movement of our time. It should not be a surprise, after all, Berst is nearing completion of his PhD in Education, an influence that allows him to delve into graffiti from a variety of vantage points, inflecting his observations with unique frameworks, seeking answers to questions about graffiti’s past, present and future. This background makes him a perfect person to pass on knowledge, something local heroes Ikarus and Wongi were quick to recognise in bringing Berst to Christchurch for a one-day graffiti workshop at the Youth Space at One Central on Manchester Street in early October. Upon hearing about his trip down south, I jumped at the chance to sit down and listen to him talk. It was quickly apparent that Berst’s passion and knowledge is both impressive and infectious, and what started as a quick chat in a brief break in his hectic schedule became an hour-long secular sermon… 

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

So Berst, you have spent this weekend in town, what have been doing in Christchurch?

I was invited by GapFiller, who, from my understanding, are an organisation tasked to basically activate the town centre, and so accompanying that they have been working with Ikarus, Wongi and Emma to bring in and connect with artists from Christchurch and further afield, and they brought me down from Auckland to essentially run a workshop focussed specifically on graffiti. So, during this one-day workshop we had about ten students, so to speak, ranging in age from seventeen to thirty, and they have basically been taught the foundations of graffiti, and within that I’ve showcased to them a little bit about my work, my process, some technical skills, how to construct a piece and, importantly, some of the potential avenues where graffiti can lead. I think that is incredibly important because often a lot of workshops give the technical skills of how to do graffiti, but without really thinking about the potential contexts it can actually go into beyond just being illegal. Then over the last two days I’ve been working on my Real Time web series, which essentially documents and captures the story of New Zealand graffiti. I’ve just managed to film Wongi and Ikarus as part of episodes fifteen and sixteen.

You talk about that need for the workshop to present both practical elements and discussion about where graffiti can lead someone or how it can be re-imagined and empowered, in terms of the practicalities, what do those discussions sound like? Are you talking about aerosol techniques, or letterform development? Or all of those things? They would have to be quite organic, right? Because everybody already has their own style from which to begin those discussions…

Absolutely, for me, all the people that participated in the workshop were totally varied in expertise and skill level; from those who had only been painting for a couple of months and don’t really have an understanding of graffiti, all they know is that they are painting words or names or letters as the basis of their subject matter, to people who were very experienced and have been painting for five or ten years, they fully understand what graffiti is about and how to do it. So, in terms of my process and the technical aspects I was teaching them, it is a two-fold approach; it is essentially about style and lettering and then there is also the practical side of how to use a spray can. The practical side of lettering, that’s one of the key foundations that grounds graffiti and makes it different from everything else. Graffiti has got its own sort of ‘isms’ and visual codes and ways of doing things, of manipulating letters, which I think is quite different to other art forms. In saying that as well, there is no particular way to paint graffiti, there are many different genres within it, just like in fine art, but definitely, we start off talking about the foundations of graffiti lettering, which really derived from nineteen-sixties, nineteen-seventies, train writing in New York, and from that basis, then you can look at West Coast graffiti, which is a bit more what they call ‘wildstyle’, with more whips, it is more complicated and less legible. Then I show them my style, which is kind of a combination of many different visual aspects and genres of styles. But equally, I look at what they are already drawing and build on that. Somebody might do something really simple and bubbly as opposed to somebody, like the seventeen-year-old kid that was there, his stuff is really wildstyle; crazy, and intricate, already when he is seventeen! So, for me, it is really about trying to give them some advice around how they can strengthen their letter structure and create interesting forms. I think that’s one thing that’s nice about graffiti, it is quite organic, it doesn’t have to look any particular way, there’s a certain kind of pureness and freedom to painting it. For me it also aligns with, to some degree, typography, or abstract painting, because really it is looking at forms and shapes and how you can manipulate those shapes to create something, you know? So, there’s that aspect, but then there’s the practical aspect. Obviously, there are so many paint brands, caps and nozzles that you can put on cans, and with a spray can you can get so many different techniques, it allows you to work quite differently than if you were working in a studio with a brush. So, I explained to the workshop that when you’re using a spray can, especially when you are working in a large scale, not necessarily for this weekend, because we were just painting on the giant cans [at the Youth Space on Manchester Street], for me, working with a can is quite performative…

It’s a very physical exertion, an extension of your physical movements…

It’s quite gestural. When you’re moving your body, you are not just making small movements, when you are painting something very large, with spray paint in particular, it is very physical. So, as part of that idea, I showed them different techniques and what we call ‘can control’, and that’s really being able to control the pressure of a can. Once you can master that, you can almost do anything. For me, one of the key things is that while there are so many nozzles you can use; fat, skinny, medium, whatever, I normally just use a fat cap, which sprays the most amount of paint out as possible, but when you master that can control, you can make it come out more slowly and create more effects. It is kind of like driving a car, right? You can drive a Ferrari, but if you don’t know how to drive it, you will crash it. But if you know how to drive it…

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

That discussion of technical elements raises an interesting question, because historically graffiti has this amazing ‘Do-It-Yourself’ culture, right? There are stories of writers boiling their own ink and making their own marker pens, repurposing the nozzles from kitchen cleaners, that whole development, that history. Now that you can buy all these different caps, and all the choice of paint, what sort of impact does that have? When you are thinking about a workshop, are you encouraging innovation in that sense as well? Is that still central, or is it not present to the same degree because the necessity is not there?

I think obviously, everything is accessible to everyone, and to some degree it has removed that sense of discovery, of self-discovery, which is something that graffiti celebrated back in the day. But I think back to things like Style Wars, the writers in that film, they are only like fifteen, so they were not art school students…

Exactly, they were learning in different ways…

They were figuring it out, and they were potentially coming from a low socio-economic background, they were not privileged kids who had everything at their fingertips.

Which is an important and informative background for graffiti writing’s history, right?

Totally, a huge impact.

There is a need for marginalised societies to find ways to express themselves, and that is ultimately what graffiti was…

That’s what it was, I’m not sure if that is what it is now. You know, most of my friends who write now are, not wealthy, but kind of middle class, they are not struggling or anything. But they love graffiti for various reasons. But while there is less self-discovery now, there definitely was that sense for me when I first started. The internet wasn’t so prominent, so for me, I got to engage in that sort of process; ‘Oh what cap do I use?’ ‘Where can I rack cans?’ Because that was a part of the culture…

Exactly.

Because, you know, you’ve got to steal your supplies, at that time we didn’t have the fancy paint, so you were stealing hardware store paint.

Just the luxury of paint designed specifically for painting walls is a big shift from hardware store paint…

Hardware store paint would do the job to do a piece, and in some ways it would also then influence what you would paint, because you could only steal a certain colour palette of black and chrome, or this colour wasn’t actually very good or useful, so you wouldn’t use it. So, there were interesting things like that. What I always loved doing was transferring paint, I don’t know if you have seen that stuff before…

Yeah, I’ve seen videos…

Yeah, there are YouTube tutorial videos on how to do it. So basically, you put one can in the fridge or in the freezer, one in boiling water, and once one is frozen, you get like a ball point pen and the straw that holds all the ink, and put the cans cap to cap and it transfers. For me, I think that was kind of exciting, because it was kind of like mixing paint, right? That’s essentially what it is. It was exciting because there’s so much more of a process, more than just the painting and the action. But I don’t necessarily cover all that stuff in the workshop because people are probably just there because they want to get into the painting and because it is such a short period of time, we just have to get into it, you know? But, in saying that, with some of the writers back home, these are the things that I talk about with them, in the hope that they will do something great with the tools that they have, you know? What can they achieve now? This is what people achieved back then, and this is what they have done now, what about the future?

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2017

If anyone in New Zealand is having a lot of discussions with different writers, it is you. You are definitely a connecting figure in Aotearoa graffiti, what’s your take on your position?

I’m an advocate for it, a total advocate. I see the wave of street art, I see that happening. I see the wave of urban art happening, I see the murals happening, I see the post-graffiti happening, and of course, the fine art gallery space thing happening, and I ask myself, why is graffiti not happening? Why is it not moving in that way? That’s not to say, why is it not becoming mainstream? Or why is it necessarily even becoming accepted? It’s not about being legitimised as an art form, it’s not that type of conversation. For me, I feel like again, it’s actually two-fold; it is about realising that graffiti is an art form that is, in terms of generational knowledge, oral, it is passed on verbally. There is something where writers, they take pictures of their own stuff and whatever, but I know lots of writers who are not willing to share this knowledge, which is a weird one, because I see graffiti like a religion in some ways, like when I go out painting at night time or whatever, I’m practicing, and when I have a conversation with someone, when I run a workshop, I’m preaching, that’s actually what I’m doing. I’m very clear in my intentions and my actions. But some people will go out painting and really believe in graffiti, but they won’t preach, they won’t share. So, it is kind of like saying; ‘I’m Christian, but I won’t tell you the beliefs.’ I’m kind of like an extremist of graffiti when I speak to you, you know?

Spreading the gospel!

But for me, in terms of filing this role, it just kind of happened organically. I’m trying to connect with people, especially with younger writers, because I know that since graffiti is an oral history, in terms of how it is passed down; ‘we do things this way’, ‘we do this…’, ‘you pay for this spot’, blah blah blah, I feel partially responsible to create some resources. For me, doing things like workshops or doing a web series, helps to create resources which then can help other people to do or take certain trajectories, to do different things. For example, Wongi has gone down the graffiti route and now he’s gone down this sort of business route, where he is making a living doing this with the skills he got from graffiti, and there are also X amount of other people who have done that. But there are also a handful of people who have just painted graffiti hardcore, and now they are in their forties or fifties and this is still what they do. Or, alternately, I’ve gone into teaching, and you know, I connect with this and this… So, the intention with, for example, the Real Time web series is for it to be a resource and if some kid comes up to me and says: ‘Hey, I want to make a living from doing graffiti’, I can say: ‘O.K., go watch episodes nine, twelve and eighty-five; you’ve got three people there who have sort of gone down that route, each episode is about an hour, go home and watch it, have a little think, see what they’re doing’, or a kid might say: ‘I want to paint trains…’, I can say: ‘Cool, O.K., well, watch episode ninety and ninety-two…’

So, it’s not just a documentation of the scene, it’s actually a resource to be accessed…

Definitely, it’s a resource.

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

Importantly as well, it is something that is understanding and presenting graffiti for what it is itself, it is not trying to fit it into some other narrative or discussion. It is about empowering the culture by celebrating the culture for what it is, and too often, concessions have to made when it comes to graffiti, right?

Absolutely, and the common thing when it is portrayed in the media, is that question: is graffiti art?

That question!

You know, it is such an outdated question…

Such a binary option…

Yeah, and you know it is such an outdated dialogue, for me I think there is such a rich history of graffiti and when I think about all the art movements throughout art history: Pop Art, the Surrealists, whatever, graffiti has been around since the sixties…

That’s just graffiti as we determine it now, right? I mean the actual lineage is much longer…

Exactly, but in terms of writing, like stylised writing…

Signature-based graffiti…

Yeah, signature-based graffiti, it has been around since the sixties, so what is that now?

Over fifty years…

Exactly, what other art form has got such a strong hold on the art scene?

And has had that longevity?

It’s not like people are like: ‘Oh, yes, the Cubist movement has taken over the world…’

Those sorts of movements struggle to really exist outside of the original circles, they kind of become watered down, whereas graffiti has been handed down through generation to generation and has maintained its unique dynamics…

But how does it do that? It’s interesting…

What is that essence?

It is also interesting, because it is something that has developed within society, it’s a social thing. It hasn’t been developed in an institution, like when you think about Cubism, someone inside an art school, they are being told that’s an important art movement, whereas this is something that has operated for fifty years, it’s crazy!

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

That endurance is incredible, I am constantly telling people that we are talking about something that has not only survived for fifty, almost sixty years, but in every corner of the globe, we are not just talking about one particular place…

We’re not talking about New York, you go anywhere and there is graffiti…

 

Stay tuned for Part Two of Berst: The Faith of Graffiti

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

 

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