Porta – A Helping Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Porta!, stencil on reclaimed suitcase, 2015

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

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

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

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

Monkey, Melbourne, 2016. Photo credit: Porta

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

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

Sparrow, hand printed sticker, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers Porta!

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

Follow Porta on Instagram

Uncle Harold – Keep Looking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you always been a maker of things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncle Harold, Untitled, 2018. Photo credit Uncle Harold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We don’t pay attention to it…

Yeah

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

Yeah

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

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

Do you ever practice by melting objects?

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

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

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

Uncle Harold, Untitled, 2018. Photo credit Uncle Harold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can be received in a certain way…

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a need to establish yourself…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An artist’s gotta eat right?

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

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

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

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

(Feature image photo courtesy of Uncle Harold)

And the winner is…. Style Walls 2018 Recap

Style Walls 2018 is in the books and there is a new name to add to the pantheon of champions, with GOR1 taking the crown, fending off GERM, WYSE, TWIKS and EXACT in a tight battle.

In a slightly re-jigged format, with each artist producing one large-scale piece over the four hour time slot, judges scored the artists on can control, use of colour, use of space, and of course, style. In announcing GOR1 as the winner and GERM as the runner-up, co-judge and Christchurch legend Ikarus, noted that it was a tight contest, with just a handful of points separating the 5 writers in the final tally.  In front of a gathered crowd, the five artists had to combat the difficulties of the cylindrical canvasses, which provided a challenging surface for the composition of their letterforms (a fact revealed in the photographs below), while also juggling the allocated colour palette in dynamic, unique and effective ways. Each displayed a distinctive style, from GERM’s interlocking, vertical wildstyle, to TWIKS’ use of a white outline and 3D drop, WYSE’s decorative letters, EXACT’s tight composition and GOR1’s bold, black outline and colour fades. When the dust settled, the judges selected GOR1 as the 2018 champion, his cumulative score putting him just ahead of his rivals. Check out some images below of the event and  the finished pieces…

Crowds gather as the battles get under way…
The competitors were given four hours to complete their pieces, along with a specific range of Ironlak colours
The Style Walls competitors get down to work

 

The judges run their eyes over the finished pieces
Style Walls 2018 champion GOR1
Style Walls 2018 runner-up GERM [IMK, JFK]
TWIKS
WYSE
EXACT [ETC]

Roll Call – Style Walls 2018

Style Walls is back!

Style Walls has become an institution in the city’s post-quake urban art scene, and this Saturday it returns for its fourth incarnation. Style Walls 2018 will be staged at the youth park on the corner of Manchester and Lichfield Streets, with the competitors adorning the giant free-for-all spray cans, a further activation of the unique space’s stated role as an evolving art space.

One of the five giant cans competitors will paint for Style Walls 2018

Established and run by the legendary DTR crew, Style Walls will pit five finalists against each other in a live, head-to-head battle format that both celebrates the traditions of graffiti and embraces the inherently competitive nature of the sub-culture, where outdoing others is always the goal. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the supported setting aims to encourage young and emerging artists to push their talents and drive the city’s creative graffiti scene forward. Ikarus, one of the founders and organisers of Style Walls, (as well as a competition judge), explains that the event is all about growth and progression: “Seeing the guys who were in early  battles improve and continue over the last few years has been great…”, he also adds that it provides a sense of aspiration for young graffiti artists who “look forward to being involved when they are at a higher skill level, so it gives kids something to work towards as well.”

The 2018 finalists were chosen from an array of submissions, a task that Ikarus believes “is getting harder because the level and amount of entries is increasing each year.” The five finalists, Twiks, GOR1, Wyse, Exact and Germ will do battle over three rounds. Judges will score competitors on various criteria (such as style, can control, use of space and use of colour) and a winner will be declared after each round. The supreme winner will be determined by the highest cumulative score following all three rounds. With iconic paint brand Ironlak on board as sponsors, winners will be rewarded with prizes, but perhaps the truly crowning glory will be found in the bragging rights earned by the champion.

The inaugural 2014 Style Walls final, held in the central city’s Re:Start Mall

Style Walls is an important event in the city’s urban art, and specifically graffiti, scenes, providing a unique forum for local graffiti artists to be supported and celebrated, all within the internal values established and evolved over generations. Despite interest from stencil artists (a sign of the expanding influence of graffiti and street art on the city’s creative scene), Style Walls maintains a singular focus on free-hand graffiti artists, and elements such as letter-forms and can control, which is a significant stance and a reflection of the event’s explicit goals. Ikarus accepts that it is not surprising to see “more non-traditional graffiti and street art entries as the popularity and public acceptance rises…” Style Walls recognises the limited opportunities of this type for graffiti artists in Christchurch, where the positive attitude towards ‘street art’ often still marginalises pure, letter-based graffiti, and the specific qualities of the influential artistic sub-culture that truly spawned urban art as we know it today. And while Ikarus acknowledges that the variety in the city’s urban art scene is a good thing, he asserts that it is important Style Walls keeps things of a more traditional graffiti nature: “because there are still very few avenues for the art form to be seen in a positive light, whereas the new wave of street art gains an easier, more immediate popularity because it is more pretty pictures than bold, stylised fonts, and that is easier for your average person to relate to or understand.”

So, who will come out on top? Head along to Style Walls 2018 to find out…

Style Walls 2018 kicks off at 1:30pm on Saturday, February 24th, at the Youth Park, corner of Manchester and Lichfield Streets in the central city. Visit www.stylewalls.co.nz or look for Style Walls on Facebook for more information…

Shraddha Shrestha – Shared Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shraddha’s mural on Switch Espresso in New Brighton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinzah – Something Bigger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Christchurch! (Laughs)

Yeah! (Laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers Cinzah!

Check out more of Cinzah’s varied projects:

www.cinzah.com

MrCinzah on Instagram

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

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

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

 

 

Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 2

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

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

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

Ikarus in New Brighton, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not at all!

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

Ikarus and Yikes, central city

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

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

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

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

Ikarus character, Embasssy Wall, Sydenham, 2014

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

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

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

There’s a narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No problems.

Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ikarus in the Hereford Street carpark

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

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

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

There’s only so many artists as well…

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

Staunch defender, advocate!

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

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

Ikarus, Christchurch central, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Street Prints Otautahi

In year’s past, From the Ground Up, Rise 2014, and Spectrum  2015-16 street art festivals led by Oi! YOU, Canterbury Museum, and the YMCA were the blockbuster events that put street art on the map and is the “street art capital” that it is today.

This summer, from 21-29 December, YMCA along with Pushing Art In New Zealand (PAINT) are bringing the people of Christchurch, Street Prints Otautahi (SPO). 10 large scale murals from New Brighton to Lyttleton, and yes, even the Dance-o-mat, will be painted by New Zealand and international artists. A first in these festivals, this year each artist will have an apprentice helping them throughout the creative process. There will also be hip hop, b boy, parkour, skate, and circus workshops at four of these sites.

21/12 – New Brighton Old School | 10:30am – 1pm | CINZAH | with Swarm, Common Ground, Flip Out – Parkour and the Christchurch Circus Centre | Click attending here: http://bit.ly/2Bo7fu0

21/12 – Dance O Mat | 2pm – 5pm | FINDAC | with Swarm, Common Ground and the Christchurch Circus Centre | Click attending here: http://bit.ly/2B1GY7R

22/12 – Lyttleton Primary School | CLAIRE FOXTON | with Swarm, Common Ground and Flipout – Parkour| Click attending here: http://bit.ly/2yOib18

22/12 – Ara Allen Street Car Park | ERIKA PEARCE | with Swarm, Common Ground and Cheapskates Skate Skool | Click attending here: http://bit.ly/2kGa0iv

Keep an eye out on our Instagram and Facebook as we bring you updates about the murals and interviews with some of the artists and apprentices on our blog. We’d love to hear what you think about our posts. Please don’t hesitate to comment.

And of course, send through any photos you take of the murals as they go up here, and we’ll add them to our map. The ten mural locations are already on our interactive map at watchthisspace.org.nz. Just look in the gallery for images that look like this.

Can Do – Reflections on an evolving art space…

Saturday, December 2nd, saw the official opening of the new ‘Youth Space’ in the central city’s East Frame. The space, a project facilitated by GapFiller, Ōtakāro and Fletcher Living, combines a basketball court and a rock climbing area, with perhaps the most forward-thinking element: an evolving art space that allows artists to freely paint in public without fear of repercussion. This is a first for the city, a step further than those spaces where painting is tolerated or ignored, but not technically allowed (those peripheral spaces that have long served graffiti and street art’s development, such as alleyways and train tracks). This is an innovative move that has been pushed for a long time by those from the cultures, but has too often fallen on deaf authoritarian ears.

The space contains eight giant spray cans which have become literal objects for art. The eight cans are physically split in two groups, with three cans intended for more established artists to produce long term works that will be refreshed sporadically, and five serving as ‘free-for-all’ surfaces, as evolving canvasses. They will operate on a first come, first served basis, and as artist Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson has noted, people should be prepared to document their work, as any contribution may last a week, a day, or a minute, as is the nature of such a space, and of course, is an undeniable aspect of guerrilla street practices anyway. On the opening day Wilson, Ikarus and Jacob Yikes, from Christchurch’s famed DTR crew, painted the three ‘permanent’ cans, while local artists Beksi, Dove, Bore, Smeagol and Drows were given the opportunity to give the five other cans their first layer.

The ‘permanent’ cans with works in progress by Jacob Yikes, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and Ikarus

Notably, the surfaces on which people are invited to paint are part of the lineage of the city’s ongoing love affair with urban art: the giant spray cans were fabricated as part of Oi YOU’s Spectrum shows, and if they are aware of history, the city’s youth can now paint on surfaces to which artists such as Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, Sofles, Berst, Seth Globepainter, Tilt, Flox and many more are historically connected, even if no longer visible. That these objects are in proud place in the inner-city streets is testament to a shifting opinion around the art with which they have an unavoidable kinship. It is also important to note that the cans are not buildings, they are specifically in place as surfaces for art and that is both unique and partly why the concept works; their decoration is not an affront to private ownership, not even by association.

Of course, such a concept is not without risk, and it should be admitted, it will not prove a cure-all for vandalism (which is not the explicit goal of the space, but will surely be read as such by some). Vandalism, which is not a by-word for graffiti, and exists without a pen or a can of paint, is driven by a desire to fracture physically and symbolically, and a permissioned space will not attract those who are interested purely in transgression. But it will importantly provide an opportunity for artists to develop, to experiment, and to grow and that is no small thing. Indeed, the potential this space provides should be celebrated as a significant shift in thinking around these artistic cultures. Also, it should not be expected to rival the sheer scale and cohesive appearance of the grand murals dotted around the city (and notably nearby). The space will instead produce an aesthetic more akin to urban art’s natural state, a visual quality that many find infinitely fascinating, created in layers over time and representative of thousands of voices, but admittedly, others find harder to comprehend. This is always at the heart of such an undertaking, the various positions and desires of contributing factions will be at odds, a microcosm of the city at large.

The future of this innovative approach will of course be in some way determined by outcomes authorities are interested in, regardless of whether such desires are realistic. But with planned workshops and other events, it will become an important and fascinating location for the city’s ever-evolving graffiti and street art cultures, an important step in the city’s creative evolution, potentially unearthing new stars and providing a continuing reminder of the potential found in opportunity.