Benjamin Work – Motutapu II at the Canterbury Museum

When the Canterbury Museum’s hugely popular Rise exhibition finished in early 2014, the walls of the main exhibition hall were covered with long black curtains, the murals from the show obscured with only teasing snippets still visible for more inquisitive visitors. With Hakē: Street Art Revealed; the Museum has drawn back the curtains, allowing the public the chance to revisit the Rise legacy, while also encountering a new floor-to-wall mural by Tāmaki Makaurau artist Benjamin Work.

A member of the celebrated TMD crew, Aotearoa’s most notable graffiti collective, Work brings urban art credibility, but his involvement also ensures a wider discourse that extends beyond the focus of Rise. Work’s evolution exemplifies the new trajectories of artists reared on graffiti and urban art, while also explicitly exploring the complexities of both cultural institutions and the Pasifika diaspora. Drawing on his Tongan heritage, Work has pushed his art in new directions over the last decade. Inspired by the iconography found on cultural treasures such as ‘akau tau (war clubs), his refined, graphic paintings have sought to find new spaces and ways for audiences to engage with Tonga’s visual culture, both inside institutions and on the streets.

Over the span of a week, Work created Motutapu II, a massive mural that sprawls across the floor and walls of the main exhibition hall. Inspired by the Canterbury Museum’s collection of ‘akau tau, the painting extends outward from two orange diamond shaped mata, or matapā (eyes of the pā), a vertiginous pattern of interlocking black and white lines leading the viewer toward more sacred symbols framing the work. Work explains Motutapu II as a metaphorical representation of ancient gateways marking arrivals and departures of voyaging vaka. ‘Motutapu’ is a name used across Polynesian cultures for sacred or sanctuary islands, neutral spaces for visitors before arrival at the mainland.

In the museum mural, the black and white lines create pathways, leading the viewer to each end of the hall; a hovering māhina (moon) glows in mottled orange to the east, while to the west, a soaring Tavake (Tropicbird) accompanies three figures symbolising Tonga’s chiefly lineage. Inviting viewers into the painted space, while maintaining a reverence for sacred imagery, navigating the complicated task of maintaining traditions and engaging a contemporary audience. After observing the creation of Motutapu II, I had the opportunity to sit down with Benjamin Work to discuss his experiences in Ōtautahi Christchurch, the future directions of his practice, and the experience of working at the Canterbury Museum…

It’s been a busy month for you! It started with the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, then you arrived here in Ōtautahi to paint a mural for the Etu Pasifika Health Centre with (fellow TMD Crew member) Charles Williams before starting work on your floor-to-wall mural at the Canterbury Museum. Is such a busy lifestyle still enjoyable or do you miss your own bed?

We were talking about this the other night, I have friends whose practice often works at this pace, but I think this has been one of the busiest periods I’ve experienced, including the work prior to my month away. I’ve noticed it’s easy to move from project to project and not take time to be present, to really be in the moment, so that’s something I’m focusing on. And once I’m home, I will have time to process what’s happened.

Work's piece for the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at Lower Hutt's Dowse Art Gallery. The unfurling piece is dark blue and depicts a moon glowing at the top of the section on the wall, there are figures on the section rolled along the floor.
Work’s piece for the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Gallery.

It must have helped to have had friends and family alongside you for these projects…

Definitely! I can’t function without friends and family. I am a relational person. Most of my life has been experienced in a collective environment, whether it was TMD crew, church settings or amongst my Tongan family. I’m at a point in my life where I have a greater understanding of the way I am, and that’s to help others navigate their way as I find my way.

I assume that is also an influence from your graffiti background, a culture that has a strong sense of collectivism and collaboration, which brings me to the Museum project. The opportunity came from the Museum revealing the wall works from the 2013-14 Rise street art exhibition. The idea was to add a floor mural to extend the narratives around that exhibition. Your work has moved beyond description as graffiti art or street art, both stylistically and contextually, highlighting the evolution of artists who may have roots in those origins. How do you respond to people designating you as a graffiti or street artist?   

They are different practices which I want to navigate how and when I want. This is hard for many people to understand inside of their boxes. I don’t want to be referred to as graffiti artist, street artist or a Tongan artist, simply an artist who is telling stories both old and new.

The floor space inside the Canterbury Museum as the artist prepares to install Motutapu II.
The floor space inside the Canterbury Museum as the artist prepares to install Motutapu II.

You mention that you have become more comfortable in the studio, but the idea of bringing Tongan iconography to public spaces and giving them a new visibility was a central aspect of your work, how has that intention changed?

It has been an important part of my process but there has been a shift of late due to migrating back to Aotearoa, Covid, time alone and making new work. I have seen a shift in style, painting techniques and even using loose canvas. There was a period where I engaged with a lot of institutions, between 2015 and 2019, and it was important for me to engage with our Tongan treasures and bring them out into the public space. But I’m not sure if that’s going be a focal point going forward. What I’d like to do is use those connections and my platform to connect other Tongans that are searching for those answers with those institutions. Many communities don’t realise that they have access to all the museums that hold our treasures.

Working within cultural institutions you must have to consider the colonial history of such spaces. Do you see yourself as challenging that history from the inside, or are you more concerned with opening doors for people who have not had a relationship with these institutions previously and as such have not been exposed to the treasures they contain?   

I hope that the way I move and the way I am, and the work that I make does challenge those places. Naturally I’m a bridge-builder, so for me, engaging with an institution such as the Canterbury Museum, one goal is to reconnect our people with our treasures, but if there are challenges that arise, I have to face them. I don’t go looking for confrontation, but if I come face to face with it, I have to say something because I’ve got the privilege of being in that space and if not me, then who?

Work adds some final touches to the massive mural.
Work adds some final touches to the massive mural.

Looking back to some of your previous work, like the mural you painted here in Christchurch for From the Ground Up in 2013, there was an explicit narrative unfolding in a relatively conventional pictorial format, but your work now feels much more evocative and suggestive without that overt storytelling, a quality that is evident in the Museum piece.

Graffiti was quite literal, it’s a letter-based art form and I painted my chosen name over and over again. This is me! Know me! Read me! I’m famous! Transitioning away from a graffiti aesthetic in 2011, I realised I didn’t have to be so blatant which led me to engage with the more abstract iconography found on our traditional ngatu (bark cloth). The inspiration for that particular mural came from reading Olaf Ruhen’s book called Minerva Reef, a true story of Tongan boxers on their way to Aotearoa for a tournament who were shipwrecked on the Minerva Reef for four months. I used iconography to communicate this story on the wall. It was a little strange at the time painting it in Christchurch but that shifted when I found out descendants of some of the survivors lived in Christchurch and visited the wall.

Work's mural for From the Ground Up in 2013. The image in red, black, grey and white, features figures escaping from a ship wreck with a bird flying above them.
Work’s mural for From the Ground Up in 2013.

Did that evolution come about as your exploration of Tongan artefacts such as ‘akau tau (war clubs) and tapa cloth deepened? What were your experiences with those types of objects growing up?

Ngatu bark cloth, fala (floor mats) and ta’ovala, the mats we wear around our waists, are filled with mostly abstract motifs which are embedded with ancient knowledge, we engage with them from birth. We have an intimate knowledge of them, of their texture, and even their smell. We had ngatu bark cloth and mats folded under our bed, most Tongans do, that’s where you store them, where else do you store these humongous things? Ngatu bark cloth was my first point of reference when experimenting with other mediums, but the war clubs were love at first sight. I was first introduced to them in a book called The Art of Tonga by Keith St. Cartmail, I was instantly intrigued by the iconography carved into them. I wanted to work them into my practice, especially the warrior figures.

I was lucky enough to join you when you were examining some of the ‘akau tau in the Museum’s collection, and I was struck by the small scale of the carved designs on the clubs, possibly because I was familiar with your work’s larger scale, which has been an intentional shift to make them more visible…

I wanted to use my platform to tell the world about our Tongan iconography. I wanted the scale to be impactful and for our people to be proud once they had learned that these are our designs, that they come from our ancestors for us. What better way was there than public murals? I feel I’ve started something that other Tongans will continue with bigger and better murals.

The finished Motutapu II, surrounded by the revealed Rise paintings in the Museums main exhibition hall.
The finished Motutapu II, surrounded by the revealed Rise paintings in the Museums main exhibition hall.

You said that living in Tonga you noticed young Tongan men seem to physically engage with their surroundings, constantly touching or hitting surfaces. That kinesthetic or tactile tendency becomes important in the context of your work as you have to think about how people engage with artefacts and art within institutions. I know you had to grapple with the idea of people potentially walking over the floor mural and that influenced the design, especially the elements drawn from more revered sources. That question of how to treat objects of culture and how we engage with them must be a central concern for you, especially as you shift between sacred cultural objects, utilitarian objects, public spaces and white cube galleries…

My process evolves slowly, I’m OK with it, as long as I’m still exploring different ways to communicate through my work, the speed of change doesn’t matter. Living in Tonga has challenged me to think differently when it comes to materials and the way I present my work. I’ve seen my people touching and desiring to hold my work rather than simply viewing it in a gallery, and I’m now OK with that, but if you asked me five years ago, I would have had a heart attack!

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

What was the process for the Museum piece, from exploring the collection of Tongan artefacts to producing this massive floor to wall mural? What are you looking for as inspiration in those objects and how do you then translate it to a massive mural work?

An important part of this project was me coming down to Christchurch viewing the space. I was emailed the specs for the floor and walls, but if I’m able to see the physical space, I’m able to respond to the space better. Likewise, with the ‘akau tau, I’ve seen many throughout my years of research but I’m always looking for unique motifs within each museum’s collection. I had a similar experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with Dr Maia Nuku (Associate Curator of Oceanic Art at the famous museum). She took us into the collection of Tongan treasures, which is small, but there was a club there with this small motif of two warriors reaching out towards each other, their hands above their heads. That motif then triggered the idea for a mural which she organised in Spanish Harlem. In the Canterbury Museum’s collection is a beautiful abstraction of a Tropicbird which I included in the mural.

By coincidence, the mural you painted with Charles featured a tropicbird as well…

It was meant to be. There was no prior communication on that. Even though it was a Pasifika Health Centre, it would go against Charles’ kaupapa of painting foreign birds in Aotearoa. The Tropicbird is known as an Amokura in Māori and Tavake in Tongan and is a sacred and significant bird that can still be sighted from time to time in Aotearoa. It is said some elders would cry as it was a tohu or sign reminding them of Hawaiki.

The collaboration between Work and TMD crew mate Charles Williams on the Etu Pasifika Health Centre, 2021. The mural features diamonds of blues oranges and yellow, with a realistic tropicbird fllying upwards from the left. On the right, a massive stylised Tongan Chief figure .stands rigidly
The collaboration between Work and TMD crew mate Charles Williams on the Etu Pasifika Health Centre, 2021.

You have admitted your connection to Christchurch is rather limited, but some of your Scottish heritage does trace back here. Being born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and also living in Tonga, what have you made of your experience in Ōtautahi?

I’ve enjoyed Ōtautahi, but I definitely love Tāmaki! No, I visit a place and try to feel the environment, watch and engage with people of that place. Both Māori and Pakeha have been shaped by the landscape, seascape, mountains, and rivers. My great-great-grandparents migrated from the Shetland Islands to Christchurch and are buried in Linwood Cemetery – something I’m learning more about recently. I’ve engaged with the land and people down here, wondering if there are any attributes of that generation in the people I’ve met. I have questions: Why did they choose Ōtautahi Christchurch? Did they walk these same streets? Did they learn the story of this land?

Have you had the chance to engage with members of the Pasifika community here in Ōtautahi during this project?

Associate Curator Hatesa Seumanutafa went above and beyond her job description in supporting this project. Having a person from Moana Oceania with our treasures in the Museum is vital! Not only for our material culture but as a lighthouse for our people to connect with within the institution. Ōtautahi has a unique Pasifika story, one that is sometimes dominated by the Pasifika stories from Auckland and Wellington. I was able to connect with some of the amazing community here and make space for us around a kava session in the Canterbury Museum indigenising space to talanoa and tend to relationships – the first of many.

Hakē: Street Art Revealed is on display until June 7, 2021 at The Canterbury Museum.

Follow Benjamin Work on Instagram

 

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Perspective: Women in Urban Art @ Fiksate Studio & Gallery

Urban art, and graffiti in particular, are viewed by many as masculine realms, physical, aggressive and competitive. But, the reality is that women have long had a vital role in the history of wall writing and street art, from subway graffiti writers like Lady Pink, to post-graffiti icons like Swoon, and leading members of the contemporary mural movement like Maya Hayuk. In Aotearoa, the female presence in urban art has also been notable, and Fiksate’s Perspective exhibition, opening on November 6th, brings together an array of artists to share their diverse experiences and reveal the myriad stories and pathways of women in urban art.

Organised by Fiksate owner Jenna Lynn Ingram (Jen_Heads), Perspective brings together established and emerging female artists from around New Zealand (and further afield), with a diverse range of practices, from typography-focussed graffiti writers to spoon-loving street artists, collagists, paste-up artists, photographers, videographers, traditional painters and mural artists. This diversity reveals the approach of Perspective, less concerned with an explicit historical narrative or thematic or stylistic similarities, the show primarily explores the scope of work of the collected artists, from Flox’s beautiful stencils to Kophie Su’a-Hulsbosch’s empowered portraits or Befaaany’s striking urban photography. In doing so, notions of the female urban artist are both celebrated and challenged.

Auckland artist Flox is one of the impressive line up included in Fiskate’s Perspective: Women in Urban Art Exhibition.

The Perspective line-up features an amazing snapshot of Aotearoa’s urban art talent, including well-known figures such as Misery, Flox, Diva, Kell Sunshine, Mica Still, Erika Pearce, Gina Kiel, Xoë Hall, Greta Menzies, Jen Heads and Fluro, as well as newer names like Mirella Moschalla, Glam, Kophie Su’a-Hulsbosch (Meep), Befaaany, Vez, Cape of Storms and Bexie Lady.

Local talent Kophie Su’a-Hulsbosch is part of the Christchurch contingent of the show.

Accompanying the exhibition will be a limited-edition risograph zine, produced by Jane Maloney of M/K Press, providing additional insights into each artist’s background and further highlighting their varied experiences, from the challenges they have faced to the different environments that have fostered their approaches and nurtured their talent. While more fluid and non-binary gender identities may render gender specific exhibitions less necessary in the future, Perspective is an important moment in Aotearoa urban art, a celebration of some amazing talent.

Spoon-making street artist Vez highlights the diversity of the Perspective line up.

Perspective opens 5:00pm, Friday November 6th at Fiksate Studio and Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street.

For more information, visit www.fiksate.com or Fiksate’s Facebook page.

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Long Trip of the Kokos – Robert Seikon and Anastasia Papaleonida

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

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

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

AP: Amazing.

What are your perceptions of New Zealand so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: We enjoy talking about color.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The finished Cosmic mural, February 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP: Almost a year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Seikon and Papaleonida online…

@seikon87

@anastasia_papaleonida

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

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Urban Abstract at Fiksate, Friday 25 October

This Friday sees the opening of Fiksate’s latest group exhibition, Urban Abstract. A long time in the making, the show represents something of a passion project for the Fiksate crew. An exploration of abstraction within the urban art realm, the show will bring together a diverse roster, including Poland’s Pener, Aotearoa heavyweights Elliot O’Donnell, TOGO, Melinda Butt and Levi Hawken, and local artists Tepid, Bols and Dr Suits. These artists represent a number of approaches and interests in abstract work, from Hawken’s concrete sculptural forms, to TOGO’s photographic and videographic documentation of his in situ practice, as well as a wall painting by Fiksate’s own Dr Suits. Other artists explore gestural painting, collage, stencils and more, all with distinct signatures. While abstraction has long roots in urban art, it has not been explored locally to any significant degree, a fact that Urban Abstract seeks to address, celebrating the emergence of urban contemporary’s diversity. As with all Fiksate shows, the drinks and atmosphere will be supplied and with a few surprises in store, it is most definitely worth marking the date in your calendar…

Urban Abstract opens Friday, October 25th, from 5pm. The show will run until November 29. Fiksate is located at 165 Gloucester Street.

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Highlight – Street Art Street Party

If you follow us on social media, you will know by now that we are super excited about Saturday’s Highlight street art party! That excitement is for good reason, as Highlight is shaping up as one of the most impressive urban art events the city has seen in several years. Hosted by a number of SALT District businesses, and occupying SALT Square and nearby locations, the one-night only party is a result of the collaboration between a number of entities, including Oi YOU!, the masterminds behind the massively popular Rise and Spectrum festivals, as well as the recent SALT mural produced by Dcypher and Paul Walters of Identity Signs.

Dcypher and Paul Walters, with Oi YOU!, SALT Mural, SALT Square, 2019
Dcypher and Paul Walters, with Oi YOU!, SALT Mural, SALT Square, 2019

Speaking of Dcypher, the recently relocated artist (having returned from a decade long stint living and working in Los Angeles) will be joined by his DTR crewmates, Ikarus, Wongi and JacobYikes in painting live at Highlight and producing a pop-up gallery of their work. Another pop-up gallery space will be created by the city’s leading purveyors of urban contemporary art, Fiksate, who will present work from their impressive collection. On top of that, Nelson’s Shady Collective (of Spectrum infamy) will present demonstration stalls for screen-printing, t-shirt and stencil-making, giving punters the opportunity to both make and take pieces!

Ikarus and Dcypher, Christchurch, 2019
Ikarus and Dcypher, Christchurch, 2019

Being that urban culture extends beyond graffiti and street art, there will also be live music (thanks to Bassfreaks and RDU DJs), food and drink (from the Little High Eatery and surrounding restaurants) and retail pop-ups of street wear from some of the city’s leading urban fashion masters, including Hunters and Collectors, Curb and The Recycle Boutique. Oh, and did we mention that once the official street party winds up, there are multiple after party options, from The Retropolitan to Smash Palace, The Slate Room and Dux Central.

Fiksates 2016 show CAPD, photo credit Charlie Rose Creeative
Fiksate’s 2016 show CAPD, photo credit Charlie Rose Creative

And of course, another of the ‘Highlights’ will be the live video projection animation of the SALT mural, the first of it’s scale in Ōtautahi. This is sure to be an impressive, eye-catching activation of one of Christchurch’s newest pieces of street art muralism.

Highlight will kick-off at 5pm on Saturday at SALT Square on Tuam Street and is free entry. For more information, check out the event page on Facebook.

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And that was… February 2019

So, after kicking off this recap series last month, it became apparent how fast each iteration would come around! Luckily there has been plenty to keep us going, with good weather, a number of spots and new initiatives, February 2019 saw Christchurch’s urban art scene keep up appearances, from the return of a big name, to the return of an important event, it was a good month…

  1. Jenna Lyn Brown with Porta and Dr Suits – Viva New Brighton
Jenna Lynn Brown with Porta and Dr Suits, Viva New Brighton, Hawke Street carpark, New Brighton
Jenna Lynn Brown with Porta and Dr Suits, Viva New Brighton, Hawke Street carpark, New Brighton

A fun addition to the seaside village (along with a spattering of new paintings throughout the mall) the text-based painting on the old Couplands building deftly co-exists with Auckland artist Berst’s dynamic piece, with shared echoes of colour, albeit in contrasting styles. The declaration ‘Viva New Brighton’ becomes a proud celebration of the community’s rebellious spirit…

  1. Style Walls 2019
Competitors in the middle of battle for Style Walls 2019, Lichfield Street.
Competitors in the middle of battle for Style Walls 2019, Lichfield Street.

In early February, the local institution Style Walls returned, once again pitting an array of talented artists against each other in a battle format. Utilising the giant cans as the canvasses, Style Walls 2019 focussed on characters rather than letters, and the hand-picked line-up were allocated four hours to impress the judges. Ysek7 came out on top, beating out Kieos, Dove, Daken and Sewer. Stay tuned for an interview with the champion, and some further insight into Style Walls with co-founder Ikarus…

  1. Black Book sessions

While not strictly a February event, we just had to shout out the Black Book sessions that have been running for several months now, encouraging graffiti artists of all ages and levels to commune and create. Established by Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Emma Wilson and Ikarus, the sessions are held weekly on Thursday afternoon/evening at the Youth Space on Manchester and Lichfield corner. See their Facebook page for more details…

  1. Who is that Lurq-ing?
Lurq, Hereford Street
Lurq, Hereford Street

It is always good when local legends leave their mark, so seeing a number of pieces around the city by Lurq deserves a mention for the month of February, that recognisable style featured in a number of productions in different spots…

  1. Dove and Wongi – Bode tribute
Wongi 'Freak' Wilson and Dove, Bode colab, Hereford Street
Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and Dove, Bode colab, Hereford Street

Definitely a personal favourite, the tribute colab by Dove and Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson in Hereford Street combines the stylistic flair of each artist while celebrating a seminal influence on graffiti culture. The underground comic artist has been a massive inspiration on a number of graffiti writers, and his iconic Bode Lizards and Cheech Wizards have been included alongside pieces and in productions across the globe.

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And that was… January 2019

Well, January flew by, right? We thought that since life is so hectic, and the worlds of urban art are often so fleeting and ephemeral, it would be helpful to recap each month with a kind of top five list, you know, like in the Nick Hornby book High Fidelity (or the John Cusack movie adaptation, where Jack Black steals the show, take your pick), or a truncated Letterman Top Ten. We will list five things that we loved during the previous month – from new works, big or small, to events and exhibitions, or even just general talking points. And of course, we would love to hear what you think, so jump in and comment, or send us a suggestion for our upcoming lists…

So, without further delay, here, in no particular order, is the inaugural ‘And that was…’ list for January 2019 (drum roll please…):

  1. Face Value @ Fiksate Gallery

Face Value Promotional Poster

The team at Fiksate followed up the Jacob Yikes exhibition, Bad Company,  with another impressive showing – the second incarnation of the Face Value: an exploration of portraiture, figuration, faces and characters through the lens of urban art. The show featured a range of talent, from emerging and established locals, to big names from wider Aotearoa and further abroad, such as Anthony Lister, Elliot O’Donnell (AskewOne) and Tom Gerrard (Aeon). Highlights included O’Donnell’s monochromatic apparition Chloe (Beta), the collective strength found in the juxtaposition of local artist Meep (Kophie Hulsbosch)’s bold self-portrait and the works of Auckland’s Erica Pearce, the elegant chaos of Lister’s Ballet Dancer, and Koe One’s typography-laced black and white portrait of urban youth.

  1. The Giant Cans get a makeover…
The Giant Cans got a make-over with new work by (L-R) Wongi 'Freak' Wilson, Fluro (Holly Ross) and Ikarus.
The Giant Cans got a make-over with new work by (L-R) Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Fluro (Holly Ross) and Ikarus.

While five cans remain a constant open platform, the three cans that stand aside are designated as semi-permanent. Initially painted by Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Ikarus and Jacob Yikes, in mid-January, the three metal sentinels were re-painted by Ikarus, Wongi and Fluro (Holly Ross), giving them some fresh evening wear for 2019. With Ikarus’ slick letterforms, Fluro’s elegant typography, and Wilson’s photorealism (with some nostalgic cartoon fun thrown in as well), the cans represent a variety of approaches and styles.

  1. Macadam Monkey chills in North Beach
Macadam Monkey's North Beach and Chill wall, Marine Parade, North Beach.
Macadam Monkey’s North Beach and Chill wall, Marine Parade, North Beach.

French artist Macadam Monkey spent several weeks in the city in late December and January, and he made the most of his time here. Hitting a few spots with his almost Art Deco-styled, elegant females as well as more traditional lettering, our favourite was probably his appropriately titled ‘North Beach and Chill’ wall beachside in North New Brighton. The refined (and recurring) colour palette of black \, grey, yellow and white added to the chilled vibe and the work itself seems to have the potential to be something of a small-scale landmark for the area (although time will tell of course…).

  1. Juse1, VRod and Torch in New Brighton
Juse1's B-Boy chilling in New Brighton.
Juse1’s B-Boy chilling in New Brighton.

It was something of a meeting of generations and locations when Wellington legend Juse1 visited Christchurch. He spent time painting with local writers VRod (who hails from Auckland but is based in Christchurch) and Torch, and while the Hereford Street spot was a blink and you’ll miss it deal (in fact there have been a number of pieces there that could have made this list, shout out to Tepid, Lurq, Ikarus, Dove and more), their sprawling production in New Brighton has shown more legs. The pieces add to a vibrant setting, and Juse’s iconic B-Boy character adds a perfect nod to hip hop culture, as if it is straight off a New York subway train circa 1982, albeit still fresh to death…

  1. Jonny Waters, Dizney Dreamz @ Anchorage
Jonathan Waters, Goofy, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018

Dunedin-based artist Jonny Waters goes by a few names, but one thing is always consistent: his playful, twisted aesthetic, which was on full display in Dizney Dreamz at The Anchorage on Walker Street. Presented by Kin Art, the show featured a new series of Waters’ cut-out characters, this time iconic (and several overlooked) players from the world of Disney cartoons (his previous works have taken on Looney Tunes, Rugrats, Sonic the Hedgehog and The Simpsons). While the silhouettes are familiar and intend to invoke a feeling of nostalgia, the details take the viewer on an unexpected trip; eyes where they shouldn’t be, limbs and heads protruding from fresh wounds. All these features are accompanied by a fine technical detail, with layered sections, perfectly imperfect lines and a use of various media.

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Berst: The Faith of Graffiti (Part Two)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

Are you talking about stylistic lineage?

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

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

A five-year cycle?

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

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

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

Like the German influence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

In terms of appropriation?

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

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

Yeah? (Laughs)

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

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

A perception from the community?

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

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

The Broken Windows theory…

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

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

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

No, of course not, of course not…

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

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

It loses something…

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

But teaching the motivation is a different thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That must be a hectic schedule!

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

Yeah, ideas push evolution and development…

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

Berst, Christchurch, 2018
Berst, Christchurch, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cultural capital…

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

Berst, Tauranga, 2017
Berst, Tauranga, 2017

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

That’s what I’m talking about…

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

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

There’s got to be that distinction…

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

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

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

Cheers man…

 

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

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

Berst – The Faith of Graffiti (Part One)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

Exactly, they were learning in different ways…

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

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

Totally, a huge impact.

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

Yeah, I’ve seen videos…

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2017

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

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

Spreading the gospel!

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

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

Definitely, it’s a resource.

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

That question!

You know, it is such an outdated question…

Such a binary option…

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

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

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

Signature-based graffiti…

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

Over fifty years…

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

And has had that longevity?

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

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

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

What is that essence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

 

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

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

 

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

Chimp – Organic Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sure did!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instagram: @chimp.one

Facebook: @chimpartist

Web: http://www.chimpartist.co.nz/

 

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

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