Tributes to a King – R.I.P Jungle (Part Two)

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…

In case you haven’t, please read Part One here…

____________________________________________

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…

Jungle's THC roll call in the Rise exhibition alleyway space curated by Wongi and Ikarus in 2013. (Photo provided by Dcypher)
Jungle’s THC roll call in the Rise exhibition alleyway space curated by Wongi and Ikarus in 2013. (Photo provided by Dcypher)

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 

The 'Black Book' production co-ordinated by Ikarus and Freak for Rise in 2013. Located on the corner of Colombo and Hereford Streets, the wall featured the work of a number of artists, including Jungle's character and piece at the bottom centre.
The ‘Black Book’ production co-ordinated by Ikarus and Freak for Rise in 2013. Located on the corner of Colombo and Hereford Streets, the wall featured the work of a number of artists, including Jungle’s character and piece at the bottom centre.

____________________________________________

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.

A 'Jungle Juice' character by Jungle from the mid-2000s. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
A ‘Jungle Juice’ character by Jungle from the mid-2000s. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

____________________________________________

“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

A Jungle character homage, painted on the giant cans on Lichfield Street, 2019.
A Jungle character homage, painted on the giant cans on Lichfield Street, 2019.

____________________________________________

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?

A Jungle tribute by Ikarus, Southshore, Christchurch, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A Jungle tribute by Ikarus, Southshore, Christchurch, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

____________________________________________

“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.

Sewer's Otautahi piece paid tribute to the city, those lost in the March 2019 Terror Attacks and Jungle.
Sewer’s Otautahi piece paid tribute to the city, those lost in the March 2019 Terror Attacks and Jungle.

____________________________________________

“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)

A 2019 tribute to Jungle by Vesil in the popular Hereford Street space.
A 2019 tribute to Jungle by Vesil in the popular Hereford Street space.

____________________________________________

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.

A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2019.
A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2019.

____________________________________________

“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

A TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

____________________________________________

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…

A tag paying tribute to Jungle in Christchurch, 2019.
A tag paying tribute to Jungle in Christchurch, 2019.
RIP Jungle graffiti, central Christchurch, 2019.
RIP Jungle graffiti, central Christchurch, 2019.

____________________________________________

“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

A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2020
A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2020

____________________________________________

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.

Kalis tribute to Jungle, Chile, 2019.
Kalis tribute to Jungle, Chile, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Phomes tribute to Jungle in New York, 2019. Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Phomes tribute to Jungle in New York, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Solfes pays tribute to Jungle on an Instagram Live video, 2019. Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Solfes pays tribute to Jungle on an Instagram Live video, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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.

The massive DTR JUngle tribute, featuring pieces Jungle and Autism pieces, a portrait of Jungle by Wongi and Jungles dog by Dcypher, 2020.
The massive DTR JUngle tribute, featuring Jungle and Autism pieces, a portrait of Jungle by Wongi and Jungles dog by Dcypher, 2020. (Photo supplied by Wongi Wilson)

____________________________________________

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

Ikarus and Yikes, Jungle NHC tribute, Christchurch, 2019. Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Ikarus and Yikes, Jungle NHC tribute, Christchurch, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

____________________________________________

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…

A second incarnation of Ikarus and Freaks Black Book wall, featuring a huge Jungle portrait, c.2016
A second incarnation of Ikarus and Freaks Black Book wall, featuring a huge Jungle portrait, c.2015

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…

Junglism piece by Ikarus and a portrait of Jungle by Freak, Christchurch, 2020.
Junglism piece by Ikarus and a portrait of Jungle by Freak, Christchurch, 2020.

____________________________________________

“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!

A Jungle tribute sticker on Sumner Road, 2020.
A Jungle tribute sticker on Sumner Road, 2020.

____________________________________________

“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:

Tributes to a King – R.I.P Jungle (Part One)

“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.

The DTR crew tributes to Jungle on Colombo Street in Sydenham, 2019.
The DTR crew tributes to Jungle on Colombo Street in Sydenham, 2019.

____________________________________________

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.

A Jungle character by Ikarus on a utility box just outside central Christchurch, 2019.
A Jungle character by Ikarus on a utility box just outside central Christchurch, 2019.

____________________________________________

“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.

A Jungle character from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
A Jungle character from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

____________________________________________

“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)

A tribute to Jungle by Berst, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A tribute to Jungle by Berst, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

 _______________________________________________________

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…

Dcypher's tribute to Jungle in Los Angeles, 2019. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
Dcypher’s tribute to Jungle in Los Angeles, 2019. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

____________________________________________

“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)

A Juse 1 character as part of the TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A Juse 1 character as part of the TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

____________________________________________

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.

A Jungle character and tag from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
A Jungle character and tag from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

____________________________________________

“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

Jungle tribute in New Brighton, 2019
Jungle tribute in New Brighton, 2019

____________________________________________

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.

A Jungle tribute in Sydenham by Ikarus and Freak, 2019. (Photo credit M Peate-Garrett)
A Jungle tribute in Sydenham by Ikarus and Freak, 2019. (Photo credit M Peate-Garrett)

____________________________________________

“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

Askew's tribute to Jungle, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Askew’s tribute to Jungle, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

____________________________________________

Read Part Two of Tributes to a King here

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

Long Trip of the Kokos – Robert Seikon and Anastasia Papaleonida

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.

AP: Amazing.

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.

One of the stunning landscapes that inspired the artists on the New Zealand trip…

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.

The wall painting inside Fiksate, part of the Long Trip of the Kokos exhibition, 2020.

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…

Papaleonida at work on one of the pieces from Long Trip of the Kokos.

 

Seikon working on one of the works for Long Trip of the Kokos.

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…

The finished Cosmic mural, February 2020.

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.

One of the works from long Trip of the Kokos, 2020.

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.

Seikon and Papaleonida at work on the Cosmic mural, February 2020. (Photo credit: Jenna Ingram)

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.

A collaboration between Seikon and Papaleonida on the Berlin Wall remnant in Christchurch, February 2020.

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.

One of the murals painted during Seikon and Papaleonidas stay in the Philippines, 2019.
Another Philippines production, 2019.

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…

Follow Seikon and Papaleonida online…

@seikon87

@anastasia_papaleonida

Long Trip of the Kokos runs until February 29th, 2020 at Fiksate Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street, Christchurch.

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

Hello 413 Local Gallery!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep!

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

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

 

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

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

Exactly! (Laughs)

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

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

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

Yeah!

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

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

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

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

Have you had any previews of work yet?

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

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

Two weeks, I think…

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

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

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

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

Follow Daken on Instagram and Facebook

Follow 413 Local Gallery on Instagram and Facebook

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

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

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

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

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

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

They mirror the physicality?

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

There’s a freedom in letting go?

Yeah absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forever, yeah…

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

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

Is music always playing when you work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are not challenged…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s very primitive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

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

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

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

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

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

Oh definitely…

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

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

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

That freedom is important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you train in set design at all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely.

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

It can be a little bit homogenised sometimes.

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

It’s kind of more painterly…

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

What is the inspiration for that?

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Part Two…

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

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

Juse1 – Elemental Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has all these off-shoot variations…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guys who disappeared and then popped back up…

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

That’s crazy! (Laughs)

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

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

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

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

Yeah, it does…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom freehand tatau by Juse1
Custom freehand tatau by Juse1

It also has a different scale, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The loud one! (Laughs)

The DJ was the quiet studious middle child…

The watcher, the observer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make sure to follow Juse1 on Instagram and Facebook …

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

Jacob Root – Distranged at the XCHC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What mural works have you completed recently?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was cool!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are they stencilled or freehand?

They are stencilled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let everybody know the details of Distranged

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

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

Follow Jacob on social media:

Instagram: @distrangeddesign

Facebook: @Distrangeddesign

 

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

Caelan Walsh – Stepping Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, born and raised.

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

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

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

It’s almost nostalgic for you… (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The penny doesn’t necessarily drop quickly, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

Joel Hart – Dopamine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever considered photographing subjects yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see a larger tapestry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has always been there?

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

How did the show at Fiksate come about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blurring that distinction between gallery and urban spaces?

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

The idea of urban excavation…

Using what is there and building on that…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s addictive bro!

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

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

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

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

I did that as well!

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

To finish, what can people expect from Dopamine?

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

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

Follow Joel Hart on Facebook and Instagram

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene: