Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson – Travelling Man

Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson has undeniably been one of the faces of Christchurch’s blooming graffiti and street art scene. From his skilfully rendered large-scale murals, to his presence in festivals, interviews and documentaries, he has been a central figure in the presentation and reception of the culture’s popular emergence. It is a no-brainer that we were going to sit down for an in-depth interview with Wongi, but as they say timing is everything. With an upcoming trip to Nepal on his horizon, a result of his artist series t-shirt design for local adventure clothing company Kathmandu, we thought it would be best to save the long-form interview for his return. But, then we thought, why not catch up before hand as well, just to get some insight into the Nepal trip and how it all came together. Think of it as a primer, the base camp before the summit if you will…

So, Wongi, what is it, six days before you’re off to Nepal?

Yeah, about six days, possibly even less now…

You found out you were going about six months ago…

Yeah, at the end of last year sometime, it was maybe November…

Has that time gone quickly? Have you had an ‘I’m actually going to Nepal!’ moment?

Yeah, it has crept up really quickly. Just in general, you know, life gets in the way. I’m working away and doing things, and then next minute it’s boom, I’m going next week, so…

You have literally just finished a workshop in the last hour, and on top of painting jobs, you were just saying that you’ve got house renovations on the go, so things have been full on as usual, have you had a chance to consider what sort of experience this is going to be?

No, not really. I’ve just been so busy with work and everything going on, I just haven’t had the time to let it sink in. I have had lots of people asking me: Are you prepped? Are you ready? Are you amped? And I haven’t even had time to think about it. A bunch of my Kathmandu gear arrived a while ago and that was really awesome, just pulling it out of the box and everything. But even then, it was more just ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ at the product, not actually thinking: ‘I’m going to be using this in Nepal’…

 

Smash Palace, 2018

Over the last seven years or so, you have had some pretty amazing experiences; painting in front of royalty in Re:Start Mall; painting a large self-portrait inside the Canterbury Museum, being featured in the Rise and Spectrum shows, just to name a few. Amongst all these things that I’m sure ten years ago you didn’t necessarily expect, where does the opportunity to travel to a place like Nepal fit in? It’s not exactly somewhere that you would consider a traditional ‘urban art’ destination, and yet your art has given you the chance to go there…

Yeah, definitely, it’s such an amazing opportunity, but it’s not something I would have specifically saved up and chosen to do. There are many other places I would have chosen, but because of what it is, I’d be foolish to say no. It’s a once in lifetime opportunity to go and do this type of thing, so I’m diving at it. It’s amazing, really amazing.

The Re:Start colab billboards painted by Wongi and Ikarus for the Art Beat programme, 2012

The trip is the result of your relationship with the adventure clothing company Kathmandu, and your role as one of the artists, along with Shraddha Shresthra from Nepal, to contribute to their limited-edition artist t-shirt series. How did the opportunity to design a t-shirt come up?

That all came about because when Kathmandu opened their new branch and offices in the city centre they had already started the process for their limited-edition artist series t-shirts. Shraddha was the first artist to create a t-shirt, so as a part of their opening for their central city location, they flew her in from overseas to paint a mural in the neighbouring laneway as part of the whole event. So, since she was here painting in Christchurch, they wanted a local artist to paint in the laneway as well, so they got me involved, and that’s where my t-shirt came in. I think they just really liked what I had painted and my style, and I think that helped push me into being the second artist in the series. I also think as the Kathmandu brand was originally born in Christchurch, I think being a local artist helped as well…

So, is your t-shirt available yet?

It might be online currently, but the actual official release date is the 23rd or 25th of this month, I think. They are releasing it on the date of the 65th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary reaching the summit… so it all lines up…

You have a fair bit of experience designing and printing your own t-shirts, but I would suggest your photorealistic style, especially in aerosol, doesn’t necessarily translate as well into the more graphic qualities of t-shirt designs. Technically, you are a versatile artist anyway, so I’m assuming you are pretty comfortable taking on different approaches, but how did you find the process of creating the design, and how did it come out?

Yeah, it was really fun actually. With a t-shirt design I can’t really go to the in-depth level of the photorealistic stuff, so I pulled it back and went the other way with the more cartoony, raw graffiti style. I chose a big block format and filled it in with graffiti lettering and graffiti-styled characters. It’s got a bunch of things related to Christchurch and Nepal: I’ve got a Kathmandu bubble letter, it’s got Christchurch written in block letters within the brick format, and then I’ve got a bunch of different characters and things in behind it; some related to Nepal, like some yaks, temples, and Buddhists, then some things relating to New Zealand; the hills and ferns and that type of thing, as well as more traditional graffiti stuff; throw-ups and spray cans and all that kind of thing.

Boxed Quarter, 2017

I feel like the inclusion of elements of graffiti culture is important. Obviously the references to the locations, Christchurch and Kathmandu, are necessary, but as an artist with roots in graffiti art, it is also important to represent that culture too, because it is what got you where you are…

Yeah definitely. That creative freedom to celebrate my style and artistic background definitely helps build a good relationship with Kathmandu. They are a lot more understanding of that side of things, but I was also working with the design team there to make sure they were getting a product that they are happy to promote in that sense. So getting to work with their team, the back and forth process, that was really cool as well…

In the past, when you have produced your own t-shirts, you’ve been the designer, the printer, the distributor, you’ve done all of it…

Yeah for sure, that was a cool element, working with another team who specialise in certain products for their brand as well, so that was fun…

Does it make you want to do more limited-edition t-shirts?

I wouldn’t say no! It is an amazing opportunity, but it all just depends on certain factors. It boils down to the imagery that’s wanted, the level of creative freedom that I’m allowed, and of course, the company who I’m trying to work with, and whether or not I relate with them on a personal level. I’m an animal and nature person, an environmental person, so I think that also helped with the whole Kathmandu relationship, knowing that they are quite ethical with their products…

Did you research their ethical stance? Because it is important that artists know who they are working with…

Without a doubt. We had a general idea of how Kathmandu work, but when the proposal came in, we did a lot more research into it, just to make sure, because you don’t want to have yourself aligned with a company that you don’t agree with. So, yeah, we definitely had to make sure that that was the way it was, and that I wasn’t going to be associated with a company that isn’t thinking about the environment and all that type of thing.

As more and more opportunities come up for artists to work with brands, holding companies accountable in a way, making sure your ethics align is so important…

You don’t want to be associated with a brand that is working in a way you don’t agree with. So yeah, anything like animal cruelty, I’m not a fan of, but Kathmandu were really strong around their ethics with their clients…

In terms of the actual trip, what’s on the agenda? Will you get a chance to paint while you are there?

No, I’m not. We looked at it and we were trying to get that sorted, but I guess it just boiled down to the fact that there’s not a lot of time outside of the trek to actually get a painting in. Then there was the whole problem around getting artist grade spray paint into Nepal. We’re trying to tee it up to paint something for one of the schools I’m stopping off at on the trek, but then there’s the whole issue of being in the Himalayas, you are so far up in the air there is a lot of pressure involved and a whole heap of problems around that side of things…

Is there a chance to do something that doesn’t involve cans, like drawing workshops?

Yeah, they touched base on that, so there is still a possibility to have a draw with the kids type of thing, so that’s a potential option, but I don’t think the actual painting itself is going to happen…

To go all that way and not leave a mark in that way seems a shame, but I can understand the logistical challenges. Have you thought about how the trip, and the experience of the trek, might inform your work in a wider sense?

Kind of, it’s been in the back of my mind, just thinking about what the environment is going to be like. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the villages, and the temples and that type of thing. So yeah, I think it’s going to be quite a new experience and that in itself will give me a whole new angle to my art…

Rauora Park, 2017

I guess that reflects the rise of contemporary muralism and the globe-trotting mural artist, where all these different influences from different environments shape people’s practice, rather than just the specific setting you came up in. I mean it is a hard thing to put a point on, because it is likely to be a philosophical influence, more than a stylistic or technical influence, but still it is sure to be a unique experience and it will be interesting to see how your work evolves as a result…

Yeah, like you said, it’s hard to pin point the whole situation. I don’t know what it will be, but I know something will lend a big impact to that kind of thing…

I remember at Style Walls, you were joking that you will come back as this enlightened soul who always talks about your time in Nepal! (laughs)

Yeah, yeah, ‘that one time in Nepal…’ (laughs) Yeah, as long as I come back wearing shoes you know, not bare footing it around everywhere; ‘I’m just getting back to nature!’ (laughs) So nah, I’m looking forward to it, it is going to be amazing!

Lastly, it is going to be a pretty physically intense experience, I know you got a gym membership in preparation, have you been putting in work?

Yes and no! I went quite hard out for a bit, but then with a lot of work and everything, I haven’t had that time to go the gym and train like I should. I feel I’m pretty active with the work I do anyway, I’m always on my feet, up and down ladders, all that type of thing, so hopefully that is going to be enough to get my fitness level at least up to par. I was talking to one of the head guys from Kathmandu and saying ‘Yeah, I’m going to get my gym pass, I’ve been exercising quite a bit…’ and he just laughed it off and said how one of his mates who kind of helps with the treks, said: ‘Oh you don’t need to go to the gym, you work that out in the first three days!’ So, I’m kind of hopeful that will be the case!

Well, we look forward to catching up when you get back and hearing how it all went and talking more in depth, so go well…

Cheers, man, thanks for your time…

Want to learn more about Wongi?

Check out his website and follow him on Facebook.

Jacob Yikes – Immersed (Part One)

Jacob Yikes needs no introduction. His distinctive wall work has been a familiar element of Christchurch’s post-quake landscapes, turning walls into vistas filled with intricate, impossible architectural forms and characters who are in turn both playful and nightmarish. But while his large-scale murals might provide a pathway to ‘Planet Yikes’, his studio and exhibited work has shown an artistic evolution that delves even deeper into the themes at the heart of his expression. His works on paper and canvas show an artist coming into full bloom, imbued with personal symbolism and exploring a range of imagery, expressive physical processes, and experimental and expanding mediums and materials. We caught up in his studio, surrounded by a series of still-in-progress new works, evidence of his soon-to-be-exhibited recent output; large paintings pulsing with dynamic energy. And yet, fittingly, our conversation took place just before Yikes’ March trip to Dunedin to paint a large wall, a reminder of his ongoing occupation of public spaces. With the sun shining outside his studio, we discussed the transition between street and studio, his latest body of work and the process of their creation, and how life has a way of keeping you honest…

Yikes, the last few times we have caught up it has been while you were painting outdoors, so it’s a nice change to be here in your studio. Your practice has always had that inside/outside dichotomy, shifting between walls and canvas so to speak, but considering how much work you have put in painting outside over the last five years, it’s easy to assume you have slowed down somewhat on that front! 

Yeah man, yeah… (laughs)

Has that been intentional, to allow you more time in the studio?

It’s a mixture of things really. I guess life catches up, you know, I’ve got two small children, so that’s definitely a factor, and they’re getting bigger, so that’s a thing, trying to fit that in. I think I’ve definitely felt a transition from wanting to produce works outside to being in my studio. Obviously, my studio is at my home, so I’ve got a very good set up now. I can kind of work quite erratically sometimes, so now when it is time to work, I can literally do it. Christchurch is pretty small, and I’ve done a lot of painting here, it’s not like I’m bored, but I am the type of person that has to keep doing new stuff. There’s definitely been a shift, and it’s not like, I’m never going to produce big works outside again, it’s nothing like that, it’s more like a certain tick that I need to itch! (Laughs) I feel like it’s a pretty natural progression as well, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I’m still here, I’ll still do whatever, it’s good…

Jacob Yikes’ Alice in Videoland mural, 2017-2018, Tuam Street. [Photo credit: Jade Cavalcante]
It’s not that they are mutually exclusive, they are both part of what you do…

Yep, and they always have been, and they always feed off each other. There are only so many hours in a day, and in a week, so putting it all into one thing, it’s really hard to try and find time to do the other. In the past I’ve sacrificed a lot of sleep to get that happening and it works for a while and that’s cool, but it’s not physically possible for me, and you learn the hard way. I’ve learnt that, and having children they will let you know… (laughs)

For sure…

So, yeah, it’s just about what do I want to do? What do I see myself doing? At the moment, I think the studio-based stuff is really where I’m trying to focus. But again, I wouldn’t be doing any of this studio stuff if I hadn’t done certain things outdoors. They always feed off each other, and they always will.

And of course, painting walls is built into your profile as well, right? It affords certain opportunities and exposure…

Absolutely.

From a material point of view, both approaches obviously have different potentials, as well as different challenges. What do you see as the main differences, in terms of what you can do in the studio that you can’t do when you’re working in the streets?

There’s always a certain element of impact that I’m trying to achieve with both, and that’s achieved very differently outdoors than it is indoors in the studio. So, with my outdoor works, I was introducing bold colours with quite wild imagery, wild in the subject matter and often how it is executed, like with a lot going on. And then I brought that into the studio to a certain extent, and I’ve been able to, even though because the works I’m doing at the moment and in the past have been quite large, not massive, for canvas or paper work, or board whatever, they’ve been quite big but they’ve gone bigger, I can focus way more on a smaller scale but still get good impact as well, whereas outdoors, you can, but it is a lot of effort. It’s like, for those bigger works, I tend to just do them myself because of how I work, it’s completely different to painting pieces of graffiti with any of the boys, it’s a different process, it’s a different mind-state. In saying that, while a lot of my work outdoors has been very busy, it has also zoned in on certain areas and really worked them, but to be honest it’s a lot of time and effort and often you’re not really getting to the point of that’s what I was trying to do, so you have to kind of walk away from them, feeling like ‘I could’ve done that’, ‘I should’ve done that’, and that’s come from graffiti too, like every every piece you see, there’s something that you just wish you’d fixed, and you know that’s just part of it, but with the studio stuff, I can’t walk away from it, it’s not a wall in town, I’m living with it. In a bizarre way, it sort of speaks to me when I’m doing it, so that’s reinforced the idea that I can work really hard on these areas of the painting and achieve something where there is more impact.

Mixed media on paper, 2017. Exhibited in Face Value at Fiksate Gallery, November, 2017

When you are painting a wall and you stand back and take stock, there must be a strong awareness of the public nature of the process, simply because of the surroundings, whereas in the studio I imagine you can get really invested in producing work which is increasingly personal, you can be completely focused on it and enveloped by it…

Definitely, because as an artist there’s always, I mean, I can’t speak for every artist, but there’s an element of being self-conscious about what you are doing. When you produce public work, you do pretty much need to wear a hard skin, or you can retaliate, which is also something that I’ve probably done a lot in the past! (Laughs) But that’s just kind of who I am too, I don’t have lot of patience for dickheads in all formats (laughs), so it all just kind of comes with it. But with the studio stuff, it’s me, myself and I, and that can be good and it can be bad, because I can be my own worst enemy. I guess it’s that little voice just kind of kicking you in the ass, it’s good, but outdoors you’ve got your self to deal with and what other people think. But at the end of the day, I’m not really doing it for what other people think. I mean, yes, there’s this massive amount of positivity that’s come with public work, street art, whatever, but I feel like I get away with a lot (laughs), you know I’m not out to paint pretty pictures, I wouldn’t even say I’m trying to beautify things, it’s not the reason I go and do something, if that happens that’s great, but I know not everyone’s going to think that way…

It’s something that’s a problem with the adoption of urban art into the mainstream and it’s perhaps at odds with the roots and the intentions from which it has grown. Essentially urban art is about personal expression going public, it’s not solely, or even explicitly about acts of civic duty or beautification…

That’s right, it’s not community murals…

Yeah, they are a completely different thing. At the heart of it, urban art is about personal style, personal communication, and that’s often the hardest thing to explain. People celebrate and champion these beautiful things, whereas what graffiti and street art are really able to do is take art and put it in the streets, it can be beautiful, but sometimes it can be challenging, or visually unexpected…

Yeah.

Manchester Street, central city, 2016

And that means it is lot of things, and that diversity is really important in retaining relevancy and potency. We are surrounded by a number of your latest studio works, the scale of your studio pieces has been growing over the last few years, and these works are another step up in size…

They are. I think they have to be…

Yet for me, they are still clearly distinct from your wall works as well. Even though the works are getting larger, the things you can do in the studio are still really clear and obvious, from the detail, to the actual style of painting and the material approaches. Is that something you are wary of, that despite the size increasing, they are still going to be honest as studio works, rather than edging towards murals on paper?

Yeah I guess, when I think about it, before I really started focusing on studio stuff, I was painting big work, like not monstrous like it got, but a piece is a pretty large painting, so what I realised, was in a studio I can create completely different feelings with the same materials, but I can’t do that with walls, because it literally comes down to how they are sitting. With washes, and the metallics I add into the washes, which are the things I’ve concocted to make these paintings, they kind of have to be flat, they are always in a very wet stage until I spend the last few days finishing them. Also, like I was mentioning earlier, because I work on so many at a time as well, it works with my erratic personality too, it’s something I have to do, because if I don’t, I’ll ruin a painting. I’ve got all these ideas all going on at the same time, and if I put them all into the same painting, it’s just overkill. But when I paint on the street, I do that, I overkill, because it’s big. But you know this time around, I was more interested again in coming back to that impact, but thinking about how I approach it… In the past the works were big, but what’s going on inside of them was a big amount of work too, this time it’s the same sort of concept but I’ve slowed it down. There is, I think, more of a mystery to them, as opposed to zoning into these other works and getting lost in them, you can still do that with these, but there’s a bit more mystery…

Mixed media on paper, 2018

These works have a dynamic energy that breaks up the focus and sharpness of some of your previous works, there is still a suggestive sense of action going on, but it isn’t as definitive or finite as previous works might have been. That dynamism adds a personal quality, because they are reflections of your physical movements, which are of course relative to your personal state at the time you executed them…

Absolutely man, I think they are the most real paintings I’ve ever made. I’m not really the type of person in the past that would address a lot of things that are in these paintings, you know, and I haven’t, I’ve let it control my life, and I got really unwell with it, so I had to let it out. In a sense I’m kind of showing my demons in a way, but not in a way that is trying to make anyone concerned, it’s a healthy thing for me. It’s a way of me dealing with twenty something years of bullshit, so I really think that these works have their own story behind them. They are a body of work but each one is an individual reference to me. Being that they are a bigger scale too, I don’t know why, it just feels like I couldn’t get that same effect if I didn’t do them on this scale. Even with the paper ones, if they got any bigger it would’ve been too much and any smaller and it wouldn’t have worked. For a while I went through a period, for a good few months, where I was not able to paint anything, to draw anything, I literally reclused and stopped, and then kind of came out of that and this is what came from that. I guess too, there is a very different process to how I’ve worked in the past, where I would just go, go, go, go, non-stop, no sleep, I just went for it. There was a lot of work that came out of it, but a lot of it, man, I was in autopilot for a lot of it. I look at them and I know what they’re about, what’s going on, but I’m like, when did this even happen? But with these ones, they are all so much more relevant and they are all so much more decisive too. There’s no work where I’m like, that one probably shouldn’t be like that. Now there’s a whole different process…

Do you think that’s a combination of the timing being right in terms of what you are expressing, but also of how you are able to express it, through your actual practice? In a way, nothing is wasted if it has led you to a certain point, right?

Definitely.

Do you feel that these works represent an arrival point at how you are able to express these ideas visually?

I kind of have the mind set that things happen for a reason, that you experience things for a reason, like whether you know that when it’s happening, or you know it later on down the line. But I definitely think I’ve always found myself at the right place at the right time, especially with how my career has started to shape itself. At the same time, it hasn’t all been roses, you know, there has been a lot of bullshit as well. But if there wasn’t that bullshit, there wouldn’t be any success. I think it gives me ammunition to actually paint these works like I do. It’s how I process these things, I have certain kind of conclusions with my life and predominantly my art, because my life is my art and that is probably more apparent in these works than I think it ever has been. Again, the subject matter is a more refined me, rather than processes made by me or just stuff. Past shows have talked about stuff, they have been derived from me, but they’ve never really been about me, so it’s sort of narrowed in, and I guess that’s happening now because that’s what was meant to happen. To be honest, painting them is a way for me to try to figure a lot of that out, you know; why? why everything? So, the two work pretty well together, but I think you know, that’s the thing with progression, too, with anything you’ve got to take whatever comes, because you won’t progress. You can’t have it all good and progress to something better, without downfall, because there is no balance…

Yikes in his studio, 2018

That’s an important skill, the ability to understand what is happening, and to figure out that path. If your work is the same for twenty years, then something is probably going wrong under the surface…

Good luck to you, if that’s what you are up to! Because I think as humans, you all deal with things in different ways, based on personality, based on past experiences, based on how you’ve been brought up, based on however. Maybe it’s part of getting older and having kids, but I find myself having to really create my own path, you know, what I mean is, it’s a hard thing, because as an artist it’s quite difficult to live in this day and age, there’s a lot of pressures, financially, whatever, but…

Particularly somewhere the size of Christchurch…

That’s it man, it’s not massive and you know, I think I’ve always known that I don’t want to follow suit, it’s just not me. I just can’t do it. I think too, to be honest, that’s where the studio stuff has become more dominant, because this is truly where I’m supposed to be too. Before I was into doing graffiti or before I was painting large scale works, I was always into drawing, always into making art, so it’s like literally from an early age, it’s kind of my been my forte. But you know, it’s still a battle to make that an everyday thing, to make that a reality, it’s still really difficult. So I think taking a step back from doing walls puts a bit of pressure on things like that, because at the end of the day, painting large scale works is how I make my living, how I’ve made my living, selling paintings and doing commission works as well, it all fits in, but predominantly, the walls like I have always said, they are advertising for me as an artist, so it’s difficult to really put one to a side and then focus on one other thing because at the end of the day I’ve got bills!

Yeah, but that challenge is important to take on as well, right?

Yeah, and again it comes back to the fact that there is nothing to do but roll with it. I can create my path, and I know where I want to go, I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I know what way I want to go…

Which is as important as anything right? People talk about it’s not the destination, it’s the journey…

Absolutely, because I’m kind of too afraid to arrive at a destination! (Laughs) I’m in no hurry to get there! And I think when you get there, if you get there, good and bad creates where you arrive, it’s all about how you deal with it in that process, and I think for me as an artist, the best way is to just literally keep doing what I feel is best. I have to get it out, because if it’s not true to me, at that point, whatever comes after doesn’t matter because I’ve put something out that’s not fully me, and that’s the battle of being an artist too, you want to produce what you feel is right and where you want to go, but at the same time, you have to make money and things too…

It’s a reality…

Yeah, it’s that reality. But again, in the past I’ve sacrificed sleep to do both, so it’s definitely all learning, every painting I do I learn something from it.

Stay tuned for Part Two…

Featured image photo credit: three-six-six media

And the winner is…. Style Walls 2018 Recap

Style Walls 2018 is in the books and there is a new name to add to the pantheon of champions, with GOR1 taking the crown, fending off GERM, WYSE, TWIKS and EXACT in a tight battle.

In a slightly re-jigged format, with each artist producing one large-scale piece over the four hour time slot, judges scored the artists on can control, use of colour, use of space, and of course, style. In announcing GOR1 as the winner and GERM as the runner-up, co-judge and Christchurch legend Ikarus, noted that it was a tight contest, with just a handful of points separating the 5 writers in the final tally.  In front of a gathered crowd, the five artists had to combat the difficulties of the cylindrical canvasses, which provided a challenging surface for the composition of their letterforms (a fact revealed in the photographs below), while also juggling the allocated colour palette in dynamic, unique and effective ways. Each displayed a distinctive style, from GERM’s interlocking, vertical wildstyle, to TWIKS’ use of a white outline and 3D drop, WYSE’s decorative letters, EXACT’s tight composition and GOR1’s bold, black outline and colour fades. When the dust settled, the judges selected GOR1 as the 2018 champion, his cumulative score putting him just ahead of his rivals. Check out some images below of the event and  the finished pieces…

Crowds gather as the battles get under way…
The competitors were given four hours to complete their pieces, along with a specific range of Ironlak colours
The Style Walls competitors get down to work

 

The judges run their eyes over the finished pieces
Style Walls 2018 champion GOR1
Style Walls 2018 runner-up GERM [IMK, JFK]
TWIKS
WYSE
EXACT [ETC]

Roll Call – Style Walls 2018

Style Walls is back!

Style Walls has become an institution in the city’s post-quake urban art scene, and this Saturday it returns for its fourth incarnation. Style Walls 2018 will be staged at the youth park on the corner of Manchester and Lichfield Streets, with the competitors adorning the giant free-for-all spray cans, a further activation of the unique space’s stated role as an evolving art space.

One of the five giant cans competitors will paint for Style Walls 2018

Established and run by the legendary DTR crew, Style Walls will pit five finalists against each other in a live, head-to-head battle format that both celebrates the traditions of graffiti and embraces the inherently competitive nature of the sub-culture, where outdoing others is always the goal. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the supported setting aims to encourage young and emerging artists to push their talents and drive the city’s creative graffiti scene forward. Ikarus, one of the founders and organisers of Style Walls, (as well as a competition judge), explains that the event is all about growth and progression: “Seeing the guys who were in early  battles improve and continue over the last few years has been great…”, he also adds that it provides a sense of aspiration for young graffiti artists who “look forward to being involved when they are at a higher skill level, so it gives kids something to work towards as well.”

The 2018 finalists were chosen from an array of submissions, a task that Ikarus believes “is getting harder because the level and amount of entries is increasing each year.” The five finalists, Twiks, GOR1, Wyse, Exact and Germ will do battle over three rounds. Judges will score competitors on various criteria (such as style, can control, use of space and use of colour) and a winner will be declared after each round. The supreme winner will be determined by the highest cumulative score following all three rounds. With iconic paint brand Ironlak on board as sponsors, winners will be rewarded with prizes, but perhaps the truly crowning glory will be found in the bragging rights earned by the champion.

The inaugural 2014 Style Walls final, held in the central city’s Re:Start Mall

Style Walls is an important event in the city’s urban art, and specifically graffiti, scenes, providing a unique forum for local graffiti artists to be supported and celebrated, all within the internal values established and evolved over generations. Despite interest from stencil artists (a sign of the expanding influence of graffiti and street art on the city’s creative scene), Style Walls maintains a singular focus on free-hand graffiti artists, and elements such as letter-forms and can control, which is a significant stance and a reflection of the event’s explicit goals. Ikarus accepts that it is not surprising to see “more non-traditional graffiti and street art entries as the popularity and public acceptance rises…” Style Walls recognises the limited opportunities of this type for graffiti artists in Christchurch, where the positive attitude towards ‘street art’ often still marginalises pure, letter-based graffiti, and the specific qualities of the influential artistic sub-culture that truly spawned urban art as we know it today. And while Ikarus acknowledges that the variety in the city’s urban art scene is a good thing, he asserts that it is important Style Walls keeps things of a more traditional graffiti nature: “because there are still very few avenues for the art form to be seen in a positive light, whereas the new wave of street art gains an easier, more immediate popularity because it is more pretty pictures than bold, stylised fonts, and that is easier for your average person to relate to or understand.”

So, who will come out on top? Head along to Style Walls 2018 to find out…

Style Walls 2018 kicks off at 1:30pm on Saturday, February 24th, at the Youth Park, corner of Manchester and Lichfield Streets in the central city. Visit www.stylewalls.co.nz or look for Style Walls on Facebook for more information…

Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 2

Part One of our interview with Ikarus covered a lot of ground, but in a sense, we only scratched the surface. In Part Two, Ikarus continues to reflect on lessons learnt and his encounters with a public confused and often angered by graffiti, before diving into how his own work and style has developed in response to his roots and his worldview. He also discusses his formative influences, and how events like Rise and Spectrum afforded him the unexpected chance to work alongside a number of well-travelled artists. Picking up where we left off, let’s jump back inside the head of one of Christchurch’s graffiti legends…

There are some members of the public who are confused by graffiti, and yet I think that means they neglect some of the formal and performative elements, like for me it’s always interesting watching a someone’s hand-style, there’s an aspect of movement, a physical quality to how that hand-style is formed, a reflection of how the hand moves. But when people don’t see it happening, it’s easy to not acknowledge those things…

Absolutely, a good example is when I was working at Project Legit (an organisation that mentored young graffiti artists, providing opportunities for legal walls alongside workshops and more), one of the big conversations you’ll have with an average citizen who doesn’t understand the culture is: “I love the stuff you do…”, even when its name based and character stuff, when they see it happen, “…but I hate tagging”. I’d say to them, I get it, you might have had your property tagged, you don’t like the way it looks visually when you’re driving around the city, because you don’t understand it, that it is someone’s name, it’s all over this place, and you don’t know that particular style, and whatever. But I will always defend tagging, I will always defend the vandalism side of graffiti because as you say, it’s where it all comes from, none of the rest of it could exist without it. So, I would explain all that and I would say, you know this is just an evolution of that and this is how it had to be in in the early days and this is how a lot of young people had to start out. Then they would say, “well, there’s no skill in doing a tag”. Then I would beg to differ and then I would show them, a lot of times I would give them a challenge: “I have this can, I’ll put a cap on it, and I’ll give you a hundred dollars right now if you can do a straight line that maintains its width, its consistency, it doesn’t go fuzzy at the end, doesn’t drip. If you can do a 50cm line that maintains all those qualities, I’ll give you a hundred dollars right now”. Not one of these people ever did it and I would sort of demonstrate a tag with various elements, like flares, down from the same point at each letter, and it has a flow and rhythm to it, and they would see it and I would say, see you couldn’t do a straight line but I could do this, does that take some amount of skill? And they would have to admit that it does. A lot of it comes down to the fact that they don’t think there’s any forethought, or any culture behind it, they just think it’s mindless vandalism. I did once have a lady, I was working on some stencils with a special needs student, and we’d made an Auckland Warriors stencil for him and I was showing him the process of selecting the image and cutting the different layers, and this lady said to me that she thought you just bought a can with a picture on it and literally waved it around in front of a wall and the picture came out. I started laughing because I thought she was joking, and she wasn’t joking! A lot of the time we’ll be painting, and it will only be the bare bones sketched up of various areas and people will come past and say that its really good, and you’re like: well, come back tomorrow and you will really like it! But a lot of it is that they don’t understand the process, very rarely, and especially over the last half a decade, do you see someone who sees the process and speaks to us, they really don’t go away with a negative thought about it you know, because they see that there is something behind it and that people are actually thinking about what they are doing. I mean, it’s sort of a lot easier for us because we are in the public painting a lot of big colourful works, but it wasn’t always like that, we were doing this back when nobody understood it, and you the police were definitely coming, someone was definitely pulling over and mouthing off at you because you were a bad example you know, the resistance that we used to face was crazy compared to what it is now, for sure…

Ikarus in New Brighton, 2016

Even what you were saying before, that people don’t realize the technique that goes into it, like the ten thousand hour idea applies to graffiti: the amount of times a hand-style is performed by someone reflects a real commitment, it is perfected over hundreds or thousands of times…

Absolutely, with graffiti, especially the people into the vandalism side of it, there’s the element of just writing your name over and over again, there’s a certain level of OCD obsessive compulsiveness. I can remember being 17 and a friend of mine had a really nice ‘S’ and I remember sitting for hours and hours and hours and dozens and dozens and dozens of pieces of paper trying to get it, so there’s a certain level of obsessive compulsiveness that comes with it, it’s just something to focus on…

I think of that scene in Style Wars with Skeme’s Mum…

“You do doodle on the paper”! Yeah, yeah, it is like that…

From a personal perspective, in terms of your letterforms, because your style has developed and been refined now over so many years and you can see how perfected your they are, what realisations have come from your personal progression stylistically?

I know what you’re saying, you’re politely saying that I do the same piece all the time! (laughs)

Not at all!

(Laughs) I do hear that a lot though. People ask me why I don’t change my letters, but if you look back over the course of everything I’ve done, it changes. But from day one, I’d never wanted to do anything more than tag. When I was young, I wanted to be a vandal, and I was really anti- graffiti art, let alone what I would of thought about street art back then. I didn’t even like big colourful graffiti murals, I called it borderline graffiti, and I was like argh that stuff, anyone can do that stuff! And I mean that’s still true to this day, anyone can take that much time and produce an amazing piece of work if you have the permission and unlimited hours and you have access to paint, you know it’s still a true thing. It’s one of the things I love the most about vandalism, that it’s pure, you get nothing from it, no one will give you anything. No one will reward you for vandalism, it’s not gonna provide you with anything positive, which is kind of the beautiful thing about it. For people that are really dedicated to it, it is pure, there is no ulterior motive, you do it for whatever reason you do it for and that’s all you can get from it, you know. But as far as my own letter forms, from day one, once I decided, okay I’m getting caught a lot, I’ve been to court, faced various fines and community service and PD and that sort of stuff, I wasn’t willing to give up graffiti, but I also wasn’t willing to keep getting caught just doing tagging and low-level bum shit. So, I was like okay, I’m going to do nice, simple letters, because you can put as many arrows and bells and whistles and fancy fat cap flares and little hooks on the end as you like, but if your basic letterform is garbage, then it’s garbage, it isn’t anything, you know, it’s just a whole lot of colours and squiggles. So, my whole intention early on was only to be able to do a simple letterform and then paint so much that nobody could count me out. I wanted to know that if a kid grew up in Christchurch, was into graffiti and they didn’t know who I was, I wanted it to be their fault, not mine! Some people want to do wildstyle letters, they want to camouflage it, they only want it to be readable by graffiti writers, but I was like no, if I’m gonna waste my time and look at getting myself jail time and getting more fines or PD, what I paint is going to be super simple. I was like, if you drive past it at 60 kilometres an hour or 100 kilometres an hour on a motorway and there is a line-up of five people, your gonna see my name, you’ll read my name first. So, that was always really important to me. Over the years there were times I tried to do like dissected connections and different kinks to letters, and various things but I just found that the thing I went back to that made me happiest was the simplest stuff. You’ll talk to graffiti writers that paint three-day productions, giant, three-metre-high, twenty-metre-long walls, but they get the exact same enjoyment out of doing a ten or twenty-minute chrome piece on a rooftop or in an abandoned building or on the side of a train track. The enjoyment level is different for different things. All I really wanted was to be a tagger, and then when I started painting I wanted my pieces to be big tags, really simple to read, and I think that’s a huge part of it, the simplicity to read and the big bold letters. Especially as my eyes get worse. I’ve got really bad eyesight, so I want my letters to be simpler, my outlines to be thicker, my characters to be bigger, just so I can see them when I stand back.

Ikarus and Yikes, central city

I would suggest that it’s led to a refined style that is instantly recognisable. I never get sick of seeing them. There’s something to savour about that repetition as well, it’s not redundant, that sense of constant refinement is so evident…

Yeah, it is down to things like logos, and I’ve read stuff with different artists over the years and they want their stuff to be like that, instantly recognisable, and that’s what I want. as I say, you’re going 100 kilometres an hour past it, and there’s an instant recognition, people that don’t write graffiti can still read it. A lot of the time people will come to the walls we’re painting and they will say I don’t know what that says, I don’t know what that says, but they say I-carus? I-karus? They can’t pronounce it, but they can read it and they say oh I know that, I’ve seen it, and that’s what I want from it. The same way you see the golden arches of the McDonalds’ logo. You know what it is. So I want it where you just drive past it super-fast and you see that letterform and you see the style of my characters, it’s super simple but you know instantly, oh I know that! Even if it’s not Ikarus that I’m writing, or the exact characters that I always paint, I still want it to be recognisable. It’s a general thing, I mean I’m not special, it’s something that most graffiti artists write for, to have their style be distinctly recognised. Same as Yikes, you know instantly recognisable. You go past his stuff and you are going to know it. His style on the other hand is so unique, and I wouldn’t necessarily say my stuff is unique because it’s really based on traditional letterforms, it’s really just a big colourful tag when you look at it.

You mention your characters, it feels like you’ve developed their own distinct presence over the last however long. It feels like the various characters have a really distinct sense of personality. Is that something you’ve been trying to develop? Or has it just occurred through repetition?

It’s a little bit of both. There’s been some conscious thought on that level. There’s been some characters I’ve done and in my head, I’ve had my own little storylines about certain characters and who they are. Some characters I do it’ll be a visualisation of something that I was thinking about at the time. Again, they’re all fairly similar. They will be the same character but with a different accessory or some sort of thing that is relevant to whatever I was thinking at the time, or if I was thinking about someone. I hide little things in there for my girlfriend, stuff like that…

Ikarus character, Embasssy Wall, Sydenham, 2014

They often seem like representations of your worldview in some way, there is a nice sense of cynicism in some ways (laughs), which I think is important because the letterforms have become an indication of you in some way, just through number and repetition, and now the characters are an outward representation of your experiences as well. They add a personal element, they’re not decorative, they are a psychological element too…

Definitely, everyone tells me my characters are just mad depressed looking! They should be cute but they all look suicidal. It’s accurate, I mean there’s a series of emo girls that I think of as the ‘Suicide Girls’. There’s various characters for various things, like the cool kid characters. There was a period where I was painting my little alien dudes with the brain exposed and that was because of whatever fucking traumatic relationship stuff I was going through at the time. But then I generally just keep using them all. Like there’s a series of boxes and cartoon things, around the back of the YMCA, if you know it, it is speaking about something…

Ikarus and Yikes, Prince tribute characters, Hereford Street carpark, 2015

There’s a narrative

Yeah, they have their own narrative, I just don’t really explain it to anyone (laughs). It’s just something I will have been thinking about and dramatizing it

And that’s it right? It’s the ability to exorcise things but you don’t have to explain it because anyone can come along and build that narrative up themselves…

Yeah exactly, that’s just art in general. I think it was Seth [Globepainter], his painting of the boy on the cloud with a ladder, at Spectrum, I looked at it and thought, with my general frame of mind, oh, look at that sad little kid sitting on a cloud. Then I saw some other people come in and say that boy’s up on a cloud and he’s so happy! It’s a crazy thing, people see different things. Some people see bright colours, and see a message behind it, some people don’t see anything…

Speaking of Spectrum and the Oi YOU! shows, over the last five or six years, who stands out that you have met or worked with that you might not have expected to get to know?

I mean pretty much everyone was fucking awesome, but standouts, from the first show, Rise, Thom Buchanan was a rad dude. He painted an amazing work, an amazing cityscape, and painted for like a million hours and layers over two weeks. I hadn’t seen his work before and he was just a rad dude who did some super rad work. Obviously, Sofles is fucking mind-blowing. Everything he did for every show was just crazy and he’s a super rad regular dude. He’s not even one of these crazy super human vegans that doesn’t drink or anything, he gets down and then does his thing, and then bombs and travels the world. He’s super crazy, he blows my mind! And Tilt! Just painting with Tilt was super cool, because early on Tilt was actually a pretty big influence on the way I do my letters. The dude does throw-ups most of the time. It’s one of those things, like from NZ, Addict, ADT, is another dude that inspires me a lot, simple letters, iconic, logo-istic, if that’s a word (laughs), but that instant identification. Early on Tilt was just going to countries and doing his throw-up and putting the country’s flag inside his throw-up, and I was like, this is fucking amazing and this means you don’t have to do fifty-colour, amazing, super technical, wildstyle bullshit and you can still get known. When I was younger, and I didn’t really do the artistic side of it, I was looking for my own style, and when I was looking through graffiti magazines and watching graffiti DVDs or I saw graffiti, it was always super technical stuff, layered up with amazing lighting effects and shadows and detail, whether it be pieces, characters or backgrounds, and that stuff would blow my mind, but it wasn’t anything I ever wanted to do. So, when I saw something super simple, like the London Police, with the big round faces, the Adidas, it was iconic, it was instantly recognisable. With stuff like that, or Tilt’s throw-ups, I would think to myself: I could have done that, I actually could have done that! Not that those guys can’t draw, but it was instantly recognisable stuff like that led me to think, oh there’s a lane I can get into. I don’t have the patience or determination to do wildstyle! My friend Reakt loved to sit down for five hours with a pencil and an eraser and work out his letters and connections and the layers, and I’m there just tearing through black books page by page doing throw ups and tags. I couldn’t do it, but once I saw that really iconic, logo-like stuff, I was like, okay, there’s a lane, there’s an area I can get into. The same as I just want to do simple letterforms, I can do simple characters. The first characters I did were just big round faces, you know still fairly similar, but I used to call them the ‘Bubblegum Fuck Faces’, and they were just big round colourful fucking cartoony looking faces and that was it, and then it sort of evolved from there and moved on over the years.

The ‘Blackbook’ wall, originally painted by Ikarus, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and others for Rise in 2013, shown here in it’s second iteration…

I know we could go on, but you’ve got some painting to do, and I know this is probably just the first time I hit you up for thoughts and opinions! So thanks for sitting down with us…

No problems.

Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 1

He won’t remember, but I first met Ikarus in the early 2000s. I was a University student and as part of a course on hip hop culture I was taking, Ikarus was painting a demonstration piece as part of a ‘hip hop summit’, as the lecturer called it, at the old student’s association bar. I had taken every opportunity in my studies to write about my fascination of graffiti and street art, and I spent the afternoon intently watching Ikarus paint. I meekly mentioned my interest in graffiti, but understandably, Ikarus seemed non-fussed by some student type’s attraction to a culture that he lived and breathed in real life, not in essays, only serving me a nodding acknowledgement. Close to ten years later, I was re-introduced to Ikarus for a project in the central city Re:Start Mall , affording me the chance to work with him and Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson. Since that re-introduction, I have been able to get to know Ikarus as the funny, acerbic and insightful personality he is. Fortunately, now I consider him a go-to figure for advice and opinions on graffiti matters. I even joked with him that when I have to reflect on any writing or statements, I use the phase ‘What Would Ikarus Think?’

While he laughed my motto off, Ikarus is deserving of his place as a true legend of Christchurch graffiti art. From his early days getting up in the streets, his place in the mighty DTR crew, working as a mentor and tutor for Project Legit, and his involvement in the Rise and Spectrum shows alongside countless independent productions, he has earned respect. Over the years he has forged strong opinions on graffiti’s traditions and history, as well as the rise of the mural art movement that he finds himself part of, despite never holding such goals as a young graffiti writer, reflections that show a deep understanding of his, and the culture’s roots and potential futures.

In early December, we sat in a loud, windy laneway in the Central City and over pizza slices, discussed some of Ikarus’ recent projects, his take on graffiti and street art, and his own work’s development over a long and winding path…

So, Ikarus, you have a couple of busy weekends ahead, this weekend is the opening of the East Frame youth space, where you, Freak and Yikes are painting three of the Oi YOU! donated spray cans (with other selected artists painting the five other cans), and then next weekend you’re off to Auckland for Berst’s Forum event, which will have you painting, giving an artist talk, and are you part of the event workshop?

No, we go home before the workshop, but we’re painting a couple of walls. They got us one wall that we have to paint and then there’s a couple of optional ones during the weekend as well, which we can do…

As for this weekend, give us a little bit of background as to how you guys came to be involved in the youth space project and the idea behind the giant spray cans…

Basically, we were approached by Oi YOU! and GapFiller regarding the installation. Oi YOU! donated the eight large spray cans, and GapFiller along with Fletcher Living, have created this youth space. The whole youth space itself is going to have a basketball court, a café, a little youth centre area, and of course the spray cans. The way that it’s going to work is that three of the cans will be sectioned off and will be for semi-permanent to permanent works, and myself Yikes and Freak will be painting those tomorrow, and the other five grouped together will be what they’re calling an evolving art space, which will be an open space where young artists can practice and not worry about getting into trouble. It’s kind of the first spot actually in the city that’s been officially declared for young people to come and practice their stuff, so that’s really good…

The DTR cans in progress at the East Frame Youth Space opening day event. Left to Right: Jacob Yikes, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and Ikarus

You’ve been pushing for this kind of concept, as an alternative to kids ending up in other spaces, for quite a while and yet you’ve always met some resistance, so what do you think has made this possible now?

Part of it would have a lot to do with the amount of different graffiti art and street art that’s been popping up over the last few years. Public perception towards it has changed a lot than, you know, ten years ago. People see it as a much more positive thing after the earthquakes when the city was really destroyed. A lot of people started to appreciate the splashes of colour and pictures and stuff everywhere. But also, Oi YOU! donating the spots and then GapFiller having done so many different projects over the years, I guess those two names and the results that they’ve shown over the years for projects that they’ve done, I think that probably helped sway the Council towards them giving it a shot. And yeah, like you say, I’ve been trying argue the point for legal walls for a few years now because obviously kids are going to go and practice somewhere and you may as well structure a place where they can do that without fear of getting into trouble, because you know it wastes a lot of tax payer money just to have the Police called and they’ve gotta go down there and chase it up and whether they end up arresting them and charging them, I mean it’s all those things, it’s counter productive and also leads that kid to have a bad attitude about the community, about the Police and you know about the Council and stuff. Even symbolically, having eight giant spray cans in the middle of the city is a crazy thing in far as it being a statement on Christchurch’s part that they now view graffiti and street art as forms of art. So now it’s really good to have a spot where kids can actually come and practice and try and hone their talents and turn it into something more positive than it has been in the past.

Spray cans have had this sort of stigma attached to them for a long time, so as you say, symbolically, these objects show a shifting of the guard. I also remember you saying quite often that what authorities are doing, what they have been doing, is not working, that it’s time to change and try something new…

Yeah, exactly, I mean it’s that classic saying: the definition of insanity is to continue doing something that isn’t working, and expecting a different result. For years the policy or the stance has been anti-graffiti, anti-tagging. It’s been catch a kid tagging and whether they arrest them, charge them with wilful damage, give them community service, or on a couple of occasions people have done small prison sentences for it, but like I say, all that does is foster negative energy and it’s a lot easier for a young person, if they are interested in the art form, it’s way easier for them to get one can of spray paint and go out and write their name on a bunch of stuff than it is for them to be able to gather half a dozen to a dozen cans of spray paint and then find somewhere that their allowed to go and practice. It’s sort of like the proactive vs reactive measure you know, there’s not much point just continually catching kids that are doing it, punishing them and then having no real change. I haven’t seen the statistics, but I’d be surprised if graffiti ever went down based on that approach…

It’s important to reflect on whether the culture of today would exist if there wasn’t that history of having to react against the institutional response. I mean there’s now this really big divergence in how artists come to be defined as ‘street artists’, but a lot of the roots of what is now this immensely popular culture, have to be acknowledged as coming from the resistant nature of graffiti right? It’s born from the need for people to express themselves and to get out and do it. You’re a traditionalist around this in some regards, and it’s going to exist either way, but as you say, just giving a space like this which is going to remove some negative energy is a positive move…

Yeah, one of the things I would always try to explain if I was having this conversation with Council members or just general members of the public that don’t understand the whole art form, is that graffiti and vandalism is going to exist because its so easy. It’s always existed you know, people have written their name on things before spray cans and before graffiti as the culture we know it today was born, people were still writing their names on things. When we were young and there was nowhere for us to paint, the only reason that we got to learn the things we did was because people we knew gave us places to paint. There were a couple of walls you were allowed to paint, like we’d gotten through, not public ones but through owners of buildings and places. So we would have our own spaces to paint, and without that we would’ve, I would’ve just kept on the same path without ever probably evolving into anything else.

Graffiti also suggests that you can understand urban space in a different way through commandeering areas. Graffiti writing is kind of symptomatic of the ability to navigate a space whether you are given permission or not. A graffiti writer will go to those places that a normal member of the public shies away from. I think there is something interesting in that, and particularly in Christchurch, where we’ve had so many spaces that have been empty or available, but now these spaces are being redefined. There will always be a need for people who head out and explore the city and actually illustrate to other people that there are spaces we ignore or forget or don’t know…

Yeah, absolutely, a lot of that has to do with the fact that originally and historically graffiti has that stigma attached to it, and oftentimes it is forced into those areas because they are the spaces that the general public aren’t paying attention to, you know like an abandoned building, your train lines, your rooftops in the middle of the night, your alleyways, stuff like that where regular people aren’t going to be as much, so it was sort of a necessary thing. Plus there’s that aspect that graffiti and street art are, or in the past have been, largely youth cultures, and as a teenager you’re always out exploring a city, through skateboarding or graffiti, or whether it’s just through being among friends. Like when I was young, long before we were even thinking about graffiti, we used to climb a lot of rooftops around the city just because it was accessible, and we wanted to see what’s there and you want to be there. Graffiti became that thing where like I will make a small mark so that the next person that comes will know that I was here as well. It has all grown from that.

Post-quake there is a new generation that have experienced this really unique landscape where there has been so much access to the myriad damaged and abandoned places, so it will be interesting to see where these creative impulses lead a newer generation who have grown up knowing a city that is basically a giant playground…

One giant playground for that sort of thing, absolutely. We’ve definitely had that conversation among ourselves that if we were younger and still in our earlier destructive phases (laughs), when this all happened it would’ve just been like the biggest playground! It has, not necessarily created, but spawned a lot of extra graffiti and vandalism and art because things were in such a state of disrepair, because youth are going to go out and explore these areas, they really blew up. But then also because it had such a huge visual impact, because there was so much, you started to get more and more regular people taking notice of it, and now you know there’s a lot of areas, and I’m not talking about large scale murals, I’m talking about like some of the car parks and alleyways around the city that have just traditional graffiti characters and name pieces where like no matter what time of the day you’re there, you’re generally going to run into people who are there taking photos, whether it’s people who live here, or tourists that have come to see the city in the way it is. I feel like we’ve got a lot of earthquake and graffiti and street art tourism in the last few years, so there’s just constantly people in all these areas now. But ten years ago, even if we were painting a legal commissioned wall, people would see us and call the Police. People would think we were doing something wrong until we spoke to them. Now, 95 to 98 per cent of the feedback you get from your average pedestrian or onlooker as they come past is all super positive and especially from Christchurch residents, you know a lot of them have told us stories about how seeing a certain work really uplifted their spirits in times when everything was super bleak around here…

Ikarus in the Hereford Street carpark

That broken environment exacerbated the impact that those sorts of expressions can have. The interesting thing now is how people reconcile the shiny glass facades that have popped up everywhere against the knowledge that there are all these other types of expression that can make a city lively and vibrant as well. It will be interesting to see how those reactions evolve…

Yeah, definitely, I feel like during the rebuild there has been a really great amount of integration of art and large-scale mural work alongside the rebuilding of the city. It’s becoming a focal point. People see these big walls they have and see there’s an opportunity for a good piece of art or a large-scale work. I think that’s possibly going to continue until it bottlenecks, and everything has something large scale on it… (laughs)

I think the interesting thing is how the different types co-exist, because, as you say, the large-scale murals are generally going to bottleneck, there are only so many walls. But there will always be other smaller spaces for people to leave a mark as well…

There’s only so many artists as well…

Especially wen it comes to artists who have the experience to work on a larger scale, the chance to get to that level is, at least traditionally, tied to those smaller spaces…

Yeah.

So, the Forum event in Auckland is a good chance to connect with other well-known graffiti artists, which must be pretty exciting. Berst has organised the event and he is a pretty key figure in the New Zealand graffiti scene, what is your relationship with him like?

Yeah for sure man, it’s exciting but also just fills me with dread and anxiety! There will be a couple of top tier guys there, but we know these dudes, we’ve met them and painted with them several times over the years. We met Berst in like 2006-07, and back then he was just a super active graffiti writer. He was really amazing, literally the first time we went painting with him I was amazed, but he was just a regular cat man, painting a bunch of freights. But he was super motivated though, that’s the difference. He’s a bit of a super human you know, and he’s really active in trying to widen, I mean similar to what Freak and myself have been doing for years, just trying to widen the general public’s perspective on what graffiti is, what street art is… The event is called ‘Forum’ and maybe half a dozen to ten artists are coming from various places around the country, a couple from Wellington, some Aucklanders. Everybody who is doing it is coming from a different avenue, some are graphic designers for example. Myself, I’ll be speaking about my time with Project Legit, back in 2008-10, as well as some of the stuff we’re doing now, like the youth space project, the workshop stuff we do. Freak  [Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson] is going to talk about his business. It’s sort of a talk about the various offshoots that graffiti has led a lot of people to. There is a lot of stuff that I never would’ve imagined doing or even that I was aiming towards when I first started out, so it’s good to give people an idea about this, about what is behind it, and what can come of it as well…

How you see the traditions of graffiti fitting into what is now commonly referred to as the ‘street art’ movement (which is a problematic term anyway). Specifically in a formal sense, because the formal elements of graffiti, the letterforms, even the elements like character work, the techniques that are important for graffiti writers, they’re distinct and street art has sort of opened this big bag of other approaches which are not perhaps faced with the same stigmas that graffiti writing has had to deal with. As someone who is a graffiti writer and a constant defender of it…

Staunch defender, advocate!

How do you place it within everything that is going on and how have you managed to maintain your roots as you’ve been part of it as well?

The bottom line of all of it is, I feel like with this new wave of street art, and this isn’t to bag any particular image or artist or anything, in regards to the large-scale murals, but a portrait of a face, paint a giant bird, you know, paint a nature scene, give them a pukeko and some native fauna or flora, and it’s an easy sell, you know what I mean? It’s easily digestible and palatable to the public. It’s a commodity and it’s able to be commercialised in that respect. While all of those things are great, a lot depends on where an artist has come from and their general stance on various aspects of it. Like you say, traditional graffiti in the way of name-based colourful pieces, cartoon style characters, bright cartoony colour combos, stuff like that, is often, I feel, driven to the wayside in the wake of this new emerging style of street art and street murals and large-scale work. They are all great together, but I personally would hate to see the traditional stuff pushed all the way out of the way for the new stuff. As anybody who has sort of invested in the history of any movement, the new stuff couldn’t exist without the old stuff, and I feel like it has to have some sort of precedence, it has to have some sort of importance.

Ikarus, Christchurch central, 2017

Talking about lineage and legacy, I’m thinking about some street art imagery and some of the imagery you’ve talked about, and you know often it’s coming from people commissioning work rather than artists. Because if you think about some of the imagery that would have defined street art at the turn of Millennium, it was those subversive riffs on popular culture, and you don’t really see those images turned into murals either. Likewise, it can still be hard for artists to get the chance to do something abstract when it comes to commissioned work (at least in Christchurch), and with letterforms there’s a lot of the same qualities as abstraction as well, so many artists have to exist within this compromised, dichotomous approach: “this is what I want to do, but this is what I’m going to have to do…”, and reconciling that becomes a real challenge…

Yeah absolutely, I find it the same. I do a certain amount of commercial work and from time to time the subject matter is going be something you’re not the most stoked about, but as long as you can keep it true to your own style and the definition of what you’re doing, then you can basically do it. Like I say, the bottom line with graffiti, and the whole idea of it as an art form, is that you do what you want to do, but with that said, within a defined set of rules and guidelines, an as much as you can bend and break those guidelines you do need to know them, to know the history. I mean it’s the same as any culture, you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run and you’ve got to know something of the history of the thing you’re interested in and where it came from…

Like you said earlier, some of the defining characteristics of graffiti, it doesn’t seem like people should have such an antipathy to things like bright colours, names, cartoony characters… We all write our names thousands and thousands of times over and over again, we use signatures in our day to day business, and we take pride in our signatures, so there’s not that much difference, but that affront to private property overrides any aesthetic enjoyment…

Yeah and that’s it, traditional graffiti in its name-based, character-based cartoony form, is of course derived from tagging and vandalism and destruction of property, so it is always going be tied in with that. Newer street art, like with a bird, or scenery, or a portrait, is very far removed visually from the idea of writing a name. Often as well, the mediums the new artists are using, it’s paint rollers, brush work, there are still cans involved, but it’s not the same thing, and I think that lends to the palatability of the new forms of street art and mural work. Whereas traditional graffiti as an art form is always going be difficult, and so it should be. But they are branches of the same tree, it’s an evolution. Graffiti as an art form is an evolution of a basic signature, it’s all based around a name and around having your name known, manipulating letters, the structure of letterforms, working with different colour palettes to create something unique and visually appealing. But yeah, like I say, the main problem it has as an art form and the main reason it is held back is that vandalism side. Plus, a lot of people that are practitioners, traditional graffiti-style artists are perhaps not the most personable people (laughs). You know they are not always the most eloquent, they don’t always want to explain themselves. We’ve gotten good at it because we’ve spent years at the forefront of it, trying to change people’s perception of it, so there’s sort of like a bunch of go to phrases and references, that I can draw on.

Check in next week for Part 2, where we talk about the public perception of graffiti and the technical qualities people don’t necessarily see, Ikarus’ own stylistic development and influences as well as some of his experiences in Christchurch’s post-quake explosion of art in the streets… 

Can Do – Reflections on an evolving art space…

Saturday, December 2nd, saw the official opening of the new ‘Youth Space’ in the central city’s East Frame. The space, a project facilitated by GapFiller, Ōtakāro and Fletcher Living, combines a basketball court and a rock climbing area, with perhaps the most forward-thinking element: an evolving art space that allows artists to freely paint in public without fear of repercussion. This is a first for the city, a step further than those spaces where painting is tolerated or ignored, but not technically allowed (those peripheral spaces that have long served graffiti and street art’s development, such as alleyways and train tracks). This is an innovative move that has been pushed for a long time by those from the cultures, but has too often fallen on deaf authoritarian ears.

The space contains eight giant spray cans which have become literal objects for art. The eight cans are physically split in two groups, with three cans intended for more established artists to produce long term works that will be refreshed sporadically, and five serving as ‘free-for-all’ surfaces, as evolving canvasses. They will operate on a first come, first served basis, and as artist Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson has noted, people should be prepared to document their work, as any contribution may last a week, a day, or a minute, as is the nature of such a space, and of course, is an undeniable aspect of guerrilla street practices anyway. On the opening day Wilson, Ikarus and Jacob Yikes, from Christchurch’s famed DTR crew, painted the three ‘permanent’ cans, while local artists Beksi, Dove, Bore, Smeagol and Drows were given the opportunity to give the five other cans their first layer.

The ‘permanent’ cans with works in progress by Jacob Yikes, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and Ikarus

Notably, the surfaces on which people are invited to paint are part of the lineage of the city’s ongoing love affair with urban art: the giant spray cans were fabricated as part of Oi YOU’s Spectrum shows, and if they are aware of history, the city’s youth can now paint on surfaces to which artists such as Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, Sofles, Berst, Seth Globepainter, Tilt, Flox and many more are historically connected, even if no longer visible. That these objects are in proud place in the inner-city streets is testament to a shifting opinion around the art with which they have an unavoidable kinship. It is also important to note that the cans are not buildings, they are specifically in place as surfaces for art and that is both unique and partly why the concept works; their decoration is not an affront to private ownership, not even by association.

Of course, such a concept is not without risk, and it should be admitted, it will not prove a cure-all for vandalism (which is not the explicit goal of the space, but will surely be read as such by some). Vandalism, which is not a by-word for graffiti, and exists without a pen or a can of paint, is driven by a desire to fracture physically and symbolically, and a permissioned space will not attract those who are interested purely in transgression. But it will importantly provide an opportunity for artists to develop, to experiment, and to grow and that is no small thing. Indeed, the potential this space provides should be celebrated as a significant shift in thinking around these artistic cultures. Also, it should not be expected to rival the sheer scale and cohesive appearance of the grand murals dotted around the city (and notably nearby). The space will instead produce an aesthetic more akin to urban art’s natural state, a visual quality that many find infinitely fascinating, created in layers over time and representative of thousands of voices, but admittedly, others find harder to comprehend. This is always at the heart of such an undertaking, the various positions and desires of contributing factions will be at odds, a microcosm of the city at large.

The future of this innovative approach will of course be in some way determined by outcomes authorities are interested in, regardless of whether such desires are realistic. But with planned workshops and other events, it will become an important and fascinating location for the city’s ever-evolving graffiti and street art cultures, an important step in the city’s creative evolution, potentially unearthing new stars and providing a continuing reminder of the potential found in opportunity.