Even More: The Show

We sat down with Lydia Thomas (a.k.a. Bloom n Grow Gal) recently to talk about her work and her show Peanut Butter & Jam at Flux, which featured a selection of artists from the SlapCity collective. Lydia is not the type to sit still and she is already getting ready to present her next show, the follow up to More: The Show at the Boxed Quarter earlier this year. More: The Show and the new exhibition Even More: The Show are a platform for Ōtautahi female artists, from painters and illustrators to designers and craft artists, from those who work at home, in the studio or in the streets. The premise is to ensure the scope of creativity is not restricted and that people are empowered to show their work to the world, in many cases, for the first time in an exhibition setting. That intention is revelatory of Lydia’s generous nature, she is infectiously energetic and it is always a pleasure to sit down and chat about what she has in store with the latest Hello, I am the Show event…

It wasn’t too long ago that we sat down to talk about Peanut Butter & Jam

Yes!

I imagine you woke up the next day and were straight onto this new project, right?

Yeah, I have like two days of rest and then I’m like, right, what can I do now? I always tell myself I’m going to have a holiday, that I’ll take a break, but I can’t sit still. I need to be focusing on the next challenge. I wanted to fit another More show in before Christmas, that was my goal. It has definitely been more challenging this time around with COVID, but just having something to look forward to has been the big drive this time, we need this, we can’t keep canceling things and postponing things. I mean, if you are going into lock down then you have to, but I felt like I had to keep this one going!

This show is the second incarnation of the More: The Show concept, with a new line-up of local female artists, was it always something that you thought was going to become a recurring series?

Nah, I didn’t. I mean, I never thought it was going to work! That’s probably terrible to say, but you know, I was like, I’ll just give it a go. I thought that it would only attract a couple of artists, but then more artists wanted to get involved and I just can’t say no to people. So, the show happened, and afterwards I was getting messages asking when’s the next show was coming. I think what excites me about being able to run your own show is that I’m in charge of the rules and I can make the decisions around what kind of art I want. I love giving the opportunity to people who do embroidery or street art and giving them a platform to put it in a show. I’m so excited this time around, I’ve got people showing clothes and mustard tins, it is so out of the box that I really, really like it.

From what I’ve seen already seen, it is a diverse range of artists… 

Yeah, it’s great!

With More: The Show you started with an expectation that it would be small, but then people would say, I’ve got a friend who does this, or I’ve got another friend who does that… Has it been the same this time?

More got a small following on social media and then I created a website which is a collection of the shows and the artists, as well as promoting my own art. I wanted it to become a catalogue. I created a subscription box that people can subscribe to hear about More shows. I realized I needed to actually have a new show that people are going to subscribe to hear about! It’s mind blowing when you start getting subscribers and you have no idea who they are. I don’t really know where half the people have come from, which is great, that’s the point of it, I feel like I’m doing my job! It’s easy if I’m only targeting my friends…

As you grow, everybody brings their own world to it as well and increases the eyes on it, right? Lockdowns have showed us more than ever the importance of having some type of outlet and creating the opportunity for people to reveal what they’re doing is really empowering, for those artists and for you. The artists realise that what they are doing is important, it might not be changing the world, it might be a very personal thing, but it is still really valid and that’s really important…

For Peanut Butter & Jam, I’d approached people teethlikescrewdrivers, who just never associated themselves with being an artist, and he pulled it off and it was amazing, and it’s the same this time around. I’ve got somebody who has produced this beautiful macrame lamp shade and I asked for her artist bio and she was like: artist bio? I’m an artist? Yes, you are! Look at this beautiful masterpiece that somebody’s going to buy and hang and it’s gorgeous. It’s about changing people’s perceptions that what they’re doing is art and it is beautiful.

While it is an all-female line-up, there is no thematic brief, right? That it is all female artists is enough for it to be powerful…

Yeah, I would get messages asking: what’s the theme? What do I have to stick by? For me, the fact that it was a female art show was enough. I don’t want to restrict it any more than that. It’s a platform for females to do what they want to do. There’s no rules after that. Just do what’s on your mind, do what feels right in the moment. That’s what I’ve done and it seems to work so far.

That’s kind of the philosophy that runs through it all?

I don’t feel like I’ve been in enough art shows to know what I’m doing, I don’t know how I’m pulling it off! Other than when I was at university, I’ve been in very few art shows, so my experience with running them is that I’m just a very kind of organised person, I know how I like things and that’s how I’m doing it. I’m not really sure how other people have worked in the past with shows, but I get so many emails asking is this going to be OK? Is this going to work? Or saying: I’ve done this now, I’m worried. My response is always, it’s cool! It will work! It’s going to work! I just have this mindset that it’s going to work no matter what happens, so don’t stress. If I’m not stressing, you shouldn’t be stressing!

In the past, there might have been a tendency to follow a traditional approach, so I think that by not adhering to conventional rules, it reflects where this city is now. Speaking of where it’s at, you’ve got a new venue for this for this show as well…

I’m in the old Green Lane which is the new Clubhouse Creative. Originally the first More was supposed to be there and I got a bit panicked about the walls and thought maybe I just need to start small. But this time around I was like, I can do this now. I want more artists. I want to give more people the option to be involved. The walls are massive so people can submit bigger pieces as well, because last time some artists enjoyed the challenge to do something around the A3 size, but this time they wanted to go big or go home. So, to put it in a warehouse was exciting. I love that kind of grimy, dirty look as well. I’m not so much into white walls. I like off-white, dirty walls with texture…

It also brings up the possibility to think beyond hanging a piece on a wall, maybe more object art, or works that sprawl out in different forms, almost like installations. Now that you have more room you can have a broader scope of display. Have those conversations come up?

There’s been a bit of talk about live art and things like that, like we did with Peanut Butter & Jam. I’ve got a bit of a performance for the opening night with people hula hooping and things like that and there will be a DJ, but I didn’t go down the line of live art this time. I think the whole Hello, I am The Show idea is something that I really want to keep developing and working on and I think for the new year, my goal is to get somebody else on board that can help me with extra little touches to just go bigger. This time around there is like 35 female artists, I know, it has got too much again! Doing the socials, making sure everybody’s kept in the loop, all of that is so important to me and every time I bite more off than I can chew! So, I need to get somebody else on board. Someone who is just as passionate and also doesn’t mind putting in a lot of work for not a lot of money! But there are a lot of good feelings that you get back instead!

Do you think you will explore individual shows, or is the concept strongly collaborative and sort of community-based?

My idea is not collaboration as such, it’s the pop-up idea that I love: here’s a space, let’s pop something up for a couple of days then it can disappear again, kind of like street art, you know? You don’t know how long it’s going be there, so you have got to go and see it. So, I would love to work with individual shows and things like that in that context, with like a tent or a caravan maybe that appears around town.

Give us your best sales pitch for Even More: The Show!

I’ve drawn a blank! No, here: Even More: The Show. Female artists from around Ōtautahi. Opening night is on Thursday 14th October, 5:30 to 8:00pm. There will be wine, there will be beer. There is going to be such a broad selection of art, there will literally be something for everybody. Big things, tiny things, beautiful things, sparkly things, clothes… It’s on for two days after opening night, so you have got to get in there, that’s the fun of it!

Thanks Lydia!

Get down to Clubhouse Creative (22 Southwark Street) on Thursday, 14th October, 2021 for the opening of Even More: The Show, from 5:30pm to 8:00pm. Even More: The Show is open 15th – 16th October. For more information, head to Hello. I am the Show on Facebook

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The Paste-Up Project – ‘Community, Collaboration and Connection’ by teethlikescrewdrivers

The Paste-Up Project is a collaboration between Watch This Space, Phantom Billstickers and a selection of Ōtautahi’s finest paste-up and poster artists. With support from the Christchurch City Council, one of Phantom’s Manchester Street bollards has been transformed into a paste-up art installation space for the next 12 months, with local artists commissioned to push their work in new directions with a three-month takeover. The Paste-Up Project bollard serves as a supported platform for one of urban art’s most enduring forms and for the long historical lineage of urban postering (just ask Phantom!), with artists enabled to grow the scale and material qualities of their work within a setting that will challenge the perceptions of an ephemeral form of art.

First up at bat is teethlikescrewdrivers, an easy choice really as he is the driving force behind SlapCity, the loose collective that has embraced the potential of stickers and paste-ups across Ōtautahi. His instantly familar, yet continually beguiling pencil icon has become a recurring feature of the urban landscape. The simplicity of the image opens up a range of potential readings, and yet requires none, it exists, it is, and that is enough. More notable for the Lyttelton artist, is the sense of collaboration and community that his urban art adventures have instituted – from online mash-ups to weekly meet ups to explore the city, teethlikescrewdrivers constantly strives for connections and in doing so has created an expansive network of disparate, yet kindred spirits who see the urban landscape as one of play.

His installation for The Paste-Up Project embraces these ideas, celebrating each in a segmented yet cohesive production that will be on display for the next three months in central Christchurch. Of course, the pencil is the star, refashioned and re-formed across the circular base, and in doing so speaking to the various personalities who have inspired, influenced and embraced the artist’s signature form. But that’s enough from me, let’s hear from teethlikescrewdrivers as he explains his installation…

 

Photo Credit: Linda Glasgow

For the two people who don’t know you already, introduce yourself…

Hi, I’m teethlikescrewdrivers and I draw pencils.

I will admit that there was really no other choice for the first artist up for this project – what was your take when we first discussed the concept?

Really? Oh man.

Initially I was doubtful, mostly of myself! I couldn’t really think of anything other than doing bigger pencils and I wanted to give the space something it deserved. I’m fine with doing more pencils, but it wasn’t really bringing anything new to the table. After a few discussions with people and reading the brief, I started to think more about the possibilities it offered someone who usually only does one thing.

It is a surprisingly big space, how did you come up with the concept to fill the bollard and what incarnations did you go through?

I was going to just use it as one giant nine metre-squared canvas. After a few visits with a tape measure and some really basic planning, I decided to divide it into small, medium and large ‘panels’. This then made me start thinking about three themes. It kind of rolled on from there.

Your piece is titled Community, Collaboration and Connection, and it reflects the various elements that form such integral components of your experience in the world of urban art, how does each section relate?

After I settled on three panels, the themes were easy. I wanted to highlight paste-ups as a medium and have the chance to play around with that, I wanted to introduce more of the international sticker and paste-up community to Christchurch and I was always going to give our SlapCity family some love. I had to measure up pretty accurately for the community one, just so the pencil slotted in. The collaboration panel used the Vermin poster (Vermin is an artist from Manchester in the UK) as a starting point and then I just filled in the space like a sticker bomb. The big connection wall I had a rough idea for…kinda . I figured if I turned up with all the stuff I had, made and cut pastes on the spot and used posters salvaged from clearing the bollard something would happen. I just started throwing up stuff and discovering gems!

Photo Credit: Linda Glasgow

You got to play around with some cool material concepts, from large scale pastes to smaller overlapped pieces and of course the tearing away of layers, tell me more about each of these ideas…

Firstly the  bollard is bloody ginormous, so I knew making three-metre tall pencil was going to be a struggle and would basically cover a whole panel. By splitting it I was able to physically manage it and still give a chance for the stuff behind to be seen. On the connection wall I really got to play with all the layers; negative spaces and using cool materials such as the old posters and wallpaper. On the second day I came back and started tearing into the layers from the day before, I really enjoyed that element of the process. I also really liked making my own wallpaper and giving the whole thing depth.

You spent a sunny weekend on the bollard, what was it like to have the time to explore the ideas you had developed – it must have been a new experience compared to the missions with friends. Did you find it still quite communal? I imagine it was like a mural painter – do you have any interesting stories of people stopping to chat or asking questions about what you were doing?

I kind of set up camp for the weekend, it was ace. I had a picnic table for drawing and cutting paste-ups, a speaker playing music, my car right there and my shit spread out all over the place. It was ideal! I had lots of good chats with passers-by about the bollard and my car; both great conversation starters. Having the time to step back really helped the big panel come together. That one is more artistic, I guess, it’s less about one piece and more about layers and how they fit together so time helped.

Oh, I almost got signed up to the Peninsula Trampers Club by one old fella who I had a good chat with! Did you know there are a whole bunch of boulders like the ones at Moeraki, but in the streams inland!? You do now!

My whanau popped by and I had a lunchtime beer with a bunch of mates and lots of people came and hung out. It was like a paste-up Glastonbury!

What were some of the challenges you faced? It is obviously not a traditional flat surface…

The wind and the physical size of the paste-ups were the big ones. But because I had time I was able to leave stuff and come back to it, or think my way around it.

What are your hopes for The Paste-Up Project, not just in terms of your own installation but as a concept? Do you see it as a way to change perceptions, or at least the visibility of paper art in Ōtautahi?

I hope it opens the door for more artists to get their stuff up. There is a real delight in putting your work up in the streets rather than in a frame or on Instagram. Having a dedicated paste-up ‘show’ really lets people see some of the more established artists’ work and hopefully inspires others to get out there into the streets with a bucket and brush or just a pocket full of homemade stickers. Down the line I would love to see this kind of collaboration move into different towns and cities.

You have developed a web of connections around the world with artists through collabs and trades, and many are featured on the bollard, have you had any responses from those people overseas yet? What have the responses been like from the local scene?

Instantly! The collab wall was really just a huge collab and mash-up sticker bomb and everyone is always stoked to see a bit of their work in one, especially way down here in Christchurch. I think there are mash-ups and collabs with over 50 artists on that panel; everywhere from Brazil, Russia, most of Europe and even just down the road.

I’ve had comments from people about how well my pencil scales up, this was a good test for that! I was really stoked with the Vermin collab, it looks epic as a huge poster and you can really appreciate all the details. I was also really pleased to get work up in New Zealand from good friends from overseas.

Do you hope this is just the start of more opportunities like this, and if so, do you have any ideas of how it might be harnessed?

I really hope so. I would love to see sticker and paste-up walls as part of the ‘street art’ scene alongside graffiti and murals here in New Zealand. Maybe down the road a sticker and paste-up show? It would be amazing to see some dedicated paste-up walls or permissioned spaces in the city. Personally, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and see where it leads me.

While the weather was perfect for installation, it rained heavily just a day later, what impact did that have and were you philosophical about it?

I think putting a layer of straight-up PVA onto wet paste last thing was a double-edged sword. The next day the whole thing was covered in white streaks and all the paper was still really wet, I thought I’d knackered it! But after a while it dried clear and I think will add a bit more protection in the long run. The good thing about all paste-ups is you can always add more layers. If it all falls to bits over the next few months I will just go and tear a bunch off and add more.

Who do you want to shout out?

Watch This Space, Phantom, the Christchurch City Council, the SlapCity family and all the amazing venues that have let us use their spaces over the past two years. All the artists here in Christchurch who paved the way and have got us to a point where a project like this can even happen. My whanau and all the rad artists who have let me use their art for mashups or who have taken my pencils and messed with them.

Follow teethlikescrewdrivers to see what he gets up to next, and keep your eyes and ears peeled for more about The Paste-Up Project on our channels!

Oh, and get down to the site on Manchester Street to see this amazing installation in the flesh!

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Cracked Ink – The Character (Part Two)

We pick up with the second part of our interview with Cracked Ink immediately where we left off, discussing the artist’s entrance into the festival scene and how it necessitated a different approach to his work. For Cracked Ink, his character-based creations have unlimited narrative potential, dancing their way across walls, their interactions place them as story tellers. Jump back into our conversation with Cracked Ink as he reflects on the importance of knowing your worth, the role of social media, and the balancing act of an artistic career…

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As you started doing events and festivals like Sea Walls, did it make you think more about the process of creating murals? A lot of artists coming up now, they are almost immediately thinking of large-scale muralism, but that hasn’t always been the case, that transition for writers and for character-based artists or artists who were working in that post-graffiti style, muralism wasn’t necessarily the end goal…

It certainly became more narrative driven, which was actually really good for me, it made me look at my own work. The Sea Walls stuff, it’s all about ocean conservation, which allowed me to start to drill into different narratives. Is it just a visual that people want to see, or a story? It really made me look at my stuff and ask how can I push it in different directions and use different narratives? It was a kick in the ass for me a little bit, it got me thinking again. I started off with good intentions of trying to do something with content, but sometimes you drift off into this little abyss and you forget what it was all about. So that really helped me to re-centre and rethink my own game and what I was doing. From my perspective, these days new people are coming into it from different worlds, which is totally cool and amazing, there are talented artists coming into this world of muralism and stuff, but they didn’t necessarily get the opportunity to grow up the way I got into it, which is going out and painting. I don’t think it is right, I don’t think it’s wrong…

It’s just different.

I think it’s just the way life is. The trajectory of these things, the whole thing has changed.

Cracked Ink's design for the Home mural festival event in 2020, delivered by Pangea Seed, Sea Walls, the Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls
Cracked Ink’s design for the Home mural festival event in 2020, delivered by Pangea Seed, Sea Walls, the Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls

It will be interesting to look back and see the direction of muralism under these new influences. Askew made a similar point recently about how the motivations for graffiti are completely different now that young people have more platforms to express themselves. It used to be that you felt invisible and graffiti was a way to be seen, now you can post selfies 400 times a day on Instagram. That doesn’t mean graffiti becomes futile or pointless, it just means that the motivations have changed.

It’s interesting the whole dynamic with social media. As it has picked up speed over the past five years, it has changed so much. When I first signed up for all this social media stuff it was exciting, because it was about getting your work out there. But it quickly became a bit of a drain, just that whole thing of checking my phone and going through it all. I mean it is an amazing tool to share your work and for people to follow it and catch up on what you’re doing, but that need for likes and follows can make it tough to navigate…

I sometimes think it has the potential to take people away from the primary act of making and doing. You get the feeling for some people, understanding and manipulating algorithms of social media becomes the drive, rather than celebrating the work, it feels less organic. That original power of allowing people to put things in the world, empowering people, it feels like it is now overshadowed by the commercial potential of it all…

I feel sorry for the guys and girls growing up on these platforms. I feel like the purpose of why you do your art, it should always be for yourself. It should never be for someone else, the purpose of being creative and doing art is for you. It’s that outlet of yourself. When you start trying to please other people, it changes. You should be doing it for yourself, and from that people are going to like it, people are going to dislike it, but that shouldn’t change what you do. That’s a big thing that I have stuck to, I always do it for my own reasons. If other people like it, then happy days. If they don’t, that’s not my problem. I’ve always had that attitude. Once you put it onto that platform, whether people are hating it or people are loving it, you have no control over that, it shouldn’t be a focus. Creativity has never been about that.

Once you start fishing for things it becomes problematic because you start listening to an audience rather than building an audience. That’s another issue with the likes of Instagram, we are exposed to styles and trends and we start thinking about how to jump on them. In the past, it was more localised, the engagement was more real and immediate, it didn’t seem so curated. But it also meant that you were influenced by what worked in your surrounding environment. Speaking of local environments, you established the Whanganui Walls event in your hometown a few years ago, what was the inspiration to start your own festival?

Being part of the scene for 20 years and being part of so many festivals, I found it had a really interesting dynamic. When I first started, the chance of painting a big wall was kind of the ultimate goal, and with festivals you would get to paint what you want, generally. Over the years, seeing and being a part of these events, the major thing that I noticed was the amount of stuff that a city was getting and the artists were willing to go and do it for free. It is tricky because when we initially started painting, we’d go and paint stuff in the street, because that’s your zone, that’s your place, you want to be there. But there is a difference between painting a festival and painting in the street. The festival is a curated thing. Ultimately, the festival gets funding to pay for the paint, to pay for the machines, to house the artists, feed the artists, all that kind of stuff. After doing so many different festivals, it really interested me that the festivals never thought of actually compensating the artist. Some of these festival walls are absolute bangers, and the time and the effort the artist takes out of their schedule to come and paint these walls, for me, it seems unfair to the artist. Even though the artist wants to paint that wall, don’t get me wrong, they also have to pay their bills…

Cracked Ink's work for Street Prints Otautahi in Christchurch, 2017
Cracked Ink’s work for Street Prints Otautahi in Christchurch, 2017

It’s not the super-strict commissioning relationship that you might get in another project, but it is still being used and leveraged as cultural capital…

Yeah, you see cities claiming: This is what we did! Well, I’m pretty sure there were other people that were part of it as well!

There are real benefits in having something painted on your wall. A lot of cities use murals for their tourism profile. So, why shouldn’t artists be compensated for doing that work? What other industry would you see that?

It’s such an old view, but it still exists and it’s a strange one. It’s one that I’ve been fighting for so long. I have painted a lot of festivals for nothing. That is the big misconception of going and painting a big wall, I end up going there for a week of my own time, I get materials, I get my accommodation and I get food, the basic things in life that you probably should get, you know? So, what more do you want? Well, that’s kind of old school from my perspective. Starting a festival with my partner Shanti, we wanted to bring something interesting and different to Whanganui because the city has never seen anything of this nature. It’s a small place. Compared to Christchurch, it’s just chalk and cheese. So, it was about bringing something different. But for me as an artist, it was mainly trying to create a festival that could substantiate paying the artist something. The artists get part of Whanganui Walls. We want to make it worthwhile for the artists to come to Whanganui, to take that time out of their schedule, to share their creativity with us. Like we said before, the benefits to a place are just so big. So, I feel like we have definitely helped to breakdown some barriers, and there are other guys doing it as well, like Deow down south with South Sea Spray. It’s important to go into bat for the cause, because there is a lot of old school thinking and often it comes from funding process. But ultimately as a festival organiser, its on you.

It is a big undertaking to fund a festival…

These events require substantial investment. We get support from Harrison Hire Master, who really come to the table for us, and Resene, who are the kind of company that have the backing to go OK, we’re going to give you X, Y and Z for free, which is great, but we’re not asking for stuff for free, we are saying, if you are going to give us a discount, then that’s how much money we need to obtain through funding. The whole principle of Whanganui Walls was always for everyone right through the system to get something for their efforts, whether you are part of the operations crew or you’re volunteering, you’re getting something. That was always the principle of the festival. Because these people are putting so much effort into it, and not just the artists, why are you doing it for free? The time it takes to put on one of these festivals is massive.

It’s not something that you fit in on a lunch break or after work. For an artist, its traveling for a week, working the whole time. You may be getting your accommodation and food paid for, but everything else still goes on back at home as well, so they need to compensate for that. It is also important to remember the years spent refining their work to get to this stage…  

I’ve always been a big advocate of knowing my own worth as an artist. Sometimes, you have to walk away from things to make things right. I get it. Any artist, no matter how well you’re doing, there are always points in your career where you have your highs and you have your lows, but you have to be careful about how you devalue yourself. It is tough if you just continually bounce up and down. If you want to get some stability in your career as an artist, in my opinion, you have to stick to your guns.

We have so many super talented artists in Aotearoa, is there a real need for more mentorship to build up younger artists’ sense of self value? In New Zealand, we have a tendency to think ourselves down, is this festival a way for you to serve as a sort of a mentor figure?

It’s good to spend time with artists and ask where they are at, because there is always that tendency of not wanting to talk about this whole aspect of being an artist. Let’s take pricing a mural. There is always this tendency to just shut down about it, whether that’s because people are not confident of putting a value on what they do, so that they can survive. I’m super open with the way I do stuff. So, if an artist wants to have a conversation with me about what I do in terms of pricing or whatever it is, then I’m super open to it. I feel like without those conversations, we both don’t learn about it. One size doesn’t fit all, and if you’re at the start of your career in the art world, and in particular in muralism, there’s always things that you feel like you can’t account for, or you can’t price into a job. But even if you’re relatively new to it and you are competent and have the skills and stuff, well, why are you devaluing yourself? You’re going to produce something just as good as the next artist who may be charging double that price. I remember when I started first getting some bigger jobs, it’s nerve-wracking man, it’s nerve-wracking pricing a job because you feel like by asking for this much money and you don’t get it, then you’ve lost that job completely. But even now, if I get some decent jobs there are always tools within that process that you can use to give options to clients which ultimately will not scare them off.

Cracked Ink mural for Garage Project in Wellington, 2020
Cracked Ink mural for Garage Project in Wellington, 2020

Other industries take a really hard-nosed approach to pricing, charging travel costs, time, materials… But for a lot of artists, there is the feeling that you can’t charge for things like petrol costs, or you need to take this out so that clients are more likely to agree. As much as we don’t want to emulate aspects of the commercial world, it is actually beneficial to adopt some parts…

What are your expectations if you were being commissioned to paint a wall? When you go to do that job are you wanting to pay your own travel costs? Are you wanting to pay for the machinery or for your accommodation while you are doing that job? You’re not trying to dupe anyone by doing this, but you have to try and align yourself with the expectations of a client. If they’re not paying for it, you are, so it’s really just trying to get that happy medium. From my experience doing quite a lot of large-scale commission work, you just have to be fully honest, be honest with yourself and be honest with the client, and then the conversation starts. They can always say, actually, we can’t do that, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get…

As you noted, you need to set the bar for yourself…  

This has come up quite a lot recently. Being realistic about how you put your pricing in means you might not always get the dream. It’s about trying to be fair to yourself and to the client. You want to get the job, but you have to be really fair to everyone, and managing your own expectations is the hardest bit. There’s always self-doubt, there’s always that feeling that I would love this job, or I need this job, so that’s when we tend to low-ball ourselves, and before you know it, the client snaps your hand off. So, just go for it.

Out of Touch, for Sea Walls in St Croix,2020 (from http://crackedink.com/)
Out of Touch, for Sea Walls in St Croix,2020 (from http://crackedink.com/)

As an artist, you’re not beholden to only one way of working, you can always balance out projects to satisfy both your practical and creative needs…

It’s a malleable situation. Depending on how you want to operate, nothing is right, nothing is wrong. The main thing is if it is right for you. I have a certain style that I paint and I’m super strong on that in terms of commission work. But if you have a multitude of styles within your work and you can adapt to different commissions and you’re happy to do so, then it’s right for you. It’s just finding within yourself what is right for you, and if someone else feels that it’s wrong, that’s irrelevant. If it’s right to you, you do it. If it’s not right to you, don’t do it. You’ve got to find those boundaries. I feel like I’ve found my boundaries. I’m super black and white in terms of my artwork and in terms of the way I process things. If it’s not what I do, I don’t do it. it’s simple as that. But that doesn’t mean that’s right for someone else. It’s about finding the levels that you’re happy with and that might also ultimately mean that I don’t get as much work, but if I’m good with that, and I can get enough work to balance the books and enable myself to continue being creative constantly, that’s the goal.

That’s the key. As an artist, you have to know yourself, right?

If you can get used to the highs and the lows and make it a part of your life as opposed to making a lot of stress for yourself, which is a hard dynamic to get used to, even now it still throws you, then you can ride it. But the one thing I would say is you cannot just hold in on that and just continue because as a creative, you’re doing it because this creativity has to come out somewhere. Things evolve. Things go backwards. It’s a back-and-forth situation, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s an awesome lifestyle. Opportunities come, opportunities go, and when you really take time to think about what you’re up to and where you’ve been and where you’re going you get to see what you’ve built, and you see that you’re ready to keep on building. As a creative, if you are not questioning and challenging perspectives, you shouldn’t be doing it, and if you are, it will open up a lot of possibilities.

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Cracked Ink – The Character (Part One)

Cracked Ink’s work has always stood out as fiercely fresh and unique, with an undeniably playful vibe. His instantly recognizable black and white codex of monster characters have been deployed, in various shapes and sizes, across walls around the world, unfolding narratives inviting myriad interpretations. For the artist, this combination of a personal style and voice, developed over years, with an open-ended potential in how the audience receives the work, is a perfect balance between the need for his work to reflect his own impulses and the audience’s own agency. Moving to Aotearoa with his Kiwi partner from the North of England over a decade ago, Cracked Ink now calls Whanganui home. While he started painting in the UK, here in New Zealand the artist has turned it into his career, painting at international street art festivals, producing notable commissions across the country and establishing Whanganui Walls, applying lessons from the festival scene to a hometown mural event. Always willing to yarn and share his experiences, this conversation sprawled across topics and effortlessly passed the hour mark (hence the two part breakdown), covering his early days in Blackburn, England, his initiation into painting in the streets, moving to New Zealand, making connections, the need to be true and setting up a festival…

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Earlier this year you did some work with Westfield Riccarton Mall here in Christchurch, what is it like working with larger commercial entities?

It is always interesting working with a brand or working with a business. Generally, they have come to an artist because they like the work, so it’s always interesting navigating that dynamic between keeping everything you want, and knowing they are commissioning you to do the piece. You want them to be happy, but you also don’t necessarily want to cross any lines in terms of giving anything up…

Cracked Ink's Westfield Riccarton Mall mural in Christchurch, 2021
Cracked Ink’s Westfield Riccarton Mall mural in Christchurch, 2021

I imagine there’s also times where you are just waiting for the ‘but’…

Totally.

Often there are just so many stakeholders, right? It’s dealing with one person, but before you know it, someone else’s voice is part of that conversation…

You get it from the beginning, generally. If you get a surprise on a job, you just have to deal with it when you get to it. But I try and figure that stuff out straight away, I just put my cards on the table and tell them straight up, and if they don’t like it, then I just politely walk away from it. I don’t get all upset, I just explain that I’ve been doing it for years and cannot twist in that direction, but I always try and help them solve the problem by putting them in the direction of another artist who might be a good fit.

Did it take time to get comfortable with walking away? There must have been times when you just weren’t able to do so, or have you always had that as a kind of philosophical base?  

I set that out pretty much from the beginning. There are a couple of jobs that I shouldn’t have done, but I can count them on one hand, so I have stuck to it. It’s easier for me to stick to that anyway because my work is so quirky. It’s not as if I’m painting realism where a client would say: “Well, we want something really specific…” They know what they’re getting and it’s really easy to twist a narrative into my works while keeping my style. But it means that I don’t get as much work as someone who paints more realistic stuff, because when you paint realism and all different kinds of subject matter, it’s way easier to relate to in some form or another, whereas my work is definitely more specific. But I like that, I don’t want everyone to get it.

It’s an interesting trajectory, from the heyday of the early Millennium, when people working in the streets had that very iconographic, stylised approach, to the rise of realism, which is entwined with large-scale muralism. It was a case of technical development, but also the reality of serving a commission…

It is interesting and it is something that I think about a lot. There are so many different angles, but ultimately, I feel like it is going along with human nature and the laziness of society. For example, you paint a portrait of a famous person, that image is so relatable, and so accessible, that it’s never going to be a failure…

Another Westfield mural, this time in Newmarket, Auckland, 2019 (from http://crackedink.com/)

But where do you go from there? How do you ensure it develops as a distinct voice?

For me, the creative process is starting a sketch with an idea, coming up with a story, then having these different, weird, interesting, non-functional, kind-of-human-but-not, characters bring it to life. That’s what it has always been about for me, actually being creative, trying to make something that’s completely new, that has a style and also has a story from the beginning of where I started. It’s like a family growth…

Even the poses and the actions of those characters have come directly from you, they’re not drawing from another source. In that regard, when did your characters crystallize? Did they come out of another form of expression, or was it a conscious thing to sit down and develop a character?

I was in the second year of my degree for graphic design and this guy, Dean, came onto my course. He was heavily involved with graffiti and we just connected straight away. I feel like until then it really wasn’t my path to get into doing street art if not for meeting him. I would have been 18, so it was quite a while ago, but I feel like my pathway into doing that stuff was purely because at that moment in time I met this person. It’s interesting how a time, a place, a moment can change your life.

We are a similar age, so were you aware of the street art scene emerging in the UK around the turn of the Millennium?

Definitely. I was studying graphic design, I was always doing something creative, often on Photoshop or layout programs like QuarkXPress. Skating was a massive thing when I was at college as well. Skate culture really interested me, even though I wasn’t massively into skating myself. I had a lot of mates who were into it and that whole movement and style from skating got me interested in what was happening in that scene, particularly when I met Dean. At the time a lot of artists were blowing up, The London Police were massive, they blew up around ’96 through to ‘99, straight away it drew me in…

A Cracked Ink character in Christchurch, 2016
A Cracked Ink character in Christchurch, 2016

They had that really graphic quality that must have been attractive to someone studying graphic design…

It drew me straight in. At the same time there were so many different artists that were doing it, the thing I loved about it from that character perspective is that you could interact with any type of medium and apply it to a wall. Other artists were important too, Swoon was massive at the time. I was living in Manchester and Swoon had been in town and you could see her amazing pieces, that intricate detail. I loved both of those styles. It was always a case of how I am going to do something for me that incorporates a super graphic style with these other influences…

You were looking to find a balance that resonated with your own interest?

Subliminally, for sure. Whatever form of art you do, whether it is muralism, street art, illustration, sculpture, you always have your peers, you always have someone that influences you in some way or another, whether that’s directly or just something that sits in the back of your head. I always wanted to head towards a kind of sketchy style because when I was at University, I did quite a broad spectrum of study that included printmaking and photography before I specialized in graphic design. So, I did all the printmaking stuff and I loved it, but when I was doing it, it was more just trying to implement the techniques without really knowing how to twist them into what I really wanted to do. So, when I got into doing all this character work, which was super graphic, super bold, I got a little bit, I wouldn’t say bored, but there were a lot of people starting to jump on that direction, so it was like, how can I keep that essence, but drive it in the direction I wanted it to go? I felt like I didn’t have the confidence to make that switch because once you jump into a style, you kind of get stuck and it becomes scary to jump again…

In those early stages, were you making things in the studio exclusively? How long was it before you started getting up in the streets?

It was actually pretty quick. Dean arrived at the beginning of my second year and when we started hanging out, we were basically a couple of stoners. He had a place over in Preston which was close to where we were studying in Blackburn, we would just hang out and have our little sketchbooks. It quickly became something pretty obsessive actually, just constantly sketching.  We would go back to his place, get blazed and just start sketching. At that stage he was painting quite a lot, so he would be like, come out with us for a jam. I remember the first time I went out. It was under a train bridge near Preston and it was freezing. It was 3:00 AM in the morning, it was pitch black, we had pre-rolled some joints and we just went out freestyling. As soon as I gave it a go, I was hooked on that rush of just going out and painting.  From there it evolved into: how can I take what I do and change it into different things? Paste-ups were massive, I would draw intricate stuff and could literally just turn up and do it…

A character at That Good Will Social Club in Winnipeg, Canada, 2017 (from http://crackedink.com/)
A character at That Good Will Social Club in Winnipeg, Canada, 2017 (from http://crackedink.com/)

How early did you become aware of how to approach a physical space? Was it part of what you were learning in graphic design as well? A graphic designer has a functional element, right? Designing objects for packaging, things like that. Did you pretty quickly understand that the streets provided an important context?

It is something that comes with time. I think everyone has something in them, an aesthetic that they can produce or do and apply to certain principles, but actually just getting out there and having a go is how you become aware of certain things and how things should sit, so I think you kind of learn those things on the go. I don’t think you can ever plan for that kind of thing, it’s something that builds, and then as you get deeper into it, you start thinking differently. You start thinking, what can I do with this? I definitely couldn’t plan for it anyway, but my expectations were small at the time, I just wanted to go out and be in that moment of painting. The more you paint, and the more you go out and interact with the outside world and the surroundings, things kind of evolve, things happen to you, and you become immersed in that world.

There is a long tradition of characters in graffiti, were you thinking of your characters as accompaniments to graffiti or were they always intended to stand alone?  

I think initially that was the thought because I came into it with a graffiti writer, and it works well having the piece and the character. That was definitely the thing for a little bit, that was what was happening. But I wasn’t really tied to that whole situation. I was fresh into it, so it quickly became about how can my characters exist in this world by themselves? I was motivated to get out and try different things. But it’s been a bit of a mixture for me, it started off as a graffiti thing, but it quickly became more, I guess…

Paste ups in Wellington, 2021 (from http://crackedink.com/)
Paste ups in Wellington, 2021 (from http://crackedink.com/)

Studying graphic design, I assume you were thinking of that field as a career, when did you start to think what you were doing in the streets could be something more?  

It wasn’t for ages, really. It was never a part of my thought process when I got into doing stuff in the streets that this was going to be something that I do as a gig. It was just about going out and painting and enjoying that and it was heavily about being with your mates.

Were you making a full-time living from art or graphic design in the U.K. before coming to Aotearoa?

Definitely not in the UK. I was still working a job and all my art was on the side. I was doing exhibitions and stuff in Manchester, and I was trying to earn some money out of some gallery work, but it was never in my thoughts that this was going to be my full-time job. I came to New Zealand in 2006 with my girlfriend who is a Kiwi, we weren’t actually coming to stay. We came with a six-month work Visa but my partner decided she wanted to go back to study. I was pretty chill, I loved the life here, it’s a whole different world over here compared to growing up in the North of England. You’ve got time here, you can breathe over here, there’s more space, less people. It allowed my mind to slow down a little bit and focus on the direction I wanted to go. So, I jumped into it. I just went for it. In the back of my mind I wanted to make something with art my full-time gig, but the reality at that stage was that I was still working on building sides and all sorts of different things to pay my bills.

Cracked Ink's mural for Pangea Seed's Stay at Home Festival for the Planet in 2020, a collaborative project between Pangea Seed, SeaWalls, Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls where over 800 artists painted works at home during the global Covid pandemic (from http://crackedink.com/)
Cracked Ink’s mural for Pangea Seed’s Stay at Home Festival for the Planet in 2020, a collaborative project between Pangea Seed, SeaWalls, Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls where over 800 artists painted works at home during the global Covid pandemic (from http://crackedink.com/)

How did you go about building connections here in New Zealand with other artists? Did you consciously reach out to people, or was it a case of diving into the work and letting it occur naturally?  

That happened just from diving into it, getting out and painting. I did an exhibition in 2007 at this space in Auckland. It was my first little show, and it was in this semi-immersive kind of exhibition space, a community centre type of space in Devonport. It was very low key, but Cinzah lived around that way, and was connected with them through some projects, and he left a message in the sign-in book, saying: “Where the fuck did this come from? Here’s my email, get in contact and let’s go for a paint…” I became really good mates with Cinzah and it just evolved from that. Flickr was massive at that time as well; everyone was posting stuff. That was how I met Drypnz. We became mates on Flickr. He asked if I would be keen to do an exhibition in Wellington. Eight or nine months later, still not having had a real-life conversation with him, I rented a car, loaded it up, and I drove down to Wellington with all this gear. I got to Wellington and met Drypnz on Cuba Street for the first time. The opening for that show was a big occasion in terms of meeting a lot of creatives, especially around Wellington at that time, PNTR, Editor, Ghostie. I met Kell Sunshine, although she wasn’t painting at the time, the BMD boys…

That’s an impressive list! I was in Wellington just a couple weeks ago and the footprints of so many of those names are still strong, not to mention their work further afield as well…

It was crazy man. It was such a good time to be around. Meeting all these guys that were in the scene and were already cranking on what they were doing, it just made me want to crank it up more. It just kind of all grew from there really, having that inspiration of those guys and girls to just get in on it and get painting, it really pushed me to where I wanted to be.

Kaikohe Hotel with Cinzah and Wert159, 2013 (from http://crackedink.com/)
Kaikohe Hotel with Cinzah and Wert159, 2013 (from http://crackedink.com/)

Fast forward a few years and in part through some of those connections you find yourself painting in different countries, that must still be pretty amazing. Do you still think about how you travelled all this way to be here in Aotearoa and now you are travelling the world for festivals like Pangea Seed’s Sea Walls

Oh man, I don’t know if you call them manic episodes, but you know when things like that happen, it takes you back a little bit. When I got involved with the Sea Walls crew, it was initially to be an artist as a part of the Napier event, and that was a bit of a leg up for me. Cinzah was running that festival, so he got his mates involved. He mentioned he was talking to these guys from Pangea Seed. He had already been to Mexico for a project, and now he was thinking of bringing Sea Walls to New Zealand. He contacted me and asked if I wanted to be in the line-up, and I was like, sure, and things just went from there. I never expect to be part of the Sea Walls crew, that’s for sure, so to end up travelling to different festivals was crazy.

Continued in Part Two

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Bloom n Grow Gal – I Can Parallel Park

The flowers were intriguing. They were familiar and earnest and yet other-wordly. They sprang forth from the concrete surroundings with a fantastical whimsy, part of a city-wide takeover alongside the pasted images populating our walls. I soon found out that the artist behind my new favourite paste ups was Bloom n Grow Gal (BGG), or Lydia Hannah Thomas (sometimes just Lyds), a Northern Irish artist now living in Christchurch who was part of the Slap City collective. Soon, I found out BGG was also busy curating and hosting exhibitions, the first being More the Show, a group show of work by Ōtautahi wahine that included music, food, drinks and an array of creations. The show was hosted at The BOXed Quarter and drew an excited crowd. I finally met the artist one Sunday morning at Green Lane markets, quickly chatting about a range of topics it become clear that she was an energetic, enthusiastic force. Wandering around the market we bumped into each other again, this time she was busy drawing on the floor next to her stall, her energy focussed on her creative output. Now, BGG is presenting PB n’ Jam, a unique show in collaboration with Flux that combines art and music, with live art and performances creating a byline throughout. We caught up with Bloom n Grow Gal for a chat about her journey to New Zealand, her illustration background, her introduction to Slap City, tending to flowers and the shows she loves to put on…

I’m going to put you on the spot, how would you introduce yourself?

Terribly! I’m not very good at telling people about myself! I would just say I’m a doer, I’m a people pleaser, but I hate talking about myself! I love talking about art and music, but when it comes to introducing yourself, “Hi, I’m Lydia, I’m 30 years old. I’m from Northern Ireland…” Arghh, I hate it!

 How did you get from Northern Ireland to Ōtautahi?

I was always dreaming of getting out of Ireland. I don’t know why, I’ve just always kind of enjoyed my own company and doing things for myself, by myself. I’m like a loner but I have lots of friends! I worked out a way to get out of Ireland and that was going to university, even though it was to do illustration, which seems pointless looking back now! I wouldn’t recommend! But all these things happen for a reason. So, at university I met somebody. His parents lived over here so we came over here, and I felt free and a little bit empowered being so far away from everything. I think I was really hard on myself back in the UK. I judged myself and never thought myself any good. I felt like there was a lot of competition in the UK and it wasn’t nice, it felt like everybody was out to get you. New Zealand felt to me like this like fresh chapter. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know where I was. I was so far away from it all. So, now I’m here.   

And how did you end up in Ōtautahi?

I just love the beauty of it. It sounds terrible because places like the West Coast of Ireland are just amazing. But there was something about flying in over the Canterbury Plains and the Southern Alps, it was just so beautiful. When I came here seven years ago, Christchurch wasn’t very appealing. So I ended up living in Methven for years and I think I ended up getting a little bit lost. I was trying to find out where I fit in this country town, but I realised that I just didn’t. I kind of met somebody in Christchurch and I started coming here and going to the art gallery when that re-opened and going to all these other pop-up galleries, and it started to become exciting. Then just before lockdown last year, I went through a break-up, I lost my job, I felt like I had nothing to lose, so I came to Christchurch. The first person I met when I moved here was Ben Lyttle. He was like this chilled creative and honestly, he was the first creative person I’d met since I came to New Zealand. I remember feeling that enjoyable sense of creating again, which I hadn’t felt for so long. That led me to Slap City. I remember the first Slap City that I went to, Vez passed me a bit of sticker paper and was like, just draw and I thought my god, I haven’t drawn in seven years! But I feel like that’s how it started, by simply drawing again. It was so enjoyable, I missed it living in Methven, driving trucks and going to the pub…

You weren’t doing anything creative in Methven?

I’ve always enjoyed making gifts. I’m known for always making birthday cards or a painting or something like that for people. I was doing a lot of baking, I don’t anymore, but I guess that was like my creative output, almost without even realizing it. I’ve always had sketching. I’m always sketching my food, my drinks, things that are in front of me, which is weird because my flowers are in my head, the complete opposite. I think I’ve got like seven years of creativity built up inside me. But I think I needed that, because I think university was so competitive with this weird grading system of putting a mark on your art, which I never really understood, that it really knocked my confidence. That’s why I’m like, don’t go to university, just do you! But at university, I would put on shows for people to show their art and I guess I saw the pleasure people get out of seeing their art on show and people buying art to put on their walls, and just knowing people are having a good time.

Is a sense of positive community important to you? It seems like things like Slap City and the shows you are putting on are all about people coming together…

That’s why I enjoy doing the shows, because I don’t care what your background is, I just think your stuff is amazing. I love it when people have side hustles taking photos or weaving or painting, it doesn’t matter if they are a lawyer or a teacher by day. Who cares about your background, history, education and whatever, this is what you are producing, and it is amazing! I’m so happy that I’m able to give people a platform. There was a girl in the last show [More the Show] who said she had a friend who wanted to be part of it. I got in contact with her and she said she had a pair of earrings, is that going to work? I’m like, that sounds so great! Everybody was doing their own thing, and this was her take on her art, a pair of earrings. I’m like that’s awesome! For some people earrings are just a piece of jewelry that you wear, but actually somebody’s taking the time to think about it and put their creativity into them. So, I was really happy for them to be in the show. It was her first show and she ended up selling them, it was amazing!

Bloom n Grow Gal collab with Teeth Like Screwdrivers

That idea of defining what art can be leads to the question of how you started making art in the streets, which itself is a way to break down conventions of how art is presented and consumed…

I want to say I’m precious about things, but I’m really not, I’m actually quite good at just throwing stuff out, of getting rid of things. I mean, I packed up everything in the UK and came here! But yeah, the idea of going out and putting my art in the streets just excites me. There is a flower not far from here, it’s slowly peeling away and it looks even better than when I put it up! Just walking around, doing my ‘dog walk loop’, I get to see how it changes and weathers. It’s really exciting. Should I add to it because somebody’s written over it? Or should I just leave it? Will somebody do more to it?

There is a lovely sense of both contributing to the landscape but also recognizing that you have to let things evolve as well. Did you have any previous experience making art in the streets?

When I was at university, I did a little bit of wheat pasting, but not a huge amount. It’s weird, I used to love taking a lot of film photography because it was so cheap to get it developed. I remember my ex and I were both so fascinated with billboards and stickers. We went to Berlin and Prague and all our pictures of us on holiday aren’t of us, they are just of these walls with drawings on them. I remember being in Budapest and drinking in this bar and it had all these illustrations on the walls and we just sat there for ages. So, although I wasn’t doing it back then, it’s amazing how fascinated I was by it all. I think my lack of confidence back then was why I never put my work out there, but now it’s like, yeah, let’s just do it.

It’s interesting, because street art was supposed to make art more accessible and participatory, it removed the elitist structures…

I think Slap City really boosted my confidence. I still watch Beautiful Losers on repeat and I remember ten years ago thinking, these people are so cool, I could never be that cool! But now some people think I’m cool! I’m getting tagged in posts by people I don’t even know. People are posting about my art. I never thought that it was good, but everybody takes it a different way and sees it in different ways. I think I’ve been so harsh on myself, and Slap City has been so positive. Everybody is like, let’s collab, let’s do this, that’s awesome! There was somebody a couple of weeks ago and it was their first time at Slap City. They were so rigid, and I remember that’s how I felt my first time. But you just keep going and then you’re like, I could do anything! Now I’m going out on my own and pasting up at night. Honestly, it makes me so happy. It’s like the best form of therapy.

Ultimately, whether it’s that circle around Alleged Gallery or the Slap City collective, they are communities of people with shared interests who want to support each other. And while the internet helped foster those networks, it feels like more recently it has been divisive and tribalistic and toxic, so it’s refreshing to have those real-world connections…

A couple of years ago I started going through my Instagram and saying this is not good for me, this doesn’t interest me, and my Instagram has become more art and street art influenced. It’s really more focused on joy and my inspirations. It shows the headspace and transition that I have been on over the last couple of years. It got me thinking about Slap City and that sense positivity and how maybe if I had that ten years ago at university it might have led on a very different path. Looking back at it now, it’s no wonder I was a mess, it was too competitive, but now I’m just so empowered to be creative. I feel right now there’s just such a great community within Christchurch, people supporting each other. It just keeps you creating, getting better and better without even realizing it. I look at what I was first doing at Slap City late last year and how I kept going and I kept doing things…

I first saw you flowers on Madras Street…

My first ones!

I loved the stylization, the appearance of nature, but in this surreal, fantastical style. They were so simple but so striking. I asked Teeth Like Screwdrivers who had made them and he said, “Our Lyds” and you could kind of tell he was so stoked that you were putting your art out there. Where did the flowers come from?

I can’t keep plants alive to save my life, but I’ve always been fascinated with flowers. Growing up my Grandad’s garden was just beautiful. It was massive and had so many flowers. As kids we’d always plant sunflowers and have sunflower races. I’m quite a colorful person so I just love the colors of flowers as well. They are just all so individual. They come and go, they are not meant to last forever. If I could just keep flowers alive!

In that regard they are fitting for art in the streets, where everything is fleeting. It is also interesting that you note the individuality of flowers, because we tend to think in categories, right? But flowers, like humans are all distinct. Was that in your thinking when you started drawing flowers?

I think I say it was now, but honestly, I don’t really think I was thinking about it. I just was doing it because I was really enjoying throwing one out and being like, oh, maybe I’ll change that or I’ll do that again. I like to do it fast, without overthinking the process. I think they end up being really pretty and people seem to enjoy them. I did this series of flowers on pieces of paper, like 100 of them, all drawn individually. I did them sitting and watching films. It was like therapy. It went through my mind to photocopy them, but I love how I’ve drawn every single one and every single one is individual. Just like flowers. Maybe I will change, maybe I will do photocopies, but I don’t know…

More recently, there have been the coloured A4 pages with lettering over the flowers, with phrases like ‘I can sing’, ‘I can dance’ and ‘I can parallel park’…

I’ve always loved text. I’ve always been so fascinated by short but bold statements. I love typography. I don’t think I’m very good at it, but I just love to dabble in it. It’s kind of ironic, because I’m severely dyslexic, and I spell a lot of things wrong sometimes, especially the first ‘parallel park’ one that I did! I’m quite inspired by David Shrigley’s paintings, how they are not necessarily positive, but they are to the point, and that’s why I began with ‘live, laugh love’. It was kind of taking the piss, but people can put their own interpretation on it, just like I have my own thoughts about it. I just needed something short and sweet. Recently, I was parking and my friend said can you parallel park? And I was like, I’m 30 years old! Of course I can parallel park! So, the affirmations grew from that…

Earlier we were saying that neither of us consider ourselves amazing singers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sing, right? We absolutely can!

It just feels like I’m in such an empowered position writing these messages on pieces of paper and putting them around Christchurch, literally nothing’s stopping me! And if somebody sees the ‘live laugh love’ works and it puts a smile on their face, that’s great, knowing that someone might have a chuckle, I like that idea. But I also love that I don’t have to stick with this, I don’t have to keep processing it. It was something I did. I really enjoyed it. Now let’s see what the next thing I can do will be. I’m thinking about song lyrics, digging back into my Yeah Yeah Yeahs phase. I’m going to go buy some supplies today…

Music is so important for so many artists, you have a wide range of musical tastes, right?

I don’t know how people can sit in silence. It freaks me out! I’m into a lot of dance and jungle at the moment, it makes me want to get up and move my body. I feel free and like I’m enjoying myself. But I was watching something the other day and an advert came on with Radiohead’s High and Dry and it triggered something in my brain that took me back ten years ago to university. I just had to listen to that song. I started listening to it and for some people it might mean something else completely, but for me it was like OK, I need to draw right now! That is what inspired me and then that led on to all these other bands on Spotify shuffle. Music definitely is a trigger. I like how music puts you in the mood and I love a wide range of genres. I was listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs the other night and Skeleton came on and it got me really emotional, but in a good way. It brought out all these sad statements, thinking about past boyfriends and breakups and things like that. But it was good because it made me feel creative. I think you still need to embrace the shit times and the music that triggers the sadness. But then MIA comes on, like Bad Girls, and I’m like, right, give me my big black marker, I want to go to town! But when I listen to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Radiohead, that brings out smaller, more delicate drawings. Music triggers different kind of moods and how you want to express yourself in different ways. Sometimes when I’m pasting, I will listen to going for a run music, getting the blood pumping. But then I start and I take the headphones off and look around sheepishly, haha!

You already have quite a multi-directional practice, making art in the streets and at home, as well as organizing and curating shows. Do you put much thought into where it all goes next?

When it comes to art, I am so chaotic! Sometimes I lie awake at night and I always have my diary or something next to my bed, or if my diary is downstairs, it’ll be my phone. My notes are just full of ideas, some don’t even make sense! Half the time these ideas come to me in the middle of the night. I’ll wake up and kind of sketch it down. I think that’s why the flowers are good because I can just smash a load of them out and I’m done. Then sometimes I can go for a couple of days where nothing inspires me, maybe I’m a bit tired or something. I have no structure to my art whatever!

Putting together the shows must be an extension of your need to be creative as well. Your first show I was aware of was More the Show at The Boxed Quarter earlier this year…

Yeah, that was my first show in Christchurch. It was inspired by meeting Sofiya Romanenko. I was blown away by her photography, they are so beautiful, they needed to be on show. So, I thought, let’s just do this. I will be in it because there will probably be nobody else, so it will be me and Sofia. But then I asked a couple of other people, thinking maybe five people would be in the show. But then it grew to 15, and I was like, oh my goodness, and then it got to 25! I was so overwhelmed by just how many people wanted to be part of it. I still can’t get over it. I don’t even know how to put it into words. But I put on More the Show with 25 artists, and it was really amazing. I can’t believe how good it was to give a platform for people to express themselves. I worked really hard, but it was so unbelievably rewarding. It was so exciting. Artists were messaging me, asking is this OK? Is this going to work? I’ve got something a little bit bigger, or meet my friend, she’s also an artist who would be great. I was creating another family within Christchurch and that was so important to me as well. I met so many amazing people. I was on cloud nine and then it was over, and I felt really sad, like I didn’t have a purpose. I thought it was just going to be a one-off thing. But then my brain started ticking away and I was like, OK, let’s do something else. Zak from Flux popped in and he was like, do you want to do something? He had this idea of bringing music and art together, which totally got me. Back in the UK I loved going to art and music festivals, so its a dream to be bringing art and music together. I can’t believe I’ve been given this opportunity to work with artists and musicians and it’s all going to come together in this beautiful place. So, I was like OK, now I have something to put my mind to again and start creating. In my head, I realised 25 artists was awesome, but maybe this time I would stick to fewer people, so it’s a little bit more relaxed. The idea of PB n’ Jam was that the artists would be the peanut butter, you know a little bit nutty, and the music would be the jam. I thought sticking to Slap City people would also suit the vibe, people like Teeth Like Screwdrivers. When I asked him, he was like, why me? I’m not an artist! But the thing is, he is, of course he is! I still can’t get over how shocked people are when you ask them to be part of something and it reminds me of myself when I was younger and had no confidence. Nobody asked me to be in an art show and now I’m in that position where I can be like, you should be in this show. This week people have been sending me updates of what they are doing and I know I’ve chosen the right people for the job because everybody is just psyched for it…

Photo credit: @verygoodphotoalbum

People really value the chance to be included…

Even with More, it was just so positive. I’ve not had a negative experience and I am just so excited to doing this with amazing people…

How will PB n’ Jam combine those elements of music and art?

When Zak and I first talked about it, we were thinking of a festival, which was really great, but was probably too much for me right now. So, we decided I was going to do the art show part and Zak would do the music part. Then we had the idea for live art. I’m getting some boards off Green Lane for live painting on the night. We also started thinking about visuals and projections, which took me back to my Mr. Scruff days in the UK, the gigs with projections of doodles and illustrations, with tea being served at the back! So, we’ve got visual projections which will help tie everything together; the music will be playing, the artists will be working, visuals will be projected, there will be a nice flow between the art and the music.

Who are you excited for people to see?

I love all the artists, but I’m excited to see what Teeth like Screwdrivers and Bongo come up with. All the other artists have been in shows, but asking these two street artists, who kind of throw things up all over the place, I think I’ve really kind of caught them off guard and tested them. I really like what both of them are planning, I’ve got a couple of little tasters and I think they definitely got the point!

PB n’ Jam opens 5:30pm, Friday, 13th August at Flux in the Boxed Quarter

Follow Bloom n Grow Gal on Instagram and Hello I Am for more amazing shows…

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Benjamin Work – Motutapu II at the Canterbury Museum

When the Canterbury Museum’s hugely popular Rise exhibition finished in early 2014, the walls of the main exhibition hall were covered with long black curtains, the murals from the show obscured with only teasing snippets still visible for more inquisitive visitors. With Hakē: Street Art Revealed; the Museum has drawn back the curtains, allowing the public the chance to revisit the Rise legacy, while also encountering a new floor-to-wall mural by Tāmaki Makaurau artist Benjamin Work.

A member of the celebrated TMD crew, Aotearoa’s most notable graffiti collective, Work brings urban art credibility, but his involvement also ensures a wider discourse that extends beyond the focus of Rise. Work’s evolution exemplifies the new trajectories of artists reared on graffiti and urban art, while also explicitly exploring the complexities of both cultural institutions and the Pasifika diaspora. Drawing on his Tongan heritage, Work has pushed his art in new directions over the last decade. Inspired by the iconography found on cultural treasures such as ‘akau tau (war clubs), his refined, graphic paintings have sought to find new spaces and ways for audiences to engage with Tonga’s visual culture, both inside institutions and on the streets.

Over the span of a week, Work created Motutapu II, a massive mural that sprawls across the floor and walls of the main exhibition hall. Inspired by the Canterbury Museum’s collection of ‘akau tau, the painting extends outward from two orange diamond shaped mata, or matapā (eyes of the pā), a vertiginous pattern of interlocking black and white lines leading the viewer toward more sacred symbols framing the work. Work explains Motutapu II as a metaphorical representation of ancient gateways marking arrivals and departures of voyaging vaka. ‘Motutapu’ is a name used across Polynesian cultures for sacred or sanctuary islands, neutral spaces for visitors before arrival at the mainland.

In the museum mural, the black and white lines create pathways, leading the viewer to each end of the hall; a hovering māhina (moon) glows in mottled orange to the east, while to the west, a soaring Tavake (Tropicbird) accompanies three figures symbolising Tonga’s chiefly lineage. Inviting viewers into the painted space, while maintaining a reverence for sacred imagery, navigating the complicated task of maintaining traditions and engaging a contemporary audience. After observing the creation of Motutapu II, I had the opportunity to sit down with Benjamin Work to discuss his experiences in Ōtautahi Christchurch, the future directions of his practice, and the experience of working at the Canterbury Museum…

It’s been a busy month for you! It started with the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, then you arrived here in Ōtautahi to paint a mural for the Etu Pasifika Health Centre with (fellow TMD Crew member) Charles Williams before starting work on your floor-to-wall mural at the Canterbury Museum. Is such a busy lifestyle still enjoyable or do you miss your own bed?

We were talking about this the other night, I have friends whose practice often works at this pace, but I think this has been one of the busiest periods I’ve experienced, including the work prior to my month away. I’ve noticed it’s easy to move from project to project and not take time to be present, to really be in the moment, so that’s something I’m focusing on. And once I’m home, I will have time to process what’s happened.

Work's piece for the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at Lower Hutt's Dowse Art Gallery. The unfurling piece is dark blue and depicts a moon glowing at the top of the section on the wall, there are figures on the section rolled along the floor.
Work’s piece for the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Gallery.

It must have helped to have had friends and family alongside you for these projects…

Definitely! I can’t function without friends and family. I am a relational person. Most of my life has been experienced in a collective environment, whether it was TMD crew, church settings or amongst my Tongan family. I’m at a point in my life where I have a greater understanding of the way I am, and that’s to help others navigate their way as I find my way.

I assume that is also an influence from your graffiti background, a culture that has a strong sense of collectivism and collaboration, which brings me to the Museum project. The opportunity came from the Museum revealing the wall works from the 2013-14 Rise street art exhibition. The idea was to add a floor mural to extend the narratives around that exhibition. Your work has moved beyond description as graffiti art or street art, both stylistically and contextually, highlighting the evolution of artists who may have roots in those origins. How do you respond to people designating you as a graffiti or street artist?   

They are different practices which I want to navigate how and when I want. This is hard for many people to understand inside of their boxes. I don’t want to be referred to as graffiti artist, street artist or a Tongan artist, simply an artist who is telling stories both old and new.

The floor space inside the Canterbury Museum as the artist prepares to install Motutapu II.
The floor space inside the Canterbury Museum as the artist prepares to install Motutapu II.

You mention that you have become more comfortable in the studio, but the idea of bringing Tongan iconography to public spaces and giving them a new visibility was a central aspect of your work, how has that intention changed?

It has been an important part of my process but there has been a shift of late due to migrating back to Aotearoa, Covid, time alone and making new work. I have seen a shift in style, painting techniques and even using loose canvas. There was a period where I engaged with a lot of institutions, between 2015 and 2019, and it was important for me to engage with our Tongan treasures and bring them out into the public space. But I’m not sure if that’s going be a focal point going forward. What I’d like to do is use those connections and my platform to connect other Tongans that are searching for those answers with those institutions. Many communities don’t realise that they have access to all the museums that hold our treasures.

Working within cultural institutions you must have to consider the colonial history of such spaces. Do you see yourself as challenging that history from the inside, or are you more concerned with opening doors for people who have not had a relationship with these institutions previously and as such have not been exposed to the treasures they contain?   

I hope that the way I move and the way I am, and the work that I make does challenge those places. Naturally I’m a bridge-builder, so for me, engaging with an institution such as the Canterbury Museum, one goal is to reconnect our people with our treasures, but if there are challenges that arise, I have to face them. I don’t go looking for confrontation, but if I come face to face with it, I have to say something because I’ve got the privilege of being in that space and if not me, then who?

Work adds some final touches to the massive mural.
Work adds some final touches to the massive mural.

Looking back to some of your previous work, like the mural you painted here in Christchurch for From the Ground Up in 2013, there was an explicit narrative unfolding in a relatively conventional pictorial format, but your work now feels much more evocative and suggestive without that overt storytelling, a quality that is evident in the Museum piece.

Graffiti was quite literal, it’s a letter-based art form and I painted my chosen name over and over again. This is me! Know me! Read me! I’m famous! Transitioning away from a graffiti aesthetic in 2011, I realised I didn’t have to be so blatant which led me to engage with the more abstract iconography found on our traditional ngatu (bark cloth). The inspiration for that particular mural came from reading Olaf Ruhen’s book called Minerva Reef, a true story of Tongan boxers on their way to Aotearoa for a tournament who were shipwrecked on the Minerva Reef for four months. I used iconography to communicate this story on the wall. It was a little strange at the time painting it in Christchurch but that shifted when I found out descendants of some of the survivors lived in Christchurch and visited the wall.

Work's mural for From the Ground Up in 2013. The image in red, black, grey and white, features figures escaping from a ship wreck with a bird flying above them.
Work’s mural for From the Ground Up in 2013.

Did that evolution come about as your exploration of Tongan artefacts such as ‘akau tau (war clubs) and tapa cloth deepened? What were your experiences with those types of objects growing up?

Ngatu bark cloth, fala (floor mats) and ta’ovala, the mats we wear around our waists, are filled with mostly abstract motifs which are embedded with ancient knowledge, we engage with them from birth. We have an intimate knowledge of them, of their texture, and even their smell. We had ngatu bark cloth and mats folded under our bed, most Tongans do, that’s where you store them, where else do you store these humongous things? Ngatu bark cloth was my first point of reference when experimenting with other mediums, but the war clubs were love at first sight. I was first introduced to them in a book called The Art of Tonga by Keith St. Cartmail, I was instantly intrigued by the iconography carved into them. I wanted to work them into my practice, especially the warrior figures.

I was lucky enough to join you when you were examining some of the ‘akau tau in the Museum’s collection, and I was struck by the small scale of the carved designs on the clubs, possibly because I was familiar with your work’s larger scale, which has been an intentional shift to make them more visible…

I wanted to use my platform to tell the world about our Tongan iconography. I wanted the scale to be impactful and for our people to be proud once they had learned that these are our designs, that they come from our ancestors for us. What better way was there than public murals? I feel I’ve started something that other Tongans will continue with bigger and better murals.

The finished Motutapu II, surrounded by the revealed Rise paintings in the Museums main exhibition hall.
The finished Motutapu II, surrounded by the revealed Rise paintings in the Museums main exhibition hall.

You said that living in Tonga you noticed young Tongan men seem to physically engage with their surroundings, constantly touching or hitting surfaces. That kinesthetic or tactile tendency becomes important in the context of your work as you have to think about how people engage with artefacts and art within institutions. I know you had to grapple with the idea of people potentially walking over the floor mural and that influenced the design, especially the elements drawn from more revered sources. That question of how to treat objects of culture and how we engage with them must be a central concern for you, especially as you shift between sacred cultural objects, utilitarian objects, public spaces and white cube galleries…

My process evolves slowly, I’m OK with it, as long as I’m still exploring different ways to communicate through my work, the speed of change doesn’t matter. Living in Tonga has challenged me to think differently when it comes to materials and the way I present my work. I’ve seen my people touching and desiring to hold my work rather than simply viewing it in a gallery, and I’m now OK with that, but if you asked me five years ago, I would have had a heart attack!

The floor-to-wall mural has become a striking element inside the Museum, while also adding a range of fascinating discourses.
The floor-to-wall mural has become a striking element inside the Museum, while also adding a range of fascinating discourses.

What was the process for the Museum piece, from exploring the collection of Tongan artefacts to producing this massive floor to wall mural? What are you looking for as inspiration in those objects and how do you then translate it to a massive mural work?

An important part of this project was me coming down to Christchurch viewing the space. I was emailed the specs for the floor and walls, but if I’m able to see the physical space, I’m able to respond to the space better. Likewise, with the ‘akau tau, I’ve seen many throughout my years of research but I’m always looking for unique motifs within each museum’s collection. I had a similar experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with Dr Maia Nuku (Associate Curator of Oceanic Art at the famous museum). She took us into the collection of Tongan treasures, which is small, but there was a club there with this small motif of two warriors reaching out towards each other, their hands above their heads. That motif then triggered the idea for a mural which she organised in Spanish Harlem. In the Canterbury Museum’s collection is a beautiful abstraction of a Tropicbird which I included in the mural.

By coincidence, the mural you painted with Charles featured a tropicbird as well…

It was meant to be. There was no prior communication on that. Even though it was a Pasifika Health Centre, it would go against Charles’ kaupapa of painting foreign birds in Aotearoa. The Tropicbird is known as an Amokura in Māori and Tavake in Tongan and is a sacred and significant bird that can still be sighted from time to time in Aotearoa. It is said some elders would cry as it was a tohu or sign reminding them of Hawaiki.

The collaboration between Work and TMD crew mate Charles Williams on the Etu Pasifika Health Centre, 2021. The mural features diamonds of blues oranges and yellow, with a realistic tropicbird fllying upwards from the left. On the right, a massive stylised Tongan Chief figure .stands rigidly
The collaboration between Work and TMD crew mate Charles Williams on the Etu Pasifika Health Centre, 2021.

You have admitted your connection to Christchurch is rather limited, but some of your Scottish heritage does trace back here. Being born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and also living in Tonga, what have you made of your experience in Ōtautahi?

I’ve enjoyed Ōtautahi, but I definitely love Tāmaki! No, I visit a place and try to feel the environment, watch and engage with people of that place. Both Māori and Pakeha have been shaped by the landscape, seascape, mountains, and rivers. My great-great-grandparents migrated from the Shetland Islands to Christchurch and are buried in Linwood Cemetery – something I’m learning more about recently. I’ve engaged with the land and people down here, wondering if there are any attributes of that generation in the people I’ve met. I have questions: Why did they choose Ōtautahi Christchurch? Did they walk these same streets? Did they learn the story of this land?

Have you had the chance to engage with members of the Pasifika community here in Ōtautahi during this project?

Associate Curator Hatesa Seumanutafa went above and beyond her job description in supporting this project. Having a person from Moana Oceania with our treasures in the Museum is vital! Not only for our material culture but as a lighthouse for our people to connect with within the institution. Ōtautahi has a unique Pasifika story, one that is sometimes dominated by the Pasifika stories from Auckland and Wellington. I was able to connect with some of the amazing community here and make space for us around a kava session in the Canterbury Museum indigenising space to talanoa and tend to relationships – the first of many.

Hakē: Street Art Revealed is on display until June 7, 2021 at The Canterbury Museum.

Follow Benjamin Work on Instagram

 

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Mike Beer – Tiny City

Mike Beer makes things. He makes really cool things that evoke a nostalgic or experiential sense of connection. His intricate miniature builds of pop culture objects and more recently urban spaces, are undeniably inviting in their detail. I first became aware of Mike when he presented the team at Fiksate a collection of miniature objects – a tiny crate filled with nostalgic vinyl records and an ornately framed recreation of a painting by Nick Lowry. They were irresistibly cool. But it was when I saw his recreated urban environments on his Instagram feed that I was completely blown away. The spaces that I have always cherished, the liminal and peripheral spaces that are infinitely attractive to urban artists and explorers, were presented in miniature form, yet their small scale was still packed with fine details that made you double take to ensure you weren’t actually scanning the real world. As his productions continued to impress, my interest grew and I knew I needed to find out more. I was lucky enough to sit down with Mike and talk about his work one Friday morning (we followed our chat with a spot of bando hunting). If his work was immediately endearing, the artist himself proved equally so; a bundle of friendly, enthusiastic energy. His thick Brummie accent (Originally from Birmingham, Mike has lived in Christchurch for 15 years) adding an additional charm. As we talked it was obvious his scratch builds had a longer lineage, one that explored personal connection to place. If I was immediately charmed by the memories evoked in his builds, it was apparent he also understood this potential, imbuing his work with much more than simple, skilful imitation…

I imagine as a child you were into making things…

I have always loved horror movies. When I was about seven, I had this fascination with the Alien egg, you know the way it used to open? I just thought, I’ve got to make that! So, I made this thing out of chicken wire and paper-mâché. Looking back, it was hideous, but I was only a kid, and I loved it! From then on it was toy models, all movie related stuff, really. I guess since then I’ve always been interested in making stuff and using different mediums. But it was only later in my life that have I done it as a career. When a position come up at the Court Theater as a prop technician, I was just like, I’m getting that job! I knew a lot of people would be gunning for the job, so I was thinking about how I could stand out. In the end I made this giant tombstone, with a skull with a jaw that opened. I engraved the Court Theater on the tombstone… It sounds a bit excessive, doesn’t it?! [Laughs] It cost me like $400 to make! Then I wax stamped my CV and put it in the mouth of the skull. I remember going up to the reception to drop it off, and they were like, just drop it here. I said, actually, it’s just outside… So, we walked outside and here was this massive fucking thing. They must have been thinking, this guy’s weird! [Laughs] But it got me that foot in the door for the first interview. It was the strangest interview as well. They gave you a bunch of bits and bobs to make something within half an hour and then explain what you had created. I thought it had gone really badly, but I went for a second interview and got the job…

For that type of job, actually making something seems much more important than talking about it, right?

Definitely. But I mean, for me, when you’re on the spot, it’s really difficult. It was random stuff too; there was a lid from a milkshake container, there were a couple of plastic dice, a straw, a balloon… You know when you’re panicking and you’re like, oh no! So, I’m just sticking this Plasticine onto a balloon and I made this thing, it was just like a lump of shit, and they were like, ‘So, what have you made?’ And I remember coming up with: ‘A time machine?’ [Laughs] There wasn’t much that you could do with that stuff, but in the end, I guess using my imagination actually got me the job…

Do you have any formal training in any visual arts or practical arts courses?

No. I’ve always made stuff, but I’ve never gone to college. It’s always been a passion and I have always been self-taught. It’s interesting because some of the most brilliant artists I’ve met don’t necessarily have qualifications. Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing artists that do, but there are also amazing artists that don’t have educational qualifications, you know, and that’s kind of my path too…

Staveley Market scratch build by Mike Beer
Staveley Market scratch build by Mike Beer

I imagine with scratch builds, it is constantly about problem solving and thinking outside the box, so a willingness to learn new techniques and break from convention must be important…  

Yeah, it’s a big thing. That creativity to think freely rather than being constricted is important to me. I’ve never really enjoyed working, I mean who does? But especially when I feel constricted and not engaged. To be creative is so important to my state of mind, it is what keeps me going, you know? Like you said, when you have enough freedom to just mess around with stuff and make lots of mistakes, that’s how you get better. If you are constantly doing stuff, you are constantly getting better at what you are doing and you are going to push past those boundaries. Without sounding cheesy, I also think it’s important to grow as an artist, to take criticism and to listen to others. Growing up I’ve always had friends that have been artistic, and you learn from other people. I think you hit a stalemate if you think your work is at its peak. It never is. Unless you can take criticism on board, you’ll never grow, you’ll never improve…

I imagine the online world is helpful for inspiration and learning new ideas, but it is different from a real network of other creatives to bounce ideas off…

Since I’ve lived in Christchurch, I’ve met a really close-knit group of people, and I’ve learned a hell of lot from them, so I suppose without them I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing. My god that sounded really cheesy! But yeah, you’re right, you need people like that along the way…

The first examples of your work I saw were the miniature objects at Fiksate, little record crates and tiny framed paintings, when did you start that approach?

That was about three years ago, after leaving the Court Theater. I was like, you know what, life’s short, I want to do what I love, and I love the movies and I love making stuff, so I’ll start making miniature stuff. Weirdly, because you know what it’s like with an artistic brain, I started making teddy bears with horror faces, I don’t know what I was thinking! [Laughs] But I did that for a couple of months and then I started doing key chains and they turned into retro VHS key chains and people wanted them and it grew from there to become Monster Mailman, an online store, basically. [Mike recently passed Monster Mailman onto new ownership] It took me on a journey, but it didn’t extend me enough, it didn’t challenge me as much as I wanted. But it was a gateway into what I’m doing now, I was just fascinated with the city and the art in it, all the rusty grimy buildings. It’s all connected, and I think I’m at a point where now I know this is what I was meant to do…

Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, with Monster Mailman merch.

Were you doing any set work at the Court Theatre?

There was a little bit of set, but it was mainly props. It was a kid’s dream job, on the first day they needed me to paint 20 Nerf guns for Hamlet. Then I had to make a beating heart, it was ace man. I worked on some wicked shows, but you are still restricted to doing stuff for other people, if that makes sense, which is great but…

One of Mike Beer's 'Do Not Press' buttons applied to central Christchurch streets. When passersby could not follow the advice, and pressed the button, sriracha sauce oozed out...
One of Mike Beer’s ‘Do Not Press’ buttons applied to central Christchurch streets. When passersby could not follow the advice, and pressed the button, sriracha sauce oozed out…

You are still making it to fit someone else’s narrative, whereas when you’re doing it purely for yourself, you are creating the story yourself as you make something. I ask about set making because to me the latest builds suggest occupation and activation, especially as real spaces where moments have played out like performances. Every space we encounter has meaning to us, even if it is only momentary. Is that something you think about with these builds?

Deep question! Yeah of course, obviously it’s all about connections, isn’t it? Going back to Monster Mailman, even that was about people’s connections with movies and the memories they create. We connect with things throughout our lives, so I suppose through the core of everything, that is what I hold onto the most – those connections, that nostalgia and the things that bring people to life, you know? Like, do you remember this? Or when we were doing this? Those memories and connections are what keep us going and that’s what life’s about. You find that in the city, you know, these buildings tell a story because of what they’ve been through, the art that’s on them and that’s what connects with people. It’s a million people’s lives through one lamppost, and that is magical man, it’s insane…

It’s been heightened here in Christchurch because many of the spaces that were colored by our memories and attachments have disappeared, so recreating those spaces in your scratch builds, there’s something really powerful in that.

There really is, even the smallest thing, like remembering that movie you watched as a child when you see it on TV, and that’s what I’m trying to incorporate by making stuff around the city.

A scratch build of a well-known Manchester Street wall.
A scratch build of a well-known Manchester Street wall and the real thing above for comparison.

So, what was your first build, something that you had encountered in real life, or was it based on a photograph?

It was based on a photograph. There’s an artist, Joshua Smith, I love the guy! There’s lots of other artists who have inspired me, but with Joshua’s work, there was just something that made me think this stuff is incredible! I felt a connection with his stuff, even though I had not been to the cities that he recreated buildings from, I got it, you know? I instantly got it and I was like yeah man, that is going to be me in a couple of years, that’s what I want to replicate. I actually managed to get in contact with him, which was amazing. I love the city. I’m a city person. I’ve tried to live in the country, for me it sucked, but that’s just my experience! But the city is everything to me and it’s like what you see when you wander around a city, as opposed to driving or going straight to a location, it opens up a whole new world, and that is what I want to replicate and get people to feel that.

An EnviroWaste skip scratch built by Mike Beer (not visible, the tiny Belton spraycan and 'Longest Shake in Town' milkshake cup)
An EnviroWaste skip scratch built by Mike Beer (not visible, the tiny Belton spraycan and ‘Longest Shake in Town’ milkshake cup inside)

I’m a terrible driver around cities, my girlfriend is constantly telling me off because I’m always scanning around looking out for new graffiti or art…

You’re on the wrong side of the road again! [Laughs]

Mike Beer's playful addition of 'bronze' dog shit to the long-standing corgi sculptures on High Street
Mike Beer’s playful addition of ‘bronze’ dog shit to the long-standing corgi sculptures on High Street

Exactly! But when you’re walking, you have that freedom. You can take a turn at any time. There’s something about being surprised and I think that again ties into the idea of being connected to space, because even if you’re replicating an environment that is seemingly inconsequential historically or civically, as long as that space has one little memorable tag, if you’re that way inclined, it is meaningful, because there’s a spark of recognition of its uniqueness…

Yeah, it’s huge and those tiniest of things, whether it’s an upturned tile, a paste up of a little gnome or something else, it is so unique. Once I was in town waiting for someone, at those dandy lion fountains [The Town Hall], and I saw the corner of this concrete building and someone in crayon had written ‘Déjà vu’ and I just had to get a picture of that, because I realised that it only existed right there…

You automatically think who? Why? How? It is a sign that someone else has been in that moment. It’s like the end of Stand By Me where one of the characters fades out as they walk away. It reminds us that there are all these layers of time in any place, that cities are made up of so many voices over time.

Don’t! You’re getting me man! [Laughs] The feels! [Laughs] But yeah, it’s multilayered, with voices that once existed but don’t anymore. That’s beautiful.

And again, here in Christchurch we’ve been exposed to all those layers because things have been broken and fallen down and those spaces have almost invited people to leave their mark, so what normally takes generations, has occurred over this much smaller period of time…

Yeah, that’s right.

Out of everything you have built, do any stand out for capturing that sense of loss or change in the city?

In regard to making something that doesn’t exist any longer? I’ve not actually made anything yet that’s disappeared completely, well apart from the wall with the Band-Aid paste up on Manchester Street. I did a build for my lovely mate Evan from Dead Video. Me and him share those connections from classic movies and old VHS, they inspired him to open Dead Video and me to start Monster Mailman. My dream has always been to work in a video store, and he let me work in Dead Video a few weeks ago for a couple of hours! Here’s me sat there, gesturing to people like, come in! [Laughs] I was in my element! He’s done this amazing thing where he’s brought this shop back and so I scratch built where he started Dead Video in a garage in Lyttelton. He finally moved to London Street recently, where he’s always wanted to be, the shop looks amazing. So, I built his original garage front store with the roller shutters and the tin iron roof. I even did the lights on the front. I’ve got to wire them up actually. He’s ripped out that store, but that was the start for Evan, it was magical and gave people so much joy because of what his store recreates. And now something that I’ve made and that he’ll have forever will hopefully remind him of that start and how far he has come, unless it’s on Trade Me, you never know with Ev!

The artist holds his scratch build of the original home of Lyttelton's Dead Video in front of the real thing
The artist holds his scratch build of the original home of Lyttelton’s Dead Video in front of the real thing

I remember the front of the old store was decked out with movie reference paste ups as well, which brings up the way urban art features in a lot of your miniatures, from the Band Aid paste ups to the doorway covered in work by the Slap City crew, did you have a connection to the graffiti and street art worlds prior?

I’ve always appreciated it. But it’s one of those things that I’ve always looked at from afar. It’s strange, I know there’s a divide with tagging in any city, but for me, it tells a story, you know, even if it’s in a place it shouldn’t be, I just I like that… It’s that connection. When I’m building stuff, I’m not interested in anything that’s modern because it has no character. It has no soul. For me, it’s all about buildings that have been through something, that have taken a battering and outlived us. And often they have got other people’s art on them, they become a representation of all the artists that have tagged them. They have stories to tell. I couldn’t do anything that was modern because it seems pointless to me…

Mike Beer's scratch build of one of the post-quake Band-Aid paste-ups by Dr Suits and Jen
Mike Beer’s scratch build of one of the post-quake Band-Aid paste-ups by Dr Suits and Jen

Again, it is about that layering, by choosing sites that feature graffiti and street art, there is the suggestion of the ability to reimagine the city, which is what you’re doing in a way. One of the things with how heavily buildings and public spaces are designed now is how they deny organic subversion. Urban art has always been about challenging that; skateboarding around the city is a way to change the designed use and the same with guerrilla artists making use of spaces and subverting them by seeing them in a different way.

It’s like putting a glitter ball in a forest isn’t it? Those modern buildings, for me, they’re just ugly. I understand they serve a purpose and we’ve got to rebuild, but you’re right, they are a little bit soulless. It sounds a bit harsh because obviously the people who built them probably don’t want that to be the case, and it is rebuilding the city, but they just don’t have that character, that feel…

Going behind the curtain a little bit, what’s the actual process of a scratch build? When I look at some of your pieces, I’m instantly drawn right in, getting as close as I can, looking at the amazing detail. The brickwork, the concrete, the rust, they invite that inquisition. But how do you do it? Or do you like to keep a veil of mystery?

The rust! I’m going to get weird now! [Laughs] I do think it’s really important to share certain skills with anyone who wants to know. It’s all about passing it on. I’m never too veiled with information. I know some people keep it to themselves because they don’t want anyone else making what they make, but I think it’s important to share as much information with other artists as possible. Art is to be shared, it’s not just a ‘me, me, me’ thing…

Mike Beer at work on a build
Mike Beer at work on a build

That becomes a two-way street as well, right? The more you share, the more people share with you…

Exactly, and beautiful things get made if you do that. It opens a whole new realm of people making lots of cool stuff. With my process, I found the devil is in the detail. If you make a brick wall it’s easy to paint it brick color and then just paint the grout grey and leave it, but it doesn’t have that authentic feel. I’ve literally got to grout the bricks. I even go into the garden and dig up soil and mix it with water, then when I finish the piece, I paint it with the soil in places to give a dirty look. You’ve just got to layer it and you’ve got to make it look as authentic as possible. It’s almost like you’re recreating it as it would have been made. With the door with the Slap City paste ups, I’d not seen it in town, but I’d seen Teeth Like Screwdrivers’ post on Instagram, and I was like, I’ve got to make that. So, I started the process. The brick work was difficult because it was stone, but I managed to figure it out. It’s all just angles and cutting in, and there’s little things that you learn along the way. I didn’t know how to recreate the plywood because it has been in the open and it’s stained. It’s got that heavy grain, which you don’t get when you buy small pieces of wood for a scratch build, so for ages I was racking my brain. Eventually, I just got a soldering iron and I thought I’ll see if this works. I burned the wood and it worked! I got that grain, but it’s such a process, I’ve obviously got a lot of free time! [Laughs] I drew the grain on, then I just washed it in different washes, and it came through. Sometimes that process takes ages, but it has to look real. I’m still learning as well. Even the rust technique on the skip, I literally found a new technique on how to get that beautiful rust color underneath. Before I was just dry brushing it and it didn’t look as authentic. So, I’m still learning along the way…

The Slap City door from Manchester Street, featuring paste-ups by Bongo, Teeth Like Screwdrivers, Cape of Storms, Vez and more
The Slap City door from Manchester Street, featuring paste-ups by Bongo, Teeth Like Screwdrivers, Cape of Storms, Vez and more

I guess like the psychological layers of a city, there are also physical layers, and they have to be evident for the piece to feel authentic and to actually make that connection. It’s like the uncanny valley with CGI effects, where our emotional connection is stronger to something the more it resembles reality, but when it isn’t quite right, our affinity decreases…

Definitely and that’s what’s great about art, to be able to step back from a piece, whatever piece it may be and question it, that’s great, that’s what I love about art. As to whether it’s negative or positive, I think any kind of reaction is quite visceral and that’s what’s wonderful about art, any kind of art, 2D, 3D, anything. Hopefully the reaction I get from my stuff is that recognition…

You are making real and tangible objects, so what is the next stage for these pieces? Is there a long-term goal?

The long-term goal is to build the entire Christchurch city! [Laughs] All the old buildings and stuff. The goal is to go extravagant, but obviously I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t connect with me. It’s got to connect with me as the artist. I’ve got to love what I make because that shows in what you do. I want to create something that people can just completely connect with on a different level. Since living in Christchurch, I’ve found the people are amazing you know, we’ve been through a lot of shit and are very resilient. I love this city and, it sounds cheesy man, but it’s just a way of giving back with your art in a sense.

A Stop sign build based on an actual street sign in central Christchurch
A Stop sign build based on an actual street sign in central Christchurch

What pieces are in the pipeline at the moment?

There’s the juicy Design and Arts College building on Worcester Street! I have to make that! It’s so detailed when you look closely. I took a picture of it a couple of weeks ago. It’s all bolted up with chains and there’s rust and it’s got all this graffiti and there are paste ups, but then as you go higher you’ve got all these amazing windows. It’s gorgeous. I didn’t realize until I zoomed in on the photo, which I do when I’m trying to get the details, a lot of the windows are smashed and tagged from the inside, but then you look even closer and above the sash windows they have this copper awning, it’s really ornate. But I have to build it so that it looks exactly right, with the wire fences outside, the weeds… everything!

When it comes to choosing buildings to make, do you get inspiration from other people, from their recollections? You obviously avoid the obvious choices, like the Cathedral…

I’m not going to start building the gondola! But yes, I like hearing about people’s memories of buildings and especially the ones that are less known. Known but not known, I guess? I have spoken to a lot of people, like my mate Pete at Gordon Harris, I sat down with him a wee while ago and he was going over older buildings like Wizards, the Java Lounge and Toffs. I can connect with what I can connect with now, but I obviously can’t connect with buildings that don’t exist anymore, so I need to speak to people with regard to that. It’s just that with some buildings, what they’ve been through with the earthquakes, their age, the graffiti, the art, it all comes together.

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Teeth Like Screwdrivers – Pencils, Peacocks and Pastes

Teeth Like Screwdrivers is one of those people who radiates enthusiasm. Not in the cheesy, annoying way, but simply through a desire to bring people together and to see things happen. I came across his pencil stickers before I met the man himself. They were the type of sticker I love, although simple, they pulled you in through a spark of the familiar that made you ponder, is that what I think it is? Since finally meeting the artist, I have followed Teeth Like Screwdrivers’ busy trajectory, his own prolific and expansive output, his global network of contacts and collaborators, and the formation of Slap City, a sticker and paste up club that that has brought together a diverse roster of artists. When we caught up, all of these factors became apparent both in the scope of our conversation, but also in the way Teeth Like Screwdrivers spoke, excitedly, almost breathlessly darting back and forth through topics. From his early days in Christchurch after arriving from the UK, to the formation of Slap City and his lock down sticker collab project, we covered a lot of ground, fitting for an artist who thrives on activity… 

We first met at the giant spray cans, where you were part of a DTR crew workshop. I remember you just had this massive grin on your face enjoying the experience. Is a sense of community and participation a central concern for you? It seems that Slap City is very much about forming a community.

I’ve always organized stuff. When I first moved here, I started the Garden City Session [a Christchurch longboarding group], which I’m no longer doing but has now got like a thousand members. Within the first week of arriving in Christchurch, I got hold of Cheapskates and was like, right, who’s organizing something for skaters? They hit me up with Scotty who was doing Skate School and we did a couple of longboard ones and then it spiraled and spiraled and spiraled. We used to do pub crawls on skateboards. So, I was always the one organizing events, rocking up and being the hype man.

Christchurch’s Flavor Flav!

If I’m really interested in something, it is really easy to do. As a schoolteacher, if I’m doing a lesson I’m not into, it then it’s probably going to be shit, but if I’m into it, it’s going to be brilliant! So, with the sticker stuff, the same thing happened. Stickers were happening, of course they were, but I enjoy the hanging out and someone else going: ‘You could do this…’ It was the same with that DTR workshop last year. I don’t use spray cans, I’m not a graffiti artist. I’m as far from your stereotypical graffiti guy as you can get, but I wanted to see how it’s done. In my head I wanted to make my work look like a marker pen. I love markers, I’m a little bit OCD and I love the different thicknesses. So, I was like, how can I make spray paint look the same? I went and watched them and I realised you could put one line there, then you can do another line there and it cuts that first one back. That was all that was about. But I was loving it because I was surrounded by people who just knew their fucking trade, who were really good and they were just like: ‘You could do this, you could do this…’ I was like, this is brilliant! But I also realised there are lots of ways to do things. There was a really good Safe Kasper artwork on the cans a while back, he’d sprayed the bulk of it and then used a marker for the details, I was like, what the fuck? I can just paint the outline and marker the details which is essentially what I’m doing with a sticker, doing the background and then the marker over the top, so it made sense. But running shit is fun, that’s the joy for me. I like sitting at home and spending an hour just cranking out stickers, but I also like having other people around and bouncing ideas off each other.

Teeth Like Screwdrivers pencils on one of the giant spray cans at the youth space on Lichfield Street.
Teeth Like Screwdrivers pencils on one of the giant spray cans at the youth space on Lichfield Street

Obviously within graffiti culture there has been this history of mentorship and camaraderie in terms of crews.

Skateboarding is similar, you learn, not from the masters directly, but an older person will go: ‘Actually mate, it will be way easier if you just pop your foot off the left and put pressure on there…’ It’s the same thing. I remember I went down to the cans the other day, the DTR crew were doing a big paint jam. I’m an outsider, like I said, I’m about as far away as you can imagine from graffiti writers, but they’re like: ‘Get in bro, grab a can, give it a go…’ I was like, really? It was wonderful.

I feel like when we talk about post-graffiti or street art, it can be more isolated, because you tend to be making something in advance, it doesn’t necessarily have the same sense of community or camaraderie, but undeniably the potential’s there.

Yeah, most people want to be nice, most people are good people, you go up to them and say I really love what you’re doing, can we do something together? They are probably going to say yes, just get in there and see what happens. The worst that can happen is they say no, in which case OK, cool. Christchurch is small enough that you will bump into the same people. If you’re doing something similar, chances are you’re going to bump into me, so that connection may as well be as easy as possible. I don’t know those DTR guys from jot, but they all remembered me from a year and a half ago.

Because Christchurch is small, the competitive element isn’t necessarily as strong as it might be in bigger cities where street cultures have diverged.

Vez is a great example. I saw her stuff all over the place before I met her, and she sent me a message saying: ‘I’m moving from England to Christchurch.’ I told her that I’d started this sticker thing and that she should come along, thinking she’s had artwork everywhere in the world, she won’t want to come! But she rocked up and was just like ‘Hi!’ Now I see her work everywhere and I know who she is and what her stuff is about, and that’s what it should be really.

The fact that Slap City is held at Fiksate is another example of that sense of community in the local scene.

There are lots of examples of it in other cities where people meet at a pub or somewhere where they’ve just got a big old table and they all sit around and just pass some shit around and share. I was like, why don’t I do that here? Then we just kept doing it, then we made it every two weeks rather than once a month. But again, it fits nicely at Fiksate. We go in, it’s super chill, we set the tables up and it’s just like a second wee family. We just chat, talk about what we’ve been up to the last couple of weeks. Someone will have some new things that they want to share, or they have worked on a whole bunch of new stickers and we all kind of pass judgment on them, in a good way!

A Slap City gathering at Fiksate as part of the Road to ZineFest, September 2020.
A Slap City gathering at Fiksate as part of the Road to ZineFest, September 2020

In addition to that sense of community, has Slap City allowed you to do things artistically that maybe you wouldn’t have done by yourself? 

I think I’m keener to get up in the streets. I mean I’m not your typical person who goes and puts things in the street, but you know, we go out and half of us go and have a beer afterwards. It’s all about walking around. People will rock up with some paste and we just go for it. So, I guess it’s not a solo sport anymore. I mean it is, it can be. I’ve spent many evenings just putting stickers up by myself, but there’s something more fun about there being a whole bunch of you. Someone will put one up and you try to put one higher, it’s just that kind of thing. But it could be anything, it could be a bike gang, it could be a record collecting crew. It’s having that little group around you who are just as enthusiastic as you.

A Teeth Like Screwdrivers pencil sticker, 2019
A Teeth Like Screwdrivers pencil sticker, 2019

That energy and excitement feeds everyone, and opens the gateway just enough for people to come through…

I mean we’ve got it all now. Suddenly it’s gone from me saying I can get a few people and we can do some drawing, to having this crew. People come and go but there’s probably six or seven regulars. Three of them are part of an exhibition at Fiksate [Vez, Bexie Lady and Cape of Storms are all featured in the show Perspective: Women in Urban Art], which is crazy! Bongo’s screen printing now, so he offered to do a run of a hundred stickers for this amount of money, and everyone was chucking money at him and that comes from just talking to people, getting shit done, you know? It is almost self-fulfilling. If I want to go and do some stuff on the street, then I can probably find someone keen to come along. Even if it is just wandering around and putting stupid stickers of pencils up, it doesn’t matter, that’s the fun of it. We are all very different, some crews have a particular style, especially with graffiti, but we’re drawing pictures on paper and sticking them up, it is different. One week a guy came and just did smiley faces, which was great!

People sometimes assume that there’s a right way to do street art.

Right, a particular highbrow view that you have to do this or that. I’m sure in the graffiti world there are styles and techniques that are passed on, but with stickers the joy is that they are literally just a marker pen and sticky paper. You could draw a picture of your own bum and it would count. Anyone can come along and draw funny little things on a piece of paper, and it counts. It doesn’t have to be ginormous.

Teeth Like Screwdrivers, Lyttelton, c. 2018

Touching on that idea of size, there has been a tendency in urban art towards placemaking and an increasingly big scale, and yet really placemaking is also about the small stuff.

I’m a big fan of the little things that are hidden away, the things that you don’t notice at first, but then you do and it makes them even more rad. Paste ups are fun because they let you work on a bigger scale than stickers. You can literally put up any size, but it’s still a smaller scale in terms of just drawing on a piece of paper and sticking it up on a wall. It’s generally never going to be higher than you can physically do it. I guess that’s why making stupid machines to put stickers higher up a wall amuses the shit out of me. There are a few that are up there and I’m just like, it’s so high off the ground! That’s pure amusement for me.

That idea of simply playing in the streets… 

I did some pastes in Lyttelton with a mate of mine recently. So, Lyttelton has an issue with peacocks. Someone I might know really closely released a bunch of peacocks into the hills and the farmer on the top of the hill kicked off and started cooking them and eating them! So, me and said friend, we had a few beers and started pasting a whole bunch of peacocks around the port. One day I got a text message from him, he was at work and he said: ‘I think I’ve gone too big!’ He sent me a picture of a massive peacock poster coming out of a large format printer. There’s a spot above the tunnel and we pasted this huge thing up. I woke up the next morning and I’m a long way from the tunnel, my mate’s even further, but I could fucking see it! Everybody in port would be able to see it! It was like a big white postage stamp of a huge peacock head. We were just pissing ourselves because of the stupidity of it! I’m not trying to be artistic, it’s just genuinely hilarious, you paste a huge peacock so this woman who’s been killing them and eating them, every time she leaves port she sees a massive fucking peacock! We are still pasting little ones everywhere; we must have put fifty up throughout Lyttelton. They only lasted a wee while because it was shit paste, but I laughed so much.

A Peacock Liberation Front paste up, alongside work by Cape of Storms and Bexie Lady, 2020
A Peacock Liberation Front paste up, alongside work by Cape of Storms and Bexie Lady, 2020

Speaking of repetition, how did your pencils come about? 

For my art A Level in the UK I made a bunch of skateboards and they had scratched up backgrounds painted to look like they had been skated on and then I added a white silhouette of different pieces of furniture. One of the silhouettes was a classic UK school chair, an orange pre-formed plastic chair with black skinny metal legs and a hole in the back. I realized I could tag it in one hit, and it was identifiable as a chair really quickly. So, for years I wrote FURNITURE, which is a lovely word to write by hand, it’s really gorgeous. I was tagging it and at the end of the E I would then move in and join the chair onto it, so that’s where I started. I realised it’s obviously a school chair, I’m a schoolteacher, it ties in, so what else could I tie in? I went to a compass, and actually I’ve got photos of doing quite big ones on the side of The Drawing Room in town, I even went on a bit of a tiki tour all over Melbourne and Sydney, just sticking stuff up. I did the compasses for a wee while and they were really simple, inspired by a particular genre of stickers at that time. Then one day I put a pencil in the compass, and I was like, oh, I really like that! So, I drew a few more pencils. They were square, so they had the rubber bit at the end with the metal, then they were triangular, pointed as if they had been sharpened by a sharpener. I got a whole bunch of small stickers, but I couldn’t draw the whole pencil on that size, so I just did the nib. But it didn’t really look like a pencil, it just looked like a triangle with the square side. But then when I scalloped it, suddenly it looked like my pencil, and then I thinned the lines. The first ones I did, there’s a few around still, they look like pencils, shaded and with straight lines, but you know, they looked too much like pencils, and it was taking me forty minutes to draw one because my inner OCD kicked in. I needed to make it quicker, so I dropped the end off, scalloped it, and put in the wee dots to make it look like it had been cut by a knife. There’s a book I’ve got called How to Sharpen a Pencil. It’s well worth finding because the boy’s a genius, he literally wrote a book about the different ways to sharpen a pencil. It has all these different pencils and who they are used for, there was this perfect one he called ‘The Architectural’ for architects. It’s really ironic but really funny. One of them was a really long-nibbed, scalloped version and I was just like, that is how I love my pencils! I just copied that and put in a few dots to show that it had been sharpened and now I just draw them non-stop. It’s just gone from there really.

A small Teeth Like Screwdrivers compass sticker on a yellow pole on the beach, Brighton, United Kingdom (photo credit: Butterstotch)
A Teeth Like Screwdrivers compass, Brighton, United Kingdom, 2007 (photo credit: Butterstotch)

Was there an element of the phenomenology that Shepard Fairey talks about, taking something that might be meaningless but repeating it enough to make it meaningful?

Fucking over and over and over again… I’m a huge fan of The Toasters, a crew from the UK who just did outlines of toasters. I remember first seeing one of them in the mid-nineties and being like, why the hell would you make a sticker with a toaster on it? But also, why not? I wasn’t really into Obey, but there were The London Police, D-Face and a whole bunch of those guys around that time that were doing thick-lined icons on white backgrounds, repeating them so they became like a signature. I’m a handwriting nerd, I love a good-looking tag that’s really been thought out. I like drawing pencils; the lines work really well for me. I love the straight lines, and there’s enough individuality that you can make each one different. You can make them short, long, you can put stupid little rubbers on the bottom if you want to, you can write words on the side, there are lots of options. But it’s still always the same identifiable thing – everyone has seen a pencil. Even with the silhouette stuff, if you’ve seen the pencil and then you see the silhouette, you can see those two are related and maybe there will be a little link in your brain, like, I’ve seen that somewhere before… That is not my idea, I got that from The Toasters, doing the outline and people thinking what the fuck is that? It’s a fucking toaster! That sense of wonderment. People are like I’ve seen your sticker things everywhere, and I’m like great! That’s the point! There isn’t a purpose behind them, there is not some subliminal message, I’m not trying to alter what you’re thinking, I’m literally just drawing a stupid pencil!

Yet even without that intent, they do change the way people think because they are becoming more aware of their surrounding environment.

I think it was Erosie in a video about The Toasters, he says: ‘This is city glitter’, you know? It’s little sparkles that might brighten someone’s day and if it just does that once, if someone says: ‘I fucking know them! I’ve seen them!’ Then great, that’s all I need to do!

When you talk about the silhouette pencils, you are referring to your ‘bluff buff’ pieces, they remind me that the buff itself is essentially a bluff. We can look out and see the way that buff jobs just block out graffiti, they echo the shapes. I mean the most ridiculous buff jobs are the ones where you can still read the graffiti.

Yeah, they have just outlined it, you could go over it with a pen and it would fill in the gap perfectly. There are some great ones around!

A Teeth Like Screwdrivers 'Bluff Buff' in central Christchurch, 2020.
A Teeth Like Screwdrivers ‘Bluff Buff’ in central Christchurch, 2020

No one is ever going to say that the buff itself is an act of beautification.

It’s like that PEEEP Trust, they are actually stencilling their logo onto the walls they buff! At first, I thought it was an artist signing their work. It’s like the classic ‘official’ graffiti walls, with a spray can and it just gets filled. But I googled PEEEP and it’s an actual fucking thing! They are paid, or at least they raise money to do that shit.

It speaks more to masking than improvement.

It is deliberate censorship rather than enhancement.

The pencil bluffs play on that…

I don’t have roots in this. But it creates a grey area. If I’m painting on the wall and someone pulls up, I just say someone wrote the word fuck on it and I’m covering it up, and they go, ‘oh shit, that’s OK mate, see you’. No street artist is going to be using a tub of grey paint and a paintbrush, so the moment they pull up, because it’s essentially a rectangle with a bit on the bottom and a bit on the top, I can square it off and be like someone drew a dick and I’m covering it up. So, it’s making it safer for me because I’m that person.

You mentioned your love of skateboarding, was that the gateway to sticker culture and graffiti? 

Skateboarding came first. I had stickers on skateboards first. There is an art form to putting a sticker on a skateboard, there is a certain way you do it. You put it in a certain place because you know that it’s going to get fucked if you put it in a different place. There is also the branding. I’m not going to put any old sticker on my stuff, it’s going to be representing me and therefore that’s important. So, I guess the placement, the branding, it has all led to where it is today. I am still like, why the fuck would you put a sticker there!? You could have moved it four inches and overlapped that one and it would have looked brilliant! That’s my inner nerdiness coming out, but there is a certain way to do it. In Lyttelton, one of Bongo’s pastes was coming off, and I wanted to put my one up, so I took his off and re-pasted it just a bit to the right and put mine so they overlapped nicely. He was like: ‘Did you move my piece a bit?’ Well, I had to because mine overlapping yours makes both of them look better, if i hadn’t it would have fucked up both of our work!

A Teeth Like Scredrivers Gnome and Pencil beside a Bongo character, Lyttelton, 2020
A Teeth Like Screwdrivers Gnome and Pencil beside a Bongo character, Lyttelton, 2020

That’s the thing about urban art, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it doesn’t exist in a white cube. The surrounding context of space gives it meaning, but also is part of the aesthetic. A mural on a wall has to work with whatever is going on there and it’s the same with a sticker. There’s a subtlety in terms of placement, and there’s also a mindfulness, right?

That’s trial and error too. The amount of times I’ve stuck a sticker up and it’s just slipped off. It’s all covered in dust and grime! But again, the buffs are a great example. You posted a picture of an alleyway somewhere, and instantly, I knew what had to happen! There’s a light grey, a dark grey, there’s an overlap, there is an obvious point for me to put a buff pencil. Again, it comes back to skateboarding. Skateboarders look at the world in a different way than most others, they will go past a spot and to anyone else it’s not a spot, but a skateboarder recognizes the fact that you could do a trick there, or you know, that curb’s looking really rad. It can be anything and the same thing applies to stickers and paste ups and graffiti, you see a spot and you’re like, ohhh, hello, that will work well…

It’s like those movie scenes where a character’s thought process is visualised and you see diagrammatic lines and mathematical equations in space.

Yeah skateboarders have that in spades! If you watch a skateboarder walking around town, you can just see the way they are trialing shit in their head. It’s just instinctive. I’m finding it’s the same with stickers, I’ve got a pile in my car and when I’m driving, I’m looking and thinking that spot would be perfect… Even colour is a part of it now, I never used colours in the past, I used white and black, now I’ve got all this colored vinyl. I’ve got this bright green, and I’m like, that will look so good on that wall, you know? It’s madness, it’s actual madness!

A vinyl pencil slap, Christchurch, 2020
A vinyl pencil slap, Lyttelton, 2020

Urban art, graffiti, skateboarding, parkour, they are all tactical, they are always a response, and that’s the thing, they are constantly evolving. You can’t eradicate something that is not rigidly defined, things that can grow and evolve…

Certain styles of skating have come out of different cities because of the way that councils have tried to stop skaters. When rumble strips first came out in the UK, they were stated to be for blind people, so they can feel them when they are walking. But no, they are not, that’s bullshit. They were put there to stop me hitting it on a skateboard. But people were quickly figuring out how to go over them, doing tricks, and I fucking love that, it’s great.

It’s the same with graffiti, attempts to stop it are just going to change the way it occurs.

It’s just misdirection. I guess it is how cities get their style; if you’re in a city that’s heavy on trains, then a lot of train bombing is going to go down. In the UK, we didn’t have the train thing, so it was always on the buses, which is why stickers came about. You could get on the bus and just slap. If you lived in a city where there weren’t any trains coming through, you did the buses, because that was the next best thing.

And those different vessels mean different styles and techniques evolve in response.

Which is interesting for Christchurch because we are a city of concrete tilt slab buildings. I mean there are some fucking wonderful huge murals, and they are street art, it is definitely art on the street, but it’s also blocked off and lit and fucking ginormous, you know, and I feel that maybe there’s more to it all. I mean, I look at that [gestures to a nearby decorated window] and I don’t know whether someone’s done that themselves or someone’s been paid to do that, and I think that’s a really nice balance. We are so full of the big mural stuff that you can get away with putting a big paste up and no one questions it.

A small pencil sticker, Christchurch, 2020
Small pencil stickers, Christchurch, 2020

With the breakneck change that the city’s gone through, it’s going to change the responses. So, it’s not just the eradication methods, it’s also the physical make-up. We had broken abandoned buildings that were perfect for graffiti writers to commandeer and then we had lots of exposed walls from buildings coming down which were perfect for murals, now we’re going to find more of these spaces that are more traditional spots, liminal spaces.

But weirdly they will be new! They will be sharp and fucking clean, perfect spaces, which for me, as someone who puts stickers up, I love that! The smoother the surface, the easier it is! I don’t want to deal with bricks and shit, I just want nice, clean walls. Also, the up and the down of this city, you know, there’s stuff on the floor, there’s stuff up high. We don’t have many high-rise buildings, so things stand out more. It’s got a sense of panorama.

Even from here, we can see the lay out of the city. There’s an expansiveness which is kind of inspiring in a way, because you don’t feel smothered or captured.

Or penned in. It also means that you’re not cliquing it, you know? I drive from Lyttelton to here, that’s the whole city, and it takes me fifteen minutes. So, there isn’t anywhere you can’t hit, which is fucking brilliant.

Which gives a real sense of possibility. Speaking of expansive, I really enjoyed watching your lock down collaboration project.

That came about as a lock down version of Inktober. Their first theme was like ‘green’ and then the next one was something else, and I couldn’t think of anything to do with my pencils for it. The collab thing is big in sticker culture anyway, so I just decided to write a list of twenty people I wanted do it with and I just put it out there. Then it became forty and then sixty and it just kept going. The concept is more of a mashup than a collab I guess, taking someone else’s art and doing it yourself in your way or blending your styles together.

You often use other people’s stickers to adorn things anyway, even if you’re not street slapping.

Yeah, exactly, so the mashup is just taking it to this next degree, I guess. MarxOne from up in Nelson, he is the fucking king, he has sheets and sheets and sheets of collabs with different people. As an artist, if someone does a picture of a pencil and they tag me in it, I’m not going to be like, that’s my pencil, don’t do that! That’s bollocks. But everyone has a style. I’ve tried characters and I’ve got a big fucking ginger beard character with a stupid bald head, who is basically me, and people now recognize that and that’s what it should be about and that’s the family thing again. No-one’s going to get pissed off, there’s no reason to, because someone’s literally saying: ‘I really like your shit, can I do my own version of it?’ You just go OK, send me a sticker when you’re done. I did one with Ocky Bop, one of his skulls with pencil’s for teeth. I just drew it and took a picture, and he’s like, I’m printing that shit! Now I keep getting tagged in all these pictures all over the world! It’s not complicated, I literally drew my pencils as his teeth on a sticker and now it’s gone everywhere!

Teeth Like Screwdrivers' collab sticker with Ocky Bop, 2020.
Teeth Like Screwdrivers’ collab sticker with Ocky Bop, 2020

At the end of the day, that’s the beauty of sticker culture, it’s global nature. The internet has changed some of the ways we think about graffiti because now influence can be much wider, but graffiti still has an immediate localism to it. With stickers the mobility is unlimited, as you say, you’ve got pencils in cities all around the world and other people are doing it for you.

My favorite thing is that you send a pack to someone and they go: ‘Well I’m going to keep some for myself and put them in my black book because that’s cool, and I’ve got another fifteen, so I’ll put fucking five of them out in the street and I’m going to send ten to another five people…’

There’s a viral quality.

Yeah, for instance, my pencils, and my gnomes as well, they’re all over the UK and I haven’t sent a single one there. There is a guy called Spirit of Mongoose who is just printing a shit load. Which makes my job way easier. Of course, it’s not even my art, I just scanned a picture, but it’s the thought that this would happen.

A Teeth Like Screwdrivers Gnome, Lyttelton, 2020
A Teeth Like Screwdrivers Gnome, Lyttelton, 2019

The nomination is the act, and then as you say, someone else becomes part of it, and that comes back to family and community, this community is just much bigger than you ever realize until you start to make those connections and networks. 

And it’s there all the time, it’s there and it’s getting bigger and bigger and more fun…

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SDG Art Exhibition @ Milton Street Substation

On the 25th September, The World Economic Forum Global Shapers Christchurch Hub proudly opens an exhibition to bring awareness to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and raise funds for the charities that align to those goals. Bringing together an impressive slew of artists, including a significant number with urban art pedigree, the exhibition marks the beginning of the ‘decade of action’, the ten year span culminating in the 2030 deadline for achieving the goals and in doing so, create a world that can serve future generations more fairly. The exhibition reflects the belief that creativity can play an essential role in bringing awareness to and creating discourses around these causes.

The exhibition, staged at the Milton Street Substation, is made up of a diverse line-up of talent, including artists from Christchurch and around New Zealand: Pops Art, Nick Lowry, Iann An, Séku Skandan, McChesney-Kelly Adams, Ira Mitchell, Hannah Jensen, Kophie Su’a Hulsbosch, Bee Weave (Selina Faimalo), Dr Suits, James Durcan, Flox, Jesse Rawcliffe, Sally Mae Hudson, Lisa Isbister and Jen Heads. Each of the seventeen artists will present work reflecting on one of the seventeen SDGs, providing a response to the relevant issues in their own distinct styles.

The Global Shapers Christchurch Hub is composed of a small number of exceptional young professionals. Members come from diverse backgrounds, united by a passion to influence positive change through meaningful projects and to harness the collective power of active citizenship. Hub members Bridget Williams, founder of Bead & Proceed, and The Conscious Club’s Selina Faimalo and Kophie Su’a Hulsbosch have taken on curatorial duties for the SDG exhibition, drawing on their backgrounds in creative realms, social enterprise and the shared desire to empower, educate and inspire towards a sustainable future. We asked Bridget, Selina and Kophie a few questions to get the run down on the exhibition…

People may not know much about the SDGs – what are some of these goals?

The seventeen SDGs include important goals such as achieving zero hunger, eradicating poverty, supporting good health and wellbeing, climate action and ensuring access to quality education, to name a few.

How did you decide art was the lens through which to bring awareness to this cause?

The SDGs are all interconnected, and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that we achieve them all by 2030 which is only ten years away, so raising awareness that these goals even exist is one step closer to achieving them. Art and creativity send such a strong message that really resonates with many. It doesn’t just send a message, but also creates a powerful statement.

How did the curatorial group select the artists?

Kophie has an arts background and she selected people in her network that she thought would represent the SDGs well. The result is a great mix of artists and people.

Were you looking for artists who were already interested in social and sustainability issues, or was it a case of allocating the concepts to artists?

We looked for artists that could represent these issues, but it was an opportunity for them to learn more about the SDGs and become more acquainted with these issues. We got each artist to choose the three SDGs that resonated most with them, and from there we sorted through them and allocated them each a specific goal.

There is a strong presence of artists with ties to graffiti and street art, despite all the change surrounding those cultures, do you feel that they still display a social consciousness both outwardly and inherently?

As Kophie was the curator she definitely has a bias to selecting urban artists but tried to select a diverse range of artists in other fields. She believes graffiti and street art is one of most free, political and subversive forms of art, so I would say the consciousness of this art form is definitely strong enough. Also, it provides more representation to underground artists, when traditionally the SDGs would mostly be associated with a more highbrow aesthetic.

Tell me more about the venue, what has it presented in terms of the possible lay out of the show?

The venue is an industrial converted substation, a large old brick building, two stories high, with three distinct areas. On the ground floor, where the exhibition will be held, is a large rustic brick room, with a foyer out the front. Upstairs there is an overlooking floor with retro wooden floors and a balcony facing the courtyard outside. It is going to make for a really unique venue.

What other projects does the Global Shapers Hub have lined up?

The Hub is looking at other long term projects such as a Climate Dollar for Christchurch and collaborating with other organisations to help address the negative effects of Covid-19 (regarding the future of sustainable work experience) and, importantly, supporting other hub members who are working on impact projects.

THE SDG Art Exhibition opens September 25th at 6pm, with drinks, nibbles, talks, interactive art and an auction. Funds go towards supporting charities aligned with the SDG outcomes. For more information to the event page on Facebook.

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Tom Bell – Adoration @ Absolution

With everything that has happened in 2020 (so far), it seems like a long, long time ago that artist and designer Tom Bell told me he would be staging a solo show at Absolution this year. But while what seems like an age has passed, I have maintained a level of excitement about the exhibition Bell has come to call Adoration. The show features a body of work that combines both the artist’s established interest in the imagery and themes of Japanese art and culture, but with a new material approach, his digital rendering replaced by hand-painted cut-outs. The sense of reverence for the subject matter (the show’s title a reference to that debt) is empowered by the evidently pain-staking process of manual brush strokes. Bell’s works, whether paintings, stickers, digital prints, tiny enamel pins, t-shirt designs or illustrations, are alluring, their soft pastel colours and dynamic yet sparse compositions combining with the loaded symbolism of Japanese visual culture to feel both traditional and contemporary.

I met Tom a few years ago, he was with his ‘art fam’ as he calls them, at an exhibition opening at Fiksate. Since then his face has become a familiar one at places like Fiksate, Supreme and Smash Palace, always up for a yarn. But when we sat down to chat for this interview, I learned a lot more about him, from the Wellington-raised artist’s relationship with Christchurch, his interests in stencils and tattoos, and his journey to opening Adoration. Part of what made the discussion so engaging was Tom’s energy, he flew between thoughts, earnest and honest, clearly excited and invigorated by the upcoming show and what he had learned as an artist and a person over the last year.

I remember almost a year ago, or at least it feels like that long because of everything that has happened, you mentioned that this show is a farewell to Christchurch because you were planning to move back to Wellington…

Yeah, that’s still the plan [in August]. I’m originally from Wellington, but I have spent almost four years down here. It’s crazy because a lot of people have asked where I was hiding for those first two years! I moved down from Wellington for my graphic design job. At the time my now ex-girlfriend was from Christchurch, all her family were here, so I made the move. I really struggled making connections with people down here. Throughout my twenties I’ve struggled with social anxiety and that really put a big hindrance on me going out and going to shows and other social situations. For two and a half years the idea of going to an exhibition opening by myself, even if I knew people who would be there, would make me really anxious. I would think people are going to look at me and be like, who’s that dude? At the end of 2018 I decided I needed to face some of my weaknesses and get a control of my anxiety.

That social anxiety was a big obstacle for you obviously…

Yeah, the social anxiety was a big hindrance to me. I had people in Wellington say to me: ‘Dude, you should be getting out and trying to make connections in the art community, you’re a designer, you love your art, Christchurch has a really good scene, just start doing it…’ So, when all that happened, I just said, alright, I’m going to put myself out there. I reached out to Jessie [Rawcliffe] because we had started building a connection through Instagram, so I hit her up out of the blue and said you do a lot of collab work, would you be keen on doing one in the new year? She was like: ‘Hell yeah, that would be sick!’ We met up at Smash Palace and started talking about our creative interests. I remember her saying: ‘I paint skulls and girls, am I pigeon-holing myself?’ I said, nah, skulls and girls are ******* badass, and you can tell you really enjoy painting them. From there I was introduced to Josh [Bradshaw] and we’ve been hanging out ever since. I call them my ‘art fam’ and they have been great sounding boards for my creative journey over the last eighteen months. After attending a few exhibitions at the start of last year I started to meet everyone and it was great because it just happened organically.

I remember a conversation I had with Jessie and she asked me if I had painted before, and I said, yeah, but I was trash! She said I should get into painting and get away from the computer. So I did and I just got addicted to it, I was all in. From January to March I was painting every night after work, but I wasn’t showing anything to anyone. For me, a painting had to turn out the way I wanted, if it didn’t, it was trash in my mind, so I would put it under the bed and leave it. I think it was about April last year I finally did something I thought was pretty decent. I was comfortable enough to post it on social media and I had a lot of people reaching out to me saying they thought it was great to see me get away from the computer and to be working with another medium. I was like, well, my digital stuff is better than this, but I think people like this because it has more of a human element to it.

I think we appreciate that hand-painted quality in art, there is an evident authenticity…

I started realising that imperfections on a painting actually make it better because they show that human aspect. It doesn’t always have to be perfect, so what if you paint over lines or whatever, it gives it more character…

So that kicked off your re-acquaintance with painting?

Yeah. Last year for me was just a lot of trial and error. I was doing everything. I got back into using spray cans, because when I was studying, I started doing stencils, but it had been a while. I remember I did a life drawing class; I was terrible at figure drawing, but it was a requirement. I remember the tutor asking me if I painted stencils and I was like, yeah, how can you tell? He said he could tell from the way I drew with solid outlines. I had no concept of tone or shadow. When I was at high school I didn’t do anything creatively, I was quite sport-centric, rugby, rugby league, and my community in Wellington didn’t see art as a career path, you try to be the next All Black or rugby league star or you get a trade, that’s about it…

I see little difference between sport and art. They are both performances. Sport, at its heart, is about skill, technique, a type of aesthetic beauty, so the total partition between the two is strange, people from the arts world often hate sport, people from the sports world think of artists as weirdos…

In my early twenties, when you discover what you like and what you want to do as a career, I was into sports, but I was also really into art and creativity, and it felt like you couldn’t be associated with both. I got really hung up on that idea, because everyone from high school was like, ‘Oh dude, we hear you’re into graphic design and art and stuff, what’s all that about?’ I think now I totally resonate with friends from high school who were really good artists and they would say: ‘Our school sucks, sports get all the funding.’ I had quite a lot of friends who did art at high school, and they would always be moaning that the art resources were terrible, teachers would have to bring in a lot of their own stuff because they just didn’t have the funding for it…

There is a divergence in the way sport and art develop people, I think. In sport, people are eventually trained to follow rules and stick within structures and systems, whereas with the arts there is more willingness to break free. But as I said before, it’s not necessarily an inherent difference. If you think about sport at a more pure level, like pick-up games of basketball, or kids playing soccer in Brazilian favelas, or cricket in the streets in India, those instances are not official, it’s just the love of it and that’s where all the amazing skills and showmanship develop. It’s only once all those other aspects and structures come in, and a particular personality type is preferred, that the focus changes and that freedom is impinged. The same thing can happen in art schools as well. One of the amazing freedoms of urban art is that you are not beholden to convention. I assume your interest in stencils was at least to some degree an interest in what was happening in the streets outside of the institutional world, but there was also a clear connection to the aesthetic of graphic design…

When I first started studying, I came to Christchurch in 2010 and enrolled at the Design and Arts College to do a foundation course. The year before, I decided I wanted to do something creative, but I’d never done anything, so I looked into it and the foundation course in Fine Arts sounded pretty sweet. You did a bit of everything, photography, architecture, graphic design, life drawing, textile design. If you did well enough, you were offered a position the following year. Originally, I wanted to do photography. But when I took the digital media component of the foundation course, which really was an introduction to graphic design, the tutor said to me: ‘What do you want to do next year? I said photography, and he said I should consider graphic design because he thought I had an eye for it. So, from there, I was like alright, maybe graphic design is what I should do. At that time Exit Through the Gift Shop had just come out, and when I saw it my mind was blown! I watched it like four times over a week, and I was thinking, this is rad! These guys are doing stuff on the streets around the world, they are breaking rules, it’s controversial and it’s right in front of people. They’re not going to a gallery to see this, it’s out in the open, so I was like, it could be cool to start experimenting with stencils. I just started looking at YouTube tutorials to get the basics and then I went off on a tangent for like a year doing that. That was in 2010, and at the beginning of 2011 I met Zach Hart who was working at Ink Grave Tattoo at the time, I started getting tattooed by him and I learnt that he had a graffiti background. That grew my interest and I found out there are a lot of tattooists who have graffiti backgrounds. I’m also really into hip hop and there’s that association with graffiti also.

Since I was eight or nine, I’ve always been into tattoos. No-one in my immediate family has tattoos, but I just had a fascination with them. When I was eleven or twelve, I was at the library and I came across a book of Japanese woodblock prints from the early 1800s, and then I found a tattoo book and the images were pretty much identical. I kind of put my interest of Japanese art to the side when I was studying at university but in my mid-twenties I fell in love again with Japanese art and architecture. Since then it has just fully consumed me. My best mate is a tattoo artist in Wellington, he specializes in Irezumi [Japanese tattoos], and I have learnt a lot from him. I think the reason why I like Japanese art so much is that it’s very graphic, it’s designed to be big and in your face with bold outlines and flat colours, but there is still a sense of refinement that gives it a timelessness…

There is an important balancing act when you adopt a historical visual influence, you need to respect that lineage, but also make it fresh and not derivative. How do you approach that challenge?

It is about knowing the subject matter. For instance, a koi fish swims up stream and turns into a dragon, so if I was ever to draw a dragon or a koi, I can’t draw a tiger with it because they don’t go together. It would be easy for people to look at my work and think it’s just Japanese tattoo flash, so my contemporary take on it has been my choice of colour palette. I think my interest in Pop Art has contributed to my use of pastels, there’s a David Hockney piece, A Bigger Splash, it has flat colours, blues and caramels, and that was a big influence. It was painted in the sixties, but it still feels very fresh, so taking that and playing around with colours has allowed me to develop my own take on Japanese art while still sticking to the belief systems. I think some people try to reinvent the wheel and they forget about the fundamentals. My graphic design work is very minimal and with minimal design you’ve got no room for error, if you have one little thing that’s off, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb, so I focus on the fundamentals with just smaller, subtle changes.

You were telling me earlier that it is only the last six months or so that you’ve become comfortable calling yourself an artist. That background in graphic design and digital work, how do they feed into your painting work, because they must be very different approaches…

When I first started painting again last year, it was tough. With design, when you don’t like something, it’s the classic ‘Command-Z’, undo, so I was very thorough in preparation. I would do a colour study and draw it on screen, colour it, print it out and then from that, paint it, doing like for like. It was very uniform. But eventually I started to just do a quick colour study on screen and then started painting, and now I’m at the point where I don’t do the colour study I just paint it.

Sometimes things look good on screen, but when I’m actually painting it, it doesn’t work. So, I think the last year has really taught me to be looser and freer when I’m working with my hands, to not be such a control freak. Normally I’m a perfectionist, especially with my graphic design work, it’s like, that’s terrible! Back to the drawing board! But when you make a mistake on a painting, when an outline has smudged, there’s a human element to it, and that’s something that I have probably learnt to appreciate. I went to a tattoo convention in New Plymouth last year and there was an artist whose paintings I love, and he was selling prints. I could see there were little imperfections in the print, and it was fine, I realized I’m just too much of a control freak. I think that freedom is why there’s been no ambition at the moment to go back to the digital side of things, because I like the fact that if you screw up a painting, you’ve got to problem solve on the spot and work with what you have…

I’ve always loved the idea associated with Margaret Kilgallen’s work, the wavering line. I think we need to attach to something human in an increasingly technologically-driven world, we become hyper aware of when something is perfect, and we recognize imperfection from another human and I think that is really important. You were talking about that idea of going back to painting being inspired by conversations with friends, that idea of community must be a really important part of where you are, is losing that when you move back to Wellington a daunting thought?

It hit me this week that I’m moving soon. I’ve got my two best mates coming down for the opening of Adoration, Mike Todd, a tattoo artist, and Jerome Taylor, who I went to high school with, who is a fashion designer. They are my creative community up there in Wellington. When I started getting tattooed by Mike, he knew I was painting on the side and he was giving me tips, like how tattoo apprentices learn, you trace a rose fifty times and by the twentieth time you should know how to draw a rose. He’s been a big part in me fundamentally learning how to paint the way I do. But in terms of what I’ve got here with Jessie and Josh and everyone else, I don’t have that. It’s a bit daunting, but I did it here, I just have to put myself out there. I’m from Wellington, so I should be able to connect a bit more if anything just because I’m local. I think having a show here will help open some doors up there. It’s funny, I already know I want to do another solo show in Wellington next year. I’ve already got ideas bubbling about what I want to do for my next show. It’s contagious, I reckon, it consumes you, but I’ve really enjoyed the process…

How did the show come together conceptually?

When I confirmed this show last year, I was still working at my old job, in a corporate structure, getting paid to do a job, and I just really felt like I was being controlled by the man. I didn’t want to sound like a temperamental artist, but I really struggled with being told to be creative within a certain framework or it wasn’t of value. So when I was coming up with themes for my show, I was thinking about basing it on entrapment and having conflicting thoughts in my head, and just lacking self-worth in a way, but then in January, I drew out my whole show in a wall plan to see if it was going to tell a story, and I realised it doesn’t have to, screw that! I’m leaving town soon, I just want to do something that I’m passionate about. It is filled with traditional Japanese influences but with a contemporary take. There are a few pieces where I have dissected objects and have incorporated other objects with them. Textures play an important part in my inspiration so I wanted to bring them in also. The show is about paying homage to Japanese art and culture, and that’s why I named the show Adoration, it’s about devotion and how I hold it dear to my heart.

We talked briefly about artists being pigeon-holed, do you ever think about that in terms of the Japanese influence in your work?

Totally, I always think to myself, am I pigeon-holing myself with my interests? The one positive to come out of lock-down was new ideas I want to paint when I move back to Wellington. It’s abstract, with no Japanese themes at all. I haven’t told anyone about it, I don’t know if I want to push this, I don’t know if I want to show anyone, I’ve done some real rough sketches and I don’t think anyone would expect it.

I assume they will likely see the light of day in Wellington, which means that while this show brings this chapter to a close, this new body of work might start the next chapter…

As much as it’s been a really good time painting the work in this show, I think this is the perfect time to start some more experimental stuff. A lot of people have asked why I don’t get into tattooing, because it makes sense with my subject matter currently. But I don’t want to keep exploring the same themes and imagery and that’s the connection people seem to make, that my Japanese- influenced work would translate to tattoo. It’s something I have warmed up to in the last six months as I’ve become more confident with the hand-rendered stuff, but tattooing is completely different from painting, it’s a whole new technique. Once I’m back in Wellington, I’m going to use the rest of this year to have a play around and try some experimental stuff, do more freehand work, which is something I have been working on for the last six months. I guess there has been a lot of personal growth down here in the last two years as well…

So, this is an important milestone…

It is an important milestone. About six months ago I realized that it makes sense to have my first show here in Christchurch, because this is where my creative journey really started. Obviously, I went back to Wellington after the 2011 earthquake and relocated to continue my studies up there, but really making things all started here, so it all makes sense. It’s like a goodbye gift, my time here is up, but this is where it all started for me. I never thought I would have a solo show, I never thought I would have my work in a public space where people would want to come see it. I think we all get a little nervous, like are people going to show up? I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me saying they are looking forward to seeing the show. Getting messages like that has been really humbling.

That must be cool because as you have mentioned, the process of creating work and then the step of putting them out in the world can be scary. It’s a long and constantly changing road, the process and development, the failures, the changes of direction…

Yes, it’s a vulnerable position because you work on something for so long and then you think you are comfortable to show people, but once it’s in a public space, once it’s out there, then it could be well received or it might not be. It’s all part of it and I look forward to seeing how people interact with the show on Friday.

Adoration opens at Absolution in the Arts Centre on Friday, 7th August, 2020 at 6pm.

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