At the risk of losing the graffiti purists in the room, while the rebellious and dynamic aesthetics of graffiti were an awakening of how art could be more than what I had experienced as a child, it was stencil art that was a better fit for my personal mode of expression. There are numerous reasons; from the punk aesthetic of early styles, to the specific yet expansive potential of the process. It still embraced the physical nature of aerosol (hard and soft lines, over sprays), but there were also the intricacies of cutting, breaking down an image, and the plates that became stratified objects of interest themselves (from plastic sheets, to light card, or even cereal boxes, the chosen material reflects an important aesthetic decision). Importantly, there was also a conceptual aspect, beyond the stylistic and procedural; something harder to express but imbued within the apparent urgency of street stencils.
While I have spent many hours in small studio spaces cutting and spraying stencils, frustrated at the things that go wrong, exhilarated at the discoveries that unlock new directions, there is something about the presence of stencils in the streets, sprayed directly on rough concrete or worn surfaces. Street stencils are a contemporary incarnation of a primal mode of expression, utilising new cultural references and tools to navigate the current landscape, while exuding a sense of a longer, often political, always existential, lineage.
While it may be the accessible, iconographic visual language stencil artists have harnessed (such as the pop culture imagery almost universally favoured by stencil artists still finding their style) that attracts many, for me, it is this connection to history, the sense that a stencil still represents rebellion, revolution and anarchy. Furthermore, the mechanical nature of the process renders stencils democratic; anyone can cut a stencil and produce an image. Of course there are stencil ‘superstars’, but there are also countless anonymous stencils, reveling in that anonymity and the act of painting in the streets.
The following images have been taken from the last decade, from Ōtautahi, around Aotearoa and even abroad. Some are by well-known artists, others are completely anonymous. Some are fresh and sharp, others faded and obscured. Some are sprayed on surfaces that make the image harder to comprehend, others play off the graffiti covered walls. Some are figurative, some use phrases, some are explicitly political, others harder to decipher. But each is an example of someone acting out, becoming part of that lineage and grasping the inherent qualities of stencils…
When I heard about the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct mural being painted by Wellington artist Chimp earlier this year, I must admit I had to dive into social media to find out more about the artist. When I explored Instagram, the deft skill evident in his aerosol depictions of faces and native birds, infused with energetic insertions of graffiti and other eclectic forms, was immediately endearing and made me wonder why I hadn’t been familiar with his work. A few days later I made my way down to the large stretch of wall on Lichfield Street to watch Chimp in action. I stayed back and intently watched him paint. I was taken by the impressive technical prowess, the way it seemed he was sketching on the wall, layering back and forth to create tonal qualities that would be neglected by a viewer only witnessing the finished project. After seeing his friendly interactions with passers-by, even though I was wary of interrupting his progress, I went over and introduced myself and we started chatting. Chimp was friendly, down-to-earth and welcoming, even with a massive task in front of him and a deadline fast approaching. We tentatively made plans to try and catch up before he returned home and to record an interview. Unfortunately, due to the need to put in long hours on the wall and conflicting schedules, we missed our chance. Instead, we reconvened online and over a flurry of e-mails we chatted about the Justice Precinct mural, the differences between Wellington and Christchurch, and Chimp’s varied career so far. As a result, this interview is months in the making, but still worth the wait, providing insight into an unexpected contributor to Christchurch’s urban art, someone who it will be worth knowing about as his profile continues to grow on a national scale…
How does an artist from Wellington find himself painting a huge wall at Christchurch’s new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct? How did the commission come about?
I was originally quite surprised to hear from them when the email came through from the Justice Department. I thought I may have been in trouble or something before I read it! They had seen my work on social media platforms and liked it. It was quite flattering to hear from them and I really appreciated the opportunity.
I imagine most people would be a little wary of an unexpected email from the Department of Justice! Did you have to think about it for long? Obviously different artists will have different ways of analysing and reconciling who they work with, is that something you had already thought through with commissioned work generally, or was the Department of Justice a slightly different proposition?
It was a bit of a surprise, but I was mainly curious as to what it could be about. We organised a meeting to talk about the possibilities of the project and it sounded like an awesome opportunity to expand my work into the South Island. Having a lot of family in Christchurch made it an easy choice to head there.
What type of entities have you worked with in the past, and how do you reconcile the compromises you often have to make with work for high-profile organisations? Do you separate commissioned public work into different categories based on what freedom you are afforded, or do you try and ensure you can balance the client’s wishes with your own vision?
Just before the Christchurch Justice Department contacted me, I had recently completed a mural for the New Zealand Parliament Buildings. Throughout the design process, I find it easiest to see what the client is wanting in terms of the topic of the design and the aesthetic they want within the design. Sometimes clients reference parts of my previous pieces that they have seen. From there I create a design and send it through to the client and we alter it back and forth. I find this process the best for me to ensure that there is a balance between my vision and the client’s ideas. With the Parliament job, for example, they had said that they liked my birds incorporated with the graffiti art, so I sent through a design and they seemed to allow a lot of artistic freedom as the design only had a few minor tweaks from the initial concept image.
Speaking of that distinctive personal style, how did it develop? Is it from writing graffiti or working on the street, or is it something specifically developed as an approach to mural work?
My parents were very supportive of things that I wanted to try while I was growing up, so when I decided that I wanted to move my drawing to painting on a larger scale, I was allowed to develop my style in my spare time on scraps of wood in the garage. That being said, working on a small piece of wood in the family garage to working on large-scale outdoor murals like the Christchurch piece definitely required years of practice and development in larger outdoor environments
Is your imagery based on a specific narrative or is it perhaps a reflection of the public nature of muralism, something that fits that responsibility? Who or what has influenced your style? Your Instagram profile acknowledges hip hop, and I think of the likes of Tristan Eaton and Martin Whatson as possible reference points too…
The images and ideas I depict are often unique to each space and each wall. When creating the content of a work, I try to tailor the design to the space and the surrounding communities of that particular area, while still developing my personal style and visual language. I often try to project my own ideas and narratives within a piece, but it is up to the audience to interpret their own meaning behind each unique design. I often listen to hip hop as I am going through the design process as the lyrics inspire me with narratives, quotes and ideas that I can interpret visually as my own. In terms of visual artists, Tristan Eaton is a big influence, as is Pose MSK, and James Dawe, they all experiment with composition, colour, and mixes of rendering quality.
Your work is highly refined, how have you developed your aerosol technique over time? Do you conceptualize your can work in a certain way? Because when I was watching you paint, it appeared quite methodical, very certain, like every mark mattered, working over areas, layering paint to create tones…
I love the depth created by complicated works and have great respect for artists who can balance it all into a resolved piece. I try to design separately before beginning a final painting, mainly because having a full understanding of what you are attempting to create once you are actually at the wall aids productivity and allows me to focus solely on generating quality rendering while having the confidence of knowing that the composition and colour choices work. In saying that though, there are some details, particularly line weight variations, such as fat cap flairs and ultra-sharp outlines, that cannot be generated by pencil or marker but only by aerosol. This allows the piece to grow somewhat organically especially once you are standing up throwing and extending your arm completely, rather than seated, drawing or on the computer. Time and practice have given me the experience to develop my own techniques for painting, I appreciate that spray paint is traditionally a self-taught obsession.
As part of that self-taught element, how much do you draw from other influences; from looking at what other artists are doing, the effects they are creating, or their process? Or do you think in technical terms, like the actual physical potential of aerosol as a medium with very particular qualities, and work on technique based on that understanding? Your process, building form and tone through layers, is, to my mind, very painterly, and suggests you have an understanding of how the aerosol medium can be used…
My original drive and passion for graffiti and street art was rooted in the development of style, so I have tried to establish my own. I do think I take influence in every form though, whether it is subject, composition or technique. When teaching yourself all the influences you reference are based all on your own taste. I personally go through obsessions with different artists’ styles. For example, when I began painting with aerosol and focused on letterforms, I was influenced by Peeta’s sculptural abstract forms, but there wouldn’t be much evidence of that in my work now.
Spray involves building a skeletal sketch form, blocking in tones and layering details. Before I was getting opportunities to paint big walls I honed my skills painting canvases with aerosol only, no stencils, as I wanted to be able to paint everything freehand. This meant it took me a long time to produce sharp, well-proportioned work. But the skills I built up translate to big walls well. If you can paint a detailed portrait on a canvas with spray, the rendering quality on a wall is amazing. Brushes never gave me motivation to produce work because it felt like a chore. Even when I was just starting out, cans were addictive because you can throw so much paint around quickly. To me, it feels like the most powerful medium of creation and destruction.
However, as I grow as an artist I want to produce things that aren’t really possible with freehand spray, so I am looking at screen printing and have been producing digital work longer than I’ve been spray painting.
Tell us about the concept behind Organic Matters, the Justice Precinct mural? Are there symbolic reasons for the choice of specific bird life and flora? Does the absence of the collage-style fills significantly alter the way you conceive of the wall and how it might respond to the space it occupies?
Organic Matters is a play on the term organic matter. I’ve used this title to mimic the important activities going on within the Justice Precinct buildings while relating back to the natural subject matter. Using all native local birds and flowers, with the exception of the cherry blossoms, which refer to the gardens of Christchurch. For this particular client, the professional nature of the location and the range of people that will see the mural, the less provocative, stylised realism fills worked better than the graffiti collage style I often work with. Yes, taking away a part of the subject matter I use affects how I conceptualise a work. Instead, the design focused on expressing my style and originality through composition, line, and colour, rather than the higher visual contrast created by mixing subjects and rendering styles.
You mention the type of people around the Justice Precinct as influencing the style. How were your interactions with people who passed as you were working? It is a very central spot, but also possibly populated with a diverse range of people at varying times…
The feedback was great. People who appreciate graffiti and street art were stoked with the process and can work, and everyone appreciated the birds, particularly the identity and life projected through the eyes. I had good chats with road workers, with people coming out of the police station, officers, lawyers… Overall it seemed like the people of Christchurch are very supportive of their growing urban art scene!
Did you have a preconception of the city before coming down? Were you aware of the scene down here, or at least the profile?
I have a lot of family in Christchurch, so I have visited many times growing up. But this was the first time as an adult. I’ve admired the street art festivals in Christchurch since the quakes and the graffiti scene seems to have exploded with the derelict spots providing canvases everywhere.
Did you explore the city? Or did you hit the ground running on the wall? Any favourite pieces or spots?
It was pretty much just two weeks of painting the wall, with a couple days of rain to relax and try some of the different places to eat in Christchurch. I would have liked to have painted with the locals and had a go on the giant cans [on Manchester Street], but it was straight back to University classes the day after I got back home. B List Tattoo looked after me with paint supply and even organised shipping the leftovers back for me, so that was awesome.
Even without getting to spend time painting with any local artists, how did you perceive Christchurch from Wellington in terms of the way urban art is part of each city? What is your take on the scene in Wellington?
I would say Christchurch’s scene is exploding with all of the exposed walls that can be seen from far away with all of the empty lots, whereas Wellington has tighter alleys and more hidden gems. As street art has become more accepted there has been significant growth in commissioned work while the streets are always being painted with fresh graffiti in both cities. Christchurch seems to be celebrating street art more than Wellington for the amount of large scale work being done and the dedicated events like Spectrum.
Wellington’s smaller spaces would be more conducive to certain interventions, while you can see the natural fit of larger murals in Christchurch… I have always felt Wellington was a bit more varied in what you can find in the streets, that there was a wider range of approaches, would you agree? And what about the geographic lay-out, with the spread of the city, are there different scenes in different parts, like from the central city to Upper or Lower Hutt?
I think with the number of international pieces in Christchurch, as a result of the various festivals, there is a good variation of style. Although Wellington does have visiting styles too. I would say that urban art is more condensed and apparent within Wellington city. The Hutt has graffiti scenes which fluctuate, however, the buffing is relentless. Waitangi Park is the only free wall I’m aware of in the region which evolves constantly, with several abandoned spots which are also ever changing.
You are currently studying, but not in the perhaps more expected visual arts field, is it some type of engineering?
Close, I’m actually studying industrial design. It sort of sits between graphic design and engineering, which involves creating product form and understanding function. It is a four-year degree with honours and has taught me a lot about empathetic understanding and catered design. I gravitated to industrial design from graphic design partially as a result of the overwhelming number of students studying graphic design and an interest in car design. Imagining a graffiti artist with an industrial design degree also seemed like an interesting thing to do!
Haha, sorry, I was a little bit off the mark there with engineering! Is there a valuable practicality that you can draw on when painting murals?
The main thing I have taken from industrial design is a greater understanding of creating emotion through form and how subtleties can be used to express ideas. Also, my perspective sketching is getting much better and I have one semester to go. Any creative degree educates you on critiquing work and I have personally found it an experience of exiting an ignorant bliss that I began creating art from and realising a harsh balance of self-critique and confidence.
So, once you have finished, will you still compartmentalize the two; visual arts and industrial design? Or in some ways will they move closer together? Will you likely freelance as an artist and designer, or focus on one or the other?
Industrial design is a niche area to find employment and I think it takes full dedication and drive to make it happen, just like working as an artist. I can see myself designing products under my own brand, if I found an idea worth pursuing in the future. I manufactured and sold skateboards under the brand Planetary from the age of fourteen until I was seventeen. But I would say my ambition is firmly in my work as Chimp and spray paint currently.
What were you doing with the Planetary brand? Was it deck designs? Clothing? What did it encompass?
Planetary was the first brand or alias I ever worked under. I built downhill skateboard decks intended for the twisty roads of Wellington and skateboard racing. From there I started trying to produce spray paint graphics but lacked the skills. So that led to the aerosol campaign. I learnt a lot and sold quite a few boards but found selling handmade functional products to a niche market quite stressful.
What has kept you occupied since the Justice Precinct mural, and what have you got coming up? Any plans to come back to Christchurch?
I’m currently working on a t-shirt design for Kathmandu, within the same artist line that Wongi and Shraddha produced designs for. I have a new piece in Moonlight, a group show in Auckland held by The Designers Institute and RAYDAR. My piece is called Between the Raindrops. A design I submitted for the QT Museum Hotel competition was selected, so I will be painting a room or two there. I am quoting a few jobs around Wellington at the moment that I’ll be able to get onto once University is finished, and I have a handful of private commissions I need to get done!
That’s a fair bit going on! Did the Kathmandu t-shirt opportunity come about through the Justice Precinct mural?
It sure did!
What can you tell us about the t-shirt design? Was there a specific brief to respond to?
The brief was quite open, but the key points were encouraging or capturing a sense of adventure and comparing the countries and culture of Nepal and New Zealand.
And the QT project must be pretty exciting. That involves DSide, right? What have you proposed for that?
Dside was one of the judges and I was humbled to be chosen. I put together a few different options, but you’ll have to wait and see the outcome.
You also mention the group show, do you exhibit studio pieces regularly, or is it secondary to walls?
I’ve had one solo show and been in several group and duo shows, but I get more satisfaction designing for bigger spaces that everyone gets to see. Spray paint lends itself to a large scale too. Once you’ve learnt to paint small details with a can, the larger work starts to really pop from the detail that you can fit in.
So, do you think of studio work as separate to your wall work, or does it function like preparatory work, feeding into your outdoor practice?
They are certainly intertwined. Sometimes the experiments are done on public urban walls and sometimes at smaller scale privately. Ultimately both help me learn and the more you paint both the easier it is to adapt to either.
Thanks Chimp, I know people have really responded to your Christchurch wall, so hopefully we see you again down here soon!
Keep an eye on Chimp’s work and various projects on social media:
Napier artist Cinzah has a calm, relaxed demeanour. But that laid-back manner belies his busy schedule. The artist, whose work spans muralism, fine art, illustration and beyond (in 2012, along with his friend, filmmaker Karl Sheridan, Cinzah produced Dregs, the first feature-length documentary film about the New Zealand street art scene), is a regular in festivals around New Zealand, Australia and further afield, exhibits his studio work, completes commercial commissions, and in addition serves as the regional director for the Sea Walls New Zealand mural festival, working with the international PangeaSeed Foundation, a not-for-profit ocean conservation organisation. Add to the mix a young family, and you get the feeling that you might be able to do more with your time.
I first met Cinzah in 2012 while he was shooting through Christchurch on his way to Dunedin to film for Dregs. I was able to hang out, watching while he painted a wall in a dishevelled post-quake New Brighton well into the night. Some five years later, we were able to catch up as he painted another wall in New Brighton, this time for the event Street Prints Ōtautahi. There was a fitting quality to his Street Prints station, returning to the seaside village, but this time under very different conditions and surroundings. We sat down at a rowdy suburban pub, and between bursts of classic rock cover music, reflected on Cinzah’s varied experiences, his distinctive style, and the street art and mural culture in Aotearoa…
So, Cinzah, like many of the other Street Prints Ōtautahi artists, it has been a pretty busy few weeks, you basically arrived in Christchurch straight from the Street Prints Mauao event in Mt Maunganui. With such a hectic schedule have you had a chance to think about the different environments? Although both events come under the Street Prints umbrella, just from a physical point of view, they seem like quite different locations in which to be painting, have you reflected on the change in setting and the distinct qualities of each event?
We kind of all just arrived and hit the ground running. It’s been flat out from Street Prints Mauao up in Tauranga, straight down to Ōtautahi. But yeah there’s definitely differences, in terms of the geographies. Tauranga, Mt Maunganui, it’s a very beachy town, with summer vibes you know, it is very tourist-orientated, whereas down here, the architecture’s completely different, the mix of gothic and Victorian English styles and straight up rubble and construction stands apart from the Mount. Obviously, things are still in repair and there’s a lot that’s still going on, it’s also really interesting to see how the quake and rebuild has affected the local graffiti scene, with the last few years of festival-produced works, large scale commissions as well as the juxtaposition with unconventional, un-commissioned, guerrilla works and interventions, like the array of graffiti. It’s good to see all the different elements of the culture are alive and thriving. There’s basically no graffiti in Mt Maunganui, apart from what we’ve produced over the last few festivals there. (Laughs) So yeah, that’s an immediate difference…
There is an echo for you specifically at least, painting by the sea in New Brighton, you’ve still got the ocean air…
Yeah, exactly, except that it’s arctic! The easterlies are chilling my balls! (Laughs)
Welcome to Christchurch! (Laughs)
There’s also a nice personal narrative for you because in 2012 you painted in New Brighton during a brief stop-over in Christchurch. Looking back, how has the area changed in terms of your personal recollection?
There’s a lot more art. More public works, graffiti, interesting uses of abandoned spaces, some good cafes, and Fiksate Gallery is an awesome little addition to the hood. When I came through in 2012, there were the odd piece around, the main mall was all just shut shops, there was basically nothing open. I started painting one little semi-abando (abandoned building), which had been partly demolished, and I remember one guy coming out, I don’t know if he had one of the businesses there, but he basically gave me permission to paint the entire street: ‘Oh yeah, you can paint here, or you can paint here, you can do this shop or that shop…’ It’s great to see positive changes here, there’s a lot of potential for this neighbourhood, its good to see people inhabiting these spaces and the community taking ownership. New Brighton is heading in a positive direction.
You have a lot of festival experience; do you have a process for getting to know cities and places? Is it just hit the ground running and get a vibe as you go, or do you like to spend a little bit of time exploring before you start painting?
Definitely, if the schedule and life allows, I like to have a day or so on the ground to acclimatise and adjust to my environment and the surroundings. I like to get out within the community and meet people and talk and get a feel for what’s going to work in that environment, what sort of work would suit, depending on what is going on around there, and also just to get a feel for whether the community is supportive. Is art really going to add to that environment or will it detract from things that might be happening there? I usually have a preconceived idea, or concept mocked up before arriving, but I like to allow room for this to breathe, grow and be influenced by my surroundings and experiences that may present themselves.
There is a definite responsibility, right? It feels as though within the muralism movement there is a growing recognition of the need to respect and engage with locations and the communities, not just the people, but with the local cultural, social and even spiritual histories and narratives. Have you found your thinking around these issues has had to grow as you’ve been more involved in events? You offer an important perspective as both an artist and as a festival organiser…
Yeah, definitely. You’ve got to look at the motives behind an event. What is the purpose of the festival? Is it just a beautification project? Does it have a specific mandate to engage people into deeper discussions socially, politically or environmentally, or is it contributing to an act of gentrification? More and more cases of this are popping up globally with big developers and corporations that have an ulterior motive behind these events, pushing out homeless to allow for new hospitality hubs and ‘arts’ districts, where artists can no longer afford to live. It’s important to do your research before getting involved in a project. I’ve always considered my environment and held this responsibility fairly close to heart, although I’ve been walking this walk a lot more frequently lately with my role within PangeaSeed, working in small communities, with local iwi, tangata whenua and so on. Art can be considered invasive on some notes when a festival rolls into a town, produces a bunch of work and leaves, without following certain protocols or doing the proper research. As a result, the locals can be left feeling startled, without the opportunity to express their unique voices and stories. The work needs to be well considered and thought out, it’s important to engage with the local communities, and create work that is relevant, that acknowledges and speaks to it’s audience.
With that changing ethos, and the strong socio-political foundations of many festivals, it also raises questions for both artists and curators. Do you select artists who already engage with specific concepts that suit a theme, or present a challenge to artists with an interesting visual style to expand their work into new areas? As an artist how do you respond to a brief that is possibly outside of your existing approach?
With Sea Walls, first up, the artists we work with need to be good people, produce good work, and be easy to work with. We often approach artists that dabble in the environmental arena thematically, although it’s a bit of both. If someone has killer work, and can tackle a massive wall, but hasn’t experimented with work that relates to the mandate of PangeaSeed, that doesn’t limit their opportunity. We have a massive family of over 200 contemporary muralists from all around the world, and this whānau continues to grow.
Personally, I really enjoy responding to a brief, it’s good to have some boundaries to get the ball rolling, to spitfire ideas off. Working in the public arena artists have an integral role to deliver a message with our work, it’s an amazing opportunity to really say something when you’re thrown a giant canvas smack bang in someone’s town. It can definitely be challenging at times to work within a guideline in a festival environment. With these two Street Print festivals, Tauranga’s theme was: ‘He aha te mea nui o te ao / What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata / The people, the people, the people.’ I think that theme really hit the nail on the head for Mt Maunganui. The works created a really strong identity for the area and paid homage to many important local figures, it really connected with the people that will be living with these works.
Graffiti and post-graffiti have traditionally been about a search for personal style, and that’s where this challenge really becomes apparent: evolving a personal style to make it engage with issues or ideas raised for a specific event or commission…
Tauranga’s theme lent itself perfectly to the majority of the line-up. Portraiture was pretty dominant, there was Fin Dac from Ireland and he paints his female portraits, Adnate was over from Melbourne, his work often focusses on indigenous people with a hyper-realistic kind of approach, Mr G, Askew, who has been going in different directions recently but still has elements of figuration and portraiture within what he does, Claire Foxton, I could keep rattling them off… A huge amount of the line-up were portrait artists, so that becomes a really fitting interpretation of the theme behind the festival. But I think when you throw somebody in who maybe has a graffiti background, like writing letters, or somebody who has more of an abstract approach, or just doesn’t paint figures, then you’ve got a whole other super interesting hurdle, you’ve got to think outside the box as to how you approach things.
A lot of that comes down to public reception as well, right? Because it is generally easier to understand portraiture, and that human connection, I mean that’s why it has always been such a prominent theme. So, it’s not so much that it’s not possible when you’re dealing with graffiti letter-forms or abstraction, it’s just that possibly achieving that immediate level of understanding is more difficult…
Exactly, it is instantly recognizable or relatable, but art is all subjective, it is all open to the viewer in terms of the interpretation of the work. People make all sorts of calls as to what my work is about. Sometimes I paint things that are super obvious as I want to deliver a strong, direct message, other times it’s a little more expressive and abstract and that’s when you get all sorts of interesting responses to the work. In San Diego I painted a 35 metre long wall depicting local shark species, with a massive 100,000,000 type piece in the background, as this is the estimated number of sharks that get killed annually for the global finning trade. I couldn’t really be more upfront and obvious with this work but that was the intention, to be in the public’s face and to educate on the most basic level about this issue. I still get tagged and messaged all the time on social media about this work, people have spread the mural all around the net and it’s become a really strong conversation starter. The works I’ve created for these two festivals are definitely more abstract or symbolic with their meanings, a little more in line with some of my personal studio works and gallery based stuff.
It really shows the growing maturity of graffiti and street art muralism as public art: the ability to engage with and explore themes that haven’t necessarily been part of the culture previously, so this is allowing that growth and evolution to occur, even if it is challenging some of the bedrocks that people still hold dear…
Yeah, definitely. I feel like it adds a whole other level of substance behind the work, it doesn’t make it so much about the artist, it is about a greater purpose and you are addressing something bigger than yourself and it is not flying in on an ego trip and making work that you think is fucking rad and leaving. There’s a little bit more guts behind it, I think.
With Street Prints Ōtautahi, you are painting in New Brighton, you’ve got others painting in Lyttelton, other artists are dotted quite disparately around the central city, is it strange to be somewhat isolated when you are part of something that is essentially a shared experience as a group of artists? You told me about the amazing programme you put on for Sea Walls artists [including cultural excursions such as sailing on waka hourua with Te Matau a Maui, visits to significant local geographical and cultural landmarks, and even giving artists the chance to swim with sharks in shark tanks, giving them a personal connection with the often misunderstood animals], and with Street Prints Mauao, you all spent a night on Motiti Island staying with Mr G’s whanau, these types of experiences must be important elements now, especially with so many festivals and the need for a sense of legacy and identity…
I guess having an extra-curricular programme pulls everyone together. We are all staying at the same place, we’re eating together, we’re hanging out together, we catch up every evening, so you know there is a real community vibe with what we are doing here, but definitely, the map is kind of dotted out, I’m out here like you said, there’s a couple in Lyttelton, others are more central, which in some ways means you’re kind of pushed off the map, out to the side, although I’m really happy about it, its great the festival curators considered other areas that might kind of get left off the map, because of the geographic lay-out of the city. Talking to a lot of locals while I’m painting, they’ve been saying: ‘Oh you are out East side, this is great! Don’t forget about us out here!’ People have been saying it is really brilliant you are out here, because New Brighton needs a bit of love, it needs an uplift, so it’s all been really positive, and I don’t mind because it is a well-organised event, I’ve got my own wheels, so I don’t really feel like I’m miles out from everybody else. It’s a different vibe altogether from Tauranga. Mt Maunganui was a really close circuit, which creates a really seamless legacy of work after the festival, I’m not sure how this will hold up with the separation of the works…
Fill us in a little bit about what your piece. What is the concept? Paint us a picture with words…
The work that I’m painting has got a large moth that’s migrating towards a big golden sphere which could be read as the moon or the sun or whatever, but the concept I was thinking about was how to translate what has been happening here and the idea of the reconstruction of a city, with basically a new beginning, a new birth, a new undertaking or some sort of transformation. So, I was thinking about different ways to interpret that, I was thinking about the life cycles of insects, from eggs, or larvae, to caterpillar to pupa or chrysalis to adult, it’s more or less about transformation and the symbolism of having the perseverance to push forward, to follow the light side and keep progressing against all odds. Follow the light! (not Jesus, unless you’re into Jesus) I want the work to inspire hope… It sounds cheesy, super fucking cheesy! (Laughs)
That’s the problem with painting with words, right?! (Laughs) Because the wall looks awesome…
Yeah, just go look at the picture! (Laughs)
In terms of your work more broadly, for me there is a storytelling element that is suggested through almost mystical or mythological imagery or iconography rather than overt narratives. For instance, the animals that you depict, like serpents, moths and even manta rays, for me, they have symbolic associations, but they don’t need to be explicit or obvious to the viewer, and when they are combined with the graphic, decorative style, including the use of gold, there’s a really suggestive quality to the imagery, is that a fair reflection?
I think you’re on the money there, I’m naturally really interested in art that has a narrative, is telling a story, often from different cultures’ folklore and mythology. My works are inspired by life, what ever is going on around me at the time, from physical as well as metaphysical experiences. Some of my works have an iconographic feel, possible due to the use of gold. In my gallery works I use 21 carat or 23 carat gold leaf and actually I’ve done some murals where I’ve used gold leaf in them as well, although due to budget and time this piece is basically straight fat gold chromies. I love the way gold catches the light, it has this other quality to it. I like the idea of creating icons, although I wouldn’t say my works are inspired by religious icons… because I’m not religious at all… (Laughs)
I see them as more elemental, more mysterious, almost ancient symbols that are open to interpretation. With that said, I can totally see them on illuminated manuscripts or something…
Yeah, that’s really awesome to hear because I am inspired by mythology and folklore, and I think it is really interesting to see how ancient civilisations have interpreted events throughout history. I like to weave my own little narrative, and create my own little plots within my work…
You mention your use of gold leaf in your studio works and of gold in different forms in your street works, do you feel like the relationship between street and studio is stronger than it was in the past, or are they still quite distinct for you personally?
Yeah, I feel like they are quite distinct, but at the same time they cross over a lot with subject matter, and lately more thematically as well. I think it is getting more and more seamless, heading in a direction where it is becoming more and more entangled between each other, and I do really want to explore different techniques that I use on my paper works, but on a large scale on walls, maybe limiting the colour palette or potentially going completely monochromatic and seeing how that translates to a large scale. I used to paint really loosely and really gesturally, like the piece I did back here in New Brighton in 2012 with all these loose splatters using Astro caps, Blaster caps and home made jobbies, just making a big fucking mess, and it is so much fun! And I guess over the years I’ve become more and more refined with the mural work and got tighter and tighter and tried to apply as much detail as I can, while holding a really strong graphic approach. I really enjoy painting the way I paint now, but at the same time it can become a little bit clinical, so the direction I’m heading probably brings a little bit more of the looseness and freedom of some of my ink washes and gestural studio works, potentially experimenting with using more acrylics. I mean I don’t think I’ll ever really stop using aerosols all together because I just love them as a medium, but from an environmental point of view, and for the body, they’re not the greatest…
That’s a question a lot of artists are facing right? The paint companies are starting to explore how to combat that, but it is a difficult dilemma because there is a quality to aerosol painting that is really distinct and really attractive, especially when it forms such a strong part of the culture that has raised you.
When you were here in 2012, you were in the midst of shooting Dregs, your documentary about the New Zealand street art scene. If you were making Dregs in 2018, how would it differ? Do you think the scene has changed dramatically?
It was definitely a snapshot of a time. It’s a little capsule as to where all the different artists were at that time, I mean, I haven’t watched it for years and I don’t know if I will watch it again! (Laughs) But, it was a really amazing experience to produce that documentary, looking back, it is really awesome to have that period and everybody’s views, practices, goals and aspirations documented historically for the New Zealand scene, before Dregs there wasn’t really anything produced in a feature length format. It is interesting looking back and seeing where all the individual artists were with their careers and their projections of their trajectories of where they wanted to go. I remember one of the questions we asked was: Where do you see yourself going in the next five to ten years? Looking back at each and every artist, they’ve pretty much all done it, and that’s really awesome to see! (Laughs) It would be really rad to do a part two, and visit the same lineup, get some proper funding and go and see all these artists internationally to celebrate where all the ‘Kiwis’ have got to…
It is interesting because if you look at the size of the culture in New Zealand, and even the sense of isolation that is still felt, the talent that’s developed here over a relatively brief period is incredibly high…
Absolutely, there’s such a strong scene in New Zealand, we’ve got some incredibly talented artists that are world class, and I think nowadays you’re seeing the rest of the world kind of realising that. You are getting a lot more of us that are working internationally, getting flown out for different events and so on, which is really awesome. When we were making Dregs, I had a turning point, I was internally fighting with the whole Kiwi tall poppy syndrome of ‘you don’t make it until you go overseas’, I had this huge desire to go and travel and to paint internationally, but at the same time I thought, fuck that! Why do you need to go to New York, or travel to these other places to prove yourself and to prove your talent back home? So I had this idea to flip that and to bring the rest of the world to New Zealand and I didn’t really seriously plan to do that you know, it was just something that I thought would be a really amazing thing to achieve, but I guess that thought stayed with me subconsciously as down the line I ended up being involved with PangeaSeed and bringing Sea Walls out here, and over the last two years we’ve brought some of the top contemporary muralists from around the world to New Zealand. Recently there have been a number of events that have brought amazing talent to our shores, including this event right now which has a really strong line up of national and international artists. We’re getting a lot more attention down on this side of the world…
In many ways, the world is, at least logistically, a smaller place, right? From a Christchurch point of view, to think back that the likes of Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, Tilt, Buff Monster, Sofles, all these artists that you see in book and magazine pages, have all visited the city is amazing, but in many ways, you appreciate that they are just normal people who came up in the same way. And in that way New Zealand is an attractive place to come, because I imagine a lot of them didn’t expect to end up here when they started painting in the streets…
Exactly. When I started out there was no way I ever imagined I would have been to the places I’ve been with my art, and it still blows my mind, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities that have come about my way, and like you said, vice-versa, having these guys come down here and be involved, and meeting these guys and you’re completely right, everybody’s just normal, awesome, regular dudes that are doing the exact same things we’re doing but on the other side of the world. For them, New Zealand is this remote, isolated, exotic island nation at the bottom of the world that a lot of people would really love to visit, so to throw them that opportunity, it’s just as exciting as it is for us to head to America or the Caribbean, or to Europe or whatever…
To finish, there is one question I’m obliged to ask, just to keep up a tradition you started: Potato or Kumara?
Argghhh! It’s still kumara man! Haha, I had forgotten about that question! Awesome!
Mr G has had an adventurous few years to put it mildly. His monumental portraits, such as his Prince tribute in Minnesota, and his depiction of Kiwi hoops icon Steven Adams in Oklahoma, have raised his global profile. While his 100 Portraits project has seen him paint up and down New Zealand (including a stunning portrait on a vertical cliff face). His refined style has adorned surfaces in an array of locations far outside the normal resume of a New Zealand mural artist. He was recently commissioned to paint a large portrait of Kiwis (the New Zealand Rugby League team) coach David Kidwell here in Christchurch, building excitement for the Rugby League World Cup by honouring a local lad ‘done good’, while also adding to the city’s collection of murals. The work illustrates Mr G’s dazzling technique, and his ability to imbue a sense of personality in his subject’s likeness. Kidwell’s portrait exudes a warmth, even as the grey-scale palette perfectly plays off the exposed concrete surface. We caught up with Mr G at the site of this new work, the intersection of High Street and Tuam Street, to chat about the mural, his technical approach and his connection with the communities in which he paints.
RW: So Mr G, first things first, how are the Kiwis going to fare in the Rugby League World Cup?
Mr G: (Laughs) Yeah, you know, I’ve always backed them and stuff bro, and I guess for me I’ve kind of been a league fan off and on throughout my life. I played league for a bit when I was in Intermediate in Kawerau, for the Kawerau Raiders. There was a period there where I was a full-on follower. I’ve just come back from Sydney as well, living there for 5 years, and you know, it’s like a religion over there…
Especially in Sydney right?
Yeah, I followed the Doggies (the Canterbury Bulldogs club) over there, and I have done some work for them, and the Wests Tigers as well. Friday nights were pretty customary to stay home and watch the games!
Well, after such a controversial build up, the Kiwis made a good start last night anyway against Samoa… [The rest of the tournament did not bode so well, but that’s another story…]
Yeah, it was a good game!
But let’s get back to the main reason we are chatting, you are here in Christchurch painting this tribute mural to the coach of the Kiwis David Kidwell, how did that come about?
I got approached by ChristchurchNZ, they were looking at doing something quite unique to help as an activation for the Rugby League World Cup. They were aware of what I’ve done in the past and stuff and so they approached me. I’m pretty fussy when it comes to doing any kind of commercial gigs and all that, they need to align true to what I’m about as well, and who I am as a person. I’m all about supporting people that I respect, so I though, I’m keen for that. It’s a good opportunity for me.
And this is the only piece being painted? There are no other murals being painted around New Zealand for the World Cup?
Yeah, it’s just this one.
Being quite particular with commercial works, I would suggest that after the last couple of years and the amazing projects you’ve been able to undertake, you now have the profile where you can be a bit more selective, or has that always been something that you’ve been careful about?
Yeah, I guess for me, I’ve chipped away at it to a point where I’m able to do that you know. I’m grateful for that. But obviously its hard work and all that, but as an artist you know, for me, I’m always just trying to keep my work honest, and authentic and as a reflection of what I’m about really. I kind of filter any jobs or enquiries that come through, through that filter first man, and just go from there.
I read recently that you don’t necessarily agree with your work being pigeon-holed within the term ‘street art’. For me, I think your work is indicative of the contemporary mural renaissance that is going on around the world, which should be acknowledged as providing a different context to the complicated narratives of ‘street art’, would you agree? I mean obviously artists are always wary of being placed within restrictive definitions, but the muralism movement provides some breathing room, do you see yourself more as part of that emergence?
Yeah, for sure man, but the thing is I’ve got a body of work that I’ve been chipping away at on the downlow really for a while, that as an artist I feel is, you know, an accurate representation of what I’m about. So you know I’m getting into whakairo, which is Maori carving, and incorporating some of those elements that aren’t anything to do with street art. You know, actually my background is strong drawing and portraiture and you know, I’ve done a lot of acrylic painting, and a lot of canvas work prior to doing street art per se, but the thing is with the street art medium and the scale and you know I guess the way everything’s heading right now, it just gets everyone’s attention and just because you’re holding a spray can people think, oh wow, you’re a cool funky street artist! I don’t get caught up in all that man. For me I prefer to paint in really remote rural locations, where no-one’s around, it’s just cows and just peace and quiet and just me and the wall.
That’s something I’d like to come back to actually, but first I wanted to ask, because you mentioned your multi-disciplinary background, obviously people recognise how refined your aerosol technique is, is it almost like drawing now with a spray can for you? It certainly looks like it is…
Yeah, for sure, it’s the same approach you know, for me drawing is the foundation. Like there are a few street artists out there that sometimes I think they think the work that I do I’ve got like one secret trick that just makes it look really cool. But the reality is that it is just a lot of drawing, a lot of sketching and understanding principles like value, form, shading, lighting, all that sort of stuff, you know chroma, which comes into play with lighting, and how that effects realism in general, and all that sort of stuff man. If you have a well-rounded holistic understanding of all that stuff, I guarantee that will take your game to the next level, when it comes to photo realism anyway. I’m always learning, I’m always studying different artists’ approaches, learning from some of the old school masters and all that…
Do you find that there is always something to pick up regardless of the medium, that there is always something to explore in other artists’ diverse approaches?
One thing I’ve always appreciated with the spray can, much like with a pen or a brush, or a pencil I guess, is that it is an extension of the body. When you’re working at that larger scale as well, do you find that it is a important to actually be in tune physically to be able to paint a work…
Yeah, absolutely, for sure man. You know, for me using cans, sometimes I feel like a little kid with crayons, because you’ve got a fixed palette, you can’t really mix colours with the freedom of oil painting, but it is quite playful in a sense for me as well.
When you are up on a scissor lift, you’ve got that time to think a lot, you must be reflecting a lot about how you are going about your process…
For sure, I think for me the learning is in the doing, with all this stuff, or with life in general really, the learning is always in the doing. You can only read text books so much, or whatever, or tutorials. But yeah, it’s like, it might just be little things but the learning is in the doing man.
In some ways, that relates back to the urban art movement, which is very much a DIY movement right? It’s not about being shown something in a class room first, it is about being out there and doing it. But then it sounds like your learnings come from lots of disparate places, which I feel is really valuable.
One of the things I have noticed, on your social media posts in particular, is how much you engage with the communities in which you work. There always seem to be group photos of you with members of these communities. It seems like I’m always seeing photos of you involved in different things, like I saw you tasting oysters down in Bluff!
That obviously is really important for you, and is that…
Yeah, tasting oysters is really important!
(Laughs) How has that become more and more a part of your working process? I would suggest you need a certain profile to be able to do that, although social media helps with that, but is that social engagement something that has slowly evolved to become really important and central, or has it always been there…
For the community side of things my wife and I, our hearts have always been involved in community work, in some way, shape or form. When we first got married, which was sixteen years ago, we were youth pastors, so we’ve done a lot of street outreach and stuff. When we were in Sydney we would help feed the homeless in Parramatta. We believe, well we don’t believe, we know bro, through experience that there’s just a lot of hurting people in this world, and we’ve been through stuff as well, and so we’re able to connect with people, especially in smaller towns. I was brought up in Kawerau bro, where the population’s 5000 people, and it has had a bad rap for most of the last twenty, thirty years. My wife was brought up in Te Puke. We love people, and that’s a genuine aroha for people in general I guess, and I think it is just a natural overflow of who I am as a person, the type of person I am you know, they’ve got to be mingled and intertwined with art in some way shape of form, and my art making as well.
That portraiture is such a central theme in your work (obviously not the only theme, but a key theme) reflects that as well, right?
Oh yeah, portraiture can touch people’s hearts in a way that nothing else can really, you know, because you’re representing a person’s life and story. In some moments its been very powerful, you know, I painted one in Ruatoria, of Moana-nui-a-kiwa Ngarimu, he actually received a Victoria Cross, for his service in the Maori Battalion in World War Two. I painted his portrait on his homestead in Ruatoria, and his family were just so honoured and overwhelmed. Ruatoria is a small place, so yeah, the family just came together, they put on a big feed for me as well, sang a few waiata, gave me a koha as a gift. I was overwhelmed bro, deeply touched, and for me that’s the stuff that does it for me, using my art to touch people’s hearts in a real way. I don’t care if no-one knows about that stuff but it’s just very meaningful.
Coming back to the point that you brought up earlier, specifically the opportunities you have to paint in smaller, rural townships, do you feel the difference in terms of the relationship to place when you are painting in those types of areas, as opposed to an urban space like Christchurch? Is it quite a marked difference?
I guess for me, a lot of the small towns in New Zealand, they feel kind of left out, you know, by a lot of big gigs, or events and stuff, so you know, they get me rocking up there, painting a Farmlands mural and they treat like I’m a big celebrity or something you know, and it’s quite funny! But it’s beautiful bro, I love connecting with the young kids who like getting you to sign their scooters and all that. When I was in Paeroa, I signed an old lady’s walker, so you know, there are so many stories, there are so many characters you come across. I think for me, my type of art is a real adventure, like the cliff stuff (Mr G painted a vertical cliff face in Parawera near Te Awamutu) as part of painting a hundred portraits around New Zealand (Mr G is painting a hundred New Zealand portrait murals around New Zealand with the intention of producing a book documenting the experience and works), it’s all part of the adventure of what I do man, it’s not just painting a portrait, it’s the location…
It’s tied into the experience…
Yeah, it’s who it is and how that connects to the people there and all that sort of stuff, so I just try and be purposeful with what I paint and who I paint, and respectful as well.
I know you’ve got the dedication of the mural coming up soon, so to finish, you’ve mentioned you’ve come to Christchurch a few times, but this is the first large scale piece you’ve painted here?
Yeah, my first large scale, decent piece that I’ve done. The last couple I’ve done here were just like free time, play around pieces, so this is the first decent one I’ve been able to do here man. It’s been cool, like given how much Christchurch has been through and is still going through, you know, I guess for me it’s a cool opportunity to be able to come down and paint Kiddy (David Kidwell).
What’s you take on how the city has changed over those visits, and in particular, some of the artwork that has appeared over that time, is there anything that has really captured your attention?
I just love it all man, you know, I think it is great using the art to bring some zest and life back to the city, and encouragement back to the community. Art’s really good at doing that. I think, if the artists and their motive is to do that, then all power to them man and you know it’s a great thing.
It is important to take the time to really understand where you are, which is obviously something that is really important to you, and it’s the mark of the best artists, being able to gain a sensibility of the environment in which their working and embrace that and represent that in their work as well…
I think that is important bro. I think that even for myself, like in Maori culture if you go to another region, you’ve got to acknowledge the land and the people and all that, respectfully, and not just do whatever I want. But, it has been cool here in Christchurch, I’ve had an awesome time meeting everyone as well, and you know a lot of (David Kidwell’s) family and friends as well, so it has been cool.
Thanks so much for your time Mr G, I better let you get to the mural dedication…
As we walked around the corner to the site of the dedication I was witness to a fleeting interaction that exemplified Mr G’s approach. Two rugby league jersey wearing fans wandered into the lot surrounding the mural. Immediately Mr G greeted them, my first impression that he had known them for years, until they asked if he was the artist, to which he replied: “Yeah, I am…”, before formally introducing himself and beginning a conversation. This willingness, indeed eagerness, to engage with people, to make sure both he and his art connect with the audience, a sentiment that rang throughout our conversation, was here evident in his actions, heart-warming proof of Mr G’s attitude and approach.
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