Dcypher – Homecoming (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, they are huge for sure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would totally agree with that.

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

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

Dcypher and Ikarus, Hereford Street, Christchurch, 2017

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

Ahh, yeah, you are probably right there…

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

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

New Brighton, Christchurch, 2018

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

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

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

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

For sure…

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

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

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

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

What specific cities have you enjoyed painting in the most?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of sight, out of mind…

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

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

Yeah, cheers man…

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

Facebook: @dcypherart

Instagram: @dcypher_dtrcbs

Web: https://www.dcypherart.com/

 

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

Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps

Street Wise Presents: Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps

Hosted by Exchange Christchurch – XCHC

Saturday, August 4, 3pm – 9pm

Exchange Christchurch – XCHC: 376 Wilsons Road North, Waltham, Christchurch

On Saturday, Street Wise and Exchange Christchurch – XCHC are joining forces with a bunch of other good folks to host an event that brings a number of communities together, and to celebrate the things that unite us and create a space where people, including the city’s street whānau, can come together and share food, experiences and skills. As part of the Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps project, members of the RAD Collective have helped transform the XCHC space, covering the walls in graffiti and street art in a transformative gesture that brings the outside in and encourages us to ask questions about our assumptions of the streets. This is only one aspect of the wider programme, but it is an important reminder of the way urban art can serve as a transformative, subversive communicative visual culture, one that traditionally has a connection to the experience and reading of public space in ways very different to the grandeur of large scale commissioned murals that might be viewed as having been co-opted as tools of gentrification.

We caught up with Preston Hegel from the XCHC to talk about the event, what it will mean, and how urban art has a role to play…

Preston, how did Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps come together?

It was inspired by Everybody Eats in Auckland and seeing the sensibility of diverting food waste and repurposing it, seeing people wanting to contribute, chefs wanting to volunteer some time to make it happen for people who maybe weren’t seen as worth being given that time. I didn’t think that was something we could pull off here, but I still knew that there’s a similar need here, people have immediate needs. Maybe we can’t organise diverting waste from supermarkets and the strategies that go into something like that, but I knew that there were probably enough people here wanting to help so that if everybody did their little bit, we could achieve something, which is why we are doing the potluck concept. The potluck idea is something we as a community do at the XCHC once a month. We all make a dish and put down the tools and just have a meal together. We all get to know what each other is working on. We all take the time to listen, and we always end up really excited and having a good time. So, I just figured, that works for us here, so why not try to do something like that for the street whānau. I don’t know anything about the situation here, I just know that it’s bad. So, I started to look around and see who was really doing the hard yards for the street whānau, and I came across Street Wise because they were new and are higher up on the thread of activity in the city. So, immediately I just reached out and said: ‘I don’t really know much about this, but we do have a building and we have a pretty tight community and were keen to help out if there are any opportunities…’ So, I met with River from Street Wise and we found similar things inspired us and that we wanted to achieve the same thing, so we put our heads together, out came a few ideas, and we decided on a date just like that.

Headlines are so often framed in ways that ‘solve’ homelessness by moving people out of sight, by banning begging in areas, but this approach isn’t about ‘solving’ anything, it is about a positive, communal experience, and central to this is bringing people together. Often, we pass by people on the street and we may contribute something, or we may not, but I think that ability to actually come together and share an experience is really telling. So, what does the actual event entail?

I think another thing to add to the ‘sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t’ thing, is that nine times out of ten we actually want to, we just don’t know how. So, this event is about addressing how you can help in a small way, because money isn’t really the right option, but some people don’t know that. You know, you see a sign that says this is what I need, and you are kind of like, ok, but it can be confusing. So, I guess the idea is to make that process a little bit easier, not that we’re going to be walking around the streets with our baked goods every day. The XCHC is a place where people are supposed to be able to come together and have the freedom to be themselves without judgement and to have a supportive community around you. No matter what someone’s creative practice is here, you’re surrounded by people all developing their own practice, so there’s a very automatic sense of acceptance and support. You come in and the walls are down, and that is kind of a driving idea of this event as well. This event started as a way to use food to bring people together, but then we realised that it was about much more than that, it was about being able to spend time in a place where you actually feel looked after and you actually feel like you have enough time to get to know people, so it’s actually more about a social setting. So, then we thought, what pieces of a social setting do we enjoy? What might others enjoy? So, things like haircuts, I love being cleaned up, I love talking to my barber, and just the pieces of it, you know you come out looking good, and feeling even better, on the other side. But there’s also that social element, and that was automatically part of it. We knew how much My Father’s Barber has been involved with the City Mission, and the regular things they do for them, so that was something we thought we could put out there and see if it was able to come together. It’s the same with coffee. I didn’t know this, but a real thing of choice for our street whānau is coffee. They love coffee, and I had no idea, and our roaster [Mark Chirnside of Chirny Coffee] is an incredibly talented young barista and all-round coffee lover, and when we said we wanted to do something around coffee, he was just like: ‘Can I give you the beans? Can I give you support? I want to be able to give one on one attention to people who just show up.’ The haircuts, the coffee, it isn’t just for the street whānau, it is actually for anyone to come in and be a part of. It doesn’t make sense for me to arrange an entire day for this particular community I don’t intimately understand, so the idea is to open this up and then it won’t feel like it is for them, it will feel like a day of activity for everyone.

And that comes back to the idea of the communal experience, it’s not about isolation in that sense, it’s about actually engaging together as a community in a broad sense…

And we see it in a lot of ways too, we see it with Arts Access and creative organisations helping disabled communities. If you do something for the disabled, then you are really singling them out, and they want to be involved in stuff as much as anybody, and it’s exactly like you said, it’s about coming together and not being about one specific community, the XCHC is a bridge between communities, between people…

In terms of the RAD Collective, they have been working out of the XCHC for a month, what was the idea of getting them involved as part of Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps?

The RAD Collective moved in about a month ago, and I was just so blown away by their ambition and determination. There are quite a few in the group and a number of them had been exploring quitting their jobs and focusing on their creative outlets full time, which is exactly what XCHC wants to support. You know, they are going into that vulnerable stage, they need support, they need some business, to be around other creatives to stay motivated and I guess with the showcase space not being used for the couple of weeks coming up to the event we had a perfect opportunity to give them the freedom to do what they do best. This is really what the XCHC is about, you really have that support to develop and produce your work but also to showcase it and the public can come and see what you are working on and get involved themselves, so it was really a perfect invitation to come into the XCHC as a whole unit and do what they do best and contribute to something that the XCHC cares about and they were all keen. They were grateful for the opportunity, to do what they do, to do something which I think is kind of unheard of in this city, I don’t go to a lot of cafés where people are painting the walls on a regular basis. But also, to get behind this event and what it represents, and they were so willing to do it.

You have touched on the duality of this element as well. As you say, there is a chance for the RAD Collective to exhibit in a unique way. You are presenting them with the chance to be quite authentic in their presentation, because often in that transition into a full-time creative role, formative roots can be washed out somewhat, things have to look nicer, have to fit a certain expectation, so there’s a recognition of where these young creative people are coming from. But, there is also an inherent reflection of street cultures, the streets as a space for people to occupy, and to utilise as a creative expressive forum, so there is a conceptual relationship too, right?

Absolutely, the ability to bring the best of what they do into where they work and in front of an audience in a supportive space, but also for the event, to bring a community into a space who aren’t necessarily used to this sort of space, to become a home, to give a positive space, surrounded by street art, and we are in that space there with them. I don’t know if I’m going to follow through, but one of the ideas for the night was for everyone to bring to the potluck a mat or a pillow and we’re going to put all the chairs away and we’re going to be on the same level and all eat together on that same level, and appreciate the art, we’re going to have music on the night and bring all the senses together, in an experience that shows that the streets have a different look and feel to them in a positive way.

It’s not just bringing the streets inside, it is also making us think about our preconceived perceptions of urban spaces as well. We are often conditioned to think that when we are surrounded by graffiti, we are in a dangerous space, but that’s a construction, not necessarily a reality. So that’s another value, by transforming an interior space it is playing with the expectation of an exterior space, our expectation of shared environments…

I’m completely blown away at how the RAD Collective took that to another level by hosting the Coffee and Cans event on the night the exhibition was being built. They gave the opportunity to people to engage with street art and graffiti and the whole process, to grab a can and give it a try, or to meet the artists who are behind some of the work in the city. I think that’s actually the point, not to just come in and enjoy it as a finished product, but actually inviting people to come along on that whole journey and how it excites us and inspires us in that process, and I thought that was such a cool way for them to do it. I’m not an artist, so I kind of assumed that an artist doesn’t want their work to be seen until it is finished, and with my experience running the studios here, that’s usually the case, an exhibition isn’t seen until it is all ready to go, so I don’t see things through this lens, but to see them do it that way was really cool.

For sure, it is an interesting landscape now, generally speaking, with process videos and public performance elements a significant part of urban art at a number of levels, it allows a new level of consideration, both for those who haven’t had a chance to be a part of it, but also for those who are fascinated by process. So, what are the key things you want people to know, to get out there, about Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps?

I want people to know that this project and having the RAD Collective here is a perfect representation of what the XCHC is all about and to explore that over this couple of weeks. As for the event, I really want people to know that it is about more than the XCHC and it’s a very small prototype of something that is being worked on in the city. Nick Loosley, who started Everybody Eats in Auckland, talked about wanting to spread across the country, so this is about eventually honing into that model of diverting food waste, which is so important for Christchurch right now, and leveraging the talent of the chefs in Christchurch. It is not a replica of what Nick has done, it is just something that’s inspired by what he has started, but I want people to know that there is more to come on that front and I want the city to be as active in supporting it as Auckland has been, so it is about being in on it, bringing a plate, if you can’t make it, make a donation to go towards helping make future Everybody Eats events in Christchurch happen.

Get along to the XCHC on Saturday and be part of a special event. If you can’t make it on the day, you can still contribute by donating, so find out more through the Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/230716677577645/

And check out a selection of progress shots from the RAD Collective’s take over of the XCHC for the Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps event. Photos courtesy of Josh H. Jones (@harryj_jones)…

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

Dcypher – Homecoming (Part One)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For sure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you leave for Los Angeles?

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

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

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

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

At least…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, for sure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah…

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

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

To be continued Homecoming (Part Two)

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

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

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

Web: https://www.dcypherart.com/

 

 

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

Kophie Hulsbosch – Future Proof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christchurch, 2017
Christchurch, 2017

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

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

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

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

Queenstown, 2018
Queenstown, 2018

How did you become a member of the RAD Collective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explain the idea of green-washing a little bit…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve got some mural work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money is evil! (Laughs)

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

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

Featured image credit: Handmade Photography

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A Tribe Called Haz – Garage Days

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

 

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

Yeah that’s all good! (Laughs)

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

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

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

Yeah, I started skateboarding about 11 years ago.

And you have a background in graffiti as well…

Yeah, that came about through skateboarding as well.

You also work as a builder, right?

I’m a third-year apprentice builder…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar the Moe, acrylic on paper, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled, acrylic on paper, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled, acrylic on paper, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled, aerosol on trampoline, 2018

Untitled, Aerosol on a trampoline, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, you didn’t listen to Powerage!

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

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

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

Cheers man, keep up the good work…

Thanks very much…

Check out A Tribe Called Haz on Instagram:

@atribecalledhaz

Cover image photo credit: The RAD Collective

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Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson – Travelling Man

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

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

Yeah, about six days, possibly even less now…

You found out you were going about six months ago…

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

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

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

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

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

 

Smash Palace, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

So, is your t-shirt available yet?

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

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

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

Boxed Quarter, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rauora Park, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers, man, thanks for your time…

The shirt Wongi has designed for Kathmandu as part of the Artist Series and in honour of the 65th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary submitting Everest is now available online or go visit your local Kathmandu store. A portion of each sale goes toward the Australian Himalayan Foundation.

Want to learn more about Wongi?

Check out his website and follow him on Facebook.

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The RAD Collective – All Together Now

In late 2017 I started to notice a new name popping up across my social media feeds. I wasn’t even completely sure what the RAD Collective was; a collection of visual artists? A promotional entity? A clothing brand? Something to do with skateboarding? As I delved deeper into the world of the RAD Collective, the answer didn’t necessarily become any clearer, they seemed to be all of those things and more. Even when I asked people about them, I got a range of descriptions and explanations. I explored the artists, some familiar, others new, and found a range of approaches, often tinged with a rebellious, playful or acerbic edge, but always distinctly independent. The RAD Collective remained something of an intriguing mystery.

Eventually I was introduced to the RAD Collective’s co-founder Becca Barclay. When we finally sat down to talk about how the collective came to be, how it functions, and the group’s goals, her passion and energy for the concept was clear. What also became clearer were the collective’s diverse identities and operations. Made up of a number of young creatives, including artists, designers, illustrators, graffiti writers and street artists, photographers, filmmakers, musicians and writers, the RAD Collective facilitates collaboration and cross-pollination, while also allowing members to retain their individuality and flourish independently. Although not an explicit element of their formation, the RAD Collective in some regards reflects the evolution and influence of urban art. They span subcultures and decline singular definitions, while embracing and celebrating the subversive qualities of diverse street cultures among other influences. Where once it seemed everyone belonged to a ‘tribe’, adhering and dissolving into expected activities and appearances, the RAD Collective might represent an eroding desire for labels, a new willingness to be all things and nothing.

So Becca, the RAD Collective seems like a pretty fresh approach in Christchurch’s creative scene, obviously it is distinct from the likes of graffiti crews, where did the inspiration come from? Was there a specific influence that set an example to follow?

The RAD’s initial idea was born at Design School at ARA. It was originally, and still will hopefully be, a collaborative ‘alternative’ underground magazine, focusing on different creative practices and sub-cultures and how they intertwine with one another.  Within each issue, numerous creatives will work together on one artwork or article. My third-year research project was focusing on how sub-cultures were represented in print media from the 1950’s until now (so that was me diving into A LOT of David Carson’s work on alternative publications Beach Culture and Raygun, but also various culture prints like Monster Children and i-D, and even skateboard magazine Thrasher).  But I wanted the RAD to really reflect the idea that all these ‘groups’, whether they might be skaters, artists, musicians, street artists, don’t conform just to their own sub-culture, and they each feed the others. We have really tried to keep that as the essence of what we do as a collective. We have our main inner group, but with each exhibition or event we collaborate on, we invite other artists or work with diverse businesses to create alternative or urban showcases. I don’t think any of our members would even refer to themselves as a part of only one sub-culture. We are huge fans of Young, Gifted and Broke (YGB) from Auckland, and the idea that all these creative people are among one team, I think is a really awesome and inspiring approach.

 I have been wondering, is RAD an acronym?

 Hahaha, no! I just think it looks cooler and way more ‘oomphy’ in capitals!

I have often wondered if a defined subculture such as hip-hop could come into existence anymore. Obviously there have always been localised versions within subcultures, with distinct elements based on the specific environment in which they are embedded, but in the digital age, it seems that influences and information are so accessible and diverse, that people will not necessarily seek any singular sense of definition. But, with that said, is there something that defines the members of the RAD Collective, or at least a common thread that unifies them? Or is diversity the defining element? Is there a concerted idea around who ‘fits’ stylistically, or is it more a question of who does something conceptually or materially that adds to the group’s potential?

That is a really hard question to answer because I would usually describe the common thread throughout the RAD as ‘urban’ and ‘alternative’, two words not necessarily used together often and probably a bit of a cop-out on my behalf as they’re both extremely broad! I’ve never really seen diversity as our defining element as we truly are one big team. But in saying that, our diverse skill set is why we work so well and can offer value, to not only our members, but also to the community and the events we work on. As I mentioned earlier, I doubt any individual members of our team would conform themselves to one subculture. I love to use Harry King, otherwise known as A Tribe Called Haz, as an example of this. He is a full-time builder, but loves urban art and is a graffiti artist, his ‘crowd’ are skaters, he’s been skating since he was ten. But our running joke within the RAD is that all his paintings and illustrations are made with him wearing black double denim, listening to pre-1980’s AC/DC and sinking twelve cans of Diesel bourbon and cola, because he ‘looks’ like a bogan! So, no, there is no idea around who ‘fits’ stylistically, whether that is the artist or their art. It is definitely more about the person who is involved, who can add value, and who we can help out. A lot of our team now are friends of friends or people who we’ve approached to join with an idea or project in mind that might crossover into their specialty, so that is pretty cool. But not only does that add value by making our team more diverse and skilled, but it also opens the potential for collaboration across creative fields people might have never dabbled in before.

RAD Collective member, Tomoki ‘Moki’ Peters in front of a series of his photographs at the RAD exhibition at Papa Hou at YMCA, late 2017. Photo Credit: The RAD Collective

Who makes up the RAD Collective, and what roles do people play? I know you have a large number, but does it need delegation, or even a consensus around projects, or do people sort of pick and choose what they want to be involved in?

The collective is made up of around twenty people; we have some more involved members than others, but that’s just because we have pushed out a lot of visual art exhibitions so far, so our schedule has suited certain members more than others. We would usually put a call out to the team to come over or meet us for a Bodgie Beer (the famous house brew at Christchurch’s Smash Palace) and from there we discuss new projects and exhibition ideas. We then clean the idea up, present it to everyone else and people pick and choose if they want to be involved and their level of involvement. Some members will only exhibit occasionally whereas others are involved in every exhibition, and the whole exercise, from helping with branding, to setting up and packing down.

You mentioned that the magazine is still a driving goal, and I look forward to seeing how it materialises, but how did some of the other events come to fill the gap, so to speak, from art exhibitions to being involved in the King of the Square event (an invitational street skating competition staged in Cathedral Square)? There are always a lot of necessary tasks behind getting anything done, so are responsibilities shared around, or do people have specialist roles?

Thank you, we are excited to see what comes of it as well! I was very lucky that one of my close friends and influences, Billy McLachlan, is the organiser of King of the Square, and he knew about the RAD and basically encouraged me to get involved and for us to sort it out and get into it. At this point we had a team together but didn’t have too much going on.  Alongside King of the Square, also in November 2017, we staged an opening exhibition at Papa Hou, the arts venue at the YMCA. From there we approached Audrey Baldwin to become a part of First Thursdays and then Ōtākaro approached us about doing something for the Evolution Square launch. It all happened in quite quick succession, so that was a full on eight weeks of planning and organising. Myself and Jimirah Baliza, who is the collective’s co-founder, will usually do most of planning and administrative things, but there are heaps of people in the team who help us out along the way! At the end of the day we’re asking a lot of these creatives to turn around exhibition pieces in the time that they do, so we try keep their workload at a minimum.

Members of the RAD Collective at the King of the Square event in Cathedral Square, November 2017. Photo Credit: The RAD Collective

How do the group shows come together? Is there generally a theme that artists work to, or is there a sense of trying to pin down what members are doing in the presentation? Do you take the lead from a curatorial point of view?

In the past, we’ve been approached to do group shows and there has been very little turnaround, which means it has been a couple of hectic, stressful weeks! With our upcoming show, Under the Influence, we have had full control from start to finish and the idea came from having a catch up at Smash Palace with some of the team. With past shows where we’ve had such a tight turnaround we haven’t asked artists to work to a theme, but we did with this new show. People seem to have interpreted it two ways: looking at their influences in life or art, or from a drinking or party culture point of view. We usually don’t want to pressure the artists into doing too much other than making their exhibition pieces, but with big shows like this one they will probably have a small job on the evening. I would love to say I do take the lead from a curatorial point of view, but usually it is launch day and Jimirah and myself and whoever else is running around, usually Kophie Hulsbosch and Lucia Kux, are all hands on deck getting as much done as we can! For this show Jimirah, Kophie, Lucia, McChesney-Kelly Adams and I will be doing equal parts curating and setting up.

What makes Christchurch, and specifically post-quake Christchurch, the place for the RAD Collective to work? I know one member has recently relocated, that is always going to be a reality, especially for young creatives, but do you think it is now a place that might be able to retain and sustain people and their creative appetites and goals?

 We are so lucky being from Christchurch as the art and design community have really helped us out and welcomed us with open arms! ARA, other creatives, event organisers and even Ōtākaro have all helped us out along the way and really embraced what we are doing. We have been incredibly lucky in that respect, but I think that reflects the sort of environment the RAD was born into. People want to see a more creative Christchurch, people want events and interactivity within the city and, luckily for us, they are stoked when they see young people at the forefront of it all. If it wasn’t for that, The RAD would never have been nearly as busy or successful as what it has been to date.

But yes, we are so gutted Tomoki Peters, who is a really talented photographer, has left for the bigger, brighter lights of Melbourne, he was definitely a team favourite. But we’re lucky we live in the digital age, so he will still be exhibiting with us and will still be a huge part of the RAD. But as you said, that’s the reality of it, of course some of the crew will move and travel. But yeah, I genuinely believe Christchurch is an attractive place to stay or to come back to, now more than ever. There are so many creative opportunities, events to work on and co-working spaces popping up, and that momentum and energy within the city keeps building.

The RAD Collective take over the store front window of Sydenham skate store Embassy for First Thursdays, December 2017. Photo Credit: The RAD Collective

As a collection of young people, how does the RAD serve as an example for others? Will it be an evolving concept with a lengthy life span and constantly expanding roster, or is it a celebration of the now, an embrace of the potential to combine and get stuff done in the immediate environment?

Hahaha, oh man, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the RAD being an example for others to follow, but I would hope people see us and realise that with a bit of determination, a good mindset and kindness to others, as cheesy as that sounds, you can almost do anything! I love framing everything I do regarding the RAD within a sort of mantra: Do it with passion, do it with compassion, do it with humour and do it with style. If people can see us out there doing it with a smile on our faces, then that’s all that really matters to me. Again, I know it sounds so cheesy, but it’s true! Also, I like to think a bit of naivety never hurt nobody, ya know?

I do think the RAD will be forever evolving. That’s the beauty of a collective, people will always come and go, but I think the true essence of this sort of rebellion, these alternative ways of presenting art, will stay the same. For me, this is my dream, I will do whatever I can to not only one day make the RAD into our magazine, but also grow the RAD apparel, promotions and events, and even develop a RAD artist fund where we can continue to work with super talented young people through workshops, exhibitions, projects, events and collaborations together. That’s the dream anyway!

The lifespan of the collective and the idea of having goals for the RAD does matter to me and some of the other members, although maybe not all of them, but the main attitude within the group is to definitely make the most of now and get stuff done, most def!

With all that said, what is next for the RAD? What is the long-term plan for world domination and what are the shorter-term projects coming up? You have already mentioned the exhibition Under the Influence coming up… 

Yep, next up for the RAD is our exhibition Under The Influence. The show opens 6pm on Friday, April 13th, at the Boxed Quarter, on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets. What we have planned is not your average art exhibition, we have light projections from our motion designers within the courtyard, we have some up and coming DJ’s playing, we have three of our street artists doing live painting, we have a heap of food vendors and a courtyard bar to get yourself a cheeky Friday night beer! And, of course, we have our exhibition, there are twenty artists contributing and we are all so excited! We are also going to be rolling out more winter merchandise. Once that is done, then it’s time to focus on the other exhibitions and events we want to execute for the year. As I mentioned, in the long term we would love to do more event promotion, we’re also aiming to paint some murals around the city, do more pop-up shops, more digital and immersive exhibitions, more collaborations with local businesses, and then about half way through this year we are really going to knuckle down and figure out how we can make a somewhat eco-minded, alternative, honest, underground publication that isn’t half-full of advertising! We are also currently working to find our full-time artists a home to work from, so it truly is all go! We are super excited, so whoever wants to come down and check out Under the Influence, we would all love to have a beer with you!

Head down to the Boxed Quarter (corner of Madras and St Asaph streets in the central city) on Friday, April 13th, from 6pm to see Under the Influence. For more information, check out the RAD Collective’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/812991845578842/

 Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring interviews with a number of artists from the RAD Collective, so keep tuned and get to know some of Christchurch’s up and coming talents…

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And the winner is…. Style Walls 2018 Recap

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

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

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

 

The judges run their eyes over the finished pieces
Style Walls 2018 champion GOR1
Style Walls 2018 runner-up GERM [IMK, JFK]
TWIKS
WYSE
EXACT [ETC]
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Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 2

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

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

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

Ikarus in New Brighton, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not at all!

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

Ikarus and Yikes, central city

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

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

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

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

Ikarus character, Embasssy Wall, Sydenham, 2014

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

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

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

There’s a narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No problems.

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Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ikarus in the Hereford Street carpark

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

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

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

There’s only so many artists as well…

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

Staunch defender, advocate!

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

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

Ikarus, Christchurch central, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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