Benjamin Work – Motutapu II at the Canterbury Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And That Was… April 2021

April has come and gone and while the year moves at a steady pace, there has been plenty to keep us entertained. Although the weather is getting a little less predictable, it is providing a late flurry of sunshine (at least after the inevitable chilly mornings), extending the window for outdoor activities like painting murals! While there have been a number of new outdoor works to explore, there have also been some very cool things going on indoors as well. Exhibitions like Ghostcat’s Shadow Town at Fiksate Gallery and the Canterbury Museum’s Hakē: Street Art Revealed, have provided popular experiences. As always, we have a recap of what tickled our fancy, compiled as an easy-to-follow list! So, without further ado, here is our And That Was… April 2021

Ghost’s Shadow Town @ Fiksate

Ghostcat’s Shadow Town was packed for opening night… Photo credit: Charlie Rose Creative

Ghostcat’s Shadow Town was highly anticipated and the crowd that showed up for the opening night at Fiksate were not disappointed. The collection of miniatures drawn from Christchurch’s urban environment were hot tickets, with people drawn to the beautiful intricate details and the associated nostalgia. With just a few days left at the time of writing, if you haven’t made it to Shadow Town, hurry!

Benjamin Work @ The Canterbury Museum

Benjamin Work’s Motutapu II was produced for the Hakē: Street Art Revealed exhibition at the Canterbury Museum

When the Canterbury Museum were presented with a window to reveal the legacy works from the massively successful Rise exhibition, they also wanted to add a new work to the main exhibition hall. Enter Auckland artist Benjamin Work, whose massive, striking floor mural Motutapu II draws from the iconography  found on the Tongan ‘Akau Tau (war clubs) in the Museum’s collection. The work adds a new element to the surrounding wall paintings from Rise, highlighting the diverse trajectories of urban artists over the last decade.

TMD x DTR x Ysek X Chile One in New Brighton

A collaborative jam with members of TMD, DTR along with YSEK and Chile One in New Brighton

On a cold Saturday morning (the night after the Shadow Town opening), a heavyweight collection of artists got together in New Brighton for a painting jam. Local artists Dcypher and Ikarus of the DTR crew, Christchurch-based Chilean artists YSEK and Chile One, and Auckland’s Phat1, Diva and Dyle of the legendary TMD crew, freshened up a popular New Brighton wall with traditional graffiti pieces and characters, creating a legacy of the meeting of some of New Zealand’s biggest talent.

Charles Williams and Benjamin Work @ Etu Pasifika Health

The mural on the side of the Etu Pasifika Health Centre. painted by Charles Williams and Benjamin Work

In the wake of the launch of the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at The Dowse in Lower Hutt, crew members Benjamin Work and Charles Williams arrived in Christchurch to paint a mural on the new Etu Pasifika Health Centre. The work combines the signature styles of the two artists with a design conceived by fellow TMD member Janine Williams. The background is coloured in a bright blue, black, yellow and white pattern, with Work’s Tongan warrior chief figure on the left couched within the architectural framework, while Williams’ depiction of a Red-tailed Tropicbird soars upwards from the bottom right. The harmonious combination of styles creating an impressive new work for Christchurch.

TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story @ The Dowse

A straight letter roll-call on the wall of the flat recreated in the TMD exhibition at Lower Hutt museum The Dowse

It may not have been in Christchurch, but I couldn’t leave out my trip to Wellington for the opening of the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at Lower Hutt’s The Dowse Museum. Combining history and installations that spoke to the culture and roots of New Zealand’s most iconic graffiti crew with a group show of crew members’ contemporary practice, the exhibition struck all the right chords. The additional benefits of seeing the crew members painting murals around Lower Hutt and then as part of a panel discussion topped off the weekend. I highly recommend – go see it!

And That Was… April 2021 – what would you add to the list? Comment below to let us know!

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TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at The Dowse

“The rise of TMD as a creative collective has its origins in Auckland’s mid to late 90’s graffiti scene. The post-recessionary environment after the 1987 stock market crash was the perfect incubator for a thriving and vibrant Hip-Hop scene with a uniquely pacific slant. From the decrepit rail infrastructure to the abandoned buildings and vacant lots – the city provided an abundance of grey area where these young people could forge lifelong bonds, while cementing their sense of identity. With humble beginnings from this crew emerged its fair share of unsung and underground heroes as well as many of Aotearoa’s first global stars in the graffiti and large scale street art arena.” – ASKEW ONE (from The Dowse website)

There is no larger shadow in Aotearoa graffiti and street art history than Auckland’s TMD crew. While not the oldest graffiti crew in New Zealand, founded in 1997 by Phat1 and Adict, TMD has undeniably made an indelible mark on graffiti and street art culture both here and overseas. The collective has grown both in number (with over 35 past and present members, including international representatives from Australia and Germany, such as Vans the Omega, Sofles and WOW123) and scope, with its members ranging from recreational graffiti writers to professional artists, occupying streets, studios, galleries and beyond. Both collectively and individually the members of TMD have gained prominence here and overseas, from Phat1 and Diva’s (Charles and Janine Williams) Bird Gang mural work, telling stories of place through the symbolism of native birds, to Misery‘s instantly recognisable kitschy doe-eyed characters and Berst‘s dynamic letterforms and documentation of graffiti culture, where his online videos have an audience of tens of thousands.

The Mini Dairy inside the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story exhibition at The Dowse in Lower Hutt.

In recent years, urban art has gained more widespread attention, publicly through the rise of contemporary muralism and its ability to infiltrate our daily experiences, but also institutionally, with the likes of Rise at the Canterbury Museum (2013) and Paradox at the Tauranga Art Gallery (2016). The staging of TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at Lower Hutt’s The Dowse Art Gallery (who themselves have a history of urban art-related exhibitions dating back to the turn of the Milliennium), running from late March until June, is a welcome development. Rather than attempting to present a more generic survey or a one person show, the exhibition considers the broader cultural movement of graffiti within the tighter focus of the TMD crew while still spanning styles and historical narratives; contextualising both the roots of the TMD crew within the setting of mid-90s and early 2000s Auckland, and their current exploits, successfully packaging the complexities and trajectories of contemporary urban art and artists who have sprung forth from these rebellious beginnings, no longer held to any defined expectations.

One of the painted trains installed in the exhibition, the pair of carriages painted with ROCK and RETS pieces…

The exhibition, curated by Dowse director Karl Chitham with Christchurch-raised TMD member Pest5/Johnny 4Higher, is split between two distinct zones, an immersive installation space, featuring formative and contextual commentaries, and a more traditional white-walled gallery presentation that highlights the current work of crew members, spanning painting, sculpture, photography and more. This format allows the viewer to consider the significant journey undertaken by the crew, from an idea to unite disparate graffiti writers into a collective of diverse creatives, placing them within the wider narrative of New Zealand art while acknowledging the significance of graffiti culture to generations of young New Zealand creatives.

On entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by a writers bench and a set of painted train carriages, with an echo of recorded discussions just audible. Smaller tags on the bench play off against the larger and more bombastic train pieces. The track setting highlights the centrality of train painting in graffiti culture not just locally, but internationally, although with a specific Aotearoa profile. Behind the bench is another slice of Kiwiana, an iconic corner dairy, a bastion of New Zealand childhoods across generations. The fabricated dairy, named the ‘The Mini Dairy’ (TMD), utilises all the nostalgic riffs, from the Tip Top-inspired signage to dollar mixtures (the lollies replaced with aerosol nozzles), neon star price points and an arcade video game machine (supposedly out of order). A cynical eye might point out that the dairy is primarily the exhibition shop, providing the opportunity to peddle merchandise, but it also has several conceptual references as an installation in its own right. Dairies served as a location youngsters not only congregated around, but also as a community hub that would often provide the opportunity for legal or commissioned murals on their walls prior to larger commercial projects becoming a reality. Furthermore, the dairy exemplifies how the creation of commercial goods has been embraced by urban artists, from clothing to vinyl toys, a trajectory that might make the more elitist fine art world shudder (think of the blowback against Kaws by art commentators), but is a reality for many to make an artistic career possible and their art accessible to an audience perhaps less likely to frequent an art gallery.

Across an imaginary road is a grungy flat, based on a former residence where crew members congregated. The sparse room provides historical references in analogue form with tags and drawings on the walls (including a roll call in the classic New Zealand Straights lettering style) and scattered photo albums, event posters and blackbooks, but also digitally – with videos from TMD member Berst’s Real Time web series playing on the boxy 90s TV, and an old PC for surfing websites such as ArtCrimes, an influential forum for the graffiti world and an inspiration to many TMD members. The worn surroundings, devoid of luxury, highlight the drive to make things from nothing and the dominant influence of graffiti on the lives of these young creatives and the evolution of the relationship between graffiti and the internet.

A roll call in iconic New Zealand straights, name-checking TMD crew members, inside the re-created flat space.

Tucked around the corner, a rotating selection of photographs (photographers and crew members Rimoni and OneDeap have been key documentarians of this history) adds a personal face, members depicted painting, posing, and playing, projected oversized on the gallery walls, imbuing candid moments with significance. Either side, collaborative wall paintings highlight the traditional graffiti approaches and styles of crew members, referencing the common form of crew productions, as well as providing a bridge towards the gallery space and the work artists have developed over ensuing years. These immersive spaces are informative (notably the stories are not given to you in wall text, they become part of the environmental detail – wafting audio, static encoded video, interactive elements and references in the most traditional urban forms – tags and wall writing, a fit for graffiti’s own historical recording which has for a long time been largely folkloric), providing important context for viewers before they cross the threshold into the white cube space.

A collaborative crew production and projected images by crew photographers inside the The Dowse exhibition.

The ‘Post-Graffiti’ gallery space features works that span the spectrum of practice. Book-ended by impressive works at either end; Benjamin Work‘s tapa cloth-inspired banner unfurled from wall to floor, drawing on the iconography of his Tongan heritage and Lady Diva’s subtle flag-like geometric abstractions  on wooden panels, suggesting references to carving and weaving that perhaps raise ideas of colonialism and imperialism, the spaces in between are filled with varied works. Askew‘s glimmering digital-influenced painterly abstractions that draw on the spectre of shifting human presence in our urban environments contrast with Deus’ (Elliot Francis Stewart) intricately illustrated coffee table, drawing the viewer closer to inspect the stunning graphic details on a mundane domestic object. Gary Silipa‘s unsettling and powerful installation filled with painted tyres, yellow chain links, tarpaulin and painted iconography sits near the still reverence of Berst’s pillar-like sculptural letter forms, light emanating from inside to give a celestial glow to an apparently devotional monument to graffiti. Other works highlight a raft of concerns, from social issues, cultural and national identity and self-reflection, to moments of everyday life, process-driven focus, riffs on the traditions and evolutions of graffiti writing and the urban environment and striking abstract ruminations. The diverse spectrum of themes, as well as styles, materials and approaches, suggests the personal creative journey of each contributor, and yet, there is an undefinable connection as well, the shared experiences and the original creative impetus of graffiti hang in the air, unifying the collection without requiring explicit threads.   

Paintings by Askew One in the Post-Graffiti section of the exhibition.
Gary Silipas installation in the Post-Graffiti section of the exhibition.
Lady Divas works in the Post-Graffiti section of the exhibition.

While the format may mean some viewers relate with specific elements more than others, the narrative of TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story could not be told in one presentation style alone. As it was probably to be expected, the exhibition drew some criticism for the presence of tagging, but to pick such a quarrel is to miss the bigger picture. Graffiti writing brought these young people together and is part of their creative pathway. The presence of graffiti is a central and necessary part of the story, informing the narrative both socially and formally. TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story revels in the celebration of collectivism and its empowering potential for individual members. As a representation of urban art’s roots and future pathways,  TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story is surprisingly focussed. Rather than a pervasive survey of graffiti and street art in New Zealand, TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story, nodding to those that came before and winking to the future, is grounded in the environments and relationships of the artists of TMD, a camaraderie that emanates throughout the history of this crew and the show itself.

TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at The Dowse Art Gallery runs until June 2021.

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