Porta – A Helping Hand

A few years ago, I would have said Porta was one of Christchurch’s best kept secrets. But to make such a claim now would be misleading, his street and studio work continue to gain exposure and opportunities to work with an array of amazing talent and in a variety of contexts. Having known Porta for a good while, it is refreshing to be able to say that such reward is justifiable evidence that good things happen to good people. With his infectious energy, he constantly reminds me that getting ‘amped’ on things, as he would say, is a vital ingredient in enjoying what you do.
His array of images, heavily drawing on pop culture and his magpie-like inquisitiveness, have a strong street style, but also a sophistication that has developed with his sustained practice. Primarily a stencil artist, Porta’s work ranges from walls to found objects, such as skateboard decks, reclaimed thrift store paintings, street signs and even randomly recovered pieces of wood and metal, and even extends to large MDF cut-outs and, of course stickers. His images increasingly juxtapose pop culture references with abstract designs, distressed surfaces, or revealing indications of the aerosol medium. These playful qualities ensure his work is both accessible and attractive, easily shifting between locations, while still seeming authentic in approach. I sat down with Porta at his shared studio space Fiksate Studio and Gallery in New Brighton, and we reflected on the various projects and adventures he has experienced over the last several years, his take on his own practice and why ‘liking people’ is always a good starting block…

Although you never admit it, the last several months, actually, several years, have been pretty busy for you! Recently you assisted Dcypher and Oi YOU! with their project at the Christchurch Airport, and a few weeks prior you helped Flox with her Plymouth Lane mural in the central city. You have worked with Oi YOU! quite a bit, so there is a relationship there, but how did the opportunity to work with Flox come about? And what did you make of the experience?
I basically just put up my hand to help out where I could, if she needed it. So, I ended up buffing out big squares of colour for her and filling in some of the letters, so she could stencil over the top. I was mostly on the brush and roller…

Flox making progress on her No Place Like Home mural in Plymouth Lane, central Christchurch. Photo credit: Porta

As a painter by trade, you have a practical versatility to be able to do different kinds of things and help people in different ways, and that’s given you many opportunities to work with artists on an array of projects, as well as influencing your own work. Did you always see those skills as transferrable, that they would open some doors?
Yeah, I feel like still like I’m more skilled behind a brush and roller than I am with a can, any day! (Laughs)

On the flip side, as a stencil artist, did you take the chance to step back and observe Flox’s techniques and learn from her?
I did, and she is really open when chatting about her processes, like just about the stuff she uses to cut her stencils from, and that sort of thing. She’s really open about it all, which is really cool, because sometimes, you can understand why someone might want to keep it to themselves…

I kind of feel like with stencilling there is a mystique about the process sometimes, but when you can pick up little things, you can take them in different directions. For instance, seeing such a large-scale stencil piece being produced must have been a valuable experience for you…
Yeah! The size of that work blew me away. Seeing a stencil being produced at that scale was really impressive, and seeing that it was actually do-able, it was crazy!

Speaking more broadly, not just from the ‘handy on a roller’ perspective, you have a real willingness to offer a hand wherever needed. As a result, you have worked with a wide array of people. Is that attitude just a reflection of your approach to life? Or is it that you see opportunities when they come up?
It’s important to me, I like people, so that’s a good start. From there, I really like street art and I want to see it do well in Christchurch, so it’s a combination of those two things really.

It has been a pretty amazing few years in the city, and in many ways, you’ve been right in the thick of it. Amongst a raft of well-publicised events, there has been the growth of your own ‘baby’, CAP’D, which has now been staged three times. You conceived of CAP’D a few years ago, so what was the initial idea, how has it evolved, and where do you see it going?
I asked people if they would be keen on a show of local artists who worked on the streets or were influenced by that scene. I put it to a few people, ‘what do you think if I did this…?’, and everyone I mentioned it to was just super enthusiastic and receptive to it. I had friends who wanted to be involved and put art in it. So, next thing, it really took off and it was just, ‘well, I guess I’m doing this…’ Which was a cool way to do it because it got me motivated, and the next thing I knew, I had sorted dates, found a place, and people were just so enthusiastic that there was no way I could back down!

I remember when you first started putting it together, it was originally a much smaller idea, but by the time the opening came around, it had grown into something quite different…
The support was amazing, it was meant to be this small, chilled out thing, but it ended up featuring artists from overseas, not just local artists. On the night, it was quite overwhelming, the amount of people who turned up, the amount of art that was there… Which is why for the events after that I had a wee crew of people, with Jen (Jenna-Lynn Brown), Dr Suits (Nathan Ingram) and yourself. It was definitely a team effort after that, which was a relief! (laughs)

Opening night of the first ever CAPD show, New Brighton, 2015. Photo credit: Abigail Park

I think it showed how Christchurch has an audience that wants to see this kind of art, and these kinds of events, but also it revealed how you can connect with people from overseas, and that those networks are closer than we ever thought. Over the last several years CAP’D has featured artists from Sydney, Barcelona, Japan, Los Angeles and more, but even in the first show, there was work by artists from Melbourne and Brazil, so it kind of set the precedent…
Yeah, that just kind of happened…

It showed you can approach artists from the other side of the world and say: ‘Hey do you want to be part of something?’ and often the response is ‘Yeah!’ Were the positive responses a surprise to you?
It was, because not long before CAP’D, I’d just sort of got into Instagram, and I realised how approachable everyone was, people I considered quite well known, I didn’t expect them to respond to comments but they did, and then I thought, I’ve pushed my luck already, I should ask them if they are keen on being in an exhibition and a lot of them surprised me…

Which must be a good feeling, because that old saying ‘never meet your heroes’, isn’t always true…
Nah, sometimes it’s great to meet your heroes!

So, where do you see CAP’D going? It is now hosted at Fiksate [Design Studio and Gallery in New Brighton], and it has evolved slightly over the last few years, do you think it’s going to keep growing or are you happy for it to keep to a specific scale?
Yeah, I like the size of it. It wasn’t ever anything that was supposed to get bigger and bigger. It was supposed to be pretty small, so now it is the size that it is, and I just want to sort of keep it here, keep promoting new people, new talent, and putting them alongside talent from around New Zealand and the world…

Opening night of the second CAPD show, Fiksate Design Studio and Gallery, New Brighton, 2016. Photo credit: Porta/Abigail Park

That’s the really important part, right? It’s giving a forum for young artists, lesser known artists, artists who come from particular backgrounds, where finding ways to exhibit works can be a real challenge…
Because a lot of these artists are not new artists, it’s just the first time they’ve put their art in this particular kind of environment…

Most of them have been drawing, writing, painting, making in the streets, or some of them in their bedrooms without putting anything out there, and it’s just a case of creating this new forum, so there’s real value there, and it’s partly the response of the artists that reflects that, they appreciate that you’ve created something that gives them the opportunity, so it must feel really good! (Laughs)
It does, it really does.

Talking about CAP’D’s evolution brings up another big development in your artistic life; setting up Fiksate with Dr Suits and Jen. That seems to have provided you with a real stimulus. How did it come about?
So again, I was just yarning with Nath and Jen, and saying I’d be keen on opening a spot, and then we made some connections with people who could make it happen, and all of a sudden, that momentum had picked up, and we had our spot. We did check out a couple of other places around New Brighton, but in hindsight I’m glad they didn’t work out, because our spot seems pretty perfect really…

Do you find being in that collaborative environment has expanded your practice? Does the shared, dedicated setting make it easier to explore ideas than if you were at home in the garage?
Well, I do, but sometimes I think I almost get an equal amount of satisfaction when I’ve been able to help someone get to where they want to be, rather than if I was getting myself somewhere. I think that’s why a lot of the time people want to get together with me, because they know I try to be a willing helper…

When I have been around Fiksate, there is a real feeling of coming together and problem solving, offering advice and feedback. Even when it’s not you making something yourself, that experience of thinking about somebody else’s work can be just as beneficial in the long run… Working with Jen and Nath, who both have quite diverse practices, has watching their different material approaches influenced your stencil making technique?
Yeah, (laughing), and it’s made me do things in a way I didn’t think about and to go in directions I didn’t think I would go. Like, Nath will just be buzzing on something I’m doing, and then I’ll be buzzing off something he’s doing, and then when we are all finished, whatever we have made will usually have a few similarities (laughs) and not on purpose, but we just realise we are both being so inspired by what is happening in the studio that it comes out in our work… Like with the piece I did for Blind Date, which was an exhibition for First Thursdays last year, and probably the series of Donald Duck works that came from that, I think they came together in that way, even though the piece was a colab with another artist, Kara Burrows, we kind of worked separately, and it was at the studio that my part really came together. I feel like Nath had a bunch to do with that, and you were there that night too… I was trying something new and you guys were getting really hyped off the stuff I was doing, and I think that excitement came out in the work, so yeah, I think that is what it’s all about, just getting each other really hyped on the new stuff you’re doing and then you want to do heaps of it and take it further…

Collaboration with Kara Burrows for Blind Date, part of the First Thursdays event, Dilana Rugs, Sydenham, 2017. Photo credit: Porta

Tell me about the development of your stencil style over time, because, to me, your stencils, despite their diverse nature, from the actual images to the material surfaces you use, they always seem to reflect a street vibe, how did you get started?
I think I had been influenced by a stencil I saw in town, on Manchester Street years ago, like in the mid to late nineties, so I tried to make a stencil, I was listening to a bunch of Foo Fighters, and I tried to make a Dave Grohl stencil and I ended up with a bunch of shredded cardboard that didn’t stay together and I just hiffed it away! Then I sort of revisited it, it must have been four of five years later…

It seems like everyone’s first attempt is always some pop culture icon, a musician or an actor… Do you think it has something to do with the medium? Does the technique encourage you to try and produce something realistic, and then we are just drawn in by pop culture through the image saturation of celebrities? Maybe it’s just the association of that type of imagery with street art’s vocabulary and traditions, that immediately recognisable image to grab someone’s attention…
That’s funny when I think about it, I don’t know why that would be, but it does seem true, they are probably the things that are making an impact on your life at the time. Thinking about those early stencils, I used to make stencils from the outside cover of an exercise book from school, and you just sort of made do. I think I had a huckery old craft knife. I think the drawing I did of Dave Grohl, I was pretty amped on it, and then I just tried to make it into a stencil and I couldn’t quite pull it together!

Godzilla, stencil on reclaimed framed print, 2016. Photo credit: Porta

It’s a technique where there is value in just trying and failing, and then starting again. I think there is also a lack of pretense as well, I mean using the cover of an exercise book, using a cereal box, like that approach is entirely fitting, and even now, you’ll know, you have a preferred method to use to cut stencils, but it varies wildly, different people use different things and it’s all about the way they’ve developed their techniques. So, then you picked it back up after murdering Dave…
Maybe four years ago? Maybe more, I can’t pin-point it. I know the next one I did was based on a sketch of R2D2 [the droid from Star Wars] that I’d done, it’s on the rubbish bin at home, that’s the only place it ever went, but I think from there I started messing round with the technique more and more…

Porta!, stencil on reclaimed suitcase, 2015

Who were your influences? Who, or what made you think, ‘Yeah, stencils are for me…’?
Of course, Banksy would have been an influence and I think he’s great. I liked that he was doing things I didn’t expect. I mean everyone likes to be surprised, and when I saw what he was doing, it made me want to try different things. But there were other people too. I like a Mexican artist called Acamonchi. I like his punk style, I was never into punk so much, but his style and that aesthetic just appealed to me, it was gritty and dirty and cheeky, the images were sort of taking a whole heap of ideas and layering them up in a messy way, just making really interesting mash-ups that came together super well, in a really free sort of way.

Can, stencil on MDF board, 2015. Photo credit: Porta

Even though graffiti is so strongly entwined with hip hop, for the wider street art culture, or post-graffiti, and I guess some graffiti writers, punk is a really significant influence, in visual style, material forms, like the influence of band fliers and posters, and of course the anarchic, DIY attitude…
Yeah, there is definitely a strong punk influence in the history of stencilling, it’s an unavoidable influence.

Did you primarily see stencilling as a street technique, or did you also perceive it as something that could transfer from wall to canvas, so to speak?
When I started I just wanted it to be on the street, I didn’t ever want to stencil on something you could keep. But then over time, I started appreciating the time you could spend on a stencil, that you could layer them up. Then I started wanting them to, you know, stick around a bit longer, and just look at them and see what I was going to do with my next one, stuff like that…

Monkey, Melbourne, 2016. Photo credit: Porta

Now you work on a whole range of different surfaces and objects, but in many ways, they retain a sense of street work, at least in their visual style. While stencils are your primary method, your other love is stickers and slaps…
Yeah, definitely!

You have made thousands of stickers; hand-drawn, stencilled, you have even used block printing techniques, when did you start to making stickers? Did that come after starting to cut stencils?
That would’ve come before. I was always trying to draw stuff and I think one of the guys who influenced the sticker side of things for me was definitely [Christchurch artist] Xpres. He’s always been a real sticker guy, he’s always collected them, always made them, always putting them up around the streets, always with really nice hand styles. Eventually I found out the sticker culture was big in America. I was on the internet all the time trying to find out more, and I discovered a magazine called Peel Magazine, that I couldn’t actually get in New Zealand, but I could find stuff about it online, and so I just got real obsessed with that for a bit. I also came across a guy called Chris RWK, doing these designs called Robots Will Kill, and I just thought what he was doing was so cool, and the more I looked into it, the more I liked it. I think stickers, even though I do stencils, stickers will always be my favourite…

Sparrow, hand printed sticker, 2016

Speaking of stickers and Xpres, we were lucky enough to be involved with the ‘Stick ‘Em Up’ room for the first Spectrum show at the YMCA in 2014, and I remember how deep you got into the concept there, which was built on the idea of social media networks and dissemination, which was how we collected so many stickers from all over the world. You were just hounding people for stickers! What are your memories of that whole experience?
Again, I think it was before Facebook and Instagram worked the way they do now, because they play with the algorithms and stuff, but at the time, when people put stuff up, you saw it right away, and so we were messaging all these sticker artists we stumbled across, I was getting in touch with them, telling them about this event and trying to get them interested by name dropping people who were going to be in the show. And so many people, like eight out of ten people, were keen to be in it and then two would be like: ‘This some sort of scam and you just want to get some free art off me!’ (Laughs) Which I understand!

The My Name IS… sticker board from the Stick Em Up room, Spectrum, 2016. Photo Credit: Porta

Yeah, it is understandable because of the nature of social media interaction, but it also shows that if don’t ask, you’ll never know…
Exactly, I remember, I had this book and I had written down, I think there was close to 800 people that I had contacted! Some people didn’t get back to me, but I remember thinking: ‘Man, it would be a crack up if on the day we are able to start the room, we had a big sack of stickers’, and I didn’t see it happening, but that was exactly what happened, like exactly! With that project, the other thing that sticks out was the whole team thing as well. It was Xpres, Nathan, Jen, yourself, and me, and I think it was such a cool team and we were all getting amped, everyday when something new turned up in the post we were just so excited, I’ve never been so amped!

For me, the temporary nature of that project was really cool, the fact that it is no longer there, that you can’t go and see it anymore, it’s an experience that was so ephemeral, and yet completely consumed our little team for so long, and we were so involved in the evolution of that space…
It’s like, was it even real? (Laughs) I walked around the room and made a video and I sometimes have a look at that. It was pretty cool…

You have been exhibiting more and more over the last few years, with CAP’D, at Fiksate, First Thursdays, and recently in some shows at the Welder Collective, are you more comfortable about making work to exhibit, or is it still something you are coming to terms with?
I don’t know if I’ll ever be super comfortable with it, but yeah, I’m more comfortable with it than I was at the start. But I’m a chronic procrastinator as well, so I’m always doing stuff down to the line and luckily a lot of the people I’m working with know me well and are quite patient (laughs), which I appreciate, because I know I always cut it fine! I don’t know why, it’s like if there’s no urgency, there’s no priority. But, I did always say, right from the start, if I ever felt like I was being pressured with this stuff and it wasn’t fun, I would stop. I do wonder if I get a buzz off doing stuff at the last minute…

Porta’s stencils, left, alongside Finn Wilson’s work, from the Face Value exhibition, Fiksate Design Studio and Gallery, 2017

You need the adrenaline?
That could be it, I don’t know, I’m just sort of thinking that i always seems to end up that way!

As well as exhibiting more often, and helping other artists, you have been doing some of your own public work, probably the most noticeable larger public piece you did was the First Thursdays billboard on Colombo Street in 2016. Do you want to do more outdoor legal commissions, or you would rather make smaller stencils and make stickers?
I think that smaller stuff is really my style, but after working with Flox and seeing how she made that larger scale stuff look really fun, I think it would be cool to revisit it. That panel I did for First Thursdays was a bit of a nightmare, it was a bit of learning curve. The stuff I made my stencil out of was too light, and as I went to hang it up the wind came up. I was so stressed out, I didn’t enjoy it so much. I was so relieved when it was all over, which has made me not really want to do that size again, but then again, working with Flox, she made it look like something that can be quite manageable, and that makes it attractive again.

Portas billboard for the Life Aquatic themed First Thursday event, Colombo Street, Sydenham, 2016. Photo Credit: Abigail Park

Making large scale stencils does bring a whole heap of challenges, especially when working in a public space. I guess often it comes down to compartmentalising the process, and that relates back to the stencil process itself: when you make a stencil, you cut layers and build those layers, so in making a larger scale work, it’s sort of the same principle, in that if you make those layers manageable, and build it piece by piece, you can take away some of the problems…
The other person who is great to work with and watch as far as doing large scale stuff, is Joel Hart, just seeing how, I don’t want to say he cuts corners, but I’ll feel like there is a way to do it and he’ll go: ‘Nah, there’s an easier way’, and he’ll just think outside the box and think of something different, and it’s amazing, it’s so cool to watch.

Speaking of local artists, who are you excited about? Who do you always keep an eye out for in the streets?
I am really interested to see what Kill is going to do next. I enjoy him because I never can predict what he is going to do. I sort of feel like maybe he is drifting towards doing more music, but that dude never fails to surprise you, which is great. I remember the first time I ever met Joel Hart, looking back, I was doing a market with these budget as, horrible stencils and he wandered up and his little girl was with him and we just got talking and he said he liked stencils, he didn’t say anything else and I was like would your girl like one of these, and I just gave it to her, and now I wish I had given him a better one! (Laughs) But from there, he took off with his stencils and got all famous and stuff! (Laughs) But it’s funny how things work out. I love seeing his stuff, I get amped seeing his work…

A few months ago, you helped Dr Suits with his piece for the Carnaby Lane event in New Brighton, which Joel was also part of, it looked like a fun day…
It was great! That was so much fun. I had so much fun with that. It was originally supposed to be a collaboration, but just the way things went, we ended up working with one of Nathan’s designs. So, I ended up helping him more than putting my own design up, but I just had an absolute ball. I’ve never been so relaxed working on a big piece, working outside. Nath’s just so chill about everything, and the sponsor was flicking us beers, so we were pretty happy!

Porta at work on the Carnaby Lane mural, New Brighton, November 2017

In a way, that brings us full circle to where we started: you got to use your painting skills, cutting in, masking off, to help someone out…
Yeah, I’m stoked when those skills are useful, I think that’s where my talents maybe really lie!

I think everybody knows you’re a man of many talents! So, what is coming up in the next few months?
I am going to be part of Stoked, which is an exhibition of surf-inspired art as part of the Duke Festival in New Brighton, and then we have a Fiksate show, Visitors, at The Welder on the 16th March, which should be good times, New Brighton comes to the city! Come and check it out!

Cheers Porta!

Visitors opens at The Welder on Welles Street on Friday, March 16, at 5:30pm. Alongside Porta, Visitors also features work by Jen, Dr Suits, Bols and MFC Lowt.

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A Conversation with Flox

On September 15-16, The Exchange hosted a one-night, one-day pop-up shop, a joint venture between jeweller Cathy Pope, artist and illustrator Ema Frost, and artist (and all-round renaissance woman) Flox. The Auckland-based triumvirate transformed the Waltham space into a unique retail experience, packed with jewellery, clothing, books, prints and original paintings, representing the changing dynamics of our methods of consumption; offering an alternative to both online shopping and the dreary mundanity of monolithic mall culture.

We took the opportunity to speak with Flox about the pop-up shop concept, her experiences travelling and painting at various events and festivals, her stencil process, and her reflections on post-quake Christchurch…

Hi Flox! Welcome back to Christchurch!

Always good to be here!

Tell us about the pop-up event here at the Exchange, and how that came to be…

So, myself, Cathy Pope (a jewellery designer) and Ema Frost, who is another painter/designer, last year we got together to a start a project called the Painted Peacock Project, which took us up to India, where we worked with some kids and painted a mural. Aside from that we’re really great friends. After we came back we just really enjoyed working together, and there’s a lot of really great connections with what we do, so we thought well, let’s try this pop-up idea that we’d been talking about. We’ve since had two pop-ups, we did our first one in Napier and the second one in Tauranga. Both of which were really successful. Luckily for me, the Tauranga one coincided with an event, and it’s quite good when I can tag a pop-up onto a festival or something that I’m in town for anyway, you get an even more fantastic response because you’ve just done this great big thing for their community, and it’s really cool, just that whole give and take thing.

Yeah, absolutely

So it’s fantastic to be here in Christchurch. This is the first time in my entire career actually that I’ve been able to do something at this scale, for Cantabrians. I know I’ve got a lot of fans down here, and a lot of my online purchases are from Christchurch. So, I said to the girls, why don’t we do one in Christchurch? Why don’t we go the extra mile, pack the van up, like pack that shit in, like a Tetris game and just drive it down. So, Ema and I did the road trip down and Cathy and her husband Martin are going to drive the van back and we get to fly home, which is cool…

Sharing it out!

So we’re sharing it, it’s a beautiful kind of sharing philosophy that we have, and at the end of the day, you know, we’re all trying to make a buck and to live off what we’re all passionate about. The pop-up format is a good way to expand audiences and allow for different communities to come and look and touch and feel and have that kind of retail experience. You know online is online. Everyone shops online these days but you can’t beat being able to actually see the piece in the frame, touch it, feel it, lift it up, you know. That’s the thing.

Particularly when they are unique items…

Totally. Even in Auckland, in my showroom, people come in and say, ‘Oh it’s so good to see the stuff!’ And a lot of the pieces, they do get up there in terms of price and I wouldn’t expect people to not want to have a look in the flesh first. So, yeah, I’m super excited about tonight and tomorrow and it looks like we’ve had a really good response online so we’re hoping for a good turn-out.

Pop-Up Shop at The Exchange, September 2017, photo courtesy of Flox

I imagine it will be, Christchurch seems to have developed a better reputation for coming out. There feels like a bit of a sea change, but it’s understandable when for so long there wasn’t much to do…

Absolutely, as you said before, I have been down here a multitude of times in the last ten years and every time, obviously a lot has changed down here, but I go back with this renewed sense of energy, cos so much has changed and I feel like it’s quite motivating. I mean, you guys have been through shit, it’s been hard, but I think now you’re on the other side of it, there’s a lot of positive change, it’s cool to see.

Touch wood!

Touch wood!

Opening night of Pop-Up Shop at the Exchange, photo courtesy of The Exchange

Just going back a little bit, when you talked about the experience in India, and then in Napier, which was the Sea Walls event right? (Sea Walls New Zealand is co-ordinated by artist Cinzah Merkins, and is a tie-in to the international Pangea Seed Foundation events which combine muralism with ocean conservation themes)

Yeah, it was Sea Walls, correct, correct.

Such events are becoming more and more common, where there is a social tie-in to the ever popular street art or mural festival. They obviously present muralism as a vehicle for social commentary and serve as a realisation of the power of these forms. Through your participation what reflections do you have on such events?

Yeah, you know it shows thought and discussion and it really brings a community together, you know, like public art does that anyway, but on top of that we’ve got this incredible theme running through, such as Sea Walls, which is basically marine conservation. We were given a range of topics to choose from. Firstly, it brings communities together because it brings up topics that need be discussed and talked about. But also, from an artist’s point of view, you’re really connecting and you’re really forced to think outside the square and maybe try something new. So you’re growing yourself. You know, with those festivals, personally, every time I paint a mural I want it to be the best I’ve ever painted. So it’s a growing exercise, from a technical and process-driven point of view. But also, the level of communication that you get and feedback from communities is unprecedented. It’s phenomenal.

As opposed to festivals that might undertake discussions about what graffiti and street art are becoming now, these events with social or ecological themes, they move in a different direction, away from the insular reflection and show the inherent ability of these types of expressions to be part of our wider discussions. You know, urban art is often considered rebellious, something people try and solve, but this shows the potential for these cultures to be part of a whole wide range of our communal experiences, which ultimately must be really fulfilling, because I assume ten years ago this wasn’t something you thought would be happening, right?

It’s moving so quickly, like these whole subgenres that are happening and the whole muralism thing, twenty years ago, it was just graffiti, and that had its own origins. But I think fundamentally, when you’re comparing maybe the graffiti world and then this whole street art thing and then the muralism and the festivals, the difference is that I always liken us to the ‘hippy’ artists, the tree huggers, you know, because our intent is to engage, to say ‘Hey come and have a look, I’ve got something to say, and I want you to be able to read it and to have a connection with it.’ I want you to be a part of this genre or this thing that is going on, whereas graffiti was really closed. I wouldn’t have a friggen clue what that said, what they were writing was for those people only, so I think the arms are moving wider and wider, and muralism again is just this whole other thing, it’s just like this huge growth, it’s just blowing up isn’t it?

And it’s raising some really interesting questions around who gets to define and appropriate terms, is post-graffiti/street art/urban art/muralism the same thing? Are they different limbs of the same body? But in many ways its feels like all these arms need to co-exist so that it isn’t co-opted by institutional powers to say this is what this is, and that is one of the dangers I guess, and it’s really important for the sense of ownership and that is why I think artist driven initiatives are so key…

Yeah, I think so, and I think one of the greatest things of any subculture that arises is that it is completely natural and it just comes out of nowhere, you know, and then suddenly you’ve just got this thing, and you’ve got to make a label for it, ‘Quick! What’s it called? What is it?’

Its our human nature to categorise, isn’t it? Recently I was talking to some students about Christchurch’s post-quake landscape and the changing types of creative expressions and interventions, and one student asked why certain cities have become popular sites for graffiti or street art? And my response was that there are so many reasons, and things happen organically, be it a socio-political influence, a response to the physical setting, or it can be just a group of people coming together at a specific time…

It can be a specific situation, like the earthquake, there are so many reasons. Then you’ve got gentrification, that’s another one…

It is really interesting in Christchurch in the inner city at the moment, you may remember a few years ago it was much more haphazard, but you’ve got more and more of these shiny glass facades popping up, and it’s changing the landscape. It is quite interesting to think about what the response might be, there’s room for some really cool guerrilla projects because that physical surrounding is such a big driver of how artists respond to areas.

Absolutely, it’s about using what’s there too, looking for those opportunities.

So when you visit other cities and produce work, how much of that experience of the physical, the social, all those other issues that the actual event that you’re there for, or if you’re just travelling yourself and you get the chance to produce something, how many of those issues come into consideration, I mean is it everything? Or is it often something more personally driven?

Thinking of Taiwan for example, I had the wonderful opportunity to stay there for three months on a residency, so I had the freedom to take my time and create a new body of work and respond to some of their social issues, you know, and also draw on some of the parallels that Taiwan has with New Zealand. So you have those situations where you have freedom and time, and then for me because I work with stencils most of the time, I’m having to pre-plan. So I’m not one of those artists that can rock up, (laughs) like when we did Sea Walls there were 23 artists, and I’d been working for three weeks leading up to it, and then we got there on the first day and I’d say 70 per cent of the artists didn’t know what they were painting! That’s a luxury right there! But I felt really confident because I knew exactly what I was going to do, and I actually like the whole planning thing. It has become almost like a graphic design exercise for me, that’s the challenge. Lately I’ll work really hard on these graphic layouts and Photoshop stuff, and some client driven jobs will require me to do that, but far out the last few walls I’ve done have been really well matched to the brief, so for me the process means that I can’t rock up to a city and, unless I’ve got time, and create a new body of work there and then, or get stuck into a wall. But certainly I like to respond thematically to a locale, and I think that travel has become an integral part of my rollercoaster process. With my practice I get asked to do stuff all the time that may not be as artistically rewarding, and because I’m doing that I have to make sure that I’m well fed, artistically, so I’m doing the festivals and I’m doing the fun stuff, so there’s sort of like two ‘me’s happening at once, and travel is the way in which I come back round to the beginning of that loop and re-influence myself and get that whole new inspiration from new cultures and new locations. For me that’s key, that’s how I work now.

And it just becomes a legacy that you can carry on and build on right?

Totally.

All those experiences feed each other…

And for your audience as well, it shows that you’re constantly on your toes, and you’re moving things along and you’re creating new stuff, and like I said, it’s for me too, otherwise, I’d be bored shitless!

Absolutely! That’s a good transition to talk about your diverse practices. We’ve talked about wall works and murals, but obviously your work ranges from clothing to light boxes to painted panels and beyond, do you think that’s driven by your own explorative nature, or is it tied to the processes you use, or again, is it all of them? Does your approach present constant opportunities to collaborate?

I get asked to do a lot, and now I do a lot of public speaking, and I work with students a lot and I say: ‘I think the best piece of advice I ever got and I’ll pass it on to you guys is that versatility is key.’ In this day and age, when you go to art school and you practice to become a painter, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go off and be a fashion designer or a photographer. I mean, you don’t have to be one thing. I think industries are crossing over in all sorts of ways, and I think that if you can show versatility then that’s essentially keeping doors open. So, yeah that’s always been part of my philosophy, just doing all sorts! (Laughs) But also, if we look at the business side of things, I’ll think: ‘Well, I haven’t really been doing many kitchen splash backs lately, but far out, the private commissions are going off at the moment!’ So it’s sort of like, if somethings not really flying, something else is…

In those commercial elements, say the splashbacks for example, do you find that inspires you to push your work in new directions that may reflect that experience, but without the utilitarian value? Do you find the commercial or practical stuff inspires your more freestyle practices? I’m just thinking that working on that glass surface of a splashback, it must present a range of problems, therefore a range of solutions, therefore a range of possibilities…

Yeah,

Do you find that they overlap quite a lot, do you find them seeping into one another?

Yeah, definitely, there are heaps of cross-overs like that, you’re learning on every job. You’re learning something that you can then take to something else. I mean thirteen years of doing this, you kind of take for granted the level of skill and knowledge you’ve got in your little kete, because it just seems normal. But it wasn’t until I started teaching workshops and I’m like actually, that thing there, you should be teaching them that because I’m just taking that for granted now, it’s just second nature for me. So, yes, there’s all sorts of stuff that crosses over, like you know kitchen splashbacks or outdoor exterior wall stuff for the council, yeah all sorts. I’m constantly learning.

So let me ask about your stencil techniques and processes. I was fascinated when you were here for the 2015 Spectrum show, I had the chance to see the show being put together, and I will always remember seeing all your plates laid out for your indoor wall work, it was an enduring image for me about the process of creating a larger stencilled work. What are your thoughts on the progression of stencilling, because I look back at the very political lineage, it was about a graphic nature that could be replicated and get out to as many places as possible…

It’s like signwriting almost isn’t it?

Absolutely, and what it did was allow preparation and readability, for images that could be replicated anywhere to suggest a particular message…

Repeated as well, repetitive…

And then from there slowly we’ve seen the rise of processes that sort of lead to the likes of Logan Hicks producing massive works of photorealism…

Highly skilled…

Almost mechanical in precision.

Like it’s gone back to the actual photo, like it is the photo.

What I’m getting to (in a long-winded manner!), is that one aspects I love about your work is the painterly quality, which shows the potential of stencilling as a medium, so it’s not just a way of producing a representation image. There is something beautiful in masking space and exploring negative space.

There is, and that’s the fun part about stencilling. I think my background, when I went through art school, I was really interested in printmaking and there are a lot of principles very similar to stencil creation: positive and negative space, what part you leave and what part you take away, that’s the bottom line of stencilling. But for me, my stencil aesthetic has always been evident. I remember the day that my partner at the time, we were working together in Cut Collective, and I remember when we did our first power box together. I was Flox, just, and I was just dabbling, mucking around with the stencil, and we’d finished it and printed it out flat and looked at it, and he was like, wow, I’ve never seen stencilling that looks like this, this is really unique, it’s really different. And up until then, all we’d really seen was you know, Banksy, and its that whole posturized kind of, very Photoshop looking stencil. And so this, over time, that’s the way in which I make marks, the scalpel is my pencil, so I’m really lucky. I feel like inherently, I have his thing in me that I feel so confident with a scalpel now that I’m really scared of a pencil. Like it’s flipped on me, like I get quite anxious when people say, ‘Can you draw something?’ and I’m like ‘No, I can’t draw anything actually, but I can cut!’ But, yeah, what I love about it is that there’s the whole stencil cutting creation, which is unique to me and because I’ll project up on the wall the image and I’ll draw my rough guidelines, but then really at the end of the day I’m ad-libbing with my scalpel, and that’s my special time, and then the painting part, I still get to be playful and although the stencil is rigid, it is what it is, but I can do all sorts of beautiful shading and splatter, and that whole painterly thing, I can be really creative with that stuff, the under-lying stuff, so there’s the combination of the rigidity of the stencil but also the intuitiveness of the painting process as well. I think that’s quite a nice blend.

And I think it’s often overlooked with the way people approach stencil techniques, they’re thinking blocks, a hard and fast positive/negative concept of form. But when you combine the rigidity of a plate with the amorphous nature of spray paint you get this nice combination…

Yes! You get that nice marriage. It’s funny because people will ask me, like a big bird of mine, how many stencils is that? And its only ever one, so I do all the shading and all the colours, and all that stuff freehand underneath, and then I put my stencil line layer, the top layer, whatever you want to call it, on top and that really confuses people, it seems way more complex than it actually is. But it’s not many layers, its one.

But it is layers of paint.

It is layers of paint. And that’s what I teach, I don’t hide anything, my kaupapa for my workshops is to teach exactly what I do, all my tips and tricks, and I just think, the more you can share the better, and who knows whose coming through? We didn’t really have any role models you know, it was kind of like walking through blindly for those first few years.

Which can be quite freeing right? Like you’re not living up to something, and yet at the same time it can be daunting…

It’s both isn’t it? You don’t really know where you’re going, however yes, it is really liberating.

I’ll stop before we get too far down the rabbit hole! Finally, coming back to Christchurch several times, what is your perception of how the city has changed, both in the obvious physical standpoint, but also compared to other cities? Is it a site of great potential or as some people might suggest, a site of lost opportunity? Which might seem cynical, but rebuilding on such a level is obviously a difficult proposition…

It is and everyone’s always got their perceptions, like one of my best friends, she comes down here a fair amount, to visit her sister in law, or some family member, and I always go on to her about how much I love Christchurch, and every time I come down things are moving and there’s this sense of motivation in the air, and new cafés and restaurants are opening, and she’s like, ‘Really?’ I don’t know if it’s the circles she hangs out in, but it’s just so depressing, but I guess I am part of the creative movement, and I’m surrounding myself with certain types of people, and that is what is motivating, and its up to the person isn’t it? To be a part of whichever part they want to be a part of. But for me, yeah, I’m not sure about missed opportunity, but from what I’ve seen I feel like people are really moving and changing and it feels like there’s a lot of really entrepreneurial types out there.

Flox’s wall for Spectrum, Welles Street, 2015

And I think there is an interesting type of entrepreneurship, in that there’s a social element, it’s not just the economic opportunist, it’s the social contribution…

People are a lot friendlier too, I mean compared to Auckland, you know, it’s a lot more open door, and maybe it’s easier to generate networks. But also like you say, for so long, there wasn’t much to do so people are really amped to be a part of something.

I think seeing your city deconstructed imbues in you a willingness to try things, to explore things, an that’s one of the interesting conflicts with the rebuild, you know, as this wild west landscape is disappearing a little bit, that control comes back and it will be interesting to see if that willingness of people to try things, to do things, endures…

I think so, it feels like you’ve got some good planning in place, I don’t know the ins and outs, but I’d like to think we in an era now where people are actually thinking about these things, it’s not the nineties, so I don’t know, touch wood right?

That’s right, as wishy-washy as its sounds, it’s a journey everyone’s on, and everyone’s experience is going to be slightly different as well.

That’s very true. Like we were just saying before, like imagine if we had a place like this (The Exchange) in Auckland? Obviously Auckland’s got its own problems, it is so widespread that it’s very difficult to create those cool little networks, those communities. In saying that, I’m right in Greylynn, so I do have that to a certain degree, but still. Not to mention, the price, the cost of rent, to have something like this you’d have to be a millionaire, times two!

It’s quite interesting to walk out of this space into the surrounding industrial area…

Yeah, I like that!

And yet, you’re still a stone’s throw from the central city…

It’s just there! It’s only five minutes! I like that and I hope these places survive through the build…

Definitely, it will be telling to see what legacies remain, and which are cast aside. And as I say, I hope the majority of people are willing to embrace ideas that have been borne of the challenges of the whole experience.

Like they’re genuine to that right?

Yeah, part of an attitude that has become fortified by this whole thing. Thanks for speaking to us! I’m looking forward to your pop-up, I’m sure you have a lot to do before the opening, so I will let you get back to it!

Thank you!

Find out where to see Flox’s mural in Christchurch on Watch This Space’s interactive map here or find out more about what Flox is up to on her Facebook page.

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