Juse1 – Elemental Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has all these off-shoot variations…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guys who disappeared and then popped back up…

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

That’s crazy! (Laughs)

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

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

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

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

Yeah, it does…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom freehand tatau by Juse1
Custom freehand tatau by Juse1

It also has a different scale, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The loud one! (Laughs)

The DJ was the quiet studious middle child…

The watcher, the observer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make sure to follow Juse1 on Instagram and Facebook …

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Jacob Root – Distranged at the XCHC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What mural works have you completed recently?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was cool!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are they stencilled or freehand?

They are stencilled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let everybody know the details of Distranged

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

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

Follow Jacob on social media:

Instagram: @distrangeddesign

Facebook: @Distrangeddesign

 

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Caelan Walsh – Stepping Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, born and raised.

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

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

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

It’s almost nostalgic for you… (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The penny doesn’t necessarily drop quickly, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joel Hart – Dopamine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever considered photographing subjects yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see a larger tapestry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has always been there?

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

How did the show at Fiksate come about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blurring that distinction between gallery and urban spaces?

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

The idea of urban excavation…

Using what is there and building on that…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s addictive bro!

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

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

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

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

I did that as well!

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

To finish, what can people expect from Dopamine?

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

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

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Jonny Waters – Dizney Dreamz

 

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

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

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

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

Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here in Christchurch you were studying visual arts?

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

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

Changed the way I thought, or fostered it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah everything at the start was character-based.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s such a melting pot…

But those rebellious roots need to be acknowledged…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As forms of expression…

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no mechanical quality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any shout outs?

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

 

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

Follow Jonny on social media:

Instagram: @jonathanwatersart

Web: www.jonathanwaters.me

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Berst: The Faith of Graffiti (Part Two)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

Are you talking about stylistic lineage?

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

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

A five-year cycle?

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

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

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

Like the German influence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

In terms of appropriation?

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

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

Yeah? (Laughs)

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

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

A perception from the community?

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

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

The Broken Windows theory…

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

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

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

No, of course not, of course not…

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

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

It loses something…

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

But teaching the motivation is a different thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That must be a hectic schedule!

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

Yeah, ideas push evolution and development…

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

Berst, Christchurch, 2018
Berst, Christchurch, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cultural capital…

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

Berst, Tauranga, 2017
Berst, Tauranga, 2017

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

That’s what I’m talking about…

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

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

There’s got to be that distinction…

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

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

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

Cheers man…

 

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

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Berst – The Faith of Graffiti (Part One)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

Exactly, they were learning in different ways…

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

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

Totally, a huge impact.

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

Yeah, I’ve seen videos…

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2017

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

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

Spreading the gospel!

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

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

Definitely, it’s a resource.

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

That question!

You know, it is such an outdated question…

Such a binary option…

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

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

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

Signature-based graffiti…

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

Over fifty years…

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

And has had that longevity?

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

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

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

What is that essence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

 

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

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

 

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It’s Pronounced ‘Zeen’ – Christchurch Zinefest 2018 (Part Two)

Jumping straight back into the conversation with Christchurch Zinefest’s Alice Bush and Jane Maloney, we discuss digital and physical production methods, the presence of dissenting opinions and ideas in independent publishing, zine vending machines and the challenges of displaying the Zine Library…

We have touched on the fact that in the digital age we have this other channel to disseminate ideas, is there some convergence, between analogue methods of physically sending items, and the benefits of digital transmission? I mean you could create PDF versions that you could then transmute that people could produce and disseminate, are those tactics popular or acceptable?

Alice Bush: It’s different, like there are digital zines that people create, but I’ve always found it different, because a zine is an object, like that’s what makes it a zine, and in terms of putting PDFs up on the internet, it’s a bit different, but there’s always that thing where if you are wanting to spread your zine around the world then put it up on Instagram and people can find it…

Jane Maloney: Yeah, like a buy online option.

AB: There’s a bit of a community in Instagram and different sites where people will follow different zine makers and buy the zines, it’s like this little sub-community.

JM: Yeah, I’ve definitely bought people’s zines from following them on Instagram. Of all the social media platforms, Instagram is the one that people are attracted to for these object-based things because it’s visual-based. Of course, it’s still a business that is still trying to advertise to you and trying to control what you see.

The Longest, Wobbliest, Silliest Guitar, by Ashley Ronning, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)
The Longest, Wobbliest, Silliest Guitar, by Ashley Ronning, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)

In their most pure form zines can combat that, so there’s almost an antipathy or weariness to that, using a platform that can act against the benefits of producing a zine as well…

JM: Yeah, it’s just a case of using it to your advantage without exploiting your work or any one else, or anyone else’s work… (laughs)

AB: I guess that’s part of the reason why zines haven’t disappeared as well, because those companies all own those sites, you can’t really be free, or use your free speech…

JM: Zines are like the ultimate form of uncensored media, maybe one of the only ones….

Recently there has been an example of a sort of Alt-Right street artist, making these interventions that are pro-Trump, which is kind of unexpected, but really it just shows the open potential of such tactics. Do you see that spectrum in terms of zine making as well?

JM: Alt-Right zines? I mean, I don’t specifically know of any off-hand because I don’t particularly choose to find them, but of course there are going to be various voices making zines. I watched a Vice documentary about a white supremacist group and that’s how they share information within their community, by making zines, or more like fliers, but that’s still a form of a zine, but, you know, that’s underground publishing, because how else would they spread their information?

Just the existence of that spectrum, that diversity, importantly creates a dynamic to respond to, everything is not contained in its own neatly defined bubble…

JM: Yeah, I mean it’s like everyone, you just hope that there is a greater number of zines produced for the good, wholesome reasons…

Well, they don’t have to be wholesome right? (laughs)

JM: No, but not dabbling in racism and homophobia, and all those things. You can’t stop anyone making a zine, just like you can’t stop anyone believing in something you don’t necessarily agree with. Heaps of people make educational zines, around like transphobia and why it is bad, homophobia and why it’s bad, and they are important because a lot of people just don’t know, when you have a privileged background in terms of education, you don’t realise how little some people know about things, they only know what they knew growing up. So, creating the counter to that in a zine is a good way to create a discussion.

Prick, by Caitlin Shearer, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)
Prick, by Caitlin Shearer, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)

It comes back to dissemination and how the information gets out, which brings us back to Zinefest and what the goals are for the event. Obviously, it allows zine makers to come together, but it also allows people to find other channels of information and objects of interest, so what events are going on for Zinefest 2018 to engage that wider audience?

AB: We’ve got a few workshops, which is something that we are trying to do a lot more, to reach people…

JM: We have to start from somewhere and making workshops are more accessible and suitable for the resources we have, obviously we would love to have more writing workshops and content-based stuff in the future.

AB: But at the moment we mostly have visual artists who are great, and the workshops we are having this year are coming from that. We’ve got a printmaking workshop, a collage workshop and Jane’s Riso(graph) workshop. In the past we have done poetry workshops and different things like that, but you know, it’s important to get people in and making, and I think when people think of visual objects, especially when you have something like ‘magazine’ attached to it, people think they can’t do it because that’s not something that people usually do just by themselves, usually. It’s seen as inaccessible. But I feel like it’s just getting people in and getting them to make something, so they realise it’s an object and they can actually do it.

That there are fewer rules than one might expect, there’s no word count…

AB: There’s no word count, there’s no number of pages you have to have…

JM: There can be literally one bit of paper folded up and that can be a zine.

With regards to public engagement, and this often comes up when I’m talking about urban art, how you talk about the important transgressive element of rebellious practices? We’ve talked about how zines don’t have the need to break laws to exist, but there is still an important acknowledgment of their subversive potential, so is that something you build in to the workshops, or is that a little bit difficult when you are working with institutions like the Christchurch Art Gallery?

AB: It’s hard to tell people what to make things about, and I feel like if someone’s going to make something that does talk about serious issues, about activism, that kind of thing, they will do it, because if they are thinking about it already, they will do it. It is hard to get people to realise that’s what this vehicle could be though…

JM: I do get trapped, especially with my printing method and it being purely aesthetic, people just working with collage images or just figuring out the printing method, so we try to make it more about zines and about the content in a way that these are just ways you can produce it.

So, how do you inform people about actually getting their work out, how they make a zine the social object? How do you encourage them in that respect?

JM: We made a zine about zines, which includes that sort of information that we can give away now which is really good…

AB: I feel like people see Zinefest and go this is something that I can do, like we have open stand holder applications every year, we try to keep it free. We put it on our Facebook page and make sure it’s accessible and out there to as many people as we possibly can. It’s advertising that these workshops can be a first step to being introduced to the zine world, the zine community and people already making zines in Christchurch.

JM: They might have a burning opinion on something and by going to the Zinefest market they will see that people are making things about their opinions or about personal standpoints on different issues, and then they realise that it is ok. I feel like sharing your own opinion is really frowned upon a lot of the time, which is stupid…

Um... what's a zine?, produced by MK Press for the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library's exhibition at CoCA's Lux Espresso gallery, 3rd August - 16th September 2018
Um… what’s a zine?, produced by MK Press for the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library’s exhibition at CoCA’s Lux Espresso gallery, 3rd August – 16th September 2018

Well, in this digital era, people are so opinionated and empowered by the anonymous platform and will shoot down dissenting voices so quickly. But you can still believe in something and not have that aggressive, opinionated approach…

JM: Yeah, the internet warrior thing has changed the whole idea of free speech and discussion, but I think people who make zines are legitimately interested in what they are making them about, you can’t just feign interest…

The other great thing with a zine is that you can make your argument, you can present your opinion and idea, but it isn’t in a way that says: ‘Hey, your comment sucks!’ It is encapsulated in its own form, rather than in response…

JM: It’s not just a snap decision or opinion.

AB: It’s to do with the care you actually put into the object. It takes time to make it, so you want your thoughts to be succinct and you want what you are writing down to be…

JM: Well-informed.

AB: Yeah, well-informed, because of the care that’s put into the object.

JM: It’s not bang, bang, bang on the keyboard and you are done.

This is a typical interview question, but outside of your own work, which local zines are notable or interesting?

JM: I think it is always worth trying to find ones that University groups still make, like the FemSoc zine, because that’s always been part of the culture of the University and it should continue to be part of that culture. University is changing so much, it costs so much more to go to University now, and it’s not as academic anymore. Engineering and stuff, they were trades and Science was from a research point of view. With all these changes, it is important to support these groups that make these things that engage in independent critical discourses.

AB: In a broader New Zealand sense, Bryce Galloway produces the longest running zine in New Zealand, called Incredibly Hot Sex with Hideous People.

JM: It’s a personal zine, it’s specifically about his life, or just small parts of it.

AB: And it’s a great introduction to zine culture in New Zealand, because it’s been running for so long and you can literally find it anywhere, it’s in a lot of places…

JM: He’s really nailed down his distribution channels.

AB: And then there’s a zine maker who travels around and makes zines out of old book covers and stuff and it is sort of a more poetry and literature-based zine. There’s lots of different things happening.

JM: We also run the Christchurch Zine Library, and that is a good resource if people want to see more zines.

How is the Zine Library built as a collection? Is it trying to document the history of the culture?

JM: At the moment, it’s just from personal collections of both Alice and I, so they do cover quite different areas. There are also ones that have been sent to us. I’m part of different publishing and printing groups on Facebook and online, so I get sent quite a few things that people have just made themselves. Those ones are generally aesthetically focussed, because they might be exploring a printing option or production method. But yeah, we’ve got quite a range.

Will it be part of the Christchurch Library when it re-opens?

AB: No. The thing about the Christchurch Library is they have their own collection, that, I think, they are going to put on show when the library re-opens, although I’m not totally sure about that yet, so whenever someone says they are a librarian I ask: ‘Are you going to put the zine library in?’

JM: we talked to someone at the Word Festival, it was obviously an idea to join it all together, but I don’t know…

So, how do you display the library currently?

JM: So, it was recently at CoCA, in the Lux Espresso gallery space, which was really just to get it out to a wider audience. There was no specific reason to choose CoCA or anything, it was just an opportunity. We would probably prefer it to be further away from institutions.

AB: Because as soon as you get it into an institution, they try and say: ‘no you can’t put this in or that in…’

JM: We’ve never really thought about a permanent public display, it’s more something we bring out for events or when we are invited to places. It would be nice to have it publicly accessible, but we haven’t really thought about the work that goes in to that yet.

AB: It is hard to find space.

JM: And supervision, because while you want people picking them up and reading them, we don’t want them to literally be picked up and walked off!

The Zine Library at CoCA’s Lux Espresso gallery, August 2018 (Photo credit: Bayley Corfield)

It would be cool to have a zine version of a book fridge, not so much for the Library, but for people to drop off and take away zines, a sort of distribution fridge!

JM: It would be great to have something, there is a zine vending machine in Auckland…

AB: Yeah, that’s so cool, it’s in the Auckland Library, I think.

JM: It’s not run by the Library, it got funding. But as long as your zine fits under a certain size, you can send multiples to put in, although because of the funding, the organiser is working just with local Auckland artists and zine makers.

AB: There is one in Toronto, which has been running for a few years, they are just so cool!

JM: It would be cool to have something like that connected with the Zine Library, where people can just take copies. We made the zine about zines so that people could just take that.

AB: It would be nice if the Zine Library was more accessible for people to come and take things…

JM: …and drop things off as well.

AB: Zinefest only happens once a year and that’s the main event for zines in Christchurch, so it would be nice to have something ongoing.

JM: Zines being a relatively organic object, the Zine Library doesn’t have to be super structured, and if things go missing out of the Zine Library, it’s not the end of the world. I document them all, I take photos of everything we end up with. In CoCA, people were taking in and clipping their own ones into the display, and that’s cool too…

That is awesome, that must be a desirable outcome, right?

JM: Yeah, it’s for other people, it’s not for us.

AB: I just don’t want the whole thing to disappear!

JM: We don’t want people to raid it! Because that’s how things collapse obviously. More stuff going on throughout the year, on top of Zinefest, would be cool, because the thing about Christchurch is that events and organised things don’t seem to last.

AB: People forget about stuff very easily.

JM: People just assume everything is temporary, everyone assumes something new is temporary because of a placement issue or something like that, so everything takes a while to solidify.

It takes a real commitment to keep doing it. So, I think I asked this question at the start of this conversation and we went off on another direction (laughs), but what specific events are taking place in Zinefest 2018?

JM: We have a few workshops in the build up to the market, I ran a zine making workshop with risograph printing at the Christchurch Art Gallery…

AB: We also had a workshop at The Corner Store, where people could make little woodblock plates to use for a zine cover or in a zine. And then on the 25th of September, we have a cut paper workshop with Sarah Lund, in the Pūmanawa space at the Arts Centre, which is also where the Zinefest Market is happening on the 30th of September, which is like the final hurrah of the fest.

JM: We are going to have the Zine Library on display at Fiksate Gallery, at 165 Gloucester Street, from the 19th until the 29th of September. The best place to go for finding out when things are happening is on Facebook, that’s the only constant social media we use, which is @zinefestchristchurch. You can also find information on the Zine Library on Facebook, which is @chchzinelibrary.

The Zine Library on display at Fiksate Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street
The Zine Library on display at Fiksate Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street

Follow Zinefest and the Christchurch/Ōtautahi Zine Library on Facebook to keep up with their activities, visit the Library at Fiksate Gallery (165 Gloucester Street) and get along to the Zinefest Market on the 30th September at the Pūmanawa Room in the Arts Centre, 10am – 4pm.

Feature Image credit: Bayley Corfield

Zine Library graphic credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press

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

It’s Pronounced ‘Zeen’ – Christchurch Zinefest 2018 (Part One)

I have always thought of zines in relation to urban art – subversive, rebellious intrusions into publishing, sent out into the world to disrupt more commercial networks of production. Yet, of course, there is so much more to zine culture. When I think back, I didn’t consider the potential in the homemade comics I drew as a  child, possibly because I was mimicking the comics I couldn’t afford to buy. But the reality is that zines, much like my bootleg comics, are the realisation of the power in independent action, a signifier of the way we can create alternatives to the dominant cultures and productions and in small ways re-shape our world. With the 2018 incarnation of Christchurch Zinefest being staged over September, it provided an opportune moment to talk about zines and independent publishing with people who know a lot more than me: Zinefest organisers Alice Bush and Jane Maloney. Both Alice and Jane are zine makers, as well as champions of the forms and culture, understanding both the practicalities of producing as well as the significance of the objects conceptually. We sat down at the newly relocated Fiksate Gallery on Gloucester Street to talk about Christchurch Zinefest, the Christchurch/Ōtautahi Zine Library, the history of zines, the tactics of getting zines out in the world, and the impact of the digital age on zine making…

Fill me in a little bit about the history of Zinefest. Alice, have you been involved with Zinefest since its inception?

Alice Bush: No, I picked it up in 2015, I think. But Jane did it with me the first year… No, it was 2016 the first year that I did it, but I’d been going two years before that. I think it’s been running since like 2011…

Jane Maloney: I think it’s been running since my last year at University, so it would’ve been around 2011 or 2012.

Which seems really recent…

JM: Yeah, it is.

Being that zine culture, I assume, goes right back into any form of independent publishing. Was punk an important starting point for zines as we know them today?

AB: No, before that. Science fiction was sort of the first iteration of like fanzine culture, in the early 1930s. But even before that you see people printing independently published literature and that sort of thing, you know it can go right back to the start of printing. The first ‘zines’ were printed in the 1950s, or 1940s, when science fiction started to take off. It was mostly male-dominated as well, which is very interesting with where it has gone later on, with the Riot grrrl movement and stuff, and women reclaiming that sort of thing. But yeah, zines have been around a long time…

When did the specific term develop? Etymologically it’s a shortened version of ‘magazine’, right?

JM: I think it was when magazines were more popular, and the publishing of magazines was more mainstream, so the word kind of developed from that obviously. I feel like that was more when it was a punk kind of culture, because it was such a direct and important way to differentiate between mainstream publishing and underground publishing…

AB: Actually, I’d say no. I think it was zines, like fanzines, science fiction fanzines. At first, they weren’t calling them that. I did like a big research project on the history of zines and got really into what happened around that time, and I think it was like the early fifties that they started using the term…

Chloro Forms, by Elliot Ferguson, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)
Chloro Forms, by Elliot Ferguson, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)

But fanzine was developed from magazine to signify an independent approach?

JM: Yeah, I guess so. It’s still like more of a subculture obviously. It always was a subculture, but it was smaller, because it was just fanzines, that’s what zines were…

AB: But I mean, so were punk zines. They were just fanzines. But zines have just been a thing people pick up and use, that different subcultures pick up and use when they can.

JM: It’s a vehicle.

A tactic for disseminating ideas…

AB: Yeah.

As you say, any subculture can utilise it as a tactic, so the beauty is how the independence and flexibility can be adopted to any cause or idea…

JM: Yeah.

What was the stimulus for the Christchurch Zinefest? Christchurch has these interesting bubbling underground histories, like the music cultures that were influenced by the US Military presence with Operation Deep Freeze, that meant types of music were arriving here before places like Auckland. Is there a similar story around the emergence of zines in Christchurch?

JM: Yeah, music has been really important in the development of Christchurch’s cultural identity, and obviously zines are a big part of music as well…

So, has that lineage been explored? Did it take a while for zines to really emerge from those cultures locally?

JM: Well, the University (of Canterbury) was obviously important, because student-published political activist zines were coming out of there, I mean that’s a thing for universities everywhere I suppose. Canterbury University is such an important part of Christchurch, well it was, especially when it was in town. I’m not sure it is now (laughs).

AB: At UC, especially in the Fine Arts departments, they have always had a very strong connection with music, there are old event and gig posters in the archives that date way back that have been produced by Fine Arts…

JM: Christchurch has always had that alternative presence, alternate music, even alternate fashion has been a big thing. Christchurch is always seen as having a bigger distinction between this alternative universe of everything against this very white, British, super conservative city…

Banana Soy Milkshake, by Inky Palms, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)
Banana Soy Milkshake, by Inky Palms, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)

That polarity, that distinction, is because of the strength of that conservative reputation, right? It has provided something to react to, but it has also provided a cover which means a lot of that subversive presence is under the surface, it’s strong, but it isn’t as visible. So, what was the driving factor in Zinefest getting underway by the time we reach 2011?

AB: I feel like you can’t ignore the fact that around 2011, the earthquakes are happening, it’s an obvious thing and maybe that was a part of it, I don’t know. I feel like zines have started to skyrocket in popularity because of the internet and because of digital media, like self-publishing itself has started to grow as a thing…

Fandom is a really big thing now as well, like it’s long been a thing, but it’s really grown as an industry or culture, a subcultural thing. You see Fests and Cons (Conventions) going on everywhere, do you think that explosion has contributed to a growth in zine culture post-Millennium?

AB: It’s interesting with fandom, because I feel like in the seventies and eighties, there was Star Wars, Star Trek, stuff like that, and zines were being made around those things, and that’s the kind of fandom that still exists today, and I feel like when the nineties and the early 2000s came around, there weren’t as many fanzines being produced because of the internet. The only reason that a subculture was using zines was to communicate with each other and inform people and they didn’t need it anymore. But recently I’ve been seeing more and more zines that are ‘art’ zines, fan-works and stuff like that, and that’s really interesting, it’s something I wouldn’t think would come off the internet, I wouldn’t have thought that they would need to do that again but it has happened and its quite interesting…

JM: Zinefests had started in other cities around New Zealand well before the Christchurch one…

AB: I think Wellington’s is the oldest. It’s been around a long time.

JM: Like 2008 maybe?

Even when you are talking about 2008, it still seems quite youthful, because we’re talking about something with roots in the 1930s and something that would need support networks due to its independence. Is it more a reflection of the idea that fests have been a more recent phenomenon?

JM: I think that, it’s not just for zine makers, because if you do make zines religiously and you are trading them with people, you find those connections anyway, through the internet or whatever channels you are going through, or you’ve already got them, you don’t need a fest for a zine maker, it’s for the popularity and public interest in them, what they are and what they are about. That might have come through the popular culture getting hold of zines, like Kanye West is making zines about his work now…

AB: They’re not really zines though!

JM: No, but it is now associated with people like that, so people are like: ‘what is this?’ It might just be fleeting, but more people are interested…

AB: Zinefests weren’t a very big thing before the 2010s, and I feel like there has been a shift towards them, whereas there was previously more of a focus on distribution centres, or ‘distros’, and mailing lists where you just sign up for a zine and you receive it, and I think that shift is to do with an alternate people coming in, there’s a lot more artists, there’s a lot more like writers who do one-offs rather than a whole series…

JM: The people collecting zines were usually zine makers as well, now people with no previous interest, they might come to a fest and have a look around and be like, ‘oh, ok this is what it is’, and then leave, or they might find like an artist-made zine and be like this is really nice, pretty looking thing and get into it, which is great…

AB: We talked before about zines being a vehicle, and there’s been a shift in the 2010s where instead of it being a vehicle for something, the zine itself is a thing, it’s the thing you are wanting to collect…

JM: Zines are not necessarily as content driven anymore.

AB: Yeah, it’s come out of the subcultures and become a thing of its own.

Which is interesting because the two of you have slightly different approaches to zines, right?  Jane, would it be fair to say that your interest is more focussed on the design and object-making process?

JM: Yeah, that’s definitely how I came about, because I’ve always been interested in publishing from being a graphic designer and being into print or working predominantly in print, so it’s like an aesthetic thing. I can make something and distribute it myself, or help other people do that. I enjoy helping people make them and distribute them as well. But I’ve never had a specific social or cultural focus. Maybe because when I got into fanzines and stuff like that, getting information, I was really into live journal, I was a big internet user for that, I’d never even thought of zines. I was always super into The X-Files, and there were online platforms and things and I didn’t know there were fanzines necessarily. I mean I’ve always had a background in art, but I never thought about making them, so from a publishing point of view, and being interested in that, that’s where I came into it and that’s where I really hope that I can help people just figure out how to do it. I don’t necessarily think anytime soon I’ll start making my own about any specific topic other than about zine making, zine publishing and zine printing…

So, you are interested in a self-referential content?

JM: That’s it, at the moment, yeah.

The Journal of Uncle Harold (Literally) - Volume 1, by Uncle Harold, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)
The Journal of Uncle Harold (Literally) – Volume 1, by Uncle Harold, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)

Alice, would you say that your interests are slightly different, or do they echo that?

AB: Yeah, I’d say it’s slightly different. I mean I still went through the art school system, and did graphic design, but I do have more of a focus on getting ideas out there and using it as a vehicle for something, I think. I make feminist zines, and I make some fanzines. But I also feel like I do have an interest in some of what Jane was saying, I am interested in publishing and I am interested in graphic design…

JM: That also comes from our background, from where we studied…

AB: Yeah, we studied at the same place, at UC, but I also have a big interest in actually getting my ideas out and creating something that’s going to inform people…

So, in terms of the approach to content, as an idea as well as a form, do you have any influences that have sort of conflated the two? I mean, design is all about how to present information in a visual form, but were you influenced by an ideology and an aesthetic approach separately, or are they inherently intertwined?

AB: You mean like zine influences?

More than just zines, because I guess when you are dealing with specific content, you must be taking from wider sources, necessarily…

AB: I get a lot of influence from the internet, because there is so much to access, but speaking of zine influences, Riot grrrl is a big thing, I think every feminist zine made anytime after the 1990s was influenced by Riot grrrl, so that’s a big one. It’s quite interesting because before I started making zines, I didn’t really have knowledge of anything else that was really going on. I mean, there was stuff to read, at University there was FemSoc (Feminist Society), they put out a zine and have done so for however many years they’ve existed, so that was interesting to read and gave me ideas. It’s sort of something that happens with people making these things, it’s not necessarily coming from anywhere, it’s just that you want to make a thing…

JM: It’s quite introspective.

Is there a visual lineage in zines that people perhaps feel obligated to maintain, a certain edginess or rough quality, or is that changing?

JM: An aesthetic? People still do make really ‘rough and ready’ zines, like they’ve just written it down and photocopied it. If you are truly just content driven and you are specifically talking about an idea or an issue or something personal to you, then nothing’s unacceptable. But because zines are getting more popular and more designers are making them, and designers can’t do something without making it look good (laughs), there is a real aesthetic change apparent in zine making…

AB: There are still purists out there, there are people who think that there is one way to make zines and that’s the punk rock, Sharpie and typewriter approach…

JM: Cut and paste…

AB: Which is one way to make a zine.

JM: And that’s an aesthetic, you know, that’s something people strive to make their zines look like now, as well as actually being a form of zine making itself.

AB: Definitely.

JM: But there are also people who only want to make zines if they look a certain way, or you know, because artists make a lot of zines now as well, their zines are going look a lot like their practice. So, you can get those purists, who make their zines free, and they are distributed widely, and mass produced, but then there will be artist-made zines that are runs of five and handmade and might cost you $50 or $100 or whatever, which is obviously quite a new thing, but it’s still fine.

AB: It’s like a divide between two different ways of thinking, I guess, there is that newer artist-made approach, and it’s great because it’s a way of artists getting their work out there and being able to sell work…

JM: Totally, and communicating ideas that they might not have been able to with their existing practice…

AB: But there’s still the shitty stuff as well!

And you mean that in the best possible way! That also raises the idea of dissemination, you know from the idea of trading or selling, but there must also be tactical approaches to disseminating works though more subversive means. I’m thinking obviously about the tactics of urban art here and its ability to disrupt the flow of official communication. Is there a danger sometimes with zine making, particularly if you are expressing ideas that might be contra to mainstream thinking, that it can become too internalised in terms of circulation? What tactics do people employ to get zines where they might not normally be found?

JM: Across the road when I was driving here actually, there was this anti animal cruelty organisation in Victoria Square, and they make zines and put them in supermarkets around the meat section, and leave them in cafés that don’t have any vegan food or still promote animal products, so from an activist point of view of course, they are going to leave them in places that they are unwanted, and that’s a huge part of it, because when it comes to an activism, you can’t just operate in your own circle, like they already know what you are talking about…

AB: It’s the same with FemSoc, they leave their zines in the Undercroft (a communal student space) and all over the place, and that’s one of the reasons they produce the zine, because it’s going to be landing in someone’s lap that might not necessarily be exposed to those ideas.

Which is the benefit of the independent publishing, right? You are getting an idea out that you don’t necessarily have other avenues to get a fair chance of expressing…

JM: Yeah, exactly.

That element has always been attractive to me in zine culture, because it relates to that idea of an uninvited presence.

JM: Unlike graffiti and stuff, it’s not illegal or vandalism, so the only danger is that someone is going to throw it out, that someone is going to find a whole pile of them and chuck them in the bin.

Even then, someone can come along and see them in the bin and take them from there, so the life cycle lasts as long as the physical object exists and can have multiple transactions of circulation.

JM: Yeah, there’s literally no losing I guess, unless you are putting so much money into it for some reason that you need to sell them. But when it comes to activism or any political reason why you might be making zines, it is, I feel, the best underground way to express ideas, because you can’t get prosecuted for defacing something. It’s like people deface political billboards around town and stuff like that, I’m all for that, but you know, it’s more risky…

Zines are another option to disrupt those discourses. They can be more in depth in many ways too, right? Sometimes a message can get lost in a discussion about legality or vandalism, or the idea might not be as in-depth because it has to be a more singular statement, but with a zine you get to present a manifesto, and often across multiple editions, so content can evolve over time…

JM: You get to tell people why you are doing this, which is good, I mean no one has to say why they are doing anything, but it is good to have a format that allows you to…

Flesh World, by Dirk Peterson, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)
Flesh World, by Dirk Peterson, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)

What about the local interaction between makers and the various publics, we touched on trading in a global sense, so how does zine distribution work in a place like Christchurch, which is relatively small? Do a lot of the zines produced here end up outside of Christchurch, or do a lot stay in the city?

AB: A lot stay in the city.

JM: Yeah, I think that’s the same everywhere though.

AB: With distribution studios, there aren’t as many around as there used to be, but there are still ones in Melbourne, New York and London, like the big cities all have them, and they all accept zines if you send them to them. It’s the amount of effort the zine makers want to put in. A lot of zine makers travel for fests, mostly around New Zealand, but I’ve heard of people going over to Melbourne for the big one they have there…

JM: Yeah, Melbourne’s a really accessible fest for New Zealand zine makers.

AB: It’s a big fest, it’s probably the biggest one in Oceania.

JM: It’s massive and obviously it’s reasonably close, I mean it costs almost the same for me to fly to Auckland than to Melbourne. It’s huge and they are trying to make it a two-day event now as well. The non-profit organisation that runs it, Sticky Institute, are a distribution centre and they have been running for a long time…

AB: If you send Sticky your zine, I think they accept ten at a time and they will just put them on their shelves…

But, again to draw parallels with urban art, often the more urgent expression needs to be local, right?

AB: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely.

JM: I think as the content is something you have personally thought about, it’s generally quite local. I’m not as passionate about politics in another country as I would be here, because I live here, and it affects me, it’s just natural.

Check out Part Two here…

Feature Image Credit: Bayley Corfield

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Chimp – Organic Matters

When I heard about the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct mural being painted by Wellington artist Chimp earlier this year, I must admit I had to dive into social media to find out more about the artist. When I explored Instagram, the deft skill evident in his aerosol depictions of faces and native birds, infused with energetic insertions of graffiti and other eclectic forms, was immediately endearing and made me wonder why I hadn’t been familiar with his work. A few days later I made my way down to the large stretch of wall on Lichfield Street to watch Chimp in action. I stayed back and intently watched him paint. I was taken by the impressive technical prowess, the way it seemed he was sketching on the wall, layering back and forth to create tonal qualities that would be neglected by a viewer only witnessing the finished project. After seeing his friendly interactions with passers-by, even though I was wary of interrupting his progress, I went over and introduced myself and we started chatting. Chimp was friendly, down-to-earth and welcoming, even with a massive task in front of him and a deadline fast approaching. We tentatively made plans to try and catch up before he returned home and to record an interview. Unfortunately, due to the need to put in long hours on the wall and conflicting schedules, we missed our chance. Instead, we reconvened online and over a flurry of e-mails we chatted about the Justice Precinct mural, the differences between Wellington and Christchurch, and Chimp’s varied career so far. As a result, this interview is months in the making, but still worth the wait, providing insight into an unexpected contributor to Christchurch’s urban art, someone who it will be worth knowing about as his profile continues to grow on a national scale…

How does an artist from Wellington find himself painting a huge wall at Christchurch’s new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct? How did the commission come about?

I was originally quite surprised to hear from them when the email came through from the Justice Department. I thought I may have been in trouble or something before I read it! They had seen my work on social media platforms and liked it. It was quite flattering to hear from them and I really appreciated the opportunity.

I imagine most people would be a little wary of an unexpected email from the Department of Justice! Did you have to think about it for long? Obviously different artists will have different ways of analysing and reconciling who they work with, is that something you had already thought through with commissioned work generally, or was the Department of Justice a slightly different proposition?

It was a bit of a surprise, but I was mainly curious as to what it could be about. We organised a meeting to talk about the possibilities of the project and it sounded like an awesome opportunity to expand my work into the South Island. Having a lot of family in Christchurch made it an easy choice to head there.

What type of entities have you worked with in the past, and how do you reconcile the compromises you often have to make with work for high-profile organisations? Do you separate commissioned public work into different categories based on what freedom you are afforded, or do you try and ensure you can balance the client’s wishes with your own vision?

Just before the Christchurch Justice Department contacted me, I had recently completed a mural for the New Zealand Parliament Buildings. Throughout the design process, I find it easiest to see what the client is wanting in terms of the topic of the design and the aesthetic they want within the design. Sometimes clients reference parts of my previous pieces that they have seen. From there I create a design and send it through to the client and we alter it back and forth. I find this process the best for me to ensure that there is a balance between my vision and the client’s ideas. With the Parliament job, for example, they had said that they liked my birds incorporated with the graffiti art, so I sent through a design and they seemed to allow a lot of artistic freedom as the design only had a few minor tweaks from the initial concept image.

Glitch 3, Parliament Building (Basement), Wellington, 2017 (Photo credit: Alana Frost)
Glitch 3, Parliament Building (Basement), Wellington, 2017 (Photo credit: Alana Frost)

Speaking of that distinctive personal style, how did it develop? Is it from writing graffiti or working on the street, or is it something specifically developed as an approach to mural work? 

My parents were very supportive of things that I wanted to try while I was growing up, so when I decided that I wanted to move my drawing to painting on a larger scale, I was allowed to develop my style in my spare time on scraps of wood in the garage. That being said, working on a small piece of wood in the family garage to working on large-scale outdoor murals like the Christchurch piece definitely required years of practice and development in larger outdoor environments

Is your imagery based on a specific narrative or is it perhaps a reflection of the public nature of muralism, something that fits that responsibility? Who or what has influenced your style? Your Instagram profile acknowledges hip hop, and I think of the likes of Tristan Eaton and Martin Whatson as possible reference points too…

The images and ideas I depict are often unique to each space and each wall. When creating the content of a work, I try to tailor the design to the space and the surrounding communities of that particular area, while still developing my personal style and visual language. I often try to project my own ideas and narratives within a piece, but it is up to the audience to interpret their own meaning behind each unique design. I often listen to hip hop as I am going through the design process as the lyrics inspire me with narratives, quotes and ideas that I can interpret visually as my own. In terms of visual artists, Tristan Eaton is a big influence, as is Pose MSK, and James Dawe, they all experiment with composition, colour, and mixes of rendering quality.

Your work is highly refined, how have you developed your aerosol technique over time? Do you conceptualize your can work in a certain way? Because when I was watching you paint, it appeared quite methodical, very certain, like every mark mattered, working over areas, layering paint to create tones…

I love the depth created by complicated works and have great respect for artists who can balance it all into a resolved piece. I try to design separately before beginning a final painting, mainly because having a full understanding of what you are attempting to create once you are actually at the wall aids productivity and allows me to focus solely on generating quality rendering while having the confidence of knowing that the composition and colour choices work. In saying that though, there are some details, particularly line weight variations, such as fat cap flairs and ultra-sharp outlines, that cannot be generated by pencil or marker but only by aerosol. This allows the piece to grow somewhat organically especially once you are standing up throwing and extending your arm completely, rather than seated, drawing or on the computer. Time and practice have given me the experience to develop my own techniques for painting, I appreciate that spray paint is traditionally a self-taught obsession.

Fantail, Upper Hutt, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Fantail, Upper Hutt, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

As part of that self-taught element, how much do you draw from other influences; from looking at what other artists are doing, the effects they are creating, or their process? Or do you think in technical terms, like the actual physical potential of aerosol as a medium with very particular qualities, and work on technique based on that understanding? Your process, building form and tone through layers, is, to my mind, very painterly, and suggests you have an understanding of how the aerosol medium can be used…

My original drive and passion for graffiti and street art was rooted in the development of style, so I have tried to establish my own. I do think I take influence in every form though, whether it is subject, composition or technique. When teaching yourself all the influences you reference are based all on your own taste. I personally go through obsessions with different artists’ styles. For example, when I began painting with aerosol and focused on letterforms, I was influenced by Peeta’s sculptural abstract forms, but there wouldn’t be much evidence of that in my work now.

Spray involves building a skeletal sketch form, blocking in tones and layering details. Before I was getting opportunities to paint big walls I honed my skills painting canvases with aerosol only, no stencils, as I wanted to be able to paint everything freehand. This meant it took me a long time to produce sharp, well-proportioned work. But the skills I built up translate to big walls well. If you can paint a detailed portrait on a canvas with spray, the rendering quality on a wall is amazing. Brushes never gave me motivation to produce work because it felt like a chore. Even when I was just starting out, cans were addictive because you can throw so much paint around quickly. To me, it feels like the most powerful medium of creation and destruction.

However, as I grow as an artist I want to produce things that aren’t really possible with freehand spray, so I am looking at screen printing and have been producing digital work longer than I’ve been spray painting.

Tell us about the concept behind Organic Matters, the Justice Precinct mural? Are there symbolic reasons for the choice of specific bird life and flora? Does the absence of the collage-style fills significantly alter the way you conceive of the wall and how it might respond to the space it occupies?

Organic Matters is a play on the term organic matter. I’ve used this title to mimic the important activities going on within the Justice Precinct buildings while relating back to the natural subject matter. Using all native local birds and flowers, with the exception of the cherry blossoms, which refer to the gardens of Christchurch. For this particular client, the professional nature of the location and the range of people that will see the mural, the less provocative, stylised realism fills worked better than the graffiti collage style I often work with. Yes, taking away a part of the subject matter I use affects how I conceptualise a work. Instead, the design focused on expressing my style and originality through composition, line, and colour, rather than the higher visual contrast created by mixing subjects and rendering styles.

Organic Matters, Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Organic Matters, Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

You mention the type of people around the Justice Precinct as influencing the style. How were your interactions with people who passed as you were working? It is a very central spot, but also possibly populated with a diverse range of people at varying times…

The feedback was great. People who appreciate graffiti and street art were stoked with the process and can work, and everyone appreciated the birds, particularly the identity and life projected through the eyes. I had good chats with road workers, with people coming out of the police station, officers, lawyers… Overall it seemed like the people of Christchurch are very supportive of their growing urban art scene!

Organic Matters (detail), Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch. 2018
Organic Matters (detail), Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch. 2018

Did you have a preconception of the city before coming down? Were you aware of the scene down here, or at least the profile?

I have a lot of family in Christchurch, so I have visited many times growing up. But this was the first time as an adult. I’ve admired the street art festivals in Christchurch since the quakes and the graffiti scene seems to have exploded with the derelict spots providing canvases everywhere.

Did you explore the city? Or did you hit the ground running on the wall? Any favourite pieces or spots?

It was pretty much just two weeks of painting the wall, with a couple days of rain to relax and try some of the different places to eat in Christchurch. I would have liked to have painted with the locals and had a go on the giant cans [on Manchester Street], but it was straight back to University classes the day after I got back home. B List Tattoo looked after me with paint supply and even organised shipping the leftovers back for me, so that was awesome.

Even without getting to spend time painting with any local artists, how did you perceive Christchurch from Wellington in terms of the way urban art is part of each city? What is your take on the scene in Wellington?

I would say Christchurch’s scene is exploding with all of the exposed walls that can be seen from far away with all of the empty lots, whereas Wellington has tighter alleys and more hidden gems. As street art has become more accepted there has been significant growth in commissioned work while the streets are always being painted with fresh graffiti in both cities. Christchurch seems to be celebrating street art more than Wellington for the amount of large scale work being done and the dedicated events like Spectrum.

Social Woes, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Social Woes, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

Wellington’s smaller spaces would be more conducive to certain interventions, while you can see the natural fit of larger murals in Christchurch… I have always felt Wellington was a bit more varied in what you can find in the streets, that there was a wider range of approaches, would you agree? And what about the geographic lay-out, with the spread of the city, are there different scenes in different parts, like from the central city to Upper or Lower Hutt?

I think with the number of international pieces in Christchurch, as a result of the various festivals, there is a good variation of style. Although Wellington does have visiting styles too. I would say that urban art is more condensed and apparent within Wellington city. The Hutt has graffiti scenes which fluctuate, however, the buffing is relentless. Waitangi Park is the only free wall I’m aware of in the region which evolves constantly, with several abandoned spots which are also ever changing.

Mother Nature, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Mother Nature, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

You are currently studying, but not in the perhaps more expected visual arts field, is it some type of engineering?

Close, I’m actually studying industrial design. It sort of sits between graphic design and engineering, which involves creating product form and understanding function. It is a four-year degree with honours and has taught me a lot about empathetic understanding and catered design. I gravitated to industrial design from graphic design partially as a result of the overwhelming number of students studying graphic design and an interest in car design. Imagining a graffiti artist with an industrial design degree also seemed like an interesting thing to do!

Haha, sorry, I was a little bit off the mark there with engineering! Is there a valuable practicality that you can draw on when painting murals?

The main thing I have taken from industrial design is a greater understanding of creating emotion through form and how subtleties can be used to express ideas. Also, my perspective sketching is getting much better and I have one semester to go. Any creative degree educates you on critiquing work and I have personally found it an experience of exiting an ignorant bliss that I began creating art from and realising a harsh balance of self-critique and confidence.

So, once you have finished, will you still compartmentalize the two; visual arts and industrial design? Or in some ways will they move closer together? Will you likely freelance as an artist and designer, or focus on one or the other?

Industrial design is a niche area to find employment and I think it takes full dedication and drive to make it happen, just like working as an artist. I can see myself designing products under my own brand, if I found an idea worth pursuing in the future. I manufactured and sold skateboards under the brand Planetary from the age of fourteen until I was seventeen. But I would say my ambition is firmly in my work as Chimp and spray paint currently.

What were you doing with the Planetary brand? Was it deck designs? Clothing? What did it encompass?

Planetary was the first brand or alias I ever worked under. I built downhill skateboard decks intended for the twisty roads of Wellington and skateboard racing. From there I started trying to produce spray paint graphics but lacked the skills. So that led to the aerosol campaign. I learnt a lot and sold quite a few boards but found selling handmade functional products to a niche market quite stressful.

What has kept you occupied since the Justice Precinct mural, and what have you got coming up? Any plans to come back to Christchurch?

I’m currently working on a t-shirt design for Kathmandu, within the same artist line that Wongi and Shraddha produced designs for. I have a new piece in Moonlight, a group show in Auckland held by The Designers Institute and RAYDAR. My piece is called Between the Raindrops. A design I submitted for the QT Museum Hotel competition was selected, so I will be painting a room or two there. I am quoting a few jobs around Wellington at the moment that I’ll be able to get onto once University is finished, and I have a handful of private commissions I need to get done!

Between the Raindrops (progress shot), Aerosol on Canvas, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Between the Raindrops (progress shot), Aerosol on Canvas, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

That’s a fair bit going on! Did the Kathmandu t-shirt opportunity come about through the Justice Precinct mural?

It sure did!

What can you tell us about the t-shirt design? Was there a specific brief to respond to?

The brief was quite open, but the key points were encouraging or capturing a sense of adventure and comparing the countries and culture of Nepal and New Zealand.

And the QT project must be pretty exciting. That involves DSide, right? What have you proposed for that?

Dside was one of the judges and I was humbled to be chosen. I put together a few different options, but you’ll have to wait and see the outcome.

You also mention the group show, do you exhibit studio pieces regularly, or is it secondary to walls?

I’ve had one solo show and been in several group and duo shows, but I get more satisfaction designing for bigger spaces that everyone gets to see. Spray paint lends itself to a large scale too. Once you’ve learnt to paint small details with a can, the larger work starts to really pop from the detail that you can fit in.

So, do you think of studio work as separate to your wall work, or does it function like preparatory work, feeding into your outdoor practice?

They are certainly intertwined. Sometimes the experiments are done on public urban walls and sometimes at smaller scale privately. Ultimately both help me learn and the more you paint both the easier it is to adapt to either.

Thanks Chimp, I know people have really responded to your Christchurch wall, so hopefully we see you again down here soon!

Keep an eye on Chimp’s work and various projects on social media:

Instagram: @chimp.one

Facebook: @chimpartist

Web: http://www.chimpartist.co.nz/

 

Photo credits: Feature image: Sam Gorham, Organic Matters (detail): Reuben Woods, all other images: Alana Frost

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