When the Canterbury Museum’s hugely popular Rise exhibition finished in early 2014, the walls of the main exhibition hall were covered with long black curtains, the murals from the show obscured with only teasing snippets still visible for more inquisitive visitors. With Hakē: Street Art Revealed; the Museum has drawn back the curtains, allowing the public the chance to revisit the Rise legacy, while also encountering a new floor-to-wall mural by Tāmaki Makaurau artist Benjamin Work.
A member of the celebrated TMD crew, Aotearoa’s most notable graffiti collective, Work brings urban art credibility, but his involvement also ensures a wider discourse that extends beyond the focus of Rise. Work’s evolution exemplifies the new trajectories of artists reared on graffiti and urban art, while also explicitly exploring the complexities of both cultural institutions and the Pasifika diaspora. Drawing on his Tongan heritage, Work has pushed his art in new directions over the last decade. Inspired by the iconography found on cultural treasures such as ‘akau tau (war clubs), his refined, graphic paintings have sought to find new spaces and ways for audiences to engage with Tonga’s visual culture, both inside institutions and on the streets.
Over the span of a week, Work created Motutapu II, a massive mural that sprawls across the floor and walls of the main exhibition hall. Inspired by the Canterbury Museum’s collection of ‘akau tau, the painting extends outward from two orange diamond shaped mata, or matapā (eyes of the pā), a vertiginous pattern of interlocking black and white lines leading the viewer toward more sacred symbols framing the work. Work explains Motutapu II as a metaphorical representation of ancient gateways marking arrivals and departures of voyaging vaka. ‘Motutapu’ is a name used across Polynesian cultures for sacred or sanctuary islands, neutral spaces for visitors before arrival at the mainland.
In the museum mural, the black and white lines create pathways, leading the viewer to each end of the hall; a hovering māhina (moon) glows in mottled orange to the east, while to the west, a soaring Tavake (Tropicbird) accompanies three figures symbolising Tonga’s chiefly lineage. Inviting viewers into the painted space, while maintaining a reverence for sacred imagery, navigating the complicated task of maintaining traditions and engaging a contemporary audience. After observing the creation of Motutapu II, I had the opportunity to sit down with Benjamin Work to discuss his experiences in Ōtautahi Christchurch, the future directions of his practice, and the experience of working at the Canterbury Museum…
It’s been a busy month for you! It started with the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, then you arrived here in Ōtautahi to paint a mural for the Etu Pasifika Health Centre with (fellow TMD Crew member) Charles Williams before starting work on your floor-to-wall mural at the Canterbury Museum. Is such a busy lifestyle still enjoyable or do you miss your own bed?
We were talking about this the other night, I have friends whose practice often works at this pace, but I think this has been one of the busiest periods I’ve experienced, including the work prior to my month away. I’ve noticed it’s easy to move from project to project and not take time to be present, to really be in the moment, so that’s something I’m focusing on. And once I’m home, I will have time to process what’s happened.
It must have helped to have had friends and family alongside you for these projects…
Definitely! I can’t function without friends and family. I am a relational person. Most of my life has been experienced in a collective environment, whether it was TMD crew, church settings or amongst my Tongan family. I’m at a point in my life where I have a greater understanding of the way I am, and that’s to help others navigate their way as I find my way.
I assume that is also an influence from your graffiti background, a culture that has a strong sense of collectivism and collaboration, which brings me to the Museum project. The opportunity came from the Museum revealing the wall works from the 2013-14 Rise street art exhibition. The idea was to add a floor mural to extend the narratives around that exhibition. Your work has moved beyond description as graffiti art or street art, both stylistically and contextually, highlighting the evolution of artists who may have roots in those origins. How do you respond to people designating you as a graffiti or street artist?
They are different practices which I want to navigate how and when I want. This is hard for many people to understand inside of their boxes. I don’t want to be referred to as graffiti artist, street artist or a Tongan artist, simply an artist who is telling stories both old and new.
You mention that you have become more comfortable in the studio, but the idea of bringing Tongan iconography to public spaces and giving them a new visibility was a central aspect of your work, how has that intention changed?
It has been an important part of my process but there has been a shift of late due to migrating back to Aotearoa, Covid, time alone and making new work. I have seen a shift in style, painting techniques and even using loose canvas. There was a period where I engaged with a lot of institutions, between 2015 and 2019, and it was important for me to engage with our Tongan treasures and bring them out into the public space. But I’m not sure if that’s going be a focal point going forward. What I’d like to do is use those connections and my platform to connect other Tongans that are searching for those answers with those institutions. Many communities don’t realise that they have access to all the museums that hold our treasures.
Working within cultural institutions you must have to consider the colonial history of such spaces. Do you see yourself as challenging that history from the inside, or are you more concerned with opening doors for people who have not had a relationship with these institutions previously and as such have not been exposed to the treasures they contain?
I hope that the way I move and the way I am, and the work that I make does challenge those places. Naturally I’m a bridge-builder, so for me, engaging with an institution such as the Canterbury Museum, one goal is to reconnect our people with our treasures, but if there are challenges that arise, I have to face them. I don’t go looking for confrontation, but if I come face to face with it, I have to say something because I’ve got the privilege of being in that space and if not me, then who?
Looking back to some of your previous work, like the mural you painted here in Christchurch for From the Ground Up in 2013, there was an explicit narrative unfolding in a relatively conventional pictorial format, but your work now feels much more evocative and suggestive without that overt storytelling, a quality that is evident in the Museum piece.
Graffiti was quite literal, it’s a letter-based art form and I painted my chosen name over and over again. This is me! Know me! Read me! I’m famous! Transitioning away from a graffiti aesthetic in 2011, I realised I didn’t have to be so blatant which led me to engage with the more abstract iconography found on our traditional ngatu (bark cloth). The inspiration for that particular mural came from reading Olaf Ruhen’s book called Minerva Reef, a true story of Tongan boxers on their way to Aotearoa for a tournament who were shipwrecked on the Minerva Reef for four months. I used iconography to communicate this story on the wall. It was a little strange at the time painting it in Christchurch but that shifted when I found out descendants of some of the survivors lived in Christchurch and visited the wall.
Did that evolution come about as your exploration of Tongan artefacts such as ‘akau tau (war clubs) and tapa cloth deepened? What were your experiences with those types of objects growing up?
Ngatu bark cloth, fala (floor mats) and ta’ovala, the mats we wear around our waists, are filled with mostly abstract motifs which are embedded with ancient knowledge, we engage with them from birth. We have an intimate knowledge of them, of their texture, and even their smell. We had ngatu bark cloth and mats folded under our bed, most Tongans do, that’s where you store them, where else do you store these humongous things? Ngatu bark cloth was my first point of reference when experimenting with other mediums, but the war clubs were love at first sight. I was first introduced to them in a book called The Art of Tonga by Keith St. Cartmail, I was instantly intrigued by the iconography carved into them. I wanted to work them into my practice, especially the warrior figures.
I was lucky enough to join you when you were examining some of the ‘akau tau in the Museum’s collection, and I was struck by the small scale of the carved designs on the clubs, possibly because I was familiar with your work’s larger scale, which has been an intentional shift to make them more visible…
I wanted to use my platform to tell the world about our Tongan iconography. I wanted the scale to be impactful and for our people to be proud once they had learned that these are our designs, that they come from our ancestors for us. What better way was there than public murals? I feel I’ve started something that other Tongans will continue with bigger and better murals.
You said that living in Tonga you noticed young Tongan men seem to physically engage with their surroundings, constantly touching or hitting surfaces. That kinesthetic or tactile tendency becomes important in the context of your work as you have to think about how people engage with artefacts and art within institutions. I know you had to grapple with the idea of people potentially walking over the floor mural and that influenced the design, especially the elements drawn from more revered sources. That question of how to treat objects of culture and how we engage with them must be a central concern for you, especially as you shift between sacred cultural objects, utilitarian objects, public spaces and white cube galleries…
My process evolves slowly, I’m OK with it, as long as I’m still exploring different ways to communicate through my work, the speed of change doesn’t matter. Living in Tonga has challenged me to think differently when it comes to materials and the way I present my work. I’ve seen my people touching and desiring to hold my work rather than simply viewing it in a gallery, and I’m now OK with that, but if you asked me five years ago, I would have had a heart attack!
What was the process for the Museum piece, from exploring the collection of Tongan artefacts to producing this massive floor to wall mural? What are you looking for as inspiration in those objects and how do you then translate it to a massive mural work?
An important part of this project was me coming down to Christchurch viewing the space. I was emailed the specs for the floor and walls, but if I’m able to see the physical space, I’m able to respond to the space better. Likewise, with the ‘akau tau, I’ve seen many throughout my years of research but I’m always looking for unique motifs within each museum’s collection. I had a similar experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with Dr Maia Nuku (Associate Curator of Oceanic Art at the famous museum). She took us into the collection of Tongan treasures, which is small, but there was a club there with this small motif of two warriors reaching out towards each other, their hands above their heads. That motif then triggered the idea for a mural which she organised in Spanish Harlem. In the Canterbury Museum’s collection is a beautiful abstraction of a Tropicbird which I included in the mural.
By coincidence, the mural you painted with Charles featured a tropicbird as well…
It was meant to be. There was no prior communication on that. Even though it was a Pasifika Health Centre, it would go against Charles’ kaupapa of painting foreign birds in Aotearoa. The Tropicbird is known as an Amokura in Māori and Tavake in Tongan and is a sacred and significant bird that can still be sighted from time to time in Aotearoa. It is said some elders would cry as it was a tohu or sign reminding them of Hawaiki.
You have admitted your connection to Christchurch is rather limited, but some of your Scottish heritage does trace back here. Being born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and also living in Tonga, what have you made of your experience in Ōtautahi?
I’ve enjoyed Ōtautahi, but I definitely love Tāmaki! No, I visit a place and try to feel the environment, watch and engage with people of that place. Both Māori and Pakeha have been shaped by the landscape, seascape, mountains, and rivers. My great-great-grandparents migrated from the Shetland Islands to Christchurch and are buried in Linwood Cemetery – something I’m learning more about recently. I’ve engaged with the land and people down here, wondering if there are any attributes of that generation in the people I’ve met. I have questions: Why did they choose Ōtautahi Christchurch? Did they walk these same streets? Did they learn the story of this land?
Have you had the chance to engage with members of the Pasifika community here in Ōtautahi during this project?
Associate Curator Hatesa Seumanutafa went above and beyond her job description in supporting this project. Having a person from Moana Oceania with our treasures in the Museum is vital! Not only for our material culture but as a lighthouse for our people to connect with within the institution. Ōtautahi has a unique Pasifika story, one that is sometimes dominated by the Pasifika stories from Auckland and Wellington. I was able to connect with some of the amazing community here and make space for us around a kava session in the Canterbury Museum indigenising space to talanoa and tend to relationships – the first of many.
Mike Beer makes things. He makes really cool things that evoke a nostalgic or experiential sense of connection. His intricate miniature builds of pop culture objects and more recently urban spaces, are undeniably inviting in their detail. I first became aware of Mike when he presented the team at Fiksate a collection of miniature objects – a tiny crate filled with nostalgic vinyl records and an ornately framed recreation of a painting by Nick Lowry. They were irresistibly cool. But it was when I saw his recreated urban environments on his Instagram feed that I was completely blown away. The spaces that I have always cherished, the liminal and peripheral spaces that are infinitely attractive to urban artists and explorers, were presented in miniature form, yet their small scale was still packed with fine details that made you double take to ensure you weren’t actually scanning the real world. As his productions continued to impress, my interest grew and I knew I needed to find out more. I was lucky enough to sit down with Mike and talk about his work one Friday morning (we followed our chat with a spot of bando hunting). If his work was immediately endearing, the artist himself proved equally so; a bundle of friendly, enthusiastic energy. His thick Brummie accent (Originally from Birmingham, Mike has lived in Christchurch for 15 years) adding an additional charm. As we talked it was obvious his scratch builds had a longer lineage, one that explored personal connection to place. If I was immediately charmed by the memories evoked in his builds, it was apparent he also understood this potential, imbuing his work with much more than simple, skilful imitation…
I imagine as a child you were into making things…
I have always loved horror movies. When I was about seven, I had this fascination with the Alien egg, you know the way it used to open? I just thought, I’ve got to make that! So, I made this thing out of chicken wire and paper-mâché. Looking back, it was hideous, but I was only a kid, and I loved it! From then on it was toy models, all movie related stuff, really. I guess since then I’ve always been interested in making stuff and using different mediums. But it was only later in my life that have I done it as a career. When a position come up at the Court Theater as a prop technician, I was just like, I’m getting that job! I knew a lot of people would be gunning for the job, so I was thinking about how I could stand out. In the end I made this giant tombstone, with a skull with a jaw that opened. I engraved the Court Theater on the tombstone… It sounds a bit excessive, doesn’t it?! [Laughs] It cost me like $400 to make! Then I wax stamped my CV and put it in the mouth of the skull. I remember going up to the reception to drop it off, and they were like, just drop it here. I said, actually, it’s just outside… So, we walked outside and here was this massive fucking thing. They must have been thinking, this guy’s weird! [Laughs] But it got me that foot in the door for the first interview. It was the strangest interview as well. They gave you a bunch of bits and bobs to make something within half an hour and then explain what you had created. I thought it had gone really badly, but I went for a second interview and got the job…
For that type of job, actually making something seems much more important than talking about it, right?
Definitely. But I mean, for me, when you’re on the spot, it’s really difficult. It was random stuff too; there was a lid from a milkshake container, there were a couple of plastic dice, a straw, a balloon… You know when you’re panicking and you’re like, oh no! So, I’m just sticking this Plasticine onto a balloon and I made this thing, it was just like a lump of shit, and they were like, ‘So, what have you made?’ And I remember coming up with: ‘A time machine?’ [Laughs] There wasn’t much that you could do with that stuff, but in the end, I guess using my imagination actually got me the job…
Do you have any formal training in any visual arts or practical arts courses?
No. I’ve always made stuff, but I’ve never gone to college. It’s always been a passion and I have always been self-taught. It’s interesting because some of the most brilliant artists I’ve met don’t necessarily have qualifications. Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing artists that do, but there are also amazing artists that don’t have educational qualifications, you know, and that’s kind of my path too…
I imagine with scratch builds, it is constantly about problem solving and thinking outside the box, so a willingness to learn new techniques and break from convention must be important…
Yeah, it’s a big thing. That creativity to think freely rather than being constricted is important to me. I’ve never really enjoyed working, I mean who does? But especially when I feel constricted and not engaged. To be creative is so important to my state of mind, it is what keeps me going, you know? Like you said, when you have enough freedom to just mess around with stuff and make lots of mistakes, that’s how you get better. If you are constantly doing stuff, you are constantly getting better at what you are doing and you are going to push past those boundaries. Without sounding cheesy, I also think it’s important to grow as an artist, to take criticism and to listen to others. Growing up I’ve always had friends that have been artistic, and you learn from other people. I think you hit a stalemate if you think your work is at its peak. It never is. Unless you can take criticism on board, you’ll never grow, you’ll never improve…
I imagine the online world is helpful for inspiration and learning new ideas, but it is different from a real network of other creatives to bounce ideas off…
Since I’ve lived in Christchurch, I’ve met a really close-knit group of people, and I’ve learned a hell of lot from them, so I suppose without them I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing. My god that sounded really cheesy! But yeah, you’re right, you need people like that along the way…
The first examples of your work I saw were the miniature objects at Fiksate, little record crates and tiny framed paintings, when did you start that approach?
That was about three years ago, after leaving the Court Theater. I was like, you know what, life’s short, I want to do what I love, and I love the movies and I love making stuff, so I’ll start making miniature stuff. Weirdly, because you know what it’s like with an artistic brain, I started making teddy bears with horror faces, I don’t know what I was thinking! [Laughs] But I did that for a couple of months and then I started doing key chains and they turned into retro VHS key chains and people wanted them and it grew from there to become Monster Mailman, an online store, basically. [Mike recently passed Monster Mailman onto new ownership] It took me on a journey, but it didn’t extend me enough, it didn’t challenge me as much as I wanted. But it was a gateway into what I’m doing now, I was just fascinated with the city and the art in it, all the rusty grimy buildings. It’s all connected, and I think I’m at a point where now I know this is what I was meant to do…
Were you doing any set work at the Court Theatre?
There was a little bit of set, but it was mainly props. It was a kid’s dream job, on the first day they needed me to paint 20 Nerf guns for Hamlet. Then I had to make a beating heart, it was ace man. I worked on some wicked shows, but you are still restricted to doing stuff for other people, if that makes sense, which is great but…
You are still making it to fit someone else’s narrative, whereas when you’re doing it purely for yourself, you are creating the story yourself as you make something. I ask about set making because to me the latest builds suggest occupation and activation, especially as real spaces where moments have played out like performances. Every space we encounter has meaning to us, even if it is only momentary. Is that something you think about with these builds?
Deep question! Yeah of course, obviously it’s all about connections, isn’t it? Going back to Monster Mailman, even that was about people’s connections with movies and the memories they create. We connect with things throughout our lives, so I suppose through the core of everything, that is what I hold onto the most – those connections, that nostalgia and the things that bring people to life, you know? Like, do you remember this? Or when we were doing this? Those memories and connections are what keep us going and that’s what life’s about. You find that in the city, you know, these buildings tell a story because of what they’ve been through, the art that’s on them and that’s what connects with people. It’s a million people’s lives through one lamppost, and that is magical man, it’s insane…
It’s been heightened here in Christchurch because many of the spaces that were colored by our memories and attachments have disappeared, so recreating those spaces in your scratch builds, there’s something really powerful in that.
There really is, even the smallest thing, like remembering that movie you watched as a child when you see it on TV, and that’s what I’m trying to incorporate by making stuff around the city.
So, what was your first build, something that you had encountered in real life, or was it based on a photograph?
It was based on a photograph. There’s an artist, Joshua Smith, I love the guy! There’s lots of other artists who have inspired me, but with Joshua’s work, there was just something that made me think this stuff is incredible! I felt a connection with his stuff, even though I had not been to the cities that he recreated buildings from, I got it, you know? I instantly got it and I was like yeah man, that is going to be me in a couple of years, that’s what I want to replicate. I actually managed to get in contact with him, which was amazing. I love the city. I’m a city person. I’ve tried to live in the country, for me it sucked, but that’s just my experience! But the city is everything to me and it’s like what you see when you wander around a city, as opposed to driving or going straight to a location, it opens up a whole new world, and that is what I want to replicate and get people to feel that.
I’m a terrible driver around cities, my girlfriend is constantly telling me off because I’m always scanning around looking out for new graffiti or art…
You’re on the wrong side of the road again! [Laughs]
Exactly! But when you’re walking, you have that freedom. You can take a turn at any time. There’s something about being surprised and I think that again ties into the idea of being connected to space, because even if you’re replicating an environment that is seemingly inconsequential historically or civically, as long as that space has one little memorable tag, if you’re that way inclined, it is meaningful, because there’s a spark of recognition of its uniqueness…
Yeah, it’s huge and those tiniest of things, whether it’s an upturned tile, a paste up of a little gnome or something else, it is so unique. Once I was in town waiting for someone, at those dandy lion fountains [The Town Hall], and I saw the corner of this concrete building and someone in crayon had written ‘Déjà vu’ and I just had to get a picture of that, because I realised that it only existed right there…
You automatically think who? Why? How? It is a sign that someone else has been in that moment. It’s like the end of Stand By Me where one of the characters fades out as they walk away. It reminds us that there are all these layers of time in any place, that cities are made up of so many voices over time.
Don’t! You’re getting me man! [Laughs] The feels! [Laughs] But yeah, it’s multilayered, with voices that once existed but don’t anymore. That’s beautiful.
And again, here in Christchurch we’ve been exposed to all those layers because things have been broken and fallen down and those spaces have almost invited people to leave their mark, so what normally takes generations, has occurred over this much smaller period of time…
Yeah, that’s right.
Out of everything you have built, do any stand out for capturing that sense of loss or change in the city?
In regard to making something that doesn’t exist any longer? I’ve not actually made anything yet that’s disappeared completely, well apart from the wall with the Band-Aid paste up on Manchester Street. I did a build for my lovely mate Evan from Dead Video. Me and him share those connections from classic movies and old VHS, they inspired him to open Dead Video and me to start Monster Mailman. My dream has always been to work in a video store, and he let me work in Dead Video a few weeks ago for a couple of hours! Here’s me sat there, gesturing to people like, come in! [Laughs] I was in my element! He’s done this amazing thing where he’s brought this shop back and so I scratch built where he started Dead Video in a garage in Lyttelton. He finally moved to London Street recently, where he’s always wanted to be, the shop looks amazing. So, I built his original garage front store with the roller shutters and the tin iron roof. I even did the lights on the front. I’ve got to wire them up actually. He’s ripped out that store, but that was the start for Evan, it was magical and gave people so much joy because of what his store recreates. And now something that I’ve made and that he’ll have forever will hopefully remind him of that start and how far he has come, unless it’s on Trade Me, you never know with Ev!
I remember the front of the old store was decked out with movie reference paste ups as well, which brings up the way urban art features in a lot of your miniatures, from the Band Aid paste ups to the doorway covered in work by the Slap City crew, did you have a connection to the graffiti and street art worlds prior?
I’ve always appreciated it. But it’s one of those things that I’ve always looked at from afar. It’s strange, I know there’s a divide with tagging in any city, but for me, it tells a story, you know, even if it’s in a place it shouldn’t be, I just I like that… It’s that connection. When I’m building stuff, I’m not interested in anything that’s modern because it has no character. It has no soul. For me, it’s all about buildings that have been through something, that have taken a battering and outlived us. And often they have got other people’s art on them, they become a representation of all the artists that have tagged them. They have stories to tell. I couldn’t do anything that was modern because it seems pointless to me…
Again, it is about that layering, by choosing sites that feature graffiti and street art, there is the suggestion of the ability to reimagine the city, which is what you’re doing in a way. One of the things with how heavily buildings and public spaces are designed now is how they deny organic subversion. Urban art has always been about challenging that; skateboarding around the city is a way to change the designed use and the same with guerrilla artists making use of spaces and subverting them by seeing them in a different way.
It’s like putting a glitter ball in a forest isn’t it? Those modern buildings, for me, they’re just ugly. I understand they serve a purpose and we’ve got to rebuild, but you’re right, they are a little bit soulless. It sounds a bit harsh because obviously the people who built them probably don’t want that to be the case, and it is rebuilding the city, but they just don’t have that character, that feel…
Going behind the curtain a little bit, what’s the actual process of a scratch build? When I look at some of your pieces, I’m instantly drawn right in, getting as close as I can, looking at the amazing detail. The brickwork, the concrete, the rust, they invite that inquisition. But how do you do it? Or do you like to keep a veil of mystery?
The rust! I’m going to get weird now! [Laughs] I do think it’s really important to share certain skills with anyone who wants to know. It’s all about passing it on. I’m never too veiled with information. I know some people keep it to themselves because they don’t want anyone else making what they make, but I think it’s important to share as much information with other artists as possible. Art is to be shared, it’s not just a ‘me, me, me’ thing…
That becomes a two-way street as well, right? The more you share, the more people share with you…
Exactly, and beautiful things get made if you do that. It opens a whole new realm of people making lots of cool stuff. With my process, I found the devil is in the detail. If you make a brick wall it’s easy to paint it brick color and then just paint the grout grey and leave it, but it doesn’t have that authentic feel. I’ve literally got to grout the bricks. I even go into the garden and dig up soil and mix it with water, then when I finish the piece, I paint it with the soil in places to give a dirty look. You’ve just got to layer it and you’ve got to make it look as authentic as possible. It’s almost like you’re recreating it as it would have been made. With the door with the Slap City paste ups, I’d not seen it in town, but I’d seen Teeth Like Screwdrivers’ post on Instagram, and I was like, I’ve got to make that. So, I started the process. The brick work was difficult because it was stone, but I managed to figure it out. It’s all just angles and cutting in, and there’s little things that you learn along the way. I didn’t know how to recreate the plywood because it has been in the open and it’s stained. It’s got that heavy grain, which you don’t get when you buy small pieces of wood for a scratch build, so for ages I was racking my brain. Eventually, I just got a soldering iron and I thought I’ll see if this works. I burned the wood and it worked! I got that grain, but it’s such a process, I’ve obviously got a lot of free time! [Laughs] I drew the grain on, then I just washed it in different washes, and it came through. Sometimes that process takes ages, but it has to look real. I’m still learning as well. Even the rust technique on the skip, I literally found a new technique on how to get that beautiful rust color underneath. Before I was just dry brushing it and it didn’t look as authentic. So, I’m still learning along the way…
I guess like the psychological layers of a city, there are also physical layers, and they have to be evident for the piece to feel authentic and to actually make that connection. It’s like the uncanny valley with CGI effects, where our emotional connection is stronger to something the more it resembles reality, but when it isn’t quite right, our affinity decreases…
Definitely and that’s what’s great about art, to be able to step back from a piece, whatever piece it may be and question it, that’s great, that’s what I love about art. As to whether it’s negative or positive, I think any kind of reaction is quite visceral and that’s what’s wonderful about art, any kind of art, 2D, 3D, anything. Hopefully the reaction I get from my stuff is that recognition…
You are making real and tangible objects, so what is the next stage for these pieces? Is there a long-term goal?
The long-term goal is to build the entire Christchurch city! [Laughs] All the old buildings and stuff. The goal is to go extravagant, but obviously I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t connect with me. It’s got to connect with me as the artist. I’ve got to love what I make because that shows in what you do. I want to create something that people can just completely connect with on a different level. Since living in Christchurch, I’ve found the people are amazing you know, we’ve been through a lot of shit and are very resilient. I love this city and, it sounds cheesy man, but it’s just a way of giving back with your art in a sense.
What pieces are in the pipeline at the moment?
There’s the juicy Design and Arts College building on Worcester Street! I have to make that! It’s so detailed when you look closely. I took a picture of it a couple of weeks ago. It’s all bolted up with chains and there’s rust and it’s got all this graffiti and there are paste ups, but then as you go higher you’ve got all these amazing windows. It’s gorgeous. I didn’t realize until I zoomed in on the photo, which I do when I’m trying to get the details, a lot of the windows are smashed and tagged from the inside, but then you look even closer and above the sash windows they have this copper awning, it’s really ornate. But I have to build it so that it looks exactly right, with the wire fences outside, the weeds… everything!
When it comes to choosing buildings to make, do you get inspiration from other people, from their recollections? You obviously avoid the obvious choices, like the Cathedral…
I’m not going to start building the gondola! But yes, I like hearing about people’s memories of buildings and especially the ones that are less known. Known but not known, I guess? I have spoken to a lot of people, like my mate Pete at Gordon Harris, I sat down with him a wee while ago and he was going over older buildings like Wizards, the Java Lounge and Toffs. I can connect with what I can connect with now, but I obviously can’t connect with buildings that don’t exist anymore, so I need to speak to people with regard to that. It’s just that with some buildings, what they’ve been through with the earthquakes, their age, the graffiti, the art, it all comes together.
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Teeth Like Screwdrivers is one of those people who radiates enthusiasm. Not in the cheesy, annoying way, but simply through a desire to bring people together and to see things happen. I came across his pencil stickers before I met the man himself. They were the type of sticker I love, although simple, they pulled you in through a spark of the familiar that made you ponder, is that what I think it is? Since finally meeting the artist, I have followed Teeth Like Screwdrivers’ busy trajectory, his own prolific and expansive output, his global network of contacts and collaborators, and the formation of Slap City, a sticker and paste up club that that has brought together a diverse roster of artists. When we caught up, all of these factors became apparent both in the scope of our conversation, but also in the way Teeth Like Screwdrivers spoke, excitedly, almost breathlessly darting back and forth through topics. From his early days in Christchurch after arriving from the UK, to the formation of Slap City and his lock down sticker collab project, we covered a lot of ground, fitting for an artist who thrives on activity…
We first met at the giant spray cans, where you were part of a DTR crew workshop. I remember you just had this massive grin on your face enjoying the experience. Is a sense of community and participation a central concern for you? It seems that Slap City is very much about forming a community.
I’ve always organized stuff. When I first moved here, I started the Garden City Session [a Christchurch longboarding group], which I’m no longer doing but has now got like a thousand members. Within the first week of arriving in Christchurch, I got hold of Cheapskates and was like, right, who’s organizing something for skaters? They hit me up with Scotty who was doing Skate School and we did a couple of longboard ones and then it spiraled and spiraled and spiraled. We used to do pub crawls on skateboards. So, I was always the one organizing events, rocking up and being the hype man.
Christchurch’s Flavor Flav!
If I’m really interested in something, it is really easy to do. As a schoolteacher, if I’m doing a lesson I’m not into, it then it’s probably going to be shit, but if I’m into it, it’s going to be brilliant! So, with the sticker stuff, the same thing happened. Stickers were happening, of course they were, but I enjoy the hanging out and someone else going: ‘You could do this…’ It was the same with that DTR workshop last year. I don’t use spray cans, I’m not a graffiti artist. I’m as far from your stereotypical graffiti guy as you can get, but I wanted to see how it’s done. In my head I wanted to make my work look like a marker pen. I love markers, I’m a little bit OCD and I love the different thicknesses. So, I was like, how can I make spray paint look the same? I went and watched them and I realised you could put one line there, then you can do another line there and it cuts that first one back. That was all that was about. But I was loving it because I was surrounded by people who just knew their fucking trade, who were really good and they were just like: ‘You could do this, you could do this…’ I was like, this is brilliant! But I also realised there are lots of ways to do things. There was a really good Safe Kasper artwork on the cans a while back, he’d sprayed the bulk of it and then used a marker for the details, I was like, what the fuck? I can just paint the outline and marker the details which is essentially what I’m doing with a sticker, doing the background and then the marker over the top, so it made sense. But running shit is fun, that’s the joy for me. I like sitting at home and spending an hour just cranking out stickers, but I also like having other people around and bouncing ideas off each other.
Obviously within graffiti culture there has been this history of mentorship and camaraderie in terms of crews.
Skateboarding is similar, you learn, not from the masters directly, but an older person will go: ‘Actually mate, it will be way easier if you just pop your foot off the left and put pressure on there…’ It’s the same thing. I remember I went down to the cans the other day, the DTR crew were doing a big paint jam. I’m an outsider, like I said, I’m about as far away as you can imagine from graffiti writers, but they’re like: ‘Get in bro, grab a can, give it a go…’ I was like, really? It was wonderful.
I feel like when we talk about post-graffiti or street art, it can be more isolated, because you tend to be making something in advance, it doesn’t necessarily have the same sense of community or camaraderie, but undeniably the potential’s there.
Yeah, most people want to be nice, most people are good people, you go up to them and say I really love what you’re doing, can we do something together? They are probably going to say yes, just get in there and see what happens. The worst that can happen is they say no, in which case OK, cool. Christchurch is small enough that you will bump into the same people. If you’re doing something similar, chances are you’re going to bump into me, so that connection may as well be as easy as possible. I don’t know those DTR guys from jot, but they all remembered me from a year and a half ago.
Because Christchurch is small, the competitive element isn’t necessarily as strong as it might be in bigger cities where street cultures have diverged.
Vez is a great example. I saw her stuff all over the place before I met her, and she sent me a message saying: ‘I’m moving from England to Christchurch.’ I told her that I’d started this sticker thing and that she should come along, thinking she’s had artwork everywhere in the world, she won’t want to come! But she rocked up and was just like ‘Hi!’ Now I see her work everywhere and I know who she is and what her stuff is about, and that’s what it should be really.
The fact that Slap City is held at Fiksate is another example of that sense of community in the local scene.
There are lots of examples of it in other cities where people meet at a pub or somewhere where they’ve just got a big old table and they all sit around and just pass some shit around and share. I was like, why don’t I do that here? Then we just kept doing it, then we made it every two weeks rather than once a month. But again, it fits nicely at Fiksate. We go in, it’s super chill, we set the tables up and it’s just like a second wee family. We just chat, talk about what we’ve been up to the last couple of weeks. Someone will have some new things that they want to share, or they have worked on a whole bunch of new stickers and we all kind of pass judgment on them, in a good way!
In addition to that sense of community, has Slap City allowed you to do things artistically that maybe you wouldn’t have done by yourself?
I think I’m keener to get up in the streets. I mean I’m not your typical person who goes and puts things in the street, but you know, we go out and half of us go and have a beer afterwards. It’s all about walking around. People will rock up with some paste and we just go for it. So, I guess it’s not a solo sport anymore. I mean it is, it can be. I’ve spent many evenings just putting stickers up by myself, but there’s something more fun about there being a whole bunch of you. Someone will put one up and you try to put one higher, it’s just that kind of thing. But it could be anything, it could be a bike gang, it could be a record collecting crew. It’s having that little group around you who are just as enthusiastic as you.
That energy and excitement feeds everyone, and opens the gateway just enough for people to come through…
I mean we’ve got it all now. Suddenly it’s gone from me saying I can get a few people and we can do some drawing, to having this crew. People come and go but there’s probably six or seven regulars. Three of them are part of an exhibition at Fiksate [Vez, Bexie Lady and Cape of Storms are all featured in the show Perspective: Women in Urban Art], which is crazy! Bongo’s screen printing now, so he offered to do a run of a hundred stickers for this amount of money, and everyone was chucking money at him and that comes from just talking to people, getting shit done, you know? It is almost self-fulfilling. If I want to go and do some stuff on the street, then I can probably find someone keen to come along. Even if it is just wandering around and putting stupid stickers of pencils up, it doesn’t matter, that’s the fun of it. We are all very different, some crews have a particular style, especially with graffiti, but we’re drawing pictures on paper and sticking them up, it is different. One week a guy came and just did smiley faces, which was great!
People sometimes assume that there’s a right way to do street art.
Right, a particular highbrow view that you have to do this or that. I’m sure in the graffiti world there are styles and techniques that are passed on, but with stickers the joy is that they are literally just a marker pen and sticky paper. You could draw a picture of your own bum and it would count. Anyone can come along and draw funny little things on a piece of paper, and it counts. It doesn’t have to be ginormous.
Touching on that idea of size, there has been a tendency in urban art towards placemaking and an increasingly big scale, and yet really placemaking is also about the small stuff.
I’m a big fan of the little things that are hidden away, the things that you don’t notice at first, but then you do and it makes them even more rad. Paste ups are fun because they let you work on a bigger scale than stickers. You can literally put up any size, but it’s still a smaller scale in terms of just drawing on a piece of paper and sticking it up on a wall. It’s generally never going to be higher than you can physically do it. I guess that’s why making stupid machines to put stickers higher up a wall amuses the shit out of me. There are a few that are up there and I’m just like, it’s so high off the ground! That’s pure amusement for me.
That idea of simply playing in the streets…
I did some pastes in Lyttelton with a mate of mine recently. So, Lyttelton has an issue with peacocks. Someone I might know really closely released a bunch of peacocks into the hills and the farmer on the top of the hill kicked off and started cooking them and eating them! So, me and said friend, we had a few beers and started pasting a whole bunch of peacocks around the port. One day I got a text message from him, he was at work and he said: ‘I think I’ve gone too big!’ He sent me a picture of a massive peacock poster coming out of a large format printer. There’s a spot above the tunnel and we pasted this huge thing up. I woke up the next morning and I’m a long way from the tunnel, my mate’s even further, but I could fucking see it! Everybody in port would be able to see it! It was like a big white postage stamp of a huge peacock head. We were just pissing ourselves because of the stupidity of it! I’m not trying to be artistic, it’s just genuinely hilarious, you paste a huge peacock so this woman who’s been killing them and eating them, every time she leaves port she sees a massive fucking peacock! We are still pasting little ones everywhere; we must have put fifty up throughout Lyttelton. They only lasted a wee while because it was shit paste, but I laughed so much.
Speaking of repetition, how did your pencils come about?
For my art A Level in the UK I made a bunch of skateboards and they had scratched up backgrounds painted to look like they had been skated on and then I added a white silhouette of different pieces of furniture. One of the silhouettes was a classic UK school chair, an orange pre-formed plastic chair with black skinny metal legs and a hole in the back. I realized I could tag it in one hit, and it was identifiable as a chair really quickly. So, for years I wrote FURNITURE, which is a lovely word to write by hand, it’s really gorgeous. I was tagging it and at the end of the E I would then move in and join the chair onto it, so that’s where I started. I realised it’s obviously a school chair, I’m a schoolteacher, it ties in, so what else could I tie in? I went to a compass, and actually I’ve got photos of doing quite big ones on the side of The Drawing Room in town, I even went on a bit of a tiki tour all over Melbourne and Sydney, just sticking stuff up. I did the compasses for a wee while and they were really simple, inspired by a particular genre of stickers at that time. Then one day I put a pencil in the compass, and I was like, oh, I really like that! So, I drew a few more pencils. They were square, so they had the rubber bit at the end with the metal, then they were triangular, pointed as if they had been sharpened by a sharpener. I got a whole bunch of small stickers, but I couldn’t draw the whole pencil on that size, so I just did the nib. But it didn’t really look like a pencil, it just looked like a triangle with the square side. But then when I scalloped it, suddenly it looked like my pencil, and then I thinned the lines. The first ones I did, there’s a few around still, they look like pencils, shaded and with straight lines, but you know, they looked too much like pencils, and it was taking me forty minutes to draw one because my inner OCD kicked in. I needed to make it quicker, so I dropped the end off, scalloped it, and put in the wee dots to make it look like it had been cut by a knife. There’s a book I’ve got called How to Sharpen a Pencil. It’s well worth finding because the boy’s a genius, he literally wrote a book about the different ways to sharpen a pencil. It has all these different pencils and who they are used for, there was this perfect one he called ‘The Architectural’ for architects. It’s really ironic but really funny. One of them was a really long-nibbed, scalloped version and I was just like, that is how I love my pencils! I just copied that and put in a few dots to show that it had been sharpened and now I just draw them non-stop. It’s just gone from there really.
Was there an element of the phenomenology that Shepard Fairey talks about, taking something that might be meaningless but repeating it enough to make it meaningful?
Fucking over and over and over again… I’m a huge fan of The Toasters, a crew from the UK who just did outlines of toasters. I remember first seeing one of them in the mid-nineties and being like, why the hell would you make a sticker with a toaster on it? But also, why not? I wasn’t really into Obey, but there were The London Police, D-Face and a whole bunch of those guys around that time that were doing thick-lined icons on white backgrounds, repeating them so they became like a signature. I’m a handwriting nerd, I love a good-looking tag that’s really been thought out. I like drawing pencils; the lines work really well for me. I love the straight lines, and there’s enough individuality that you can make each one different. You can make them short, long, you can put stupid little rubbers on the bottom if you want to, you can write words on the side, there are lots of options. But it’s still always the same identifiable thing – everyone has seen a pencil. Even with the silhouette stuff, if you’ve seen the pencil and then you see the silhouette, you can see those two are related and maybe there will be a little link in your brain, like, I’ve seen that somewhere before… That is not my idea, I got that from The Toasters, doing the outline and people thinking what the fuck is that? It’s a fucking toaster! That sense of wonderment. People are like I’ve seen your sticker things everywhere, and I’m like great! That’s the point! There isn’t a purpose behind them, there is not some subliminal message, I’m not trying to alter what you’re thinking, I’m literally just drawing a stupid pencil!
Yet even without that intent, they do change the way people think because they are becoming more aware of their surrounding environment.
I think it was Erosie in a video about The Toasters, he says: ‘This is city glitter’, you know? It’s little sparkles that might brighten someone’s day and if it just does that once, if someone says: ‘I fucking know them! I’ve seen them!’ Then great, that’s all I need to do!
When you talk about the silhouette pencils, you are referring to your ‘bluff buff’ pieces, they remind me that the buff itself is essentially a bluff. We can look out and see the way that buff jobs just block out graffiti, they echo the shapes. I mean the most ridiculous buff jobs are the ones where you can still read the graffiti.
Yeah, they have just outlined it, you could go over it with a pen and it would fill in the gap perfectly. There are some great ones around!
No one is ever going to say that the buff itself is an act of beautification.
It’s like that PEEEP Trust, they are actually stencilling their logo onto the walls they buff! At first, I thought it was an artist signing their work. It’s like the classic ‘official’ graffiti walls, with a spray can and it just gets filled. But I googled PEEEP and it’s an actual fucking thing! They are paid, or at least they raise money to do that shit.
It speaks more to masking than improvement.
It is deliberate censorship rather than enhancement.
The pencil bluffs play on that…
I don’t have roots in this. But it creates a grey area. If I’m painting on the wall and someone pulls up, I just say someone wrote the word fuck on it and I’m covering it up, and they go, ‘oh shit, that’s OK mate, see you’. No street artist is going to be using a tub of grey paint and a paintbrush, so the moment they pull up, because it’s essentially a rectangle with a bit on the bottom and a bit on the top, I can square it off and be like someone drew a dick and I’m covering it up. So, it’s making it safer for me because I’m that person.
You mentioned your love of skateboarding, was that the gateway to sticker culture and graffiti?
Skateboarding came first. I had stickers on skateboards first. There is an art form to putting a sticker on a skateboard, there is a certain way you do it. You put it in a certain place because you know that it’s going to get fucked if you put it in a different place. There is also the branding. I’m not going to put any old sticker on my stuff, it’s going to be representing me and therefore that’s important. So, I guess the placement, the branding, it has all led to where it is today. I am still like, why the fuck would you put a sticker there!? You could have moved it four inches and overlapped that one and it would have looked brilliant! That’s my inner nerdiness coming out, but there is a certain way to do it. In Lyttelton, one of Bongo’s pastes was coming off, and I wanted to put my one up, so I took his off and re-pasted it just a bit to the right and put mine so they overlapped nicely. He was like: ‘Did you move my piece a bit?’ Well, I had to because mine overlapping yours makes both of them look better, if i hadn’t it would have fucked up both of our work!
That’s the thing about urban art, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it doesn’t exist in a white cube. The surrounding context of space gives it meaning, but also is part of the aesthetic. A mural on a wall has to work with whatever is going on there and it’s the same with a sticker. There’s a subtlety in terms of placement, and there’s also a mindfulness, right?
That’s trial and error too. The amount of times I’ve stuck a sticker up and it’s just slipped off. It’s all covered in dust and grime! But again, the buffs are a great example. You posted a picture of an alleyway somewhere, and instantly, I knew what had to happen! There’s a light grey, a dark grey, there’s an overlap, there is an obvious point for me to put a buff pencil. Again, it comes back to skateboarding. Skateboarders look at the world in a different way than most others, they will go past a spot and to anyone else it’s not a spot, but a skateboarder recognizes the fact that you could do a trick there, or you know, that curb’s looking really rad. It can be anything and the same thing applies to stickers and paste ups and graffiti, you see a spot and you’re like, ohhh, hello, that will work well…
It’s like those movie scenes where a character’s thought process is visualised and you see diagrammatic lines and mathematical equations in space.
Yeah skateboarders have that in spades! If you watch a skateboarder walking around town, you can just see the way they are trialing shit in their head. It’s just instinctive. I’m finding it’s the same with stickers, I’ve got a pile in my car and when I’m driving, I’m looking and thinking that spot would be perfect… Even colour is a part of it now, I never used colours in the past, I used white and black, now I’ve got all this colored vinyl. I’ve got this bright green, and I’m like, that will look so good on that wall, you know? It’s madness, it’s actual madness!
Urban art, graffiti, skateboarding, parkour, they are all tactical, they are always a response, and that’s the thing, they are constantly evolving. You can’t eradicate something that is not rigidly defined, things that can grow and evolve…
Certain styles of skating have come out of different cities because of the way that councils have tried to stop skaters. When rumble strips first came out in the UK, they were stated to be for blind people, so they can feel them when they are walking. But no, they are not, that’s bullshit. They were put there to stop me hitting it on a skateboard. But people were quickly figuring out how to go over them, doing tricks, and I fucking love that, it’s great.
It’s the same with graffiti, attempts to stop it are just going to change the way it occurs.
It’s just misdirection. I guess it is how cities get their style; if you’re in a city that’s heavy on trains, then a lot of train bombing is going to go down. In the UK, we didn’t have the train thing, so it was always on the buses, which is why stickers came about. You could get on the bus and just slap. If you lived in a city where there weren’t any trains coming through, you did the buses, because that was the next best thing.
And those different vessels mean different styles and techniques evolve in response.
Which is interesting for Christchurch because we are a city of concrete tilt slab buildings. I mean there are some fucking wonderful huge murals, and they are street art, it is definitely art on the street, but it’s also blocked off and lit and fucking ginormous, you know, and I feel that maybe there’s more to it all. I mean, I look at that [gestures to a nearby decorated window] and I don’t know whether someone’s done that themselves or someone’s been paid to do that, and I think that’s a really nice balance. We are so full of the big mural stuff that you can get away with putting a big paste up and no one questions it.
With the breakneck change that the city’s gone through, it’s going to change the responses. So, it’s not just the eradication methods, it’s also the physical make-up. We had broken abandoned buildings that were perfect for graffiti writers to commandeer and then we had lots of exposed walls from buildings coming down which were perfect for murals, now we’re going to find more of these spaces that are more traditional spots, liminal spaces.
But weirdly they will be new! They will be sharp and fucking clean, perfect spaces, which for me, as someone who puts stickers up, I love that! The smoother the surface, the easier it is! I don’t want to deal with bricks and shit, I just want nice, clean walls. Also, the up and the down of this city, you know, there’s stuff on the floor, there’s stuff up high. We don’t have many high-rise buildings, so things stand out more. It’s got a sense of panorama.
Even from here, we can see the lay out of the city. There’s an expansiveness which is kind of inspiring in a way, because you don’t feel smothered or captured.
Or penned in. It also means that you’re not cliquing it, you know? I drive from Lyttelton to here, that’s the whole city, and it takes me fifteen minutes. So, there isn’t anywhere you can’t hit, which is fucking brilliant.
Which gives a real sense of possibility. Speaking of expansive, I really enjoyed watching your lock down collaboration project.
That came about as a lock down version of Inktober. Their first theme was like ‘green’ and then the next one was something else, and I couldn’t think of anything to do with my pencils for it. The collab thing is big in sticker culture anyway, so I just decided to write a list of twenty people I wanted do it with and I just put it out there. Then it became forty and then sixty and it just kept going. The concept is more of a mashup than a collab I guess, taking someone else’s art and doing it yourself in your way or blending your styles together.
You often use other people’s stickers to adorn things anyway, even if you’re not street slapping.
Yeah, exactly, so the mashup is just taking it to this next degree, I guess. MarxOne from up in Nelson, he is the fucking king, he has sheets and sheets and sheets of collabs with different people. As an artist, if someone does a picture of a pencil and they tag me in it, I’m not going to be like, that’s my pencil, don’t do that! That’s bollocks. But everyone has a style. I’ve tried characters and I’ve got a big fucking ginger beard character with a stupid bald head, who is basically me, and people now recognize that and that’s what it should be about and that’s the family thing again. No-one’s going to get pissed off, there’s no reason to, because someone’s literally saying: ‘I really like your shit, can I do my own version of it?’ You just go OK, send me a sticker when you’re done. I did one with Ocky Bop, one of his skulls with pencil’s for teeth. I just drew it and took a picture, and he’s like, I’m printing that shit! Now I keep getting tagged in all these pictures all over the world! It’s not complicated, I literally drew my pencils as his teeth on a sticker and now it’s gone everywhere!
At the end of the day, that’s the beauty of sticker culture, it’s global nature. The internet has changed some of the ways we think about graffiti because now influence can be much wider, but graffiti still has an immediate localism to it. With stickers the mobility is unlimited, as you say, you’ve got pencils in cities all around the world and other people are doing it for you.
My favorite thing is that you send a pack to someone and they go: ‘Well I’m going to keep some for myself and put them in my black book because that’s cool, and I’ve got another fifteen, so I’ll put fucking five of them out in the street and I’m going to send ten to another five people…’
There’s a viral quality.
Yeah, for instance, my pencils, and my gnomes as well, they’re all over the UK and I haven’t sent a single one there. There is a guy called Spirit of Mongoose who is just printing a shit load. Which makes my job way easier. Of course, it’s not even my art, I just scanned a picture, but it’s the thought that this would happen.
The nomination is the act, and then as you say, someone else becomes part of it, and that comes back to family and community, this community is just much bigger than you ever realize until you start to make those connections and networks.
And it’s there all the time, it’s there and it’s getting bigger and bigger and more fun…
On the 25th September, The World Economic Forum Global Shapers Christchurch Hub proudly opens an exhibition to bring awareness to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and raise funds for the charities that align to those goals. Bringing together an impressive slew of artists, including a significant number with urban art pedigree, the exhibition marks the beginning of the ‘decade of action’, the ten year span culminating in the 2030 deadline for achieving the goals and in doing so, create a world that can serve future generations more fairly. The exhibition reflects the belief that creativity can play an essential role in bringing awareness to and creating discourses around these causes.
The exhibition, staged at the Milton Street Substation, is made up of a diverse line-up of talent, including artists from Christchurch and around New Zealand: Pops Art, Nick Lowry, Iann An, Séku Skandan, McChesney-Kelly Adams, Ira Mitchell, Hannah Jensen, Kophie Su’a Hulsbosch, Bee Weave (Selina Faimalo), Dr Suits, James Durcan, Flox, Jesse Rawcliffe, Sally Mae Hudson, Lisa Isbister and Jen Heads. Each of the seventeen artists will present work reflecting on one of the seventeen SDGs, providing a response to the relevant issues in their own distinct styles.
The Global Shapers Christchurch Hub is composed of a small number of exceptional young professionals. Members come from diverse backgrounds, united by a passion to influence positive change through meaningful projects and to harness the collective power of active citizenship. Hub members Bridget Williams, founder of Bead & Proceed, and The Conscious Club’s Selina Faimalo and Kophie Su’a Hulsbosch have taken on curatorial duties for the SDG exhibition, drawing on their backgrounds in creative realms, social enterprise and the shared desire to empower, educate and inspire towards a sustainable future. We asked Bridget, Selina and Kophie a few questions to get the run down on the exhibition…
People may not know much about the SDGs – what are some of these goals?
The seventeen SDGs include important goals such as achieving zero hunger, eradicating poverty, supporting good health and wellbeing, climate action and ensuring access to quality education, to name a few.
How did you decide art was the lens through which to bring awareness to this cause?
The SDGs are all interconnected, and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that we achieve them all by 2030 which is only ten years away, so raising awareness that these goals even exist is one step closer to achieving them. Art and creativity send such a strong message that really resonates with many. It doesn’t just send a message, but also creates a powerful statement.
How did the curatorial group select the artists?
Kophie has an arts background and she selected people in her network that she thought would represent the SDGs well. The result is a great mix of artists and people.
Were you looking for artists who were already interested in social and sustainability issues, or was it a case of allocating the concepts to artists?
We looked for artists that could represent these issues, but it was an opportunity for them to learn more about the SDGs and become more acquainted with these issues. We got each artist to choose the three SDGs that resonated most with them, and from there we sorted through them and allocated them each a specific goal.
There is a strong presence of artists with ties to graffiti and street art, despite all the change surrounding those cultures, do you feel that they still display a social consciousness both outwardly and inherently?
As Kophie was the curator she definitely has a bias to selecting urban artists but tried to select a diverse range of artists in other fields. She believes graffiti and street art is one of most free, political and subversive forms of art, so I would say the consciousness of this art form is definitely strong enough. Also, it provides more representation to underground artists, when traditionally the SDGs would mostly be associated with a more highbrow aesthetic.
Tell me more about the venue, what has it presented in terms of the possible lay out of the show?
The venue is an industrial converted substation, a large old brick building, two stories high, with three distinct areas. On the ground floor, where the exhibition will be held, is a large rustic brick room, with a foyer out the front. Upstairs there is an overlooking floor with retro wooden floors and a balcony facing the courtyard outside. It is going to make for a really unique venue.
What other projects does the Global Shapers Hub have lined up?
The Hub is looking at other long term projects such as a Climate Dollar for Christchurch and collaborating with other organisations to help address the negative effects of Covid-19 (regarding the future of sustainable work experience) and, importantly, supporting other hub members who are working on impact projects.
THE SDG Art Exhibition opens September 25th at 6pm, with drinks, nibbles, talks, interactive art and an auction. Funds go towards supporting charities aligned with the SDG outcomes. For more information to the event page on Facebook.
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With everything that has happened in 2020 (so far), it seems like a long, long time ago that artist and designer Tom Bell told me he would be staging a solo show at Absolution this year. But while what seems like an age has passed, I have maintained a level of excitement about the exhibition Bell has come to call Adoration. The show features a body of work that combines both the artist’s established interest in the imagery and themes of Japanese art and culture, but with a new material approach, his digital rendering replaced by hand-painted cut-outs. The sense of reverence for the subject matter (the show’s title a reference to that debt) is empowered by the evidently pain-staking process of manual brush strokes. Bell’s works, whether paintings, stickers, digital prints, tiny enamel pins, t-shirt designs or illustrations, are alluring, their soft pastel colours and dynamic yet sparse compositions combining with the loaded symbolism of Japanese visual culture to feel both traditional and contemporary.
I met Tom a few years ago, he was with his ‘art fam’ as he calls them, at an exhibition opening at Fiksate. Since then his face has become a familiar one at places like Fiksate, Supreme and Smash Palace, always up for a yarn. But when we sat down to chat for this interview, I learned a lot more about him, from the Wellington-raised artist’s relationship with Christchurch, his interests in stencils and tattoos, and his journey to opening Adoration. Part of what made the discussion so engaging was Tom’s energy, he flew between thoughts, earnest and honest, clearly excited and invigorated by the upcoming show and what he had learned as an artist and a person over the last year.
I remember almost a year ago, or at least it feels like that long because of everything that has happened, you mentioned that this show is a farewell to Christchurch because you were planning to move back to Wellington…
Yeah, that’s still the plan [in August]. I’m originally from Wellington, but I have spent almost four years down here. It’s crazy because a lot of people have asked where I was hiding for those first two years! I moved down from Wellington for my graphic design job. At the time my now ex-girlfriend was from Christchurch, all her family were here, so I made the move. I really struggled making connections with people down here. Throughout my twenties I’ve struggled with social anxiety and that really put a big hindrance on me going out and going to shows and other social situations. For two and a half years the idea of going to an exhibition opening by myself, even if I knew people who would be there, would make me really anxious. I would think people are going to look at me and be like, who’s that dude? At the end of 2018 I decided I needed to face some of my weaknesses and get a control of my anxiety.
That social anxiety was a big obstacle for you obviously…
Yeah, the social anxiety was a big hindrance to me. I had people in Wellington say to me: ‘Dude, you should be getting out and trying to make connections in the art community, you’re a designer, you love your art, Christchurch has a really good scene, just start doing it…’ So, when all that happened, I just said, alright, I’m going to put myself out there. I reached out to Jessie [Rawcliffe] because we had started building a connection through Instagram, so I hit her up out of the blue and said you do a lot of collab work, would you be keen on doing one in the new year? She was like: ‘Hell yeah, that would be sick!’ We met up at Smash Palace and started talking about our creative interests. I remember her saying: ‘I paint skulls and girls, am I pigeon-holing myself?’ I said, nah, skulls and girls are ******* badass, and you can tell you really enjoy painting them. From there I was introduced to Josh [Bradshaw] and we’ve been hanging out ever since. I call them my ‘art fam’ and they have been great sounding boards for my creative journey over the last eighteen months. After attending a few exhibitions at the start of last year I started to meet everyone and it was great because it just happened organically.
I remember a conversation I had with Jessie and she asked me if I had painted before, and I said, yeah, but I was trash! She said I should get into painting and get away from the computer. So I did and I just got addicted to it, I was all in. From January to March I was painting every night after work, but I wasn’t showing anything to anyone. For me, a painting had to turn out the way I wanted, if it didn’t, it was trash in my mind, so I would put it under the bed and leave it. I think it was about April last year I finally did something I thought was pretty decent. I was comfortable enough to post it on social media and I had a lot of people reaching out to me saying they thought it was great to see me get away from the computer and to be working with another medium. I was like, well, my digital stuff is better than this, but I think people like this because it has more of a human element to it.
I think we appreciate that hand-painted quality in art, there is an evident authenticity…
I started realising that imperfections on a painting actually make it better because they show that human aspect. It doesn’t always have to be perfect, so what if you paint over lines or whatever, it gives it more character…
So that kicked off your re-acquaintance with painting?
Yeah. Last year for me was just a lot of trial and error. I was doing everything. I got back into using spray cans, because when I was studying, I started doing stencils, but it had been a while. I remember I did a life drawing class; I was terrible at figure drawing, but it was a requirement. I remember the tutor asking me if I painted stencils and I was like, yeah, how can you tell? He said he could tell from the way I drew with solid outlines. I had no concept of tone or shadow. When I was at high school I didn’t do anything creatively, I was quite sport-centric, rugby, rugby league, and my community in Wellington didn’t see art as a career path, you try to be the next All Black or rugby league star or you get a trade, that’s about it…
I see little difference between sport and art. They are both performances. Sport, at its heart, is about skill, technique, a type of aesthetic beauty, so the total partition between the two is strange, people from the arts world often hate sport, people from the sports world think of artists as weirdos…
In my early twenties, when you discover what you like and what you want to do as a career, I was into sports, but I was also really into art and creativity, and it felt like you couldn’t be associated with both. I got really hung up on that idea, because everyone from high school was like, ‘Oh dude, we hear you’re into graphic design and art and stuff, what’s all that about?’ I think now I totally resonate with friends from high school who were really good artists and they would say: ‘Our school sucks, sports get all the funding.’ I had quite a lot of friends who did art at high school, and they would always be moaning that the art resources were terrible, teachers would have to bring in a lot of their own stuff because they just didn’t have the funding for it…
There is a divergence in the way sport and art develop people, I think. In sport, people are eventually trained to follow rules and stick within structures and systems, whereas with the arts there is more willingness to break free. But as I said before, it’s not necessarily an inherent difference. If you think about sport at a more pure level, like pick-up games of basketball, or kids playing soccer in Brazilian favelas, or cricket in the streets in India, those instances are not official, it’s just the love of it and that’s where all the amazing skills and showmanship develop. It’s only once all those other aspects and structures come in, and a particular personality type is preferred, that the focus changes and that freedom is impinged. The same thing can happen in art schools as well. One of the amazing freedoms of urban art is that you are not beholden to convention. I assume your interest in stencils was at least to some degree an interest in what was happening in the streets outside of the institutional world, but there was also a clear connection to the aesthetic of graphic design…
When I first started studying, I came to Christchurch in 2010 and enrolled at the Design and Arts College to do a foundation course. The year before, I decided I wanted to do something creative, but I’d never done anything, so I looked into it and the foundation course in Fine Arts sounded pretty sweet. You did a bit of everything, photography, architecture, graphic design, life drawing, textile design. If you did well enough, you were offered a position the following year. Originally, I wanted to do photography. But when I took the digital media component of the foundation course, which really was an introduction to graphic design, the tutor said to me: ‘What do you want to do next year? I said photography, and he said I should consider graphic design because he thought I had an eye for it. So, from there, I was like alright, maybe graphic design is what I should do. At that time Exit Through the Gift Shop had just come out, and when I saw it my mind was blown! I watched it like four times over a week, and I was thinking, this is rad! These guys are doing stuff on the streets around the world, they are breaking rules, it’s controversial and it’s right in front of people. They’re not going to a gallery to see this, it’s out in the open, so I was like, it could be cool to start experimenting with stencils. I just started looking at YouTube tutorials to get the basics and then I went off on a tangent for like a year doing that. That was in 2010, and at the beginning of 2011 I met Zach Hart who was working at Ink Grave Tattoo at the time, I started getting tattooed by him and I learnt that he had a graffiti background. That grew my interest and I found out there are a lot of tattooists who have graffiti backgrounds. I’m also really into hip hop and there’s that association with graffiti also.
Since I was eight or nine, I’ve always been into tattoos. No-one in my immediate family has tattoos, but I just had a fascination with them. When I was eleven or twelve, I was at the library and I came across a book of Japanese woodblock prints from the early 1800s, and then I found a tattoo book and the images were pretty much identical. I kind of put my interest of Japanese art to the side when I was studying at university but in my mid-twenties I fell in love again with Japanese art and architecture. Since then it has just fully consumed me. My best mate is a tattoo artist in Wellington, he specializes in Irezumi [Japanese tattoos], and I have learnt a lot from him. I think the reason why I like Japanese art so much is that it’s very graphic, it’s designed to be big and in your face with bold outlines and flat colours, but there is still a sense of refinement that gives it a timelessness…
There is an important balancing act when you adopt a historical visual influence, you need to respect that lineage, but also make it fresh and not derivative. How do you approach that challenge?
It is about knowing the subject matter. For instance, a koi fish swims up stream and turns into a dragon, so if I was ever to draw a dragon or a koi, I can’t draw a tiger with it because they don’t go together. It would be easy for people to look at my work and think it’s just Japanese tattoo flash, so my contemporary take on it has been my choice of colour palette. I think my interest in Pop Art has contributed to my use of pastels, there’s a David Hockney piece, A Bigger Splash, it has flat colours, blues and caramels, and that was a big influence. It was painted in the sixties, but it still feels very fresh, so taking that and playing around with colours has allowed me to develop my own take on Japanese art while still sticking to the belief systems. I think some people try to reinvent the wheel and they forget about the fundamentals. My graphic design work is very minimal and with minimal design you’ve got no room for error, if you have one little thing that’s off, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb, so I focus on the fundamentals with just smaller, subtle changes.
You were telling me earlier that it is only the last six months or so that you’ve become comfortable calling yourself an artist. That background in graphic design and digital work, how do they feed into your painting work, because they must be very different approaches…
When I first started painting again last year, it was tough. With design, when you don’t like something, it’s the classic ‘Command-Z’, undo, so I was very thorough in preparation. I would do a colour study and draw it on screen, colour it, print it out and then from that, paint it, doing like for like. It was very uniform. But eventually I started to just do a quick colour study on screen and then started painting, and now I’m at the point where I don’t do the colour study I just paint it.
Sometimes things look good on screen, but when I’m actually painting it, it doesn’t work. So, I think the last year has really taught me to be looser and freer when I’m working with my hands, to not be such a control freak. Normally I’m a perfectionist, especially with my graphic design work, it’s like, that’s terrible! Back to the drawing board! But when you make a mistake on a painting, when an outline has smudged, there’s a human element to it, and that’s something that I have probably learnt to appreciate. I went to a tattoo convention in New Plymouth last year and there was an artist whose paintings I love, and he was selling prints. I could see there were little imperfections in the print, and it was fine, I realized I’m just too much of a control freak. I think that freedom is why there’s been no ambition at the moment to go back to the digital side of things, because I like the fact that if you screw up a painting, you’ve got to problem solve on the spot and work with what you have…
I’ve always loved the idea associated with Margaret Kilgallen’s work, the wavering line. I think we need to attach to something human in an increasingly technologically-driven world, we become hyper aware of when something is perfect, and we recognize imperfection from another human and I think that is really important. You were talking about that idea of going back to painting being inspired by conversations with friends, that idea of community must be a really important part of where you are, is losing that when you move back to Wellington a daunting thought?
It hit me this week that I’m moving soon. I’ve got my two best mates coming down for the opening of Adoration, Mike Todd, a tattoo artist, and Jerome Taylor, who I went to high school with, who is a fashion designer. They are my creative community up there in Wellington. When I started getting tattooed by Mike, he knew I was painting on the side and he was giving me tips, like how tattoo apprentices learn, you trace a rose fifty times and by the twentieth time you should know how to draw a rose. He’s been a big part in me fundamentally learning how to paint the way I do. But in terms of what I’ve got here with Jessie and Josh and everyone else, I don’t have that. It’s a bit daunting, but I did it here, I just have to put myself out there. I’m from Wellington, so I should be able to connect a bit more if anything just because I’m local. I think having a show here will help open some doors up there. It’s funny, I already know I want to do another solo show in Wellington next year. I’ve already got ideas bubbling about what I want to do for my next show. It’s contagious, I reckon, it consumes you, but I’ve really enjoyed the process…
How did the show come together conceptually?
When I confirmed this show last year, I was still working at my old job, in a corporate structure, getting paid to do a job, and I just really felt like I was being controlled by the man. I didn’t want to sound like a temperamental artist, but I really struggled with being told to be creative within a certain framework or it wasn’t of value. So when I was coming up with themes for my show, I was thinking about basing it on entrapment and having conflicting thoughts in my head, and just lacking self-worth in a way, but then in January, I drew out my whole show in a wall plan to see if it was going to tell a story, and I realised it doesn’t have to, screw that! I’m leaving town soon, I just want to do something that I’m passionate about. It is filled with traditional Japanese influences but with a contemporary take. There are a few pieces where I have dissected objects and have incorporated other objects with them. Textures play an important part in my inspiration so I wanted to bring them in also. The show is about paying homage to Japanese art and culture, and that’s why I named the show Adoration, it’s about devotion and how I hold it dear to my heart.
We talked briefly about artists being pigeon-holed, do you ever think about that in terms of the Japanese influence in your work?
Totally, I always think to myself, am I pigeon-holing myself with my interests? The one positive to come out of lock-down was new ideas I want to paint when I move back to Wellington. It’s abstract, with no Japanese themes at all. I haven’t told anyone about it, I don’t know if I want to push this, I don’t know if I want to show anyone, I’ve done some real rough sketches and I don’t think anyone would expect it.
I assume they will likely see the light of day in Wellington, which means that while this show brings this chapter to a close, this new body of work might start the next chapter…
As much as it’s been a really good time painting the work in this show, I think this is the perfect time to start some more experimental stuff. A lot of people have asked why I don’t get into tattooing, because it makes sense with my subject matter currently. But I don’t want to keep exploring the same themes and imagery and that’s the connection people seem to make, that my Japanese- influenced work would translate to tattoo. It’s something I have warmed up to in the last six months as I’ve become more confident with the hand-rendered stuff, but tattooing is completely different from painting, it’s a whole new technique. Once I’m back in Wellington, I’m going to use the rest of this year to have a play around and try some experimental stuff, do more freehand work, which is something I have been working on for the last six months. I guess there has been a lot of personal growth down here in the last two years as well…
So, this is an important milestone…
It is an important milestone. About six months ago I realized that it makes sense to have my first show here in Christchurch, because this is where my creative journey really started. Obviously, I went back to Wellington after the 2011 earthquake and relocated to continue my studies up there, but really making things all started here, so it all makes sense. It’s like a goodbye gift, my time here is up, but this is where it all started for me. I never thought I would have a solo show, I never thought I would have my work in a public space where people would want to come see it. I think we all get a little nervous, like are people going to show up? I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me saying they are looking forward to seeing the show. Getting messages like that has been really humbling.
That must be cool because as you have mentioned, the process of creating work and then the step of putting them out in the world can be scary. It’s a long and constantly changing road, the process and development, the failures, the changes of direction…
Yes, it’s a vulnerable position because you work on something for so long and then you think you are comfortable to show people, but once it’s in a public space, once it’s out there, then it could be well received or it might not be. It’s all part of it and I look forward to seeing how people interact with the show on Friday.
Adoration opens at Absolution in the Arts Centre on Friday, 7th August, 2020 at 6pm.
Earlier this year I received an email connecting me with Bulky Savage, a New Zealand-born artist living in Berlin, who was seeking a wall to paint while home visiting family. We traded some messages and attempted to find some options, but ultimately it appeared that nothing would quite line up. Intrigued by a Kiwi artist now based in an epicentre of urban art, I dived into his Instagram to become familiar with his work. His quirky menagerie of characters, seemingly indebted to the influence of cartoons, were immediately endearing, while literal washes of colour added vibrancy but also a suggestive symbolism. Imbued with a sense of playfulness, they were equally comfortable in the digital illustrative realm as they were on the streets.
Fortunately, B.S. was finally put in touch with the owners of Riverside Market and before returning to Germany, finally got the opportunity to produce a mural to mark his temporary homecoming. The wall painting, featuring one of his recurring hollow-eyed skull characters and a flow of colour echoing sloshing paint, is on a somewhat secluded wall in the laneway beside the bustling market. However, that seclusion doesn’t stop it from being a striking sight once you are introduced, beguiling in its seemingly open narrative, with confectionery-esque colours set to flood the ground.
While we had only exchanged brief pleasantries via email, when we finally chatted face to face (or at least via a Messenger call, as is the way in these pandemic times), it was quickly apparent that B.S. was instantly affable and an hour quickly passed. We discussed Berlin, his entrance into the street art world, his experience here in Christchurch and importantly, the state of the world and the modern economy…
While I’m sitting here in Christchurch, you are in the morning sunshine of Berlin, how did you come to live in Germany?
I grew up in Auckland. my dad is English but has been in New Zealand since the late seventies, and that’s kind of how I managed to be over here, with that [British] passport, but who knows how much that’s worth anymore…
So, at what age did you leave New Zealand, and what drew you to Berlin?
I turned 23 very shortly after I left New Zealand. I just wanted to get out. Our tiny little home in the middle of nowhere is great, but it is very hidden away, so I just wanted to see what was going on in the world. Europe was obvious and I had the passport, so that made things a bit easier. I wanted to learn another language, so I wanted to go somewhere in Continental Europe. I bumped into a bunch of German people as I was leaving New Zealand and again while I was travelling, and Berlin came up. It was always a blip on the radar, but I didn’t know anything about it except that it has always had good music. But by my second day here, I was just like, yeah, this is cool, I could do this for a bit. I did spend two months living in London when I ran out of money. I couldn’t get a job in Germany, so I went to London and worked for two months and squatted and got some cash together before settling here.
My impression of Berlin was that there is a palpable energy to the city. It was busy and there was a grit that wasn’t evident in Munich, for instance.
There is a little bit of everything here in Berlin, something for almost everybody. You either love that chaotic kind of energy like you said, or you don’t, certain people just don’t get on with it, but yeah, it totally grabbed me. I never really had a trajectory until I got to Berlin and saw the street art everywhere, and I was like, this is where I need to be!
So much of Berlin’s history can be seen and felt in the streets. The streets speak in many ways, re-presenting different eras and epochs, and that lineage almost informs the graffiti and street art in Berlin with a potency that some cities lack. While muralism is often charged with complicity in gentrification, in some ways urban art itself has been gentrified, but in Berlin it felt different.
Yeah, I guess that is always one of the conundrums of being part of this kind of art scene. It does kind of run both sides of the gambit. It is part of the problem and the solution! Berlin was definitely a bubble within it all, at least for a while… Gentrification has become more of a problem recently as the city folds a bit to the mighty Euro and murals do get absorbed into that as well. But yeah, muralism is only one layer of the street art and graffiti scene and there will always be people telling stories from the streets here.
A lot of people have said that Berlin’s a place for lost people. You get a lot of people coming here because they don’t really know what they’re doing with themselves. They spend a couple of years here and then figure it out and go and make money somewhere else. I guess I never got out, I became entangled with Berlin. But it’s become part of my art style and my lifestyle. I guess it’s also spoiled me, I’m not really sure that I could go and do what I’m doing somewhere else, in the same way anyway.
You explore a lot of different creative activities, so how would you describe what you do? Do you define yourself by any particular discipline or medium?
I like to say that I’m an artist who does street art sometimes. I bore easily, but if I’ve got different things to play with, I can always move on to something else. I really like photography, but everybody does photography, so it’s a much more difficult market to break into. I do digital stuff, and I’m trying to get back into painting with paint brushes again and things like that. But spray cans particularly are my jam. I’ve gotten good with those and its really nice to feel capable with something like that. That’s the problem with being multidisciplinary, it’s really frustrating working with things where I’m almost there, but I’m not really there. It’s nice to work with something where I can be like, bang, bang, bang, it’s done the way I wanted it. That is very satisfying.
There is something about the material qualities of aerosol that seem a particularly good fit for an urban environment like Berlin. One of my enduring memories in Berlin was stumbling across a Blek Le Rat stencil, it had almost all been painted out apart from the feet of the character and his name, but I always remember being struck by the way that the paint sat on this brittle concrete surface. But there is a lot of discussion going on now with artists about how to balance environmental concerns with the reality of aerosol, is that something that you think about?
Sometimes. There are always concerns with all sorts of different things for me, not just environmentally, but also keeping myself sane, so I have to balance out the impacts that I have with keeping myself happy. That might seem selfish sometimes, but I live in Germany and Germany’s pretty good at taking care of that stuff. There are proper waste bins for spray cans at a lot of the walls you paint these days, which is good. I hope they get taken care of properly, you don’t really know, there’s only so far that you can go when it comes to things like recycling. I can put all my stuff in all the right boxes, but I don’t know what happens after that. I’ve heard that they don’t even recycle themselves, certain things get sent to China, stuff like that. That is completely out of my control, so I try to not worry about that as much. Its great now that they don’t have things like CFCs, I’ve had people come up and say what about the ozone layer, and actually, you know, technology, baby!
Aerosol really informs the entire process, the final image, the process of making that image, even the conception of that image, it’s a defining tool for a lot of artists, and one that is so hard to replicate…
You can’t get that effect with anything else; air brush is close, but it’s also not. I have been working on an exhibition; it was planned for the first week of lock down. I wanted to make smaller scale works, so I’m using stencils, but I had to use spray cans because I want that beautiful gradient and that granular effect that you get from aerosol. There was nothing else I could use that would work like that…
It was initially adopted by graffiti writers primarily for mobility and efficiency, but increasingly, it’s actually the aesthetic that has become the attraction. The mastery that has been achieved over generations has become what drives and defines its continued use. When did you start using spray cans?
In New Zealand there were a couple of people on the periphery of my friends that were getting into street art. Cinzah was best mates with a girlfriend of mine at the time, and I went along to a couple of his shows and he was doing some paste ups and things. I was like, this is kind of interesting. I really love his style, it’s fantastic. But I was already on my way overseas, so by the time I got to Europe, that was really my first proper introduction to spray cans. I think it was maybe two or three years after I got to Berlin that I really started playing around with spray cans, so I guess around nine years ago. They are a difficult tool to master…
You mention the influence of street art, were you attracted to the act of painting in the streets? Often that is the biggest leap, because it is a decision imbued with more significance as you get older, when you’re more aware of a lot of the mechanisms in public space…
I hadn’t considered it before, but when I got to Berlin it was so pervasive, I felt comfortable getting out and being part of it. I just went out on my own. I made some paste ups because I couldn’t use spray cans at the time, but I could draw. I was all about drawing to begin with, I still am to some degree. I’d gone into a little gallery which is not really around anymore, it was run by this guy EMESS, a stencil artist, and I talked to him about the kind of stuff I was doing, and after that I went out and made my own paste ups. I went out with a sponge, totally the wrong gear! One of those pieces was still around recently actually, it stayed up for like eight years, which is pretty impressive for a paste up. Then, finally, I started doing street art workshops and teaching people how to do stencils, and that was when I really started playing around with spray cans a lot more, just taking it from there and putting it onto the walls as well. I did the illegal stuff here and there, but I’m not sure that I would have done it anywhere else besides Berlin. It is a lot more relaxed here than it is in most places. But the illegal side of it wasn’t really a draw card for me. A lot of people, particularly in graffiti, love that side of it, going out, getting into spaces that you shouldn’t, running from cops, that kind of thing. I guess my parents raised me to be a ‘good boy’, or at least put the fear in me! I was much more into the actual creation and painting part of it. I’ve got a bunch of friends who paint trains and things, and it’s great, but I just don’t have that in me. I like taking my time. That’s why I’ve gotten into murals, spending a couple of days painting is really rewarding to me.
Even if the illegal aspect wasn’t as attractive, were you still interested in how to situate a work in space and the encounter that you can create with an unsuspecting public audience?
When I was still doing paste ups and things, I’d like to have bits on corners of buildings so you could see it on one side and then pop around and there’s another part of it as well, leading people in certain ways. Interacting with outside spaces is a big part of the street art scene, and now, when it comes to murals, I still like that idea. I don’t want to put big messages into my art. I like to just have something that will pop and grab people’s attention, something a bit out of left field that will make them wonder what’s going on there?
Design and illustration are increasingly tied to urban art, as an interconnected pathway and through the iconographic approach of post-graffiti, the creation of an instantly recognizable and relatable icon. Has your design background influenced your work?
I studied design at Massey University in Wellington for a couple of years because I was young and foolish. I basically thought that was how you made money in art. But really, I’m more into the ‘art’ side of things. You can see that my work is very graphic, although I would say maybe more Pop Art these days. But the graphic design thing, I didn’t only do it because of the money side, I love graphic design as well, and it has definitely influenced my style.
There is an unmistakable, recurring quality to your work, notably with the hollow-eyed character, did that develop as an intentionally recurring presence, or was it something that just kind of emerged and endured?
I think I drew the first iteration of that character just before I left New Zealand. I used to work at Cosmic Corner and I did a drawing of that little character one day at work. Characters and cartoons have been a massive influence throughout my life. The Simpsons were my favourite thing growing up, and you can see the shape of Homer’s head in that character. I just kind of absorb things from everywhere. While I was traveling, I started to really develop the characters and then I came to Berlin and that’s when I was like, this is where I can take them. Over the years, I just played around with them and they took on their own personalities. There is the big fat businessman who keeps losing his head, there is the little sad guy, the introspective guy and then the crazy worm guy. They are all sort of similar, and I guess through a slow process I have imbued them with bits of my own personality.
Do they occupy their own universe or are they part of our world? The Simpsons live in Springfield, which is famously never revealed on a map, it is sort of a contained universe, but they are also part of the broader world through storylines and their pop culture status. I guess as soon as your characters are added to public space, they start to occupy our world as well, right?
I have given them this world they inhabit, which is kind of like Springfield, I guess. It’s called Crushington and it is this relatively colourless place. There’s a Crushington in New Zealand as well, which is funny. If you look at some of my line drawings, there’s this kind of desert-like landscape, these big open spaces influenced by New Zealand, where you’ve always got that big horizon line, whether it’s the sea or the mountains. There is also a little bit of Colin McCahon in there. I love Moebius’ style as well, the desert line he uses, I stole that bit. But I like how you were saying The Simpsons are part of our world, but they’re not, because I feel the same with my characters. For the most part they are two-dimensional beings in our world, and I really want to get into sculpture over the next couple of years and bring them into a more three-dimensional form. I want to play with that idea and bring them from their world into ours, because there is this second space they inhabit where they are more like what I know. I haven’t really shared it so much, but I’m going to have an exhibition about Crushington at some point soon…
Kaws has shown with his Companions that there is so much potential to explore those three-dimensional incarnations, different materials, various scales, and even playing with the perception of high and low…
That’s one of the things that always drew me to the street art and graffiti world, if you want to do it, you do it. You can take that style, or you can take from there, take from there, take from there, and that’s why I think it’s been such an interesting movement, you have all these people coming from different backgrounds and different influences coming together and making something completely different. It’s exciting…
The waves or oozing colours are another recurring element in your work. Do you want to dive into that imagery a little bit? Metaphorically, of course…
I really started with those in 2017. I did an exhibition called Bit Sick, playing around with the B and the S of my name, and it was about how crappy 2016 was, and how sick I was of everything. I’ve always been someone who just goes with the flow and the waves were an aesthetically pleasing sort of rolling vibe, but also fit with the theme, because in that exhibition I had things about being sick of art, sick of commercialism, sick of America. Of course, 2017 came through and really shat on 2016, and things haven’t really got any better since!
By 2020 you must be more than a bit sick…
Well, you know, it all flows and rolls downhill! The exhibition that I’m working on at the moment, which was going to be out already actually, was very timely as well, it was all about not seeing the bigger picture and being focused on these little pieces, as interesting and attention grabbing as they are. Again, it is making us all feel a bit sick and now quite literally making the world sick. It’s really just about being over things as well; the state of myself, of the world, just expressing my feelings at the time. But there’s not going to be any characters in the exhibition, it’s just going to be the waves. They have become really fun to paint with spray cans as well, the shapes, the really nice blends as well, giving it a sense of solidity, so that’s become more of a focus…
I’m thinking of the idea of a purge, or a cleansing, and once you take away that figure, the idea of size and scale changes. If the wave becomes the sole focus, it becomes something else, right? When you see it come out of a figure, you automatically scale it relative to that figure, when you just see that wave filling an entire frame, that can be either overwhelming or it could just be a close-up of a small trickle. There’s something about that idea of the bigger picture and smaller details, and that social element becomes strangely more pertinent when you take them away from the figure. So, tell me about your experience painting here in Christchurch earlier in the year?
I’d never painted in Christchurch before, but my parents live just outside of Cheviot [a small town north of Christchurch], so when I go back, I fly into Christchurch. I would just get to see little bits of it as we drove through, or if we visited somebody there. I remember going there when the city center was still completely locked down after the earthquakes, but this was the first time I got to spend a little bit of time in Christchurch for some years, and it was cool. I saw a lot of opportunity there, personally, as much as the earthquakes were terrible, I love seeing old destroyed buildings, maybe that’s why I’m in Berlin. It’s not something that you really get to see in New Zealand, so I really liked that. I liked the show of power, but then also how the city has risen up from the ashes of it as well. The city is really interesting at the moment.
I found it incredibly interesting that Christchurch became this microcosm of a big city; you had shiny new buildings, you had broken buildings standing there empty and covered in graffiti, becoming spaces for people to explore. Different people could do different things. If your mindset was to explore those broken spaces, you could do that, if your mindset was to sit in a bar and drink a cocktail, you could do that. There was this interesting juxtaposition of old and new and broken and shiny. One thing that does is reveal a lot of the power structures that go into making a city. Christchurch has become interesting in that regard, and graffiti and street art have a role here as both dissenting voices and part of the rebuild as well. It shows why these forms of art have become such a dominant visual voice the world over, because they can adapt to different environments. How did the mural in Christchurch come about?
In a very winding way. Knowing I was coming back to New Zealand mid-last year, I started reaching out to people in September or October, mostly through Instagram. I got bounced around. I got in touch with Preston [Hegel] down at The Exchange, he was doing some cool stuff and was like, oh maybe you could talk to this person… I got bounced around between a bunch of different people before I got put in touch with the guys from Riverside Market at the last minute. I just said I’m going to be coming down in like two days and they said: Sure, we’ve got a space, you can do what you want. It just fell perfectly into place. I was slightly freaking out that I wasn’t going to be able to get a space to paint, and coming from Berlin, I was just like, what is this?! Where are my walls?! In Berlin, if you want to paint, you just go and find a wall. I have a wall that I can just go and paint anytime I want just down the road. I wasn’t necessarily looking to leave a massive mural, I just wanted to find somewhere to paint, if it could stay that would be a bonus, if not then c’est la vie. It worked out great, those guys were really nice, they were just like: What do you need? Here’s money for the paint. They paid me for it as well, which is fantastic. It was this very last-minute design, because I was like, let’s see what the wall’s going to be like and go from there…
The wall is quite high and relatively narrow so that obviously played into the design and I guess allowed you to use those recurring motifs in what seems like a natural fit…
Well, I had ideas floating around in my head of what I wanted to paint. I’d actually thought of having it the opposite way around, with the character at the bottom and all this stuff coming up out of it. But there was this big generator at the bottom of the wall, so I just flipped it around. Most of the time I tend to let the wall tell me what the piece is going to be, so I guess that’s good practice for when it comes to spaces like this one.
There are little references to food in the tattoos on the character, but there was no input in terms of what you had to include, that was just something that you added in?
Yeah, the guys were just like, do what you want. Which was amazing, because when you’re being paid to do something, a lot of the time they are like, it needs to be like this and fit inside this box. But I was really given freedom with it and I guess maybe that was why I thought if they’re still letting me do this then I’m going to throw in these little references to the space. I always like to let the tattoos kind of tell a story. I love tattoos, and part of the reason people get tattoos is to express little things about themselves or their experiences. I quite like incorporating them into my art in the same way, so if there’s meaning to be read from what I’m doing, which generally I try not to do, then it can be read in the tattoos…
Any artist would love that freedom to create something that is your own, but how do you think your work communicates to the crowds that go past, is there an intentional aspect that they should read, or do you encourage them to come up with their own narrative?
Yeah, story and narrative are really interesting for me. I love cartoons, I love stories. Life is stories. But I don’t want to preach, I like the idea of leaving something really open. We are human beings, we make meaning out of everything that happens, whether that’s actually what it is or not. So, instead of trying to push people towards my view or what I want to say, I prefer to leave that open and more abstract, so that people have something to play with. I often talk about Stik, the London street artist, who got famous for doing stick figures, but because they are so basic you can project your friends or your relationships or anything onto them because it’s such an open canvas. These very hyper-realistic pieces are beautifully done and technically fantastic, but there’s a bit of a distance because it’s just a picture of somebody that you don’t know. So, I like a more open experience…
Did the freedom of the mural energize you to strike out and do anything else while you were here? Is there anything hidden around Christchurch that I might not have stumbled upon yet?
No, to be honest I was a little bit out of shape and the mural was exhausting. I think I did about 19 hours in two days, and on the first night I was just completely burnt out. I was thinking about going and painting on the cans while I was there, but I just burnt myself out, I just went to bed! But I would love to come back and do some pieces in other spots, when and if that ever becomes a possibility…
Are you a Kiwi living in Berlin or a Berliner from New Zealand?
Good question! I’ll always be a Kiwi, but Berlin’s definitely become home for me. I would like to be able to split my year between the two places, because my heart is somewhat split, half of its here, half of its there, particularly with my parents being there. I love New Zealand, it’s refreshing. New Zealand people are almost the opposite of Germans in a lot of ways, very easy going, very open and welcoming, whereas you know, Germans are a lot more strict. That’s harsh, its an over generalization, obviously! But yeah, I love coming back to New Zealand, and just talking to the bus driver. It warms the heart. Christchurch in particular is looking interesting because there’s so much space, so many opportunities there at the moment, which was really good to see.
A small part of the reason for being away for as long as I have was because we had the John Key government which was in no way supportive of arts and artists, and as far as I’m aware, it’s still not super easy to be an artist in New Zealand when it comes to support from the government and things like that, but maybe that will start to change…
With lockdown precautions in so many places, it’s clear that people have been relying on art; on music, on film, on a range of forms of art, to get through isolation. And yet at the same time, no one ever positions the arts as vital, they talk about tourism or other industries, which is infuriating because if anything this situation reinforces how important the arts are to humanity. But we seem to have to go through this every time something significant happens, it was the same after the earthquakes as well. There’s still a real need to acknowledge artists’ ability to make their living doing what they do because what artists do makes life better…
Yeah definitely. I wouldn’t want to claim that my art enriches people’s lives, maybe it does and that’s fantastic. I always tend to feel a little bit selfish about my art, it’s something that I need to do, it’s very much my own expression and when someone can connect with it, that’s fantastic. Knowing that people have bought my stuff and have it hanging on their walls is nice, but again, the money side of it is not why I make art. I’d like to be able to just make art and not have to worry about the commercial aspects of it, you know? Universal Basic Income baby! People always think we need to make money and that becomes a driver and that’s when art loses a little bit of itself. I need to eat, so I have to make art that’s going to sell, but it would be nice if we learn something from this whole thing about what’s important for people, for people’s health and mental health. I run a little gallery and art shop space here as well and it’s interesting and frustrating thinking about what sells and what doesn’t and what you need to do to make money from it. I always feel still slightly grimy making my art into easily package-able things, being channeled into commercialism. Down with capitalism!
Our tribute to Christchurch graffiti legend Jungle continues here in Tributes to a King – R.I.P Jungle (Part Two). In our discussion with Jungle’s friend and DTR crewmate Ikarus, we continue to dive into what made Jungle the figure he is in the local scene and what he would think of the many tributes that have been painted. We also hear more from those influenced by Jungle over many years…
I remember Jungle’s roll call in the alleyway space in Rise, you guys made it clear to people not to paint over that, which highlighted his importance to local graffiti history. I also remember the opening night of Spectrum in 2015, walking from the YMCA to the afterparty and Jungle standing next to Tilt and looking at the piece Tilt and Tober had painted on the old Police station, just buzzing on it, and there was a sense of respect on Tilt’s part for Jungle, like real respecting real. Having him be part of those things must have added an authenticity for you…
Ikarus: Yeah, one hundred per cent. He had an unbridled enthusiasm about shit. If he was enthusiastic about something, you would feel the love for it. He was never too cool for the room, never too aloof to just be like, that shit is amazing! When we started painting for Rise in the Canterbury Museum, that was one of the most fun days ever. The theme of that alleyway, in a nutshell, was a visual timeline of Christchurch graffiti, but instead of being linear, it went over itself like graffiti would. So, the first layers were pre-tagging stuff like band slogans, political sayings or toilet graffiti, and then after that was the era of tagging. Getting Jungle and Lurq and a couple of the other old school dudes to go nuts and tag up the museum was crazy. I never thought we’d be able to paint in the museum and if we did, it would have to be top-notch stuff. Wongi and I did end up doing a big production, but the fact that we had this whole concept and we got to involve a shitload of the Christchurch graffiti scene, from the active kids all the way back to the originators, was amazing. Having Jungle bust out the roll calls and do a bunch of tags and stuff was fucking cool, there’s dudes in that roll call who are in their forties now, some were gangster teenagers, some are gangster adults, and they were in the museum grinning and cracking up, saying ‘what the fuck are our names doing in this museum!’ Nobody saw any of this coming back when we all started out, so that was a fucking awesome day.
“I feel bad for visiting painters coming to Christchurch they will not experience the unofficial Jungle powhiri.” – Fiasko
“When you would talk to him, he had the coolest vibe. that natural way that made you feel good about yourself. He would shake your hand way too tight while he was doing it though.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns
“I remember a few years back now, Freak and Ikarus painted the open black book [wall] in the city and Jungle did a charo. He was walking around all the homies with his cell phone and was so buzzed out by the Sofles clip [Limitless]. He was the first person to ever tell me about Sofles…” – Omes
“He was just always happy for you, without a doubt, he was always stoked as shit for people, he loved to be there, and he expressed himself so freely and fluidly, no shame or anything, just whatever he had to say, he would say it, you know not in in any aggressive way, or negative way, he’d just say it…” – Freak
“He would always be stoked for you, or to see things, [he would be] mad enthusiastic and shit, [he] expressed himself heavily, from the hand crushing handshakes to the air crushing bearhugs…” – Freak
“The one thing I will remember him by was that infectious smile, he was always stoked to see a bro.” – Flex
“He used to tell me how much he loved my song ‘ChCh Chillin’ whenever I would bump into him. I can’t remember how I found out, Ikarus probably messaged me and told me that Jungle had got ‘ChCh Chillin’ tattooed on his arm, but I clearly remember the next time I saw him and he showed me, large as fuck on his arm! That shit blew my mind then, and still does now. It’s one of the fondest memories I have from rap music.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns
Last year Dcypher said that Jungle is a good example of someone embodying their graffiti. There was obviously the iconic Jungle character, but I think Dcypher’s sentiment was as much about his style as well. Do you think he grasped that concept of how graffiti isn’t just an identity, it’s also an embodiment of that identity…
Ikarus: Yeah, but I think without any self-awareness. The reason he embodies the spirit of graffiti is because it was all coming from a pure place, where you do graffiti for the love of graffiti. I’ve said so many times that vandalism and bombing is the realest form of graffiti because there’s no fucking positive, there’s no good side. The only thing you can hope to get out of it is the admiration and respect of a bunch of other dirtbags, and I say that with the utmost respect. I definitely think Jungle embodied that, but I don’t think he ever really picked it apart. Guys like us, we pick it apart, intellectualize it and look at the motives and the reasoning and what makes something iconic and successful. I’ve thought a lot about the idea of keeping things really simple, having things that are easily identifiable as your own, whether it’s your style, an iconic image or logo or symbol, but I don’t think that’s something he ever would have put a crazy amount of thought into. I think he was just like; ‘I love writing my name’.
He was always drawing his characters, from the time I met him to the day he passed. It was just a straight up need inside to draw and express those things. I’ve had to intellectualize and think about graffiti a lot, why I do it, my motives for it, the line between painting what I want to paint and doing what I want to do, and actually being an adult and turning it into a viable option for the future and something to make money from, which is a big conflict for me, because my original reasons and love for graffiti clash with that really hard. I think Jungle never really had to compromise that. With all the things we tried to get him involved in, he would be like: ‘Nah I don’t want to do it, it’s too stressful to try and keep up with you guys.’
So, I think all the things he ever did were purely for the love. He just did it because he wanted to, he wouldn’t paint for a bunch of time and then suddenly, he’s gone and painted a character in like a super visible spot in the city. It would just be random spurts where he’d go out and just paint a bunch of stuff and I don’t think it was to get fame like the graffiti junkies out bombing every night to be seen. I really feel like he just did this because he wanted to do it, not super concerned who sees it, who thinks it’s dope or who thinks this and that. He was a dude that was pretty comfortable in who he was, what he was about and the people that were around him and I don’t think a lot of that extra bullshit ever really became a factor for him.
“Everybody embodies their graffiti, it’s impossible not to, [but] it’s almost like all of his characters were him, but in his mind I don’t think [he thought] they were. I’m not 100% sure about that, but you could just tell it was a Jungle character because it looked like he was standing there looking at you, this mean mug, hard looking motherfucker, just everything that he did had this, yeah that’s fucking Jungle for sure [quality]…” – Dcypher
I guess that’s what made him such a revered figure in some ways, right? That compromise confronts so many people now, so those who avoid it, or stay true to the pure form of the culture, are respected…
Ikarus: He painted a bunch of canvases and found objects, a bunch of different stuff, but never tried to sell them. He was never involved in any of our exhibitions. We were like, you have dope shit, put it in the exhibition, make some money! I think that’s one of the reasons that he never had to compromise, because he never tried to monetize what he was doing, he just did it. If you said something was dope and you wanted to buy it, he would just give it to you because you fucking liked it. I don’t think it ever became about money for him.
He was a cool looking dude, and then you met him, and he was a fucking cool guy. I think a lot of people expected him not to be, but he’s like the nicest guy in our crew, the truest heart. But yeah, he was uncompromising. When you haven’t made those compromises, you don’t get jaded. That’s not to say he didn’t have a jaded edge or depressed side to his personality. A lot of the work that he did was quite emotionally expressive. I didn’t necessarily even think of it because that’s just sort of the attitude we had, but when I look back at some of it, it just looks more grave now. There was an era where we would just write ‘deadbeats’ and ‘dirtbags’ and ‘trash’ and all that sort of stuff. Now it seems like a really negative headspace, but it never seemed like that it in person, it was just because we were broke depressed kids with a self-deprecating sense of humor. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal, but now, I’m like, how much of that is a window into a mind state?
“I thought it was over for Jungle and his graffiti. Then around mid-2000, Ikarus and I took him out to bomb some trucks and this is when I think he painted his first filled graffiti. He started drawing and painting a lot. He had such a natural style. It was easy for him. The thing is, he was only ever putting in 25% effort.” – Fiasko
Did you ever talk to him about the post-quake scene in the city? What did he make of the younger generation and did he take interest in that?
Ikarus: Yeah of course man, of course. All of us are always interested, that’s the thing, there’s no disconnect from being involved in commercial work and doing big stuff for festivals and that sort of stuff. My heart at the end of the day is still firmly tied to the streets. There is a bunch of dudes I talk to now that are like I can’t wait to do this, and I’m just like enjoy the shit you do! That’s one of the reasons I think the younger generations identified with Jungle because he was a dude that was out there still doing tags in the street, still doing characters, not monetizing it. Once money gets involved people’s opinion of where and when or why or what motivates you to do graffiti changes. But he was always interested in the new dudes. We are always looking at the streets and when we catch up, he would be: ‘What about this kid?’ ‘Do we know this guy?’ ‘Who is this kid?’ ‘This kid’s up a crazy amount’… So yeah, he was always watching.
“Being a younger writer, I only became aware of who Jungle was and his influence as a teenager looking at photos and learning about our local history. But I remember his work, particularly his characters, catching my eye when I was a child. Seeing that stuff as a young person played a role in making me want to get involved with graffiti.” – PK (TBE)
“Jungle’s influence didn’t have a direct impact on me in the sense that I wasn’t around when he had the city crushed with tags. [Pre-quake] I think I can recall a few of those characters he painted standing out and a piece of his, I think on Bedford Street, although I had no clue who it was at the time, and at that age I never really paid much attention. I think [his] main impact has been indirect. He influenced people around him, who in turn influenced the people below them and so on, until it reached myself and the people I grew up with, a trickle-down effect, I guess. Of course, as I became more involved in graff, I became more aware of who he was and how much of a pivotal and influential person he was to the scene.” – Vesil (FOK, TBE)
Even if it wasn’t a mentor role in the more hands-on way you guys do with workshops or the Black Book Sessions, was he the sort of guy to have conversations with or give advice to younger writers? Or was he just interested in what was going on?
Ikarus: I can’t say how much he was talking to some of these new writers in the last few years, but it’s not like he was a stand-offish guy at all, if people approached him to talk to him, he would have talked to them. I’m a bit of an old man about things now because I’ve done so much mentoring stuff, I definitely talk to some of these young dudes and I’ll be like, this part may not be good for you, or if there’s disagreements between some of the young dudes I’ll try and work that shit out because I know we’re all just trying to do our thing at the end of the day. But I think with Jungle it was more lead by example. I think even if he wasn’t saying anything to you, he was the kind of guy you would watch. His magnetic personality drew people to him.
After Leon passed, I got a message from a dude who now is in his thirties. He shared a memory from back in the early 2000s, when he was a teenager, we’d all been at this wild party in the hood. This kid and his friend had to walk home. We asked them where they were going and they said back to Waltham. Jungle was like, you two can’t fucking wander through the hood, you’re going to get jacked before you even get down the road, you guys just have to come to our house. I think we were flatting together at the time and we made them stay with us so that they wouldn’t just wander out in the hood and get jacked. I don’t remember it, but when he told me about it, I was like, well that sounds like something Leon would do. So, little things like that, not even necessarily any big life changing moments where Jungle would have sat a dude down and said look this is where you’re headed, because I think he would have felt that was corny and it was out of his jurisdiction to sit down and tell someone how they should do things. But he was just a dude that led by example and that little act of kindness was a big deal to that guy as a kid, he said it was really cool that these two dudes looked out for a couple of little tagger kids.
“At the time, no we didn’t [think about influencing the next generations]. In hindsight… I’m quite surprised at how many different people were influenced by what we [had] done. [I]t’s awesome to see, especially with the progression of what [DTR] are doing. Legal pieces, [I] never thought that would happen…” – BlackE
“I didn’t really ask for advice in the traditional way, we would just be talking, conversating about things and I’d bring things up and he’d give me his perspective on it or what he thought about it, and I don’t know if he knew, but I’d just go off and do what he said or I’d take it on board and apply it in some way…” – Kurs/Horra
“He never treated me like he was above me or like it was some sort of a mentor thing. We were just mates, he liked me because at the time I was just the young gunner and [if] people fucked with me, I wouldn’t just cap them out, I’d fucking go knocking on their front doors, or would start burning their letter boxes, or tag on the front of their houses, you know, he loved that shit…” – Kurs/Horra
“I don’t know if he knew that he had influence on the people, the Jungle I knew he was just all about hanging out with the cuzzies, hanging out with the close ones, you know, the day ones. I’m not going to try and speak for him, but I just feel that he’d be like, meh, fuck, whatever you’re a bundy, what are you up to cuzzies? Because that’s the way he was, before he was a tagger, he was a Crip.” – Kurs/Horra
Nothing exemplifies Jungle’s influence on Christchurch graffiti culture more than the number of tributes painted on walls around the city, from small tags to pieces and productions. Were you surprised though at how widespread those tributes were?
Ikarus: No, not really. I think he would have been pretty blown away by it, especially the different level of tributes, not just murals, but with younger dudes, probably some who didn’t even know him, painting as well. I mean there’s probably a certain amount of it being a little trending episode in Christchurch graffiti, catching a bit of clout for doing some RIP Jungle tags, but the fact is so many people over all these generations had been influenced by him in such a number of different ways, whether it’s tagging, graffiti, characters or just his general personality…
“Leon would be both shocked and honoured with all the tributes. He always would say how proud [he was about how] graf has evolved… And he always showed gratitude for being a part of it.” – BlackE
“He’d be blown away… to just see that amount of love, because I don’t think the cuzzie felt loved outside of his tight ones. I get all emotional when I see it. [I]t’s like that fucking legendary shit, like that is what they did when Tupac or Biggie or Nipsey or some famous hip hop dude died, started doing murals of them, so he’d be rapt.” – Kurs/Horra
“I think all the tributes are awesome and even young guys from younger generations have painted pieces for him, and he totally deserves that respect from everyone in this game.” – Lurq
“He would be stoked for sure [about all the tributes], but he was so humble that I feel like he’d probably be like, nah, you don’t need to go to that trouble! I wasn’t at his funeral but that said a lot about the culture that he was in and the amount of people that had the utmost respect for the dude, and that respect goes way beyond just him as a person in a lot of ways, it’s kind of like he really has become this crazy legend now, people would tell stories about him…” – Dcypher
“All the smaller [memorials and tributes] are just as important too, it’s just that sign of respect for somebody who birthed a lot of people’s styles and his influence, it’s a fitting way to show appreciation. Even though he didn’t paint in those last years of his life, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t take away from [the] status he had…” – Yikes
Out of all those tributes, do you have a favorite?
Ikarus: Totally, one of my favorites was by our friend Kalis from DMN TNC crew in Auckland, he was in Chile at the time and he painted a beachside spot with a Jungle piece, so the far-reaching aspect of that is super dope. That one would blow Leon away, he would have been like, fuck yeah, this big dope big blue Jungle piece in the middle of Chile by the beach somewhere! I know when a few of his family saw that, they commented on how cool it was. Another friend of ours, Phome, an Aucklander who lives in New York, he just rocked a RIP Jungle tag on the street somewhere, he’s not involved in graffiti so much anymore, but he went out and did that. There were some of the freights and trains that Sewer painted, and some dope tributes including stylized versions of Jungle’s characters by Weks, there were crews around New Zealand, like Triple S crew all rocking a bunch of Jungle pieces and some hip-hop style characters representing Jungle, the TMD guys up in Auckland doing a tribute, those are some that stand out off the top of my head. There were a few internationally well-known dudes that did pieces as well and that was super dope. I was randomly watching a Sofles Instagram Live video, he was just rocking a bunch of different tags on Procreate or something, I didn’t know it was about to happen, but as I was watching, a RIP Jungle and a couple of Jungle tags came up, so that shit was super cool.
The biggest single tribute is the production that the DTR crew painted to mark the anniversary of Jungle’s passing. Obviously, you guys had painted numerous tribute pieces prior to that, but that one was massive…
Ikarus: It’s just something we wanted to do as a crew. It was along the same lines as all the stuff we had been doing for the year prior. The general thinking was that we’re here, we’re still thinking about you, we’re still keeping your legacy alive. But on a more meaningful level, the anniversary was coming up and I know that members of his family all appreciate it and appreciate having that place to go. They actually met up there on the morning of the anniversary, they took a photo of twenty-odd members of the family in front of it before they actually went out to the Marae. We started it a couple of weeks before the anniversary and I made sure we had it all done before the actual date. It was obviously such a big life event for a lot of us, we wanted to involve all four of the full main members of the DTR crew, painting in our various styles, writing Jungle’s name, or Autism, which is another one of his aliases, and obviously the character portrait by Wongi and the portrait of his dog by Dcypher. It was really just the same mentality of the smaller productions we had painted, but on a grander scale to mark the passing of that period of time in our life and again, just also for that aspect of having somewhere for the family realizing and seeing Leon’s impact.
“More than anything, it was really cool to do [the tribute wall] for his family in that [monumental] scale and to the extent that we went with it. I’m pretty sure he would have been pretty hyped on it, having his face up on a wall that’s pretty damn realistic. That’s not obviously the first one that we did, [we] did one as a crew behind Embassy as well, that was sort of the start of it, [but] we always wanted to do something way bigger, it was always the plan for around the anniversary of his passing, so to do it, to be able to get it done around that time was really good, it was fitting. It was a big project to do but it was cool. But most importantly it was for his family.” – Yikes
What would he have made of it?
Ikarus: He would have been super emotional about it. When we did the Hereford Street Colombo corner, Wongi painted a stylized portrait of Jungle, with the house he grew up in incorporated into it, and that was a super big deal to Leon, it definitely meant a lot to him, so all this shit would have blown him away, he would have been super amazed…
He is a central element of a real lineage. It isn’t copied online, his legacy gives the city a real history of this culture before it became what it is now, which obviously is amazing, but slowly there’s a distance between the roots and what’s happening as well. It doesn’t have to be reframed through some positive lens to be impactful, the reason people like Jungle are important is because they represent a different approach…
Ikarus: As much as we already know his impact, there are a bunch of people that don’t. The hardest part for a bunch of people to grasp is the idea that a teenage kid, thirty years ago, running around with his friends getting drunk, smoking weed, writing their names on the back of buses and spraying their names on a bunch of public surfaces, is directly and indirectly responsible for, at least in our little section of the world, a large amount of what happens in the city now. Christchurch has got a crazy amount of street art and murals now. Graffiti evolves anyway so I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been something, it probably would have existed anyway, but if you look at even the smaller towns around New Zealand as an example, some of them are years behind because they had to wait for the Internet to catch up, even Auckland and Wellington had a ten year head start on us, but that’s the coolest part of it all, basically, the murals, the memorials, the tagging, the vandalism, and the article itself, the discussions, people talking about it, it keeps the memory alive…
“It is what it is, there’s no shit being shined, he is what he is because he was who he was…” – Yikes
Based on everything that has happened, what would you say to Leon now?
Ikarus: I fucking told you! I told you fifteen years ago before most of this shit existed anyway! When it was still really graffiti, not necessarily with this big new age street art link and everything that has led to all of this, but even back then the influence that he had on straight up graffiti, and just straight up people, he wouldn’t acknowledge that at the time that I told him. People’s essence and spirit and energy is still with you in the universe, so, I would tell him: I fucking told you!
“If I was to ever to have a brother in my life, Leon Nga Miraka Hopa Te Karu is my brother. Love Jungle 4evaaa haaarrdd!” –BlackE
“Long Live Jungle” –Kurs
“R.I.P. King Jungle THC” – Lurq
“RIP Jungle, King of Kings”– Flex
“R.I.P. to a King.” – Omes
“I’m not really sure of the extent of his influence, I’m out of the loop, but he had a massive impact on me and my friends and he has left a massive void in people’s lives, I’d say.” – Fiasko
“Much respect due to the humble king with an unforgettable personality, a true pioneer of Christchurch urban culture.” –4Higher/Pest5
Thank you to all who contributed to this piece in tribute to Jungle.
Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:
“Leon Te Karu is a King. Leon = Lion = King of the Jungle. Te Karu = The Eye. I always liked his name.” – Fiasko
In March 2019, Leon Te Karu, known to many as Jungle, passed away. Almost immediately, the city’s walls were covered with tributes, from tags and rollers, to pieces and productions. For those outside the city’s graffiti culture, it was mysterious, but for those who knew, it was a reflection of the respect in which Jungle was held as a pioneer who defined the first waves of graffiti in Christchurch with his ubiquitous straight letter tags and iconic characters. Chances are if you lived in Christchurch in the nineties, you saw Jungle’s graffiti. Jungle was not of the new breed of legal graffiti and the street art amalgam, instead, he was a symbol of graffiti’s roots, a traditionalist without caring for labels. And yet, Jungle’s influence extends through generations of graffiti writers, including a strong legacy upon the likes of Ikarus, Freak, Dcypher and Yikes of the DTR crew (of which he was also a member), as well as countless other crews and individuals, many who themselves have proven prominent figures in graffiti culture, both here in Christchurch and further afield.
Telling Jungle’s story required input from those who knew him and those influenced by him. To mark the anniversary of his passing, we reached out Ikarus, another Christchurch graffiti legend, to put together something that explained and celebrated Jungle’s impact on Christchurch graffiti (and broader street) culture. What developed was an in-depth discussion with Ikarus, but also contributions from countless others, across generations, styles and backgrounds. In doing so, the breadth of Jungle’s influence was clear, people consistently echoing the qualities of a local graffiti legend. This story is at the heart of graffiti in Christchurch, what it was and what it has become, but also is about one man’s influence on an entire culture. RIP King Jungle.
March 6, 2020 marked the anniversary of Jungle’s passing. A year on, is it something you reflect on a lot?
Ikarus: It seems super-fast, for sure. It’s weird that it’s been a year already, it definitely doesn’t seem like it. I don’t know if I think about it every day, but it’s definitely something I think about a lot. A bunch of cool shit will happen and he’s one of the dudes you’d always want to tell because he was always super excited about any cool projects we got to do as a crew. Things like that will happen and I’ll be like, oh that’s right, I can’t tell him.
I’d never really lost anyone super close before, my grandparents died when I was young, so I never really knew them, both my parents are still alive, and I don’t like many people. Whereas Leon is one of the closest friends I’ve had in my whole life, so it’s been pretty weird. I never knew what death was like, but I guess the saying ‘life goes on’ is true because you definitely don’t think about it all day, every day, but then there’s just those points where you do think about it and it’s super strange.
“I love Jungle. Just writing this is making me cry… I lost my mentor.” – Kurs/Horra
“[His funeral] was a massive occasion… without a doubt he would have been humbled by it, proud of it.” – Freak (DTR)
“[H]is funeral was massive. He just touched a lot of people [as] a genuine person… he was always a real cool cat and the amount of people that turn[ed] up [showed] that he was a real person in all sorts of scenes, not just graffiti, but to a wide range of people.” – Yikes (DTR)
I ask that question because first and foremost, you lost a close friend, but as something of a graffiti historian, you are also in the position to understand the legacy and ongoing impact that Jungle had on graffiti and street culture in Christchurch. While the pain of losing a friend must be foremost, have you taken time to reflect on just how big an influence he was?
Ikarus: Yeah man, I always knew though. I told him what an important role he played early on, and he’d just brush it off and laugh, and be like: ‘Don’t be a dick!’ But the reality is that there was a butterfly effect from him being a young kid out there tagging, writing his name on stuff and having a good time with it, that led to so many other people doing it. When we start out as tagger kids, we don’t think it is going anywhere or will to lead to anything else, but the things he did inspired some of the first guys that started doing graffiti here in Christchurch, and on all levels not just tagging, but some of the earliest guys painting pieces, characters, throw-ups, tags, the whole spectrum of graffiti.
I’ve talked to Flex from UAC, who was an early pioneer along with Lurq (who was writing Lyric and LK at the time) and Pest5 (who was writing 4Higher), and he cites Jungle’s tags as one of the main reasons he started doing graffiti. He would see Jungle tags up everywhere and he thought that shit was dope. Those UAC guys back then, in the late nineties and early 2000s, they were out there doing all aspects of graffiti; tags, throw ups, pieces, characters, productions down the train lines at night. They give credit to Jungle as an early influence because he’s one of the first people that was really up in our city back when there was just tagging in the early nineties. Back then I was strictly into tagging and vandalism, anybody that did pieces was just wasting paint as far as I was concerned. They couldn’t tag for shit, so what’s the fucking point? But Flex is that first dude that had just fucking killer tags and he did all levels of graffiti, an all-out king to some extent. He was the first dude to make me think maybe the entire spectrum of graffiti wasn’t super corny, maybe there’s a way to do it and it could still be cool.
So, that small influence on me can be traced back to Jungle, which is evidence of his importance. From there, it’s just a butterfly effect: he affected those people, those people affected the next people, and so on. But, it’s not like he just did that and then was gone, he was always around, not super active, but always involved in the Christchurch graffiti scene. He was always painting something, still doing tags out in the streets and painting characters and stuff like that.
“It is easy to glorify and embellish the past, but Christchurch was very late to have a graffiti culture. While in most parts of the world and New Zealand it [emerged in the] early to mid-80’s, in Christchurch it was [the] mid to late 90’s. I know it’s a small history and a small culture, but it’s our history and our culture. There wasn’t a lot of outside influence until around 2000. One of the pioneers pre-2000 and a huge influence on me when I started was Jungle.” – Fiasko
“We weren’t better, we strived for everywhere.” – BlackE (THC)
“Even before I got into graffiti, I saw Jungle THC everywhere. It was impossible to not notice. As I got into looking at and doing graffiti, I realised the scope of how everywhere he was.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns (511)
“As far as I know or am concerned, Jungle was the first Christchurch tagger that was all city. Those gangsta straight style JUNGLE PARU tags are still imprinted on my brain to this day.” – Flex (UAC)
“[The first time I met Jungle] was at the house on Mackworth Street in Linwood where I lived with Flex, about 1998. Maybe Ikarus brought him over. What I do remember clearly is being very excited to meet him, as you do when meeting one of your heroes. He was humble to the point of not wanting to even acknowledge his achievements in the graffiti scene, saying that his work was nothing compared to ours, as we were doing full-blown wild styles with backgrounds and everything; but my lettering styles, tags especially, were pathetic compared with his.” – Pest5 (UAC, TMD, LORDS)
“The first tags I ever saw were DIRTY, PARU, THC, a block from my house, done in chrome with stock caps and it was super clean. I started noticing lots more tags around the city with THC and had heard that it was a crew called Too Hardcore. I think it was pretty much all Jungle, but he got up so much and with so many different names that it seemed like it must have been a bunch of people.” – Netts (511)
“We used to creep into abandoned buildings up town and I would kind of imitate his style mixed with what I was already doing.” – Kurs/Horra
“[He told me] how [in the early 2000s] he painted a clown on the old Dick Smith in the daytime with cats going past and didn’t give two fucks about who or what was in his way.” – Omes
“[Leon’s influence was] probably more personal over time, but to begin with it was artistic, for sure, because the dude was all city with tags before anyone even knew what was up with graffiti. You knew who he was just by that [presence]…” – Dcypher (DTR, CBS)
“Jungle was one of the first people that I noticed when I first got into graffiti. I would see his tags and his roll calls he would do of the infamous THC crew in all hoods. I can remember seeing his Sir Prise tags with a fucking dope letter S, it blew my toy brain apart back then.” – Lurq (UAC)
Did you ever have conversations about what graffiti meant to him? Was it something larger than writing his name on a wall to him, or was he more of a purist?
Ikarus: It definitely had that concept. I don’t think he ever personally felt like he was part of the greater movement of the art form in our city. I told him on numerous occasions that a bunch of this shit wouldn’t have happened without him because you’re the dude that inspired these guys to get into it and that inspired this dude to do it and that inspired these guys. You can see his influence in Dcypher’s early work, his characters especially. But when I said you influenced this person and without you they wouldn’t have done this, and then that wouldn’t have influenced me, and that wouldn’t have influenced Dcypher, and that wouldn’t have influenced Freak, he would say, ‘shut up man! That’s not a real thing!’ But it totally was a real thing. He didn’t understand or was too humble to admit that he had this influence on people.
He’s part of the DTR crew, he’s part of our crew forever, but there’s very few walls we managed to get him to come down and paint with us. We’d quite often try to get him to come down and be part of productions, to paint a character, or paint a piece, but he was always like, nah, like he was going to be out of his realm of talent, which is ridiculous because he had the super dope style. He didn’t paint as much as us, but if he did over the years, he would have been insanely good. But he always had that hood mentality of not being good enough, or ‘I’ll come if you’re going to do this, but if you’re doing a big production I don’t want to be involved’. So as much as I told him, I don’t think he ever really understood the level of his influence, but it can’t be denied that he was the first or one of the really early people just vandalizing the city, doing everything. In the early nineties there were Jungle BlackE and Jungle Paru tags up and down the South Island, and in Christchurch he was everywhere…
“Jungle & I too followed the way of the elder ones before us. Much credit goes to Leon because he was the artistic one. I tended to just pick the spots… We were wowed by a lot of the US hip hop/break/graf culture. And it made its way over here. Auckland [was] where a majority of it was then passed down [through] cousins, friends, and friends of friends.”- BlackE
“Putting it up was primary purpose. Putting it up beat style, always. [W]e had many styles that we threw up. Position was paramount over style.” – BlackE
“When I started, he was pretty much already retired as king of the city. He set the benchmark for us to follow. It wasn’t until later that I saw his outlines and characters, which are in a classic style very dear to my heart, as they capture a certain tough attitude that modern graffiti lacks.” – Pest5
“Me and Flex were, and still are, dedicated Junglists, meaning we love the music called ‘Jungle’, which is a reggae-influenced UK dance music from the 90’s. One of our first questions for Jungle was whether he had named himself after the music genre, but no, he said the inspiration came from the ‘concrete jungle’ that we live in. We tried to get him into the music, and though he could appreciate it, it was a bit too fast for his taste.” – Pest5
“I guess he has influenced people in that you get your tag up or your homies and crew, all-city, all hoods, and bombing is probably the most important thing in doing graffiti.” – Lurq
“We talked about watching freights at Kaikoura and how to make a tag aggressive, and the art of tagging. Being a tagger not a muralist was always a heavy topic he spoke of. I always remember he told me I was his favourite tagger.” – Morpork (FILTH, TBE)
Graffiti goes through eras and styles come to represent both time periods and places, do you think Jungle’s graffiti was representative of a ‘Christchurch style’?
Ikarus: I wouldn’t say early on that Jungle’s particular style of tagging was distinctive, but the thing about it was that it was everywhere. A lot of people couldn’t tag back then, straight letter tags were basically the height of tagging and he was super good at that. Jungle always had the most ill styles for tagging. When hand-styles became a thing, he was always super up on that sort of thing and doing calligraphic style tags. Coupled with the sheer amount he was up, that was why he was so influential.
“Everybody thinks of Black and Jungle, everybody seen Black and Jungle. And that was the essence. You don’t know the words. But you knew us.” – BlackE
“[W]e respected straight styles as the cleanest… Out of a crooked lifestyle, we always tried to be semi straightest.” – BlackE
“He basically got [Christchurch graffiti] started. He was the first writer to really take it all-city in Christchurch, with classic Auckland-style straight letter tags, done in cheap paint with an unforced, natural ability. So, he founded the Christchurch tradition of all-city street bombing with simple tags along bus routes. Many of us may try to emulate his hand styles but It’s hard to imitate perfection… but I still think you can see his influence in Christchurch tagging style to this day.” – Pest5
“I would definitely call him Christchurch’s first all-city king, before I even knew the dude there were just Jungle and Paru tags everywhere, East, West, North, South, everywhere, [in] the most random spots. Anywhere you went there were Jungle tags… That was amazing in itself, but then he had such an amazing style; his characters that he’d just spit out of nowhere, with low effort, just boom! He always downplayed himself, or maybe just didn’t see his full potential, [but] he totally could have been here smashing this shit out with us if that’s what he had wanted to do…” – Freak
“His tags were everywhere. They were simple, stylistic and tuff. From my view, he kind of stopped about 1998 or ‘99 and that was around the time I met him.” – Fiasko
“The meanest tags, the straight letters, gangster straight letters… All pre-graffiti paint, all hardware paint, when you used to hunt and steal caps…” – Freak
“When he started he was super good at tagging, but didn’t do a whole lot of fill in stuff, because it was just get fame quick, just get up.” – Dcypher
“I feel like there were two styles of tags back then, the wildstyle posca tags, and the black spray paint straights. He laid the blueprint for and was the king of the straights.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns
While he would never admit that influence, it’s been undeniable in the last year, with the number of tribute and memorial pieces around town. But his influence was beyond his graffiti style, right? I didn’t know him, but the few times I was around him, there was something about his presence, there was that laugh…
Ikarus: Yeah, for sure man, for sure. Like I said, it’s not like he had a huge involvement in graffiti for the last ten years, just occasionally painting a character on the street or doing tags and stuff. But he was the sort of dude that was always drawing, and just sitting around and drawing all the time is a big influence on people. But, like you say, his personality is one of a kind.
Everybody knows Jungle. The dude was a gangster for sure, he always represented his crew, the colors, which was what he grew up with, and he was still a part of that life and that circle, but even at his funeral when the boys were standing up and speaking about him, they said, Jungle’s not part of this gang because he’s a violent dude or out there hustling and grinding, he’s just the heart of our crew, he’s the most important part. He was just a super genuine, loyal dude, and if you’re one of his boys, he would do anything he could for you.
You would be hard pressed to talk to someone that didn’t like him. You could talk to a bunch of people who think I’m a dickhead, maybe not now, but if you talk to someone from back in the day, I was a dick a lot of the time. But you could go back thirty years and talk to people about Leon and I think everyone would be like that guy was fucking cool. People’s enduring memories of Leon are going to be that laugh, his charismatic personality, that he got along with a bunch of people. When I was young and we would beef with a bunch of different people, I remember thinking, nobody ever has a problem with Jungle, how do you do that? How do you know so many people and nobody has a problem with you? It was because he was just generally fucking cool to everybody, respectful, polite, just a good dude.
At first glance, Jungle could be a scary cat, he hung out with a bunch of scary looking dudes, but he was the heart of that shit, the good guy in the crew. He was famous before I knew him, his tags were all over the city, so he was already a legend in the streets when I first met him. He was tagging Jungle and THC, which was the crew. I was thirteen, so they were probably fifteen or sixteen, which seems like a big gap when you’re that young, and those dudes were like the boogeyman to our generation, because you knew shit could pop off with them. But then I met Jungle and he was just super cool. I think a lot of the tough dudes that I’m super good friends with now, that stems from me being super good friends with Jungle in the first place.
“It is hard to write anything about Leon, as he hated any sort of praise. He would sort of squint his eyes and get a big smile and tell you to fuck up. For the past 5-6 days I have been typing and deleting because I can constantly hear him saying “Fuck up egg”, after anything I write.” – Fiasko
“Meeting Jungle is where he had his biggest influence on me. He was such a humble guy. He was funny and he was accepting of most people. I remember how he just didn’t believe he was any good.” – Fiasko
“[That authenticity] got him the status of being an OG in the graffiti scene, everyone respected the dude and looked up to him. [E]veryone just thought he was the coolest motherfucker in town, so he kind of like just got mad respect from everyone and everyone wanted a little bit of him to rub off on them as far as graffiti goes…” – Dcypher
“Everything about him influenced me. I would ask for advice on all things hip hop. He lived my raps too, he was my biggest support and fan.” – Kurs/Horra
“With Jungle, it wasn’t just about tagging, he was the connect for all things hip hop for me. He was listening to Kendrick Lamar when Kendrick Lamar was still a teenager and he put me onto the Black Hippies, and then 5-6 years later, Kendrick Lamar’s blowing up… everyone he sort of pushed in my direction became real big at some point.” – Kurs/Horra
“… [A] few of us were hanging out at the old hack circle in Cashel Mall, high as can be, and these two cops walk past, one a blonde female. We’re are all paranoid and silent, then Jungle just blurts out, “Faaah, you’re pretty for a cop!” She just smiles, says thanks, and kept walking on by!” – Pest5
“He was super good at skateboarding too. Skateboarding is a big part of my life and he got real good, real quick and could skate spots that were fucking super crazy, spots that no one else could skate, and so he kind of crossed over into skateboard culture, which was part of the graffiti culture…” – Dcypher
“He didn’t have that ego that somebody as prominent as he was can sometimes have… You can’t help but be influenced by somebody that’s up [everywhere], but then you met him, and he was like this hilarious person, just a genuinely dope dude. A lot of respect.” – Yikes
“Leon was a really humble guy and always asked or was interested in what you’ve been up to when you bumped into him. I’m not sure if he actually realised that he was a fucking legend in the Christchurch graffiti scene.” – Lurq
“… [T]he first time Askew came to Christchurch, I felt obliged to introduce him to the legendary Jungle, but was a bit unsure how it would go as the man was often wary of strangers, and was in one of his feisty moods. After giving him a hearty handshake, he said thoughtfully, “Askew… you’re the man. But fuck you. But you’re the man… but fuck you!” High praise indeed! – Pest5
“He just loved all my weird shit. He was all about the weird side that I approach graffiti from, he gave me props for that. I’m ten years younger than these dudes, I was watching most of their early careers when I wasn’t even touching paints, so to have someone of that standing give you props, it’s cool man, its humbling.” – Yikes
For the month of January Fiksate became a second home for itinerant artists Robert Seikon and Anastasia Papaleonida, the gallery’s first international residents. While Seikon is Polish, the couple are based in Greece, Papaleonida’s home country. That international flavor is further enhanced by their travels, with their arrival in Aotearoa following a stay in the Philippines and an exhibition in Taiwan. During their residency, I was able to spend time with the endearing duo. It was fascinating watching the two, who have been working together for almost twelve months, operate in the studio, each maintaining their distinct stylistic identity, while investigating the potential of collaboration. The artists alternate between a hyper-focus on their individual contributions and conferences around subtle details of composition and colour. But it is not just the studio where their collaborations flourish, with their work appearing on walls in numerous locations, including a number of works produced during their stay in Christchurch. While Seikon’s background in graffiti provides a lineage for this public practice, Papaleonida is relatively new to this approach, coming from a design foundation, bringing a unique consideration to their creative process. Their pairing has resulted in visually stunning works, where sharp, angular aspects contrast with organic elements, creating optical effects that invite the viewer to immerse themselves in the image, only to discover small, unsettling details that disrupt expectation, rewarding inspection. We caught up with Robert and Anastasia as their exhibition Long Trip of the Kokos drew near, taking in the sights and delights of Lyttelton, sitting down for a discussion about their experiences in Christchurch and New Zealand, their collaborative partnership and the differences working indoors and outside…
Welcome to Aotearoa! How long have you been in the country now?
RS: We have been here for one month already. It’s very nice.
What are your perceptions of New Zealand so far?
AP: Everything is very organized and super clean! You are in the middle of nowhere and there’s a bathroom with a paper, it’s like, what the fuck?! And in general, the people are super nice.
RS: It’s not only the toilets that are clean! The grass is cut everywhere, fresh walls are repainted, everything is clean. You get the feeling you are at the end of the world, that you are very far away. But everyone is super friendly, you feel comfortable as soon as you get out of the airport.
As artists, do the distinct atmospheres of different cities and countries start to influence your work?
RS: It makes a difference for sure. Here for example, during our trip from the North Island to the South Island, the landscape was changing almost every hour. The landscapes in New Zealand combine parts of European landscapes all together, which is very interesting for us. All the colors and shapes we have seen during this trip have made a big impact on us.
Both of you work in abstraction. What specific influences have fed into the recurring motifs in your work? Have they come from real world references?
AP: For me, it’s about landscapes, plants, organic things…
RS: For me it is both the natural landscape and the urban environment. But in this case, for this exhibition, I think mostly the landscape, because we have worked with the memories that we have collected over the last few weeks of being in New Zealand. Sometimes I like to be inspired by the city, but here it hasn’t been the case. If we work with a wall in the city, the surrounding area is going to inspire the wall, but for this exhibition the influence is mostly the natural landscape.
There is an interesting interplay between your individual approaches; Anastasia, your more organic forms that seem to reference the cellular and biological, while Robert, your lines and geometric forms seem more hard-edged. While those aspects are quite distinct, the colors seem much more of a collaborative component…
RS: We enjoy talking about color.
AP: Yes, on this trip we have worked a lot more with color. In the past we didn’t have the opportunity to do that much, we were working a lot with black and white.
RS: In general, we like to use black and white.
AP: But, after this trip, travelling in the Philippines and here, the colors we have seen have been amazing and we have started to mix more colours. With all the work we have prepared for this exhibition, we have mixed I don’t know how many colors…
RS: We haven’t used straight black like we have before. Everything is mixed with something…
AP: The vision that we have for the exhibition is to create an atmosphere that is unique, which comes through not using straight black like we have in the past.
This body of work has been created as part of your residency at Fiksate. You have noted the influence of your travels, but did you already have an idea of the work you were going to make when you arrived in Christchurch, or has the experience of the residency, the place and people, inspired the works as well?
AP: It has been interesting to work with other people around. For me, often when I’m working on something new, it takes time before I realize that something is happening for a particular reason. I can’t always see it at the time, but when I look back I can see that it came from somewhere…
I’ve noticed that your shared work station is very organized, from paint cups numbered in a spectrum of tints, to the way tools are laid out, is that something that has developed as part of your working relationship, or was it always evident individually?
RS: I think that is something we’ve both had from the past. Me, I always like to be precise and clean. We don’t even talk about it. We’ve got the same thinking in common…
Is that sense of order intrinsically necessary to make the work look the way it does, or is it just a comforting aspect? I’m sure you are both very particular about the clean lines, the perfect dots, the sharp shapes and the smooth gradients, so that organisation must be important in achieving those effects, right? In the studio you can control those elements a little bit more, but do you have the same level of preparedness and organization when you’re painting outdoors?
RS: Oh yes, I like to prepare my bag the day before, so I am ready to have breakfast and go. Then, the morning before painting, I check everything is in my bag; the roller, the sketchbook…
AP: You need this, you need this… Outdoors, it’s like a small studio because you are spending hours in that place and you need your stuff in specific places, so it is free for the wall and for your movements…
There is a physicality to the way each of you work, a physical activity that goes into creating the details, from precise movements to more sweeping gestures. I’ve noticed that when you are working in the studio, while there are times when you’re both working on the same piece, often one of you is active and the other is either observing or off to the side, is that simply to give each other the physical space for these movements?
AP: To be honest I haven’t thought about that before, but maybe, now that you’re saying it, it does work like that, because when someone wants to do something more precise, you need to give him the space to do it…
RS: It’s a good observation. When we work, for example when Anastasia is working and I’ve got a small break, I’m also thinking about the things that I will do next, I’m waiting for Anastasia to move so I can get another answer, you know? It’s like, this little bit here is developing, so what is going to happen next?
AP: It’s not like we are doing sketches and they are the final product. When we create something, we will always add something new, because that touch goes like that, or this line goes like this, and we look at the balance and realize that maybe something new needs to be done. I think this is very interesting because we don’t really know what the final image will be.
RS: We don’t really know what will happen.
AP: And you build that slowly with small moves, it becomes a surprise…
Anastasia, it feels like your dots would have a more spontaneous nature, while Robert, your diagonal lines would be more carefully planned and constructed. But, is that actually the case, or are you both more balanced in your approach?
RS: The biggest similarity we have is that when we are working, we are super focused. You go inside an element and nothing can disturb you. Both of us are very focused on the process of our work. I don’t know, even if the lines or the dots are repeated forms, they can be created from elements all around us, even though they are clean, they can be natural as well.
Your studio output will become the exhibition, Long Trip of the Kokos, but you will also paint several outdoor commissions as well, each in very different settings. Is it important to get out of the studio?
RS: We like to change the environment around us. After spending weeks preparing the exhibition, we have had enough of the studio. We couldn’t start next week again in the studio. I like to have a change when I’m painting, it’s refreshing.
AP: What we will do on these walls will be a continuation of the inspiration that we have drawn from already. Although, with the Cosmic wall [a commission at the warehouse of iconic funk store Cosmic], we will work with a lot of colours, which is something we haven’t done much together. That will be very interesting for us…
Do you ever reflect on being in the position where you can travel to places and leave something of a legacy through painting public works? Do they create a connection to place that average tourists don’t necessarily get?
AP: To be honest, I’m not thinking about that so much, that I will leave this wall as a legacy. It’s more about the process, the time that I’m spending doing it, the time that I’m painting, the people that are around, the interactions with people, the small talk, a question or a smile…
RS: And the moment you finish the artwork, that’s it. You are doing it until that final moment. I’m always crazy happy when I’m painting, when I’m doing something, then the moment I’m satisfied it’s finished, it is for other people from that point. I have made my thing, this is it. I’m very happy if someone gets positive vibes or can see something interesting, but I don’t need feedback. It’s all about the process, like Anastasia said, the process is going to stay in our memories.
The studio environment is secure, but also isolating, it is different from a public presence where those small conversations can more easily take place…
AP: It is very nice to have a connection with people, but also the work carries on, it is seen by people that you don’t meet, even if they don’t say anything, or they say or think something bad…
RS: But here we have been very surprised about how people have reacted to our art. We were traveling here without any expectations, we said: ‘let’s go to New Zealand and see what happens…’ But both of us are very surprised by how people have reacted…
In all of your travel, are there moments of engaging with people while working on a painting or mural that stand out?
RS: I mean, it doesn’t need to be anything special, it can just be small things, you know, you wake up and you see people and they’re happy in the morning…
AP: In Estonia, there was this old lady, every day she was coming and checking, without any expression. I mean every day, seven days we were there, and every day she checked with no expression. Then when we were finished, she finally said: ‘Yes, it’s nice.’
I wanted to ask about the title of the show Long Trip of the Kokos, what does it refer to?
RS: The story behind the title, comes from when we were in the Philippines. We saw a lot of kokos [coconuts] and they were traveling, somehow, they would go to the water, they were moved by the ocean, they would jump to the other islands. We thought maybe we are a little bit like these kokos, travelling and stopping here to make this small mark. This exhibition is the mark of these small travelers coming here to grow a little bit.
This is an audience that you haven’t really had much experience with, but based on what you’ve experienced so far at Fiksate, and the people who have come through, have you been able to get a gauge of what you might expect?
AP: You know, we don’t really know what is going to happen…
RS: We are not expecting anything, but we don’t really make work in that way.
AP: All the thinking was to make these works because of the inspiration this experience has given us. It isn’t about what we will sell, it’s more about what we would love to present.
RS: We like working in this very expressive way. We have thoughts. We start to talk about it. We have a conversation, and then we say: ‘OK, let’s do it, why not? Let’s see what will happen…’ We didn’t expect anything, but we have already very positive feedback.
AP: Yes, although I am still not sure about how the audience will respond to our point of view on abstract.
Right, abstraction has become more and more prevalent within both urban contemporary and mural practice, but New Zealand can lag behind in some trends. Fiksate recently staged their Urban Abstract show and that was perhaps quite new for a lot of the audience, who might have been more accustomed to letter forms, figurative stencils and illustrations, and representational murals…
AP: I was thinking about that, because in most of the cities we have visited, the murals are pretty figurative, abstraction doesn’t seem to be as popular.
RS: But the abstract things here are on a good level. Sculptures or installations, they seem to be in good taste, which we were happy to see.
Robert, you have investigated translating your work into sculptural forms, right?
RS: Yes but not a crazy big amount, I am just beginning to touch on this direction. I started some years ago. It is not super easy to do, but I want to keep going because it gives me different positive vibes…
It seems like more and more artists are translating their work in different ways, into objects, installations, using light, projections, etc. It seems that more doors are open for artists from the urban realm, due to the popularity and visibility of muralism. Anastasia, how do you think your work would translate into a three-dimensional, or kinetic form?
AP: I have worked with smaller forms of sculpture, but I am probably more interested in installations. I have a lot of ideas, and I’m going to keep going with other projects.
How do you operate in terms of having your own distinct paths as artists while still collaborating? Are you constantly working on your own things and then coming together for certain projects, or has it become more and more about the collaboration?
RS: We like to work in both ways, it depends of the project. Especially for this exhibition, it’s all about collaborative work. It’s nice for us to have the chance to involve our personal distinct paths and create something together.
AP: This is an interesting way to work because we have the opportunity for a dialogue.
It has only been just under a year that you’ve been working together…
AP: Almost a year.
That’s a relatively short time, so there is obviously a lot more to explore within your creative partnership. But long-term working partnerships can sometimes see the distinctions between each artist deteriorate, and a unified aesthetic develop, is that something you are consciously trying to avoid, or do you see it happening?
RS: That is a very open question, because already this year, new things have developed that can support our personal projects and we obviously have days when we want to create something by ourselves. The process is going here and the process is going there and we can mix those possibilities together. It’s super open for us.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year? When do you leave New Zealand?
RS: We leave on the 10th of February. We will go back home to Greece, and then we have something in Germany and a project in France, another project in Slovakia and that’s it for the moment. Maybe a small holiday after that…
It seems like travel is just an engrained part of the urban art movement…
RS: It’s not for everybody though. I’ve got artist friends who do not travel at all, they stay in the studio and that’s it.
AP: And for some artists it is not that important, I mean they feel better in their studio. It depends on the artist.
RS: For me, travel is the research about new places. From when I started painting, my city started to be like, OK, I’ve seen all the streets, all the nice places, I’ve painted here, I’ve painted there, but I need to search for more possibilities. I need to see different things that could inspire me, collect new knowledge and have that energy, this is important in my creative process.
How do you make your work resonate with different places? With abstraction, you aren’t using explicit cultural references, which can be a minefield anyway. Is your visual language such a personal reflection that it doesn’t necessarily need to display that connection to place in any overt way?
RS: I started to realize this a short time ago to be honest, I was traveling for many years and just reached a point where I’ve got things that I start to talk about and understand more. Now, I keep collecting those ideas as I travel, and they come out in my work.
AP: I think it’s important to observe what’s going on in any country because I don’t want to offend anyone. For example, in the Philippines, black is very bad. It’s the color of death. The associations of black mean you don’t use it. We tried to find it in the paint stores, but you couldn’t. When we went there, we didn’t realize how important it was to not use black, but we adapted over the month we were there and we started to realize more things that were important for people there, especially since we were painting a lot on small houses in the middle of the forest.
The chance to do research isn’t as easy for some artists, who might not have the luxury of a site visit or to acclimatize, especially if you are moving from job to job and have to hit the ground running in any new place you find yourself…
RS: The perfect situation is where you come to the place and you’ve got some time to prepare, not just going to a place with the sketch, painting it and leaving…
AP: Although it might not be possible, because if you do a big mural, you often need to give something to the people to see…
RS: Yes, but for us, we like to say, this is the sketch but by the end it is going to be a bit different…
Do you want to say thank you to anyone from your time in New Zealand?
AP & RS: Thank you to Fiksate Gallery for the trust and to all crazy positive people that we met during our stay in New Zealand…
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…
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…
To emerge from your cocoon, wings spread out! (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)
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!