And that was… February 2019

So, after kicking off this recap series last month, it became apparent how fast each iteration would come around! Luckily there has been plenty to keep us going, with good weather, a number of spots and new initiatives, February 2019 saw Christchurch’s urban art scene keep up appearances, from the return of a big name, to the return of an important event, it was a good month…

  1. Jenna Lyn Brown with Porta and Dr Suits – Viva New Brighton
Jenna Lynn Brown with Porta and Dr Suits, Viva New Brighton, Hawke Street carpark, New Brighton
Jenna Lynn Brown with Porta and Dr Suits, Viva New Brighton, Hawke Street carpark, New Brighton

A fun addition to the seaside village (along with a spattering of new paintings throughout the mall) the text-based painting on the old Couplands building deftly co-exists with Auckland artist Berst’s dynamic piece, with shared echoes of colour, albeit in contrasting styles. The declaration ‘Viva New Brighton’ becomes a proud celebration of the community’s rebellious spirit…

  1. Style Walls 2019
Competitors in the middle of battle for Style Walls 2019, Lichfield Street.
Competitors in the middle of battle for Style Walls 2019, Lichfield Street.

In early February, the local institution Style Walls returned, once again pitting an array of talented artists against each other in a battle format. Utilising the giant cans as the canvasses, Style Walls 2019 focussed on characters rather than letters, and the hand-picked line-up were allocated four hours to impress the judges. Ysek7 came out on top, beating out Kieos, Dove, Daken and Sewer. Stay tuned for an interview with the champion, and some further insight into Style Walls with co-founder Ikarus…

  1. Black Book sessions

While not strictly a February event, we just had to shout out the Black Book sessions that have been running for several months now, encouraging graffiti artists of all ages and levels to commune and create. Established by Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Emma Wilson and Ikarus, the sessions are held weekly on Thursday afternoon/evening at the Youth Space on Manchester and Lichfield corner. See their Facebook page for more details…

  1. Who is that Lurq-ing?
Lurq, Hereford Street
Lurq, Hereford Street

It is always good when local legends leave their mark, so seeing a number of pieces around the city by Lurq deserves a mention for the month of February, that recognisable style featured in a number of productions in different spots…

  1. Dove and Wongi – Bode tribute
Wongi 'Freak' Wilson and Dove, Bode colab, Hereford Street
Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and Dove, Bode colab, Hereford Street

Definitely a personal favourite, the tribute colab by Dove and Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson in Hereford Street combines the stylistic flair of each artist while celebrating a seminal influence on graffiti culture. The underground comic artist has been a massive inspiration on a number of graffiti writers, and his iconic Bode Lizards and Cheech Wizards have been included alongside pieces and in productions across the globe.

Joel Hart – Dopamine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever considered photographing subjects yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see a larger tapestry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has always been there?

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

How did the show at Fiksate come about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blurring that distinction between gallery and urban spaces?

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

The idea of urban excavation…

Using what is there and building on that…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s addictive bro!

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

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

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

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

I did that as well!

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

To finish, what can people expect from Dopamine?

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

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

Follow Joel Hart on Facebook and Instagram

And that was… January 2019

Well, January flew by, right? We thought that since life is so hectic, and the worlds of urban art are often so fleeting and ephemeral, it would be helpful to recap each month with a kind of top five list, you know, like in the Nick Hornby book High Fidelity (or the John Cusack movie adaptation, where Jack Black steals the show, take your pick), or a truncated Letterman Top Ten. We will list five things that we loved during the previous month – from new works, big or small, to events and exhibitions, or even just general talking points. And of course, we would love to hear what you think, so jump in and comment, or send us a suggestion for our upcoming lists…

So, without further delay, here, in no particular order, is the inaugural ‘And that was…’ list for January 2019 (drum roll please…):

  1. Face Value @ Fiksate Gallery

Face Value Promotional Poster

The team at Fiksate followed up the Jacob Yikes exhibition, Bad Company,  with another impressive showing – the second incarnation of the Face Value: an exploration of portraiture, figuration, faces and characters through the lens of urban art. The show featured a range of talent, from emerging and established locals, to big names from wider Aotearoa and further abroad, such as Anthony Lister, Elliot O’Donnell (AskewOne) and Tom Gerrard (Aeon). Highlights included O’Donnell’s monochromatic apparition Chloe (Beta), the collective strength found in the juxtaposition of local artist Meep (Kophie Hulsbosch)’s bold self-portrait and the works of Auckland’s Erica Pearce, the elegant chaos of Lister’s Ballet Dancer, and Koe One’s typography-laced black and white portrait of urban youth.

  1. The Giant Cans get a makeover…
The Giant Cans got a make-over with new work by (L-R) Wongi 'Freak' Wilson, Fluro (Holly Ross) and Ikarus.
The Giant Cans got a make-over with new work by (L-R) Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Fluro (Holly Ross) and Ikarus.

While five cans remain a constant open platform, the three cans that stand aside are designated as semi-permanent. Initially painted by Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Ikarus and Jacob Yikes, in mid-January, the three metal sentinels were re-painted by Ikarus, Wongi and Fluro (Holly Ross), giving them some fresh evening wear for 2019. With Ikarus’ slick letterforms, Fluro’s elegant typography, and Wilson’s photorealism (with some nostalgic cartoon fun thrown in as well), the cans represent a variety of approaches and styles.

  1. Macadam Monkey chills in North Beach
Macadam Monkey's North Beach and Chill wall, Marine Parade, North Beach.
Macadam Monkey’s North Beach and Chill wall, Marine Parade, North Beach.

French artist Macadam Monkey spent several weeks in the city in late December and January, and he made the most of his time here. Hitting a few spots with his almost Art Deco-styled, elegant females as well as more traditional lettering, our favourite was probably his appropriately titled ‘North Beach and Chill’ wall beachside in North New Brighton. The refined (and recurring) colour palette of black \, grey, yellow and white added to the chilled vibe and the work itself seems to have the potential to be something of a small-scale landmark for the area (although time will tell of course…).

  1. Juse1, VRod and Torch in New Brighton
Juse1's B-Boy chilling in New Brighton.
Juse1’s B-Boy chilling in New Brighton.

It was something of a meeting of generations and locations when Wellington legend Juse1 visited Christchurch. He spent time painting with local writers VRod (who hails from Auckland but is based in Christchurch) and Torch, and while the Hereford Street spot was a blink and you’ll miss it deal (in fact there have been a number of pieces there that could have made this list, shout out to Tepid, Lurq, Ikarus, Dove and more), their sprawling production in New Brighton has shown more legs. The pieces add to a vibrant setting, and Juse’s iconic B-Boy character adds a perfect nod to hip hop culture, as if it is straight off a New York subway train circa 1982, albeit still fresh to death…

  1. Jonny Waters, Dizney Dreamz @ Anchorage
Jonathan Waters, Goofy, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018

Dunedin-based artist Jonny Waters goes by a few names, but one thing is always consistent: his playful, twisted aesthetic, which was on full display in Dizney Dreamz at The Anchorage on Walker Street. Presented by Kin Art, the show featured a new series of Waters’ cut-out characters, this time iconic (and several overlooked) players from the world of Disney cartoons (his previous works have taken on Looney Tunes, Rugrats, Sonic the Hedgehog and The Simpsons). While the silhouettes are familiar and intend to invoke a feeling of nostalgia, the details take the viewer on an unexpected trip; eyes where they shouldn’t be, limbs and heads protruding from fresh wounds. All these features are accompanied by a fine technical detail, with layered sections, perfectly imperfect lines and a use of various media.

Jonny Waters – Dizney Dreamz

 

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

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

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

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

Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here in Christchurch you were studying visual arts?

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

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

Changed the way I thought, or fostered it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah everything at the start was character-based.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s such a melting pot…

But those rebellious roots need to be acknowledged…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As forms of expression…

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no mechanical quality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any shout outs?

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

 

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

Follow Jonny on social media:

Instagram: @jonathanwatersart

Web: www.jonathanwaters.me

Face Value at Fiksate Studio & Gallery

After the success and popularity of Jacob Yikes’ exhibition Bad Company, Fiksate are set to launch their next show, with the return of Face Value. Initially held at Fiksate’s previous location in New Brighton in late 2017, Face Value was an exploration of portraiture through urban art, design and illustration.

The 2019 incarnation of Face Value continues this theme, but with a more specific focus on the presence of faces, figures and characters in the work of graffiti, street and urban contemporary artists. This takes the identity-centric and infographic qualities of urban art (think of the centrality of the name in graffiti, and the instant recognition sought by post-graffiti artists) as a starting point, to consider the varying ways artists utilise portraiture, self-portraiture, characters, figures and faces, at times within their work. This spans somewhat traditional approaches to portraiture, to repeated, iconic emblems that are as much about their material or performative creation as their visual appearance, akin to a tag as much as a representational image.

The stacked line-up provides an array of artists whose work engages with this realm and highlights a variety of stylistic, material and conceptual approaches, from internationally renowned Anthony Lister’s frenetically composed images that shift between high and low cultural references, to Elliot O’Donnell (you may know him as AskewOne, either way he is undeniably one of New Zealand’s most successful and thoughtful urban artists) and his portraits that consider cultural identity. There are also works by Australian artists Handbrake (Perth), Tom Gerrard (Melbourne), and Mulga (Sydney), who all bring a playful, graphic quality to their character-based work, and UK and US artists KoeOne and Voxx Romana respectively, the former elegantly combining greyscale figuration with bold typography, and the latter, subversive cultural references with a stencil precision. Auckland artists Erika Pearce and Component bring further diversity though their distinct approaches to cultural identity, while local artists, both emerging and established, ensure a vital representation of what is happening right here. Local artists include Jacob Yikes, Ikarus, Joel Hart, Porta, Dove, Tom Kerr and Meep, each representing distinct personal perspectives; from bold self-portraits, to recurring motifs and characters developed over years of extended practice.

Face Value opens on Friday, January 18th, 5:00pm – 9:30pm at Fiksate Studio & Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street.

Check out Fiksate’s social media for more information…

Facebook: Fiksate Studio & Gallery

Insta: @fiksate_gallery

Web: http://www.fiksate.com/

Future X Creep Threadz Pop-Up Shop and Launch

This Saturday Kophie Hulsbosch’s Future Apparel joins forces with Creep Threadz for a pop-up shop to launch respective new collections. Featuring the good feels of a sustainable approach to clothing and fashion, the Future X Creep Threadz pop-up will present a range of one-of-a-kind pieces you won’t find anywhere else.

Following pop-up shops at both Embassy and the Art Box, Kophie declares that she wants “to end the year with a bang” and present the development and refinement of Future‘s approach and aesthetic, alongside a selection of friends and creative forces.

Based on graffiti culture, the new Future collection is a reflection of hip hop’s central influence on Kophie’s life. Clothing also presents an alternative vessel for her own graffiti writing, one that bypasses the beef she has encountered recently on the streets, and in fact embraces community “by collaborating with local and international graffers that haven’t necessarily been in a gallery space before.” Importantly, Future‘s focus on highlighting an alternative to ‘fast fashion’ and more sustainable options that might combat our impact on the planet, is still evident, both in the use of sustainable clothing, but also in declarative illustrations such as: “The Future is Bleak”.

“Sifting through second hand shops, and even dumpsters, to find clothes that are in good enough quality and not warehouse crap” (and fit the street wear and hip hop aesthetic) and then customizing each item with a fitting alteration is a lengthy process, and imbues the pieces with a unique value. Alongside clothing, the Future collection will also include re-purposed broken skateboard decks (a large contributor to landfill and maple deforestation Kophie points out), and due to her awareness of the impact of spray paint, Kophie plans to recycle aerosol caps and cans.

Creep Threadz is a new brand  from Lyttelton artist McChesney-Kelly Adams, packed with dark imagery which, like Future‘s sustainable approach, is  printed on second-hand items. Creep Threadz also has a socially-minded approach, with a portion of proceeds being donated to a mental health foundation.

The pop-up shop will see the room divided in two, with Future‘s graffiti inspired items on one side, Creep Threadz‘s darker, quirky collection on the other.

Three other local clothing brands will also be represented: I Heart Thrifting, who re-sell second hand vintage; oscottworld, a young fashion designer from ARA, and artists residence, two creative brothers with a passion for the finest street wear.

Fitting for both the socially aware approach and the venue of the launch, such an undertaking never happens without a lot of support and Kophie is quick to shout out to “Bruce, my ARA tutor who kindly made my rings for me because I didn’t have access to a wood workshop, Callum for emotional support, Cassels and Sons for supplying some beer and Jimi for hooking up the sponsorship, and my Mum for sanding and polishing all my skate rings!”

So for “sick graffiti on the walls and for sale, local & sustainable streetwear, quirky artworks and free beers”, head along to The XCHC on Saturday for this exciting pop-up…

Future X Creep Threadz Pop-Up Shop/Launch

Saturday, December 8th, 6:30pm (Runs until December 13th)

The XCHC, 376 Wilson Road North

Cover image credit: Eliz Abeth

A Tribe Called Haz Does Hanukkah

With Christmas fast approaching, and the hectic lifestyle that comes with it, A Tribe Called Haz has decided to get a jump on it and do Hanukkah instead (Hanukkah falls between the 2nd and 10th of December this year), and that means a one night only, pop-up show at Embassy on Colombo Street in Sydenham on Friday, December 7th. Haz insists the timing is perfect, as any later and he would be “killing off some brain cells in Wanaka” post-Christmas, which, amongst other obvious respects, ruled out a Kwanzaa themed event.

Haz Does Hanukkah is a quick turnaround from his recent one-night show,  A Tribe Called Exhibition, also held at Embassy, which Haz suggests reflects his constant work rate, increased productivity and conscious use of time. The show will feature a number of smaller works, indicative of this constant output.  The same acerbic, acidic and quirky qualities remain, a constant reminder of Haz’s unique approach to image making, however, the show will also include more patterns and textures than previous work, as well as works influenced by tattoo flash and some digital works.

Alongside original paintings, there will be prints and stickers available (the stickers bigger than the last, inadvertently cute, batch!). This variety, and the melting pot of images, means you should be able to get all your Christmas presents in one go!

As he continues to undertake more and more events, commissions and opportunities, Haz is growing in confidence in getting his work out there, continuing to develop his identity and aesthetic through such support. Last Sunday Haz completed a live colab painting with Fiksate’s Jen at a Notion Touring event at Smash Palace, further signs of the flourishing opportunities for emerging and more established artists in Christchurch.

Haz Does Hanukkah is supported by the good ship Embassy and by Ghost Brewing, who are supplying the all-important beers.

Get along and get amongst!

A Tribe Called Haz Does Hanukkah

Friday, December 7th, 6:30pm – 9:30pm

Embassy, 451 Colombo Street, Sydenham

Porta: Applesauce at The Lux Gallery, CoCA

It is probably fair to say that Christchurch stencil artist Porta never expected to have an exhibition at a place like the Centre of Contemporary Art. So when he was approached by Hannah Watkinson of The Corner Store to show his work in the Lux Gallery space, he admits he was surprised. But perhaps he should not have been, after all he has had work featured in a growing number of festivals, shows and projects, from Spectrum to First Thursdays and, of course, the CAP’D exhibitions he started several years ago.

Porta admits that as is his normal approach, he didn’t really have a plan at first, and it has changed “a bunch of times” as he has got closer to show time, with ideas “falling by the wayside due to being too busy”, left for later down the track. The body of work that has come to form Applesauce is stencilled on a variety of materials, a signature the artist has developed over the years. Porta admits the ideas he works with “come from all over the place and are usually a playful take on something pretty run of the mill”, a reflection of the show’s intriguing title. Porta recounts that after a drawn-out argument, he and his verbal adversary realised that their disagreement had in fact, started with applesauce. That realisation allowed a pause, reflection, and then laughter. Much like that argument, the title Applesauce notes how the show is all about “making something from almost nothing”.

That idea extends to both the materials on which Porta’s images are made, which he collects from various sources, keeping an eye out for second hand stores, wrecking yards, garage sales and other favourite spots, and the re-contextualised, often lowbrow, images drawn from vintage movies, advertising and photography, all of which the artist admits are “fun to work with”. Importantly, that sense of fun extends throughout Porta’s work, and is a feature of Applesauce, packed with playful surprises and juxtapositions.

In his ever-humble manner, Porta is quick to thank those who have helped him put together Applesauce, including Hannah from The Corner Store, CoCA, the Fiksate crew, and vitally, Ghost Brewing for supplying the beer, and all things going well, Smokey T’s for ribs. When I ask him to explain in one sentence why everyone should get along to Applesauce on Friday, he suggests: “Because if you go somewhere else the possibility of getting free ribs will be slim as!” Ribs fan or not, get along to the Lux Gallery on Friday and support one of the city’s finest stencil artists…

Applesauce opens at 5:30pm, Friday the 16th November at the Lux Gallery at CoCA…

Berst: The Faith of Graffiti (Part Two)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

Are you talking about stylistic lineage?

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

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

A five-year cycle?

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

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

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

Like the German influence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

In terms of appropriation?

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

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

Yeah? (Laughs)

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

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

A perception from the community?

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

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

The Broken Windows theory…

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

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

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

No, of course not, of course not…

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

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

It loses something…

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

But teaching the motivation is a different thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That must be a hectic schedule!

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

Yeah, ideas push evolution and development…

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

Berst, Christchurch, 2018
Berst, Christchurch, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cultural capital…

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

Berst, Tauranga, 2017
Berst, Tauranga, 2017

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

That’s what I’m talking about…

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

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

There’s got to be that distinction…

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

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

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

Cheers man…

 

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

Berst – The Faith of Graffiti (Part One)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

Exactly, they were learning in different ways…

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

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

Totally, a huge impact.

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

Yeah, I’ve seen videos…

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2017

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

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

Spreading the gospel!

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

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

Definitely, it’s a resource.

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

That question!

You know, it is such an outdated question…

Such a binary option…

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

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

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

Signature-based graffiti…

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

Over fifty years…

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

And has had that longevity?

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

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

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

What is that essence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

 

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

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