Jacob Yikes – Immersed (Part One)

Jacob Yikes needs no introduction. His distinctive wall work has been a familiar element of Christchurch’s post-quake landscapes, turning walls into vistas filled with intricate, impossible architectural forms and characters who are in turn both playful and nightmarish. But while his large-scale murals might provide a pathway to ‘Planet Yikes’, his studio and exhibited work has shown an artistic evolution that delves even deeper into the themes at the heart of his expression. His works on paper and canvas show an artist coming into full bloom, imbued with personal symbolism and exploring a range of imagery, expressive physical processes, and experimental and expanding mediums and materials. We caught up in his studio, surrounded by a series of still-in-progress new works, evidence of his soon-to-be-exhibited recent output; large paintings pulsing with dynamic energy. And yet, fittingly, our conversation took place just before Yikes’ March trip to Dunedin to paint a large wall, a reminder of his ongoing occupation of public spaces. With the sun shining outside his studio, we discussed the transition between street and studio, his latest body of work and the process of their creation, and how life has a way of keeping you honest…

Yikes, the last few times we have caught up it has been while you were painting outdoors, so it’s a nice change to be here in your studio. Your practice has always had that inside/outside dichotomy, shifting between walls and canvas so to speak, but considering how much work you have put in painting outside over the last five years, it’s easy to assume you have slowed down somewhat on that front! 

Yeah man, yeah… (laughs)

Has that been intentional, to allow you more time in the studio?

It’s a mixture of things really. I guess life catches up, you know, I’ve got two small children, so that’s definitely a factor, and they’re getting bigger, so that’s a thing, trying to fit that in. I think I’ve definitely felt a transition from wanting to produce works outside to being in my studio. Obviously, my studio is at my home, so I’ve got a very good set up now. I can kind of work quite erratically sometimes, so now when it is time to work, I can literally do it. Christchurch is pretty small, and I’ve done a lot of painting here, it’s not like I’m bored, but I am the type of person that has to keep doing new stuff. There’s definitely been a shift, and it’s not like, I’m never going to produce big works outside again, it’s nothing like that, it’s more like a certain tick that I need to itch! (Laughs) I feel like it’s a pretty natural progression as well, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I’m still here, I’ll still do whatever, it’s good…

Jacob Yikes’ Alice in Videoland mural, 2017-2018, Tuam Street. [Photo credit: Jade Cavalcante]
It’s not that they are mutually exclusive, they are both part of what you do…

Yep, and they always have been, and they always feed off each other. There are only so many hours in a day, and in a week, so putting it all into one thing, it’s really hard to try and find time to do the other. In the past I’ve sacrificed a lot of sleep to get that happening and it works for a while and that’s cool, but it’s not physically possible for me, and you learn the hard way. I’ve learnt that, and having children they will let you know… (laughs)

For sure…

So, yeah, it’s just about what do I want to do? What do I see myself doing? At the moment, I think the studio-based stuff is really where I’m trying to focus. But again, I wouldn’t be doing any of this studio stuff if I hadn’t done certain things outdoors. They always feed off each other, and they always will.

And of course, painting walls is built into your profile as well, right? It affords certain opportunities and exposure…

Absolutely.

From a material point of view, both approaches obviously have different potentials, as well as different challenges. What do you see as the main differences, in terms of what you can do in the studio that you can’t do when you’re working in the streets?

There’s always a certain element of impact that I’m trying to achieve with both, and that’s achieved very differently outdoors than it is indoors in the studio. So, with my outdoor works, I was introducing bold colours with quite wild imagery, wild in the subject matter and often how it is executed, like with a lot going on. And then I brought that into the studio to a certain extent, and I’ve been able to, even though because the works I’m doing at the moment and in the past have been quite large, not massive, for canvas or paper work, or board whatever, they’ve been quite big but they’ve gone bigger, I can focus way more on a smaller scale but still get good impact as well, whereas outdoors, you can, but it is a lot of effort. It’s like, for those bigger works, I tend to just do them myself because of how I work, it’s completely different to painting pieces of graffiti with any of the boys, it’s a different process, it’s a different mind-state. In saying that, while a lot of my work outdoors has been very busy, it has also zoned in on certain areas and really worked them, but to be honest it’s a lot of time and effort and often you’re not really getting to the point of that’s what I was trying to do, so you have to kind of walk away from them, feeling like ‘I could’ve done that’, ‘I should’ve done that’, and that’s come from graffiti too, like every every piece you see, there’s something that you just wish you’d fixed, and you know that’s just part of it, but with the studio stuff, I can’t walk away from it, it’s not a wall in town, I’m living with it. In a bizarre way, it sort of speaks to me when I’m doing it, so that’s reinforced the idea that I can work really hard on these areas of the painting and achieve something where there is more impact.

Mixed media on paper, 2017. Exhibited in Face Value at Fiksate Gallery, November, 2017

When you are painting a wall and you stand back and take stock, there must be a strong awareness of the public nature of the process, simply because of the surroundings, whereas in the studio I imagine you can get really invested in producing work which is increasingly personal, you can be completely focused on it and enveloped by it…

Definitely, because as an artist there’s always, I mean, I can’t speak for every artist, but there’s an element of being self-conscious about what you are doing. When you produce public work, you do pretty much need to wear a hard skin, or you can retaliate, which is also something that I’ve probably done a lot in the past! (Laughs) But that’s just kind of who I am too, I don’t have lot of patience for dickheads in all formats (laughs), so it all just kind of comes with it. But with the studio stuff, it’s me, myself and I, and that can be good and it can be bad, because I can be my own worst enemy. I guess it’s that little voice just kind of kicking you in the ass, it’s good, but outdoors you’ve got your self to deal with and what other people think. But at the end of the day, I’m not really doing it for what other people think. I mean, yes, there’s this massive amount of positivity that’s come with public work, street art, whatever, but I feel like I get away with a lot (laughs), you know I’m not out to paint pretty pictures, I wouldn’t even say I’m trying to beautify things, it’s not the reason I go and do something, if that happens that’s great, but I know not everyone’s going to think that way…

It’s something that’s a problem with the adoption of urban art into the mainstream and it’s perhaps at odds with the roots and the intentions from which it has grown. Essentially urban art is about personal expression going public, it’s not solely, or even explicitly about acts of civic duty or beautification…

That’s right, it’s not community murals…

Yeah, they are a completely different thing. At the heart of it, urban art is about personal style, personal communication, and that’s often the hardest thing to explain. People celebrate and champion these beautiful things, whereas what graffiti and street art are really able to do is take art and put it in the streets, it can be beautiful, but sometimes it can be challenging, or visually unexpected…

Yeah.

Manchester Street, central city, 2016

And that means it is lot of things, and that diversity is really important in retaining relevancy and potency. We are surrounded by a number of your latest studio works, the scale of your studio pieces has been growing over the last few years, and these works are another step up in size…

They are. I think they have to be…

Yet for me, they are still clearly distinct from your wall works as well. Even though the works are getting larger, the things you can do in the studio are still really clear and obvious, from the detail, to the actual style of painting and the material approaches. Is that something you are wary of, that despite the size increasing, they are still going to be honest as studio works, rather than edging towards murals on paper?

Yeah I guess, when I think about it, before I really started focusing on studio stuff, I was painting big work, like not monstrous like it got, but a piece is a pretty large painting, so what I realised, was in a studio I can create completely different feelings with the same materials, but I can’t do that with walls, because it literally comes down to how they are sitting. With washes, and the metallics I add into the washes, which are the things I’ve concocted to make these paintings, they kind of have to be flat, they are always in a very wet stage until I spend the last few days finishing them. Also, like I was mentioning earlier, because I work on so many at a time as well, it works with my erratic personality too, it’s something I have to do, because if I don’t, I’ll ruin a painting. I’ve got all these ideas all going on at the same time, and if I put them all into the same painting, it’s just overkill. But when I paint on the street, I do that, I overkill, because it’s big. But you know this time around, I was more interested again in coming back to that impact, but thinking about how I approach it… In the past the works were big, but what’s going on inside of them was a big amount of work too, this time it’s the same sort of concept but I’ve slowed it down. There is, I think, more of a mystery to them, as opposed to zoning into these other works and getting lost in them, you can still do that with these, but there’s a bit more mystery…

Mixed media on paper, 2018

These works have a dynamic energy that breaks up the focus and sharpness of some of your previous works, there is still a suggestive sense of action going on, but it isn’t as definitive or finite as previous works might have been. That dynamism adds a personal quality, because they are reflections of your physical movements, which are of course relative to your personal state at the time you executed them…

Absolutely man, I think they are the most real paintings I’ve ever made. I’m not really the type of person in the past that would address a lot of things that are in these paintings, you know, and I haven’t, I’ve let it control my life, and I got really unwell with it, so I had to let it out. In a sense I’m kind of showing my demons in a way, but not in a way that is trying to make anyone concerned, it’s a healthy thing for me. It’s a way of me dealing with twenty something years of bullshit, so I really think that these works have their own story behind them. They are a body of work but each one is an individual reference to me. Being that they are a bigger scale too, I don’t know why, it just feels like I couldn’t get that same effect if I didn’t do them on this scale. Even with the paper ones, if they got any bigger it would’ve been too much and any smaller and it wouldn’t have worked. For a while I went through a period, for a good few months, where I was not able to paint anything, to draw anything, I literally reclused and stopped, and then kind of came out of that and this is what came from that. I guess too, there is a very different process to how I’ve worked in the past, where I would just go, go, go, go, non-stop, no sleep, I just went for it. There was a lot of work that came out of it, but a lot of it, man, I was in autopilot for a lot of it. I look at them and I know what they’re about, what’s going on, but I’m like, when did this even happen? But with these ones, they are all so much more relevant and they are all so much more decisive too. There’s no work where I’m like, that one probably shouldn’t be like that. Now there’s a whole different process…

Do you think that’s a combination of the timing being right in terms of what you are expressing, but also of how you are able to express it, through your actual practice? In a way, nothing is wasted if it has led you to a certain point, right?

Definitely.

Do you feel that these works represent an arrival point at how you are able to express these ideas visually?

I kind of have the mind set that things happen for a reason, that you experience things for a reason, like whether you know that when it’s happening, or you know it later on down the line. But I definitely think I’ve always found myself at the right place at the right time, especially with how my career has started to shape itself. At the same time, it hasn’t all been roses, you know, there has been a lot of bullshit as well. But if there wasn’t that bullshit, there wouldn’t be any success. I think it gives me ammunition to actually paint these works like I do. It’s how I process these things, I have certain kind of conclusions with my life and predominantly my art, because my life is my art and that is probably more apparent in these works than I think it ever has been. Again, the subject matter is a more refined me, rather than processes made by me or just stuff. Past shows have talked about stuff, they have been derived from me, but they’ve never really been about me, so it’s sort of narrowed in, and I guess that’s happening now because that’s what was meant to happen. To be honest, painting them is a way for me to try to figure a lot of that out, you know; why? why everything? So, the two work pretty well together, but I think you know, that’s the thing with progression, too, with anything you’ve got to take whatever comes, because you won’t progress. You can’t have it all good and progress to something better, without downfall, because there is no balance…

Yikes in his studio, 2018

That’s an important skill, the ability to understand what is happening, and to figure out that path. If your work is the same for twenty years, then something is probably going wrong under the surface…

Good luck to you, if that’s what you are up to! Because I think as humans, you all deal with things in different ways, based on personality, based on past experiences, based on how you’ve been brought up, based on however. Maybe it’s part of getting older and having kids, but I find myself having to really create my own path, you know, what I mean is, it’s a hard thing, because as an artist it’s quite difficult to live in this day and age, there’s a lot of pressures, financially, whatever, but…

Particularly somewhere the size of Christchurch…

That’s it man, it’s not massive and you know, I think I’ve always known that I don’t want to follow suit, it’s just not me. I just can’t do it. I think too, to be honest, that’s where the studio stuff has become more dominant, because this is truly where I’m supposed to be too. Before I was into doing graffiti or before I was painting large scale works, I was always into drawing, always into making art, so it’s like literally from an early age, it’s kind of my been my forte. But you know, it’s still a battle to make that an everyday thing, to make that a reality, it’s still really difficult. So I think taking a step back from doing walls puts a bit of pressure on things like that, because at the end of the day, painting large scale works is how I make my living, how I’ve made my living, selling paintings and doing commission works as well, it all fits in, but predominantly, the walls like I have always said, they are advertising for me as an artist, so it’s difficult to really put one to a side and then focus on one other thing because at the end of the day I’ve got bills!

Yeah, but that challenge is important to take on as well, right?

Yeah, and again it comes back to the fact that there is nothing to do but roll with it. I can create my path, and I know where I want to go, I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I know what way I want to go…

Which is as important as anything right? People talk about it’s not the destination, it’s the journey…

Absolutely, because I’m kind of too afraid to arrive at a destination! (Laughs) I’m in no hurry to get there! And I think when you get there, if you get there, good and bad creates where you arrive, it’s all about how you deal with it in that process, and I think for me as an artist, the best way is to just literally keep doing what I feel is best. I have to get it out, because if it’s not true to me, at that point, whatever comes after doesn’t matter because I’ve put something out that’s not fully me, and that’s the battle of being an artist too, you want to produce what you feel is right and where you want to go, but at the same time, you have to make money and things too…

It’s a reality…

Yeah, it’s that reality. But again, in the past I’ve sacrificed sleep to do both, so it’s definitely all learning, every painting I do I learn something from it.

Stay tuned for Part Two…

Featured image photo credit: three-six-six media

The RAD Collective – All Together Now

In late 2017 I started to notice a new name popping up across my social media feeds. I wasn’t even completely sure what the RAD Collective was; a collection of visual artists? A promotional entity? A clothing brand? Something to do with skateboarding? As I delved deeper into the world of the RAD Collective, the answer didn’t necessarily become any clearer, they seemed to be all of those things and more. Even when I asked people about them, I got a range of descriptions and explanations. I explored the artists, some familiar, others new, and found a range of approaches, often tinged with a rebellious, playful or acerbic edge, but always distinctly independent. The RAD Collective remained something of an intriguing mystery.

Eventually I was introduced to the RAD Collective’s co-founder Becca Barclay. When we finally sat down to talk about how the collective came to be, how it functions, and the group’s goals, her passion and energy for the concept was clear. What also became clearer were the collective’s diverse identities and operations. Made up of a number of young creatives, including artists, designers, illustrators, graffiti writers and street artists, photographers, filmmakers, musicians and writers, the RAD Collective facilitates collaboration and cross-pollination, while also allowing members to retain their individuality and flourish independently. Although not an explicit element of their formation, the RAD Collective in some regards reflects the evolution and influence of urban art. They span subcultures and decline singular definitions, while embracing and celebrating the subversive qualities of diverse street cultures among other influences. Where once it seemed everyone belonged to a ‘tribe’, adhering and dissolving into expected activities and appearances, the RAD Collective might represent an eroding desire for labels, a new willingness to be all things and nothing.

So Becca, the RAD Collective seems like a pretty fresh approach in Christchurch’s creative scene, obviously it is distinct from the likes of graffiti crews, where did the inspiration come from? Was there a specific influence that set an example to follow?

The RAD’s initial idea was born at Design School at ARA. It was originally, and still will hopefully be, a collaborative ‘alternative’ underground magazine, focusing on different creative practices and sub-cultures and how they intertwine with one another.  Within each issue, numerous creatives will work together on one artwork or article. My third-year research project was focusing on how sub-cultures were represented in print media from the 1950’s until now (so that was me diving into A LOT of David Carson’s work on alternative publications Beach Culture and Raygun, but also various culture prints like Monster Children and i-D, and even skateboard magazine Thrasher).  But I wanted the RAD to really reflect the idea that all these ‘groups’, whether they might be skaters, artists, musicians, street artists, don’t conform just to their own sub-culture, and they each feed the others. We have really tried to keep that as the essence of what we do as a collective. We have our main inner group, but with each exhibition or event we collaborate on, we invite other artists or work with diverse businesses to create alternative or urban showcases. I don’t think any of our members would even refer to themselves as a part of only one sub-culture. We are huge fans of Young, Gifted and Broke (YGB) from Auckland, and the idea that all these creative people are among one team, I think is a really awesome and inspiring approach.

 I have been wondering, is RAD an acronym?

 Hahaha, no! I just think it looks cooler and way more ‘oomphy’ in capitals!

I have often wondered if a defined subculture such as hip-hop could come into existence anymore. Obviously there have always been localised versions within subcultures, with distinct elements based on the specific environment in which they are embedded, but in the digital age, it seems that influences and information are so accessible and diverse, that people will not necessarily seek any singular sense of definition. But, with that said, is there something that defines the members of the RAD Collective, or at least a common thread that unifies them? Or is diversity the defining element? Is there a concerted idea around who ‘fits’ stylistically, or is it more a question of who does something conceptually or materially that adds to the group’s potential?

That is a really hard question to answer because I would usually describe the common thread throughout the RAD as ‘urban’ and ‘alternative’, two words not necessarily used together often and probably a bit of a cop-out on my behalf as they’re both extremely broad! I’ve never really seen diversity as our defining element as we truly are one big team. But in saying that, our diverse skill set is why we work so well and can offer value, to not only our members, but also to the community and the events we work on. As I mentioned earlier, I doubt any individual members of our team would conform themselves to one subculture. I love to use Harry King, otherwise known as A Tribe Called Haz, as an example of this. He is a full-time builder, but loves urban art and is a graffiti artist, his ‘crowd’ are skaters, he’s been skating since he was ten. But our running joke within the RAD is that all his paintings and illustrations are made with him wearing black double denim, listening to pre-1980’s AC/DC and sinking twelve cans of Diesel bourbon and cola, because he ‘looks’ like a bogan! So, no, there is no idea around who ‘fits’ stylistically, whether that is the artist or their art. It is definitely more about the person who is involved, who can add value, and who we can help out. A lot of our team now are friends of friends or people who we’ve approached to join with an idea or project in mind that might crossover into their specialty, so that is pretty cool. But not only does that add value by making our team more diverse and skilled, but it also opens the potential for collaboration across creative fields people might have never dabbled in before.

RAD Collective member, Tomoki ‘Moki’ Peters in front of a series of his photographs at the RAD exhibition at Papa Hou at YMCA, late 2017. Photo Credit: The RAD Collective

Who makes up the RAD Collective, and what roles do people play? I know you have a large number, but does it need delegation, or even a consensus around projects, or do people sort of pick and choose what they want to be involved in?

The collective is made up of around twenty people; we have some more involved members than others, but that’s just because we have pushed out a lot of visual art exhibitions so far, so our schedule has suited certain members more than others. We would usually put a call out to the team to come over or meet us for a Bodgie Beer (the famous house brew at Christchurch’s Smash Palace) and from there we discuss new projects and exhibition ideas. We then clean the idea up, present it to everyone else and people pick and choose if they want to be involved and their level of involvement. Some members will only exhibit occasionally whereas others are involved in every exhibition, and the whole exercise, from helping with branding, to setting up and packing down.

You mentioned that the magazine is still a driving goal, and I look forward to seeing how it materialises, but how did some of the other events come to fill the gap, so to speak, from art exhibitions to being involved in the King of the Square event (an invitational street skating competition staged in Cathedral Square)? There are always a lot of necessary tasks behind getting anything done, so are responsibilities shared around, or do people have specialist roles?

Thank you, we are excited to see what comes of it as well! I was very lucky that one of my close friends and influences, Billy McLachlan, is the organiser of King of the Square, and he knew about the RAD and basically encouraged me to get involved and for us to sort it out and get into it. At this point we had a team together but didn’t have too much going on.  Alongside King of the Square, also in November 2017, we staged an opening exhibition at Papa Hou, the arts venue at the YMCA. From there we approached Audrey Baldwin to become a part of First Thursdays and then Ōtākaro approached us about doing something for the Evolution Square launch. It all happened in quite quick succession, so that was a full on eight weeks of planning and organising. Myself and Jimirah Baliza, who is the collective’s co-founder, will usually do most of planning and administrative things, but there are heaps of people in the team who help us out along the way! At the end of the day we’re asking a lot of these creatives to turn around exhibition pieces in the time that they do, so we try keep their workload at a minimum.

Members of the RAD Collective at the King of the Square event in Cathedral Square, November 2017. Photo Credit: The RAD Collective

How do the group shows come together? Is there generally a theme that artists work to, or is there a sense of trying to pin down what members are doing in the presentation? Do you take the lead from a curatorial point of view?

In the past, we’ve been approached to do group shows and there has been very little turnaround, which means it has been a couple of hectic, stressful weeks! With our upcoming show, Under the Influence, we have had full control from start to finish and the idea came from having a catch up at Smash Palace with some of the team. With past shows where we’ve had such a tight turnaround we haven’t asked artists to work to a theme, but we did with this new show. People seem to have interpreted it two ways: looking at their influences in life or art, or from a drinking or party culture point of view. We usually don’t want to pressure the artists into doing too much other than making their exhibition pieces, but with big shows like this one they will probably have a small job on the evening. I would love to say I do take the lead from a curatorial point of view, but usually it is launch day and Jimirah and myself and whoever else is running around, usually Kophie Hulsbosch and Lucia Kux, are all hands on deck getting as much done as we can! For this show Jimirah, Kophie, Lucia, McChesney-Kelly Adams and I will be doing equal parts curating and setting up.

What makes Christchurch, and specifically post-quake Christchurch, the place for the RAD Collective to work? I know one member has recently relocated, that is always going to be a reality, especially for young creatives, but do you think it is now a place that might be able to retain and sustain people and their creative appetites and goals?

 We are so lucky being from Christchurch as the art and design community have really helped us out and welcomed us with open arms! ARA, other creatives, event organisers and even Ōtākaro have all helped us out along the way and really embraced what we are doing. We have been incredibly lucky in that respect, but I think that reflects the sort of environment the RAD was born into. People want to see a more creative Christchurch, people want events and interactivity within the city and, luckily for us, they are stoked when they see young people at the forefront of it all. If it wasn’t for that, The RAD would never have been nearly as busy or successful as what it has been to date.

But yes, we are so gutted Tomoki Peters, who is a really talented photographer, has left for the bigger, brighter lights of Melbourne, he was definitely a team favourite. But we’re lucky we live in the digital age, so he will still be exhibiting with us and will still be a huge part of the RAD. But as you said, that’s the reality of it, of course some of the crew will move and travel. But yeah, I genuinely believe Christchurch is an attractive place to stay or to come back to, now more than ever. There are so many creative opportunities, events to work on and co-working spaces popping up, and that momentum and energy within the city keeps building.

The RAD Collective take over the store front window of Sydenham skate store Embassy for First Thursdays, December 2017. Photo Credit: The RAD Collective

As a collection of young people, how does the RAD serve as an example for others? Will it be an evolving concept with a lengthy life span and constantly expanding roster, or is it a celebration of the now, an embrace of the potential to combine and get stuff done in the immediate environment?

Hahaha, oh man, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the RAD being an example for others to follow, but I would hope people see us and realise that with a bit of determination, a good mindset and kindness to others, as cheesy as that sounds, you can almost do anything! I love framing everything I do regarding the RAD within a sort of mantra: Do it with passion, do it with compassion, do it with humour and do it with style. If people can see us out there doing it with a smile on our faces, then that’s all that really matters to me. Again, I know it sounds so cheesy, but it’s true! Also, I like to think a bit of naivety never hurt nobody, ya know?

I do think the RAD will be forever evolving. That’s the beauty of a collective, people will always come and go, but I think the true essence of this sort of rebellion, these alternative ways of presenting art, will stay the same. For me, this is my dream, I will do whatever I can to not only one day make the RAD into our magazine, but also grow the RAD apparel, promotions and events, and even develop a RAD artist fund where we can continue to work with super talented young people through workshops, exhibitions, projects, events and collaborations together. That’s the dream anyway!

The lifespan of the collective and the idea of having goals for the RAD does matter to me and some of the other members, although maybe not all of them, but the main attitude within the group is to definitely make the most of now and get stuff done, most def!

With all that said, what is next for the RAD? What is the long-term plan for world domination and what are the shorter-term projects coming up? You have already mentioned the exhibition Under the Influence coming up… 

Yep, next up for the RAD is our exhibition Under The Influence. The show opens 6pm on Friday, April 13th, at the Boxed Quarter, on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets. What we have planned is not your average art exhibition, we have light projections from our motion designers within the courtyard, we have some up and coming DJ’s playing, we have three of our street artists doing live painting, we have a heap of food vendors and a courtyard bar to get yourself a cheeky Friday night beer! And, of course, we have our exhibition, there are twenty artists contributing and we are all so excited! We are also going to be rolling out more winter merchandise. Once that is done, then it’s time to focus on the other exhibitions and events we want to execute for the year. As I mentioned, in the long term we would love to do more event promotion, we’re also aiming to paint some murals around the city, do more pop-up shops, more digital and immersive exhibitions, more collaborations with local businesses, and then about half way through this year we are really going to knuckle down and figure out how we can make a somewhat eco-minded, alternative, honest, underground publication that isn’t half-full of advertising! We are also currently working to find our full-time artists a home to work from, so it truly is all go! We are super excited, so whoever wants to come down and check out Under the Influence, we would all love to have a beer with you!

Head down to the Boxed Quarter (corner of Madras and St Asaph streets in the central city) on Friday, April 13th, from 6pm to see Under the Influence. For more information, check out the RAD Collective’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/812991845578842/

 Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring interviews with a number of artists from the RAD Collective, so keep tuned and get to know some of Christchurch’s up and coming talents…

Porta – A Helping Hand

A few years ago, I would have said Porta was one of Christchurch’s best kept secrets. But to make such a claim now would be misleading, his street and studio work continue to gain exposure and opportunities to work with an array of amazing talent and in a variety of contexts. Having known Porta for a good while, it is refreshing to be able to say that such reward is justifiable evidence that good things happen to good people. With his infectious energy, he constantly reminds me that getting ‘amped’ on things, as he would say, is a vital ingredient in enjoying what you do.
His array of images, heavily drawing on pop culture and his magpie-like inquisitiveness, have a strong street style, but also a sophistication that has developed with his sustained practice. Primarily a stencil artist, Porta’s work ranges from walls to found objects, such as skateboard decks, reclaimed thrift store paintings, street signs and even randomly recovered pieces of wood and metal, and even extends to large MDF cut-outs and, of course stickers. His images increasingly juxtapose pop culture references with abstract designs, distressed surfaces, or revealing indications of the aerosol medium. These playful qualities ensure his work is both accessible and attractive, easily shifting between locations, while still seeming authentic in approach. I sat down with Porta at his shared studio space Fiksate Studio and Gallery in New Brighton, and we reflected on the various projects and adventures he has experienced over the last several years, his take on his own practice and why ‘liking people’ is always a good starting block…

Although you never admit it, the last several months, actually, several years, have been pretty busy for you! Recently you assisted Dcypher and Oi YOU! with their project at the Christchurch Airport, and a few weeks prior you helped Flox with her Plymouth Lane mural in the central city. You have worked with Oi YOU! quite a bit, so there is a relationship there, but how did the opportunity to work with Flox come about? And what did you make of the experience?
I basically just put up my hand to help out where I could, if she needed it. So, I ended up buffing out big squares of colour for her and filling in some of the letters, so she could stencil over the top. I was mostly on the brush and roller…

Flox making progress on her No Place Like Home mural in Plymouth Lane, central Christchurch. Photo credit: Porta

As a painter by trade, you have a practical versatility to be able to do different kinds of things and help people in different ways, and that’s given you many opportunities to work with artists on an array of projects, as well as influencing your own work. Did you always see those skills as transferrable, that they would open some doors?
Yeah, I feel like still like I’m more skilled behind a brush and roller than I am with a can, any day! (Laughs)

On the flip side, as a stencil artist, did you take the chance to step back and observe Flox’s techniques and learn from her?
I did, and she is really open when chatting about her processes, like just about the stuff she uses to cut her stencils from, and that sort of thing. She’s really open about it all, which is really cool, because sometimes, you can understand why someone might want to keep it to themselves…

I kind of feel like with stencilling there is a mystique about the process sometimes, but when you can pick up little things, you can take them in different directions. For instance, seeing such a large-scale stencil piece being produced must have been a valuable experience for you…
Yeah! The size of that work blew me away. Seeing a stencil being produced at that scale was really impressive, and seeing that it was actually do-able, it was crazy!

Speaking more broadly, not just from the ‘handy on a roller’ perspective, you have a real willingness to offer a hand wherever needed. As a result, you have worked with a wide array of people. Is that attitude just a reflection of your approach to life? Or is it that you see opportunities when they come up?
It’s important to me, I like people, so that’s a good start. From there, I really like street art and I want to see it do well in Christchurch, so it’s a combination of those two things really.

It has been a pretty amazing few years in the city, and in many ways, you’ve been right in the thick of it. Amongst a raft of well-publicised events, there has been the growth of your own ‘baby’, CAP’D, which has now been staged three times. You conceived of CAP’D a few years ago, so what was the initial idea, how has it evolved, and where do you see it going?
I asked people if they would be keen on a show of local artists who worked on the streets or were influenced by that scene. I put it to a few people, ‘what do you think if I did this…?’, and everyone I mentioned it to was just super enthusiastic and receptive to it. I had friends who wanted to be involved and put art in it. So, next thing, it really took off and it was just, ‘well, I guess I’m doing this…’ Which was a cool way to do it because it got me motivated, and the next thing I knew, I had sorted dates, found a place, and people were just so enthusiastic that there was no way I could back down!

I remember when you first started putting it together, it was originally a much smaller idea, but by the time the opening came around, it had grown into something quite different…
The support was amazing, it was meant to be this small, chilled out thing, but it ended up featuring artists from overseas, not just local artists. On the night, it was quite overwhelming, the amount of people who turned up, the amount of art that was there… Which is why for the events after that I had a wee crew of people, with Jen (Jenna-Lynn Brown), Dr Suits (Nathan Ingram) and yourself. It was definitely a team effort after that, which was a relief! (laughs)

Opening night of the first ever CAPD show, New Brighton, 2015. Photo credit: Abigail Park

I think it showed how Christchurch has an audience that wants to see this kind of art, and these kinds of events, but also it revealed how you can connect with people from overseas, and that those networks are closer than we ever thought. Over the last several years CAP’D has featured artists from Sydney, Barcelona, Japan, Los Angeles and more, but even in the first show, there was work by artists from Melbourne and Brazil, so it kind of set the precedent…
Yeah, that just kind of happened…

It showed you can approach artists from the other side of the world and say: ‘Hey do you want to be part of something?’ and often the response is ‘Yeah!’ Were the positive responses a surprise to you?
It was, because not long before CAP’D, I’d just sort of got into Instagram, and I realised how approachable everyone was, people I considered quite well known, I didn’t expect them to respond to comments but they did, and then I thought, I’ve pushed my luck already, I should ask them if they are keen on being in an exhibition and a lot of them surprised me…

Which must be a good feeling, because that old saying ‘never meet your heroes’, isn’t always true…
Nah, sometimes it’s great to meet your heroes!

So, where do you see CAP’D going? It is now hosted at Fiksate [Design Studio and Gallery in New Brighton], and it has evolved slightly over the last few years, do you think it’s going to keep growing or are you happy for it to keep to a specific scale?
Yeah, I like the size of it. It wasn’t ever anything that was supposed to get bigger and bigger. It was supposed to be pretty small, so now it is the size that it is, and I just want to sort of keep it here, keep promoting new people, new talent, and putting them alongside talent from around New Zealand and the world…

Opening night of the second CAPD show, Fiksate Design Studio and Gallery, New Brighton, 2016. Photo credit: Porta/Abigail Park

That’s the really important part, right? It’s giving a forum for young artists, lesser known artists, artists who come from particular backgrounds, where finding ways to exhibit works can be a real challenge…
Because a lot of these artists are not new artists, it’s just the first time they’ve put their art in this particular kind of environment…

Most of them have been drawing, writing, painting, making in the streets, or some of them in their bedrooms without putting anything out there, and it’s just a case of creating this new forum, so there’s real value there, and it’s partly the response of the artists that reflects that, they appreciate that you’ve created something that gives them the opportunity, so it must feel really good! (Laughs)
It does, it really does.

Talking about CAP’D’s evolution brings up another big development in your artistic life; setting up Fiksate with Dr Suits and Jen. That seems to have provided you with a real stimulus. How did it come about?
So again, I was just yarning with Nath and Jen, and saying I’d be keen on opening a spot, and then we made some connections with people who could make it happen, and all of a sudden, that momentum had picked up, and we had our spot. We did check out a couple of other places around New Brighton, but in hindsight I’m glad they didn’t work out, because our spot seems pretty perfect really…

Do you find being in that collaborative environment has expanded your practice? Does the shared, dedicated setting make it easier to explore ideas than if you were at home in the garage?
Well, I do, but sometimes I think I almost get an equal amount of satisfaction when I’ve been able to help someone get to where they want to be, rather than if I was getting myself somewhere. I think that’s why a lot of the time people want to get together with me, because they know I try to be a willing helper…

When I have been around Fiksate, there is a real feeling of coming together and problem solving, offering advice and feedback. Even when it’s not you making something yourself, that experience of thinking about somebody else’s work can be just as beneficial in the long run… Working with Jen and Nath, who both have quite diverse practices, has watching their different material approaches influenced your stencil making technique?
Yeah, (laughing), and it’s made me do things in a way I didn’t think about and to go in directions I didn’t think I would go. Like, Nath will just be buzzing on something I’m doing, and then I’ll be buzzing off something he’s doing, and then when we are all finished, whatever we have made will usually have a few similarities (laughs) and not on purpose, but we just realise we are both being so inspired by what is happening in the studio that it comes out in our work… Like with the piece I did for Blind Date, which was an exhibition for First Thursdays last year, and probably the series of Donald Duck works that came from that, I think they came together in that way, even though the piece was a colab with another artist, Kara Burrows, we kind of worked separately, and it was at the studio that my part really came together. I feel like Nath had a bunch to do with that, and you were there that night too… I was trying something new and you guys were getting really hyped off the stuff I was doing, and I think that excitement came out in the work, so yeah, I think that is what it’s all about, just getting each other really hyped on the new stuff you’re doing and then you want to do heaps of it and take it further…

Collaboration with Kara Burrows for Blind Date, part of the First Thursdays event, Dilana Rugs, Sydenham, 2017. Photo credit: Porta

Tell me about the development of your stencil style over time, because, to me, your stencils, despite their diverse nature, from the actual images to the material surfaces you use, they always seem to reflect a street vibe, how did you get started?
I think I had been influenced by a stencil I saw in town, on Manchester Street years ago, like in the mid to late nineties, so I tried to make a stencil, I was listening to a bunch of Foo Fighters, and I tried to make a Dave Grohl stencil and I ended up with a bunch of shredded cardboard that didn’t stay together and I just hiffed it away! Then I sort of revisited it, it must have been four of five years later…

It seems like everyone’s first attempt is always some pop culture icon, a musician or an actor… Do you think it has something to do with the medium? Does the technique encourage you to try and produce something realistic, and then we are just drawn in by pop culture through the image saturation of celebrities? Maybe it’s just the association of that type of imagery with street art’s vocabulary and traditions, that immediately recognisable image to grab someone’s attention…
That’s funny when I think about it, I don’t know why that would be, but it does seem true, they are probably the things that are making an impact on your life at the time. Thinking about those early stencils, I used to make stencils from the outside cover of an exercise book from school, and you just sort of made do. I think I had a huckery old craft knife. I think the drawing I did of Dave Grohl, I was pretty amped on it, and then I just tried to make it into a stencil and I couldn’t quite pull it together!

Godzilla, stencil on reclaimed framed print, 2016. Photo credit: Porta

It’s a technique where there is value in just trying and failing, and then starting again. I think there is also a lack of pretense as well, I mean using the cover of an exercise book, using a cereal box, like that approach is entirely fitting, and even now, you’ll know, you have a preferred method to use to cut stencils, but it varies wildly, different people use different things and it’s all about the way they’ve developed their techniques. So, then you picked it back up after murdering Dave…
Maybe four years ago? Maybe more, I can’t pin-point it. I know the next one I did was based on a sketch of R2D2 [the droid from Star Wars] that I’d done, it’s on the rubbish bin at home, that’s the only place it ever went, but I think from there I started messing round with the technique more and more…

Porta!, stencil on reclaimed suitcase, 2015

Who were your influences? Who, or what made you think, ‘Yeah, stencils are for me…’?
Of course, Banksy would have been an influence and I think he’s great. I liked that he was doing things I didn’t expect. I mean everyone likes to be surprised, and when I saw what he was doing, it made me want to try different things. But there were other people too. I like a Mexican artist called Acamonchi. I like his punk style, I was never into punk so much, but his style and that aesthetic just appealed to me, it was gritty and dirty and cheeky, the images were sort of taking a whole heap of ideas and layering them up in a messy way, just making really interesting mash-ups that came together super well, in a really free sort of way.

Can, stencil on MDF board, 2015. Photo credit: Porta

Even though graffiti is so strongly entwined with hip hop, for the wider street art culture, or post-graffiti, and I guess some graffiti writers, punk is a really significant influence, in visual style, material forms, like the influence of band fliers and posters, and of course the anarchic, DIY attitude…
Yeah, there is definitely a strong punk influence in the history of stencilling, it’s an unavoidable influence.

Did you primarily see stencilling as a street technique, or did you also perceive it as something that could transfer from wall to canvas, so to speak?
When I started I just wanted it to be on the street, I didn’t ever want to stencil on something you could keep. But then over time, I started appreciating the time you could spend on a stencil, that you could layer them up. Then I started wanting them to, you know, stick around a bit longer, and just look at them and see what I was going to do with my next one, stuff like that…

Monkey, Melbourne, 2016. Photo credit: Porta

Now you work on a whole range of different surfaces and objects, but in many ways, they retain a sense of street work, at least in their visual style. While stencils are your primary method, your other love is stickers and slaps…
Yeah, definitely!

You have made thousands of stickers; hand-drawn, stencilled, you have even used block printing techniques, when did you start to making stickers? Did that come after starting to cut stencils?
That would’ve come before. I was always trying to draw stuff and I think one of the guys who influenced the sticker side of things for me was definitely [Christchurch artist] Xpres. He’s always been a real sticker guy, he’s always collected them, always made them, always putting them up around the streets, always with really nice hand styles. Eventually I found out the sticker culture was big in America. I was on the internet all the time trying to find out more, and I discovered a magazine called Peel Magazine, that I couldn’t actually get in New Zealand, but I could find stuff about it online, and so I just got real obsessed with that for a bit. I also came across a guy called Chris RWK, doing these designs called Robots Will Kill, and I just thought what he was doing was so cool, and the more I looked into it, the more I liked it. I think stickers, even though I do stencils, stickers will always be my favourite…

Sparrow, hand printed sticker, 2016

Speaking of stickers and Xpres, we were lucky enough to be involved with the ‘Stick ‘Em Up’ room for the first Spectrum show at the YMCA in 2014, and I remember how deep you got into the concept there, which was built on the idea of social media networks and dissemination, which was how we collected so many stickers from all over the world. You were just hounding people for stickers! What are your memories of that whole experience?
Again, I think it was before Facebook and Instagram worked the way they do now, because they play with the algorithms and stuff, but at the time, when people put stuff up, you saw it right away, and so we were messaging all these sticker artists we stumbled across, I was getting in touch with them, telling them about this event and trying to get them interested by name dropping people who were going to be in the show. And so many people, like eight out of ten people, were keen to be in it and then two would be like: ‘This some sort of scam and you just want to get some free art off me!’ (Laughs) Which I understand!

The My Name IS… sticker board from the Stick Em Up room, Spectrum, 2016. Photo Credit: Porta

Yeah, it is understandable because of the nature of social media interaction, but it also shows that if don’t ask, you’ll never know…
Exactly, I remember, I had this book and I had written down, I think there was close to 800 people that I had contacted! Some people didn’t get back to me, but I remember thinking: ‘Man, it would be a crack up if on the day we are able to start the room, we had a big sack of stickers’, and I didn’t see it happening, but that was exactly what happened, like exactly! With that project, the other thing that sticks out was the whole team thing as well. It was Xpres, Nathan, Jen, yourself, and me, and I think it was such a cool team and we were all getting amped, everyday when something new turned up in the post we were just so excited, I’ve never been so amped!

For me, the temporary nature of that project was really cool, the fact that it is no longer there, that you can’t go and see it anymore, it’s an experience that was so ephemeral, and yet completely consumed our little team for so long, and we were so involved in the evolution of that space…
It’s like, was it even real? (Laughs) I walked around the room and made a video and I sometimes have a look at that. It was pretty cool…

You have been exhibiting more and more over the last few years, with CAP’D, at Fiksate, First Thursdays, and recently in some shows at the Welder Collective, are you more comfortable about making work to exhibit, or is it still something you are coming to terms with?
I don’t know if I’ll ever be super comfortable with it, but yeah, I’m more comfortable with it than I was at the start. But I’m a chronic procrastinator as well, so I’m always doing stuff down to the line and luckily a lot of the people I’m working with know me well and are quite patient (laughs), which I appreciate, because I know I always cut it fine! I don’t know why, it’s like if there’s no urgency, there’s no priority. But, I did always say, right from the start, if I ever felt like I was being pressured with this stuff and it wasn’t fun, I would stop. I do wonder if I get a buzz off doing stuff at the last minute…

Porta’s stencils, left, alongside Finn Wilson’s work, from the Face Value exhibition, Fiksate Design Studio and Gallery, 2017

You need the adrenaline?
That could be it, I don’t know, I’m just sort of thinking that i always seems to end up that way!

As well as exhibiting more often, and helping other artists, you have been doing some of your own public work, probably the most noticeable larger public piece you did was the First Thursdays billboard on Colombo Street in 2016. Do you want to do more outdoor legal commissions, or you would rather make smaller stencils and make stickers?
I think that smaller stuff is really my style, but after working with Flox and seeing how she made that larger scale stuff look really fun, I think it would be cool to revisit it. That panel I did for First Thursdays was a bit of a nightmare, it was a bit of learning curve. The stuff I made my stencil out of was too light, and as I went to hang it up the wind came up. I was so stressed out, I didn’t enjoy it so much. I was so relieved when it was all over, which has made me not really want to do that size again, but then again, working with Flox, she made it look like something that can be quite manageable, and that makes it attractive again.

Portas billboard for the Life Aquatic themed First Thursday event, Colombo Street, Sydenham, 2016. Photo Credit: Abigail Park

Making large scale stencils does bring a whole heap of challenges, especially when working in a public space. I guess often it comes down to compartmentalising the process, and that relates back to the stencil process itself: when you make a stencil, you cut layers and build those layers, so in making a larger scale work, it’s sort of the same principle, in that if you make those layers manageable, and build it piece by piece, you can take away some of the problems…
The other person who is great to work with and watch as far as doing large scale stuff, is Joel Hart, just seeing how, I don’t want to say he cuts corners, but I’ll feel like there is a way to do it and he’ll go: ‘Nah, there’s an easier way’, and he’ll just think outside the box and think of something different, and it’s amazing, it’s so cool to watch.

Speaking of local artists, who are you excited about? Who do you always keep an eye out for in the streets?
I am really interested to see what Kill is going to do next. I enjoy him because I never can predict what he is going to do. I sort of feel like maybe he is drifting towards doing more music, but that dude never fails to surprise you, which is great. I remember the first time I ever met Joel Hart, looking back, I was doing a market with these budget as, horrible stencils and he wandered up and his little girl was with him and we just got talking and he said he liked stencils, he didn’t say anything else and I was like would your girl like one of these, and I just gave it to her, and now I wish I had given him a better one! (Laughs) But from there, he took off with his stencils and got all famous and stuff! (Laughs) But it’s funny how things work out. I love seeing his stuff, I get amped seeing his work…

A few months ago, you helped Dr Suits with his piece for the Carnaby Lane event in New Brighton, which Joel was also part of, it looked like a fun day…
It was great! That was so much fun. I had so much fun with that. It was originally supposed to be a collaboration, but just the way things went, we ended up working with one of Nathan’s designs. So, I ended up helping him more than putting my own design up, but I just had an absolute ball. I’ve never been so relaxed working on a big piece, working outside. Nath’s just so chill about everything, and the sponsor was flicking us beers, so we were pretty happy!

Porta at work on the Carnaby Lane mural, New Brighton, November 2017

In a way, that brings us full circle to where we started: you got to use your painting skills, cutting in, masking off, to help someone out…
Yeah, I’m stoked when those skills are useful, I think that’s where my talents maybe really lie!

I think everybody knows you’re a man of many talents! So, what is coming up in the next few months?
I am going to be part of Stoked, which is an exhibition of surf-inspired art as part of the Duke Festival in New Brighton, and then we have a Fiksate show, Visitors, at The Welder on the 16th March, which should be good times, New Brighton comes to the city! Come and check it out!

Cheers Porta!

Visitors opens at The Welder on Welles Street on Friday, March 16, at 5:30pm. Alongside Porta, Visitors also features work by Jen, Dr Suits, Bols and MFC Lowt.

Follow Porta on Instagram

Uncle Harold – Keep Looking

Chances are you know Uncle Harold’s work, maybe from various exhibitions, perhaps from his recent advertising campaign with Amazon Surf and Skate stores. Although his work doesn’t have a traditional street presence, it is undeniably influenced by graffiti, street art, and most importantly, skateboarding, illustrating the infiltration of urban art within diverse contemporary artistic practices, and perhaps the rise of the expansive term ‘urban contemporary’. Uncle Harold, sometimes known as Josh Bradshaw, has quickly gained a profile in the Christchurch scene, his distinctive paintings and drawings melt away our expectations, objects literally drip from the wall, from retro shoes to coat hangers, from urban elements to iconic logos. The bright, flat colours add to the hyperreal quality of his creations, ensuring they are playful but also suggestive of the need to look again, to look closer, to see things in new ways. We caught up with Uncle Harold outside his ‘home base’ of the Welder Collective, to discuss the influence of  skateboarding, street art, his decision to pursue his art full time, the opportunities for creative people in Christchurch, and Consequential, his up-coming show at the Welder…

So, in terms of making art full-time, you are somewhat new to this right? How long have you been totally focused on making art?

Totally focused, like full-time, since mid-October last year, so, like four and a half months now. I think I’ve been taking it more seriously now for a year, but in terms of a full-time commitment, about four and a half months.

How did the Uncle Harold alias come about? Is it an intentional idea to separate yourself from Josh and instead have another identity, or is it just something playful?

It always was intended just to be playful, the name, I was pretty obsessed with old fashioned elderly people names, like Mavis and Edna, that kind of stuff, so that was where the Uncle Harold thing came from. It honestly just makes me laugh every time I see it written somewhere, especially when I see it somewhere quite formal or for a serious art event, when there are lots of fancy words thrown about and then there’s just Uncle Harold, it makes me laugh so much… I try not to take anything too seriously with art, it’s supposed to be fun, especially the drippy style, and the whole Uncle Harold thing just fits really well with that, not taking anything super serious. It’s quite nice to have someone to blame stuff on, that wasn’t Josh, that was Uncle Harold, blame him!

Do you see it having a natural lifespan that you then might reconsider? Or will you keep running with it?

I think I will keep running with it. I was actually thinking about that, I saw something about another artist who went and changed his name and became more serious, but I definitely can’t see that happening anytime soon, I’m still going to run with Uncle Harold for a while yet…

Have you always been a maker of things?

Making stuff has always been there, from back from when I was a young kid making skateboard ramps and stuff like that with my dad. I always liked art and stuff like that at school, but I was a terrible student (laughs) and I sort of lost it for a bit. But there was a time when I was not up to much, so I thought I would pick up the paint brush again and that’s when I started getting back into it fully a few years ago…

So, you would class yourself as fully self-taught?

Absolutely, fully self-taught. I have no formal training at all, it’s all just trial and error for me…

Do you think that makes you more fearless in how you go about things? You’re not beholden to doing things in a certain way, it’s more a case of just giving it a go, taking an idea and running with it…

One of my favourite things is that I don’t have to follow any rules of art, because I don’t know them! So, it all comes down to what I think and feel looks cool and what works. I don’t know if it is technically correct or not, but that’s how I see things, so that’s how I make my work. I almost feel sorry for people who have to watch me make something, it must be frustrating! ‘Mate you’re doing it wrong!’ (Laughs) But that’s what I like about it, it’s cool…

Your other background is skateboarding; how big an influence has that played in terms of that trial and error approach? Has the skateboarding attitude of trying and perfecting a trick over and over again played into your process of making art?

Yeah, absolutely, everything, everything I know, one hundred per cent comes from skateboarding. Like I say, I didn’t know any artists, I didn’t go to any schools or anything like that, everything I know about art and how to do stuff has come from skateboarding. The art I saw was on the bottom of my skateboard. I wasn’t in a gallery looking at anything, it was just what I had under my feet and then that determination of trying something until you do it and not caring about what anyone says or anything, so that has transferred over to my art…

Uncle Harold, Untitled, 2018. Photo credit Uncle Harold

Although you’re not working in the streets explicitly, it feels like your work shares a kinship with urban art and street art, and I’d suggest it ties back to the fact that skateboarding is such a big influence because that is part of that sphere of urban art…

Yeah, I think there are so many similarities between skateboarding and the dudes on the streets painting walls: you’re somewhere where you shouldn’t be, you’re pissing someone off, you’re running from authorities on occasions. You just have to look around Christchurch, I’ve spent hours out in those sketchy abandoned spots skating an obstacle, but there is a whole wall of street art and graffiti behind me, so I feel like that’s a really heavy influence on that street style.

Street skating, like a lot of street art, is about subverting the urban environment, seeing something in a different light and finding a new use for it, does that element come through in the way you make work as well?

Yeah, that is actually the whole reason behind the dripping stuff; seeing something, seeing the potential of something that isn’t anything. You know, some person walks past a bench and it’s a bench, but I walk past it and see the way the ground goes up to it, the angle it’s on, like all that stuff. Everything I paint is about seeing it in a different way than it actually is, subverting these objects…

So, by kind of melting away the façade of objects, you are encouraging the viewer to re-think the object and their take on it?

Yeah definitely, the basic point of it is everyone sees things differently, we can all look at the same thing and everyone will take something different away from it, whether it be the colours, or which parts are dripping…

Uncle Harold, Air Force One, 2018. Photo credit Uncle Harold

Which means you can take any object, right from the smallest, most mundane things, like lighters and pens, things that we handle all the time and we often take for granted in many ways, and by transforming them, we become more aware of our relationship with them…

Yeah, I’m a huge fan of making something interesting out of the most boring, everyday sort of stuff we take for granted. You take something you use every day, and you make it into something cool because no one really sees that stuff, you look at it, but you don’t really see it.

We don’t pay attention to it…

Yeah

So, by subverting it, by changing it, we are forced to reconsider it’s various qualities, both physical and in a sort of associative, experiential way as well…

Yeah

I’ve heard you introduce yourself as the guy who ‘paints the drippy stuff’, which made me chuckle, because it was this really unassuming statement, but it revealed your recognition of how it has become your signature, you must now have a process, do you have a certain way of essentially melting an object?

Once I’ve decided on the object, and it’s usually always an object, I usually think about it in the order that you see it. So, whatever is closest, those drips will be on top. So, basically, I draw it exactly like it would be in real life, but just completely dripped and melted… (laughs)

Do you ever practice by melting objects?

No (laughs), but I’ve thought about it, and I think I’m going to have a play with something like that pretty soon…

You have found a way to apply this visual concept in a whole range of different media, transforming objects in photographs by painting over the top of the image, but then you’ve also created this three-dimensional approach as well, and that’s extended from paper and card to wood. So, how does that differ, working in the two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms?

Drawing on the photos is actually a lot harder, to find a photo that will actually work with it is quite hard. I’m  also very aware that ninety-percent of the time I’m drawing on a photo that isn’t mine, I haven’t taken it, so you have to respect other people’s work, and you have to find a way that it will fit in with the photo and not take anything away from someone else’s work, and yet still allow me to put my touch on it and have it look cool. So, that’s quite hard. The layered pieces, that idea came from my grandmother. She makes Christmas cards and birthday cards, it’s called paper tole I think, and it’s where you basically cut out all the pieces and stack them and they form like pot plants and flowers, and all these delicate, very intricate little things. I was at her house and having a look around one day and I was like, I wonder if I can do that onto my two-dimensional paintings, and I just started cutting them up and layering them and it turned out quite cool…

Uncle Harold, Untitled, 2018. Photo credit Uncle Harold

Obviously with paper or card, the ability to cut and shape is quite straight forward, a scalpel will allow quite a bit of maneuverability, what challenges have come up in using wood, which is literally a much harder material?

My whole family are furniture makers by trade, so I’ve always been around people making stuff out of wood, so naturally as a kid I picked up the power tools and the skills in that department. I always wanted to go to wood, to make something a bit bigger. Definitely, cutting all the pieces out is way more intricate, and you have to be careful because they are quite, I don’t know what the word is, some of the drips are quite tight, so getting the jigsaw in and around there is quite tricky, but it’s the same principle as doing it on paper, except you are using some power tools which I’m pretty comfortable with, so it was a pretty natural thing, I always wanted to go there…

They do present different types of tactility though. There is a delicacy to the paper and there is a different sense of bulk and weight to the wood, does that mean different objects are better for different mediums? Do you find that there is a relationship between the object depicted and the medium you choose to use?

Um, I don’t know if there is, I think if I can generally make it out of paper, I can make it out of wood, but you do have to think about it more structurally. If it is wood, it is going to be heavier, you know the workings behind what you see, the actual structural integrity has to be a lot stronger, so it definitely is way more complex…

Some of those more intricate designs, with intricate bridges won’t work though…

Yeah, definitely, you have to go bigger, the bigger it is the easier it is…

Speaking of going bigger, currently your work is largely studio-based, but it has a style that would translate well outdoors, is transferring your work to the streets a logical step?

I think it is a logical step for me, it’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about and I’m really keen to do. I will go outside and paint some bigger stuff, I’m just very aware of the fact that Christchurch is one of the street art capitals of the world now, and there are a lot of street dudes out here that do it regardless, and I’m very aware that a studio artist going out there and just painting walls…

It can be received in a certain way…

Yeah, you know, there are kids out there doing it because they love it, and you don’t want to step on any toes, it’s a respect thing…

That’s an important thing to acknowledge, people tend to believe that you earn you stripes in the streets, but at the same time, with muralism in particular, it is shifting away from some of the older traditions, and it means it’s a more open field, it is now its own thing, and I think those breaks from traditions are more easily accepted. In terms of that relationship to the streets, your approach, of consistently applying and refining and expanding a visual idea, seems very much akin to street art’s fascination with signature styles; developing an approach and an identity through an iconographic imagery. So, was that idea of repetition and recognition something you were aware of?

It was accidental in the way that I started doing the drippy thing, but I obviously started doing it because I liked it, I still love the way it looks, and I like the idea of always figuring out a way to do it but keeping it new, that you can do the same thing and people will recognise it, and you will know what it is, it might not always be the same thing but still keeping elements of that drippy stuff in there. You always want to progress and try new stuff, but it’s also finding that balance, while keeping that identity that you’ve developed for yourself.

Does choosing to work with a distinct visual theme mean you have been aware of the need to keep it dynamic through intentionally evolving the processes, or have any changes been quite organic, a result of playing around?

I think it is organic, it is that whole skateboarder approach: try until you figure it out. Some might not work out, but some definitely will. I do have a lot of ideas for evolving it, it is a natural progression, so it’s quite organic, but I’m very aware that I have to find new ways to do it. I don’t want to be the guy in thirty years, ‘oh that guys still doing that!’ (laughs) ‘It’s boring now!’ (laughs) And for myself, I don’t want it to be boring, so it’s a very natural progression, but I’m aware that there will be some intentional transitions… It’s quite funny, I feel like I’m getting ahead of myself, I’ve already got all these plans, but because this is so new to me, I’m only just starting, people are only just starting to know my stuff, I’m not holding myself back, but still…

Uncle Harold, Ages 4+, 2018. Photo credit Uncle Harold

There’s a need to establish yourself…

Yeah, I’m trying to set up and establish myself first before going too far and running out of ideas too quickly…

Your work might be considered a reflection of the growing ‘urban contemporary’ field, and how the footprints of graffiti and street art are now really wide-ranging, with more and more people’s work influenced by these forms, regardless of where and how it is being made. In Christchurch, because we have been given this title as a lively site of street art, do you see that urban contemporary influence becoming stronger?

Yeah, I know from being around ‘fine art’ people, at the Welder Collective and doing those shows, that Canterbury has a pretty rich history of Fine Arts students, but after the earthquakes, you can’t deny it, there is so much of it, the low brow art, the street art, there is so much room for it. It is hugely popular at the moment and there is so much support for lowbrow people to be in those galleries and exhibitions, so you can definitely see the influence from the streets that has popped up, you see so many kids coming out wanting to be in these shows…

Your trajectory is kind of a reflection of some of those the changes, the first place you showed your work was Embassy [the iconic skate and street wear store in Sydenham], and now you are part of the Welder Collective and you have a more specific, dedicated place to work and exhibit, so you must be very much aware of the variety of avenues available…

Yeah, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that our central city hasn’t had a lot in it for a long time, so people were fed up and were like: ‘so and so wants to have an art show’, ‘yeah, sick, finally, let’s do something!’ There are so many people who want things to happen and want to jump in and support you. So, you know being anything creative; a musician, a photographer, an artist, I think there is a lot of support, and that it is actually quite easy at the moment to get that backing to do these shows…

Uncle Harold, Chuck Taylor, 2018. Photo credit Uncle Harold

So how did your connection with the Welder Collective come up? How did you end up working here and with this array of creative people?

It’s basically just been a natural progression; you meet someone at an art show or something and it grows from there. Like, I was showing some stuff at Embassy and met someone there who was in this exhibition that I was invited to be part of, then I met someone there who invited me to do something, so all these connections eventually led to someone saying: ‘You should come and check out this space that we have called the Welder’… So, I actually showed up and never really left! They are stuck with me now, I just kind of weaseled my way in! (Laughs)

You have a solo show coming up at the start of March at the Welder, what can people expect and what is the idea behind the show?

It is called Consequential, and it is opening on Friday, March 2nd . Like I was saying, I’m still establishing myself, so this show will be all works on paper, the cut and layered style. But in terms of the theme, it’s really about those standard objects that you overlook that we were talking about. But it’s not about the objects specifically, it’s about the attachments people can form, and whether it’s a lesson taught by someone or something and whether there is an object that can be pulled from that, so it is a lot of everyday objects that have a lot of significance to me personally, so that’s what the whole show is about.

How much of that biographical information do you feel comfortable putting out? Is it enough that you put the work out and the audience make their own connections? Or is it going to be more explicit in how you offer the narrative behind those works?

The nice thing about painting very plain objects is that people can form their own attachments to them. Obviously I’m not explaining exactly what the meaning is behind each thing, but I am putting a zine out that will accompany the show and that will have a wee story or something that gives a brief explanation of what the different objects mean to me, so you can choose to read that if you want to know where I’m coming from, but it’s completely up to you. Each object is standard enough that everyone can form their own attachment to it, like we say, we all look at the same thing and everyone has their own take on it…

And I think with really mundane objects, those stories can range from some really memorable experience, to just some incidental moment, with no apparent significance, simply because they are always around. What are the plans for the next twelve months? Obviously, you had the campaign with Amazon, which provided some pretty big exposure, is there anything else in the pipeline?

Yeah, the Amazon job really opened the door for more commercial work. After that job came out, a few businesses have approached me to do some work with them, so over the next few months there are a couple of exhibitions that I’m part of, but then there will be a lot of commercial commissioned work to come out after that. I’m hoping to plan a show in Wellington for later this year as well.

With those commercial opportunities, were you approached, or did you put dome feelers out?

Nah, I definitely didn’t put any feelers out! They approached me and I’m open to it, you know the starving artist thing, everyone knows that story…

An artist’s gotta eat right?

Yeah, I’m not opposed to taking corporate money to let me do my own stuff…

How differently do you conceive of the commercial stuff to what your doing on a personal level, especially having such a signature, recognisable style? Is there an ethical line you draw in terms of who you work with?

Yeah, you know there will be, you pick and choose your battles to suit your own personal views. I quite like getting a job you might not be too stoked on, but it presents the challenge of taking something and making it cool. If I can go into something I’m not one hundred percent on and turn it into something I really like at the end of it, I actually really like that challenge, so, that’s one way I look at it. I’m not like, ‘oh I’m just going to half-ass it’, if I can make it into something cool then I will happily do it.

Consequential opens at the Welder Collective (Welles Street), Friday March 2nd, 2018 at 5:30pm. You can also check out Uncle Harold’s work in Stoked, at New Brighton’s Fiksate Gallery, March 13th – 19th. Follow Uncle Harold on Instagram: @thejournalofuncleharold, and check out www.thejournalofuncleharold.com for more of his work… 

(Feature image photo courtesy of Uncle Harold)

Shraddha Shrestha – Shared Lines

Shraddha Shrestha is an example of street art’s truly global spread. In mid-September 2017, the Nepalese designer, illustrator and street artist arrived in Christchurch, by way of Glasgow (where she was completing her master’s degree in design), as a guest of local adventure clothing company Kathmandu. Shraddha’s journey to Christchurch signalled her selection as the inaugural artist for Kathmandu’s ‘Artist Series’ t-shirt collection, a project in support of the Australian Himalayan Foundation.

Shraddha’s arrival was marked by a ‘Nepalese street party’, where she and local hero Wongi Wilson painted on shutter doors in the laneway outside Kathmandu’s offices in the ‘Innovation Precinct’. Also featuring music and food trucks, the event provided a lively activation of the inner city area. Shraddha’s t-shirt design for Kathmandu, Yeti meets doko, exemplifies the artist’s distinct style; a mixture of contemporary illustration and pop culture with old world references. Her whimsical imagery and repeated patterns are immediately endearing, drawing on her own cultural identity and love of popular culture, meshing together in a playful, but often poignant synthesis.

I was able to get to know the softly spoken Shraddha as she painted a wall in New Brighton, observing her approach and chatting in between painting sessions. After initially planning to sit down and record an interview, a series of unexpected obstacles instead ensured we conducted a back and forth via e-mail in the weeks following Shraddha’s departure. The result is an interesting insight into Shraddha’s background, her perceptions of Christchurch and the growth of street art in Nepal…  

Shraddha, tell us more about how you came to be in Christchurch. What is the Himalayan Foundation Art Award and what impact has it had on your career?

I was awarded the Australian Himalayan Foundation Artist Fellowship in 2015 by the Australian Himalayan Foundation (AHF). The AHF is an NGO (a not-for-profit non-governmental organisation) in Sydney, Australia, who work towards the improvement of life in the mountains of Nepal through things like education, health and sanitation. Each year the AHF awards fellowships to two artists from Nepal, and I was one of the artists in 2015.

Through this recognition, I was connected with the clothing company Kathmandu, who collaborate with AHF and have been contributing to the education, health and welfare of the communities in the mountains of Nepal. This year (2017) is Kathmandu’s 30th anniversary, and for the occasion they were planning to bring out a limited-edition t-shirt designed by an artist from Kathmandu. So that’s where I come in. In September 2017, they invited me to the t-shirt launch in Christchurch. I was also invited to an AHF fundraising gala dinner programme in Sydney.

The fellowship has allowed artists to create their own bodies of work and exhibit in the very well reputed Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Winning the fellowship was a huge deal, as I was supported to create my own exhibition. After the exhibition and the fellowship, I am now one of the contributors towards AHF and it’s social work in my community. The award also helped me build a stronger portfolio and to get connected with many art enthusiasts and art buyers in Nepal.

How did you find working with Kathmandu? For many artists, it is important to know that any company they work with has a strong ethical foundation…

Working with Kathmandu was an absolute pleasure, they have been very supportive. I did not know the company properly before, I just knew that their brand name was the same as my home town. After I started working with them and after I visited the head office in Christchurch, I was surprised by how much work and time they invest in creating their products and trying to make them as environmentally friendly and ethical as possible. I got to meet the team there which was amazing! Most importantly, I observed that the people working for Kathmandu are so motivated and conscious about how the company works and their objective of making ethically manufactured products.

Shraddha’s painting for the Kathmandu laneway party and t-shirt launch, outside the central city Kathmandu offices.

While you were in Christchurch, you managed to fit in quite a few adventures. You spent time in the North Canterbury village of Cust, painted in both the CDB and New Brighton, and you also went surfing and skiing. What were some of your impressions of Christchurch?

I found Christchurch very interesting, unlike other big cities, I felt it was very open and spacious. It must be because of the earthquakes, since there were less high-rise buildings. It felt like Christchurch had a bigger sky! Since I am from Nepal, I am more used to hills and mountains than flat land, so when I saw hills when I was in Christchurch, it felt a little bit like travelling back home. It was so amazing that you could see the mountains and the sea in one day! The sea always fascinates me because we don’t have oceans back home. The first time I saw the sea or touched sea water was just two years ago. I like adventure sport and I like trying out new things. When I was searching the internet for things that I could do during my visit to New Zealand, skiing and surfing were suggested. I had to do both as there is no skiing in the mountains and there is no sea to surf in Nepal. And I did it! and I loved it! I will definitely do it again if I get a chance.

I found the people in Christchurch very friendly and sweet! I especially felt this when I was working on the wall in New Brighton. Many people who passed by the wall smiled and greeted me and talked to me. It was very nice to talk to them and talk about the artwork I was doing. Moreover, they were from different age groups, small kids or old grandmothers, they seemed to be interested in what I was doing in their part of the city and they tried to talk to me which is really nice and heart-warming. Even today I get messages from people from New Brighton in my Instagram, complimenting me about the wall and asking me if I am still there! They make me want to come back again!

It was also interesting to see how the street art scene has become an important part of the city. The people of Christchurch love their street art and the street artists! They have accepted the art form as a way of them rising from the devastation of the earthquakes and a way of rebuilding which is very positive and motivating. I feel that it not only promotes the art form and the artists, it also makes art as a part of life and the city’s development. We need this approach and attitude back home in Nepal as we are rebuilding from the effects of an earthquake too. [Nepal suffered a massive earthquake in April 2015, with thousands of people dead] We are also trying to help people to get over the devastation through art events, workshops and of course street art. Now I feel that we need to continue this process like Christchurch has done.

Shraddha’s mural on Switch Espresso in New Brighton

How did the shared earthquake experiences of both Christchurch and Nepal influence your perception of Christchurch’s ongoing rebuild?

As I explained before, I found it very motivating as an artist and as an art lover how the city of Christchurch has accepted art to re-emerge and rebuild from the natural disaster. But I also think there are other connections between Kathmandu and Christchurch, or even Nepal and New Zealand more generally, other than the earthquakes, for instance, Sir Edmund Hillary climbing Mt. Everest along with Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, a Nepali mountaineer. During my trip to New Zealand, I talked to some people who sadly did not know the place ‘Kathmandu’, they only knew ‘Kathmandu’ as an outdoor adventure clothing brand, so I guess it depends on who you talk to…

You explained that street art is very new in Nepal – there is really only five or six years of history. How did you come to be a part of the culture and how did you start? Did you have any specific influences?

Yes, street art is very new in Nepal. Although, we have traditional and religious murals which are hundreds of years old, the contemporary idea of street art is new. The street art scene started to grow in Kathmandu around 2010. During my Bachelor’s program around 2008, I was very interested in graffiti. I used to see it on television, like on MTV and Vh1 music videos and in magazines and books. Also, in Kathmandu, we have a lot of political vandalism, political writing and propaganda on the walls. If you ever visit Kathmandu, you would see a lot of big writing in red colour. I used to think, if people can do that, then why not do it in an artistic way like graffiti? I started to sketch, make my own graffiti in my drawing book and tried to copy the style of graffiti artists. That’s how I started to explore. At that time, street art was very rare in Kathmandu, and very little graffiti could be found in small alley ways and in some restaurants made by some tourists visiting Kathmandu.

Later, around 2010, a French artist based in the USA, Bruno Levy, produced big pieces in several parts of the city of Kathmandu. His works were very vibrant and provoking. After seeing his work around the city, I felt that if a foreign artist can do it why are not any local artists doing it? I think from his work the young artists of Kathmandu really got into the medium. Me and my other friends then started to work together and experiment in the street. The good thing there was that it’s not illegal to paint on the street like other cities all over the world. We could paint in the broad day light and nobody would stop us, unless it was a private home or property. That’s how I started painting on the street. From there, our group got bigger, we had more artists who were interested in street art like us. We did a lot of collaborative works creating big pieces. Gradually street art projects started to happen which brought in other street artists from other countries, commercial companies, embassies, and NGOs started to recognise the art form and its growing public profile. So, artists started to get support from these types of organisations. At present street art is one of the growing art forms in Nepal and I can say that within these short six to seven years, we have been successful in bringing up many talented artists who right now have been successful in showcasing their works worldwide. Of course, street art is a truly global attraction, so it isn’t surprising that it made its way to Nepal as well.

Is there a graffiti culture in Nepal that is at the roots of street art, or has the culture grown from different influences – travelling artists, online access to the global popularity of street art?

The street art culture has definitely grown from different influences. Travelling artists, online access to the global popularity of street art, media like television and books and magazines, local artists travelling abroad and more.

Did working in the streets influence your illustrative style, or was your street art influenced by your illustrative practice and the art you were already making? And how have these influences evolved?

My street art is influenced by my illustrative practice and my drawings. I was already working as an illustrator and graphic designer when I started with street art. I started with characters and free-style graffiti. I enjoyed how my small drawings of these characters transformed after I painted them on the street. It is like watching a tiny thing grow into something huge, which fascinates me a lot.

I am very much into stories, children books and character designs. I like the concept of monsters and aliens and I am very much fascinated by the iconography of Hinduism and Buddhism. I try to merge the traditional icons with modern styles and create my own characters. I am from an indigenous society from Kathmandu known as Newars, whose lifestyle is heavily influenced by Hindu and Buddhist religion and iconography. Therefore, my art works are inspired by these influences.

I am also into stories and narrations, I do storybooks, zines, comics. One of my inspirations is Herakut, I love their illustrative style and the messages and stories behind their work.

I love the mixture of your local culture with the influence of 90s cartoons, can you explain more about this combination? It also feels like there is a strong narrative element in your work, but it is subtle and suggested rather than too obvious – are there autobiographical details or do they draw from observations, or fables/stories etc.?

I grew up in a very old city called ‘Patan’ in Nepal in a traditional society. It is surrounded by medieval temples and palaces and is famous for its wood and stone carvings and metal sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities. As I said, I am very interested in Hindu and Buddhist iconography. For example, Hindu gods have three eyes, ten hands, four heads and blue skin. These are some of the unique physical characters of how we depict religious icons in the Hindu mythology. However, if we look further, some of these characters resemble how extra-terrestrial life, aliens and monsters are portrayed, especially in animation and movies. For instance, animations like the Power Puff Girls, and movies like Monsters Inc., they all have characters which share somewhat similar physical characteristics to our mythological icons.

Hinduism is based in cosmology and spirituality and does not have any fixed governing bodies. It is more of beliefs and traditions that on should follow. Therefore, perhaps, these religious icons too are from the outer space, perhaps, the gods and goddesses reside in the eternal galaxy. This is the idea that I play with when I design my characters. Therefore, these characters look whimsical and often monster-like.

Your process combines stencils and freehand painting, creating a strong, crisp graphic style. How did you come to explore the stencil technique? Particularly the repeated forms that create decorative patterns…

The work is very much inspired by Bruno Levy, the use of stencils and patterns too. Also, Nepali culture has lots of patterns like in traditional clothing and architecture, so I try to bring it into my art work. I like stencilling because it is a very efficient medium. I like my work to be neat, with sharp clean lines and fills, which is another reason why I am drawn to stencils.

Local hero Porta lent a hand for Shraddha’s New Brighton piece.

Watching you paint, you seem both very thoughtful but also very confident in a technical manner – do you feel that combination when you are working? 

I am not that confident technically to be honest! I do not have much experience working with spray cans. Back home we don’t get proper graffiti spray cans. Therefore, whenever I get the chance to use brands like Montana or Molotow, I get very excited and try to learn as much as I can. I used to work with acrylic paints back home. I am more confident using a brush. I have to have a sketch before I paint on a wall. I need to do the basic planning at least before I start. I find it difficult if I do not have a sketch, and get very conscious of making any mistakes. Perhaps that is why I do the outline with a brush as am not confident with free-hand spray paint. Since I have graphic design as my background, I feel that my work is very graphic, using flat colours, patterns, bold outlines and more. I apply this style to my murals too.

Thanks Shraddha, I hope we see in Christchurch again soon! 

Follow Shraddha on Instagram (Macha_73) and online (https://shraddhashrestha.carbonmade.com)

Cinzah – Something Bigger

Napier artist Cinzah has a calm, relaxed demeanour. But that laid-back manner belies his busy schedule. The artist, whose work spans muralism, fine art, illustration and beyond (in 2012, along with his friend, filmmaker Karl Sheridan, Cinzah produced Dregs, the first feature-length documentary film about the New Zealand street art scene), is a regular in festivals around New Zealand, Australia and further afield, exhibits his studio work, completes commercial commissions, and in addition serves as the regional director for the Sea Walls New Zealand mural festival, working with the international PangeaSeed Foundation, a not-for-profit ocean conservation organisation. Add to the mix a young family, and you get the feeling that you might be able to do more with your time.

I first met Cinzah in 2012 while he was shooting through Christchurch on his way to Dunedin to film for Dregs. I was able to hang out, watching while he painted a wall in a dishevelled post-quake New Brighton well into the night. Some five years later, we were able to catch up as he painted another wall in New Brighton, this time for the event Street Prints Ōtautahi. There was a fitting quality to his Street Prints station, returning to the seaside village, but this time under very different conditions and surroundings. We sat down at a rowdy suburban pub, and between bursts of classic rock cover music, reflected on Cinzah’s varied experiences, his distinctive style, and the street art and mural culture in Aotearoa…

So, Cinzah, like many of the other Street Prints Ōtautahi artists, it has been a pretty busy few weeks, you basically arrived in Christchurch straight from the Street Prints Mauao event in Mt Maunganui. With such a hectic schedule have you had a chance to think about the different environments? Although both events come under the Street Prints umbrella, just from a physical point of view, they seem like quite different locations in which to be painting, have you reflected on the change in setting and the distinct qualities of each event?

We kind of all just arrived and hit the ground running. It’s been flat out from Street Prints Mauao up in Tauranga, straight down to Ōtautahi. But yeah there’s definitely differences, in terms of the geographies. Tauranga, Mt Maunganui, it’s a very beachy town, with summer vibes you know, it is very tourist-orientated, whereas down here,  the architecture’s completely different, the mix of gothic and Victorian English styles and straight up rubble and construction stands apart from the Mount. Obviously, things are still in repair and there’s a lot that’s still going on, it’s also really interesting to see how the quake and rebuild has affected the local graffiti scene, with the last few years of festival-produced works, large scale commissions as well as the juxtaposition with unconventional, un-commissioned, guerrilla works and interventions, like the array of graffiti.  It’s good to see all the different elements of the culture are alive and thriving. There’s basically no graffiti in Mt Maunganui, apart from what we’ve produced over the last few festivals there. (Laughs) So yeah, that’s an immediate difference…

There is an echo for you specifically at least, painting by the sea in New Brighton, you’ve still got the ocean air…

Yeah, exactly, except that it’s arctic! The easterlies are chilling my balls! (Laughs)

Welcome to Christchurch! (Laughs)

Yeah! (Laughs)

There’s also a nice personal narrative for you because in 2012 you painted in New Brighton during a brief stop-over in Christchurch. Looking back, how has the area changed in terms of your personal recollection?

There’s a lot more art. More public works, graffiti, interesting uses of abandoned spaces, some good cafes, and Fiksate Gallery is an awesome little addition to the hood.  When I came through in 2012, there were the odd piece around, the main mall was all just shut shops, there was basically nothing open. I started painting one little semi-abando (abandoned building), which had been partly demolished, and I remember one guy coming out, I don’t know if he had one of the businesses there, but he basically gave me permission to paint the entire street: ‘Oh yeah, you can paint here, or you can paint here, you can do this shop or that shop…’  It’s great to see positive changes here, there’s a lot of potential for this neighbourhood, its good to see people inhabiting these spaces and the community taking ownership.  New Brighton is heading in a positive direction.

Cinzah’s piece in New Brighton, 2012. The building was eventually demolished in 2013.

You have a lot of festival experience; do you have a process for getting to know cities and places? Is it just hit the ground running and get a vibe as you go, or do you like to spend a little bit of time exploring before you start painting?

Definitely, if the schedule and life allows, I like to have a day or so on the ground to acclimatise and adjust to my environment and the surroundings. I like to get out within the community and meet people and talk and get a feel for what’s going to work in that environment, what sort of work would suit, depending on what is going on around there, and also just to get a feel for whether the community is supportive. Is art really going to add to that environment or will it detract from things that might be happening there?  I usually have a preconceived idea, or concept mocked up before arriving, but I like to allow room for this to breathe, grow and be influenced by my surroundings and experiences that may present themselves.

There is a definite responsibility, right? It feels as though within the muralism movement there is a growing recognition of the need to respect and engage with locations and the communities, not just the people, but with the local cultural, social and even spiritual histories and narratives. Have you found your thinking around these issues has had to grow as you’ve been more involved in events? You offer an important perspective as both an artist and as a festival organiser…

Yeah, definitely.  You’ve got to look at the motives behind an event.  What is the purpose of the festival? Is it just a beautification project? Does it have a specific mandate to engage people into deeper discussions socially, politically or environmentally, or is it contributing to an act of gentrification?  More and more cases of this are popping up globally with big developers and corporations that have an ulterior motive behind these events, pushing out homeless to allow for new hospitality hubs and ‘arts’ districts, where artists can no longer afford to live.  It’s important to do your research before getting involved in a project.  I’ve always considered my environment and held this responsibility fairly close to heart, although I’ve been walking this walk a lot more frequently lately with my role within PangeaSeed, working in small communities, with local iwi, tangata whenua and so on. Art can be considered invasive on some notes when a festival rolls into a town, produces a bunch of work and leaves, without following certain protocols or doing the proper research. As a result, the locals can be left feeling startled, without the opportunity to express their unique voices and stories. The work needs to be well considered and thought out, it’s important to engage with the local communities, and create work that is relevant, that acknowledges and speaks to it’s audience.

With that changing ethos, and the strong socio-political foundations of many festivals, it also raises questions for both artists and curators. Do you select artists who already engage with specific concepts that suit a theme, or present a challenge to artists with an interesting visual style to expand their work into new areas? As an artist how do you respond to a brief that is possibly outside of your existing approach?

With Sea Walls, first up, the artists we work with need to be good people, produce good work, and be easy to work with. We often approach artists that dabble in the environmental arena thematically, although it’s a bit of both.  If someone has killer work, and can tackle a massive wall, but hasn’t experimented with work that relates to the mandate of PangeaSeed, that doesn’t limit their opportunity. We have a massive family of over 200 contemporary muralists from all around the world, and this whānau continues to grow.

Personally, I really enjoy responding to a brief, it’s good to have some boundaries to get the ball rolling, to spitfire ideas off.  Working in the public arena artists have an integral role to deliver a message with our work, it’s an amazing opportunity to really say something when you’re thrown a giant canvas smack bang in someone’s town.  It can definitely be challenging at times to work within a guideline in a festival environment.  With these two Street Print festivals, Tauranga’s theme was: ‘He aha te mea nui o te ao / What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata / The people, the people, the people.’ I think that theme really hit the nail on the head for Mt Maunganui. The works created a really strong identity for the area and paid homage to many important local figures, it really connected with the people that will be living with these works.

Graffiti and post-graffiti have traditionally been about a search for personal style, and that’s where this challenge really becomes apparent: evolving a personal style to make it engage with issues or ideas raised for a specific event or commission…

Tauranga’s theme lent itself perfectly to the majority of the line-up. Portraiture was pretty dominant, there was Fin Dac from Ireland and he paints his female portraits, Adnate was over from Melbourne, his work often focusses on indigenous people with a hyper-realistic kind of approach, Mr G, Askew, who has been going in different directions recently but still has elements of figuration and portraiture within what he does, Claire Foxton, I could keep rattling them off… A huge amount of the line-up were portrait artists, so that becomes a really fitting interpretation of the theme behind the festival. But I think when you throw somebody in who maybe has a graffiti background, like writing letters, or somebody who has more of an abstract approach, or just doesn’t paint figures, then you’ve got a whole other super interesting hurdle, you’ve got to think outside the box as to how you approach things.

Cinzah’s Street Prints Mauao wall, Mt Maunganui, 2017 (Photo credit: Cinzah)

A lot of that comes down to public reception as well, right? Because it is generally easier to understand portraiture, and that human connection, I mean that’s why it has always been such a prominent theme. So, it’s not so much that it’s not possible when you’re dealing with graffiti letter-forms or abstraction, it’s just that possibly achieving that immediate level of understanding is more difficult…

Exactly, it is instantly recognizable or relatable, but art is all subjective, it is all open to the viewer in terms of the interpretation of the work.  People make all sorts of calls as to what my work is about. Sometimes I paint things that are super obvious as I want to deliver a strong, direct message, other times it’s a little more expressive and abstract and that’s when you get all sorts of interesting responses to the work.  In San Diego I painted a 35 metre long wall depicting local shark species, with a massive 100,000,000 type piece in the background, as this is the estimated number of sharks that get killed annually for the global finning trade. I couldn’t really be more upfront and obvious with this work but that was the intention, to be in the public’s face and to educate on the most basic level about this issue.  I still get tagged and messaged all the time on social media about this work, people have spread the mural all around the net and it’s become a really strong conversation starter. The works I’ve created for these two festivals are definitely more abstract or symbolic with their meanings, a little more in line with some of my personal studio works and gallery based stuff.

It really shows the growing maturity of graffiti and street art muralism as public art: the ability to engage with and explore themes that haven’t necessarily been part of the culture previously, so this is allowing that growth and evolution to occur, even if it is challenging some of the bedrocks that people still hold dear…

Yeah, definitely. I feel like it adds a whole other level of substance behind the work, it doesn’t make it so much about the artist, it is about a greater purpose and you are addressing something bigger than yourself and it is not flying in on an ego trip and making work that you think is fucking rad and leaving. There’s a little bit more guts behind it, I think.

With Street Prints Ōtautahi, you are painting in New Brighton, you’ve got others painting in Lyttelton, other artists are dotted quite disparately around the central city, is it strange to be somewhat isolated when you are part of something that is essentially a shared experience as a group of artists? You told me about the amazing programme you put on for Sea Walls artists [including cultural excursions such as sailing on waka hourua with Te Matau a Maui, visits to significant local geographical and cultural landmarks, and even giving artists the chance to swim with sharks in shark tanks, giving them a personal connection with the often misunderstood animals], and with Street Prints Mauao, you all spent a night on Motiti Island staying with Mr G’s whanau, these types of experiences must be important elements now, especially with so many festivals and the need for a sense of legacy and identity…

I guess having an extra-curricular programme pulls everyone together. We are all staying at the same place, we’re eating together, we’re hanging out together, we catch up every evening, so you know there is a real community vibe with what we are doing here, but definitely, the map is kind of dotted out, I’m out here like you said, there’s a couple in Lyttelton, others are more central, which in some ways means you’re kind of pushed off the map, out to the side, although I’m really happy about it, its great the festival curators considered other areas that might kind of get left off the map, because of the geographic lay-out of the city.  Talking to a lot of locals while I’m painting, they’ve been saying: ‘Oh you are out East side, this is great! Don’t forget about us out here!’ People have been saying it is really brilliant you are out here, because New Brighton needs a bit of love, it needs an uplift, so it’s all been really positive, and I don’t mind because it is a well-organised event, I’ve got my own wheels, so I don’t really feel like I’m miles out from everybody else.  It’s a different vibe altogether from Tauranga.  Mt Maunganui was a really close circuit, which creates a really seamless legacy of work after the festival, I’m not sure how this will hold up with the separation of the works…

Fill us in a little bit about what your piece. What is the concept? Paint us a picture with words…

The work that I’m painting has got a large moth that’s migrating towards a big golden sphere which could be read as the moon or the sun or whatever, but the concept I was thinking about was how to translate what has been happening here and the idea of the reconstruction of a city, with basically a new beginning, a new birth, a new undertaking or some sort of transformation. So, I was thinking about different ways to interpret that, I was thinking about the life cycles of insects, from eggs, or larvae, to caterpillar to pupa or chrysalis to adult, it’s more or less about transformation and the symbolism of having the perseverance to push forward, to follow the light side and keep progressing against all odds. Follow the light! (not Jesus, unless you’re into Jesus) I want the work to inspire hope… It sounds cheesy, super fucking cheesy! (Laughs)

Cinzah’s Street Prints Otautahi mural, New Brighton, 2017

That’s the problem with painting with words, right?! (Laughs) Because the wall looks awesome…

Yeah, just go look at the picture! (Laughs)

In terms of your work more broadly, for me there is a storytelling element that is suggested through almost mystical or mythological imagery or iconography rather than overt narratives. For instance, the animals that you depict, like serpents, moths and even manta rays, for me, they have symbolic associations, but they don’t need to be explicit or obvious to the viewer, and when they are combined with the graphic, decorative style, including the use of gold, there’s a really suggestive quality to the imagery, is that a fair reflection?

I think you’re on the money there, I’m naturally really interested in art that has a narrative, is telling a story, often from different cultures’ folklore and mythology.  My works are inspired by life, what ever is going on around me at the time, from physical as well as metaphysical experiences.  Some of my works have an iconographic feel, possible due to the use of gold. In my gallery works I use 21 carat or 23 carat gold leaf and actually I’ve done some murals where I’ve used gold leaf in them as well, although due to budget and time this piece is basically straight fat gold chromies.  I love the way gold catches the light, it has this other quality to it. I like the idea of creating icons, although I wouldn’t say my works are inspired by religious icons… because I’m not religious at all… (Laughs)

I see them as more elemental, more mysterious, almost ancient symbols that are open to interpretation. With that said, I can totally see them on illuminated manuscripts or something…

Yeah, that’s really awesome to hear because I am inspired by mythology and folklore, and I think it is really interesting to see how ancient civilisations have interpreted events throughout history. I like to weave my own little narrative, and create my own little plots within my work…

You mention your use of gold leaf in your studio works and of gold in different forms in your street works, do you feel like the relationship between street and studio is stronger than it was in the past, or are they still quite distinct for you personally?

Yeah, I feel like they are quite distinct, but at the same time they cross over a lot with subject matter, and lately more thematically as well. I think it is getting more and more seamless, heading in a direction where it is becoming more and more entangled between each other, and I do really want to explore different techniques that I use on my paper works, but on a large scale on walls, maybe limiting the colour palette or potentially going completely monochromatic and seeing how that translates to a large scale. I used to paint really loosely and really gesturally, like the piece I did back here in New Brighton in 2012 with all these loose splatters using Astro caps, Blaster caps and home made jobbies, just making a big fucking mess, and it is so much fun! And I guess over the years I’ve become more and more refined with the mural work and got tighter and tighter and tried to apply as much detail as I can, while holding a really strong graphic approach. I really enjoy painting the way I paint now, but at the same time it can become a little bit clinical, so the direction I’m heading probably brings a little bit more of the looseness and freedom of some of my ink washes and gestural studio works, potentially experimenting with using more acrylics. I mean I don’t think I’ll ever really stop using aerosols all together because I just love them as a medium, but from an environmental point of view, and for the body, they’re not the greatest…

Detail of Ethereal Flow, a studio work (Photo credit: Cinzah)

That’s a question a lot of artists are facing right? The paint companies are starting to explore how to combat that, but it is a difficult dilemma because there is a quality to aerosol painting that is really distinct and really attractive, especially when it forms such a strong part of the culture that has raised you.

Absolutely.

When you were here in 2012, you were in the midst of shooting Dregs, your documentary about the New Zealand street art scene. If you were making Dregs in 2018, how would it differ? Do you think the scene has changed dramatically?

It was definitely a snapshot of a time. It’s a little capsule as to where all the different artists were at that time, I mean, I haven’t watched it for years and I don’t know if I will watch it again! (Laughs) But, it was a really amazing experience to produce that documentary, looking back, it is really awesome to have that period and everybody’s views, practices, goals and aspirations documented historically for the New Zealand scene, before Dregs there wasn’t really anything produced in a feature length format. It is interesting looking back and seeing where all the individual artists were with their careers and their projections of their trajectories of where they wanted to go. I remember one of the questions we asked was: Where do you see yourself going in the next five to ten years? Looking back at each and every artist, they’ve pretty much all done it, and that’s really awesome to see! (Laughs) It would be really rad to do a part two, and visit the same lineup, get some proper funding and go and see all these artists internationally to celebrate where all the ‘Kiwis’ have got to…

It is interesting because if you look at the size of the culture in New Zealand, and even the sense of isolation that is still felt, the talent that’s developed here over a relatively brief period is incredibly high…

Absolutely, there’s such a strong scene in New Zealand, we’ve got some incredibly talented artists that are world class, and I think nowadays you’re seeing the rest of the world kind of realising that. You are getting a lot more of us that are working internationally, getting flown out for different events and so on, which is really awesome. When we were making Dregs, I had a turning point, I was internally fighting with the whole Kiwi tall poppy syndrome of ‘you don’t make it until you go overseas’,  I had this huge desire to go and travel and to paint internationally, but at the same time I thought, fuck that! Why do you need to go to New York, or travel to these other places to prove yourself and to prove your talent back home? So I had this idea to flip that and to bring the rest of the world to New Zealand and I didn’t really seriously plan to do that you know, it was just something that I thought would be a really amazing thing to achieve, but I guess that thought stayed with me subconsciously as down the line I ended up being involved with PangeaSeed and bringing Sea Walls out here, and over the last two years we’ve brought some of the top contemporary muralists from around the world to New Zealand.  Recently there have been a number of events that have brought amazing talent to our shores, including this event right now which has a really strong line up of national and international artists.  We’re getting a lot more attention down on this side of the world…

In many ways, the world is, at least logistically, a smaller place, right? From a Christchurch point of view, to think back that the likes of Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, Tilt, Buff Monster, Sofles, all these artists that you see in book and magazine pages, have all visited the city is amazing, but in many ways, you appreciate that they are just normal people who came up in the same way. And in that way New Zealand is an attractive place to come, because I imagine a lot of them didn’t expect to end up here when they started painting in the streets…

Exactly.  When I started out there was no way I ever imagined I would have been to the places I’ve been with my art, and it still blows my mind, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities that have come about my way, and like you said, vice-versa, having these guys come down here and be involved, and meeting these guys and you’re completely right, everybody’s just normal, awesome, regular dudes that are doing the exact same things we’re doing but on the other side of the world. For them, New Zealand is this remote, isolated, exotic island nation at the bottom of the world that a lot of people would really love to visit, so to throw them that opportunity, it’s just as exciting as it is for us to head to America or the Caribbean, or to Europe or whatever…

To finish, there is one question I’m obliged to ask, just to keep up a tradition you started: Potato or Kumara?

Argghhh! It’s still kumara man! Haha, I had forgotten about that question! Awesome!

Cheers Cinzah!

Check out more of Cinzah’s varied projects:

www.cinzah.com

MrCinzah on Instagram

Sea Walls Napier 2017 – https://vimeo.com/216788917

Sea Walls Napier 2016 – https://vimeo.com/172784145

Sea Walls Mexico 2014 – https://vimeo.com/102981926

 

 

Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 2

Part One of our interview with Ikarus covered a lot of ground, but in a sense, we only scratched the surface. In Part Two, Ikarus continues to reflect on lessons learnt and his encounters with a public confused and often angered by graffiti, before diving into how his own work and style has developed in response to his roots and his worldview. He also discusses his formative influences, and how events like Rise and Spectrum afforded him the unexpected chance to work alongside a number of well-travelled artists. Picking up where we left off, let’s jump back inside the head of one of Christchurch’s graffiti legends…

There are some members of the public who are confused by graffiti, and yet I think that means they neglect some of the formal and performative elements, like for me it’s always interesting watching a someone’s hand-style, there’s an aspect of movement, a physical quality to how that hand-style is formed, a reflection of how the hand moves. But when people don’t see it happening, it’s easy to not acknowledge those things…

Absolutely, a good example is when I was working at Project Legit (an organisation that mentored young graffiti artists, providing opportunities for legal walls alongside workshops and more), one of the big conversations you’ll have with an average citizen who doesn’t understand the culture is: “I love the stuff you do…”, even when its name based and character stuff, when they see it happen, “…but I hate tagging”. I’d say to them, I get it, you might have had your property tagged, you don’t like the way it looks visually when you’re driving around the city, because you don’t understand it, that it is someone’s name, it’s all over this place, and you don’t know that particular style, and whatever. But I will always defend tagging, I will always defend the vandalism side of graffiti because as you say, it’s where it all comes from, none of the rest of it could exist without it. So, I would explain all that and I would say, you know this is just an evolution of that and this is how it had to be in in the early days and this is how a lot of young people had to start out. Then they would say, “well, there’s no skill in doing a tag”. Then I would beg to differ and then I would show them, a lot of times I would give them a challenge: “I have this can, I’ll put a cap on it, and I’ll give you a hundred dollars right now if you can do a straight line that maintains its width, its consistency, it doesn’t go fuzzy at the end, doesn’t drip. If you can do a 50cm line that maintains all those qualities, I’ll give you a hundred dollars right now”. Not one of these people ever did it and I would sort of demonstrate a tag with various elements, like flares, down from the same point at each letter, and it has a flow and rhythm to it, and they would see it and I would say, see you couldn’t do a straight line but I could do this, does that take some amount of skill? And they would have to admit that it does. A lot of it comes down to the fact that they don’t think there’s any forethought, or any culture behind it, they just think it’s mindless vandalism. I did once have a lady, I was working on some stencils with a special needs student, and we’d made an Auckland Warriors stencil for him and I was showing him the process of selecting the image and cutting the different layers, and this lady said to me that she thought you just bought a can with a picture on it and literally waved it around in front of a wall and the picture came out. I started laughing because I thought she was joking, and she wasn’t joking! A lot of the time we’ll be painting, and it will only be the bare bones sketched up of various areas and people will come past and say that its really good, and you’re like: well, come back tomorrow and you will really like it! But a lot of it is that they don’t understand the process, very rarely, and especially over the last half a decade, do you see someone who sees the process and speaks to us, they really don’t go away with a negative thought about it you know, because they see that there is something behind it and that people are actually thinking about what they are doing. I mean, it’s sort of a lot easier for us because we are in the public painting a lot of big colourful works, but it wasn’t always like that, we were doing this back when nobody understood it, and you the police were definitely coming, someone was definitely pulling over and mouthing off at you because you were a bad example you know, the resistance that we used to face was crazy compared to what it is now, for sure…

Ikarus in New Brighton, 2016

Even what you were saying before, that people don’t realize the technique that goes into it, like the ten thousand hour idea applies to graffiti: the amount of times a hand-style is performed by someone reflects a real commitment, it is perfected over hundreds or thousands of times…

Absolutely, with graffiti, especially the people into the vandalism side of it, there’s the element of just writing your name over and over again, there’s a certain level of OCD obsessive compulsiveness. I can remember being 17 and a friend of mine had a really nice ‘S’ and I remember sitting for hours and hours and hours and dozens and dozens and dozens of pieces of paper trying to get it, so there’s a certain level of obsessive compulsiveness that comes with it, it’s just something to focus on…

I think of that scene in Style Wars with Skeme’s Mum…

“You do doodle on the paper”! Yeah, yeah, it is like that…

From a personal perspective, in terms of your letterforms, because your style has developed and been refined now over so many years and you can see how perfected your they are, what realisations have come from your personal progression stylistically?

I know what you’re saying, you’re politely saying that I do the same piece all the time! (laughs)

Not at all!

(Laughs) I do hear that a lot though. People ask me why I don’t change my letters, but if you look back over the course of everything I’ve done, it changes. But from day one, I’d never wanted to do anything more than tag. When I was young, I wanted to be a vandal, and I was really anti- graffiti art, let alone what I would of thought about street art back then. I didn’t even like big colourful graffiti murals, I called it borderline graffiti, and I was like argh that stuff, anyone can do that stuff! And I mean that’s still true to this day, anyone can take that much time and produce an amazing piece of work if you have the permission and unlimited hours and you have access to paint, you know it’s still a true thing. It’s one of the things I love the most about vandalism, that it’s pure, you get nothing from it, no one will give you anything. No one will reward you for vandalism, it’s not gonna provide you with anything positive, which is kind of the beautiful thing about it. For people that are really dedicated to it, it is pure, there is no ulterior motive, you do it for whatever reason you do it for and that’s all you can get from it, you know. But as far as my own letter forms, from day one, once I decided, okay I’m getting caught a lot, I’ve been to court, faced various fines and community service and PD and that sort of stuff, I wasn’t willing to give up graffiti, but I also wasn’t willing to keep getting caught just doing tagging and low-level bum shit. So, I was like okay, I’m going to do nice, simple letters, because you can put as many arrows and bells and whistles and fancy fat cap flares and little hooks on the end as you like, but if your basic letterform is garbage, then it’s garbage, it isn’t anything, you know, it’s just a whole lot of colours and squiggles. So, my whole intention early on was only to be able to do a simple letterform and then paint so much that nobody could count me out. I wanted to know that if a kid grew up in Christchurch, was into graffiti and they didn’t know who I was, I wanted it to be their fault, not mine! Some people want to do wildstyle letters, they want to camouflage it, they only want it to be readable by graffiti writers, but I was like no, if I’m gonna waste my time and look at getting myself jail time and getting more fines or PD, what I paint is going to be super simple. I was like, if you drive past it at 60 kilometres an hour or 100 kilometres an hour on a motorway and there is a line-up of five people, your gonna see my name, you’ll read my name first. So, that was always really important to me. Over the years there were times I tried to do like dissected connections and different kinks to letters, and various things but I just found that the thing I went back to that made me happiest was the simplest stuff. You’ll talk to graffiti writers that paint three-day productions, giant, three-metre-high, twenty-metre-long walls, but they get the exact same enjoyment out of doing a ten or twenty-minute chrome piece on a rooftop or in an abandoned building or on the side of a train track. The enjoyment level is different for different things. All I really wanted was to be a tagger, and then when I started painting I wanted my pieces to be big tags, really simple to read, and I think that’s a huge part of it, the simplicity to read and the big bold letters. Especially as my eyes get worse. I’ve got really bad eyesight, so I want my letters to be simpler, my outlines to be thicker, my characters to be bigger, just so I can see them when I stand back.

Ikarus and Yikes, central city

I would suggest that it’s led to a refined style that is instantly recognisable. I never get sick of seeing them. There’s something to savour about that repetition as well, it’s not redundant, that sense of constant refinement is so evident…

Yeah, it is down to things like logos, and I’ve read stuff with different artists over the years and they want their stuff to be like that, instantly recognisable, and that’s what I want. as I say, you’re going 100 kilometres an hour past it, and there’s an instant recognition, people that don’t write graffiti can still read it. A lot of the time people will come to the walls we’re painting and they will say I don’t know what that says, I don’t know what that says, but they say I-carus? I-karus? They can’t pronounce it, but they can read it and they say oh I know that, I’ve seen it, and that’s what I want from it. The same way you see the golden arches of the McDonalds’ logo. You know what it is. So I want it where you just drive past it super-fast and you see that letterform and you see the style of my characters, it’s super simple but you know instantly, oh I know that! Even if it’s not Ikarus that I’m writing, or the exact characters that I always paint, I still want it to be recognisable. It’s a general thing, I mean I’m not special, it’s something that most graffiti artists write for, to have their style be distinctly recognised. Same as Yikes, you know instantly recognisable. You go past his stuff and you are going to know it. His style on the other hand is so unique, and I wouldn’t necessarily say my stuff is unique because it’s really based on traditional letterforms, it’s really just a big colourful tag when you look at it.

You mention your characters, it feels like you’ve developed their own distinct presence over the last however long. It feels like the various characters have a really distinct sense of personality. Is that something you’ve been trying to develop? Or has it just occurred through repetition?

It’s a little bit of both. There’s been some conscious thought on that level. There’s been some characters I’ve done and in my head, I’ve had my own little storylines about certain characters and who they are. Some characters I do it’ll be a visualisation of something that I was thinking about at the time. Again, they’re all fairly similar. They will be the same character but with a different accessory or some sort of thing that is relevant to whatever I was thinking at the time, or if I was thinking about someone. I hide little things in there for my girlfriend, stuff like that…

Ikarus character, Embasssy Wall, Sydenham, 2014

They often seem like representations of your worldview in some way, there is a nice sense of cynicism in some ways (laughs), which I think is important because the letterforms have become an indication of you in some way, just through number and repetition, and now the characters are an outward representation of your experiences as well. They add a personal element, they’re not decorative, they are a psychological element too…

Definitely, everyone tells me my characters are just mad depressed looking! They should be cute but they all look suicidal. It’s accurate, I mean there’s a series of emo girls that I think of as the ‘Suicide Girls’. There’s various characters for various things, like the cool kid characters. There was a period where I was painting my little alien dudes with the brain exposed and that was because of whatever fucking traumatic relationship stuff I was going through at the time. But then I generally just keep using them all. Like there’s a series of boxes and cartoon things, around the back of the YMCA, if you know it, it is speaking about something…

Ikarus and Yikes, Prince tribute characters, Hereford Street carpark, 2015

There’s a narrative

Yeah, they have their own narrative, I just don’t really explain it to anyone (laughs). It’s just something I will have been thinking about and dramatizing it

And that’s it right? It’s the ability to exorcise things but you don’t have to explain it because anyone can come along and build that narrative up themselves…

Yeah exactly, that’s just art in general. I think it was Seth [Globepainter], his painting of the boy on the cloud with a ladder, at Spectrum, I looked at it and thought, with my general frame of mind, oh, look at that sad little kid sitting on a cloud. Then I saw some other people come in and say that boy’s up on a cloud and he’s so happy! It’s a crazy thing, people see different things. Some people see bright colours, and see a message behind it, some people don’t see anything…

Speaking of Spectrum and the Oi YOU! shows, over the last five or six years, who stands out that you have met or worked with that you might not have expected to get to know?

I mean pretty much everyone was fucking awesome, but standouts, from the first show, Rise, Thom Buchanan was a rad dude. He painted an amazing work, an amazing cityscape, and painted for like a million hours and layers over two weeks. I hadn’t seen his work before and he was just a rad dude who did some super rad work. Obviously, Sofles is fucking mind-blowing. Everything he did for every show was just crazy and he’s a super rad regular dude. He’s not even one of these crazy super human vegans that doesn’t drink or anything, he gets down and then does his thing, and then bombs and travels the world. He’s super crazy, he blows my mind! And Tilt! Just painting with Tilt was super cool, because early on Tilt was actually a pretty big influence on the way I do my letters. The dude does throw-ups most of the time. It’s one of those things, like from NZ, Addict, ADT, is another dude that inspires me a lot, simple letters, iconic, logo-istic, if that’s a word (laughs), but that instant identification. Early on Tilt was just going to countries and doing his throw-up and putting the country’s flag inside his throw-up, and I was like, this is fucking amazing and this means you don’t have to do fifty-colour, amazing, super technical, wildstyle bullshit and you can still get known. When I was younger, and I didn’t really do the artistic side of it, I was looking for my own style, and when I was looking through graffiti magazines and watching graffiti DVDs or I saw graffiti, it was always super technical stuff, layered up with amazing lighting effects and shadows and detail, whether it be pieces, characters or backgrounds, and that stuff would blow my mind, but it wasn’t anything I ever wanted to do. So, when I saw something super simple, like the London Police, with the big round faces, the Adidas, it was iconic, it was instantly recognisable. With stuff like that, or Tilt’s throw-ups, I would think to myself: I could have done that, I actually could have done that! Not that those guys can’t draw, but it was instantly recognisable stuff like that led me to think, oh there’s a lane I can get into. I don’t have the patience or determination to do wildstyle! My friend Reakt loved to sit down for five hours with a pencil and an eraser and work out his letters and connections and the layers, and I’m there just tearing through black books page by page doing throw ups and tags. I couldn’t do it, but once I saw that really iconic, logo-like stuff, I was like, okay, there’s a lane, there’s an area I can get into. The same as I just want to do simple letterforms, I can do simple characters. The first characters I did were just big round faces, you know still fairly similar, but I used to call them the ‘Bubblegum Fuck Faces’, and they were just big round colourful fucking cartoony looking faces and that was it, and then it sort of evolved from there and moved on over the years.

The ‘Blackbook’ wall, originally painted by Ikarus, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and others for Rise in 2013, shown here in it’s second iteration…

I know we could go on, but you’ve got some painting to do, and I know this is probably just the first time I hit you up for thoughts and opinions! So thanks for sitting down with us…

No problems.

Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 1

He won’t remember, but I first met Ikarus in the early 2000s. I was a University student and as part of a course on hip hop culture I was taking, Ikarus was painting a demonstration piece as part of a ‘hip hop summit’, as the lecturer called it, at the old student’s association bar. I had taken every opportunity in my studies to write about my fascination of graffiti and street art, and I spent the afternoon intently watching Ikarus paint. I meekly mentioned my interest in graffiti, but understandably, Ikarus seemed non-fussed by some student type’s attraction to a culture that he lived and breathed in real life, not in essays, only serving me a nodding acknowledgement. Close to ten years later, I was re-introduced to Ikarus for a project in the central city Re:Start Mall , affording me the chance to work with him and Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson. Since that re-introduction, I have been able to get to know Ikarus as the funny, acerbic and insightful personality he is. Fortunately, now I consider him a go-to figure for advice and opinions on graffiti matters. I even joked with him that when I have to reflect on any writing or statements, I use the phase ‘What Would Ikarus Think?’

While he laughed my motto off, Ikarus is deserving of his place as a true legend of Christchurch graffiti art. From his early days getting up in the streets, his place in the mighty DTR crew, working as a mentor and tutor for Project Legit, and his involvement in the Rise and Spectrum shows alongside countless independent productions, he has earned respect. Over the years he has forged strong opinions on graffiti’s traditions and history, as well as the rise of the mural art movement that he finds himself part of, despite never holding such goals as a young graffiti writer, reflections that show a deep understanding of his, and the culture’s roots and potential futures.

In early December, we sat in a loud, windy laneway in the Central City and over pizza slices, discussed some of Ikarus’ recent projects, his take on graffiti and street art, and his own work’s development over a long and winding path…

So, Ikarus, you have a couple of busy weekends ahead, this weekend is the opening of the East Frame youth space, where you, Freak and Yikes are painting three of the Oi YOU! donated spray cans (with other selected artists painting the five other cans), and then next weekend you’re off to Auckland for Berst’s Forum event, which will have you painting, giving an artist talk, and are you part of the event workshop?

No, we go home before the workshop, but we’re painting a couple of walls. They got us one wall that we have to paint and then there’s a couple of optional ones during the weekend as well, which we can do…

As for this weekend, give us a little bit of background as to how you guys came to be involved in the youth space project and the idea behind the giant spray cans…

Basically, we were approached by Oi YOU! and GapFiller regarding the installation. Oi YOU! donated the eight large spray cans, and GapFiller along with Fletcher Living, have created this youth space. The whole youth space itself is going to have a basketball court, a café, a little youth centre area, and of course the spray cans. The way that it’s going to work is that three of the cans will be sectioned off and will be for semi-permanent to permanent works, and myself Yikes and Freak will be painting those tomorrow, and the other five grouped together will be what they’re calling an evolving art space, which will be an open space where young artists can practice and not worry about getting into trouble. It’s kind of the first spot actually in the city that’s been officially declared for young people to come and practice their stuff, so that’s really good…

The DTR cans in progress at the East Frame Youth Space opening day event. Left to Right: Jacob Yikes, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and Ikarus

You’ve been pushing for this kind of concept, as an alternative to kids ending up in other spaces, for quite a while and yet you’ve always met some resistance, so what do you think has made this possible now?

Part of it would have a lot to do with the amount of different graffiti art and street art that’s been popping up over the last few years. Public perception towards it has changed a lot than, you know, ten years ago. People see it as a much more positive thing after the earthquakes when the city was really destroyed. A lot of people started to appreciate the splashes of colour and pictures and stuff everywhere. But also, Oi YOU! donating the spots and then GapFiller having done so many different projects over the years, I guess those two names and the results that they’ve shown over the years for projects that they’ve done, I think that probably helped sway the Council towards them giving it a shot. And yeah, like you say, I’ve been trying argue the point for legal walls for a few years now because obviously kids are going to go and practice somewhere and you may as well structure a place where they can do that without fear of getting into trouble, because you know it wastes a lot of tax payer money just to have the Police called and they’ve gotta go down there and chase it up and whether they end up arresting them and charging them, I mean it’s all those things, it’s counter productive and also leads that kid to have a bad attitude about the community, about the Police and you know about the Council and stuff. Even symbolically, having eight giant spray cans in the middle of the city is a crazy thing in far as it being a statement on Christchurch’s part that they now view graffiti and street art as forms of art. So now it’s really good to have a spot where kids can actually come and practice and try and hone their talents and turn it into something more positive than it has been in the past.

Spray cans have had this sort of stigma attached to them for a long time, so as you say, symbolically, these objects show a shifting of the guard. I also remember you saying quite often that what authorities are doing, what they have been doing, is not working, that it’s time to change and try something new…

Yeah, exactly, I mean it’s that classic saying: the definition of insanity is to continue doing something that isn’t working, and expecting a different result. For years the policy or the stance has been anti-graffiti, anti-tagging. It’s been catch a kid tagging and whether they arrest them, charge them with wilful damage, give them community service, or on a couple of occasions people have done small prison sentences for it, but like I say, all that does is foster negative energy and it’s a lot easier for a young person, if they are interested in the art form, it’s way easier for them to get one can of spray paint and go out and write their name on a bunch of stuff than it is for them to be able to gather half a dozen to a dozen cans of spray paint and then find somewhere that their allowed to go and practice. It’s sort of like the proactive vs reactive measure you know, there’s not much point just continually catching kids that are doing it, punishing them and then having no real change. I haven’t seen the statistics, but I’d be surprised if graffiti ever went down based on that approach…

It’s important to reflect on whether the culture of today would exist if there wasn’t that history of having to react against the institutional response. I mean there’s now this really big divergence in how artists come to be defined as ‘street artists’, but a lot of the roots of what is now this immensely popular culture, have to be acknowledged as coming from the resistant nature of graffiti right? It’s born from the need for people to express themselves and to get out and do it. You’re a traditionalist around this in some regards, and it’s going to exist either way, but as you say, just giving a space like this which is going to remove some negative energy is a positive move…

Yeah, one of the things I would always try to explain if I was having this conversation with Council members or just general members of the public that don’t understand the whole art form, is that graffiti and vandalism is going to exist because its so easy. It’s always existed you know, people have written their name on things before spray cans and before graffiti as the culture we know it today was born, people were still writing their names on things. When we were young and there was nowhere for us to paint, the only reason that we got to learn the things we did was because people we knew gave us places to paint. There were a couple of walls you were allowed to paint, like we’d gotten through, not public ones but through owners of buildings and places. So we would have our own spaces to paint, and without that we would’ve, I would’ve just kept on the same path without ever probably evolving into anything else.

Graffiti also suggests that you can understand urban space in a different way through commandeering areas. Graffiti writing is kind of symptomatic of the ability to navigate a space whether you are given permission or not. A graffiti writer will go to those places that a normal member of the public shies away from. I think there is something interesting in that, and particularly in Christchurch, where we’ve had so many spaces that have been empty or available, but now these spaces are being redefined. There will always be a need for people who head out and explore the city and actually illustrate to other people that there are spaces we ignore or forget or don’t know…

Yeah, absolutely, a lot of that has to do with the fact that originally and historically graffiti has that stigma attached to it, and oftentimes it is forced into those areas because they are the spaces that the general public aren’t paying attention to, you know like an abandoned building, your train lines, your rooftops in the middle of the night, your alleyways, stuff like that where regular people aren’t going to be as much, so it was sort of a necessary thing. Plus there’s that aspect that graffiti and street art are, or in the past have been, largely youth cultures, and as a teenager you’re always out exploring a city, through skateboarding or graffiti, or whether it’s just through being among friends. Like when I was young, long before we were even thinking about graffiti, we used to climb a lot of rooftops around the city just because it was accessible, and we wanted to see what’s there and you want to be there. Graffiti became that thing where like I will make a small mark so that the next person that comes will know that I was here as well. It has all grown from that.

Post-quake there is a new generation that have experienced this really unique landscape where there has been so much access to the myriad damaged and abandoned places, so it will be interesting to see where these creative impulses lead a newer generation who have grown up knowing a city that is basically a giant playground…

One giant playground for that sort of thing, absolutely. We’ve definitely had that conversation among ourselves that if we were younger and still in our earlier destructive phases (laughs), when this all happened it would’ve just been like the biggest playground! It has, not necessarily created, but spawned a lot of extra graffiti and vandalism and art because things were in such a state of disrepair, because youth are going to go out and explore these areas, they really blew up. But then also because it had such a huge visual impact, because there was so much, you started to get more and more regular people taking notice of it, and now you know there’s a lot of areas, and I’m not talking about large scale murals, I’m talking about like some of the car parks and alleyways around the city that have just traditional graffiti characters and name pieces where like no matter what time of the day you’re there, you’re generally going to run into people who are there taking photos, whether it’s people who live here, or tourists that have come to see the city in the way it is. I feel like we’ve got a lot of earthquake and graffiti and street art tourism in the last few years, so there’s just constantly people in all these areas now. But ten years ago, even if we were painting a legal commissioned wall, people would see us and call the Police. People would think we were doing something wrong until we spoke to them. Now, 95 to 98 per cent of the feedback you get from your average pedestrian or onlooker as they come past is all super positive and especially from Christchurch residents, you know a lot of them have told us stories about how seeing a certain work really uplifted their spirits in times when everything was super bleak around here…

Ikarus in the Hereford Street carpark

That broken environment exacerbated the impact that those sorts of expressions can have. The interesting thing now is how people reconcile the shiny glass facades that have popped up everywhere against the knowledge that there are all these other types of expression that can make a city lively and vibrant as well. It will be interesting to see how those reactions evolve…

Yeah, definitely, I feel like during the rebuild there has been a really great amount of integration of art and large-scale mural work alongside the rebuilding of the city. It’s becoming a focal point. People see these big walls they have and see there’s an opportunity for a good piece of art or a large-scale work. I think that’s possibly going to continue until it bottlenecks, and everything has something large scale on it… (laughs)

I think the interesting thing is how the different types co-exist, because, as you say, the large-scale murals are generally going to bottleneck, there are only so many walls. But there will always be other smaller spaces for people to leave a mark as well…

There’s only so many artists as well…

Especially wen it comes to artists who have the experience to work on a larger scale, the chance to get to that level is, at least traditionally, tied to those smaller spaces…

Yeah.

So, the Forum event in Auckland is a good chance to connect with other well-known graffiti artists, which must be pretty exciting. Berst has organised the event and he is a pretty key figure in the New Zealand graffiti scene, what is your relationship with him like?

Yeah for sure man, it’s exciting but also just fills me with dread and anxiety! There will be a couple of top tier guys there, but we know these dudes, we’ve met them and painted with them several times over the years. We met Berst in like 2006-07, and back then he was just a super active graffiti writer. He was really amazing, literally the first time we went painting with him I was amazed, but he was just a regular cat man, painting a bunch of freights. But he was super motivated though, that’s the difference. He’s a bit of a super human you know, and he’s really active in trying to widen, I mean similar to what Freak and myself have been doing for years, just trying to widen the general public’s perspective on what graffiti is, what street art is… The event is called ‘Forum’ and maybe half a dozen to ten artists are coming from various places around the country, a couple from Wellington, some Aucklanders. Everybody who is doing it is coming from a different avenue, some are graphic designers for example. Myself, I’ll be speaking about my time with Project Legit, back in 2008-10, as well as some of the stuff we’re doing now, like the youth space project, the workshop stuff we do. Freak  [Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson] is going to talk about his business. It’s sort of a talk about the various offshoots that graffiti has led a lot of people to. There is a lot of stuff that I never would’ve imagined doing or even that I was aiming towards when I first started out, so it’s good to give people an idea about this, about what is behind it, and what can come of it as well…

How you see the traditions of graffiti fitting into what is now commonly referred to as the ‘street art’ movement (which is a problematic term anyway). Specifically in a formal sense, because the formal elements of graffiti, the letterforms, even the elements like character work, the techniques that are important for graffiti writers, they’re distinct and street art has sort of opened this big bag of other approaches which are not perhaps faced with the same stigmas that graffiti writing has had to deal with. As someone who is a graffiti writer and a constant defender of it…

Staunch defender, advocate!

How do you place it within everything that is going on and how have you managed to maintain your roots as you’ve been part of it as well?

The bottom line of all of it is, I feel like with this new wave of street art, and this isn’t to bag any particular image or artist or anything, in regards to the large-scale murals, but a portrait of a face, paint a giant bird, you know, paint a nature scene, give them a pukeko and some native fauna or flora, and it’s an easy sell, you know what I mean? It’s easily digestible and palatable to the public. It’s a commodity and it’s able to be commercialised in that respect. While all of those things are great, a lot depends on where an artist has come from and their general stance on various aspects of it. Like you say, traditional graffiti in the way of name-based colourful pieces, cartoon style characters, bright cartoony colour combos, stuff like that, is often, I feel, driven to the wayside in the wake of this new emerging style of street art and street murals and large-scale work. They are all great together, but I personally would hate to see the traditional stuff pushed all the way out of the way for the new stuff. As anybody who has sort of invested in the history of any movement, the new stuff couldn’t exist without the old stuff, and I feel like it has to have some sort of precedence, it has to have some sort of importance.

Ikarus, Christchurch central, 2017

Talking about lineage and legacy, I’m thinking about some street art imagery and some of the imagery you’ve talked about, and you know often it’s coming from people commissioning work rather than artists. Because if you think about some of the imagery that would have defined street art at the turn of Millennium, it was those subversive riffs on popular culture, and you don’t really see those images turned into murals either. Likewise, it can still be hard for artists to get the chance to do something abstract when it comes to commissioned work (at least in Christchurch), and with letterforms there’s a lot of the same qualities as abstraction as well, so many artists have to exist within this compromised, dichotomous approach: “this is what I want to do, but this is what I’m going to have to do…”, and reconciling that becomes a real challenge…

Yeah absolutely, I find it the same. I do a certain amount of commercial work and from time to time the subject matter is going be something you’re not the most stoked about, but as long as you can keep it true to your own style and the definition of what you’re doing, then you can basically do it. Like I say, the bottom line with graffiti, and the whole idea of it as an art form, is that you do what you want to do, but with that said, within a defined set of rules and guidelines, an as much as you can bend and break those guidelines you do need to know them, to know the history. I mean it’s the same as any culture, you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run and you’ve got to know something of the history of the thing you’re interested in and where it came from…

Like you said earlier, some of the defining characteristics of graffiti, it doesn’t seem like people should have such an antipathy to things like bright colours, names, cartoony characters… We all write our names thousands and thousands of times over and over again, we use signatures in our day to day business, and we take pride in our signatures, so there’s not that much difference, but that affront to private property overrides any aesthetic enjoyment…

Yeah and that’s it, traditional graffiti in its name-based, character-based cartoony form, is of course derived from tagging and vandalism and destruction of property, so it is always going be tied in with that. Newer street art, like with a bird, or scenery, or a portrait, is very far removed visually from the idea of writing a name. Often as well, the mediums the new artists are using, it’s paint rollers, brush work, there are still cans involved, but it’s not the same thing, and I think that lends to the palatability of the new forms of street art and mural work. Whereas traditional graffiti as an art form is always going be difficult, and so it should be. But they are branches of the same tree, it’s an evolution. Graffiti as an art form is an evolution of a basic signature, it’s all based around a name and around having your name known, manipulating letters, the structure of letterforms, working with different colour palettes to create something unique and visually appealing. But yeah, like I say, the main problem it has as an art form and the main reason it is held back is that vandalism side. Plus, a lot of people that are practitioners, traditional graffiti-style artists are perhaps not the most personable people (laughs). You know they are not always the most eloquent, they don’t always want to explain themselves. We’ve gotten good at it because we’ve spent years at the forefront of it, trying to change people’s perception of it, so there’s sort of like a bunch of go to phrases and references, that I can draw on.

Check in next week for Part 2, where we talk about the public perception of graffiti and the technical qualities people don’t necessarily see, Ikarus’ own stylistic development and influences as well as some of his experiences in Christchurch’s post-quake explosion of art in the streets… 

Jacob Root – So Much Fun

As part of a new ongoing series of interviews with young (and young at heart) local artists who have been a part of, or influenced by graffiti and street art, we caught up with young stencil artist Jacob Root, aka Distranged Design. The diversity of the city’s young creatives is notable, but the influence of urban art is undeniable in the work of many, either evident in techniques, material approaches, conceptual ethos, or of course, although not exclusively, by the explicit act of working in the streets.

Jacob’s work has been undeniably influenced by the global rise of urban art and locally by the emergence of graffiti and street art’s popularity and visibility. While he does not have a background in graffiti writing, his work illustrates the way urban art has become an established visual language and gateway for young creatives both inside and outside, raising questions about the notions of ‘authentic production’ and highlighting the evolving landscape of this cultural phenomenon. His choice to use employ stencils is fitting, as the technique is a microcosm of sorts of these winds of change, the guerrilla political roots are still inherent, but they now exist alongside intricately detailed studio productions and large-scale murals.

Jacob’s eagerness is infectious and refreshing. When we sat down to talk, his responses were littered with phrases like ‘it was so much fun’ or ‘it’s awesome’, signs that he is enjoying making art and the experiences it has afforded him so far. In a world where cynicism is often too easy to embrace, Jacob Root is busy having ‘so much fun’…

So, Jacob, introduce yourself, let people know who you are and what you do…

My name’s Jacob Root and I’m a 17-year-old design student at ARA. I’ve been teaching myself recently how to do my own artwork, like I can’t really hand paint or things like that, so I’ve gone with the whole stencil approach and it’s kind of kicked off a bit, I’m pretty stoked on how it’s been looking…

You’ve definitely been visible, you have recently had work in several exhibitions, you’ve been busy painting Chorus boxes, and you’ve also been assisting some other artists on their projects, so give us a bit more information on what has been keeping you busy…  

Recently its been the Chorus project, which are the big cabinets, the green boxes around the place. I got asked to do two of those to spruce up an area in Gayhurst Road. I was pretty stoked to get asked to do that, I wasn’t really expecting anything like that to come along, but yeah, its been awesome doing bigger pieces, bigger stencil works. It’s so much more fun to work on that bigger scale.

‘Legends’ Chorus box, Gayhurst Road, 2017

And you’ve worked with Joel Hart on a couple of his pieces, how have you found that experience?

That’s awesome aye, it’ so cool, Joel’s such a nice guy. It’s so much fun learning different approaches to things that I wouldn’t have thought about doing, different ideas on stencil work. So yeah, it’s so cool.

Jacob and Joel Hart at work on Joel’s Welles Street mural, 2017

And of course, you have been exhibiting your work, you have been in a couple of shows at the Welder Collective [Jacob was part of the Welder shows Unframed and Throwback], and you’ve got some work in a show coming up in a show at CoCA, tell us about that show…

The CoCA show is run by Bounce, by the Red Cross [Bounce is a website focused on youth well-being], and it’s a youth exhibition, so it’s for 25 year olds and under, and I’ve got a couple of pieces that will be exhibited there, I’m pretty happy to be asked to go in there…

Are you from Christchurch? Are you born and raised in Christchurch?

Yep, born and raised in Christchurch, I’ve been here my whole life…

So you’ve obviously been here through a pretty chaotic but fascinating time period, and especially for the rise of urban art. So, at your age, the experience of the city being rebuilt, it must have been a pretty formative period for you right? How much of an influence has this post-quake landscape and the visibility of urban art had on your work?

I love like, just going through town now, everywhere you look, there’s so much street art. It’s just such a bright, vibrant kind of place to come through, even though like its had its dark toll on the city, there’s been a spruce up with the art and I reckon that its kind of like bringing it back to life, it’s been awesome. It’s such an impact seeing top artists like Owen Dippie, I love his big ballerina piece [the now obscured piece on the rear of the Isaac Theatre Royal], seeing that kind of stuff in your own city, it just gives you a bit of a kick to keep going for more.

Do you have a background in graffiti or street art in a traditional sense?

Nah, I can’t write graffiti or any thing like that, I’d be pretty keen to learn, for my backgrounds and stuff…

That’s an interesting point because urban art is now so widespread and ubiquitous, that it’s influence is becoming more diverse, or at least it is showing itself in more ways than just the traditional ways of getting up, and you are kind of an example of that…

Yeah, exactly, I like seeing the pop in the background before a work develops, I like seeing how it just kind of gives it that push forward and then that final piece over the top.

And the urban landscape is an influence? The backgrounds in your work, to me, echo urban environments…

Yeah absolutely, I love the style of SAMO, Jean Michel Basquiat, even though its writing and mine’s not like that, just seeing that out there, just different types of stuff.

There’s an expressionistic quality, right?

Yeah, and I just go with what I feel in my backgrounds, so it’s not going look the same each time.

It’s interesting that with a lot of your work, your pop culture references seem to predate your age. Have you always been fascinated by other generational icons? The likes of Bowie, Basquiat, Monroe, Warhol, these types of figures are influential for everyone I guess, but I would suggest that you would be receiving their influence through different filters…

Yeah, I love seeing the people that have made a mark on cultures in what they’re trying to do in their life. I think that’s a major push for me, just doing icons and things like that, like with the Chorus boxes I decided to go with legends, I did Michael [Jackson] and Elvis [Presley], I thought that was pretty fitting, its my type of style.

Jacob’s ‘Warhol and Basquiat’ piece for Unframed at the Welder Collective, 2017

Actually I had a conversation with someone not too long ago, about how stencil artists often seem to begin by producing images of pop culture icons, and you appear to be another example of that. Why do you think that sort of imagery suits the stencil technique and aesthetic in particular?   

I think it is just like photographs that are iconic and things like that that people turn into art, I think that’s why people sort of turn to that style, or at least that’s why I’ve approached it because it’s cool bringing those photos back into perspective for other people.

There’s a transformative element too when you are creating a stencil, you are essentially reducing the image and then recreating it, so there’s a different approach than a photograph…

Yeah, it’s kind of like working from the background, back to front. It’s been fun learning stencils and learning all that process and trying different things.

Any particular influences in terms of stencil techniques or the aesthetic you’ve developed?

I’ve only just really started looking at other people’s work that has influenced mine, but it has been people like Alec Monopoly and Tristan Eaton, and Rone, even though some of them aren’t stencil artists, their kind of work is what I look at and I think, that’s awesome, that’s sick. Tristan Eaton’s work is just so intricate, just the pop, that’s kind of what I look for in street art, brightening up a certain area, if that’s what you’re getting asked to do…

So your goal would be to start doing bigger walls?

Oh yeah, I’d definitely be keen to start doing some bigger pieces, it’s so much fun working on a bigger scale…

Obviously it produces a lot of challenges, and working with Joel [Hart] would help to start to overcome some of those, or at least to think about challenges that come up. What challenges has the stencil technique already thrown up and how has your mindset developed the ability to problem solve?

Even just doing the Chorus boxes, printing the stencil plates to the right size was a challenge, connecting the pieces of A3 paper to get them the exact same scale and stuff for each layer, because otherwise its gonna throw the piece out. But Joel’s taught me a lot, doing the Welles Street mural and it has been awesome kind of putting that to use in my own work, it’s been sick, it’s been so much fun.

How do you break down the process from cutting to spraying a stencil? Do you always start with the image, or is the actual technique of putting an image together in an almost mechanical approach sometimes a stylistic influence?

I love doing it because when you see the finished piece it kind of makes it worthwhile, it’s like, you spend all that time cutting, and get hand cramps and all that, when you do smaller pieces, intricate cuts like that, it is worthwhile when it comes together and starts forming a realistic image

In some ways it’s a blind faith right? You are cutting and cutting, and then, at least in the beginning, you are kind of hoping that it comes together…

Yeah, you’re cutting and it’s like, I don’t know why this piece is like this, what’s this piece going look like when it’s cut out, but when you spray it, it’s like ‘oh, I get it now’…

In one of your recent pieces, you experimented with your background layer, where it actually forms part of the central image rather than just a backdrop…

I’m experimenting with that technique because with my backgrounds they can start to look really similar, so I’ve tried to pop stuff to change it, so you know it’s still my art work, but its just different. So, I’m looking at doing a Jimi Hendrix with his suit being that kind of background pop…

Jacob’s ‘Marilyn’ piece for Throwback at The Welder Collective, 2017

Do you know of Martin Whatson? I assume he is an influence with that approach…

Yeah, he is definitely an influence, his stuff is awesome, his prints and his street stuff, with the graffiti layering and street art style stuff over the top is definitely an influence on why I’ve gone in that direction. I’m keen to do some other pieces like that…

On a personal level, who has been particularly helpful in your development?

My parents have been the best, they’re awesome. I’ve turned Dad’s brewing shed into my studio and basically that’s where I go and spray and do all my painting and things like that. And definitely Joel, he has helped a lot. He’s such a cool guy, I’m just thankful that he has taken time to come and help me, like it’s so cool just being able to work other artists, like even going into the Welder and everybody’s like so genuine, they like what they are doing and they are happy to help other people, it’s sick.

What does the future hold for you? What are your goals and how do you see what you’re doing now progressing?

My goal would definitely be to try and turn my art into a career, I’m pretty keen to do my Bachelors (Degree) so I have a back-up if that doesn’t quite go to plan, but it’s definitely what I want to go with because I’ve started to lose a bit of interest in studies as I’ve been doing so many different projects, it’s been so much fun. But, I’m definitely keen to start doing some walls and picking up the scale.

Any plans to travel?

I’m going to Vietnam next year, so I’m pretty keen to arrange something over there while I’m going so I could do a piece there, that would be pretty sick.  I’ve never done something out of Christchurch. In Venice Beach [in California] you can just go and paint the walls and things just right next to the skate park, and I’ve heard that there’s apparently this beach in Vietnam that’s the same kind of thing, same kind of situation, you can just go and anybody can paint them, so that would be pretty cool, going and chucking up a piece there…

Anything else that you want to add?

I’m loving anybody that has anything to do with my art over the last eight months or so, I just want to say thanks, its been so much fun, everybody’s been so welcoming. That’s what I’m loving about Christchurch, all the genuine people who are keen to see you keep pushing yourself…

Thanks for chatting to us

Thanks for having me…

Mr G – Faces and Places…

Mr G’s David Kidwell mural, intersection of Tuam Street and High Street, central Christchurch

Mr G has had an adventurous few years to put it mildly. His monumental portraits, such as his Prince tribute in Minnesota, and his depiction of Kiwi hoops icon Steven Adams in Oklahoma, have raised his global profile. While his 100 Portraits project has seen him paint up and down New Zealand (including a stunning portrait on a vertical cliff face). His refined style has adorned surfaces in an array of locations far outside the normal resume of a New Zealand mural artist. He was recently commissioned to paint a large portrait of Kiwis (the New Zealand Rugby League team) coach David Kidwell here in Christchurch, building excitement for the Rugby League World Cup by honouring a local lad ‘done good’, while also adding to the city’s collection of murals. The work illustrates Mr G’s dazzling technique, and his ability to imbue a sense of personality in his subject’s likeness. Kidwell’s portrait exudes a warmth, even as the grey-scale palette perfectly plays off the exposed concrete surface. We caught up with Mr G at the site of this new work, the intersection of High Street and Tuam Street, to chat about the mural, his technical approach and his connection with the communities in which he paints.

RW: So Mr G, first things first, how are the Kiwis going to fare in the Rugby League World Cup?

Mr G: (Laughs) Yeah, you know, I’ve always backed them and stuff bro, and I guess for me I’ve kind of been a league fan off and on throughout my life. I played league for a bit when I was in Intermediate in Kawerau, for the Kawerau Raiders. There was a period there where I was a full-on follower. I’ve just come back from Sydney as well, living there for 5 years, and you know, it’s like a religion over there…

Especially in Sydney right?

Yeah, I followed the Doggies (the Canterbury Bulldogs club) over there, and I have done some work for them, and the Wests Tigers as well. Friday nights were pretty customary to stay home and watch the games!

Well, after such a controversial build up, the Kiwis made a good start last night anyway against Samoa… [The rest of the tournament did not bode so well, but that’s another story…]

Yeah, it was a good game!

But let’s get back to the main reason we are chatting, you are here in Christchurch painting this tribute mural to the coach of the Kiwis David Kidwell, how did that come about?

I got approached by ChristchurchNZ, they were looking at doing something quite unique to help as an activation for the Rugby League World Cup. They were aware of what I’ve done in the past and stuff and so they approached me. I’m pretty fussy when it comes to doing any kind of commercial gigs and all that, they need to align true to what I’m about as well, and who I am as a person. I’m all about supporting people that I respect, so I though, I’m keen for that. It’s a good opportunity for me.

And this is the only piece being painted? There are no other murals being painted around New Zealand for the World Cup?

Yeah, it’s just this one.

Being quite particular with commercial works, I would suggest that after the last couple of years and the amazing projects you’ve been able to undertake, you now have the profile where you can be a bit more selective, or has that always been something that you’ve been careful about?

Yeah, I guess for me, I’ve chipped away at it to a point where I’m able to do that you know. I’m grateful for that. But obviously its hard work and all that, but as an artist you know, for me,  I’m always just trying to keep my work honest, and authentic and as a reflection of what I’m about really. I kind of filter any jobs or enquiries that come through, through that filter first man, and just go from there.

I read recently that you don’t necessarily agree with your work being pigeon-holed within the term ‘street art’. For me, I think your work is indicative of the contemporary mural renaissance that is going on around the world, which should be acknowledged as providing a different context to the complicated narratives of ‘street art’, would you agree? I mean obviously artists are always wary of being placed within restrictive definitions, but the muralism movement provides some breathing room, do you see yourself more as part of that emergence?

Yeah, for sure man, but the thing is I’ve got a body of work that I’ve been chipping away at on the downlow really for a while, that as an artist I feel is, you know, an accurate representation of what I’m about. So you know I’m getting into whakairo, which is Maori carving, and incorporating some of those elements that aren’t anything to do with street art. You know, actually my background is strong drawing and portraiture and you know, I’ve done a lot of acrylic painting, and a lot of canvas work prior to doing street art per se, but the thing is with the street art medium and the scale and you know I guess the way everything’s heading right now, it just gets everyone’s attention and just because you’re holding a spray can people think, oh wow, you’re a cool funky street artist! I don’t get caught up in all that man. For me I prefer to paint in really remote rural locations, where no-one’s around, it’s just cows and just peace and quiet and just me and the wall.

That’s something I’d like to come back to actually, but first I wanted to ask, because you mentioned your multi-disciplinary background, obviously people recognise how refined your aerosol technique is, is it almost like drawing now with a spray can for you? It certainly looks like it is…

Yeah, for sure, it’s the same approach you know, for me drawing is the foundation. Like there are a few street artists out there that sometimes I think they think the work that I do I’ve got like one secret trick that just makes it look really cool. But the reality is that it is just a lot of drawing, a lot of sketching and understanding principles like value, form, shading, lighting, all that sort of stuff, you know chroma, which comes into play with lighting, and how that effects realism in general, and all that sort of stuff man. If you have a well-rounded holistic understanding of all that stuff, I guarantee that will take your game to the next level, when it comes to photo realism anyway. I’m always learning, I’m always studying different artists’ approaches, learning from some of the old school masters and all that…

Do you find that there is always something to pick up regardless of the medium, that there is always something to explore in other artists’ diverse approaches?

Yeah, absolutely.

One thing I’ve always appreciated with the spray can, much like with a pen or a brush, or a pencil I guess, is that it is an extension of the body. When you’re working at that larger scale as well, do you find that it is a important to actually be in tune physically to be able to paint a work…

Yeah, absolutely, for sure man. You know, for me using cans, sometimes I feel like a little kid with crayons, because you’ve got a fixed palette, you can’t really mix colours with the freedom of oil painting, but it is quite playful in a sense for me as well.

When you are up on a scissor lift, you’ve got that time to think a lot, you must be reflecting a lot about how you are going about your process…

For sure, I think for me the learning is in the doing, with all this stuff, or with life in general really, the learning is always in the doing. You can only read text books so much, or whatever, or tutorials. But yeah, it’s like, it might just be little things but the learning is in the doing man.

In some ways, that relates back to the urban art movement, which is very much a DIY movement right? It’s not about being shown something in a class room first, it is about being out there and doing it. But then it sounds like your learnings come from lots of disparate places, which I feel is really valuable.

One of the things I have noticed, on your social media posts in particular, is how much you engage with the communities in which you work. There always seem to be group photos of you with members of these communities. It seems like I’m always seeing photos of you involved in different things, like I saw you tasting oysters down in Bluff!

Yeah! (laughs)

That obviously is really important for you, and is that…

Yeah, tasting oysters is really important!

(Laughs) How has that become more and more a part of your working process? I would suggest you need a certain profile to be able to do that, although social media helps with that, but is that social engagement something that has slowly evolved to become really important and central, or has it always been there…

For the community side of things my wife and I, our hearts have always been involved in community work, in some way, shape or form. When we first got married, which was sixteen years ago, we were youth pastors, so we’ve done a lot of street outreach and stuff. When we were in Sydney we would help feed the homeless in Parramatta. We believe, well we don’t believe, we know bro, through experience that there’s just a lot of hurting people in this world, and we’ve been through stuff as well, and so we’re able to connect with people, especially in smaller towns. I was brought up in Kawerau bro, where the population’s 5000 people, and it has had a bad rap for most of the last twenty, thirty years. My wife was brought up in Te Puke. We love people, and that’s a genuine aroha for people in general I guess, and I think it is just a natural overflow of who I am as a person, the type of person I am you know, they’ve got to be mingled and intertwined with art in some way shape of form, and my art making as well.

That portraiture is such a central theme in your work (obviously not the only theme, but a key theme) reflects that as well, right?

Oh yeah, portraiture can touch people’s hearts in a way that nothing else can really, you know, because you’re representing a person’s life and story. In some moments its been very powerful, you know, I painted one in Ruatoria, of Moana-nui-a-kiwa Ngarimu, he actually received a Victoria Cross, for his service in the Maori Battalion in World War Two. I painted his portrait on his homestead in Ruatoria, and his family were just so honoured and overwhelmed. Ruatoria is a small place, so yeah, the family just came together, they put on a big feed for me as well, sang a few waiata, gave me a koha as a gift. I was overwhelmed bro, deeply touched, and for me that’s the stuff that does it for me, using my art to touch people’s hearts in a real way. I don’t care if no-one knows about that stuff but it’s just very meaningful.

Coming back to the point that you brought up earlier, specifically the opportunities you have to paint in smaller, rural townships, do you feel the difference in terms of the relationship to place when you are painting in those types of areas, as opposed to an urban space like Christchurch? Is it quite a marked difference?

I guess for me, a lot of the small towns in New Zealand, they feel kind of left out, you know, by a lot of big gigs, or events and stuff, so you know, they get me rocking up there, painting a Farmlands mural and they treat like I’m a big celebrity or something you know, and it’s quite funny! But it’s beautiful bro, I love connecting with the young kids who like getting you to sign their scooters and all that. When I was in Paeroa, I signed an old lady’s walker, so you know, there are so many stories, there are so many characters you come across. I think for me, my type of art is a real adventure, like the cliff stuff (Mr G painted a vertical cliff face in Parawera near Te Awamutu) as part of painting a hundred portraits around New Zealand (Mr G is painting a hundred New Zealand portrait murals around New Zealand with the intention of producing a book documenting the experience and works), it’s all part of the adventure of what I do man, it’s not just painting a portrait, it’s the location…

It’s tied into the experience…

Yeah, it’s who it is and how that connects to the people there and all that sort of stuff, so I just try and be purposeful with what I paint and who I paint, and respectful as well.

I know you’ve got the dedication of the mural coming up soon, so to finish, you’ve mentioned you’ve come to Christchurch a few times, but this is the first large scale piece you’ve painted here?

Yeah, my first large scale, decent piece that I’ve done. The last couple I’ve done here were just like free time, play around pieces, so this is the first decent one I’ve been able to do here man. It’s been cool, like given how much Christchurch has been through and is still going through, you know, I guess for me it’s a cool opportunity to be able to come down and paint Kiddy (David Kidwell).

What’s you take on how the city has changed over those visits, and in particular, some of the artwork that has appeared over that time, is there anything that has really captured your attention?

I just love it all man, you know, I think it is great using the art to bring some zest and life back to the city, and encouragement back to the community. Art’s really good at doing that. I think, if the artists and their motive is to do that, then all power to them man and you know it’s a great thing.

It is important to take the time to really understand where you are, which is obviously something that is really important to you, and it’s the mark of the best artists, being able to gain a sensibility of the environment in which their working and embrace that and represent that in their work as well…

I think that is important bro. I think that even for myself, like in Maori culture if you go to another region, you’ve got to acknowledge the land and the people and all that, respectfully, and not just do whatever I want. But, it has been cool here in Christchurch, I’ve had an awesome time meeting everyone as well, and you know a lot of (David Kidwell’s) family and friends as well, so it has been cool.

Thanks so much for your time Mr G, I better let you get to the mural dedication…

Postscript:

As we walked around the corner to the site of the dedication I was witness to a fleeting interaction that exemplified Mr G’s approach. Two rugby league jersey wearing fans wandered into the lot surrounding the mural. Immediately Mr G greeted them, my first impression that he had known them for years, until they asked if he was the artist, to which he replied: “Yeah, I am…”, before formally introducing himself and beginning a conversation.  This willingness, indeed eagerness, to engage with people, to make sure both he and his art connect with the audience, a sentiment that rang throughout our conversation, was here evident in his actions, heart-warming proof of Mr G’s attitude and approach.