Bulky Savage – Welcome to Crushington

Earlier this year I received an email connecting me with Bulky Savage, a New Zealand-born artist living in Berlin, who was seeking a wall to paint while home visiting family. We traded some messages and attempted to find some options, but ultimately it appeared that nothing would quite line up. Intrigued by a Kiwi artist now based in an epicentre of urban art, I dived into his Instagram to become familiar with his work. His quirky menagerie of characters, seemingly indebted to the influence of cartoons, were immediately endearing, while literal washes of colour added vibrancy but also a suggestive symbolism. Imbued with a sense of playfulness, they were equally comfortable in the digital illustrative realm as they were on the streets.

Fortunately, B.S. was finally put in touch with the owners of Riverside Market and before returning to Germany, finally got the opportunity to produce a mural to mark his temporary homecoming. The wall painting, featuring one of his recurring hollow-eyed skull characters and a flow of colour echoing sloshing paint, is on a somewhat secluded wall in the laneway beside the bustling market. However, that seclusion doesn’t stop it from being a striking sight once you are introduced, beguiling in its seemingly open narrative, with confectionery-esque colours set to flood the ground.

While we had only exchanged brief pleasantries via email, when we finally chatted face to face (or at least via a Messenger call, as is the way in these pandemic times), it was quickly apparent that B.S. was instantly affable and an hour quickly passed. We discussed Berlin, his entrance into the street art world, his experience here in Christchurch and importantly, the state of the world and the modern economy…

While I’m sitting here in Christchurch, you are in the morning sunshine of Berlin, how did you come to live in Germany?

I grew up in Auckland. my dad is English but has been in New Zealand since the late seventies, and that’s kind of how I managed to be over here, with that [British] passport, but who knows how much that’s worth anymore…

So, at what age did you leave New Zealand, and what drew you to Berlin?

I turned 23 very shortly after I left New Zealand. I just wanted to get out. Our tiny little home in the middle of nowhere is great, but it is very hidden away, so I just wanted to see what was going on in the world. Europe was obvious and I had the passport, so that made things a bit easier. I wanted to learn another language, so I wanted to go somewhere in Continental Europe. I bumped into a bunch of German people as I was leaving New Zealand and again while I was travelling, and Berlin came up. It was always a blip on the radar, but I didn’t know anything about it except that it has always had good music. But by my second day here, I was just like, yeah, this is cool, I could do this for a bit. I did spend two months living in London when I ran out of money. I couldn’t get a job in Germany, so I went to London and worked for two months and squatted and got some cash together before settling here.

My impression of Berlin was that there is a palpable energy to the city. It was busy and there was a grit that wasn’t evident in Munich, for instance. 

There is a little bit of everything here in Berlin, something for almost everybody. You either love that chaotic kind of energy like you said, or you don’t, certain people just don’t get on with it, but yeah, it totally grabbed me. I never really had a trajectory until I got to Berlin and saw the street art everywhere, and I was like, this is where I need to be!

So much of Berlin’s history can be seen and felt in the streets. The streets speak in many ways, re-presenting different eras and epochs, and that lineage almost informs the graffiti and street art in Berlin with a potency that some cities lack. While muralism is often charged with complicity in gentrification, in some ways urban art itself has been gentrified, but in Berlin it felt different.  

Yeah, I guess that is always one of the conundrums of being part of this kind of art scene. It does kind of run both sides of the gambit. It is part of the problem and the solution! Berlin was definitely a bubble within it all, at least for a while… Gentrification has become more of a problem recently as the city folds a bit to the mighty Euro and murals do get absorbed into that as well. But yeah, muralism is only one layer of the street art and graffiti scene and there will always be people telling stories from the streets here.

A lot of people have said that Berlin’s a place for lost people. You get a lot of people coming here because they don’t really know what they’re doing with themselves. They spend a couple of years here and then figure it out and go and make money somewhere else. I guess I never got out, I became entangled with Berlin. But it’s become part of my art style and my lifestyle. I guess it’s also spoiled me, I’m not really sure that I could go and do what I’m doing somewhere else, in the same way anyway.

You explore a lot of different creative activities, so how would you describe what you do? Do you define yourself by any particular discipline or medium?

I like to say that I’m an artist who does street art sometimes. I bore easily, but if I’ve got different things to play with, I can always move on to something else. I really like photography, but everybody does photography, so it’s a much more difficult market to break into. I do digital stuff, and I’m trying to get back into painting with paint brushes again and things like that. But spray cans particularly are my jam. I’ve gotten good with those and its really nice to feel capable with something like that. That’s the problem with being multidisciplinary, it’s really frustrating working with things where I’m almost there, but I’m not really there. It’s nice to work with something where I can be like, bang, bang, bang, it’s done the way I wanted it. That is very satisfying.

Bulky Savage at work on a collaboration with @abwasserschwimmer for the record store Latitude in Berlin. (Photo supplied by Bulky Savage)
Bulky Savage at work on a collaboration with @abwasserschwimmer for the record store Latitude in Berlin. (Photo supplied by Bulky Savage)

There is something about the material qualities of aerosol that seem a particularly good fit for an urban environment like Berlin. One of my enduring memories in Berlin was stumbling across a Blek Le Rat stencil, it had almost all been painted out apart from the feet of the character and his name, but I always remember being struck by the way that the paint sat on this brittle concrete surface. But there is a lot of discussion going on now with artists about how to balance environmental concerns with the reality of aerosol, is that something that you think about?

Sometimes. There are always concerns with all sorts of different things for me, not just environmentally, but also keeping myself sane, so I have to balance out the impacts that I have with keeping myself happy. That might seem selfish sometimes, but I live in Germany and Germany’s pretty good at taking care of that stuff. There are proper waste bins for spray cans at a lot of the walls you paint these days, which is good. I hope they get taken care of properly, you don’t really know, there’s only so far that you can go when it comes to things like recycling. I can put all my stuff in all the right boxes, but I don’t know what happens after that. I’ve heard that they don’t even recycle themselves, certain things get sent to China, stuff like that. That is completely out of my control, so I try to not worry about that as much. Its great now that they don’t have things like CFCs, I’ve had people come up and say what about the ozone layer, and actually, you know, technology, baby!

Aerosol really informs the entire process, the final image, the process of making that image, even the conception of that image, it’s a defining tool for a lot of artists, and one that is so hard to replicate…

You can’t get that effect with anything else; air brush is close, but it’s also not. I have been working on an exhibition; it was planned for the first week of lock down. I wanted to make smaller scale works, so I’m using stencils, but I had to use spray cans because I want that beautiful gradient and that granular effect that you get from aerosol. There was nothing else I could use that would work like that…

It was initially adopted by graffiti writers primarily for mobility and efficiency, but increasingly, it’s actually the aesthetic that has become the attraction. The mastery that has been achieved over generations has become what drives and defines its continued use. When did you start using spray cans?

In New Zealand there were a couple of people on the periphery of my friends that were getting into street art. Cinzah was best mates with a girlfriend of mine at the time, and I went along to a couple of his shows and he was doing some paste ups and things. I was like, this is kind of interesting. I really love his style, it’s fantastic. But I was already on my way overseas, so by the time I got to Europe, that was really my first proper introduction to spray cans. I think it was maybe two or three years after I got to Berlin that I really started playing around with spray cans, so I guess around nine years ago. They are a difficult tool to master…

You mention the influence of street art, were you attracted to the act of painting in the streets? Often that is the biggest leap, because it is a decision imbued with more significance as you get older, when you’re more aware of a lot of the mechanisms in public space…

I hadn’t considered it before, but when I got to Berlin it was so pervasive, I felt comfortable getting out and being part of it. I just went out on my own. I made some paste ups because I couldn’t use spray cans at the time, but I could draw. I was all about drawing to begin with, I still am to some degree. I’d gone into a little gallery which is not really around anymore, it was run by this guy EMESS, a stencil artist, and I talked to him about the kind of stuff I was doing, and after that I went out and made my own paste ups. I went out with a sponge, totally the wrong gear! One of those pieces was still around recently actually, it stayed up for like eight years, which is pretty impressive for a paste up. Then, finally, I started doing street art workshops and teaching people how to do stencils, and that was when I really started playing around with spray cans a lot more, just taking it from there and putting it onto the walls as well. I did the illegal stuff here and there, but I’m not sure that I would have done it anywhere else besides Berlin. It is a lot more relaxed here than it is in most places. But the illegal side of it wasn’t really a draw card for me. A lot of people, particularly in graffiti, love that side of it, going out, getting into spaces that you shouldn’t, running from cops, that kind of thing. I guess my parents raised me to be a ‘good boy’, or at least put the fear in me! I was much more into the actual creation and painting part of it. I’ve got a bunch of friends who paint trains and things, and it’s great, but I just don’t have that in me. I like taking my time. That’s why I’ve gotten into murals, spending a couple of days painting is really rewarding to me.

My Parents are Bread, paste up in Berlin. (Photo supplied by Bulky Savage)
My Parents are Bread, paste up in Berlin. (Photo supplied by Bulky Savage)

Even if the illegal aspect wasn’t as attractive, were you still interested in how to situate a work in space and the encounter that you can create with an unsuspecting public audience?

When I was still doing paste ups and things, I’d like to have bits on corners of buildings so you could see it on one side and then pop around and there’s another part of it as well, leading people in certain ways. Interacting with outside spaces is a big part of the street art scene, and now, when it comes to murals, I still like that idea. I don’t want to put big messages into my art. I like to just have something that will pop and grab people’s attention, something a bit out of left field that will make them wonder what’s going on there?

Design and illustration are increasingly tied to urban art, as an interconnected pathway and through the iconographic approach of post-graffiti, the creation of an instantly recognizable and relatable icon. Has your design background influenced your work?

I studied design at Massey University in Wellington for a couple of years because I was young and foolish. I basically thought that was how you made money in art. But really, I’m more into the ‘art’ side of things. You can see that my work is very graphic, although I would say maybe more Pop Art these days. But the graphic design thing, I didn’t only do it because of the money side, I love graphic design as well, and it has definitely influenced my style.

There is an unmistakable, recurring quality to your work, notably with the hollow-eyed character, did that develop as an intentionally recurring presence, or was it something that just kind of emerged and endured?

I think I drew the first iteration of that character just before I left New Zealand. I used to work at Cosmic Corner and I did a drawing of that little character one day at work. Characters and cartoons have been a massive influence throughout my life. The Simpsons were my favourite thing growing up, and you can see the shape of Homer’s head in that character. I just kind of absorb things from everywhere. While I was traveling, I started to really develop the characters and then I came to Berlin and that’s when I was like, this is where I can take them. Over the years, I just played around with them and they took on their own personalities. There is the big fat businessman who keeps losing his head, there is the little sad guy, the introspective guy and then the crazy worm guy. They are all sort of similar, and I guess through a slow process I have imbued them with bits of my own personality.

Do they occupy their own universe or are they part of our world? The Simpsons live in Springfield, which is famously never revealed on a map, it is sort of a contained universe, but they are also part of the broader world through storylines and their pop culture status. I guess as soon as your characters are added to public space, they start to occupy our world as well, right?

I have given them this world they inhabit, which is kind of like Springfield, I guess. It’s called Crushington and it is this relatively colourless place. There’s a Crushington in New Zealand as well, which is funny. If you look at some of my line drawings, there’s this kind of desert-like landscape, these big open spaces influenced by New Zealand, where you’ve always got that big horizon line, whether it’s the sea or the mountains. There is also a little bit of Colin McCahon in there. I love Moebius’ style as well, the desert line he uses, I stole that bit. But I like how you were saying The Simpsons are part of our world, but they’re not, because I feel the same with my characters. For the most part they are two-dimensional beings in our world, and I really want to get into sculpture over the next couple of years and bring them into a more three-dimensional form. I want to play with that idea and bring them from their world into ours, because there is this second space they inhabit where they are more like what I know. I haven’t really shared it so much, but I’m going to have an exhibition about Crushington at some point soon…

Crushington Characters for the Love of Three, illustration.
Bulky Savage, Crushington Characters for the Love of Three, illustration. (Photo supplied by Bulky Savage)

Kaws has shown with his Companions that there is so much potential to explore those three-dimensional incarnations, different materials, various scales, and even playing with the perception of high and low…

That’s one of the things that always drew me to the street art and graffiti world, if you want to do it, you do it. You can take that style, or you can take from there, take from there, take from there, and that’s why I think it’s been such an interesting movement, you have all these people coming from different backgrounds and different influences coming together and making something completely different. It’s exciting…

The waves or oozing colours are another recurring element in your work. Do you want to dive into that imagery a little bit? Metaphorically, of course…

I really started with those in 2017. I did an exhibition called Bit Sick, playing around with the B and the S of my name, and it was about how crappy 2016 was, and how sick I was of everything. I’ve always been someone who just goes with the flow and the waves were an aesthetically pleasing sort of rolling vibe, but also fit with the theme, because in that exhibition I had things about being sick of art, sick of commercialism, sick of America. Of course, 2017 came through and really shat on 2016, and things haven’t really got any better since!

By 2020 you must be more than a bit sick…

Well, you know, it all flows and rolls downhill! The exhibition that I’m working on at the moment, which was going to be out already actually, was very timely as well, it was all about not seeing the bigger picture and being focused on these little pieces, as interesting and attention grabbing as they are. Again, it is making us all feel a bit sick and now quite literally making the world sick. It’s really just about being over things as well; the state of myself, of the world, just expressing my feelings at the time. But there’s not going to be any characters in the exhibition, it’s just going to be the waves. They have become really fun to paint with spray cans as well, the shapes, the really nice blends as well, giving it a sense of solidity, so that’s become more of a focus…

Detail of a Bulky Savage collaboration with @tenhun in Berlin. (Photo supplied by Bulky Savage)
Detail of a Bulky Savage collaboration with @tenhun in Berlin. (Photo supplied by Bulky Savage)

I’m thinking of the idea of a purge, or a cleansing, and once you take away that figure, the idea of size and scale changes. If the wave becomes the sole focus, it becomes something else, right? When you see it come out of a figure, you automatically scale it relative to that figure, when you just see that wave filling an entire frame, that can be either overwhelming or it could just be a close-up of a small trickle. There’s something about that idea of the bigger picture and smaller details, and that social element becomes strangely more pertinent when you take them away from the figure. So, tell me about your experience painting here in Christchurch earlier in the year?

I’d never painted in Christchurch before, but my parents live just outside of Cheviot [a small town north of Christchurch], so when I go back, I fly into Christchurch. I would just get to see little bits of it as we drove through, or if we visited somebody there. I remember going there when the city center was still completely locked down after the earthquakes, but this was the first time I got to spend a little bit of time in Christchurch for some years, and it was cool. I saw a lot of opportunity there, personally, as much as the earthquakes were terrible, I love seeing old destroyed buildings, maybe that’s why I’m in Berlin. It’s not something that you really get to see in New Zealand, so I really liked that. I liked the show of power, but then also how the city has risen up from the ashes of it as well. The city is really interesting at the moment.

I found it incredibly interesting that Christchurch became this microcosm of a big city; you had shiny new buildings, you had broken buildings standing there empty and covered in graffiti, becoming spaces for people to explore. Different people could do different things. If your mindset was to explore those broken spaces, you could do that, if your mindset was to sit in a bar and drink a cocktail, you could do that. There was this interesting juxtaposition of old and new and broken and shiny. One thing that does is reveal a lot of the power structures that go into making a city. Christchurch has become interesting in that regard, and graffiti and street art have a role here as both dissenting voices and part of the rebuild as well. It shows why these forms of art have become such a dominant visual voice the world over, because they can adapt to different environments. How did the mural in Christchurch come about?

In a very winding way. Knowing I was coming back to New Zealand mid-last year, I started reaching out to people in September or October, mostly through Instagram. I got bounced around. I got in touch with Preston [Hegel] down at The Exchange, he was doing some cool stuff and was like, oh maybe you could talk to this person… I got bounced around between a bunch of different people before I got put in touch with the guys from Riverside Market at the last minute. I just said I’m going to be coming down in like two days and they said: Sure, we’ve got a space, you can do what you want. It just fell perfectly into place. I was slightly freaking out that I wasn’t going to be able to get a space to paint, and coming from Berlin, I was just like, what is this?! Where are my walls?! In Berlin, if you want to paint, you just go and find a wall. I have a wall that I can just go and paint anytime I want just down the road. I wasn’t necessarily looking to leave a massive mural, I just wanted to find somewhere to paint, if it could stay that would be a bonus, if not then c’est la vie. It worked out great, those guys were really nice, they were just like: What do you need? Here’s money for the paint. They paid me for it as well, which is fantastic. It was this very last-minute design, because I was like, let’s see what the wall’s going to be like and go from there…

Bulky Savage's mural at Riverside Market, central Christchurch, 2020. (Photo supplied by Bulky Savage)
Bulky Savage’s mural at Riverside Market, central Christchurch, 2020. (Photo supplied by Bulky Savage)

The wall is quite high and relatively narrow so that obviously played into the design and I guess allowed you to use those recurring motifs in what seems like a natural fit…

Well, I had ideas floating around in my head of what I wanted to paint. I’d actually thought of having it the opposite way around, with the character at the bottom and all this stuff coming up out of it. But there was this big generator at the bottom of the wall, so I just flipped it around. Most of the time I tend to let the wall tell me what the piece is going to be, so I guess that’s good practice for when it comes to spaces like this one.

There are little references to food in the tattoos on the character, but there was no input in terms of what you had to include, that was just something that you added in?

Yeah, the guys were just like, do what you want. Which was amazing, because when you’re being paid to do something, a lot of the time they are like, it needs to be like this and fit inside this box. But I was really given freedom with it and I guess maybe that was why I thought if they’re still letting me do this then I’m going to throw in these little references to the space. I always like to let the tattoos kind of tell a story. I love tattoos, and part of the reason people get tattoos is to express little things about themselves or their experiences. I quite like incorporating them into my art in the same way, so if there’s meaning to be read from what I’m doing, which generally I try not to do, then it can be read in the tattoos…

Any artist would love that freedom to create something that is your own, but how do you think your work communicates to the crowds that go past, is there an intentional aspect that they should read, or do you encourage them to come up with their own narrative?

Yeah, story and narrative are really interesting for me. I love cartoons, I love stories. Life is stories. But I don’t want to preach, I like the idea of leaving something really open. We are human beings, we make meaning out of everything that happens, whether that’s actually what it is or not. So, instead of trying to push people towards my view or what I want to say, I prefer to leave that open and more abstract, so that people have something to play with. I often talk about Stik, the London street artist, who got famous for doing stick figures, but because they are so basic you can project your friends or your relationships or anything onto them because it’s such an open canvas. These very hyper-realistic pieces are beautifully done and technically fantastic, but there’s a bit of a distance because it’s just a picture of somebody that you don’t know. So, I like a more open experience…

Did the freedom of the mural energize you to strike out and do anything else while you were here? Is there anything hidden around Christchurch that I might not have stumbled upon yet?

No, to be honest I was a little bit out of shape and the mural was exhausting. I think I did about 19 hours in two days, and on the first night I was just completely burnt out. I was thinking about going and painting on the cans while I was there, but I just burnt myself out, I just went to bed! But I would love to come back and do some pieces in other spots, when and if that ever becomes a possibility…

Are you a Kiwi living in Berlin or a Berliner from New Zealand?

Good question! I’ll always be a Kiwi, but Berlin’s definitely become home for me. I would like to be able to split my year between the two places, because my heart is somewhat split, half of its here, half of its there, particularly with my parents being there. I love New Zealand, it’s refreshing. New Zealand people are almost the opposite of Germans in a lot of ways, very easy going, very open and welcoming, whereas you know, Germans are a lot more strict. That’s harsh, its an over generalization, obviously! But yeah, I love coming back to New Zealand, and just talking to the bus driver. It warms the heart. Christchurch in particular is looking interesting because there’s so much space, so many opportunities there at the moment, which was really good to see.

A small part of the reason for being away for as long as I have was because we had the John Key government which was in no way supportive of arts and artists, and as far as I’m aware, it’s still not super easy to be an artist in New Zealand when it comes to support from the government and things like that, but maybe that will start to change…

With lockdown precautions in so many places, it’s clear that people have been relying on art; on music, on film, on a range of forms of art, to get through isolation. And yet at the same time, no one ever positions the arts as vital, they talk about tourism or other industries, which is infuriating because if anything this situation reinforces how important the arts are to humanity. But we seem to have to go through this every time something significant happens, it was the same after the earthquakes as well. There’s still a real need to acknowledge artists’ ability to make their living doing what they do because what artists do makes life better…

Yeah definitely. I wouldn’t want to claim that my art enriches people’s lives, maybe it does and that’s fantastic. I always tend to feel a little bit selfish about my art, it’s something that I need to do, it’s very much my own expression and when someone can connect with it, that’s fantastic. Knowing that people have bought my stuff and have it hanging on their walls is nice, but again, the money side of it is not why I make art. I’d like to be able to just make art and not have to worry about the commercial aspects of it, you know? Universal Basic Income baby! People always think we need to make money and that becomes a driver and that’s when art loses a little bit of itself. I need to eat, so I have to make art that’s going to sell, but it would be nice if we learn something from this whole thing about what’s important for people, for people’s health and mental health. I run a little gallery and art shop space here as well and it’s interesting and frustrating thinking about what sells and what doesn’t and what you need to do to make money from it. I always feel still slightly grimy making my art into easily package-able things, being channeled into commercialism. Down with capitalism!

Follow Bulky Savage on the following platforms:

Web: www.justmorebs.com

Facebook: @justmorebs

Instagram: @bulky_savage

Cover image credit: Antonio Castello

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Tributes to a King – R.I.P Jungle (Part Two)

Our tribute to Christchurch graffiti legend Jungle continues here in Tributes to a King – R.I.P Jungle (Part Two). In our discussion with Jungle’s friend and DTR crewmate Ikarus, we continue to dive into what made Jungle the figure he is in the local scene and what he would think of the many tributes that have been painted. We also hear more from those influenced by Jungle over many years…

In case you haven’t, please read Part One here…

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I remember Jungle’s roll call in the alleyway space in Rise, you guys made it clear to people not to paint over that, which highlighted his importance to local graffiti history. I also remember the opening night of Spectrum in 2015, walking from the YMCA to the afterparty and Jungle standing next to Tilt and looking at the piece Tilt and Tober had painted on the old Police station, just buzzing on it, and there was a sense of respect on Tilt’s part for Jungle, like real respecting real. Having him be part of those things must have added an authenticity for you…

Jungle's THC roll call in the Rise exhibition alleyway space curated by Wongi and Ikarus in 2013. (Photo provided by Dcypher)
Jungle’s THC roll call in the Rise exhibition alleyway space curated by Wongi and Ikarus in 2013. (Photo provided by Dcypher)

Ikarus: Yeah, one hundred per cent. He had an unbridled enthusiasm about shit. If he was enthusiastic about something, you would feel the love for it. He was never too cool for the room, never too aloof to just be like, that shit is amazing! When we started painting for Rise in the Canterbury Museum, that was one of the most fun days ever. The theme of that alleyway, in a nutshell, was a visual timeline of Christchurch graffiti, but instead of being linear, it went over itself like graffiti would. So, the first layers were pre-tagging stuff like band slogans, political sayings or toilet graffiti, and then after that was the era of tagging. Getting Jungle and Lurq and a couple of the other old school dudes to go nuts and tag up the museum was crazy. I never thought we’d be able to paint in the museum and if we did, it would have to be top-notch stuff. Wongi and I did end up doing a big production, but the fact that we had this whole concept and we got to involve a shitload of the Christchurch graffiti scene, from the active kids all the way back to the originators, was amazing. Having Jungle bust out the roll calls and do a bunch of tags and stuff was fucking cool, there’s dudes in that roll call who are in their forties now, some were gangster teenagers, some are gangster adults, and they were in the museum grinning and cracking up, saying ‘what the fuck are our names doing in this museum!’ Nobody saw any of this coming back when we all started out, so that was a fucking awesome day.

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“I feel bad for visiting painters coming to Christchurch they will not experience the unofficial Jungle powhiri.” – Fiasko

“When you would talk to him, he had the coolest vibe. that natural way that made you feel good about yourself. He would shake your hand way too tight while he was doing it though.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns

“I remember a few years back now, Freak and Ikarus painted the open black book [wall] in the city and Jungle did a charo. He was walking around all the homies with his cell phone and was so buzzed out by the Sofles clip [Limitless]. He was the first person to ever tell me about Sofles…” – Omes

“He was just always happy for you, without a doubt, he was always stoked as shit for people, he loved to be there, and he expressed himself so freely and fluidly, no shame or anything, just whatever he had to say, he would say it, you know not in in any aggressive way, or negative way, he’d just say it…” – Freak

“He would always be stoked for you, or to see things, [he would be] mad enthusiastic and shit, [he] expressed himself heavily, from the hand crushing handshakes to the air crushing bearhugs…”  – Freak

“The one thing I will remember him by was that infectious smile, he was always stoked to see a bro.” – Flex

“He used to tell me how much he loved my song ‘ChCh Chillin’ whenever I would bump into him. I can’t remember how I found out, Ikarus probably messaged me and told me that Jungle had got ‘ChCh Chillin’ tattooed on his arm, but I clearly remember the next time I saw him and he showed me, large as fuck on his arm! That shit blew my mind then, and still does now. It’s one of the fondest memories I have from rap music.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns 

The 'Black Book' production co-ordinated by Ikarus and Freak for Rise in 2013. Located on the corner of Colombo and Hereford Streets, the wall featured the work of a number of artists, including Jungle's character and piece at the bottom centre.
The ‘Black Book’ production co-ordinated by Ikarus and Freak for Rise in 2013. Located on the corner of Colombo and Hereford Streets, the wall featured the work of a number of artists, including Jungle’s character and piece at the bottom centre.

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Last year Dcypher said that Jungle is a good example of someone embodying their graffiti. There was obviously the iconic Jungle character, but I think Dcypher’s sentiment was as much about his style as well. Do you think he grasped that concept of how graffiti isn’t just an identity, it’s also an embodiment of that identity…

Ikarus: Yeah, but I think without any self-awareness. The reason he embodies the spirit of graffiti is because it was all coming from a pure place, where you do graffiti for the love of graffiti. I’ve said so many times that vandalism and bombing is the realest form of graffiti because there’s no fucking positive, there’s no good side. The only thing you can hope to get out of it is the admiration and respect of a bunch of other dirtbags, and I say that with the utmost respect. I definitely think Jungle embodied that, but I don’t think he ever really picked it apart. Guys like us, we pick it apart, intellectualize it and look at the motives and the reasoning and what makes something iconic and successful. I’ve thought a lot about the idea of keeping things really simple, having things that are easily identifiable as your own, whether it’s your style, an iconic image or logo or symbol, but I don’t think that’s something he ever would have put a crazy amount of thought into. I think he was just like; ‘I love writing my name’.

He was always drawing his characters, from the time I met him to the day he passed. It was just a straight up need inside to draw and express those things. I’ve had to intellectualize and think about graffiti a lot, why I do it, my motives for it, the line between painting what I want to paint and doing what I want to do, and actually being an adult and turning it into a viable option for the future and something to make money from, which is a big conflict for me, because my original reasons and love for graffiti clash with that really hard. I think Jungle never really had to compromise that. With all the things we tried to get him involved in, he would be like: ‘Nah I don’t want to do it, it’s too stressful to try and keep up with you guys.’

So, I think all the things he ever did were purely for the love. He just did it because he wanted to, he wouldn’t paint for a bunch of time and then suddenly, he’s gone and painted a character in like a super visible spot in the city. It would just be random spurts where he’d go out and just paint a bunch of stuff and I don’t think it was to get fame like the graffiti junkies out bombing every night to be seen. I really feel like he just did this because he wanted to do it, not super concerned who sees it, who thinks it’s dope or who thinks this and that. He was a dude that was pretty comfortable in who he was, what he was about and the people that were around him and I don’t think a lot of that extra bullshit ever really became a factor for him.

A 'Jungle Juice' character by Jungle from the mid-2000s. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
A ‘Jungle Juice’ character by Jungle from the mid-2000s. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

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“Everybody embodies their graffiti, it’s impossible not to, [but] it’s almost like all of his characters were him, but in his mind I don’t think [he thought] they were. I’m not 100% sure about that, but you could just tell it was a Jungle character because it looked like he was standing there looking at you, this mean mug, hard looking motherfucker, just everything that he did had this, yeah that’s fucking Jungle for sure [quality]…” – Dcypher

A Jungle character homage, painted on the giant cans on Lichfield Street, 2019.
A Jungle character homage, painted on the giant cans on Lichfield Street, 2019.

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I guess that’s what made him such a revered figure in some ways, right? That compromise confronts so many people now, so those who avoid it, or stay true to the pure form of the culture, are respected…

 Ikarus: He painted a bunch of canvases and found objects, a bunch of different stuff, but never tried to sell them. He was never involved in any of our exhibitions. We were like, you have dope shit, put it in the exhibition, make some money! I think that’s one of the reasons that he never had to compromise, because he never tried to monetize what he was doing, he just did it. If you said something was dope and you wanted to buy it, he would just give it to you because you fucking liked it. I don’t think it ever became about money for him.

He was a cool looking dude, and then you met him, and he was a fucking cool guy. I think a lot of people expected him not to be, but he’s like the nicest guy in our crew, the truest heart. But yeah, he was uncompromising. When you haven’t made those compromises, you don’t get jaded. That’s not to say he didn’t have a jaded edge or depressed side to his personality. A lot of the work that he did was quite emotionally expressive. I didn’t necessarily even think of it because that’s just sort of the attitude we had, but when I look back at some of it, it just looks more grave now. There was an era where we would just write ‘deadbeats’ and ‘dirtbags’ and ‘trash’ and all that sort of stuff. Now it seems like a really negative headspace, but it never seemed like that it in person, it was just because we were broke depressed kids with a self-deprecating sense of humor. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal, but now, I’m like, how much of that is a window into a mind state?

A Jungle tribute by Ikarus, Southshore, Christchurch, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A Jungle tribute by Ikarus, Southshore, Christchurch, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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“I thought it was over for Jungle and his graffiti. Then around mid-2000, Ikarus and I took him out to bomb some trucks and this is when I think he painted his first filled graffiti. He started drawing and painting a lot. He had such a natural style. It was easy for him. The thing is, he was only ever putting in 25% effort.” – Fiasko

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Did you ever talk to him about the post-quake scene in the city? What did he make of the younger generation and did he take interest in that?

Ikarus: Yeah of course man, of course. All of us are always interested, that’s the thing, there’s no disconnect from being involved in commercial work and doing big stuff for festivals and that sort of stuff. My heart at the end of the day is still firmly tied to the streets. There is a bunch of dudes I talk to now that are like I can’t wait to do this, and I’m just like enjoy the shit you do! That’s one of the reasons I think the younger generations identified with Jungle because he was a dude that was out there still doing tags in the street, still doing characters, not monetizing it. Once money gets involved people’s opinion of where and when or why or what motivates you to do graffiti changes. But he was always interested in the new dudes. We are always looking at the streets and when we catch up, he would be: ‘What about this kid?’ ‘Do we know this guy?’ ‘Who is this kid?’ ‘This kid’s up a crazy amount’… So yeah, he was always watching.

Sewer's Otautahi piece paid tribute to the city, those lost in the March 2019 Terror Attacks and Jungle.
Sewer’s Otautahi piece paid tribute to the city, those lost in the March 2019 Terror Attacks and Jungle.

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“Being a younger writer, I only became aware of who Jungle was and his influence as a teenager looking at photos and learning about our local history. But I remember his work, particularly his characters, catching my eye when I was a child. Seeing that stuff as a young person played a role in making me want to get involved with graffiti.” – PK (TBE)

“Jungle’s influence didn’t have a direct impact on me in the sense that I wasn’t around when he had the city crushed with tags. [Pre-quake] I think I can recall a few of those characters he painted standing out and a piece of his, I think on Bedford Street, although I had no clue who it was at the time, and at that age I never really paid much attention. I think [his] main impact has been indirect. He influenced people around him, who in turn influenced the people below them and so on, until it reached myself and the people I grew up with, a trickle-down effect, I guess. Of course, as I became more involved in graff, I became more aware of who he was and how much of a pivotal and influential person he was to the scene.” – Vesil (FOK, TBE)

A 2019 tribute to Jungle by Vesil in the popular Hereford Street space.
A 2019 tribute to Jungle by Vesil in the popular Hereford Street space.

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Even if it wasn’t a mentor role in the more hands-on way you guys do with workshops or the Black Book Sessions, was he the sort of guy to have conversations with or give advice to younger writers? Or was he just interested in what was going on?

Ikarus: I can’t say how much he was talking to some of these new writers in the last few years, but it’s not like he was a stand-offish guy at all, if people approached him to talk to him, he would have talked to them. I’m a bit of an old man about things now because I’ve done so much mentoring stuff, I definitely talk to some of these young dudes and I’ll be like, this part may not be good for you, or if there’s disagreements between some of the young dudes I’ll try and work that shit out because I know we’re all just trying to do our thing at the end of the day. But I think with Jungle it was more lead by example. I think even if he wasn’t saying anything to you, he was the kind of guy you would watch. His magnetic personality drew people to him.

After Leon passed, I got a message from a dude who now is in his thirties. He shared a memory from back in the early 2000s, when he was a teenager, we’d all been at this wild party in the hood. This kid and his friend had to walk home. We asked them where they were going and they said back to Waltham. Jungle was like, you two can’t fucking wander through the hood, you’re going to get jacked before you even get down the road, you guys just have to come to our house. I think we were flatting together at the time and we made them stay with us so that they wouldn’t just wander out in the hood and get jacked. I don’t remember it, but when he told me about it, I was like, well that sounds like something Leon would do. So, little things like that, not even necessarily any big life changing moments where Jungle would have sat a dude down and said look this is where you’re headed, because I think he would have felt that was corny and it was out of his jurisdiction to sit down and tell someone how they should do things. But he was just a dude that led by example and that little act of kindness was a big deal to that guy as a kid, he said it was really cool that these two dudes looked out for a couple of little tagger kids.

A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2019.
A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2019.

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“At the time, no we didn’t [think about influencing the next generations]. In hindsight… I’m quite surprised at how many different people were influenced by what we [had] done. [I]t’s awesome to see, especially with the progression of what [DTR] are doing. Legal pieces, [I] never thought that would happen…” – BlackE

“I didn’t really ask for advice in the traditional way, we would just be talking, conversating about things and I’d bring things up and he’d give me his perspective on it or what he thought about it, and I don’t know if he knew, but I’d just go off and do what he said or I’d take it on board and apply it in some way…” – Kurs/Horra

“He never treated me like he was above me or like it was some sort of a mentor thing. We were just mates, he liked me because at the time I was just the young gunner and [if] people fucked with me, I wouldn’t just cap them out, I’d fucking go knocking on their front doors, or would start burning their letter boxes, or tag on the front of their houses, you know, he loved that shit…” – Kurs/Horra

“I don’t know if he knew that he had influence on the people, the Jungle I knew he was just all about hanging out with the cuzzies, hanging out with the close ones, you know, the day ones. I’m not going to try and speak for him, but I just feel that he’d be like, meh, fuck, whatever you’re a bundy, what are you up to cuzzies? Because that’s the way he was, before he was a tagger, he was a Crip.” – Kurs/Horra

A TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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Nothing exemplifies Jungle’s influence on Christchurch graffiti culture more than the number of tributes painted on walls around the city, from small tags to pieces and productions. Were you surprised though at how widespread those tributes were?

Ikarus: No, not really. I think he would have been pretty blown away by it, especially the different level of tributes, not just murals, but with younger dudes, probably some who didn’t even know him, painting as well. I mean there’s probably a certain amount of it being a little trending episode in Christchurch graffiti, catching a bit of clout for doing some RIP Jungle tags, but the fact is so many people over all these generations had been influenced by him in such a number of different ways, whether it’s tagging, graffiti, characters or just his general personality…

A tag paying tribute to Jungle in Christchurch, 2019.
A tag paying tribute to Jungle in Christchurch, 2019.
RIP Jungle graffiti, central Christchurch, 2019.
RIP Jungle graffiti, central Christchurch, 2019.

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“Leon would be both shocked and honoured with all the tributes. He always would say how proud [he was about how] graf has evolved… And he always showed gratitude for being a part of it.” – BlackE

“He’d be blown away… to just see that amount of love, because I don’t think the cuzzie felt loved outside of his tight ones. I get all emotional when I see it. [I]t’s like that fucking legendary shit, like that is what they did when Tupac or Biggie or Nipsey or some famous hip hop dude died, started doing murals of them, so he’d be rapt.”  – Kurs/Horra

“I think all the tributes are awesome and even young guys from younger generations have painted pieces for him, and he totally deserves that respect from everyone in this game.” – Lurq

“He would be stoked for sure [about all the tributes], but he was so humble that I feel like he’d probably be like, nah, you don’t need to go to that trouble! I wasn’t at his funeral but that said a lot about the culture that he was in and the amount of people that had the utmost respect for the dude, and that respect goes way beyond just him as a person in a lot of ways, it’s kind of like he really has become this crazy legend now, people would tell stories about him…” – Dcypher

“All the smaller [memorials and tributes] are just as important too, it’s just that sign of respect for somebody who birthed a lot of people’s styles and his influence, it’s a fitting way to show appreciation. Even though he didn’t paint in those last years of his life, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t take away from [the] status he had…” – Yikes

A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2020
A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2020

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Out of all those tributes, do you have a favorite?

Ikarus: Totally, one of my favorites was by our friend Kalis from DMN TNC crew in Auckland, he was in Chile at the time and he painted a beachside spot with a Jungle piece, so the far-reaching aspect of that is super dope. That one would blow Leon away, he would have been like, fuck yeah, this big dope big blue Jungle piece in the middle of Chile by the beach somewhere! I know when a few of his family saw that, they commented on how cool it was. Another friend of ours, Phome, an Aucklander who lives in New York, he just rocked a RIP Jungle tag on the street somewhere, he’s not involved in graffiti so much anymore, but he went out and did that. There were some of the freights and trains that Sewer painted, and some dope tributes including stylized versions of Jungle’s characters by Weks, there were crews around New Zealand, like Triple S crew all rocking a bunch of Jungle pieces and some hip-hop style characters representing Jungle, the TMD guys up in Auckland doing a tribute, those are some that stand out off the top of my head. There were a few internationally well-known dudes that did pieces as well and that was super dope. I was randomly watching a Sofles Instagram Live video, he was just rocking a bunch of different tags on Procreate or something, I didn’t know it was about to happen, but as I was watching, a RIP Jungle and a couple of Jungle tags came up, so that shit was super cool.

Kalis tribute to Jungle, Chile, 2019.
Kalis tribute to Jungle, Chile, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Phomes tribute to Jungle in New York, 2019. Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Phomes tribute to Jungle in New York, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Solfes pays tribute to Jungle on an Instagram Live video, 2019. Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Solfes pays tribute to Jungle on an Instagram Live video, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

The biggest single tribute is the production that the DTR crew painted to mark the anniversary of Jungle’s passing. Obviously, you guys had painted numerous tribute pieces prior to that, but that one was massive…

Ikarus: It’s just something we wanted to do as a crew. It was along the same lines as all the stuff we had been doing for the year prior. The general thinking was that we’re here, we’re still thinking about you, we’re still keeping your legacy alive. But on a more meaningful level, the anniversary was coming up and I know that members of his family all appreciate it and appreciate having that place to go. They actually met up there on the morning of the anniversary, they took a photo of twenty-odd members of the family in front of it before they actually went out to the Marae. We started it a couple of weeks before the anniversary and I made sure we had it all done before the actual date. It was obviously such a big life event for a lot of us, we wanted to involve all four of the full main members of the DTR crew, painting in our various styles, writing Jungle’s name, or Autism, which is another one of his aliases, and obviously the character portrait by Wongi and the portrait of his dog by Dcypher. It was really just the same mentality of the smaller productions we had painted, but on a grander scale to mark the passing of that period of time in our life and again, just also for that aspect of having somewhere for the family realizing and seeing Leon’s impact.

The massive DTR JUngle tribute, featuring pieces Jungle and Autism pieces, a portrait of Jungle by Wongi and Jungles dog by Dcypher, 2020.
The massive DTR JUngle tribute, featuring Jungle and Autism pieces, a portrait of Jungle by Wongi and Jungles dog by Dcypher, 2020. (Photo supplied by Wongi Wilson)

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More than anything, it was really cool to do [the tribute wall] for his family in that [monumental] scale and to the extent that we went with it. I’m pretty sure he would have been pretty hyped on it, having his face up on a wall that’s pretty damn realistic. That’s not obviously the first one that we did, [we] did one as a crew behind Embassy as well, that was sort of the start of it, [but] we always wanted to do something way bigger, it was always the plan for around the anniversary of his passing, so to do it, to be able to get it done around that time was really good, it was fitting. It was a big project to do but it was cool. But most importantly it was for his family.” – Yikes

Ikarus and Yikes, Jungle NHC tribute, Christchurch, 2019. Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Ikarus and Yikes, Jungle NHC tribute, Christchurch, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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What would he have made of it?

Ikarus: He would have been super emotional about it. When we did the Hereford Street Colombo corner, Wongi painted a stylized portrait of Jungle, with the house he grew up in incorporated into it, and that was a super big deal to Leon, it definitely meant a lot to him, so all this shit would have blown him away, he would have been super amazed…

A second incarnation of Ikarus and Freaks Black Book wall, featuring a huge Jungle portrait, c.2016
A second incarnation of Ikarus and Freaks Black Book wall, featuring a huge Jungle portrait, c.2015

He is a central element of a real lineage. It isn’t copied online, his legacy gives the city a real history of this culture before it became what it is now, which obviously is amazing, but slowly there’s a distance between the roots and what’s happening as well. It doesn’t have to be reframed through some positive lens to be impactful, the reason people like Jungle are important is because they represent a different approach…

Ikarus: As much as we already know his impact, there are a bunch of people that don’t. The hardest part for a bunch of people to grasp is the idea that a teenage kid, thirty years ago, running around with his friends getting drunk, smoking weed, writing their names on the back of buses and spraying their names on a bunch of public surfaces, is directly and indirectly responsible for, at least in our little section of the world, a large amount of what happens in the city now. Christchurch has got a crazy amount of street art and murals now. Graffiti evolves anyway so I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been something, it probably would have existed anyway, but if you look at even the smaller towns around New Zealand as an example, some of them are years behind because they had to wait for the Internet to catch up, even Auckland and Wellington had a ten year head start on us, but that’s the coolest part of it all, basically, the murals, the memorials, the tagging, the vandalism, and the article itself, the discussions, people talking about it, it keeps the memory alive…

Junglism piece by Ikarus and a portrait of Jungle by Freak, Christchurch, 2020.
Junglism piece by Ikarus and a portrait of Jungle by Freak, Christchurch, 2020.

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“It is what it is, there’s no shit being shined, he is what he is because he was who he was…” – Yikes

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Based on everything that has happened, what would you say to Leon now?

Ikarus: I fucking told you! I told you fifteen years ago before most of this shit existed anyway! When it was still really graffiti, not necessarily with this big new age street art link and everything that has led to all of this, but even back then the influence that he had on straight up graffiti, and just straight up people, he wouldn’t acknowledge that at the time that I told him. People’s essence and spirit and energy is still with you in the universe, so, I would tell him: I fucking told you!

A Jungle tribute sticker on Sumner Road, 2020.
A Jungle tribute sticker on Sumner Road, 2020.

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“If I was to ever to have a brother in my life, Leon Nga Miraka Hopa Te Karu is my brother. Love Jungle 4evaaa haaarrdd!” BlackE

“Long Live Jungle” – Kurs

“R.I.P. King Jungle THC” – Lurq

“RIP Jungle, King of Kings” Flex

“R.I.P. to a King.” – Omes

“I’m not really sure of the extent of his influence, I’m out of the loop, but he had a massive impact on me and my friends and he has left a massive void in people’s lives, I’d say.” – Fiasko

“Much respect due to the humble king with an unforgettable personality, a true pioneer of Christchurch urban culture.” – 4Higher/Pest5

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Thank you to all who contributed to this piece in tribute to Jungle.

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

Tributes to a King – R.I.P Jungle (Part One)

“Leon Te Karu is a King. Leon = Lion = King of the Jungle. Te Karu = The Eye. I always liked his name.” – Fiasko

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 In March 2019, Leon Te Karu, known to many as Jungle, passed away. Almost immediately, the city’s walls were covered with tributes, from tags and rollers, to pieces and productions. For those outside the city’s graffiti culture, it was mysterious, but for those who knew, it was a reflection of the respect in which Jungle was held as a pioneer who defined the first waves of graffiti in Christchurch with his ubiquitous straight letter tags and iconic characters. Chances are if you lived in Christchurch in the nineties, you saw Jungle’s graffiti. Jungle was not of the new breed of legal graffiti and the street art amalgam, instead, he was a symbol of graffiti’s roots, a traditionalist without caring for labels. And yet, Jungle’s influence extends through generations of graffiti writers, including a strong legacy upon the likes of Ikarus, Freak, Dcypher and Yikes of the DTR crew (of which he was also a member), as well as countless other crews and individuals, many who themselves have proven prominent figures in graffiti culture, both here in Christchurch and further afield.

Telling Jungle’s story required input from those who knew him and those influenced by him. To mark the anniversary of his passing, we reached out Ikarus, another Christchurch graffiti legend, to put together something that explained and celebrated Jungle’s impact on Christchurch graffiti (and broader street) culture. What developed was an in-depth discussion with Ikarus, but also contributions from countless others, across generations, styles and backgrounds. In doing so, the breadth of Jungle’s influence was clear, people consistently echoing the qualities of a local graffiti legend. This story is at the heart of graffiti in Christchurch, what it was and what it has become, but also is about one man’s influence on an entire culture. RIP King Jungle.

The DTR crew tributes to Jungle on Colombo Street in Sydenham, 2019.
The DTR crew tributes to Jungle on Colombo Street in Sydenham, 2019.

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March 6, 2020 marked the anniversary of Jungle’s passing. A year on, is it something you reflect on a lot?

Ikarus: It seems super-fast, for sure. It’s weird that it’s been a year already, it definitely doesn’t seem like it. I don’t know if I think about it every day, but it’s definitely something I think about a lot. A bunch of cool shit will happen and he’s one of the dudes you’d always want to tell because he was always super excited about any cool projects we got to do as a crew. Things like that will happen and I’ll be like, oh that’s right, I can’t tell him.

I’d never really lost anyone super close before, my grandparents died when I was young, so I never really knew them, both my parents are still alive, and I don’t like many people. Whereas Leon is one of the closest friends I’ve had in my whole life, so it’s been pretty weird. I never knew what death was like, but I guess the saying ‘life goes on’ is true because you definitely don’t think about it all day, every day, but then there’s just those points where you do think about it and it’s super strange.

A Jungle character by Ikarus on a utility box just outside central Christchurch, 2019.
A Jungle character by Ikarus on a utility box just outside central Christchurch, 2019.

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“I love Jungle. Just writing this is making me cry… I lost my mentor.” – Kurs/Horra

“[His funeral] was a massive occasion… without a doubt he would have been humbled by it, proud of it.” – Freak (DTR)

“[H]is funeral was massive. He just touched a lot of people [as] a genuine person… he was always a real cool cat and the amount of people that turn[ed] up [showed] that he was a real person in all sorts of scenes, not just graffiti, but to a wide range of people.” – Yikes (DTR)

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I ask that question because first and foremost, you lost a close friend, but as something of a graffiti historian, you are also in the position to understand the legacy and ongoing impact that Jungle had on graffiti and street culture in Christchurch. While the pain of losing a friend must be foremost, have you taken time to reflect on just how big an influence he was?

Ikarus: Yeah man, I always knew though. I told him what an important role he played early on, and he’d just brush it off and laugh, and be like: ‘Don’t be a dick!’ But the reality is that there was a butterfly effect from him being a young kid out there tagging, writing his name on stuff and having a good time with it, that led to so many other people doing it. When we start out as tagger kids, we don’t think it is going anywhere or will to lead to anything else, but the things he did inspired some of the first guys that started doing graffiti here in Christchurch, and on all levels not just tagging, but some of the earliest guys painting pieces, characters, throw-ups, tags, the whole spectrum of graffiti.

I’ve talked to Flex from UAC, who was an early pioneer along with Lurq (who was writing Lyric and LK at the time) and Pest5 (who was writing 4Higher), and he cites Jungle’s tags as one of the main reasons he started doing graffiti. He would see Jungle tags up everywhere and he thought that shit was dope. Those UAC guys back then, in the late nineties and early 2000s, they were out there doing all aspects of graffiti; tags, throw ups, pieces, characters, productions down the train lines at night. They give credit to Jungle as an early influence because he’s one of the first people that was really up in our city back when there was just tagging in the early nineties. Back then I was strictly into tagging and vandalism, anybody that did pieces was just wasting paint as far as I was concerned. They couldn’t tag for shit, so what’s the fucking point? But Flex is that first dude that had just fucking killer tags and he did all levels of graffiti, an all-out king to some extent. He was the first dude to make me think maybe the entire spectrum of graffiti wasn’t super corny, maybe there’s a way to do it and it could still be cool.

So, that small influence on me can be traced back to Jungle, which is evidence of his importance. From there, it’s just a butterfly effect: he affected those people, those people affected the next people, and so on. But, it’s not like he just did that and then was gone, he was always around, not super active, but always involved in the Christchurch graffiti scene. He was always painting something, still doing tags out in the streets and painting characters and stuff like that.

A Jungle character from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
A Jungle character from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

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“It is easy to glorify and embellish the past, but Christchurch was very late to have a graffiti culture. While in most parts of the world and New Zealand it [emerged in the] early to mid-80’s, in Christchurch it was [the] mid to late 90’s. I know it’s a small history and a small culture, but it’s our history and our culture. There wasn’t a lot of outside influence until around 2000. One of the pioneers pre-2000 and a huge influence on me when I started was Jungle.” – Fiasko

“We weren’t better, we strived for everywhere.” – BlackE (THC)

“Even before I got into graffiti, I saw Jungle THC everywhere. It was impossible to not notice. As I got into looking at and doing graffiti, I realised the scope of how everywhere he was.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns (511)

“As far as I know or am concerned, Jungle was the first Christchurch tagger that was all city. Those gangsta straight style JUNGLE PARU tags are still imprinted on my brain to this day.” – Flex (UAC)

“[The first time I met Jungle] was at the house on Mackworth Street in Linwood where I lived with Flex, about 1998.  Maybe Ikarus brought him over. What I do remember clearly is being very excited to meet him, as you do when meeting one of your heroes.  He was humble to the point of not wanting to even acknowledge his achievements in the graffiti scene, saying that his work was nothing compared to ours, as we were doing full-blown wild styles with backgrounds and everything; but my lettering styles, tags especially, were pathetic compared with his.” – Pest5 (UAC, TMD, LORDS)

“The first tags I ever saw were DIRTY, PARU, THC, a block from my house, done in chrome with stock caps and it was super clean. I started noticing lots more tags around the city with THC and had heard that it was a crew called Too Hardcore. I think it was pretty much all Jungle, but he got up so much and with so many different names that it seemed like it must have been a bunch of people.” – Netts (511)

“We used to creep into abandoned buildings up town and I would kind of imitate his style mixed with what I was already doing.” – Kurs/Horra

“[He told me] how [in the early 2000s] he painted a clown on the old Dick Smith in the daytime with cats going past and didn’t give two fucks about who or what was in his way.” – Omes

“[Leon’s influence was] probably more personal over time, but to begin with it was artistic, for sure, because the dude was all city with tags before anyone even knew what was up with graffiti. You knew who he was just by that [presence]…” – Dcypher (DTR, CBS)

“Jungle was one of the first people that I noticed when I first got into graffiti. I would see his tags and his roll calls he would do of the infamous THC crew in all hoods. I can remember seeing his Sir Prise tags with a fucking dope letter S, it blew my toy brain apart back then.” – Lurq (UAC)

A tribute to Jungle by Berst, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A tribute to Jungle by Berst, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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Did you ever have conversations about what graffiti meant to him? Was it something larger than writing his name on a wall to him, or was he more of a purist?

Ikarus: It definitely had that concept. I don’t think he ever personally felt like he was part of the greater movement of the art form in our city. I told him on numerous occasions that a bunch of this shit wouldn’t have happened without him because you’re the dude that inspired these guys to get into it and that inspired this dude to do it and that inspired these guys. You can see his influence in Dcypher’s early work, his characters especially. But when I said you influenced this person and without you they wouldn’t have done this, and then that wouldn’t have influenced me, and that wouldn’t have influenced Dcypher, and that wouldn’t have influenced Freak, he would say, ‘shut up man! That’s not a real thing!’ But it totally was a real thing. He didn’t understand or was too humble to admit that he had this influence on people.

He’s part of the DTR crew, he’s part of our crew forever, but there’s very few walls we managed to get him to come down and paint with us. We’d quite often try to get him to come down and be part of productions, to paint a character, or paint a piece, but he was always like, nah, like he was going to be out of his realm of talent, which is ridiculous because he had the super dope style. He didn’t paint as much as us, but if he did over the years, he would have been insanely good. But he always had that hood mentality of not being good enough, or ‘I’ll come if you’re going to do this, but if you’re doing a big production I don’t want to be involved’. So as much as I told him, I don’t think he ever really understood the level of his influence, but it can’t be denied that he was the first or one of the really early people just vandalizing the city, doing everything. In the early nineties there were Jungle BlackE and Jungle Paru tags up and down the South Island, and in Christchurch he was everywhere…

Dcypher's tribute to Jungle in Los Angeles, 2019. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
Dcypher’s tribute to Jungle in Los Angeles, 2019. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

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“Jungle & I too followed the way of the elder ones before us. Much credit goes to Leon because he was the artistic one. I tended to just pick the spots… We were wowed by a lot of the US hip hop/break/graf culture. And it made its way over here. Auckland [was] where a majority of it was then passed down [through] cousins, friends, and friends of friends.”- BlackE

“Putting it up was primary purpose. Putting it up beat style, always. [W]e had many styles that we threw up. Position was paramount over style.” – BlackE

“When I started, he was pretty much already retired as king of the city. He set the benchmark for us to follow. It wasn’t until later that I saw his outlines and characters, which are in a classic style very dear to my heart, as they capture a certain tough attitude that modern graffiti lacks.” – Pest5

“Me and Flex were, and still are, dedicated Junglists, meaning we love the music called ‘Jungle’, which is a reggae-influenced UK dance music from the 90’s. One of our first questions for Jungle was whether he had named himself after the music genre, but no, he said the inspiration came from the ‘concrete jungle’ that we live in.  We tried to get him into the music, and though he could appreciate it, it was a bit too fast for his taste.” – Pest5

“I guess he has influenced people in that you get your tag up or your homies and crew, all-city, all hoods, and bombing is probably the most important thing in doing graffiti.” – Lurq

“We talked about watching freights at Kaikoura and how to make a tag aggressive, and the art of tagging. Being a tagger not a muralist was always a heavy topic he spoke of. I always remember he told me I was his favourite tagger.” – Morpork (FILTH, TBE)

A Juse 1 character as part of the TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A Juse 1 character as part of the TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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Graffiti goes through eras and styles come to represent both time periods and places, do you think Jungle’s graffiti was representative of a ‘Christchurch style’? 

Ikarus: I wouldn’t say early on that Jungle’s particular style of tagging was distinctive, but the thing about it was that it was everywhere. A lot of people couldn’t tag back then, straight letter tags were basically the height of tagging and he was super good at that. Jungle always had the most ill styles for tagging. When hand-styles became a thing, he was always super up on that sort of thing and doing calligraphic style tags. Coupled with the sheer amount he was up, that was why he was so influential.

A Jungle character and tag from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
A Jungle character and tag from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

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“Everybody thinks of Black and Jungle, everybody seen Black and Jungle. And that was the essence. You don’t know the words. But you knew us.” – BlackE

“[W]e respected straight styles as the cleanest… Out of a crooked lifestyle, we always tried to be semi straightest.” – BlackE

“He basically got [Christchurch graffiti] started. He was the first writer to really take it all-city in Christchurch, with classic Auckland-style straight letter tags, done in cheap paint with an unforced, natural ability. So, he founded the Christchurch tradition of all-city street bombing with simple tags along bus routes. Many of us may try to emulate his hand styles but It’s hard to imitate perfection… but I still think you can see his influence in Christchurch tagging style to this day.” – Pest5

“I would definitely call him Christchurch’s first all-city king, before I even knew the dude there were just Jungle and Paru tags everywhere, East, West, North, South, everywhere, [in] the most random spots. Anywhere you went there were Jungle tags… That was amazing in itself, but then he had such an amazing style; his characters that he’d just spit out of nowhere, with low effort, just boom! He always downplayed himself, or maybe just didn’t see his full potential, [but] he totally could have been here smashing this shit out with us if that’s what he had wanted to do…” – Freak

“His tags were everywhere. They were simple, stylistic and tuff. From my view, he kind of stopped about 1998 or ‘99 and that was around the time I met him.” – Fiasko

“The meanest tags, the straight letters, gangster straight letters… All pre-graffiti paint, all hardware paint, when you used to hunt and steal caps…”  – Freak

“When he started he was super good at tagging, but didn’t do a whole lot of fill in stuff, because it was just get fame quick, just get up.” –  Dcypher

“I feel like there were two styles of tags back then, the wildstyle posca tags, and the black spray paint straights. He laid the blueprint for and was the king of the straights.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns

Jungle tribute in New Brighton, 2019
Jungle tribute in New Brighton, 2019

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While he would never admit that influence, it’s been undeniable in the last year, with the number of tribute and memorial pieces around town. But his influence was beyond his graffiti style, right? I didn’t know him, but the few times I was around him, there was something about his presence, there was that laugh…

Ikarus: Yeah, for sure man, for sure. Like I said, it’s not like he had a huge involvement in graffiti for the last ten years, just occasionally painting a character on the street or doing tags and stuff. But he was the sort of dude that was always drawing, and just sitting around and drawing all the time is a big influence on people. But, like you say, his personality is one of a kind.

Everybody knows Jungle. The dude was a gangster for sure, he always represented his crew, the colors, which was what he grew up with, and he was still a part of that life and that circle, but even at his funeral when the boys were standing up and speaking about him, they said, Jungle’s not part of this gang because he’s a violent dude or out there hustling and grinding, he’s just the heart of our crew, he’s the most important part. He was just a super genuine, loyal dude, and if you’re one of his boys, he would do anything he could for you.

You would be hard pressed to talk to someone that didn’t like him. You could talk to a bunch of people who think I’m a dickhead, maybe not now, but if you talk to someone from back in the day, I was a dick a lot of the time. But you could go back thirty years and talk to people about Leon and I think everyone would be like that guy was fucking cool. People’s enduring memories of Leon are going to be that laugh, his charismatic personality, that he got along with a bunch of people. When I was young and we would beef with a bunch of different people, I remember thinking, nobody ever has a problem with Jungle, how do you do that? How do you know so many people and nobody has a problem with you? It was because he was just generally fucking cool to everybody, respectful, polite, just a good dude.

At first glance, Jungle could be a scary cat, he hung out with a bunch of scary looking dudes, but he was the heart of that shit, the good guy in the crew. He was famous before I knew him, his tags were all over the city, so he was already a legend in the streets when I first met him. He was tagging Jungle and THC, which was the crew. I was thirteen, so they were probably fifteen or sixteen, which seems like a big gap when you’re that young, and those dudes were like the boogeyman to our generation, because you knew shit could pop off with them. But then I met Jungle and he was just super cool. I think a lot of the tough dudes that I’m super good friends with now, that stems from me being super good friends with Jungle in the first place.

A Jungle tribute in Sydenham by Ikarus and Freak, 2019. (Photo credit M Peate-Garrett)
A Jungle tribute in Sydenham by Ikarus and Freak, 2019. (Photo credit M Peate-Garrett)

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“It is hard to write anything about Leon, as he hated any sort of praise. He would sort of squint his eyes and get a big smile and tell you to fuck up. For the past 5-6 days I have been typing and deleting because I can constantly hear him saying “Fuck up egg”, after anything I write.” – Fiasko

“Meeting Jungle is where he had his biggest influence on me. He was such a humble guy. He was funny and he was accepting of most people. I remember how he just didn’t believe he was any good.” – Fiasko

“[That authenticity] got him the status of being an OG in the graffiti scene, everyone respected the dude and looked up to him. [E]veryone just thought he was the coolest motherfucker in town, so he kind of like just got mad respect from everyone and everyone wanted a little bit of him to rub off on them as far as graffiti goes…” – Dcypher

“Everything about him influenced me. I would ask for advice on all things hip hop. He lived my raps too, he was my biggest support and fan.” – Kurs/Horra

“With Jungle, it wasn’t just about tagging, he was the connect for all things hip hop for me. He was listening to Kendrick Lamar when Kendrick Lamar was still a teenager and he put me onto the Black Hippies, and then 5-6 years later, Kendrick Lamar’s blowing up… everyone he sort of pushed in my direction became real big at some point.” – Kurs/Horra

“… [A] few of us were hanging out at the old hack circle in Cashel Mall, high as can be, and these two cops walk past, one a blonde female.  We’re are all paranoid and silent, then Jungle just blurts out, “Faaah, you’re pretty for a cop!” She just smiles, says thanks, and kept walking on by!” – Pest5

“He was super good at skateboarding too. Skateboarding is a big part of my life and he got real good, real quick and could skate spots that were fucking super crazy, spots that no one else could skate, and so he kind of crossed over into skateboard culture, which was part of the graffiti culture…” – Dcypher

“He didn’t have that ego that somebody as prominent as he was can sometimes have… You can’t help but be influenced by somebody that’s up [everywhere], but then you met him, and he was like this hilarious person, just a genuinely dope dude. A lot of respect.” – Yikes

“Leon was a really humble guy and always asked or was interested in what you’ve been up to when you bumped into him. I’m not sure if he actually realised that he was a fucking legend in the Christchurch graffiti scene.” – Lurq

“… [T]he first time Askew came to Christchurch, I felt obliged to introduce him to the legendary Jungle, but was a bit unsure how it would go as the man was often wary of strangers, and was in one of his feisty moods. After giving him a hearty handshake, he said thoughtfully, “Askew… you’re the man. But fuck you. But you’re the man… but fuck you!”  High praise indeed! – Pest5

“He just loved all my weird shit. He was all about the weird side that I approach graffiti from, he gave me props for that. I’m ten years younger than these dudes, I was watching most of their early careers when I wasn’t even touching paints, so to have someone of that standing give you props, it’s cool man, its humbling.” – Yikes

Askew's tribute to Jungle, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Askew’s tribute to Jungle, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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Read Part Two of Tributes to a King here

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Dr Suits and the Art of Isolation…

When Aotearoa entered the level 4 lock down as we faced the threat of Covid-19, many of us took to a daily walk within our bubbles, nominally for exercise, but if we are honest, as an escape from the confines of our homes, to remind ourselves that the world around us was still there.

Luckily for me, my suburban surroundings provided plenty of points of interest, and chief among them were the constantly expanding series of stickers and paste ups produced by the prolific Dr Suits.

Dr Suits’ output over the last few years has shifted to a process-centric fixation with abstraction. As he has investigated materials and techniques, he has also grappled with the transference between street and studio. While he has produced a range of outdoor works (including commissioned murals and even a basketball court), the lock down period saw perhaps the most cohesive body of street work he has created. From small vinyl stickers to large-scale paste ups, sweeping textural waves and various geometric forms of flat colour were juxtaposed to create items of intrigue. To learn more about this flurry of creativity, we caught up with Dr Suits to talk about the inspiration and motivation for these (sub)urban additions and how extraordinary times have inspired his work…

The notable thing about this body of work was just how quickly it seemed to come to fruition and appear on the streets, was it something you had already considered, or were you specifically inspired by the lock down?

It was spontaneous really. I think a lot of my work happens like that, when I find a delicious tasting fruit, I feast on it, until there’s no fruit left.

When we entered lock down, we just raided the studio for a bunch of materials and resources with no clear plan of what we were going to do with them. We just wanted to make sure we had stuff to work with at home. The stickers were great because they were small, and I could just mess around in the lounge.

The stickers led to the much larger paste ups, a form that you have a bit of experience with…

They were something that just came out of the stickers. It was a similar process, I just wanted to do the stickers bigger. I had the materials, the paint, the paper, the glue. The beauty of paste ups is that you can work on them at home, and then it only takes ten minutes to install them, which was great for lock down. It reminded me of the post-quake period, when I first started doing paste ups, but I adapted them to my present artistic approach.

A lot of your previous paste ups were illustrative. These works are a clear reflection of your more process-driven abstract direction of the last few years…

I thought of a few ideas to do some illustrative paste ups with more on-topic commentaries, but I couldn’t find the motivation because I was too distracted with the process of making these stickers and just doing what seemed natural…

Do you connect these works in any outward sense to the Covid-19 pandemic?

I could probably think of something more specific if I wanted to, but they are a direct response to that situation because if I didn’t have that situation they wouldn’t have been created, so in some ways they are a direct response.

The paste ups and the stickers both use a collage technique, but they can be experienced very differently because of their materials and size. Were you interested in how people would respond to the different works?

It’s more driven by the process of creation. I know people are going to respond to them in their own way and that’s what I like about abstract art. People always see something that you don’t see or think something that you don’t think. Even though they use the same process, I wasn’t really thinking about it. Obviously, the paste ups don’t demand as much inspection because they’re so big that you can see them from afar, you may or may not notice that it’s collaged. I was just really enjoying the process of cutting the shapes and overlapping them and exploring different compositions. That is really similar to the way I previously would do it, but I would use Adobe Illustrator or something like that to play around with shapes and I would just pick the ones that I liked. But with the stickers, each one was a development, and I would just keep each one, it wasn’t just picking the ones that I liked and then using those as a composition to make into an artwork…

When you’re putting the paste ups on the wall, are they constructed with the final image in mind? I’m assuming they are applied on the wall in sequence…

Yeah that’s right. With the stickers, I’d start with the background, with the brushy effect using the wide-tip Molotow marker, and then I would just cut shapes out of colorful vinyl, some which I’d spray painted first, and I’d play with compositions. Then I used those stickers to inform the larger paste ups.

Were you thinking about spots for paste ups in a different way to the stickers? I assume there was less planning around the stickers, whereas the paste ups would require some forethought…

There’s an abundance of spots out in New Brighton, so it’s not hard to find a spot. And during lock down it was so quiet, no one was around, I mean I could have painted them if I wanted to. At the time, I was more interested in the collage approach and finding those small imperfections where they are slightly offset and seeing the depth between the layers, the paper sticking on top of another layer which is on top of another layer and building up. The paper ripples and it creates little shadows and as it gets wet it shrinks and it might warp a bit, the stripe might move off to the side a little…

In terms of placement, what makes a perfect wall? It feels as if your works like to have room to breathe, but also it seems that geometry is an important consideration…

Definitely, I really like a wall to have similar or reflective elements that are going to make it relatable to the work. I like to have contrast, but I also like it to have some sort of unity. That balance is what I like in my work more generally anyway. You want it to stand out, but you want it to fit in, so I try to find texture or line or some shape or something in the composition of the space that’s going to contribute to the overall composition on the wall, like a box or a down-pipe, a color or a paint change or a set of windows.

Do you feel this has taken your studio work in a new direction?

Definitely. The stickers started developing with more curves and softer lines and the collage approach to the process is something I’ll take forward.

Your work seems to evolve in quite a fluid progression, with certain elements recurring and coming into focus, does it feel that way to you as you are working?

think with abstraction, it can be very sparse in terms of the elements you’re working with, so the changes are noticeable really quickly when you do change an approach or technique or some process behind how you make an image. I can really latch on to something just by changing that one thing and that change becomes a solid basis and everything else around that can change but you are still kind of keeping a consistency within the work.

There’s an anchor…

I like to have an anchor, especially with colour or shape or composition or texture. The anchor’s a link, you could look at it two ways; it’s a safety thing, I don’t want to jump too far away from what I’ve been doing, possibly because of fear, but also it keeps it recognizable from previous work so you can see a progression, that connection between where you are going and where you’ve been.

Has this series made you think about the street/studio balance?

I’d like to do more of the paste ups. I’ve got lots of ideas for those, but I can see them influencing my paintings as well. I want to take that same process, just do a little collage sticker and then maybe do a paste up or a painting directly from that, maybe try to do both, and just push that image out in more than one way…

 

Follow Dr Suits on Instagram and find more of his work at Fiksate Gallery.

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Photo Essay – ‘Street Stencils’ by BOLS

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…

A stencil of a fox in clothing spray painted on a plastic barrell.
PORTA, New Brighton, Christchurch, 2012
The name of Blek Le Rat, the famous French stencil artist sprayed on a wall
Blek Le Rat, Berlin, Germany, 2011
A stencilled image, pixellated like a retro video game, that appears to be a portrait with the word Like underneath
Like, Berlin, Germany, 2011
A stencil of a man with a noose around his neck, precariously balancing on a chair to stop his choking
Dotmasters, London, England, 2011
A stencil of a small giraffe on a concrete wall
Unknown artist, Christchurch, 2012
A famlous stencil by Banksy, an army sniper takes aim from above a shop, but behind him a child holds a paper bag, blown up and ready to surprise the sniper with a bang
Banksy, Bristol, England, 2011
The words Read Lenin stencilled on a graffitied wall
Read Lenin, Rome, Italy, 2011
 A stencilled image of a person holding something in their hands, looking closely at it.
Unknown artist, Barcelona, Spain, 2011
The words Stop Wars is stencilled in the style of the Star Wars logo
Stop Wars, Rome, Italy, 2011
A crowd of protestors are stencilled on a wall under the words Cultural Resistance
Unknown Artist, Rome, Italy, 2011
 A graffitied wall featuring stencils, one of which is a skull and cross bones, the other a portrait of a young boy
Unknown artist, Brussels, Belgium, 2011
The words Tromaville Health Club, a reference to the trashy 1980s Troma films, is stencilled on a wall
Tromaville Health Club, Brussels, Belgium, 2011
A stencil of a face with large glasses on a footpath in San Francisco
Kay, San Francisco, United States, 2011
A stylised skull stencil with the words Dead God above
Dead God, Christchurch, 2018
the name Franz is stnecilled in a diamond shape
Franz, Wellington, 2019
the instruction to Post No Bills is stencilled on a concrete pillar
Post No Bills, Wellington, 2019
a mid production stencil with the various stencil plates stuck around it
Bols, Christchurch, 2019

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If you have an idea for a Photo Essay, let us know! Email submissions or concepts to hello@watchthisspace.org.nz or contact us on Facebook

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Photo Essay – ‘Arcane Connection’ by Josh Bradshaw

Josh Bradshaw’s Arcane Connection is the second in our series of photo essays, and for the man occasionally known as Uncle Harold, it is, at first glance, something of a departure. This series of photographs signifies Bradshaw’s exploration of a range of new artistic and creative directions, visually distinct and yet still connected to the established body of work produced under his well-known pseudonym.

For the artist, the similarities are both apparent, yet hard to define. Josh explains his struggle to define his expanding approaches: “I often find myself tripping over my words and struggling to make sense when explaining anything about my work or why I make it to anyone. It’s all the same thing to me, my photos, my paintings, my writings, my drawings, they are all the same. It’s all very obvious in my head, although I’m not sure many others would think the same.” However, despite his dismissive shoulder shrug, the connection between Bradshaw’s wider body of work becomes apparent through reflection.

The images collected for Arcane Connection are not just a survey of urban experience and immersion, they also reveal a deeper consideration. As Uncle Harold, Bradshaw has constantly transformed the ordinary, melting familiar icons and objects and forcing us to reconsider our attachment to the mundane. These images similarly explore the overlooked. Not only does Bradshaw re-contextualise the functional aspects of the urban landscape through a stark black and white geometry, he also reveals his interest in their suggestion of connectivity, movement and exploration. By repetitively documenting the ‘urban white noise’ of human constructions such as pipes, vents, drains, hurricane fencing and architectural forms, Bradshaw attempts to make sense of his surroundings and our increasing disconnect in the digital age. Arcane Connection is an invitation to do the same…

A black and white photograph of a group of pipes running across a concrete surface.

A black and white photograph of a pipe emerging from a wall with a metal grill surrounding it.

A black and white photograph of a group of pipes creating a grid effect against a wall.

A black and white photograph of a group of pipes running across a wall, the pipes and the wall have been painted in a dark tone.

A black and white photograph of a power box fixture and drain pipes on a dark wall

A black and white photograph of a single drain pipe and vents

A black and white photograph of a concrete wall and drain pipe

A black and white photograph of a water system on a white wall

A black and white photograph of a pipe emerging from a cavity in a wall

A close up black and white photograph of a metal pipe

A black and white photograph of a metal pipe

A black and white photograph of plastic piping

A black and white photograph of pipes running into a drain

A black and white photograph of criss-crossing pipes emerging from a tiled wall

A black and white photograph of a worn wall with pipes and a vent

All photos are credited to Josh Bradshaw

Thanks to Jessie Rawcliffe for her help on this piece!

Follow Josh on Instagram: @joshuamarkbradshaw

 

 

 

 

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Long Trip of the Kokos – Robert Seikon and Anastasia Papaleonida

For the month of January Fiksate became a second home for itinerant artists Robert Seikon and Anastasia Papaleonida, the gallery’s first international residents. While Seikon is Polish, the couple are based in Greece, Papaleonida’s home country. That international flavor is further enhanced by their travels, with their arrival in Aotearoa following a stay in the Philippines and an exhibition in Taiwan. During their residency, I was able to spend time with the endearing duo. It was fascinating watching the two, who have been working together for almost twelve months, operate in the studio, each maintaining their distinct stylistic identity, while investigating the potential of collaboration. The artists alternate between a hyper-focus on their individual contributions and conferences around subtle details of composition and colour. But it is not just the studio where their collaborations flourish, with their work appearing on walls in numerous locations, including a number of works produced during their stay in Christchurch. While Seikon’s background in graffiti provides a lineage for this public practice, Papaleonida is relatively new to this approach, coming from a design foundation, bringing a unique consideration to their creative process. Their pairing has resulted in visually stunning works, where sharp, angular aspects contrast with organic elements, creating optical effects that invite the viewer to immerse themselves in the image, only to discover small, unsettling details that disrupt expectation, rewarding inspection. We caught up with Robert and Anastasia as their exhibition Long Trip of the Kokos drew near, taking in the sights and delights of Lyttelton, sitting down for a discussion about their experiences in Christchurch and New Zealand, their collaborative partnership and the differences  working indoors and outside…  

Welcome to Aotearoa! How long have you been in the country now?

RS: We have been here for one month already. It’s very nice.

AP: Amazing.

What are your perceptions of New Zealand so far?

AP: Everything is very organized and super clean! You are in the middle of nowhere and there’s a bathroom with a paper, it’s like, what the fuck?! And in general, the people are super nice.

RS: It’s not only the toilets that are clean! The grass is cut everywhere, fresh walls are repainted, everything is clean. You get the feeling you are at the end of the world, that you are very far away. But everyone is super friendly, you feel comfortable as soon as you get out of the airport.

As artists, do the distinct atmospheres of different cities and countries start to influence your work? 

RS: It makes a difference for sure. Here for example, during our trip from the North Island to the South Island, the landscape was changing almost every hour. The landscapes in New Zealand combine parts of European landscapes all together, which is very interesting for us. All the colors and shapes we have seen during this trip have made a big impact on us.

Both of you work in abstraction. What specific influences have fed into the recurring motifs in your work? Have they come from real world references?

AP: For me, it’s about landscapes, plants, organic things…

RS: For me it is both the natural landscape and the urban environment. But in this case, for this exhibition, I think mostly the landscape, because we have worked with the memories that we have collected over the last few weeks of being in New Zealand. Sometimes I like to be inspired by the city, but here it hasn’t been the case. If we work with a wall in the city, the surrounding area is going to inspire the wall, but for this exhibition the influence is mostly the natural landscape.

One of the stunning landscapes that inspired the artists on the New Zealand trip…

There is an interesting interplay between your individual approaches; Anastasia, your more organic forms that seem to reference the cellular and biological, while Robert, your lines and geometric forms seem more hard-edged. While those aspects are quite distinct, the colors seem much more of a collaborative component…

RS: We enjoy talking about color.

AP: Yes, on this trip we have worked a lot more with color. In the past we didn’t have the opportunity to do that much, we were working a lot with black and white.

RS: In general, we like to use black and white.

AP: But, after this trip, travelling in the Philippines and here, the colors we have seen have been amazing and we have started to mix more colours. With all the work we have prepared for this exhibition, we have mixed I don’t know how many colors…

RS: We haven’t used straight black like we have before. Everything is mixed with something…

AP: The vision that we have for the exhibition is to create an atmosphere that is unique, which comes through not using straight black like we have in the past.

The wall painting inside Fiksate, part of the Long Trip of the Kokos exhibition, 2020.

This body of work has been created as part of your residency at Fiksate. You have noted the influence of your travels, but did you already have an idea of the work you were going to make when you arrived in Christchurch, or has the experience of the residency, the place and people, inspired the works as well?

AP: It has been interesting to work with other people around. For me, often when I’m working on something new, it takes time before I realize that something is happening for a particular reason. I can’t always see it at the time, but when I look back I can see that it came from somewhere…

I’ve noticed that your shared work station is very organized, from paint cups numbered in a spectrum of tints, to the way tools are laid out, is that something that has developed as part of your working relationship, or was it always evident individually?

RS: I think that is something we’ve both had from the past. Me, I always like to be precise and clean. We don’t even talk about it. We’ve got the same thinking in common…

Papaleonida at work on one of the pieces from Long Trip of the Kokos.

 

Seikon working on one of the works for Long Trip of the Kokos.

Is that sense of order intrinsically necessary to make the work look the way it does, or is it just a comforting aspect? I’m sure you are both very particular about the clean lines, the perfect dots, the sharp shapes and the smooth gradients, so that organisation must be important in achieving those effects, right? In the studio you can control those elements a little bit more, but do you have the same level of preparedness and organization when you’re painting outdoors?

RS: Oh yes, I like to prepare my bag the day before, so I am ready to have breakfast and go. Then, the morning before painting, I check everything is in my bag; the roller, the sketchbook…

AP: You need this, you need this… Outdoors, it’s like a small studio because you are spending hours in that place and you need your stuff in specific places, so it is free for the wall and for your movements…

There is a physicality to the way each of you work, a physical activity that goes into creating the details, from precise movements to more sweeping gestures. I’ve noticed that when you are working in the studio, while there are times when you’re both working on the same piece, often one of you is active and the other is either observing or off to the side, is that simply to give each other the physical space for these movements?

AP: To be honest I haven’t thought about that before, but maybe, now that you’re saying it, it does work like that, because when someone wants to do something more precise, you need to give him the space to do it…

RS: It’s a good observation. When we work, for example when Anastasia is working and I’ve got a small break, I’m also thinking about the things that I will do next, I’m waiting for Anastasia to move so I can get another answer, you know? It’s like, this little bit here is developing, so what is going to happen next?

AP: It’s not like we are doing sketches and they are the final product. When we create something, we will always add something new, because that touch goes like that, or this line goes like this, and we look at the balance and realize that maybe something new needs to be done. I think this is very interesting because we don’t really know what the final image will be.

RS: We don’t really know what will happen.

AP: And you build that slowly with small moves, it becomes a surprise…

Anastasia, it feels like your dots would have a more spontaneous nature, while Robert, your diagonal lines would be more carefully planned and constructed. But, is that actually the case, or are you both more balanced in your approach?

RS: The biggest similarity we have is that when we are working, we are super focused. You go inside an element and nothing can disturb you. Both of us are very focused on the process of our work. I don’t know, even if the lines or the dots are repeated forms, they can be created from elements all around us, even though they are clean, they can be natural as well.

Your studio output will become the exhibition, Long Trip of the Kokos, but you will also paint several outdoor commissions as well, each in very different settings. Is it important to get out of the studio?

RS: We like to change the environment around us. After spending weeks preparing the exhibition, we have had enough of the studio. We couldn’t start next week again in the studio. I like to have a change when I’m painting, it’s refreshing.

AP: What we will do on these walls will be a continuation of the inspiration that we have drawn from already. Although, with the Cosmic wall [a commission at the warehouse of iconic funk store Cosmic], we will work with a lot of colours, which is something we haven’t done much together. That will be very interesting for us…

The finished Cosmic mural, February 2020.

Do you ever reflect on being in the position where you can travel to places and leave something of a legacy through painting public works? Do they create a connection to place that average tourists don’t necessarily get?

AP: To be honest, I’m not thinking about that so much, that I will leave this wall as a legacy. It’s more about the process, the time that I’m spending doing it, the time that I’m painting, the people that are around, the interactions with people, the small talk, a question or a smile…

RS: And the moment you finish the artwork, that’s it. You are doing it until that final moment. I’m always crazy happy when I’m painting, when I’m doing something, then the moment I’m satisfied it’s finished, it is for other people from that point. I have made my thing, this is it. I’m very happy if someone gets positive vibes or can see something interesting, but I don’t need feedback. It’s all about the process, like Anastasia said, the process is going to stay in our memories.

The studio environment is secure, but also isolating, it is different from a public presence where those small conversations can more easily take place…

AP: It is very nice to have a connection with people, but also the work carries on, it is seen by people that you don’t meet, even if they don’t say anything, or they say or think something bad…

RS: But here we have been very surprised about how people have reacted to our art. We were traveling here without any expectations, we said: ‘let’s go to New Zealand and see what happens…’ But both of us are very surprised by how people have reacted…

In all of your travel, are there moments of engaging with people while working on a painting or mural that stand out?

RS: I mean, it doesn’t need to be anything special, it can just be small things, you know, you wake up and you see people and they’re happy in the morning…

AP: In Estonia, there was this old lady, every day she was coming and checking, without any expression. I mean every day, seven days we were there, and every day she checked with no expression. Then when we were finished, she finally said: ‘Yes, it’s nice.’

I wanted to ask about the title of the show Long Trip of the Kokos, what does it refer to?

RS: The story behind the title, comes from when we were in the Philippines. We saw a lot of kokos [coconuts] and they were traveling, somehow, they would go to the water, they were moved by the ocean, they would jump to the other islands. We thought maybe we are a little bit like these kokos, travelling and stopping here to make this small mark. This exhibition is the mark of these small travelers coming here to grow a little bit.

One of the works from long Trip of the Kokos, 2020.

This is an audience that you haven’t really had much experience with, but based on what you’ve experienced so far at Fiksate, and the people who have come through, have you been able to get a gauge of what you might expect?

AP: You know, we don’t really know what is going to happen…

RS: We are not expecting anything, but we don’t really make work in that way.

AP: All the thinking was to make these works because of the inspiration this experience has given us. It isn’t about what we will sell, it’s more about what we would love to present.

RS: We like working in this very expressive way. We have thoughts. We start to talk about it. We have a conversation, and then we say: ‘OK, let’s do it, why not? Let’s see what will happen…’ We didn’t expect anything, but we have already very positive feedback.

AP: Yes, although I am still not sure about how the audience will respond to our point of view on abstract.

Right, abstraction has become more and more prevalent within both urban contemporary and mural practice, but New Zealand can lag behind in some trends.  Fiksate recently staged their Urban Abstract show and that was perhaps quite new for a lot of the audience, who might have been more accustomed to letter forms, figurative stencils and illustrations, and representational murals…

AP: I was thinking about that, because in most of the cities we have visited, the murals are pretty figurative, abstraction doesn’t seem to be as popular.

RS: But the abstract things here are on a good level. Sculptures or installations, they seem to be in good taste, which we were happy to see.

Robert, you have investigated translating your work into sculptural forms, right?

RS: Yes but not a crazy big amount, I am just beginning to touch on this direction. I started some years ago. It is not super easy to do, but I want to keep going because it gives me different positive vibes…

It seems like more and more artists are translating their work in different ways, into objects, installations, using light, projections, etc. It seems that more doors are open for artists from the urban realm, due to the popularity and visibility of muralism. Anastasia, how do you think your work would translate into a three-dimensional, or kinetic form?

AP: I have worked with smaller forms of sculpture, but I am probably more interested in installations.  I have a lot of ideas, and I’m going to keep going with other projects.

Seikon and Papaleonida at work on the Cosmic mural, February 2020. (Photo credit: Jenna Ingram)

How do you operate in terms of having your own distinct paths as artists while still collaborating? Are you constantly working on your own things and then coming together for certain projects, or has it become more and more about the collaboration?

RS: We like to work in both ways, it depends of the project. Especially for this exhibition, it’s all about collaborative work. It’s nice for us to have the chance to involve our personal distinct paths and create something together.

AP: This is an interesting way to work because we have the opportunity for a dialogue.

A collaboration between Seikon and Papaleonida on the Berlin Wall remnant in Christchurch, February 2020.

It has only been just under a year that you’ve been working together…

AP: Almost a year.

That’s a relatively short time, so there is obviously a lot more to explore within your creative partnership. But long-term working partnerships can sometimes see the distinctions between each artist deteriorate, and a unified aesthetic develop, is that something you are consciously trying to avoid, or do you see it happening?

RS: That is a very open question, because already this year, new things have developed that can support our personal projects and we obviously have days when we want to create something by ourselves. The process is going here and the process is going there and we can mix those possibilities together. It’s super open for us.

What do you have planned for the rest of the year? When do you leave New Zealand?

RS: We leave on the 10th of February. We will go back home to Greece, and then we have something in Germany and a project in France, another project in Slovakia and that’s it for the moment. Maybe a small holiday after that…

It seems like travel is just an engrained part of the urban art movement…

RS: It’s not for everybody though. I’ve got artist friends who do not travel at all, they stay in the studio and that’s it.

AP: And for some artists it is not that important, I mean they feel better in their studio. It depends on the artist.

RS: For me, travel is the research about new places. From when I started painting, my city started to be like, OK, I’ve seen all the streets, all the nice places, I’ve painted here, I’ve painted there, but I need to search for more possibilities. I need to see different things that could inspire me, collect new knowledge and have that energy, this is important in my creative process.

How do you make your work resonate with different places? With abstraction, you aren’t using explicit cultural references, which can be a minefield anyway. Is your visual language such a personal reflection that it doesn’t necessarily need to display that connection to place in any overt way?

RS: I started to realize this a short time ago to be honest, I was traveling for many years and just reached a point where I’ve got things that I start to talk about and understand more. Now, I keep collecting those ideas as I travel, and they come out in my work.

AP: I think it’s important to observe what’s going on in any country because I don’t want to offend anyone. For example, in the Philippines, black is very bad. It’s the color of death. The associations of black mean you don’t use it. We tried to find it in the paint stores, but you couldn’t. When we went there, we didn’t realize how important it was to not use black, but we adapted over the month we were there and we started to realize more things that were important for people there, especially since we were painting a lot on small houses in the middle of the forest.

One of the murals painted during Seikon and Papaleonidas stay in the Philippines, 2019.
Another Philippines production, 2019.

The chance to do research isn’t as easy for some artists, who might not have the luxury of a site visit or to acclimatize, especially if you are moving from job to job and have to hit the ground running in any new place you find yourself…

RS: The perfect situation is where you come to the place and you’ve got some time to prepare, not just going to a place with the sketch, painting it and leaving…

AP: Although it might not be possible, because if you do a big mural, you often need to give something to the people to see…

RS: Yes, but for us, we like to say, this is the sketch but by the end it is going to be a bit different…

Do you want to say thank you to anyone from your time in New Zealand?

AP & RS: Thank you to Fiksate Gallery for the trust and to all crazy positive people that we met during our stay in New Zealand…

Follow Seikon and Papaleonida online…

@seikon87

@anastasia_papaleonida

Long Trip of the Kokos runs until February 29th, 2020 at Fiksate Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street, Christchurch.

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For the Love of… Doors

This snapshot ‘photo essay’ of doors from across the city is the first of a series of articles that will be presented by various contributors, exploring their fascinations with urban art and the urban terrain. From doors to ‘bandos’, tags to slaps, the buff to responses to official communication, many people with an ear to the ground find interest in the smaller, peripheral incarnations of urban space. This series, titled ‘For the Love of…’ will reveal these quirks, letting the images talk over words…

I have long been fascinated with the city’s deteriorated and graffiti-covered doors. In the post-quake landscape and beyond, such doors have provided a symbolic quality, exacerbating the raft of aesthetic appearances. Much like fences, they provide a conflation of ideology and physicality. As passages between spaces, they are portals and obstacles, but also flat, defined surfaces that are perfect to be adorned. The humanity of doors as passages is also evidenced by the tags, throw-ups, stickers and characters that represent the presence of those executing them, as if these invaders have been kept at bay, yet defiantly left their mark regardless, like a calling card. In other cases they have been left covered in paint while the surrounding walls have been whitewashed, creating an intriguing juxtaposition. You may simply see a door as a functional element of architecture, but for me, they are infinitely more interesting…

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Nick Lowry – The faster you go, the bigger the mess… (Part Two)

In the second part of our interview with Nick Lowry, we continue with a free-flowing dive into the physicality and urgency of painting, the influence of music, the process of collage and the need for creative diversity within tight-knit communities…

Talking about some of the formal elements, your letterforms seem to have become increasingly abstracted. The dissolution of letters into blocks or blobs or half circular forms, is that the result of thinking about letterforms, or moving away from letters?

I think when I paint graffiti, I’m using my arms a lot and I’m gesticulating a lot and I think my letter structure mirrors that…

They mirror the physicality?

Yeah, like a dance. I’m really wiping the wall, or I’m doing some crazy contemporary dance in my head and I’m articulating that with my hands. I try to be as fluid as possible. I hardly spend any time on my sketch, usually it’s just my fill colour. Why would I go back over my sketch and change up my letter structure if that’s my impulse? What I’ve just sketched is how I’m feeling obviously, so I’m just backtracking over my own emotional involvement by touching it up.

TEPID piece, central Christchurch, 2019
Tepid piece, central Christchurch, 2019

It comes back to that urgency and violence, and if you are redoing it, you are losing a lot of energy, right?

Yeah.

Having an idea beforehand and trying to replicate it is a very different approach to trying to make something that reflects a specific moment and emotion.

I don’t premeditate. I’ve chucked away all my sketch books, even from when I started. I chose to throw them away. I have photos on my computer of recent pieces, but I’ve lost hard drives of stuff from up until 2016. I feel like I want to get to a point where I don’t want to take any photos of the graffiti at all.

That would really make it about the singular experience of doing something in that moment, right? It’s no longer about a catalogue or a body of work…

I think that’s why I did it. Most people would cry if they lost their books, because they really love them, but for me, they are just collecting dust and getting eaten by rats. They are a ball and chain…

There’s a freedom in letting go?

Yeah absolutely.

In so much of your work there is a dynamic quality, a sense of action and movement, from the lines whipping across the plane, to this lovely flickering quality that your more recent works have, and even white highlights, which seem to be a recurring, enduring fixation.

That’s why I paint as fast as I can go, because I don’t want to lose that. I’m scared that it’s going to float away again.

TEPID and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019
Tepid and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019

Is it an interest in the use of shimmering light, of reflections and movement?

That’s a good word, shimmering. That’s precisely what I’m trying to create in my pieces, movement and the feeling that each piece is its own entity. I used to try and paint with traditional colour schemes, but now I’m looking at soft gradients, not even reflections, I’m just trying to create an emotional response through the colour palette, and I think by doing that I can try and put life in these pieces, and a sense of movement and electricity.

Those soft gradients have become definitive, or at least distinctive, and they often set your work apart from others around them, kind of dissolving the harshness and angularity of some other styles. There’s something about those soft gradients and transitions that ties to those wavering outlines and organic letter shapes as well, all of which make your work stand out…

Man, that makes me really want to paint again! (Laughs) Yeah, I guess those wavering lines are the gradients I’m trying to create, these beautiful soft gradients. I’m trying to be as clean as I can with the fill, as fast as I can, but as dusty as I can, and I think the wavering lines add to that sense of motion…

"Heron" mural, Christchurch, 2018
“Heron” mural, Christchurch, 2018

It seems to me that a lot of these qualities are related to the nature of aerosol, or the possibilities found in aerosol. There is a high level of can control obviously to get those effects, but there is also a freedom and that comes about through aerosol having certain characteristics, right? Is that something that interests you?

It did… I think it did, but now I feel like, especially with my outlines and details, my gradients, I need decent paint, because you can only achieve that with certain levels of paint, and colours that hold well to the wall. Although all the blacks and whites are generally acquired from wherever, just cheap brands that I’ve scabbed. Actually, a lot of my pieces are roller fills. I’ll do the base, you know, if it’s an orange with a softer yellow or lime green gradient over that, or whatever, and generally the heavier colour is a roll fill. And I find roller filling fun because it adds to the element of really smashing and grinding something down. I look at graffiti as sculpting as well. I think it is quite sculptural, you can start with a base shape and you just kind of chisel and shape it down with detail really.

Being that you have worked across so many fields, what experiences really stand out for you?

I guess with all the art forms that I engage with, there’s at least one or two things that stand out. When it comes to graffiti, a fond memory of mine is painting a piece in the open during the day illegally on the side of a dam in Margaret River and then hearing the alarm going off as I’m painting, finishing it, scrambling off, climbing out and then watching that thing wash down! With graffiti, I like the element of getting yourself into crazy situations, not that I focus on getting up or hitting the craziest spots, but the situations that I put myself into and walking around in really obscure places you wouldn’t usually go. It’s not so much to find a place to paint, it’s more the idea of exploring. You go out with the intention of painting because you have paint with you, but painting is only twenty percent of the time, the experience and everything else is what you are taking in visually and is filling the senses, filling that void of whatever I have! I don’t know what that is, but obviously I have one and I need to fill it! I think that’s eighty per cent of the reason why I do anything. With set design, I’ve had some pretty amazing jobs recently and looking back, I think it’s probably doing kids shows, anything for children. If you can deliver something to children that is going to stay in their minds forever and inspire them, I think that is so important. I still think about shows my parents used to take me to, shows at the Mill Theatre and all that, and I can still remember every detail. I do a lot of music videos as well, and I’ve had really good responses to the stuff I’ve been producing with some really good crews. I think the satisfaction of that and seeing yourself in another format is really satisfying and doing it all to music I like as well.

Still from the Aldous Harding music video for The Barrel, from her album Designer, art directed by Nick Lowry, 2019
Still from the Aldous Harding music video for The Barrel, from her album Designer, art directed by Nick Lowry, 2018

When you are working on music videos, that relationship between the visual and the musical, does that make you reflect more on the influence of music on your visual arts practice? Music has been an enduring influence, right?

Forever, yeah…

You talked about the influence of punk and metal; can you define that influence visually?

I think it’s like when you are eating food and you kind of see with your nose. So, for me, with music, you can visualise certain energies in your mind. Music has always been this driving force for anything creative I’ve done, subliminally…

Is music always playing when you work?

Or not. Sometimes when I listen to music for days and days and days on end, just constantly, when it comes to making art, I try and tone down the amount of music or just don’t listen to it at all and just let that energy just come back out because I’ve done all the thinking and I just have to kind of let the process flow…

Which suggests reflection on the experience of listening. For some people listening to music becomes a background accompaniment, it fades into the background. It’s there and is driving action but not necessarily reflection. It sounds like for you it is actually a reflective thing as well…

Yeah, we are sponges, right? Whatever we expose ourselves to exists within us, and I think sometimes it’s nice to have that negative space and have nothingness around us and I think that’s when we can be in our most creative space.

That energy of the act of painting that we were just discussing, there’s obviously an echo with the energy of music, do you kind of see you paintings as musical in a sense, not overtly, like painting a song, but in terms of the rhythms and energies…  

Absolutely, and I think for most people it’s the same, most people that paint or have some sort of visual expression, also love music and need music around them, and I think that is probably one of the driving forces of what I do.

Having talked about the why your interest in certain forms fluctuates, what has captured your energy currently? Are there any significant developments you see on the horizon?

Yeah, I mean I’m drawing a lot more now and I haven’t painted in a while. When I was in Perth five or six years ago, I used to paint a lot, and I was also painting graffiti, but I think I’ve kind of let painting go and now I’m trying to get back into it. I feel like I’m on the brink of dropping my guard on that again. Because I do put up boundaries, like I have with graffiti right now, I’m just like, I want to do something else. I think the painting one is about to come down, I’ve slowly started just playing around with stuff, heinous stuff, it’s not good, but it’s a start! (Laughs) I’ll just keep painting over and over until I feel like I’m juicing up again, you know?

Untitled, mixed media on canvas, 2019
Untitled, mixed media on canvas, 2019

Are those elements of the gradients and colour schemes, the line work, are they still as strong?

Absolutely, I’m exploring the loose lines, and the very brushed fast geometry that doesn’t have to necessarily make sense but just exists, because if it did make sense, what’s the point of looking at it? It’s like watching a TV show that is not interesting, when it’s easy to watch and it has just been laid out for you.

You are not challenged…

But if you create something that doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist or something that doesn’t even make sense, I think it’s more interesting because it’s up to the viewer to make sense of it…

What about your collage practice, do you see that as distinct to painting and more akin to your experience in film?

For me, collage is a very fast, quick way of expressing myself but also setting boundaries, you know? You are playing around with images that already exist.

Untitled, collage on board, 2019
Untitled, collage on board, 2019

Do you apply the same element of urgency that we were talking about with your graffiti? Are you chucking them together quite quickly?

It’s all false perspective. I like the idea of having minimum images but creating the maximum depth possible. I think emotionally they are so fucking aggravating, and I really like that. They are really harsh to look at, they don’t look right, but… It’s hard to describe. Because I do them so fast and because I’m doing them with a blade, there is a physicality and I’m really having to scratch myself and grind into it and rip and tear, and there’s that element of violence that I really enjoy, that we all have in us, and it’s very human, it’s just how you get it out.

Like graffiti in a way, right? The need to get something out, and to do so in a certain way, it is lost on some people who shut themselves off from it, but it is an outlet for a very human need…

It’s very primitive.

Which is why I still find it strange that people are so emotional in their response to and vilification of graffiti…

I kind of like the idea that it is vilified, if it was loved by everyone, what would be the point?

True, and that’s often overlooked by people who don’t get that side of it, channelling it into positive directions is good in some cases, but it also means that it is not what it was. Is there anything you want to tell people about?

I have recently provided art direction for three music videos about to come out, so people should see them. But, mostly, I think I just want people to get off Instagram and see the art for themselves, to be in front of it and smell it and touch it. I just want to try and promote that, to promote that regaining of the sense of uncontrolled-ness, and how we should all be less homogenised. Socially we should be forming a greater sense of community, but creatively we should be pulling away from each other, if that makes sense…

We can be together and unified as communities, but creatively, the more diversity the better for those communities…

Yeah, and I think this is the time to do that in Christchurch as well. We’ve had to band together and now we have to create a split, to form new dynamics within our communities and cultures so we can then really start to get the ball rolling and become a creative powerhouse as a city. Also, I think, in Christchurch, get on your bike! Like literally, get on your bicycle and roam around and check it out, because there’s a broader part of Christchurch that people don’t explore or don’t know exists, or they do, but they are too scared to get out there…

TEPID and Dove colab, central Christchurch, 2019
Tepid and Dove colab, central Christchurch, 2019

We often avoid getting outside of our comfort or routine, and that’s the beauty of walking or cycling, you can easily verge off down a side street, go down an alleyway, do things that will lead to experiences that are unexpected, but can be quite life affirming.

Definitely, and it’s a slow down as well, it slows you down to be able to accept everything that you come across. I love Christchurch, it’s sometimes hard to live here, but it does have these beautiful aspects about it that are undeniably so good!

Follow Nick on Instagram or visit his website www.nicklowry.co.nz

 

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Nick Lowry – The faster you go, the bigger the mess… (Part One)

When I arranged to sit down with Nick Lowry (at times known as Tepid), I wasn’t sure where the conversation might lead. This wasn’t a reflection of Nick’s temperament, he is a chill guy who is instantly likeable, instead, it was based on the reality that his work is spread in so many directions that there were almost infinite possibilities. When we started to chat, it became pretty obvious that we would sprawl across various topics, shifting back and forth, an apt reflection of Nick’s process as a maker and doer. As a graffiti artist, muralist, painter, collagist, set designer, art director, sticker maker and more, it was fascinating to see how he distinguished these practices, but also had a defined understanding of his creative impulses in a singular sense. It was quickly apparent that Nick’s compulsion to make things is driven by a deep urge, one that doesn’t necessarily require explanation or understanding, but instead is a very human condition that invokes all the contradictions of our nature. By the time we came up for air, an hour had flown by and we had discussed a raft of ideas around graffiti, surfing, music, scenic art, exploring cities, and overthinking things. It is no surprise then that this has become a two-part interview, and here in part one, we start with the diversity of his work, his introduction to graffiti and his thoughts on his hometown of Christchurch…  

From graffiti, stickers and mural works, to set design and film art direction, diversity is kind of a hallmark of your work. What was the earliest creative impulse for you? Was graffiti a gateway into other creative practices, or was it more of a vehicle that harnessed your existing creative impulses?

I think it was more of a vehicle. It was probably intrigue that sparked it off. When I was twelve years old, I had a babysitter, he was probably sixteen, and he wouldn’t feed me until I smoked a joint and watched him paint freights in Belfast, which is pretty funny. So, for me it was almost this hatred of graffiti because I wasn’t getting fed unless I helped this guy out, you know? I hated it until I was about sixteen when I became mates with some guys who were painting, Fader, Astro, Raws, Venom, all those dudes. They were all mates from university. I was watching what they were doing, and I was like, this is actually a really intelligent form of art! Up until then I had always been drawing. I’d been drawing forever. I was really into, strangely enough at a young age, interior design. All through high school I was always building dioramas. So, at an early age I was exploring set design, scenic art and that sort of thing. One of my first jobs was a scenic artist in the Riccarton Players Club, at the Mill Theatre in Addington. Before that was destroyed. So, I think there is a real cross-over for me between graffiti and scenic art, in that there is a really blurry line. When I paint graffiti, I don’t paint for the ‘getting up’, I paint purely for the way colours work and for the names that I’ve chosen over the years. It’s simply a vehicle for style, like it is for a lot of graffiti writers, I guess. Like I said before, I’m just creating these little worlds and the diversity of my art just comes down to how I feel on any particular day. Some weeks I put a lot more effort into collaging or into graffiti, or into set design or muralism, or realism, or just hustling for work. I’ve never been fully immersed in anything. I don’t want to be typecast. I don’t want to be known for anything. I just do it for myself, and everything I do is simply an outlet.

There must be a consistent thread through it all though, something that unifies everything in some way, can you see the way they all interrelate?

Oh definitely…

Not only aesthetically or stylistically, but in the practice and process of each, is that something you think about?

Yeah, I guess I don’t really think that deeply into it. It’s almost like with a creative act, the more I think about it, the less I want to do it. For me being creative is a way of not thinking at all, and that’s why I probably don’t produce as much as I should. But I don’t want to have to think about producing a lot of things, because for me, that just creates pressure and I don’t like that! (Laughs)

TEPID roller tag, central Christchurch, c.2012
Tepid roller tag, central Christchurch, c.2013

That freedom is important?

The freedom of it is really important. It is what it is, and if one week I make fifty collages and for the next three weeks I don’t do anything, it’s because I’ve transferred my energy into something else. I like to surf a lot, and that is one of my most creative outlets. If I’m not making art, I like to do that. I also like to run a lot, and that is strangely another creative outlet because a lot of thought processes go on during that time. I think having physical outlets is really important.

There is a physicality in wall painting and in set design as well, so there is inherently a connection between physical activity and the act of creation in those instances. Conversely, in the case of running there is a sense of freedom, physical but also by extension mental, while surfing offers a physical creative performance…       

It’s a release of a certain type of energy. We get a taste and I think we always want to feel that energy again. I like having a diverse range of things that get me to feel differently. I don’t really think about achieving a consistent style, but sometimes, if I look around this room, if I blur my eyes a little bit, I can kind of see something. I don’t really know how to describe it. I don’t really think about what I do to the point where I can do that.

You talked about leaving things and letting them evolve subconsciously, before coming back to it when it has worked itself through…

Yeah, I just sort of nurture it in my mind and come back to it.

Do you see your work in a progressive sense? Can you look back over time and see a lineage, or are there various trajectories between different points because of that willingness to leave things? For instance, is muralism a progression from graffiti?

I think my muralism is quite immature and unrefined. it’s one of those things that is more of a hobby. Muralism is probably the hardest thing for me, because I am quite critical of what I do, and I prefer to do things for myself. With a mural, you have so much pressure to create something that’s for the viewer and I generally don’t care about the viewer! (Laughs) But at the same time I would like to produce more, and over time it is getting better and I am trying to refine the style. But I don’t visit muralism as much. Maybe I will in the future, but at the moment it isn’t a massive priority. Whereas I think set design is helping me to evolve that further because I have to work within a limited space, and I think that kind of helps set me up mentally.

Mural for Underground Coffee, Durham Street, Christchurch, 2019
Mural for Underground Coffee, Durham Street, Christchurch, 2019

You mean when you are designing a set you are working within a defined space and creating a defined world? Which to me, kind of echoes graffiti and muralism in that you are trying to create something within the space around you…

It’s too much. With muralism, there is almost too much you can do. You aren’t restricted by physics. I like being bound and restrained; you know? If I was given three colours or something and told to only use those colours, perhaps I could manage it. But I think with muralism, it is too easy to overthink it. With set design and art direction, you are given a space and an actor or dialogue, and you are confined to that, and that’s how I like to work.

Did you train in set design at all?

No, I studied graphic design, video post-production and editing.

How deeply do you think about the conceptual approach to set design? Are you constantly thinking practically, in a real-world sense, or do you explore an abstract concept beyond the visual and how an environment might be multi-layered?

Definitely, and I think that’s the beauty of it, you are creating a world through which someone is going to speak their dialogue and it doesn’t have to be literal. In fact, they want it to be as non-literal as possible, so the actor then has a space from which to bounce off, I guess.

You’ve got to achieve that balance between the nuances of each approach…

You also have to think about lighting and shadow, and the way those elements work, so there are a lot of things to consider.

This all leads me to back track a little bit. You mentioned that you didn’t come at graffiti through the traditional ways of Subway Art and Style Wars, or even hip-hop culture necessarily…

No, it was the direct influence of my peers, this supposed babysitter! (Laughs) Just being there when it was being done. My direct influences were my friends, watching things getting destroyed, skating and things like that…

TEPID piece, Christchurch, 2019
Tepid piece, Christchurch, 2019

Does that mean you had more or less of a recognition of the importance of graffiti as a sub-cultural and even historical phenomenon?

I soon learnt. Once I formed that obsession with tagging and throw ups and all the rest, I quickly picked up every book I could, watched every film I could, researched every writer throughout history and then formed obsessions with certain writers and created heroes and stuff like that. So, I soon schooled myself and became obsessed with graffiti and street art.

Were you conscious of the idea of graffiti as a political act and the themes of identity and contestation? Or was that aspect always secondary to the draw of being creative? Although creativity through destruction is political in a way…

I think the importance of graffiti and my understanding of it was about being in a moment in time and the way you deliver it, the aggression behind it and being with other writers. Not to sound like graffiti is a macho thing, but you are with the crew and you are outdoing each other. I liked the idea that there was this aggressive, ‘fuck you’ element to it. The punk influences behind graffiti for me were the main thing when I was younger…

You mentioned the punk influence earlier, which is often overshadowed by hip hop, but punk is a significant influence on graffiti and street art culture…

For me, Christchurch metal was a big influence, which I guess is like the punk ethos. I was a young metal head, but I had a broad spectrum of friends, a lot were really goth, but a lot were also really G, so there was a cross over. But we were all hanging out together. There were skaters and goths and G’s at parties, everyone was hanging out together. I didn’t want to box myself into any one circle. For me, graffiti was a thing that didn’t exist in any boxes, because my social circles didn’t fit into those boxes…

Handmade TEPID sticker, central Christchurch, 2018
Handmade Tepid sticker, central Christchurch, 2018

Christchurch is a small city, so it is more likely that those scenes will intermingle, right? Speaking of Christchurch, what impact has the city itself had on you as an artist? How big an impact do you think the quakes have had on the city’s creative communities?

Well, I spent a lot of my twenties away from Christchurch, in Perth, in Margaret River and in Broome in Western Australia, exploring the desert. I also spent a lot of time in Indonesia and exploring the Philippines. So, when the February 2011 earthquake hit, I was here for two months, and I was like, I don’t have to be here. I had travelled enough to know there was more out there and I could access that with a $400 plane ticket, so I was out…

So, those experiences travelling, have they influenced the way you think about the post-quake city? Has painting pre-quake given you a certain take on the city now?

I enjoy Christchurch’s dark underbelly and industrial vibes. I think it has this very rigid, grey stone element that I quite like, but that a lot of people despise. The city is kind of a juxtaposition of these lovely blue skies and then this grey, sterile, and weathered architecture, which I don’t know, is just kind of a strange mix. And then we are surrounded by natural beauty, if you are willing to go find it. I think it is the most schizophrenic environment to be in, you know? (Laughs) We have this white and seemingly uncultured city, but then we have these explosions of music, like you were saying before, the amount of music that comes out of Christchurch is phenomenal, explosions of art and artists and everything else. There is something in the water in Christchurch, for sure, for a population of 400,000. Maybe it is that energy of where we are geographically?

Since coming back to Christchurch in 2015, have you found new directions have opened up for you as a creative?

It has opened so many doors. I think Christchurch has changed, it’s not as gritty and grimy as it used to be. But for a creative, someone who is on their own, trying to hustle for work, it’s amazing. You can create so many opportunities for yourself, whatever you can envision in your mind, you can achieve, it just depends on how far you are willing to push yourself.

TEPID and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019
Tepid and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019

Does that surprise you, based on your experiences when you were younger?

I think those avenues probably existed then, but the situation didn’t allow us to have that train of thought. Whereas now when you come back and you are left with limited things to do, you really have to, in order to dig yourself out of a hole, you really have to dig, but you don’t have to dig too far to get what you want out of it. There are so many possibilities. There is not a lot that exists in Christchurch, so if you have an idea and you want to get it, you will get it.

It is almost a perfect storm because of the opportunities presented by the recovery, but also, I think, in our contemporary digital world, you can access and experience so many ideas that people are exploring all over the place and translate them to this environment if you want. The inspiration coupled with the opportunity is perhaps unlike any other time…

Definitely.

Although, I guess that can create a sense of homogeneity.

It can be a little bit homogenised sometimes.

I’m interested to talk about some of the more recent work you have been making, and particularly the features of fluorescent colours and wavering lines…

It’s kind of more painterly…

"Teeth" mural, Arcadia, central Christchurch, 2019
“Teeth” mural, Arcadia, central Christchurch, 2019

What is the inspiration for that?

Um I guess, physicality. If I’m making something, I don’t want it to look perfect, I don’t want it to look like it is clean cut or fresh. I was obsessed with painting like that in the past, but I found that as soon as I tried to paint more fluidly, I enjoyed it more. I think it’s more human to paint as rushed and as aggressively as possible. It’s like that classic car crash advertisement: ‘The faster you go the bigger the mess.’ The bigger the mess is awesome! So, much to the bane of all my mates who I paint with, I fucking rush my paintings. I always rush my graffiti, and it’s not because I want to get in and get out, it’s because I feel like I want to spew it out, I want to vomit my shit on the wall, you know? I don’t want to think about too much, because I think you can overthink things and you can overcook it. It’s not like graffiti is ‘get in, get out’, because I’m not doing anything illegal at the moment, sadly. I wish I could, but I’m just an old man! But when I do paint a piece on a wall, I just literally want to smash it…

Is it a need to replicate the energy you get when you do paint illegally? By painting with that speed, there’s an energy that echoes being somewhere you aren’t supposed to be, doing something you aren’t supposed to do, and the work will reflect that…

Definitely. I painted illegal graffiti when I was younger and I got caught enough to be like, fuck! But graffiti is graffiti and if you are not rushing it, why are you painting it? That’s the whole expression, to smash it out. It is a violent art form. As chill as you are, I think the point of graffiti for me is to make it look like it’s going to smash you in the face. I like things that look violent and have that emotional response, like you are going to get fucking sliced or whatever. But then I like to create these really funky colour schemes as well, with really soft gradients, which is my connection to nature, so maybe one day I want to die on the hills violently! I don’t know, maybe I want to get eaten by a shark? Maybe I try to create pieces that look like a violent beautiful death, or something…

Stay tuned for Part Two…

Follow Nick on Instagram or visit his website www.nicklowry.co.nz

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