Berst: The Faith of Graffiti (Part Two)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

Are you talking about stylistic lineage?

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

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

A five-year cycle?

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

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

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

Like the German influence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

In terms of appropriation?

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

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

Yeah? (Laughs)

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

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

A perception from the community?

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

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

The Broken Windows theory…

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

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

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

No, of course not, of course not…

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

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

It loses something…

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

But teaching the motivation is a different thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That must be a hectic schedule!

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

Yeah, ideas push evolution and development…

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

Berst, Christchurch, 2018
Berst, Christchurch, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cultural capital…

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

Berst, Tauranga, 2017
Berst, Tauranga, 2017

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

That’s what I’m talking about…

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

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

There’s got to be that distinction…

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

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

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

Cheers man…

 

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

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Berst – The Faith of Graffiti (Part One)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

Exactly, they were learning in different ways…

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

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

Totally, a huge impact.

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

Yeah, I’ve seen videos…

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2017

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

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

Spreading the gospel!

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

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

Definitely, it’s a resource.

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

That question!

You know, it is such an outdated question…

Such a binary option…

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

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

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

Signature-based graffiti…

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

Over fifty years…

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

And has had that longevity?

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

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

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

What is that essence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

 

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

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

 

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

It’s Pronounced ‘Zeen’ – Christchurch Zinefest 2018 (Part Two)

Jumping straight back into the conversation with Christchurch Zinefest’s Alice Bush and Jane Maloney, we discuss digital and physical production methods, the presence of dissenting opinions and ideas in independent publishing, zine vending machines and the challenges of displaying the Zine Library…

We have touched on the fact that in the digital age we have this other channel to disseminate ideas, is there some convergence, between analogue methods of physically sending items, and the benefits of digital transmission? I mean you could create PDF versions that you could then transmute that people could produce and disseminate, are those tactics popular or acceptable?

Alice Bush: It’s different, like there are digital zines that people create, but I’ve always found it different, because a zine is an object, like that’s what makes it a zine, and in terms of putting PDFs up on the internet, it’s a bit different, but there’s always that thing where if you are wanting to spread your zine around the world then put it up on Instagram and people can find it…

Jane Maloney: Yeah, like a buy online option.

AB: There’s a bit of a community in Instagram and different sites where people will follow different zine makers and buy the zines, it’s like this little sub-community.

JM: Yeah, I’ve definitely bought people’s zines from following them on Instagram. Of all the social media platforms, Instagram is the one that people are attracted to for these object-based things because it’s visual-based. Of course, it’s still a business that is still trying to advertise to you and trying to control what you see.

The Longest, Wobbliest, Silliest Guitar, by Ashley Ronning, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)
The Longest, Wobbliest, Silliest Guitar, by Ashley Ronning, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)

In their most pure form zines can combat that, so there’s almost an antipathy or weariness to that, using a platform that can act against the benefits of producing a zine as well…

JM: Yeah, it’s just a case of using it to your advantage without exploiting your work or any one else, or anyone else’s work… (laughs)

AB: I guess that’s part of the reason why zines haven’t disappeared as well, because those companies all own those sites, you can’t really be free, or use your free speech…

JM: Zines are like the ultimate form of uncensored media, maybe one of the only ones….

Recently there has been an example of a sort of Alt-Right street artist, making these interventions that are pro-Trump, which is kind of unexpected, but really it just shows the open potential of such tactics. Do you see that spectrum in terms of zine making as well?

JM: Alt-Right zines? I mean, I don’t specifically know of any off-hand because I don’t particularly choose to find them, but of course there are going to be various voices making zines. I watched a Vice documentary about a white supremacist group and that’s how they share information within their community, by making zines, or more like fliers, but that’s still a form of a zine, but, you know, that’s underground publishing, because how else would they spread their information?

Just the existence of that spectrum, that diversity, importantly creates a dynamic to respond to, everything is not contained in its own neatly defined bubble…

JM: Yeah, I mean it’s like everyone, you just hope that there is a greater number of zines produced for the good, wholesome reasons…

Well, they don’t have to be wholesome right? (laughs)

JM: No, but not dabbling in racism and homophobia, and all those things. You can’t stop anyone making a zine, just like you can’t stop anyone believing in something you don’t necessarily agree with. Heaps of people make educational zines, around like transphobia and why it is bad, homophobia and why it’s bad, and they are important because a lot of people just don’t know, when you have a privileged background in terms of education, you don’t realise how little some people know about things, they only know what they knew growing up. So, creating the counter to that in a zine is a good way to create a discussion.

Prick, by Caitlin Shearer, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)
Prick, by Caitlin Shearer, collection of the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library (Photo credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press)

It comes back to dissemination and how the information gets out, which brings us back to Zinefest and what the goals are for the event. Obviously, it allows zine makers to come together, but it also allows people to find other channels of information and objects of interest, so what events are going on for Zinefest 2018 to engage that wider audience?

AB: We’ve got a few workshops, which is something that we are trying to do a lot more, to reach people…

JM: We have to start from somewhere and making workshops are more accessible and suitable for the resources we have, obviously we would love to have more writing workshops and content-based stuff in the future.

AB: But at the moment we mostly have visual artists who are great, and the workshops we are having this year are coming from that. We’ve got a printmaking workshop, a collage workshop and Jane’s Riso(graph) workshop. In the past we have done poetry workshops and different things like that, but you know, it’s important to get people in and making, and I think when people think of visual objects, especially when you have something like ‘magazine’ attached to it, people think they can’t do it because that’s not something that people usually do just by themselves, usually. It’s seen as inaccessible. But I feel like it’s just getting people in and getting them to make something, so they realise it’s an object and they can actually do it.

That there are fewer rules than one might expect, there’s no word count…

AB: There’s no word count, there’s no number of pages you have to have…

JM: There can be literally one bit of paper folded up and that can be a zine.

With regards to public engagement, and this often comes up when I’m talking about urban art, how you talk about the important transgressive element of rebellious practices? We’ve talked about how zines don’t have the need to break laws to exist, but there is still an important acknowledgment of their subversive potential, so is that something you build in to the workshops, or is that a little bit difficult when you are working with institutions like the Christchurch Art Gallery?

AB: It’s hard to tell people what to make things about, and I feel like if someone’s going to make something that does talk about serious issues, about activism, that kind of thing, they will do it, because if they are thinking about it already, they will do it. It is hard to get people to realise that’s what this vehicle could be though…

JM: I do get trapped, especially with my printing method and it being purely aesthetic, people just working with collage images or just figuring out the printing method, so we try to make it more about zines and about the content in a way that these are just ways you can produce it.

So, how do you inform people about actually getting their work out, how they make a zine the social object? How do you encourage them in that respect?

JM: We made a zine about zines, which includes that sort of information that we can give away now which is really good…

AB: I feel like people see Zinefest and go this is something that I can do, like we have open stand holder applications every year, we try to keep it free. We put it on our Facebook page and make sure it’s accessible and out there to as many people as we possibly can. It’s advertising that these workshops can be a first step to being introduced to the zine world, the zine community and people already making zines in Christchurch.

JM: They might have a burning opinion on something and by going to the Zinefest market they will see that people are making things about their opinions or about personal standpoints on different issues, and then they realise that it is ok. I feel like sharing your own opinion is really frowned upon a lot of the time, which is stupid…

Um... what's a zine?, produced by MK Press for the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library's exhibition at CoCA's Lux Espresso gallery, 3rd August - 16th September 2018
Um… what’s a zine?, produced by MK Press for the Christchurch/Otautahi Zine Library’s exhibition at CoCA’s Lux Espresso gallery, 3rd August – 16th September 2018

Well, in this digital era, people are so opinionated and empowered by the anonymous platform and will shoot down dissenting voices so quickly. But you can still believe in something and not have that aggressive, opinionated approach…

JM: Yeah, the internet warrior thing has changed the whole idea of free speech and discussion, but I think people who make zines are legitimately interested in what they are making them about, you can’t just feign interest…

The other great thing with a zine is that you can make your argument, you can present your opinion and idea, but it isn’t in a way that says: ‘Hey, your comment sucks!’ It is encapsulated in its own form, rather than in response…

JM: It’s not just a snap decision or opinion.

AB: It’s to do with the care you actually put into the object. It takes time to make it, so you want your thoughts to be succinct and you want what you are writing down to be…

JM: Well-informed.

AB: Yeah, well-informed, because of the care that’s put into the object.

JM: It’s not bang, bang, bang on the keyboard and you are done.

This is a typical interview question, but outside of your own work, which local zines are notable or interesting?

JM: I think it is always worth trying to find ones that University groups still make, like the FemSoc zine, because that’s always been part of the culture of the University and it should continue to be part of that culture. University is changing so much, it costs so much more to go to University now, and it’s not as academic anymore. Engineering and stuff, they were trades and Science was from a research point of view. With all these changes, it is important to support these groups that make these things that engage in independent critical discourses.

AB: In a broader New Zealand sense, Bryce Galloway produces the longest running zine in New Zealand, called Incredibly Hot Sex with Hideous People.

JM: It’s a personal zine, it’s specifically about his life, or just small parts of it.

AB: And it’s a great introduction to zine culture in New Zealand, because it’s been running for so long and you can literally find it anywhere, it’s in a lot of places…

JM: He’s really nailed down his distribution channels.

AB: And then there’s a zine maker who travels around and makes zines out of old book covers and stuff and it is sort of a more poetry and literature-based zine. There’s lots of different things happening.

JM: We also run the Christchurch Zine Library, and that is a good resource if people want to see more zines.

How is the Zine Library built as a collection? Is it trying to document the history of the culture?

JM: At the moment, it’s just from personal collections of both Alice and I, so they do cover quite different areas. There are also ones that have been sent to us. I’m part of different publishing and printing groups on Facebook and online, so I get sent quite a few things that people have just made themselves. Those ones are generally aesthetically focussed, because they might be exploring a printing option or production method. But yeah, we’ve got quite a range.

Will it be part of the Christchurch Library when it re-opens?

AB: No. The thing about the Christchurch Library is they have their own collection, that, I think, they are going to put on show when the library re-opens, although I’m not totally sure about that yet, so whenever someone says they are a librarian I ask: ‘Are you going to put the zine library in?’

JM: we talked to someone at the Word Festival, it was obviously an idea to join it all together, but I don’t know…

So, how do you display the library currently?

JM: So, it was recently at CoCA, in the Lux Espresso gallery space, which was really just to get it out to a wider audience. There was no specific reason to choose CoCA or anything, it was just an opportunity. We would probably prefer it to be further away from institutions.

AB: Because as soon as you get it into an institution, they try and say: ‘no you can’t put this in or that in…’

JM: We’ve never really thought about a permanent public display, it’s more something we bring out for events or when we are invited to places. It would be nice to have it publicly accessible, but we haven’t really thought about the work that goes in to that yet.

AB: It is hard to find space.

JM: And supervision, because while you want people picking them up and reading them, we don’t want them to literally be picked up and walked off!

The Zine Library at CoCA’s Lux Espresso gallery, August 2018 (Photo credit: Bayley Corfield)

It would be cool to have a zine version of a book fridge, not so much for the Library, but for people to drop off and take away zines, a sort of distribution fridge!

JM: It would be great to have something, there is a zine vending machine in Auckland…

AB: Yeah, that’s so cool, it’s in the Auckland Library, I think.

JM: It’s not run by the Library, it got funding. But as long as your zine fits under a certain size, you can send multiples to put in, although because of the funding, the organiser is working just with local Auckland artists and zine makers.

AB: There is one in Toronto, which has been running for a few years, they are just so cool!

JM: It would be cool to have something like that connected with the Zine Library, where people can just take copies. We made the zine about zines so that people could just take that.

AB: It would be nice if the Zine Library was more accessible for people to come and take things…

JM: …and drop things off as well.

AB: Zinefest only happens once a year and that’s the main event for zines in Christchurch, so it would be nice to have something ongoing.

JM: Zines being a relatively organic object, the Zine Library doesn’t have to be super structured, and if things go missing out of the Zine Library, it’s not the end of the world. I document them all, I take photos of everything we end up with. In CoCA, people were taking in and clipping their own ones into the display, and that’s cool too…

That is awesome, that must be a desirable outcome, right?

JM: Yeah, it’s for other people, it’s not for us.

AB: I just don’t want the whole thing to disappear!

JM: We don’t want people to raid it! Because that’s how things collapse obviously. More stuff going on throughout the year, on top of Zinefest, would be cool, because the thing about Christchurch is that events and organised things don’t seem to last.

AB: People forget about stuff very easily.

JM: People just assume everything is temporary, everyone assumes something new is temporary because of a placement issue or something like that, so everything takes a while to solidify.

It takes a real commitment to keep doing it. So, I think I asked this question at the start of this conversation and we went off on another direction (laughs), but what specific events are taking place in Zinefest 2018?

JM: We have a few workshops in the build up to the market, I ran a zine making workshop with risograph printing at the Christchurch Art Gallery…

AB: We also had a workshop at The Corner Store, where people could make little woodblock plates to use for a zine cover or in a zine. And then on the 25th of September, we have a cut paper workshop with Sarah Lund, in the Pūmanawa space at the Arts Centre, which is also where the Zinefest Market is happening on the 30th of September, which is like the final hurrah of the fest.

JM: We are going to have the Zine Library on display at Fiksate Gallery, at 165 Gloucester Street, from the 19th until the 29th of September. The best place to go for finding out when things are happening is on Facebook, that’s the only constant social media we use, which is @zinefestchristchurch. You can also find information on the Zine Library on Facebook, which is @chchzinelibrary.

The Zine Library on display at Fiksate Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street
The Zine Library on display at Fiksate Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street

Follow Zinefest and the Christchurch/Ōtautahi Zine Library on Facebook to keep up with their activities, visit the Library at Fiksate Gallery (165 Gloucester Street) and get along to the Zinefest Market on the 30th September at the Pūmanawa Room in the Arts Centre, 10am – 4pm.

Feature Image credit: Bayley Corfield

Zine Library graphic credit: Jane Maloney/MK Press

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

Chimp – Organic Matters

When I heard about the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct mural being painted by Wellington artist Chimp earlier this year, I must admit I had to dive into social media to find out more about the artist. When I explored Instagram, the deft skill evident in his aerosol depictions of faces and native birds, infused with energetic insertions of graffiti and other eclectic forms, was immediately endearing and made me wonder why I hadn’t been familiar with his work. A few days later I made my way down to the large stretch of wall on Lichfield Street to watch Chimp in action. I stayed back and intently watched him paint. I was taken by the impressive technical prowess, the way it seemed he was sketching on the wall, layering back and forth to create tonal qualities that would be neglected by a viewer only witnessing the finished project. After seeing his friendly interactions with passers-by, even though I was wary of interrupting his progress, I went over and introduced myself and we started chatting. Chimp was friendly, down-to-earth and welcoming, even with a massive task in front of him and a deadline fast approaching. We tentatively made plans to try and catch up before he returned home and to record an interview. Unfortunately, due to the need to put in long hours on the wall and conflicting schedules, we missed our chance. Instead, we reconvened online and over a flurry of e-mails we chatted about the Justice Precinct mural, the differences between Wellington and Christchurch, and Chimp’s varied career so far. As a result, this interview is months in the making, but still worth the wait, providing insight into an unexpected contributor to Christchurch’s urban art, someone who it will be worth knowing about as his profile continues to grow on a national scale…

How does an artist from Wellington find himself painting a huge wall at Christchurch’s new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct? How did the commission come about?

I was originally quite surprised to hear from them when the email came through from the Justice Department. I thought I may have been in trouble or something before I read it! They had seen my work on social media platforms and liked it. It was quite flattering to hear from them and I really appreciated the opportunity.

I imagine most people would be a little wary of an unexpected email from the Department of Justice! Did you have to think about it for long? Obviously different artists will have different ways of analysing and reconciling who they work with, is that something you had already thought through with commissioned work generally, or was the Department of Justice a slightly different proposition?

It was a bit of a surprise, but I was mainly curious as to what it could be about. We organised a meeting to talk about the possibilities of the project and it sounded like an awesome opportunity to expand my work into the South Island. Having a lot of family in Christchurch made it an easy choice to head there.

What type of entities have you worked with in the past, and how do you reconcile the compromises you often have to make with work for high-profile organisations? Do you separate commissioned public work into different categories based on what freedom you are afforded, or do you try and ensure you can balance the client’s wishes with your own vision?

Just before the Christchurch Justice Department contacted me, I had recently completed a mural for the New Zealand Parliament Buildings. Throughout the design process, I find it easiest to see what the client is wanting in terms of the topic of the design and the aesthetic they want within the design. Sometimes clients reference parts of my previous pieces that they have seen. From there I create a design and send it through to the client and we alter it back and forth. I find this process the best for me to ensure that there is a balance between my vision and the client’s ideas. With the Parliament job, for example, they had said that they liked my birds incorporated with the graffiti art, so I sent through a design and they seemed to allow a lot of artistic freedom as the design only had a few minor tweaks from the initial concept image.

Glitch 3, Parliament Building (Basement), Wellington, 2017 (Photo credit: Alana Frost)
Glitch 3, Parliament Building (Basement), Wellington, 2017 (Photo credit: Alana Frost)

Speaking of that distinctive personal style, how did it develop? Is it from writing graffiti or working on the street, or is it something specifically developed as an approach to mural work? 

My parents were very supportive of things that I wanted to try while I was growing up, so when I decided that I wanted to move my drawing to painting on a larger scale, I was allowed to develop my style in my spare time on scraps of wood in the garage. That being said, working on a small piece of wood in the family garage to working on large-scale outdoor murals like the Christchurch piece definitely required years of practice and development in larger outdoor environments

Is your imagery based on a specific narrative or is it perhaps a reflection of the public nature of muralism, something that fits that responsibility? Who or what has influenced your style? Your Instagram profile acknowledges hip hop, and I think of the likes of Tristan Eaton and Martin Whatson as possible reference points too…

The images and ideas I depict are often unique to each space and each wall. When creating the content of a work, I try to tailor the design to the space and the surrounding communities of that particular area, while still developing my personal style and visual language. I often try to project my own ideas and narratives within a piece, but it is up to the audience to interpret their own meaning behind each unique design. I often listen to hip hop as I am going through the design process as the lyrics inspire me with narratives, quotes and ideas that I can interpret visually as my own. In terms of visual artists, Tristan Eaton is a big influence, as is Pose MSK, and James Dawe, they all experiment with composition, colour, and mixes of rendering quality.

Your work is highly refined, how have you developed your aerosol technique over time? Do you conceptualize your can work in a certain way? Because when I was watching you paint, it appeared quite methodical, very certain, like every mark mattered, working over areas, layering paint to create tones…

I love the depth created by complicated works and have great respect for artists who can balance it all into a resolved piece. I try to design separately before beginning a final painting, mainly because having a full understanding of what you are attempting to create once you are actually at the wall aids productivity and allows me to focus solely on generating quality rendering while having the confidence of knowing that the composition and colour choices work. In saying that though, there are some details, particularly line weight variations, such as fat cap flairs and ultra-sharp outlines, that cannot be generated by pencil or marker but only by aerosol. This allows the piece to grow somewhat organically especially once you are standing up throwing and extending your arm completely, rather than seated, drawing or on the computer. Time and practice have given me the experience to develop my own techniques for painting, I appreciate that spray paint is traditionally a self-taught obsession.

Fantail, Upper Hutt, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Fantail, Upper Hutt, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

As part of that self-taught element, how much do you draw from other influences; from looking at what other artists are doing, the effects they are creating, or their process? Or do you think in technical terms, like the actual physical potential of aerosol as a medium with very particular qualities, and work on technique based on that understanding? Your process, building form and tone through layers, is, to my mind, very painterly, and suggests you have an understanding of how the aerosol medium can be used…

My original drive and passion for graffiti and street art was rooted in the development of style, so I have tried to establish my own. I do think I take influence in every form though, whether it is subject, composition or technique. When teaching yourself all the influences you reference are based all on your own taste. I personally go through obsessions with different artists’ styles. For example, when I began painting with aerosol and focused on letterforms, I was influenced by Peeta’s sculptural abstract forms, but there wouldn’t be much evidence of that in my work now.

Spray involves building a skeletal sketch form, blocking in tones and layering details. Before I was getting opportunities to paint big walls I honed my skills painting canvases with aerosol only, no stencils, as I wanted to be able to paint everything freehand. This meant it took me a long time to produce sharp, well-proportioned work. But the skills I built up translate to big walls well. If you can paint a detailed portrait on a canvas with spray, the rendering quality on a wall is amazing. Brushes never gave me motivation to produce work because it felt like a chore. Even when I was just starting out, cans were addictive because you can throw so much paint around quickly. To me, it feels like the most powerful medium of creation and destruction.

However, as I grow as an artist I want to produce things that aren’t really possible with freehand spray, so I am looking at screen printing and have been producing digital work longer than I’ve been spray painting.

Tell us about the concept behind Organic Matters, the Justice Precinct mural? Are there symbolic reasons for the choice of specific bird life and flora? Does the absence of the collage-style fills significantly alter the way you conceive of the wall and how it might respond to the space it occupies?

Organic Matters is a play on the term organic matter. I’ve used this title to mimic the important activities going on within the Justice Precinct buildings while relating back to the natural subject matter. Using all native local birds and flowers, with the exception of the cherry blossoms, which refer to the gardens of Christchurch. For this particular client, the professional nature of the location and the range of people that will see the mural, the less provocative, stylised realism fills worked better than the graffiti collage style I often work with. Yes, taking away a part of the subject matter I use affects how I conceptualise a work. Instead, the design focused on expressing my style and originality through composition, line, and colour, rather than the higher visual contrast created by mixing subjects and rendering styles.

Organic Matters, Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Organic Matters, Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

You mention the type of people around the Justice Precinct as influencing the style. How were your interactions with people who passed as you were working? It is a very central spot, but also possibly populated with a diverse range of people at varying times…

The feedback was great. People who appreciate graffiti and street art were stoked with the process and can work, and everyone appreciated the birds, particularly the identity and life projected through the eyes. I had good chats with road workers, with people coming out of the police station, officers, lawyers… Overall it seemed like the people of Christchurch are very supportive of their growing urban art scene!

Organic Matters (detail), Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch. 2018
Organic Matters (detail), Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Lichfield Street, Christchurch. 2018

Did you have a preconception of the city before coming down? Were you aware of the scene down here, or at least the profile?

I have a lot of family in Christchurch, so I have visited many times growing up. But this was the first time as an adult. I’ve admired the street art festivals in Christchurch since the quakes and the graffiti scene seems to have exploded with the derelict spots providing canvases everywhere.

Did you explore the city? Or did you hit the ground running on the wall? Any favourite pieces or spots?

It was pretty much just two weeks of painting the wall, with a couple days of rain to relax and try some of the different places to eat in Christchurch. I would have liked to have painted with the locals and had a go on the giant cans [on Manchester Street], but it was straight back to University classes the day after I got back home. B List Tattoo looked after me with paint supply and even organised shipping the leftovers back for me, so that was awesome.

Even without getting to spend time painting with any local artists, how did you perceive Christchurch from Wellington in terms of the way urban art is part of each city? What is your take on the scene in Wellington?

I would say Christchurch’s scene is exploding with all of the exposed walls that can be seen from far away with all of the empty lots, whereas Wellington has tighter alleys and more hidden gems. As street art has become more accepted there has been significant growth in commissioned work while the streets are always being painted with fresh graffiti in both cities. Christchurch seems to be celebrating street art more than Wellington for the amount of large scale work being done and the dedicated events like Spectrum.

Social Woes, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Social Woes, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

Wellington’s smaller spaces would be more conducive to certain interventions, while you can see the natural fit of larger murals in Christchurch… I have always felt Wellington was a bit more varied in what you can find in the streets, that there was a wider range of approaches, would you agree? And what about the geographic lay-out, with the spread of the city, are there different scenes in different parts, like from the central city to Upper or Lower Hutt?

I think with the number of international pieces in Christchurch, as a result of the various festivals, there is a good variation of style. Although Wellington does have visiting styles too. I would say that urban art is more condensed and apparent within Wellington city. The Hutt has graffiti scenes which fluctuate, however, the buffing is relentless. Waitangi Park is the only free wall I’m aware of in the region which evolves constantly, with several abandoned spots which are also ever changing.

Mother Nature, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Mother Nature, Wellington, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

You are currently studying, but not in the perhaps more expected visual arts field, is it some type of engineering?

Close, I’m actually studying industrial design. It sort of sits between graphic design and engineering, which involves creating product form and understanding function. It is a four-year degree with honours and has taught me a lot about empathetic understanding and catered design. I gravitated to industrial design from graphic design partially as a result of the overwhelming number of students studying graphic design and an interest in car design. Imagining a graffiti artist with an industrial design degree also seemed like an interesting thing to do!

Haha, sorry, I was a little bit off the mark there with engineering! Is there a valuable practicality that you can draw on when painting murals?

The main thing I have taken from industrial design is a greater understanding of creating emotion through form and how subtleties can be used to express ideas. Also, my perspective sketching is getting much better and I have one semester to go. Any creative degree educates you on critiquing work and I have personally found it an experience of exiting an ignorant bliss that I began creating art from and realising a harsh balance of self-critique and confidence.

So, once you have finished, will you still compartmentalize the two; visual arts and industrial design? Or in some ways will they move closer together? Will you likely freelance as an artist and designer, or focus on one or the other?

Industrial design is a niche area to find employment and I think it takes full dedication and drive to make it happen, just like working as an artist. I can see myself designing products under my own brand, if I found an idea worth pursuing in the future. I manufactured and sold skateboards under the brand Planetary from the age of fourteen until I was seventeen. But I would say my ambition is firmly in my work as Chimp and spray paint currently.

What were you doing with the Planetary brand? Was it deck designs? Clothing? What did it encompass?

Planetary was the first brand or alias I ever worked under. I built downhill skateboard decks intended for the twisty roads of Wellington and skateboard racing. From there I started trying to produce spray paint graphics but lacked the skills. So that led to the aerosol campaign. I learnt a lot and sold quite a few boards but found selling handmade functional products to a niche market quite stressful.

What has kept you occupied since the Justice Precinct mural, and what have you got coming up? Any plans to come back to Christchurch?

I’m currently working on a t-shirt design for Kathmandu, within the same artist line that Wongi and Shraddha produced designs for. I have a new piece in Moonlight, a group show in Auckland held by The Designers Institute and RAYDAR. My piece is called Between the Raindrops. A design I submitted for the QT Museum Hotel competition was selected, so I will be painting a room or two there. I am quoting a few jobs around Wellington at the moment that I’ll be able to get onto once University is finished, and I have a handful of private commissions I need to get done!

Between the Raindrops (progress shot), Aerosol on Canvas, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)
Between the Raindrops (progress shot), Aerosol on Canvas, 2018 (Photo Credit: Alana Frost)

That’s a fair bit going on! Did the Kathmandu t-shirt opportunity come about through the Justice Precinct mural?

It sure did!

What can you tell us about the t-shirt design? Was there a specific brief to respond to?

The brief was quite open, but the key points were encouraging or capturing a sense of adventure and comparing the countries and culture of Nepal and New Zealand.

And the QT project must be pretty exciting. That involves DSide, right? What have you proposed for that?

Dside was one of the judges and I was humbled to be chosen. I put together a few different options, but you’ll have to wait and see the outcome.

You also mention the group show, do you exhibit studio pieces regularly, or is it secondary to walls?

I’ve had one solo show and been in several group and duo shows, but I get more satisfaction designing for bigger spaces that everyone gets to see. Spray paint lends itself to a large scale too. Once you’ve learnt to paint small details with a can, the larger work starts to really pop from the detail that you can fit in.

So, do you think of studio work as separate to your wall work, or does it function like preparatory work, feeding into your outdoor practice?

They are certainly intertwined. Sometimes the experiments are done on public urban walls and sometimes at smaller scale privately. Ultimately both help me learn and the more you paint both the easier it is to adapt to either.

Thanks Chimp, I know people have really responded to your Christchurch wall, so hopefully we see you again down here soon!

Keep an eye on Chimp’s work and various projects on social media:

Instagram: @chimp.one

Facebook: @chimpartist

Web: http://www.chimpartist.co.nz/

 

Photo credits: Feature image: Sam Gorham, Organic Matters (detail): Reuben Woods, all other images: Alana Frost

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Dcypher – Homecoming (Part Two)

If you have been following our interviews, you will know that we like to go in-depth, and that sometimes (okay, it is a pretty regular occurrence) we need to split our conversations into two parts. When it comes to Dcypher, that was always going to be the case. Based in Los Angeles, we not only had to make the most of the chance to catch up while he was in town, but it was also always going to be an inevitably wide-ranging discussion based on his lengthy experiences. After covering his recent projects in Christchurch and his move to Los Angeles and the necessary work to re-establish himself in a new scene in the first part  of our interview, in the conclusion of Homecoming we pick up on the realities of making a living as a full-time artist in Los Angeles, being close to the emergence of ‘blockbuster’ graffiti and street art exhibitions and the responses on the streets, how he keeps an eye on the street scene in Christchurch, his experiences painting in different cities, and his plans for the future…

How do you make a full-time career as an artist in Los Angeles? Is it a mixture of jobs, or are you able to be selective about what you do?

Yeah, well I’ve always looked at myself as more of a commercial artist. As I’ve grown over time I’ve always tried to adapt to certain jobs, to find ways of making money and that kind of thing, which isn’t always a lot of people’s drive as to how to go about it. It is a tough one, it does sort of change how you’re going about things. You have to take a step back and let other influences come in and whenever you’re doing work for whoever it might be, it’s always going to differ from your own personal work to a certain extent. I mean, a lot of people have figured out how not to do that, but it’s a tough gig to stick to your own thing and that’s all your going to do, you know?

You touched on how hard it was at first to be in L.A. and to create networks, to find opportunities. Do you think that in a bigger city it is in some ways harder to at least break through, because the pool is so much larger and more competitive?

No, I think the opportunities in a bigger city are far greater, and you can kind of pigeon hole yourself a little bit. But, being an outsider also kind of helps in the fact that you can navigate and come in from a bunch of different directions, meet various people and have people approach you and that sort of thing. So, yeah, I think it has definitely opened the playing field a lot more being in a bigger city and approaching it in different ways, you know, I commend folks who can pull that off…

Mural for 88 Monks in Echo Park, Los Angeles, 2016 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Mural for 88 Monks in Echo Park, Los Angeles, 2016 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

Obviously in Los Angeles there’s the longer history going back to the Latino gang graffiti, which pre-dates the graffiti that grew out of Philadelphia and New York, and then there is the emergence of hip hop graffiti and how it evolved in the area over decades, there’s the famous Saber Los Angeles River piece for example, these all give the city a significant place in the narratives of American graffiti writing culture. Recently, the city has become a setting for some organised reflection on those histories, notably the staging of the Art in the Streets show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2010, and now Roger Gastman’s new exhibition, Beyond the Streets, both of which have been pretty massive shows…

Yeah, they are huge for sure…

They both deal with broader urban art histories than just graffiti, which makes them interesting presentations, but simply in terms of their staging in Los Angeles, do you think it is as much to do with the importance of the city in these cultures, or is it more that ‘blockbusters’ are what L.A. does?

I think it’s a platform where, or it feels like it’s a platform where a lot of people can sort of come in and almost change the history in a lot of ways, and put people in a spotlight, people that might not have necessarily put in a lot of work. If you listen to the street, a lot of these guys weren’t necessarily the guys who were doing it, and there’s a lot of guys who get salty when they have been doing that shit for years and they have stayed true to the whole thing and been left out, because there are so many players in the game, you know what I mean? It comes down to how good you are at navigating the gallery thing, if that’s your M.O. There’s shit loads of guys who never get credited, who have done fucking insane amounts of shit, amazing work over the years, but have stayed underground and never really been put in the spotlight in that respect…

I was going to ask about that, what the ground level reactions were like… I remember reading that people were upset at how Art in the Streets favoured certain stories and as you say, left certain people out, so that was the feeling you were getting in Los Angeles?

Yeah, definitely. I obviously know a bunch of guys that weren’t involved but who should’ve been involved, guys who put in years and years of work. But it kind of just comes down to what groups you associate with and whether they are getting play or not. But everyone’s trying to do their own thing, and everyone’s got their own way of going about it and making their own stamp in history, some just sort of stay true to the game and keep it like, underboard, as opposed to above board…

It’s an unavoidable problem for any show of that nature. You are talking about too many diverse voices and participants to ever ‘get it right’. Also, once you start bringing in so many other influences, like the gallery worlds, and the new mainstream status of a number of urban artists, things evolve even further. Curating and condensing these histories is essentially impossible, right?

It’s always going to be the case. A famous New York graffiti writer once said: ‘Everyone has their own history of graffiti.’ No two peoples’ history of graffiti is going to be the same. To some extent, history is written by the victors, you know what I mean, so whoever is on top can kind of claim the history so to speak. Which is cool, you know, that’s part of it, but there are so many people doing their thing that there’s a million different versions of it…

In his book The History of American Graffiti, Roger Gastman recounts that he was told by someone who didn’t want to participate: ‘Anyone who tries to tell you the history of graffiti is either a liar or a fool.’ (Laughs)

I would totally agree with that.

We briefly touched on returning for Spectrum, but coming back now over the ten years you have been away, particularly post-quake, what is your take on what’s happening on the streets in Christchurch? Do you like to take a pulse of what is going on, or is it sometimes too hard to do that, especially if you come back for specific commissions that keep you occupied?

No, I always take a drive around and take some walks to old spots and stuff every time I come back to see what the next generation is doing. It’s awesome to see that people are still out there bombing and tagging, because that’s kind of like the essence of it all. And obviously with the earthquakes, it’s opened up a bunch of opportunities for both illegal stuff and legal stuff, which is cool, because I think they kind of should exist side by side to some extent. But as time goes on, it’s always something that’s going to be apparent, and there are a bunch of guys taking it very seriously which is good to see, and obviously getting away with it. (Laughs) It’s kind of something that gives the city a little bit more life, that’s the way I see it anyway…

Dcypher and Ikarus, Hereford Street, Christchurch, 2017

Following that period where the central city had a sense of freedom and there were a lot more spaces to explore, it now looks like those traditional spaces are becoming more popular again, back on the peripherals. Many of those empty buildings right in the middle of the city are slowly disappearing, but it does seem as though it has created a bit of a new energy in the writing scene with new generations. It’s interesting when you think about the different generations of Christchurch writers, and I guess you guys were maybe what, the second or third generation? If you classify it loosely…

Ahh, yeah, you are probably right there…

And now I guess there’s like another two layers or more on top of that, and its starting to build this sense of history, do you sort of feel like, even living overseas, you are seen as a something of a respected, veteran figure?

Yeah, I guess so. There’s not just myself, there’s a bunch of other people, that would be considered respected figures, but I guess I’m someone who has sort of taken it a bit further than other people would have be able to, just being in Christchurch itself. But yeah, there’s a bunch of other guys that are definitely respected figures. I do get hit up by younger generation dudes trying to paint walls and stuff, they are obviously smart enough to realise that if someone has been doing it for way longer than you have, you can learn something from them, you know what I mean? At the same time, I always try and stay humble with what I do, because I’ve been lucky enough to travel and see the amount of work that other people have put in round the world, what it really means to be revered… and being from the bottom of the world, to put yourself in that context is tricky…

New Brighton, Christchurch, 2018

Although, there are a number of New Zealand artists who are killing it, travelling the world, do you feel like there is more potential for people to be able to have that global success, to make a mark internationally rather than just locally, even while still being based here? There are multiple options now, you can move, you can stay, you can travel, you can even make a living here, there seems to be more choices than ever before…

Yeah, definitely. I think it is quite easy to get to a point where you feel that you’ve outgrown your environment to some extent, and the amount of opportunities that are available in New Zealand are still somewhat limited, and people are trying to branch out and do stuff in other countries and what have you, but at the same time you’ve got to remember where you’re from and try and bring it back full circle too…

In your case, you get to experience living in another city, and all that comes with that, including a level of home comfort, which is different to living out of a suitcase, which is the reality for a number of artists now, travelling between projects, festivals, events. I imagine that must get somewhat tiring at a certain point, although I’m sure its also an exciting way to live…

Yeah, being grounded in one place can give you a way better perspective of whatever that city might have to offer or whatever, but if you’re lucky enough to be able to travel and live out of a suitcase, that means you are doing something right…

For sure…

Even in visiting a number of cities in quick succession, you’re going to learn a shitload about being a fucking human, you know? (Laughs)

Colab with Taz Roc in Portland, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Colab with Taz Roc in Portland, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

Yeah definitely, you can’t help but be influenced by the places you paint, from the people you meet, to the physical environment, to the actual experience of travel itself, the journeys to get places, all those elements that come into it, they must all build up and inform your work…

Yeah, even being based in L.A., I still try and travel, to paint at festivals and do work across the United States. The States is a crazy place, where all the cities are so different, it’s insane. Like, you think you have Americans wrapped in a nutshell and you really don’t, you go to New Orleans, or you go to Seattle, you’re in two different countries!

What specific cities have you enjoyed painting in the most?

I mean, just painting in Los Angeles the most, makes it the most exciting place to paint. But I’ve painted in Albuquerque, Seattle, New Orleans, San Diego, and a bunch of other places, more so on the West Coast, and within the left-hand side of the United States. It’s awesome, it really gives a good perspective on that country, and again, the regional styles of all those places. But it’s somewhat interconnected as well, people are building bridges and making things happen between cities and getting influences and styles and techniques, what have you, from city to city, which is cool. Somewhere like Florida, where they have Art Basel and festivals and shit like that, is a fucking crazy place. There is a lot of crazy shit going down there. I was there painting a mural for Art Basel, and literally within like one hundred and fifty feet from where we were painting, there was a little gated neighbourhood where all sorts of crazy shit goes down. Some kid was shot at like five o’clock in the afternoon for his headphones, while one hundred and fifty feet away there’s hundreds of people painting and doing their thing and they’re not really part of that environment, but that environment still exists. There’s a lot of crazy shit going on in these tiny microcosms in the United States, it can be a dangerous place…

American Egypt wall, Los Angeles, 2016 Photo credit: Dcypher)
American Egypt wall, Los Angeles, 2016 Photo credit: Dcypher)

Living in the U.S. for almost ten years, do you feel like a Kiwi who lives in L.A., or a Los Angeleno from New Zealand?

Yeah, definitely a Kiwi who lives in LA. I’ll never renounce my ‘Kiwi-ness’! I’ve always tried to uphold the fact that I’m a New Zealander, I would never pretend to be known as an American in any way shape or form, even though I’m a citizen. The guys I paint with, the CBS guys, nicknamed me ‘Big Kiwi’, and I can never live that down, so, I would never consider myself a Los Angeleno. But a lot of people do, and it doesn’t take long for them to consider themselves Los Angelenos, even if they’ve only been living there for a couple of years, which is interesting. It’s such an amazing place where a lot of crazy, interesting things are going on…

I feel like with a place like Los Angeles, it would be easy to get swept up in the romanticism of it, and to identify with it…

People want to attach themselves to it and you will meet someone and ask: ‘Are you from L.A.?’ They’ll be ‘Yeah, totally, but I’m from Ohio originally…’

We kind of grow up with Los Angeles and New York as these iconic places, the settings for so much of our popular culture diet, that we have this expectation of them before we even visit, which might make it easier to adopt that identity when you do get there…

Yeah, I think, maybe your preconceived ideas of what a city has to offer are always wrong, like you always get to a city and it’s like: ‘Shit, this is not what I expected!’ A place like the United States is so diverse, so much crazy shit is happening constantly, it’s easy to align yourself with a certain aspect of the city, rather than a general idea of what that city sort of stands for…

Coming back relatively regularly, and maintaining that public profile through walls and projects when you do, have you ever thought about coming back and staging an exhibition in Christchurch, or actually just moving back?

Yeah, I just recently had a daughter so the idea of living in the United States for the rest of my life is sort of diminishing. You always want to have your kids experience life the same way you did to some extent, and schools and stuff in New Zealand are a little bit better than central L.A., so yeah, I definitely always considered coming back and producing work back home…

Detail of Wharenui Recreation Centre mural, Riccarton, Christchurch, 2016

You were part of the surge of graffiti culture in the early to mid-2000s, with the likes of Disruptiv, the popularity of hip hop summits, and even locally, you were part of Project Legit, and a number of other projects as well, do you kind of feel like there is a similar vibe now, albeit with this evolved concept of ‘street art’ and whatever that entails? It must feel like coming back and doing those types of things is actually achievable, not only because of the things you’ve learned in the ten years you’ve been away, but because of the environment you are coming back to as well, right?

Yeah, definitely, I think everyone here has been keeping the ball rolling, you know. When you move away you feel like nothing’s happening back home because you are so inundated with your own life…

Out of sight, out of mind…

Yeah, but every time I come back, I’m sort of floored by the amount of stuff that’s going up, different people really pushing the artform. So, I’m super stoked to be able to have that in my mind, that it is a possibility to move back and try and make something happen. Although, it is kind of daunting as well because the work opportunities in the States are far greater, whereas here you’ve got to hustle that little bit harder to try and get things going. But I feel you could, but that’s a period where you start to refine your thing and really nail it down.

Thanks for sitting down with us man, safe travels and see you back…

Yeah, cheers man…

Even though Dcypher is back stateside for now, you can keep track of what he is up to through his various online forums:

Facebook: @dcypherart

Instagram: @dcypher_dtrcbs

Web: https://www.dcypherart.com/

 

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Dcypher – Homecoming (Part One)

Dcypher has been living in Los Angeles for a decade, but the Christchurch-bred artist has still made a significant contribution to the post-quake city’s walls. From commissioned works such as his cut-up patchwork of iconic kiwiana on the Wharenui Pool in Riccarton, or his on point ‘Welcome to Christchurch’ greyscale postcard for 2015’s Spectrum festival, to more informal jams and productions with his DTR crewmates, he has made the most of his sporadic trips home. Dcypher, of course, has pedigree, he is not some out-of-towner drawn to the opportunities in Christchurch, but rather an important figure in the city’s pre-quake graffiti history. Dcypher’s legacy now extends across decades and geographic settings, tracking the progression of an artist across the globe, and the transition between graffiti traditions and the new mural renaissance. Prior to heading State-side, Dcypher had already developed a notable local and national profile. From his role as a tutor and artist for Project Legit in the early to mid-2000s (an art programme that served to mentor young graffiti writers and provide legal opportunities for painting), and numerous local projects and commissions, to his regular inclusion in issues of Disrupt Magazine and even Askew’s 2007 book InForm, where, alongside Lurq and Pest 5 (although the latter had relocated to Auckland by that time), he was one of the few featured artists from outside of the North Island, Dcypher was able to fashion something of a career from his graffiti roots, a transition that might have been unexpected, even amongst the graffiti culture renaissance of the mid-2000s in Aotearoa. However, when he left Christchurch for the United States in 2008, he, like most people, had no idea of the monumental changes the city would endure just several years later, and indeed, the creative opportunities that would emerge in the recovery period. As a result, Dcypher has been returning to a different city, not only from the hometown he left behind, but also in comparison to the sprawling and stretching metropolis of Los Angeles to which he has become accustomed. That environment, coupled with the wisdom of experience developed over years of work, has ensured Dcypher’s output expresses a well-honed practice, striking and crisp, distinct but ultimately indebted to graffiti as the culture from which he emerged, a balance he continues to maintain. While he was recently back in town, I sat down with Dcypher to find out about his views on Christchurch’s current scene, his experiences as an artist abroad and what his future may hold. While the open-air setting of Smash Palace may have made the difference between mid-winter Christchurch and bright Los Angeles abundantly clear, it was obvious that while the man might not reside in Christchurch for now, he maintains deep connections to the people, places and unique characteristics of his hometown.

You have been back in town for a couple of weeks now, what have you been up to since arriving? From all accounts you pretty much hit the ground running…

I started the Lyttelton skate park mural with the rest of the DTR crew, Ikarus, Yikes and Wongi, pretty much a few days after I arrived, and that took about eight straight days of just painting. The weather was good though, and everything worked out. Then I just got straight into the Airport mural with the Oi YOU! guys, George [Shaw] and Shannon [Webster]. That was a good fucking two weeks of straight work. I think George added up five hundred hours or something, so, we had all of us working on it. It was all acrylic, which is pretty much the first time I’ve ever done like a full acrylic mural, so it was a learning curve for me. But yeah, the result was good, and yeah, I have just been trying to relax after that.

So, when you say acrylic, you mean with brushes rather than cans?

Yeah, brushes, rollers, trying to learn new techniques for fading without spray paint, that kind of thing… But mostly, yeah brushes and rollers.

Was that just a condition of working at the Christchurch Airport, because the mural is located inside the actual building, right?

Yeah, obviously with all the passengers and commuters within the airport, they can’t have spray paint fumes going about the airport, so they were pretty adamant about just keeping it all acrylic.

A section of Dcypher's mural at the Christchurch Airport, 2018
A section of Dcypher’s mural at the Christchurch Airport, 2018

Having made a career out of wielding a spray can, did it take a while to get your head around the brushes and rollers? Using a can would be second nature now, and you mentioned having to work on fading techniques, did it impact your stylistic approach as well?

Yeah, I had an idea that it was going to be the case, so I designed the mural with that in mind; using various techniques with acrylic paint to achieve the look I wanted. But in knowing that I was going to use acrylic paint, I had to design it and sort of tone it back a little bit and keep it quite simple, which isn’t necessarily my kind of style. The style that I chose was also something that I knew the Airport and the general public could palette. So, I guess it’s not necessarily my most interesting  work in that sense, but it was an awesome learning curve to be able to use acrylic. I mean, I guess we’ve always used acrylic paint from the get go alongside spray paint, so I’ve always had an ‘in’ on how to go about it, and I’ve always tried to mess around on canvasses and use acrylic paint on a smaller scale where it makes sense to use brushes. Spray paint only works down to certain scale…

I was just going to say, it’s kind of the opposite of cans, they are easier to go bigger, whereas with brushes, it’s easier to go smaller, although obviously rollers help with larger works as well…

Yeah, but just seeing what a lot people have been doing overseas, especially in Europe and stuff, as murals get bigger and bigger, people are starting to shift to using acrylic with brushes and rollers on that really large scale. It is actually easier to use acrylic paint than spray paint; it’s cheaper, it goes further, it’s faster, the longevity is better…

A lot of people I’ve talked to have mentioned environmental concerns as well, not completely moving away from can use, but it seems to be something people are wary of…

Yeah, I think, if you were an artist that had the opportunity to be able to do that, then that would be cool. But I think it is probably not really an environmental thing, it’s more of a technique thing, just because best results are the end goal, you know what I mean? And environment is secondary, like everything else that humans do! (Laughs)

Detail of the Christchurch Airport mural, 2018
Detail of the Christchurch Airport mural, 2018

I guess as well, the evolution of this contemporary muralism movement into its own beast, it means you are getting artists from different backgrounds now, you aren’t necessarily coming from a graffiti writing background or even necessarily that aerosol experience. Mural artists are increasingly switching between streets and studios, combining those two worlds, like, I think of the Spanish artist Aryz, as a prime example of that sort of approach, he is definitely taking muralism into a painterly direction…

Yeah, that’s who I was referring to before. That guy is definitely the best muralist by far at the moment. And he was doing a lot of that stuff with rollers and brushes, ten years ago, you know what I mean…

To see some of the latest stuff he’s been doing, it literally looks like a studio painting on a massive wall, the painterly quality brings a totally different element to it…

For sure…

You mentioned that the Christchurch Airport mural came about through Oi YOU!, you have developed a pretty good relationship with George and Shannon over a couple of projects, beginning with your inclusion in the first Spectrum show (at the Christchurch YMCA in 2015). What was it like for you coming back for that show? Experiencing something like that in your hometown, and having some international context for festivals and events, was it easy to get on board with what they were doing?

Yeah for sure, they totally went about it the right way. They could have just had international artists of a high calibre come through, but by also involving local artists to do their thing, people who have set their feet in the city, a long-time before they arrived, it showed George and Shannon understood having that as an important part of it all. Those artists being represented in the festivals was a strong point to get across, that there are people that have been doing it in the city for a long time before this stuff had come about…

Witnessing, and of course contributing to (as one of the headline artists) that Spectrum show as it came together, and thinking back over all the years growing up in Christchurch, were you still taken aback that it was actually happening in your home town?

Yeah, I always feel like whenever you leave somewhere, awesome things happen, and you feel like you are missing out! (Laughs) I was just stoked to be invited back to produce work. I could have been overlooked, going off and doing my own thing, so definitely, it was awesome to get involved and to have that event and be a part of it all…

Dcypher's Welcome to Christchurch wall, for Oi YOU!'s Spectrum festival, Welles Street, 2015 (photo credit: Dcypher)
Dcypher’s Welcome to Christchurch wall, for Oi YOU!’s Spectrum festival, Welles Street, 2015 (photo credit: Dcypher)

It must have been cool that all the DTR crew were involved as well [the exhibition even featured a DTR colab room, with portraits of the members in a darkened room]; to have that collective recognition as a crew as well as individually…

Those guys were all involved from the get-go, George got them all involved, I just kind of came in from the side, off the back of all that, which is cool. But yeah, it is awesome that they have been able to give an amazing amount of people opportunities to produce work and that’s kind of the essence of the whole idea and how it should go down…

As you said, the first thing you did when you got back this time was the Lyttelton skate park project with the rest of the DTR crew. You guys have a pretty lengthy history in the context of New Zealand, and Christchurch graffiti history, how is it getting back and painting together? Is it a different type of relationship than you have with CBS, your Los Angeles crew?

Yeah, you know growing up with a bunch of guys and painting regularly, there’s probably a little bit more of a brotherhood sort of thing. In the States, there are so many players that it’s a huge family and it can be hard to make those same types of connections. So yeah, working with those guys is always awesome, you don’t even have to think about it, you know, everyone’s already on the same wavelength and you just go ahead and make it happen. Whereas in L.A., there’s a disconnect so to speak, with guys you haven’t necessarily grown up with since you were fourteen years old, you know what I mean…

Section of the DTR crew (Dcypher, Ikarus, Yikes, Wongi) collaboration for the Lyttelton Skate Park, 2018.
Section of the DTR crew (Dcypher, Ikarus, Yikes, Wongi) collaboration for the Lyttelton Skate Park, 2018.

When did you leave for Los Angeles?

I left in 2008, during the global recession. (Laughs) I basically landed, and Obama was elected. People were crying and shit. It was pretty amazing to be in the United States for something like that, at that time, and to be part of it, to feel like you were a part of it. But being there wasn’t easy in the beginning, I was doing a lot of construction work, there weren’t a lot of opportunities. I was sort of working my way up, meeting a lot of other artists, painting various little projects. Doing things to prove yourself to people who have already lived and worked in the city for a long time and have their foot fucking firmly in the ground. Slowly but surely, I was able to become a full-time artist over there…

Did you have any connections before you went? Were you down with CBS before you went?

No. I had some good friends of mine who I grew up with in New Zealand, two American guys, whose father was based here through Operation Deep Freeze when they were kids. I grew up skating with them, doing graffiti with them, and they had moved back to the States. They were originally from San Diego, and one of them was, actually both of them, were in L.A. at the time I arrived, so I had two really good friends that I hadn’t seen for a really long time to go and start the whole thing alongside. They had already figured out a bunch of shit. To go to Los Angeles by yourself is a big undertaking, and to have someone there as a liaison to help you get through it and figure it out, is ultimate, so I owe a lot to those guys, for sure…

I remember your profile in InForm, the 2007 book produced by Askew featuring a number of New Zealand graffiti artists, you commented on how the Christchurch scene was really small and everyone painted together. That probably highlights how daunting it must’ve been to move somewhere like Los Angeles, which would be like ten or more cities the size of Christchurch…

At least…

Piece for the Pico Union housing corporation, aka the Grafflab, in Los Angeles, 2015. (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Piece for the Pico Union housing corporation, aka the Grafflab, in Los Angeles, 2015. (Photo credit: Dcypher)

That feeling of starting again, of starting over in terms of reputation, that must have been pretty strong…

Yeah, for sure. But it is refreshing, its humbling to have to work your way back up again. The calibre of work in the U.S. is fucking insane. Just the level of competitiveness is crazy. New Zealand has that kind of tall poppy thing, where if you think you’re better than everyone else, you are going to get cut down quick, you know. Whereas in America, if you think you are better than everyone else, for some reason everyone holds you up on a pedestal.

Do you think that is a unique thing to the United States, something about the mindset there?

It’s a combination of both freedom and capitalism that sort of drives people to do what they do. I mean there are guys in the States who do illegal graffiti and have done illegal graffiti for their entire lives and have never been snatched up, they have refined that shit to an amazing level, where they can go out and produce work without running into too much bullshit. But, at the same time, the competitiveness, you know, it keeps you on your toes.

It is sort of L.A. in a nutshell I guess. It’s a city of contrasts. I imagine anything can happen at any time, in any place…

Yeah, for sure…

Was the American West Coast scene an influence on you coming up? Or were you more inspired by New York and the East Coast, or maybe European writers? An American tourist remarked to me recently, not knowing anything about you, how one of your pieces here in Christchurch looked like something from Los Angeles. Has that West Coast, or more specifically Los Angeles style become more of an influence by living there? There’s that long lineage of ‘West Coast’ artists across a number of fields, and that specifically Los Angeles aesthetic that can be found in music, film, fine art, street art, graffiti…

To begin with obviously it was the New York influence, Subway Art and books like that, before the internet. Then once the internet happened, it was definitely European stuff. I was always more into East Coast hip hop stuff than I was into West Coast stuff, and I kind of liked the grimy, cold aspect of the East Coast. My Mother’s from Boston as well, so I have an affiliation to the East Coast. But once you get to California, and you get a little bit of the lifestyle, it’s definitely influential. It always has had its own style and everything going for it, but my eyes weren’t necessarily open to that. I did see a lot of stuff through magazines and stuff before the internet too, that was all West Coast, but at the same time I wasn’t really thinking about where in the States it was from. When I was young it was just what was aesthetically pleasing. So, I guess it did have an influence on me. There were a couple of guys I remember, like this guy Clown, who had some interviews in some magazines back in the day, who I’ve actually been able to meet since moving to the West Coast, which is pretty crazy. There were a bunch of other guys as well, and obviously all the CBS guys too. I think the Europeans have always taken what writers were doing in the United States and really pushed it in another direction, in more artistic directions, whereas the States has always kept that illegal, raw sort of graffiti, like you’ve got to keep it the real deal, there’s no using some weird technique, people shut you down real quick with that sort of stuff!

Extinction wall, Venice Beach, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Extinction wall, Venice Beach, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

It feels like the Los Angeles influence isn’t only apparent in stylistic terms and letterform traditions, but through the environment itself, it is also evident conceptually and in terms of the imagery you often use. I’m thinking of the architectural elements in a lot of your work, to me, they have the feeling that Los Angeles as a sprawling, built environment, with a certain physical nature, is influential. Do you think that imagery, and even just the conceptual approach to your work, has been a response to living there, to that landscape?

Yeah for sure, obviously as you’re developing your work, you are taking reference photos and stuff like that all the time, and Los Angeles being the insane metropolis that it is, it was kind of inevitable that that was going to find its way into my work, because I’ve always sort of been interested in infrastructure and cityscapes and stuff like that…

Do you see a connection between building letterforms and architectural forms? In terms of how a letter, or a piece, is built up and constructed, it feels architectural in how space is considered, and angles are created and used…

I think earlier on I thought about that a lot. I remember doing some really sort of structural letters that almost looked like buildings in the past. But I do kind of separate my graffiti style from canvasses and mural stuff. It is always in there to some extent, but I try and stick to traditional letterforms, developing it in my own way. I guess always having some sort of architectural element in the background was kind of where I started pulling that stuff from, you know, backgrounds for graffiti stuff…

As you get older, when it comes to your letterforms, is there less influence from what other writers are doing and more of a continuation of what you have already developed? That idea of constant refinement, which is something that comes from the compulsion of writing, from repeating a tag ten thousand times, to perfecting a certain signature letter? For you, is your style becoming more and more insular as you get older, entangled in your own history of writing, more so than really taking notice of other sources?

Yeah, for sure. Like maybe from guys I initially painted with, but with any outside source, it’s not a good look to be doing that. Like you say, you do a tag ten thousand times, fifty thousand times, and over time you start to understand how everything fits together, it’s like an ongoing puzzle, within your own mind. It just refines over time. There are certain aspects that you might see another person doing, but it’s probably more technique than it is style. Because with style, it is hard to adapt someone else’s style, you are always going to have your own style, it’s almost impossible to reflect another person’s style, but technique for sure…

Los Angeles, 2014 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Los Angeles, 2014 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

Like you were saying earlier, that from the pre-internet era, there were the influences of Subway Art, Style Wars, and there was what was on the walls around you, those influences were what you had, now with the digital age, you can see all these different styles, you can see writers from all over the world, in some ways it must be harder to develop a personal style amongst so much information…

Yeah…

Because so many things have been done, but also, you’ve seen all those things as well. You are nowhere near as isolated. Of course, that isolation meant that some really interesting local styles developed as a mixture of certain influences, like in Brazil, with the combination of hip hop graffiti with pixachao, or even Los Angeles and the influence of Cholo graffiti, but it is getting harder and harder to even see that happening because everything is available to everybody, everything seems more global.

Yeah, I think that graffiti has always had regional styles too. You could pick someone’s style from where they were in the world, even with the internet you could pick someone’s style; if you understand graffiti, you know someone from the West Coast of America as opposed to someone from the East Coast, versus someone from Brazil, versus someone from Australia, to some extent. Graffiti has always had its own specific styles, even within countries, it’s sort of like, ‘oh this is more of a northern style or a southern style’, which is awesome. It means the direct influence of what you are seeing in real life is what really has impact on your style, rather than seeing awesome photos on the internet all day long, which won’t ever have as much impact as walking up to a wall of a legend dude who has been painting twenty years in your city and just being like ‘Holy shit! That’s insane!’

To be continued Homecoming (Part Two)

In the meantime, check out Dcypher’s various platforms:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dcypherart/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dcypher_dtrcbs/

Web: https://www.dcypherart.com/

 

 

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

Kophie Hulsbosch – Future Proof

Kophie Hulsbosch might be softly spoken, often punctuating sentences with gentle laughter, but it is quickly apparent that she is driven by a desire to use her creative output for good. I was introduced to Kophie when I was preparing for our story about the RAD Collective, and as I got to know more about her, I discovered the diversity of her practice, from her clothing brand, Future Apparel, to illustration, via graffiti and surrealistic painting. In her own words, she isn’t someone who ‘just sits back and lets stuff happen’, and as such Kophie’s output is always entwined with her socio-political and environmental beliefs. But her work also reveals the exploration of identity as a constant theme to be unpacked. This exploration is not solely an act of self-reflection, there is a sense Kophie is interested in identity in a broader stroke, in what it means to be an individual amongst a collection, not just in her quirky characters and portraits, but also in the inherent nature of graffiti, and her vocal concerns about consumption, our complicit involvement and its impact on our surrounding environment. Another example of a young Christchurch creative emerging from the influence of urban art to explore a diverse range of artistic approaches, Kophie Hulsbosch is a reminder of the potential to connect a creative impulse with a desire to change the world, regardless of the scale of such actions. We sat down and discussed how art became a vessel for her beliefs, how these ideas were fortified in her practice, and the dark side of the ‘fast fashion’ industry…

So Kophie, let’s pretend this is a superhero movie, what is your backstory?

I came from Wanaka, surrounded by the outdoors and people skateboarding. Then, when I was about ten, I moved to Christchurch. I never finished high school, I dropped out in year eleven, it just wasn’t for me. I worked terrible jobs and I just kind of figured out what I wanted to do through that. In high school, I had only ever really studied in my art classes (laughs), so after working those horrible jobs, I decided to do the foundation course in design at ARA. I loved the course and decided to continue with graphic design. My goal was to be self-employed, but I also wanted to use art for social commentary, mostly environmental issues. After I completed my Bachelor of Visual Communication, I received a scholarship to do an honours degree in Media Arts. At the same time, I decided to launch a business, making use of the facilities at ARA and combining everything I had learned; drawing, branding and graphic design. I wanted to make some sort of environmental comment with my work, so after discovering that the clothing industry was the second most polluting industry in the world, I decided to re-purpose clothes. I guess I’m not the sort of person to just sit back and let stuff happen! (Laughs)

When did that drive crystallise? Did it take a while for you to realise the direction you wanted to go, or was it engrained in your worldview from a young age?

Well, I enrolled at ARA because I just wanted to get better at drawing. But when I was 11 or 12, I became a vegetarian, and that sort of set off my ethical conscience, because once you start learning about one issue, all these other things pop up that show how so many things are interconnected. I started learning about the impact on the environment of animal agriculture, and the associated social issues, and then when I did a philosophy paper at ARA, I started finding out how the world works and how messed up a lot of things are, and I started exploring how to potentially change it…

Importantly, you have utilised art to engage with those issues. Was that just something that made sense to you, to communicate and explore ideas? Is drawing a way for you to problem solve?

I’ve always known it is one of my strengths, in Maths or English at high school, all I would do was draw on my hands, and I would just constantly get in trouble. I just think it’s the only voice that I have, or at least it’s the best outlet I have to get the message across.

Gig poster for The Settlers x Local Elements, digital illustration, 2016
Gig poster for The Settlers x Local Elements, digital illustration, 2016

One of the first things I noticed with your work is the diversity; illustration, graffiti, figurative drawing and painting, design work, branding… Is it just in your nature to constantly explore different approaches, or is it necessary to express different ideas?

I think I just always want to try different things and learn. But sometimes I think I probably should focus more on one thing! (Laughs) But I just want to be creative in any way, and I mean, you can learn anything off the internet now. I taught myself how to sew on YouTube! There are infinite possibilities…

In some ways, the need to pigeon hole yourself has been broken down by the possibilities of the digital age to explore ideas and cross-pollinate. But would you proclaim yourself to be any one thing more than anything else?

I mean I started everything from drawing and illustration, just weird, obscure drawings and naked women! (Laughs)

There is a definite sense of the surreal or fantastic in some of your work, but there is also often a grounding in some sort of psychological reality, an exploration of identity, or that sense of social awareness that you’ve already talked about. Do you try and find a balance between intentionally expressing ideas and a subconscious approach?

Every project is different. Sometimes I think when it is from my subconscious, I look at it and I’m like, how did that come out of my head? But with graphic design work and commissioned projects, it is more controlled, I know what I’m doing. Most of the free stuff is influenced by hip hop, hip hop music and graffiti and those cultures.

Above the Clouds, ink and pen on paper, 2018
Above the Clouds, ink and pen on paper, 2018

What do you find the most attractive element of graffiti? Is it the creative element, the search for style? Is it the idea of the social communication? Or is it the act, the adventure of graffiti?

I think all three; I love the thrill, I love the idea that you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, and make spaces come alive. You see little areas and you’re like, that could be a face, or that could have a personality. The style is important as well, I mean I look up to people who have a really defined style and I always think of style over spots, personally…

With graffiti writing, obviously the issue of identity is a central concept as well, albeit couched within the expression of style. Do you make the connection between letterforms, style and the idea of identity?

I think my letterforms are probably the weakest element of my art, so I like to practice them a lot. But I try and paint every piece differently, so I never really have a particular style. Some of my stuff is quite creepy, and creature-like, but then other times it can be quite straight and sort of masculine. I like to make it look like a girl didn’t do it, whatever you think girly graffiti looks like, like love hearts and pink colours… I like to make my stuff look not necessarily feminine…

Christchurch, 2017
Christchurch, 2017

The discussion of gender has long been a part of the analysis of graffiti, at least from a scholarly approach, because there is this perception of graffiti being a very masculine pastime. When you think of the likes of Lady Pink, there is an acknowledgement of gender in her moniker. But, your name doesn’t have to be representative of reality, you can mask your identity when you write graffiti. By developing a personal style, that in itself can become the identity, is that your approach?

I guess so, because on my Instagram, and it is just my art Instragram, I never really post selfies or pictures of myself, because I like the idea of people not knowing who I am, if I’m a girl or a boy. People do tend to have a judgement if you’re a girl.

The pursuit of style can be all consuming, and with the digital age, the number of available influences has become so wide-ranging, that it seems harder to develop that distinctive signature in some ways, everything has a danger of seeming derivative, just because more people have seen more things…

The internet! (Laughs) I know back in the day, each town had a certain style, you would know if it was New York graffiti or whatever. Whereas now everything is just a massive collage of everything; every era, every style, and it is harder to find that identity, because there is so much that’s already been done. You have to think outside the box all the time, or just accept the fact that everything’s being re-purposed.

Queenstown, 2018
Queenstown, 2018

How did you become a member of the RAD Collective?

I was making clothes at ARA just before a pop-up shop. I was really stressing out and just running around the classroom getting things done. Becca and Jimirah (founders of the RAD Collective) came in to see one of my other mates, and I just had my clothes on the table and they were looking through them, and they were like: ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ Then a few months later they gave me a message on Facebook and said: ‘We are doing a thing. Do you want to be a part of it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’

What do you personally see as the greatest benefit of the RAD Collective? That type of network, people with different skills, and the energy it generates, must be really helpful in the transition from a learning institution into the ‘real’ world…

They have been so amazing. They have just uncovered countless opportunities for me. They look out for me so much. They are just always so supportive, which is really cool. They are trying to suss out a space, find walls and organise exhibitions… You can’t do all that stuff by yourself…

That story about meeting Becca and Jimirah also introduces your clothing brand, tell us a little bit about Future Apparel…

As I said before, the main drivers of the brand have been the environmental and ethical issues, things like the conditions for workers overseas, and the number of animals killed for materials. The crazy thing that I can’t understand is the environmental and ethical impact of the day to day things that we do. By consuming in the over the top manner we do now, we keep making it worse and worse and worse, but we kind of just accept it. I know people notice things, but we are so used to the consumer culture we live in, it feels like you have to abide by it…

Second hand denim jacket with Future Apparel design, 2017
Second hand denim jacket with Future Apparel design, 2017

There is an unwillingness to explore alternatives because they seem too hard.

Yeah, is it cognitive dissonance? Is that the one? (Laughs) Through Future Apparel, I want to change the mindset. My ultimate goal is to create a different culture around how we buy and consume, to encourage people to think about the actual human aspect of things when you buy. Like, with clothing, most of us probably think it jut appears on a rack by magic, you don’t see any of the process behind the item.

Is it important to find the balance between your creative outlet and the real-world application; to not be dragged down by the realities of the political side, to ensure that you remain inspired by your creative outlets?

Yeah, it’s a constant battle: I want to change the world, but then sometimes I don’t think I can do anything, and that the world’s fucked! (Laughs) Sometimes you feel isolated, because you see people around you and you tell them things, and they are like, oh that’s terrible, but they don’t really do anything, they don’t care enough to make it their life to change the world for the better…

I feel like it is a result of how we receive and process information in the digital age. The internet allows avenues of widespread and instantaneous communication, but we seem to use them for the worst possible things. The potential is so amazing, but the reality can be so mind-blowingly frustrating! (Laughs)

Memes! (Laughs) I think it is crazy how we have all this information at our finger tips, but it is used, I’m not saying by everyone, but it is used by so many people to just watch silly videos. I can post a selfie on Facebook and get 130 likes, and then I share something about the planet, about the extinction of sea creatures, and people give me like maybe two likes! I don’t know…

You must have learnt a lot about the tricks of the corporate world, what things have you discovered that have fed into Future NZ as a concept?

I have looked at the idea of green-branding and green-washing, and how a lot of brands are using these ideas to drive profits, even though they aren’t necessarily a ‘green’ brand, so that was something I wanted to avoid…

Explain the idea of green-washing a little bit…

So, with green-washing, someone like Apple Computers say they recycle their products for new computers, and they have this whole eco-brand called Apple Renew, but they are also bringing out new products every couple of months and trying to push consumerism while also trying to have this other identity of being eco-friendly…

So, they are producing a semblance of a response to an issue they have helped create and are still creating…

Or say toilet paper companies who say they are donating one cent from every sale to help save forests; it is like a pretend persona, just to try and drive sales. One of my lecturers suggested there is a chance to do some further research, he thinks the whole sustainability approach can’t work under the capitalist construct, that it will always be undermined by profit and exploitation, even if it is green-branded or a green product…

It’s not a fair battlefield, right? The field is being created by those who gain most. How do you fit your conception of graffiti and urban art within the issues of sustainability and ethical consuming? Do you see it as a natural way to address that uneven battlefield?

I wouldn’t say my graffiti is eco-based, because I know spray paint isn’t the best for the environment, but I have made paste-ups in the past, and I always have ideas of big signs I can put up everywhere, like guerrilla campaigns around the city. I do want to do that sort of thing, but I’m just figuring out how to get it across. I think it could be a really good form of getting a message out there. You are forced to look at it, with social media you can just scroll past it, like ‘meh’, but if it is in your face in the streets, if you are driving past it every day, you might think about it…

Live painting for The RAD Collective event Under the Influence, Boxed Quarter, central city, 2018
Live painting for The RAD Collective event Under the Influence, Boxed Quarter, central city, 2018

You recently had something of a run in with a well-known fast fashion company, what happened?

My friend sent me a picture of basically my exact design on a fast fashion shop piece. I didn’t really think much about it, but then I was lying in bed and I saw the image I created because I had put it on my wall, and I was like, it is exactly the same, like exactly the same: same colours, same font! I put it on Instagram and my friends got way more worked up than I did, Becca wrote a big post about it, and it got around a bit on Facebook. The New Zealand Herald contacted me, but I didn’t talk to them just in case, you don’t want to get sued. Then I found out about another girl from Australia whose work they blatantly ripped off as well, but she didn’t do anything about it, she couldn’t be bothered. So, I emailed them, I said, I think you’ve copied my design, and they basically replied that it was a coincidence and showed me their process. (Laughs) But they said like, ‘this was done at 11.50’. They gave an exact time something was done. When you’re doing your workbook process, you don’t write the exact time and date when you are doing it, unless there is something strange going on. But, I mean, it is what it is…

I guess in that situation, you have to decide how worthwhile the expenditure is, because it is a lot of emotional energy, right? But at the same time, it must be frustrating to think that as a result, companies probably get away with a lot, because their resources are greater. Did it also make you think about the role of social media? How when you post something, it is visible anywhere around the world and it immediately becomes so public?

I instantly thought of the recent thing with H&M and Revok, the graffiti artist, like they think they can just take anyone’s work because they are the rich big guns and they kind of have immunity because they are so well-known. But yeah, the most frustrating thing was the mass production side; they are making money from exploitation of labour and other ethically dubious practices, where I make one-off designs, re-purposed from fast fashion! (Laughs)

It’s the exact antithesis of what you want Future Apparel to be and to be associated with, which must have made it so much more frustrating than someone who was maybe trying to enter that world. In many ways I would hope it has steeled your resolve to opening people’s eyes to the realities of fast fashion and the alternative options that are available…

Yeah. I also think about how sustainable clothing tends to be elitist in a way, like it is always quite high-end and targeted towards more well-off people. But I wanted to also use street wear, skateboarding, hip hop, and cultures like that, and incorporate them all and make something for youth, because I feel like it’s a missed market. I want to make it affordable for that group and remove the elitism. So, like I know a lot of people my age, they care about this sort of thing, and they want to buy sustainably, but it is out of their price range, they are often studying and would never be able to afford one-off nice items…

Thoughts, acrylic, aerosol and nail polish on wood, 2018
Thoughts, acrylic, aerosol and nail polish on wood, 2018

You obviously have some long-term goals, but what do you have going on in the short term? You’ve got a few things on the go, right?

I’m illustrating a children’s book for the Crusaders (The Super Rugby franchise), it’s going to be in every school in New Zealand, which is pretty cool! But I’m not allowed to make the horses smoke cigarettes! (Laughs) The Under the Influence exhibition was obviously a few months ago, I exhibited two portraits and painted live at the event. Some of my projections were also in the courtyard. I haven’t worked on Future Apparel much, (laughs) but hopefully I will find time to do that. I’m also working with a sustainability company, but I can’t say much because they haven’t got copyright yet…

You’ve got some mural work?

Oh yeah, I’m doing a mural at BizDojo!

With that many things on the radar, have you reached that goal of self-employment? Are you sustaining yourself through your creative outlets?

I’ve got the student allowance at the moment, without that I’d be screwed! (Laughs) I’m doing a business course as well…

As an artist, and being that your ethical concerns are pretty central to your approach, do you find that you are an odd one out in that environment? I am always interested in how ethics and morality are incorporated into commerce-based education…

Yeah, I just can’t mentally justify having a business without making it for the greater good, like not just for profit, I just can’t wrap my head around being driven by making money at all costs…

There are probably a lot of people who are exactly the same way and yet there are those who see business as a by-word for profit-making, so it is an interesting challenge to become comfortable in an environment and reach the goals that you’ve set for yourself…

Yeah, maybe that could be something, changing the consciousness of business, maybe its compulsory to have some profits go to a charity, or help impoverished communities. I mean another big thing I looked at was the idea that profit was just another word for stealing…

‘Making’ money is really just ‘taking’ money…

I still think the majority of people think that if you are not making money, you are not doing anything. That’s something I struggle with… (laughs)

It’s the idea that our value in society is based on the money we make, which is flawed thinking…

Money is evil! (Laughs)

That’s sounds like a pretty good sign-off! Thanks for talking to us Kophie! 

Follow Kophie on Instagram via @kophie or @future_nz, or check out her website https://www.yoitskophie.com/ 

Featured image credit: Handmade Photography

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

A Tribe Called Haz – Garage Days

A Tribe Called Haz, the pseudo identity of Harry King, a young artist and member of the RAD Collective, is in many ways indicative of the alternative and do-it-yourself approach of a number of Christchurch’s young, urban creatives. A Tribe Called Haz’s twisted, low-brow imagery and raw, low-fi style is reflective of an outsider style; his background as a skater and graffiti writer more important than any arts training.  His strange, playful compositions and juxtapositions, collating his various influences, experiences and even momentary preoccupations, are wrapped in a subversive and often anarchic energy, full of bright, at times acidic colours, applied in swarming washes of acrylic paint. While his work is very much of the digital and internet age, it is also refreshingly hand-made, imperfect and intentionally unpolished. His work may not be pretty, but it is playful and punkish, reflecting his sense of humour and a desire to confront and unsettle unsuspecting viewers; to garner a reaction, good or bad, challenging the viewer’s ability to be in on the joke. After following A Tribe Called Haz on Instagram for many months, I was glad to get a chance to sit down with him and find out more about his work, how various influences inform what he does, and what impact being a part of the RAD Collective, and social media, has had on getting his work out there…

 

So, should I call you A Tribe Called Haz? It’s one of the longer monikers I’ve come across, but I feel like it should be used in its totality! (Laughs)

Yeah that’s all good! (Laughs)

I was recently talking to Becca Barclay, one of the co-founders of the RAD Collective, and she said that the running joke is to describe you painting in head to toe black denim, drinking a dozen Diesel bourbon and cola cans, listening to Bon Scott era AC/DC (which in my mind is being played from the radio of a mid-eighties Ford Cortina). While she admitted it is more a joke about stereotypes, would you say it is a fair description?

Ahh, it is about eighty percent true! (Laughs) Yeah, I do love a bit of black denim and you can’t go past Bon Scott, but I don’t really paint so much under the influence, even though that was tied into the last exhibition name. But yeah, it is mainly just me painting in the garage, so it does seem to fit!

But, of course you are made up of more diverse elements than denim and classic rock; you’ve been a skateboarder since you were young…

Yeah, I started skateboarding about 11 years ago.

And you have a background in graffiti as well…

Yeah, that came about through skateboarding as well.

You also work as a builder, right?

I’m a third-year apprentice builder…

So, amongst all those influences, have you had any ‘traditional’ training, or are you self-taught as an artist?

I did art at high school, so I think the highest I’ve been trained would be level two at high school. But I hated doing art at high school. I didn’t like being told what to do, or how to do it, you know, I feel like it is stuff you can pick up by yourself. I don’t really see the benefit in that type of thing. I think it is good that they teach art at high school, but I think it should be kind of like a free period, where you can experiment more.

So, your experience illustrates how influences like skating and graffiti can be as formative as a formal training, in both technical and conceptual approaches to making art, right?

Yeah, it’s definitely just that I like to follow my own path. I pretty much pull stuff out of thin air, or if I just see stuff that looks somewhat eye-catching, it inspires me to do something. I can’t really put my finger on it, but yeah, it’s a time and place kind of thing, and I kind of think that comes from things like skating and graffiti.

What explicitly do you take from skateboarding? Do you connect skating and making art? Is there a shared spirit between the two for you? Is there something in the physical, practical act of skating that translates, or is there a distinct influence in terms of skateboarding’s visual culture?

For me, skateboarding is just something that is free. There are no rules, no one’s telling you what to do. It’s something that can be taught, but it doesn’t mean you will be good at it. Even if you are taught how to do stuff, everything is different for everyone. But yeah, it’s the sense of freedom, it’s just like a good way to put my mind at peace for a wee bit.

Oscar the Moe, acrylic on paper, 2018

I guess the same could be said for the attraction of graffiti? It’s also about freedom of expression, in both similar and divergent ways. You mentioned that you got into graffiti through skateboarding, so did that mean you came at it with a less traditional approach, more San Francisco than New York? Or were you still drawn to the hip hop tradition of graffiti writing?

Graffiti and skateboarding can go both ways. There’s the punk side, and then there’s the hip hop side, and it all depends on who you are, you know? There are lots of punk skaters out there, and you see the old pentagrams everywhere and the anarchy symbols, that A.C.A.B. kind of stuff (an anarchic acronym for All Cops Are Bastards), and then there’s the hip hop sort of stuff, the bolder letterform-based stuff. In my eyes that’s real graffiti, the hip hop side. So, yeah, I lean towards New York for sure…

Do you think Christchurch has that sort of diversity amongst the local graffiti culture? It definitely seems, outside of some figures, that the hip hop tradition has always been the most prominent.

There is definitely some quirkier stuff out there, but overall the scene is more traditional. So yeah, there is a bit of a gap between the two, people can be set in their ways.

Although there is obviously an inevitable overlap in terms of influence, do you separate your work as A Tribe Called Haz from your graffiti output? Are they ever in conversation stylistically or thematically, or do you keep them distinct?

No, they are two separate things. You see a lot of old school graffiti artists, or graffiti artists in general, go through just being hardcore graffiti writers, and then they get to a point where they start doing exhibitions and they go off in a totally different way, and then everyone who is still about graffiti, who grew up idolising them, they kind of turn on them for doing that, and I think it’s just easier to keep them separate…

It means there’s a fidelity to both as well, you’re not having to worry about those distinctions: one is one, the other is the other. Which means they keep fresh when you jump between them. I guess it also means you can be as experimental as you want to be in each realm, and that each can take really divergent paths.

Yeah, they don’t have to correlate at all, it is kind of like a split personality kind of deal!

How did the name A Tribe Called Haz come about? Is it just a moniker or is it more of a concept?

I’d say it is more of a concept. When I first started out, I called myself Postal Services, it was just something out of the blue, it didn’t need to make sense, I just didn’t want to put my name to what I was doing. That way you can do whatever you want, and I chose Postal Services. I ended up changing to A  Tribe Called Haz obviously because of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, but also, back when I first started skateboarding, there was a guy and his name was A Tribe Called Steve, and I used to see that written everywhere, so I was like, I’ll see what I can do with this and it has just sort of stuck…

So, there is a lineage there, a reference outside of the obvious one that many people probably aren’t picking up on, a little bit a local/subcultural reference…

Yeah, like I never met the guy, but I could’ve been in the same place, who knows? That’s the cool thing about having a separate identity.

Untitled, acrylic on paper, 2018

Your work clearly has a sense of humour, it’s often a pretty acerbic humour too. It comes through both in the imagery and in the visual style as well. Stylistically, how did you develop that rough, raw aesthetic? Is it a natural direction for you or have you refined it through exploration? And do you see it as an important part of the sense of humour of your work?

I think with my style and stuff, most of it is just natural. I think it is heavily graffiti influenced, big black outlines of stuff and lots of bright colours. I don’t try and sugar coat anything and visually I just try and make it as simple and as eye-catching as possible. Its not even that I’m trying to make other people laugh necessarily, I guess its kind of selfish in that I’m just painting things that make me laugh.

You mainly paint in acrylic, do the mediums you use play a big part in how you conceive of your work? Do you see a specific difference between using brushes and paint from spray cans?

It’s mainly acrylic. I’ve never touched watercolour. I’d like to branch out a little more. I’ve used a lot of Indian ink and I’ve recently started putting gloss finishes and all that kind of stuff on works as well. Yeah, I’d say the mediums I use are an important part of my work. I like acrylic because it is easy. Pretty much every can of spray paint is acrylic, so it goes hand in hand, it dries quickly, it’s easy to use, all that kind of jazz. I guess I also like acrylic because it doesn’t look like spray paint too.

There is a certain colour quality in your paintings, colours that are quite harsh, and applied in a certain way, quite flat and thick, is that all intentional to create a specific effect?

I like to think of my use of colours and how I put them on paper as kind of bulky, I am trying to make the images quite dense I guess.

Untitled, acrylic on paper, 2017

Your images are a real mixture; scenes filled with strange going-ons, juxtaposed objects, pop culture references, phrases, mysterious characters, it seems like anything goes. But there is also a sense that whatever you are depicting, they can seem at once mysterious, obvious and filled with potential narratives that the viewer can unravel. How do you come up with your subject matter?

I like confusing people. I like making people think, and maybe if I can offend people, it would be good as well. I’m not really pushing the envelope at the moment with anything I’m doing, but I like that kind of stuff, I like controversy and really topical stuff. My pictures are just based on whatever comes into my head at the time, so they could be anything really, sometimes from my life, but other times just from crazy thoughts. I often do something and then think, this looks boring, I need to chuck some fun stuff in there, to sort of twist it. So that can make stuff pretty out there…

By working with controversial, confronting or bemusing imagery, are you trying to elicit a response from the viewer? To make them feel a certain way?

Yeah definitely. With controversy and people being offended by what they see, it’s all their choice, it doesn’t have to be what they make it out to be. Everything has got two sides to it, or even a third side coming from someone else’s point of view, nothing is the same to everyone…

If you can offend someone in some way, it also means they at least have to consider why they are offended, right?

Yeah, and maybe they can come around to see it from someone else’s point of view, and be like; actually, it’s not as bad as I think… Or maybe the more they look at it, the more they hate it, which is also fine. I just like getting reactions out of people, whether it is good or bad, you know, it is better than someone just looking at something and having no thought of it whatsoever. I would rather make something that someone looks at it and they might ponder on it, even if it’s in their head for a minute, it is still confronting them.

Does building play any influence in your work? Do you see a connection between the rigorous process of building something and the way you create a painting?

Yeah, well I see everything in layers, like you’ve got all your steps you go through to get a house to where it needs to be, and that’s the same with painting; you do your background, then you put whatever you want on top and then it’s just layering and layering. I think with building, it has made me think about other mediums and stuff, but apart from that I haven’t really taken those ideas too much further…

Have you thought about making three-dimensional work, actually building sculptural objects?

Not really, or at least it’s not on my radar at the moment, although I wouldn’t rule it out. In high school I did sculpture as a subject. I think I was in the last sculpture class that Hagley High ever had. I think I was one of the only students, there were three of us, but I was the only one in my year.

Untitled, aerosol on trampoline, 2018

Untitled, Aerosol on a trampoline, 2018

How did you come to be a part of the RAD Collective?

I met Becca Barclay about a year ago. She was really good mates with my neighbour and one night we were having a party and one of my flatmates, knowing she is a graphic designer, was like: ‘Oh, Harry draws…’ She came and looked through some of my blackbooks and was like: ‘This is crazy!’ I didn’t really hear anything for a while and then we ended up hanging out a little bit, and she said: ‘I’ve got this idea, I want to get this collective going, I want to do something in Christchurch.’ Eventually we moved into a flat, and now I live with her and Jimirah, the other co-founder of the RAD.

Without the RAD Collective, what avenues would you have explored for your paintings? Would your work have stayed in the blackbooks, or were you trying to find ways to get your work out there anyway?

I think I would still be floating around not really having any sense of direction. It’s good having something to work for and towards. It gives you fuel for the fire. I’ve had so many opportunities so far because of my involvement in the RAD Collective. I think I’ve featured in three exhibitions. Without the RAD, my work would probably have still been in the blackbooks…

It feels like in post-quake Christchurch young creative people have been somewhat empowered to make things happen, and I feel like the influence of urban art is part of that too, just as a source of inspiration, or an alternative approach. In the past it seemed like a battle to get things off the ground unless you were exposed to the more traditional networks. Now it feels like there’s more willingness for people to come together and put things on, and people who may not have taken that step are now exploring new ways to get their work out there…

Yeah definitely, especially with the RAD, I see it as having kind of a do-it-yourself mentality. If no-one’s going to put your work out there, then you’re going to have to do it yourself. You are going to have to try a lot harder, but I think that as long as you’re doing something, you know, you can’t go wrong. So, yeah, I guess Christchurch does seem to have sparked up a bit more of a start-up attitude and things are happening that might not have happened before.

Has being in the RAD Collective inspired you to explore any new ideas?

Yeah, I’m starting to dabble in digital art, like everyone! At first, I was a little bit dubious about it all being on computer because you don’t get the same feel, you don’t get the same effects, all that kind of stuff, but it’s a lot more accessible. You don’t have to carry around your paint brushes everywhere, you can be sitting on the bus or whatever and just be smashing stuff out. I’ve been trying to get back into photography as well…

I feel like your work would translate well digitally, but photography is an interesting direction, because it feels a little at odds with your visual style. Are there any particular influences or interests there?

It’s a little bit of everything, just day to day life. I like urban nature as well… I guess I’m mostly influenced by skate photographers and people from that scene, like Ed Templeton, and even Moki (another member of the RAD Collective), I really like how raw his photos are.

In many ways we are all photographers now, not only do we all have access to cameras, but because of social media, we are also a lot more aware of how we compose and publish pictures. But a lot of people are embracing traditional elements of photography, inevitably inflected with the social nature of ‘everyday’ photography, but with more awareness of the process. Are you part of the movement to reclaim photography a little?

I wouldn’t say reclaim (laughs), but I do like the old school 35mm, all that sort of stuff. I think the digital side has helped with that change, because even though it’s pushed it out a little bit, it has also sort of brought it back, the digital technology kind of became a gateway back to the traditional stuff. It’s definitely a lot more popular than it was when they started bringing out digital cameras and all that sort of stuff…

Like millions of others, Instagram is a primary way for you to put your work out there online and to gain exposure. Do you feel like your work is able to operate as effectively within that digital realm as it does in an actual physical presence, or do you still make your work for people to see face to face?

Yeah definitely, I wouldn’t say it is made for Instagram, but I will do a painting, take a photo straight away and try and get it up so a lot more people will have access to it, as opposed there just being all these paintings sitting in my garage and I would have to ring people, and be like: ‘Yeah, come round and see what I’ve done…’

Do you ever hesitate before posting something, or are you pretty quick to put stuff online?

Nah, I don’t really edit my output, but I might give it a day or two before posting, so I’m giving different posts a bit of space, a bit of breathing room. I never use filters either, it is always a case of what you see is what you get.

A Tribe Called Haz painting at the RAD Collective event Under the Influence, Box Quarter, April 2018 [Photo credit: Lindsay Chan]
The RAD Collective recently held the exhibition Under the Influence, and you and a few other RAD Collective artists painted live on the night. I know you had some nerves about painting in front of a crowd, so how did you manage? Did you get your music playlist right?

Yeah, I was really nervous, but it did give me a good adrenaline rush for a couple of hours! I ended up listening to Powerglide by Rae Sremmurd and Juicy J on repeat for two and a half hours, that seemed to work…

So, you didn’t listen to Powerage!

Haha, yeah nah, no AC/DC that night. It was a really good turn out to the show though, I think everyone involved was really pleased with the reactions…

 What else is on the horizon for A Tribe Called Haz?

My books are open! There is nothing concrete, but definitely more paintings and hopefully more walls. I need to hone the A Tribe Called Haz style for my wall work, but I’m keen to explore that…

Cheers man, keep up the good work…

Thanks very much…

Check out A Tribe Called Haz on Instagram:

@atribecalledhaz

Cover image photo credit: The RAD Collective

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[CROP] Project: Flash Intervention NZ

Christchurch photographer Heather Milne is our first guest contributor. We asked Heather to reflect on her experience partaking in [CROP] Project: Flash Intervention, a recent street art project led by the CHUZKOS collective, celebrating the diversity and inclusivity of contemporary Christchurch. After considering various sites, [CROP] eventually took place on the corner of Manchester and Lichfield Street in Christchurch central. Photographs representing the faces of Christchurch were pasted on to the giant spray cans that Oi! YOU and Gap Filler have repurposed as free legal walls for the Christchurch community. Read on for Heather’s  the project…

A concept, a bunch of cameras, giant jigsaw puzzles, and ten days to figure it all out.

[CROP] Project: Flash Intervention is a collaborative art project by CHUZKOS and a group of local creatives. Starting on 29 April 2018 with introductions and ideas, the street art installation combines the concepts of inclusivity and diversity to celebrate the evolving face of Christchurch’s population. The final artwork was installed on 9 May 2018. I was privileged to be a part of this project as a Christchurch resident, lover of street art, photographer, writer, and wheat paste chef.

Background

The quick-fire art project was coordinated by Boris Mercado and Idelette Aucamp from CHUZKOS. They’ve set up the [CROP] Project, which ‘believes in the power of collaboration, art and photography to empower and promote positive change ‘ and  uses ‘street art around the world to question societal issues, while paying homage to some of society’s most marginalised and often unseen individuals’. ‘CROP’ stands for Creative Resistance & Open Processes.

So, how did these noble and optimistic intentions work on the ground? Pretty well, it turns out…

The concept

Idelette and Boris initially planned on undertaking the project by themselves, but after being inspired by the creative energy of Preston Hegel from XCHC, the plan changed and the project became a collaboration. After a group of interested people responded to a Facebook post calling for people to get involved, an intro session at XCHC ensured the wheels of creativity started turning. Fast.

As Boris explains, the benefits of the fast ‘flash intervention’ style of street art are in the potential found in collaboration:

“This project again proves that initiatives based on collaboration are viable. And we can continue to break through the clutter and break away from the idea that art only belongs in galleries. I like how our project can keep contributing to the dialogue people have on the streets”.

The human face of Christchurch and Canterbury has changed since only Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe, then Ngāi Tahu iwi lived in the area. In addition to the mass migration from Great Britain, people from all over the world have emigrated to our shores for work, refuge, family, and love. Post-quake, Christchurch has experienced a new influx of immigrants; workers have flocked to the city from the Philippines, Ireland, Australia, the Czech Republic and many more countries. These new arrivals have helped with the city’s rebuild, contributing to New Zealand’s economy and enriching the culture in the process. So how does this reflect our identity? What do we look like now?

Two key themes of the artwork emerged – diversity and inclusivity. We wanted to create an artwork that provides a glimpse of who we are – a city and nation of people who need to promote unity, equality, inclusion and acceptance while also celebrating difference and diversity. We wanted to ignite conversations and inspire individual pride and the recognition of the various role people play in their communities and families.

Idelette sums up the importance of art and the use of public space as tools to encourage reflection upon these ideas:

“Art is a powerful tool of communication. By using public spaces as alternative platforms of communication, we invite people to connect with their environment, interact with each other and reflect on their own thoughts and opinions”.

What I found particularly beautiful about our group is that we were established artists, students, parents, people with day jobs and without, people born in New Zealand, people not born in New Zealand, people of different ages, genders, and cultures. Everyone was able to contribute something meaningful on practical, conceptual and spiritual levels.

Day 2
The group on Day 2.

Process

As a photographer who generally works alone, the process of a collaborative street art project was a massive and rewarding learning curve for me. I love a good three-month schedule with detailed creative briefs, a clear idea of target audiences, and defined responsibilities. An intensive ten day art project with everyone pitching in, changing ideas, and last-minute additions threw me into a bit of a spin. There was no time for my usual encumbering imposter syndrome and I was compelled to trust my photographer-instincts.

We rushed out and made photographic portraits of people. Idelette and Boris worked on graphic design, marketing, and finding a space for our artwork. Their level of trust in the latter was impressive – and their tenacity got results. The five giant spray cans on the corner of Lichfield and Manchester Streets were booked as the canvasses.

Because of the (very) low budget, the only way to print the artworks was as A4 pages – then we painstakingly put them together the day before the installation to form five large portrait murals. Or maybe that should be five giant jigsaw puzzles!

Organiser Idelette
Organiser, Idelette, putting together the pieces.
teamwork
Teamwork – putting the collage together.

Installation

Glaring sunlight, a brisk wind, flapping giant puzzle pieces, and the mucky qualities of wheat paste were all challenges to overcome on installation day. We were joined by Ravenhill Dance, Herbert Lewis, and Lana Panfilow with their gorgeous roaming dance performance thanks to connections made by a dance teacher in our group. The artworks went up, people came and watched, a school group visited.

We finished. We went to the Dux for a beer and a debrief. It was a good feeling.

paste up
Paste ups in progress.
paste ups
Getting the paste ups ready.
project
The project was put together in 1.5 weeks.
success
A successful paste up

The day after

Writing this the day after [CROP] was completed, I’m knackered, but excited about the connections I’ve made and the quiet whisperings of potential spaces we could work with in the future. I love the impact of the artwork we created – so many faces proudly representing our city in an accessible location for people of all ages, abilities, and cultures to see and interpret.

finished
The finished piece.

Final words from Idelette and Boris

A massive shout out to XCHC and Watch This Space for making everything run so smoothly and trusting us to do this project. Thanks to everyone who came to the open call, joined the group and provided creative input and contributed with each of their individual talents. We loved how much people really pulled together. We’ve since heard of three projects that will come from this one, which means the project has inspired!

Lichfield and Manchester
These pieces are located on the giant spray cans on the corner of Manchester and Lichfield.
Heather Joy Milne is a Christchurch-based photographer specialising in documenting photographing social change and the rebuild of the city. She’s passionate about the role that photography plays in storytelling and connecting communities, and is also a huge fan of penguins, coffee, and tiramisu. You can see more of Heather’s work at https://heatherjoymilne.weebly.com/ and find some of her articles at expertphotography.com and digital-photography-school.com.

 

Did you enjoy reading this article? Would you like to see more projects like these in Christchurch? Would you like to see more contributing writers on this blog? Please leave a comment below.

 

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Jacob Yikes – Immersed (Part Two)

When I arranged to sit down with Jacob Yikes, I had a feeling it could be a lengthy conversation; I have long been a fan of his work and here I was presented an opportunity to delve deeply into his approach to making art, his reflections on how his work and life are intertwined, and as I realised as soon as I stepped foot in his studio, the new directions signified by the impressively-scaled works he had been busy creating. I wasn’t wrong, over an hour after we started recording, it was time to catch a breath. We covered a lot of ground, and it was quickly apparent that our interview would be a bit of a monster, necessitating two parts. Here, in Part 2 of our interview, we jump straight back in and pick up where we left off…

You said before that you have felt that some of these works have been speaking to you in some way, not literally, but kind of telling you when the time is right to work on them and when it’s not right. The process of giving them time and stepping back, which you can’t do to the same degree with a wall, does it lead to frustration, or has it been satisfying being able to work in that way?

It has both. There’s definitely frustration, but I guess with the frustration, because I will start multiple works at a certain time, that time has to be right. I think that is when I feel that, not like that painting is talking to me, saying I have to paint it (laughs), but it’s more instinctively, I will make certain marks and certain gestures with whatever materials I’m using and then I get to point and it almost says ‘that’s enough, don’t touch me right now!’ (laughs) ‘You need to move on from that part!’ While you’re in this head space doing that stage of the works, basically, because the paintings are in stages, I can’t jump from stage to a different stage, from another painting, so I find that working on one or two can be helpful, because now working on a bigger scale, it’s a lot harder to set up five paintings. It’s a big space but it’s not big enough for that, I’ll smash things if that’s the case! it’s just not going to work, so you put that stage down and while I’m in that head space, I’ll move to the next one and then it will stop but there will be a while in between sometimes of me going back to that painting because the feeling is not right. Again, I think it comes down to how I’ve approached the works in the first place, of them being really personalised in terms of so many things, like it’s a real sort of expression, I guess, it kind of changes the look of the painting too, to an extent. There’s certain marks there for a reason, I’m kind of like putting those pieces back together, well not putting them back together, but putting them together when creating the other stages of the works. It’s probably my own little consciousness telling me: ‘Don’t work on that right now!’ I do work quite sporadically, one minute I’m doing something then the next minute I’m onto the next thing and it is kind of just how I’ve worked. It’s even how I’ve worked outdoors sometimes, I could be doing something and I’m not having it, so I leave. But then I’ll go and start the rest of the wall at like four in the afternoon, because I’ve found for me, if I try and force it, just too much negative energy comes out, and I’m not having it. The painting won’t go anywhere from that, so those first stages are super important in the studio works, not so much in the big works because there is a different process to painting them, but there is still that erratic quality, I can only work on them at this point in time, I think that’s more doable in the studio, for sure, but I haven’t really felt that I’ve gone too far with any of the works yet, so I’m just going on that initial instinct with them at this point…

Mixed media on paper, 2018

Because of the intense concentration involved in the finer details of your work, I assume it would be easier to know when the time is not the right for that approach, but with the more gestural stuff, which is such a strong element of these works, there’s a real sense of your physical exertion, and in many ways it must be really necessary to have that ability to know when to stop, because it must be so easy to be swept up in that…

Yep, absolutely man.

These works really have that dynamic sense of the movement of your body, but it’s so different from wall work, which will often, and this isn’t specifically about your work, but often it’s the scale and the size that reflects that, rather than the texture, or those kinds of elements, but these works really seem to reflect your physical presence, either above or in front of a work and engaging with that surface. Do you see the differences between the way that your mark making reflects your movements both on a wall and in the studio?

Yeah, well, it’s all very freestyle, even with the walls too. When I would work on a wall that was a little more expressive with marking making and how I used the line work and stuff, as opposed to the more structured ones that had that room element going on, it was all kind of whatever comes up was coming out, and I will deal with it once it’s on there, to an extent, because I can always visualise what I’m trying to achieve with it, but it’s never ever going to look like that, it’s just a blueprint in my head, to get to that point. I’ve taken movements from painting large works and graffiti and put them into how I achieve those first initial marks and sort of bits, and it’s pretty much the same process in terms of how I attack it, it’s just narrowed down in the studio. I don’t have to step back fifty metres and check out what have I done, I can just do it there. Also, it is completely different mediums, so, while I know the technique to get to there, the result is going to be different. And that result, to be honest, has come about by experimenting. I didn’t one day decide I’m going to start throwing it this way and start putting it here, having a wrecked, half dry brush and doing that with it (gestures), it pretty much was just messing around for a long time. And I mean a lot of the stuff in the past especially, I’ve just biffed, it’s never really come out, and there’s a reason for that too. At the time I’d be pissed off and in a foul mood because I’d just wasted a whole day and a whole bunch of stuff, you know, and then that comes back to me doing things at a time in my brain or whatever, in my day, that I shouldn’t be doing it. I’ve always kind of been a workaholic to an extent, not to the point where I would say I’ve neglected any of my responsibilities, but I would sacrifice sleep to do this, so I’m trying to use the time I get, and if it’s not happening , then I pay for it in the end, because I’ve spent that energy trying to do something I shouldn’t have even bothered doing. But that negative energy, not all the time, but sometimes, I’ve been able to channel that into that first process of making the gestural bits on the paper, building it basically. The paintings essentially have been built the way I look at them, I create a background or a distant sort of space for these images to sit in and go from there. They are always at stages, but I can always fix mistakes, by working with them, not necessarily ‘fixing’ them, but you know, and again it comes down to me thinking actually, that’s meant to be there for a reason, that might not be how I want it be right now, but I can actually work with that. It’s not all the time, but there have been times where I’ve been: ‘O.K., I’ve just messed that up, hang on I’ll put it away for now…’.

Mixed media on paper, 2018

In reference to the idea that your works often have these landscapes and environments in which structures and scenes are built, despite how tricky those settings are visually or spatially, they feel like real spaces, like something to inhabit, when you are painting them, do you place yor self in those settings?

I pretty much put myself in there, and I’m still really trying to figure out what they are. I think they are an element of my subconscious, kind of a dream world that I can escape to, and I can have full control over. There’s not that much in life that you can have full control over, so I find them an escape, and I think that’s where a kind of therapy does come into my work. When I get to these certain stages, the final bits in these works, its like, I built the set and now I’m creating everything else that ties that all together. While each one might have similar attributes, they are always different, there is always a different concept behind them too, that’s just part of my style. That probably works with that idea, there are certain images in my work that have become quite popular, but each one has its own feeling when I’m doing it, so I engulf myself in those worlds…

With this scale, viewers will be able to feel like they are being enveloped, which raises the logistics and potential approaches to exhibiting works of this size. Over the years you’ve exhibited in a number of different places; Am I Confused? was at the Art Box, which presented a unique space…

Yeah, it was.

Detail of the on-site work created as part of Yikes’ show Am I Confused? at the Art Box site on Madras Street, 2017

It was quite a tight space in terms of how people were able to filter through, with these works it feels like they need a very specific environment in which to be exhibited…

They do, they do man…

Is that a challenge in Christchurch?

It is really difficult. It’s probably the hardest part at the moment, because in the past I have always done the hard work to try and get these shows happening and I like that, but it is hard. Finding a space in Christchurch is hard for anything, so finding the right space for this sort of show is probably going to present a few difficulties, but it’s so necessary. I have to find the right space because for my works at the moment, I’m trying to really put people in a setting as such, whether it’s in my head or whatever, or it’s a setting controlled by me, because visually I know what I want to feel from these paintings and that’s going to be completely different from anyone else seeing them, but if I can also add in the elements of sound and lighting that I want to, then that’s going to help to build the story of them a little bit. It’s a deal breaker for me, and I’m not going to show them until I can get those elements happening. Because of my process of creating these works and how I approach them, it would be so stupid if I didn’t show them in the complete environment. I would just feel like I didn’t achieve what I set out to achieve, if I can’t put those final nails in…

The ideas that you are talking about; the control of the lighting, the sound, that’s a sign of the maturing practice of exhibiting. It’s not about just finding somewhere that will let you hang pictures, it’s about a whole experience of creating an environment for people to view your work and for you to have more control over how it is received. I feel like, for the growth of the urban art scene in Christchurch, there hasn’t really been that opportunity, or an environment that has allowed that in many ways, so that is, as you say, a big challenge, but it’s absolutely necessary for these works…

So much gets put in behind the scenes too, with getting the sponsorship, getting all the little things, all the logistics of it, so you’re putting in a lot of work just to show them, so for me, it makes sense to put in that work and just push a little bit more. With these works as well, the subject matter, it’s really real this time, not that it ever wasn’t, but it’s something that I haven’t really addressed ever, so I know I’ve amplified that, I’ve amplified the scale, but the scale thing for me is only going to really work with those other elements, with the sound, with the lighting, and that will ensure it all makes sense. It’s a specific thing that hasn’t even probably come to be in my own head yet, but I know where it has to go, and I know what has to happen with it. Like you said, it’s something that hasn’t been able to be done with these sorts of shows. I’m not being offered a mint set-up, a humongous space with all these things, and I’m not even asking for that. To be honest, I kind of like the control I get with not having to deal with that, I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but at this point, I’m trying to build this profile for myself which isn’t just about what I’ve done, but it needs to be different. So, for me to do that, I just have to literally make these ideas that have been pushing at me, come to be, and I think that the easiest way to do that is to have that control. My partner’s really good, we’ve worked together on these shows for a long time, she does a lot of the background stuff as well, because at the end of the day if I can focus on this stuff, it is better…

And it’s going to come out in the work…

Yeah, and we’ve learnt that from trial and error, just from having these shows. I’ve had some good shows and some bad shows, but at the end of the day you learn from each one.

Yikes at work in his studio, February 2018

In terms of your growing reputation, and to some extent the reputation of the Christchurch scene, have you investigated the potential to show these works outside of Christchurch?

I’m sort of in discussions at the moment with a few places up in Auckland, so it’s definitely been discussed. To be honest I was battling the idea of just doing the show in Auckland, not here, but I still I want to do both, I want to make it hard for myself! (Laughs) So I think whether it will be a travelling show or I will produce enough work that I feel I can even have two that are kind of co-existing with each other, I’m not sure on the final details yet, but moving them out of Christchurch is definitely something that I think needs to be done too. It’s a daunting thought because I would feel way more comfortable just going to another city painting a giant wall! It’s different exhibiting works, you have to get people to turn up to these shows, because they are not going to stumble across it by themselves all the time like a wall, and I guess I invest a lot more into these things than I do a wall…

There’s a finite timeframe too, a wall can be there for the next ten years…

Exactly.

You might only have the chance to display these works for three weeks…

It’s about getting the works there too, I’ve not made it easy for myself with the scale, but it’s definitely do-able, it’s just a matter of really making it happen. But it’s in the pipeline for sure, I think I need to make it happen this year. I would like to exhibit a little bit more regularly than I have been, it’s not through lack doing any of the work, it’s just through pretty much having to deal with everything else you have in life. It’s definitely going to happen and I’ve made those first initial relationships with a few places, it’s just about taking it from there, and it’s something I’m going to do.

Without sounding forceful (laughs), I think it has to happen, you deserve that exposure, you’ve put in so much hard work and developed such a unique and impressive style…

Absolutely, I am my own worst enemy. I know that I have put in work, and I always will. It’s not like I’m done now, I’m just going to do this now, it’s not that at all, but I know that I am physically here doing stuff, it’s just what I do. I know that there’s only so much I am going to achieve by not moving it around. I don’t want to just let it all unfold, I need to really push that too. I think for me, I always want to put my best foot forward, it’s a matter of what I take with me, what am I going to run with. It’s about not being so indecisive about what I want to take out of Christchurch. It’s a funny one, it’s definitely something I’ve felt for a while, and not even to the point that I’m going to move away and try and make it away from here, I’m not going to approach it like that, I don’t feel the need to have to move away from everything to just start trying to do things…

With Christchurch’s recognition as an urban art location, it also needs to mean artists can succeed here and thrive everywhere, it’s not about becoming a breeding ground for people then to move away, which is the typical kiwi, Christchurch story, right?

It doesn’t need to happen at all, that’s the thing, it really doesn’t. Even in just the past four years, just by producing works outdoors, it shows that it’s all about what you do to make this place what you want it to be. It’s funny, I mean I think people have their own opinions on how they want to approach it, but if everybody thinks they have to move away, what’s left? And that’s kind of what happened in Christchurch, I know a lot of people who just up and gapped it, and that was their own personal thing, which is cool, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s happening here, it’s all about how you perceive it really, and it’s all about what you’re looking for too.

It feels like there is a growing ecosystem locally, there is more diversity in terms of what people are doing, there are things here that can help make it all more entrenched. I guess as well, it’s also about continuing to attract people here as well, not just with opportunities to paint walls, like festivals offered, but if there’s spaces for people to come here and exhibit work, that can prove important too…

I think it’s important to not just all be floating in the same boat. It’s funny, I think oversaturation of one thing just kills it, and each festival, if that’s what’s happening, needs to bring its own thing to it, because at the end of the day, it is what people who were living here were doing, it’s just painting walls, it’s a do-able thing in Christchurch, it’s probably a lot easier than any other city, so you can’t just come and do that , you’ve got to bring something else to the table…

Exactly, I think that’s a really good point, in global terms as well, festivals pop up everywhere, every week, the biggest challenge and the most important thing now is to be unique, to have an thematic or ethical standpoint in some regard, you know, say ‘this is what this represents’, it’s not just about getting colour photos in the paper, it’s about achieving some other type of goal, which is really important.

Yeah man, I think so.

Thanks for taking the time to talk, I must say, I’m really looking forward to seeing you exhibit these works…

Yeah man, in the next couple of months, or sooner than that, I’ll be releasing dates, but yeah, it’s coming up soon. We are just kind of doing all the finer background work now, bringing it all together. When I get close to a new show I always like to go out and do some public work as well…

Do the PR act!

It’s just a way of saying ‘I’m not dead, I haven’t become a hermit just yet!’

Thanks Yikes! 

Keep an eye and ear out for Yikes’ upcoming projects on Instagram and Facebook, as well as his website: 

@jacobyikes

https://www.facebook.com/jacobyikes.artist/

http://www.planetyikes.com/

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