And That Was… 2021

I think we all expected to be able to look back at 2021 and say, well at least it was better than 2020, but let’s be honest, it was pretty much a replay: more viruses, more lockdowns, more political shenanigans, and a heap of new entries into the encyclopaedia of frustrating human experiences. This year, when we reached out to our favourite artists, some familiar, others new friends, we wanted to keep the questions a little more open-ended than previous years, recognition of the challenging times and also giving more room for reflection. The responses echoed that intent, with a wide-ranging focus, lots of shout-outs and importantly, acknowledgements that even through all the stress and chaos of 2021, Ōtautahi’s urban creative community continues to grow, thrive and evolve… So, even if it is through gritted teeth, here’s to 2021, a year of resilience…

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Dcypher (@dcypher_dtrcbs)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

My kids have been super influential in my general outlook on things over the past year, but as far as painting is concerned I’m constantly influenced by everything I see. Obviously the pandemic has had a massive influence on people from all walks of life on an international scale and has given artists time to hone in on particular aspects of their process during lock down. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent some time in my studio over the past 12 months.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

Internationally, I’m constantly finding new artists doing incredible work and taking their art in different directions. Bond has been doing amazing wall paintings with the integration of various outcomes in VR augmented reality, RFID devices and experimenting with crazy tools and paint contraptions, it definitely makes him one of the most interesting artists of 2021 in my opinion. Locally, Ghostcat’s work is top notch! He’s constantly stepping it up.

What would you say had been your personal highlight in 2021?

One of Dcypher’s paintings at South Sea Spray in early 2021

My personal highlight of 2021 was South Sea Spray by a long shot. It was the best festival I’ve ever had the honor to attend! There were highlights within the highlight; awesome line-up, the hospitality, the sights, and plenty of hyped locals!

Teethlikescrewdrivers (@teethlikescrewdrivers)

teethlikescrewdrivers takes stock of his Paste-Up Project installation in early October…

What has been the biggest influence on you in 2021?

The collective minds of SlapCity continue to be a huge influence on me personally. It has been amazing to see this random group of people hang out and support each other in so many ways. Our original intention was to push sticker and paste-ups as a legitimate artistic medium here in Aotearoa and abroad, and I feel we are doing just that. Collectively we have had members run their own independent art shows as well as feature in them. We have been part of organising and collaborating in paste-up and sticker shows across the globe. We have seen our work on public installations, featured on blogs and have been interviewed by The Press about what we do.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

Interesting is an interesting word! I am a huge fan of subversive stuff, so @fokawolf will always reign supreme there. I have continued to be in love with @eter_91’s typography and have a special place in my heart for @mambotattooer’s line work. Cannot forget our Ghostcat. His Welcome to Christchurch – The Garden City sign is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. Stoked to see his book project get the funding it rightly deserves.

Ghostcat’s miniature Welcome to Christchurch sign was a favorite of teethlikescrewdrivers in 2021…

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

Just being able to see my stuff up and about. Having the opportunity to take over one of Phantom Billstickers’ bollards on Manchester Street as part of #thepasteupproject was right up there. It was so great to upscale my work and think of it as a whole piece rather than just individual pencils. I was really stoked with how it came out. Being part of @helloiamtheshow‘s PB n Jam was amazing. I never thought that people would want to buy stuff with my pencil on it. Who knew?

teethlikescrewdrivers’ work at PB n Jam at The BOXed Quarter in August featured found objects adorned with his iconic pencils…

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

Gigs. I wish I could have seen more gigs.

Vesil

What has been the biggest influence on you in 2021?

I’d say the obvious one would be Covid, being in and out of lockdowns. It definitely has given time to reassess what’s important and what I’m striving for as I’m sure it has with others. Friends have also influenced me over this year, watching them succeed and accomplish their goals has been a real incentive to get off my ass and do the same. Getting out of the city which is something I’ve tried to do a bit over the year. The exploring of different spots, catching up with old and new friends and coming back with a new insight than the one you left with, as well as at least one good story to go with it.

A fresh perspective, 2021

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

Harry King would definitely be someone who springs to mind. I’m always really impressed by the sheer volume of work he consistently produces that’s always at a high standard. The same can be said for Tepid who too is pumping out a lot, across a variety of mediums. A couple of other honourable mentions go out to PK, Revos and Fiasko.

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

My personal highlight would be, aside from the freezing cold and running out of beer, freight hopping up the country.

Travelling the country freight-hopping was a highlight for Vesil in 2021…

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

Worry less and explore more.

Ghostcat (@ghostcat_mb)

Image from Fiksate Gallery

What has been the biggest influence on you in 2021?

Christchurch. The city has had the biggest influence on me as I’ve seen it from a different perspective with regard to my journey this year. Learning about people’s connections to places that are no longer there, exploring places I’d never been. There’s so much to take in.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

Jacob Yikes continues to blow my melon year in year out. His work is always so insanely good! The details and the way it takes you on a trip to another place.

Jacob Yikes’ Only here to pay some bills and maybe fill a cart with cat food

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

My highlight was without a doubt was Shadowtown, my first ever solo show at Fiksate earlier this year. That was one of my highlights of my entire life! Putting my work out there and getting the response I did was amazing, so much love!

Ghostcat at his show Shadowtown in early 2021 [Photo credit Charlie Rose Creative]
What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

I wouldn’t have changed a thing as every action throughout 2021 has led me here. It’s had its challenges, but it all comes to together.

Jessie Rawcliffe (@jessie.er)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

The fact that you’ve sent these questions means it’s been an entire year since the last time. Once again, I initially struggled to remember anything definitive from the last 12 months, then it slowly came back. Your yearly questionnaire is strangely therapeutic as it’s a great reminder that I have in fact made and seen some shit…But to answer the question, being employed. The flexibility and time I thought I’d be giving up, that I assumed would be detrimental to my creativity, never came to fruition. Or at least it was completely counterbalanced by the reduced anxiety of finally having some financial stability. Realising that I don’t thrive being my own boss was a huge influence on my painting. Not needing to sell work to live has made me more selective about being in shows and I’ve been able to make whatever I want with less parameters. The irony being that when you make stuff for yourself without caring about how it will be received by others, people tend to respond positively, or at least the people whose opinions you actually care about do.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with @post_vandalism on Instagram. It’s a collection of works curated by Stefano Bardsley, thematically linked by their connection to graffiti, vandalism and their removal. I almost thought that the whole intersection between graff and fine art had been done to death, but I keep seeing stuff that holds my attention.

Ed Bats’ Italio OD, 2021 [Photo from Ed Bats’ Instagram]
Honorable mention to Ghostcat Mike Beer as well. His solo show was an amazing reflection of his obsession for detail, and the little collaborations within it made it extra special.

Jessie Rawcliffe’s collaboration with Ghostcat for Shadowtown in early 2021

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

Getting to paint a couple of walls this year was a huge step and something I’ve wanted to do for ages. I’m at that point where I’m pretty certain about what I’m capable of, but during both the Berlin Wall and NZ Opera pieces I had moments of ‘ah this looks like shit wtf am I doing’. Me, up a ladder, with a too small paint brush, rookie.

The Marriage of Figaro mural Jessie Rawcliffe painted in mid 2021 in collaboration with the NZ Opera

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

I lost momentum in the middle of the year and took on miscellaneous freelance design projects (because if you stop moving you die right?) when I should have just kept painting.

Bloom n Grow Gal (@bloomngrowgal)

Bloom n Grow Gal painting in the BOXed Quarter to close out 2021

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

A huge influence on me this year would have to be the Green Lane community. I was so lucky that this was the first group of people I met when I came to Ōtautahi. Hanging out and drawing during the markets inspired me to start my pop-up art shows. Something I had enjoyed doing at university, I then had the opportunity and support to start it again here! I’ve made some truly amazing friends, found my creative drive and flare thanks to these guys. There will always be a big spot in my heart for Green Lane.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

I have been so incredibly lucky to work and meet with extremely talented artists this year. To just pick one is hard! I have really loved what Harry King has been doing. I only met him and discovered his work this year at one of the Art Walls shows at The Welder. King did a series of four paintings for the show, one in particular really caught my eye. I honestly think my Grizzly’s bread intake increased over the period of time King’s work featured there. I had to get it, the painting of the cowgirl now hangs in my room, alongside a load of other epic pieces of work I have collected this year. King is also an amazing tattoo artist at Absolution in the Art Centre. I’ve loved seeing him develop this art of his work too.

One of Harry King’s works from Art Walls at The Welder, 2021

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

These are the hardest questions ever, so mean! Haha… it’s so hard to just pick one. I think it’s going to have to be the three shows I put on this year, More the Show, PB n Jam the Show & Even More the Show (I know that’s technically three, I loved them all equally and can’t pick) All those emails, all the organising, all the art hanging into the early hours of the next day. Working and discovering all these incredible people in Ōtautahi. As well as having made some amazing friendships through the process I have an incredibly amazing art wall now at home full of pieces I have brought from the shows. It also really pushed me to discover something I was really passionate about.

Even More the Show at Clubhouse Creative, one of three shows Bloom n Grow Gal opened in 2021…

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

I would change being on my phone just as much as I have been this year…even the past two years. Ever since this global pandemic started I have realised my screen time has increased by an embarrassing amount. I noticed after doing this my mood would be low and my desire to create minimal. Although I feel like some of my work produced was slightly fuelled by the pandemic, I definitely want to go into 2022 with less screen time… Live Laugh Love and all that.

Ikarus (@highdoctornick)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

I don’t know if I’m heavily influenced by outside factors tbh. I try to just do what I do. My crew, DTR, inspire me n so do the super active graffiti guys

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

Ghostcat has definitely been on his grind, seeing his energy towards pursuing art full time is infectious and it’s hard not to love the builds he does. Vesal FOK owned the streets in Christchurch this year, hands down nobody put in more work than him.

Vesal was one of Ikarus’ favourites for 2021

The big TMD show up north looked awesome too. Special mentions to Race n Hoaks from A2D crew, they aren’t Christchurch guys but the work I’ve seen of theirs is super cool n I’ve definitely been interested in seeing what those guys come up with week to week.

The TMD crew roll call from the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at the Dowse Gallery in Lower Hutt

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

It’s hard to beat South Sea Spray, even though that was all the way at the start of the year. Everything about it was just too next level. Also organising the wall n line up for the Christchurch Hip Hop Summit n getting a nice line up of different generations of Christchurch graffiti guys together.

The DTR Crew collab at South Sea Spray in early 2021, featuring Yikes, Dcypher and Ikarus [photo supplied by Brian ‘Rowee’ Rowe]
What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

The mandate. Fuck that shit. I’m not against vaccines but I am against the way this whole shit is unravelling.

Jacob Yikes (@jacobyikes)

A Pool Full of Deep Ends, a new work from Jacob Yikes in 2021

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

I’m not really sure to be honest, the last 2 years have been pretty chaotic and I’ve yet to really reflect on all of it but yeah, I struggle to narrow it down as I think everything good and bad influences everything I do in terms of my art.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

I think I would have to say that Ghostcat takes the prize for that one this year, he’s on another level with his miniature works, some really impressive stuff for sure.

Ghostcat’s Volcano and Lava Bar build from Shadowtown [Photo credit Charlie Rose Creative]
What would you say has been your personal highlight?

In terms of personal highlights relating to painting I would say that some of the projects that myself and my crew have been a part of this year have been a lot of fun and we have some pretty rad projects lined up for early 2022 And yeah another would be the fact that I’m nearing completion on a large body of work that I have been working on for the last few years and I’m pretty excited to exhibit those paintings middle of next year.

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

Haha, I’m not sure if I would change anything. That probably seems kind of weird and yeah obviously Covid is a pain, but yeah, I’m not one to get strung out on shit I can’t change

Jonny Waters (@jonnywatersart)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

Finding someone I truly love and adore. Art wise – Probably shedding a few more layers of caring about what others think about what I make and abstraction.

DOOR/SCOPE was part of Jonny Water’s push into abstraction in 2021

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

Vesil, OXY and the FOK crew & Fiasko

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

Producing Ōtepoti Hip-Hop Hustle and organising another banger Graff Jam for Ombrellos in Dunedin.

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

Painted more with the TiC homies.

Jenna Ingram (@jen_heads)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

The people. The Christchurch crews – music, art, hospo, retail. We are very lucky here! Some are artists I’ve admired and looked up to since 2006/7 and now work with, some I am now great friends with, some who have inspired me and some who have helped me out a lot. Some are amazing Fiksate supporters that we are honored to know and call friends too. It’s all about the people for me.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

Lots of great art this year. Ghostcat. Jessie Rawcliffe. SlapCity Crew. Misery. Jess Johnson. Dr. Suits. Chimp. Askew One. Jasmine Gonzalez. Pener. The Dreamgirls (Xoë Hall, Gina Keil, Miriama Grace-Smith). Studio Soph. Laurie Steer. The DTR Riverside mural is pretty outstanding!

Birds of a Feather, one of the works from Chimp’s show Social Woes at Fiksate in October 2021

What would you say has been your personal highlight? 

Ghostcat‘s ‘Shadow Town’ exhibition, Askew One & Jasmine Gonzalez‘s ‘Continuum’ exhibition, Askew One‘s mural that Nath organised. Chimp‘s ‘Social Woes’ exhibition. Ghostcat’s miniature Fiksate Gallery. Dr. Suits and Porta completing an amazing mural for Graffiato in Taupo. Getting a kitten. 

Dr Suits and Porta add some detail to Dr Suits’ mural at Graffiato (Image via Graffiato Taupo Street Art)

What one thing would you have changed from 2021? 

Can’t change the past man! So nothing! What’s done is done. Learn from it and move on.

Jacob Root/Distranged Design (@distrangeddesign)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021? 

I think the way the world currently is has given me a greater influence to become the best version of myself, not only in art but in all areas of my life. But yeah, I think it’s pushed my work more because I want to constantly be creating and it puts me in my own wee world.

A Thorn in the Roses was released as a fundraiser for Movember by Distranged Design

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

In my opinion I’ve loved seeing the work Daniel Arsham has been creating, it’s all just so different and the collaborations he’s been a part of have been insane!

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

I think the collaborations I’ve done, and those I have also organized that are in the pipeline are my proudest moments, it makes this career even more fun when you can work with others and bounce off ideas with like-minded creatives.

United, a Distranged Design collaboration with Hannah Jensen (@hannahjensenart) from 2021

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

I’d love to have been able to travel, but that wasn’t possible! I’ve got something cool planned next year which I can’t wait for though!

Meep (@kophie_loaf)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

Probably living through heaps of major world events at once, haha! Also seeing how much online and social media has played a part during these times and making people nuts.

Meeps work confronted the issues facing us all through 2021

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

I follow so many different areas of art, fashion, graffiti, fine art, illustration etc., so I can’t really pin-point anything. But I will say that I am so proud of my friend McChesney (@mkaartist) for finally getting a tattoo apprenticeship, she has wanted it for the longest time, and I am sooo happy for her, she’s going to be so famous one day.

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

Probably the anti-racism Stand Up Event I organised alongside The Conscious Club and getting to be a part of the Hip Hop Summit was a great way to end the year. I have also had a lot of opportunities this year that I am very grateful for.

Meep takes stock of her character for the Christchurch Hip Hop Summit graffiti event

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

I have had a lot of ups and downs the past 2 years, losing two of my family members and dealing with heaps of other life stuff while simultaneously living through huge world events. It’s been the hardest couple years of my life, so it can only go up from here hopefully! Haha!

Harry King (@atribecalledhaz)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

Liv O’Callaghan (@livocallaghan) – she’s taken me under her wing and is showing me the ropes of the tattoo ship.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

I’d have to say Josh Bradshaw’s barbed wire roses for the last Art Walls of the year.

Josh Bradshaw’s tiny roses made from recovered barbed wire were some of Harry King’s favourite pieces from 2021

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

Starting my tattoo apprenticeship.

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

More Memphis Meltdowns!

Josh Bradshaw (@joshbradshaw_art_)

Photo credit: Mitch Barnard

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

Biggest influence on me in 2021 has been my new job that I started working at in April. They have all sorts of woodworking machinery, laser cutters, sand blasting and metal engraving machines as well as a spray booth. It’s basically a McDonald’s playground for anyone that likes to make stuff. Being able to use all the gear for my own artwork unlocks a whole other realm of works that weren’t possible for me before.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

Not me that’s for damn sure. Probs some random person overseas that has been shadow banned by the Zuck man on Instagram for no reason so that no one even sees their work anymore anyway.  But Levi Hawken and Dr Suits are steady favourites of mine locally speaking.

One of Levi Hawken’s concrete casts. Hawken is a favourite of Josh Bradshaw.

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

A personal highlight was finally making my little barbed wire rose series (I picked a dozen but not for you) that I thought of ages ago but couldn’t get around to making it for most of the year. Felt good to not have that idea in my brain anymore. Also bought myself a sick old book press which is cool.

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

I dunno, maybe something about not making NFT’s trendy/ a hype beast, wait in line for an ugly cartoon of a monkey that matches your limited edition dunks so you can get into a club in Hollywood type of deal this year. It’s just not it.

Sofiya Romanenko (@chchasti)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

The Instagram’s tight grip on me has been as strong as ever this year, but in a far more productive way than before. I love to hate it and hate to love it, the broken window into the world of great talent from all of the corners of the world the tendrils of the internet can reach, which inspires me to degrade my artistic abilities on the daily, whilst simultaneously lighting enough fire under my ass to produce my own work.

Another thing, the influence of which this year cannot be understated, is skateboarding. Delving into the thick of it and finding how closely it is intertwined with everything I loved for years made it feel like I found the missing link between my long line of interests and helped me gain a whole new perspective on them, contributing greatly to my work.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

I feel that with me being very new to the art scene I’m just barely scratching the surface of what this country has to offer, especially given a bit of stagnancy brought upon us all due to the pandemic, but among the many local artists I’ve been following this year my two favourites are: Miiekes, whose wild trash art lies near and dear to my rotten heart – I’ve been a fan of pretty much every piece she put out in 2021; and Cammy (@__cammy_h__), whose photography evokes just the right level of discomfort in its lonesome stillness – something I very much enjoy to channel through my own art as well.

Image from @__cammy_h__

Among foreign names I can mention Jerry Hsu, Trevor Hernandez, Kludge, Jason Gringler, and pretty much everyone in the post_vandalism Instagram account.

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

It’s pretty tough to pin-point a particular highlight in a year that has become my life’s highlight in itself. I’ve gone through a lot of exciting and important changes in 2021, which finally made me feel like I’m exactly where I need to be, but I guess the common thread among all of these changes is finding the path to “myself”. Or rather, whatever I want this mysterious self to be.

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

The only change I would’ve made is started taking antidepressants sooner – could’ve saved myself a lot of miserable days.

 

Lost Boy (@lostboy_chch)

Image from @lostboy_chch

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

In one word the biggest influence on me in 2021 has been: Life. My normal everyday life that occurs between wake and sleep. The people I meet, things I do, words I speak. Sometimes ideas enter into my mind and swim. I try to fish them, but can only catch so much in a day.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

I have found throughout 2021 the works by the following humans have caused interest to pique in my mushy ape brain: JR, Banksy, beeple, Ron Hauge.

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

Personal highlight of this year… Becoming a regular member of SlapCity. Having a space to come together and splurge onto paper, stickers, and anything else, this is good. Creativity is shared by osmosis in them.

The Slap City crew on a mission. Image from @slapcity_chch

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

Throughout 2021 I should have had more fruit.

Phew. The questions have been answered. Made my brain whirl for a while, now its stopped. I can finally rest.

Mark Catley (@mark_catley)

Bloom n Grow Gal and Mark Catley’s Three-Eyed Freaky Girl

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

Covid and my little one, Alba. I had a lot of ideas and WIP’s this year, but with the whole Covid cloud over everything I’ve really just felt drained. So I’ve just tried to hang out with my 2 year old Alba and enjoy life.

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

I really love Askew One’s Innovate mural. It’s the most different thing I’ve seen around the streets this year. But everyone’s work is just getting better and better. All the new 3D / 2D art works are super cool and even my mum likes them, lol. I’m also amazed by the talent of Jessie Rawcliffe.

Askews Innovate mural at ARA

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

I had a lot of fun working with Rollickin Gelato at the start of the year…and it’s cool to see giant action figures up on the walls inside a shop.

Mark Catleys Wampa at Rollickin Gelato, one of several paste-up additions he made to the beloved gelato store

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

That Covid was gone for good… and that I could get my head around NFT’s and start selling them for bitcoin.

Bols (@bolsamatic)

What has had the biggest influence on you in 2021?

There have been a few key influences this year, even if I take the obvious pandemic-sized elephant out of the room. Getting older and taking on certain responsibilities as a father and a partner has been a big thing. There have also been so many people who have been influential, spending time with talented artists and rad folks has been undeniably impactful…

Who do you think has been making the most interesting art this year?

Seeing Askew One paint his mural at ARA and working with Benjamin Work when he painted the floor work at the Canterbury Museum were highlights in terms of process and conceptualisation. Locally, Ghostcat has had an amazing year, the guy is always buzzing with ideas and to top it off he is just one of the best humans alive!

Ghostcat and Bols Soggy City Ciggies from mid 2021

What would you say has been your personal highlight?

Working on the Paste-Up Project and seeing the first installation by teethlikescrewdrivers was awesome, working on Benjamin‘s project was a highlight as well, observing someone I have admired for a long time in a celebrated location was pretty neat. The TMD show at the Dowse was phenomenal (writing a review of the show for Art New Zealand was fantastic as well). In terms of my own art, it is fresh, but I really liked the piece I painted at the Boxed Quarter right at the end of the year.

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

What one thing would you have changed from 2021?

I would have liked it to have felt longer, which sounds strange in hindsight, but the reality is that so much of the year was lost that it almost seems like we deserve some extra time…

Thanks to all the artists who contributed to this recap – as a city with so much talent, 2022 is sure to be exciting! Let us know what you loved from 2021 and what you are looking forward to in 2022 in the comments!

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

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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