Street Treats, Vol. 2

As the city continues to shift, refresh and transform, the little things matter more and more. The vacant and damaged spaces that encouraged more bold and brazen interventions are now less prominent (some of our favourite spots around the city face imminent revitalisation). The necessary contrasts of our urban surroundings are increasingly supplied by the small, unexpected things, clashing with the washed concrete structures and shiny facades that continue to stretch and grow. (Do I sound like a broken record?) Those little details that make a city lived in and alive can raise so many ideas, from the explicit to the subtle, the pointed to the more amorphous and undefined. Yet in each case, their mere presence serves to explore what it means to be part of and have a voice within a larger conglomeration. They provide a sense of the human and authentic (with just a touch of dissent, of course) and signs of contrast and contestation amidst the monolithic towers of progress (both literal and metaphoric), .

This second volume of Street Treats features a host of artists and threaded themes, from the traditional, yet entirely timely ACAB/1312 element, to graffiti’s unerring ability to speak of ugliness and beauty concurrently, or in the case of Teeth Like Screwdrivers’ ‘buff bluff’, the inherent potential in the blocks of grey paint that cover graffiti. Levi Hawken’s concrete sculptures have echoed the physical make up of the cityscape while speaking of his graffiti and skateboarding roots, and notably the Black Lives Matter movement. Vesil’s graffiti continues to be a highlight, diverse and well-placed, with an assortment of accompanying characters and accoutrements raising the spectre of playful nostalgia. Anonymous scribes contest election billboards and the future of human utility (I think…), or  more hopefully, remind us that ‘love is rife’. Stickers and paste-ups continue to have a rising presence in the city, with acerbic, humorous and intriguing additions to urban walls and fixtures. In the case of FOLT’s skull cut-outs, it is as much the absence as the presence that is striking as these popular sculptural pieces are removed. Cosmik Debris’ paste-ups suggest the molecular science behind all things and the scale of being, while Dr Suits blurs the line between art and advertising, without anything to sell. This collection revels in the details of the city, details that many overlook. Yet, when you start to look closely, there are always surprises, always discussions, and always alternatives…

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And That Was… August 2020

With the return of Level Two, August has been a bit of a roller-coaster, with the highs of communal gatherings matched by the returning weariness of congregations and the tiresome political bickering and conspiracy theory wackiness dominating much discourse. But that is where art is so effective, it can be both a glorious shared activity and a private independent adventure, a distraction from what is going on and a reflection of those same issues. The month started with a sense of excitement as I met with artist Tom Bell to discuss his upcoming show Adoration, which provided a great opening night. As time passed, more things turned my head. It was clear people were busy, from guerrilla interventionists, to mural artists, and it felt like the city was alive with activity. This energy has been somewhat tempered by the potential of a shut down (at the time of writing this at least), but it gives me pause to believe that even when difficult times emerge, art can always find a way to help out…  

Tom Bell – Adoration @ Absolution

The month kicked off with a farewell as Tom Bell presented Adoration at Absolution in the Arts Centre. Tom has been based in Ōtautahi for several years, working as a graphic designer, while diving back into painting more recently as a creative outlet. His art has long been entrenched in Japanese imagery, and Adoration played homage to that ‘adored’ visual style. Intricately cut and painted plywood, with subtle layering and flashes of detail made for a striking collection. The turn out was also impressive, with Absolution jam-packed, a well-deserved result for the artist’s long path towards Adoration.

Levi Hawken’s urban installations

Auckland-based artist Levi Hawken’s concrete sculptures were introduced to the city at the Fiksate show Urban Abstract last year. Placed within the gallery setting, they were immediately recognisable as versatile aesthetic objects. But Hawken’s works are undeniably influenced by the urban environment and they gain so much from their placement within the cityscape. It was therefore an awesome surprise to see a number of his small works mysteriously applied to walls and fixtures around the city, subtly subverting expectations.

Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson’s TradeStaff mural update

We all know Wongi Wilson’s aerosol technique is mightily impressive, and that rings even more true as time passes and he refines his approach. That reality is instantly recognisable with his recent refresh of his own TradeStaff mural on the corner of Colombo Street and St Asaph Street. The original mural, painted around 2013, had become a familiar site in the CBD, but the new work, still in progress when I first saw it, is incredibly striking, almost invoking the proletariat intensity of propaganda posters…

Catching up with old friends…

Over the month of August, we have been putting together a project that we can’t wait to share… but for now, it is enough to say it has been a heap of fun catching up with a bunch of our favourite artists and revisiting some of their most memorable works (including some more recent additions), such as Berst and his God of the Forest in Sydenham and staircase mural inside the Canterbury Museum (pictured).

Distranged Design on Manchester Street

Distranged Design’s newest outdoor work on Manchester Street is an impactful surprise, anonymous eyes peering out from an expressionistic blue background splashed across a distressed wall. Staring at passing traffic from behind hurricane fencing it is an alluring sight and forms part of a larger collection of interventions in the vacant lot…

What were your highlights from August 2020? Let us know in the comments below…

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Photo Essay: Responding to the Gentrification of Street Art – Befaaany

For the latest entry in our photo essay series, we reached out to Befaaany, a Christchurch photographer whose work showcases the urban and concrete landscapes of the city. After being impressed with her striking pictures on Instagram, we knew she would be a perfect fit. Befaaany’s response was a beautiful collection of black and white images that run the gamut of urban expression, small stickers, bold graffiti, abstract paintings produced in perilous environments and the ephemera of a eradicated presence. In compiling these photographs, Befaaany is able to highlight the issue of street art’s gentrification and mainstream popularity, a process that has in many ways clouded our recognition of street art’s subversive and disruptive potential…  

 

Local street artists are constantly finding new ways to create art in a city filled with council-funded installations from international artists. These have included challenging gentrification of graffiti directly, blurring the lines of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ street art, disguising their art into the city, and  leaning into the temporary nature of their art form. – Befaaany

 

Follow Befaaany on Instagram to see more of her amazing work…

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Tom Bell – Adoration @ Absolution

With everything that has happened in 2020 (so far), it seems like a long, long time ago that artist and designer Tom Bell told me he would be staging a solo show at Absolution this year. But while what seems like an age has passed, I have maintained a level of excitement about the exhibition Bell has come to call Adoration. The show features a body of work that combines both the artist’s established interest in the imagery and themes of Japanese art and culture, but with a new material approach, his digital rendering replaced by hand-painted cut-outs. The sense of reverence for the subject matter (the show’s title a reference to that debt) is empowered by the evidently pain-staking process of manual brush strokes. Bell’s works, whether paintings, stickers, digital prints, tiny enamel pins, t-shirt designs or illustrations, are alluring, their soft pastel colours and dynamic yet sparse compositions combining with the loaded symbolism of Japanese visual culture to feel both traditional and contemporary.

I met Tom a few years ago, he was with his ‘art fam’ as he calls them, at an exhibition opening at Fiksate. Since then his face has become a familiar one at places like Fiksate, Supreme and Smash Palace, always up for a yarn. But when we sat down to chat for this interview, I learned a lot more about him, from the Wellington-raised artist’s relationship with Christchurch, his interests in stencils and tattoos, and his journey to opening Adoration. Part of what made the discussion so engaging was Tom’s energy, he flew between thoughts, earnest and honest, clearly excited and invigorated by the upcoming show and what he had learned as an artist and a person over the last year.

I remember almost a year ago, or at least it feels like that long because of everything that has happened, you mentioned that this show is a farewell to Christchurch because you were planning to move back to Wellington…

Yeah, that’s still the plan [in August]. I’m originally from Wellington, but I have spent almost four years down here. It’s crazy because a lot of people have asked where I was hiding for those first two years! I moved down from Wellington for my graphic design job. At the time my now ex-girlfriend was from Christchurch, all her family were here, so I made the move. I really struggled making connections with people down here. Throughout my twenties I’ve struggled with social anxiety and that really put a big hindrance on me going out and going to shows and other social situations. For two and a half years the idea of going to an exhibition opening by myself, even if I knew people who would be there, would make me really anxious. I would think people are going to look at me and be like, who’s that dude? At the end of 2018 I decided I needed to face some of my weaknesses and get a control of my anxiety.

That social anxiety was a big obstacle for you obviously…

Yeah, the social anxiety was a big hindrance to me. I had people in Wellington say to me: ‘Dude, you should be getting out and trying to make connections in the art community, you’re a designer, you love your art, Christchurch has a really good scene, just start doing it…’ So, when all that happened, I just said, alright, I’m going to put myself out there. I reached out to Jessie [Rawcliffe] because we had started building a connection through Instagram, so I hit her up out of the blue and said you do a lot of collab work, would you be keen on doing one in the new year? She was like: ‘Hell yeah, that would be sick!’ We met up at Smash Palace and started talking about our creative interests. I remember her saying: ‘I paint skulls and girls, am I pigeon-holing myself?’ I said, nah, skulls and girls are ******* badass, and you can tell you really enjoy painting them. From there I was introduced to Josh [Bradshaw] and we’ve been hanging out ever since. I call them my ‘art fam’ and they have been great sounding boards for my creative journey over the last eighteen months. After attending a few exhibitions at the start of last year I started to meet everyone and it was great because it just happened organically.

I remember a conversation I had with Jessie and she asked me if I had painted before, and I said, yeah, but I was trash! She said I should get into painting and get away from the computer. So I did and I just got addicted to it, I was all in. From January to March I was painting every night after work, but I wasn’t showing anything to anyone. For me, a painting had to turn out the way I wanted, if it didn’t, it was trash in my mind, so I would put it under the bed and leave it. I think it was about April last year I finally did something I thought was pretty decent. I was comfortable enough to post it on social media and I had a lot of people reaching out to me saying they thought it was great to see me get away from the computer and to be working with another medium. I was like, well, my digital stuff is better than this, but I think people like this because it has more of a human element to it.

I think we appreciate that hand-painted quality in art, there is an evident authenticity…

I started realising that imperfections on a painting actually make it better because they show that human aspect. It doesn’t always have to be perfect, so what if you paint over lines or whatever, it gives it more character…

So that kicked off your re-acquaintance with painting?

Yeah. Last year for me was just a lot of trial and error. I was doing everything. I got back into using spray cans, because when I was studying, I started doing stencils, but it had been a while. I remember I did a life drawing class; I was terrible at figure drawing, but it was a requirement. I remember the tutor asking me if I painted stencils and I was like, yeah, how can you tell? He said he could tell from the way I drew with solid outlines. I had no concept of tone or shadow. When I was at high school I didn’t do anything creatively, I was quite sport-centric, rugby, rugby league, and my community in Wellington didn’t see art as a career path, you try to be the next All Black or rugby league star or you get a trade, that’s about it…

I see little difference between sport and art. They are both performances. Sport, at its heart, is about skill, technique, a type of aesthetic beauty, so the total partition between the two is strange, people from the arts world often hate sport, people from the sports world think of artists as weirdos…

In my early twenties, when you discover what you like and what you want to do as a career, I was into sports, but I was also really into art and creativity, and it felt like you couldn’t be associated with both. I got really hung up on that idea, because everyone from high school was like, ‘Oh dude, we hear you’re into graphic design and art and stuff, what’s all that about?’ I think now I totally resonate with friends from high school who were really good artists and they would say: ‘Our school sucks, sports get all the funding.’ I had quite a lot of friends who did art at high school, and they would always be moaning that the art resources were terrible, teachers would have to bring in a lot of their own stuff because they just didn’t have the funding for it…

There is a divergence in the way sport and art develop people, I think. In sport, people are eventually trained to follow rules and stick within structures and systems, whereas with the arts there is more willingness to break free. But as I said before, it’s not necessarily an inherent difference. If you think about sport at a more pure level, like pick-up games of basketball, or kids playing soccer in Brazilian favelas, or cricket in the streets in India, those instances are not official, it’s just the love of it and that’s where all the amazing skills and showmanship develop. It’s only once all those other aspects and structures come in, and a particular personality type is preferred, that the focus changes and that freedom is impinged. The same thing can happen in art schools as well. One of the amazing freedoms of urban art is that you are not beholden to convention. I assume your interest in stencils was at least to some degree an interest in what was happening in the streets outside of the institutional world, but there was also a clear connection to the aesthetic of graphic design…

When I first started studying, I came to Christchurch in 2010 and enrolled at the Design and Arts College to do a foundation course. The year before, I decided I wanted to do something creative, but I’d never done anything, so I looked into it and the foundation course in Fine Arts sounded pretty sweet. You did a bit of everything, photography, architecture, graphic design, life drawing, textile design. If you did well enough, you were offered a position the following year. Originally, I wanted to do photography. But when I took the digital media component of the foundation course, which really was an introduction to graphic design, the tutor said to me: ‘What do you want to do next year? I said photography, and he said I should consider graphic design because he thought I had an eye for it. So, from there, I was like alright, maybe graphic design is what I should do. At that time Exit Through the Gift Shop had just come out, and when I saw it my mind was blown! I watched it like four times over a week, and I was thinking, this is rad! These guys are doing stuff on the streets around the world, they are breaking rules, it’s controversial and it’s right in front of people. They’re not going to a gallery to see this, it’s out in the open, so I was like, it could be cool to start experimenting with stencils. I just started looking at YouTube tutorials to get the basics and then I went off on a tangent for like a year doing that. That was in 2010, and at the beginning of 2011 I met Zach Hart who was working at Ink Grave Tattoo at the time, I started getting tattooed by him and I learnt that he had a graffiti background. That grew my interest and I found out there are a lot of tattooists who have graffiti backgrounds. I’m also really into hip hop and there’s that association with graffiti also.

Since I was eight or nine, I’ve always been into tattoos. No-one in my immediate family has tattoos, but I just had a fascination with them. When I was eleven or twelve, I was at the library and I came across a book of Japanese woodblock prints from the early 1800s, and then I found a tattoo book and the images were pretty much identical. I kind of put my interest of Japanese art to the side when I was studying at university but in my mid-twenties I fell in love again with Japanese art and architecture. Since then it has just fully consumed me. My best mate is a tattoo artist in Wellington, he specializes in Irezumi [Japanese tattoos], and I have learnt a lot from him. I think the reason why I like Japanese art so much is that it’s very graphic, it’s designed to be big and in your face with bold outlines and flat colours, but there is still a sense of refinement that gives it a timelessness…

There is an important balancing act when you adopt a historical visual influence, you need to respect that lineage, but also make it fresh and not derivative. How do you approach that challenge?

It is about knowing the subject matter. For instance, a koi fish swims up stream and turns into a dragon, so if I was ever to draw a dragon or a koi, I can’t draw a tiger with it because they don’t go together. It would be easy for people to look at my work and think it’s just Japanese tattoo flash, so my contemporary take on it has been my choice of colour palette. I think my interest in Pop Art has contributed to my use of pastels, there’s a David Hockney piece, A Bigger Splash, it has flat colours, blues and caramels, and that was a big influence. It was painted in the sixties, but it still feels very fresh, so taking that and playing around with colours has allowed me to develop my own take on Japanese art while still sticking to the belief systems. I think some people try to reinvent the wheel and they forget about the fundamentals. My graphic design work is very minimal and with minimal design you’ve got no room for error, if you have one little thing that’s off, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb, so I focus on the fundamentals with just smaller, subtle changes.

You were telling me earlier that it is only the last six months or so that you’ve become comfortable calling yourself an artist. That background in graphic design and digital work, how do they feed into your painting work, because they must be very different approaches…

When I first started painting again last year, it was tough. With design, when you don’t like something, it’s the classic ‘Command-Z’, undo, so I was very thorough in preparation. I would do a colour study and draw it on screen, colour it, print it out and then from that, paint it, doing like for like. It was very uniform. But eventually I started to just do a quick colour study on screen and then started painting, and now I’m at the point where I don’t do the colour study I just paint it.

Sometimes things look good on screen, but when I’m actually painting it, it doesn’t work. So, I think the last year has really taught me to be looser and freer when I’m working with my hands, to not be such a control freak. Normally I’m a perfectionist, especially with my graphic design work, it’s like, that’s terrible! Back to the drawing board! But when you make a mistake on a painting, when an outline has smudged, there’s a human element to it, and that’s something that I have probably learnt to appreciate. I went to a tattoo convention in New Plymouth last year and there was an artist whose paintings I love, and he was selling prints. I could see there were little imperfections in the print, and it was fine, I realized I’m just too much of a control freak. I think that freedom is why there’s been no ambition at the moment to go back to the digital side of things, because I like the fact that if you screw up a painting, you’ve got to problem solve on the spot and work with what you have…

I’ve always loved the idea associated with Margaret Kilgallen’s work, the wavering line. I think we need to attach to something human in an increasingly technologically-driven world, we become hyper aware of when something is perfect, and we recognize imperfection from another human and I think that is really important. You were talking about that idea of going back to painting being inspired by conversations with friends, that idea of community must be a really important part of where you are, is losing that when you move back to Wellington a daunting thought?

It hit me this week that I’m moving soon. I’ve got my two best mates coming down for the opening of Adoration, Mike Todd, a tattoo artist, and Jerome Taylor, who I went to high school with, who is a fashion designer. They are my creative community up there in Wellington. When I started getting tattooed by Mike, he knew I was painting on the side and he was giving me tips, like how tattoo apprentices learn, you trace a rose fifty times and by the twentieth time you should know how to draw a rose. He’s been a big part in me fundamentally learning how to paint the way I do. But in terms of what I’ve got here with Jessie and Josh and everyone else, I don’t have that. It’s a bit daunting, but I did it here, I just have to put myself out there. I’m from Wellington, so I should be able to connect a bit more if anything just because I’m local. I think having a show here will help open some doors up there. It’s funny, I already know I want to do another solo show in Wellington next year. I’ve already got ideas bubbling about what I want to do for my next show. It’s contagious, I reckon, it consumes you, but I’ve really enjoyed the process…

How did the show come together conceptually?

When I confirmed this show last year, I was still working at my old job, in a corporate structure, getting paid to do a job, and I just really felt like I was being controlled by the man. I didn’t want to sound like a temperamental artist, but I really struggled with being told to be creative within a certain framework or it wasn’t of value. So when I was coming up with themes for my show, I was thinking about basing it on entrapment and having conflicting thoughts in my head, and just lacking self-worth in a way, but then in January, I drew out my whole show in a wall plan to see if it was going to tell a story, and I realised it doesn’t have to, screw that! I’m leaving town soon, I just want to do something that I’m passionate about. It is filled with traditional Japanese influences but with a contemporary take. There are a few pieces where I have dissected objects and have incorporated other objects with them. Textures play an important part in my inspiration so I wanted to bring them in also. The show is about paying homage to Japanese art and culture, and that’s why I named the show Adoration, it’s about devotion and how I hold it dear to my heart.

We talked briefly about artists being pigeon-holed, do you ever think about that in terms of the Japanese influence in your work?

Totally, I always think to myself, am I pigeon-holing myself with my interests? The one positive to come out of lock-down was new ideas I want to paint when I move back to Wellington. It’s abstract, with no Japanese themes at all. I haven’t told anyone about it, I don’t know if I want to push this, I don’t know if I want to show anyone, I’ve done some real rough sketches and I don’t think anyone would expect it.

I assume they will likely see the light of day in Wellington, which means that while this show brings this chapter to a close, this new body of work might start the next chapter…

As much as it’s been a really good time painting the work in this show, I think this is the perfect time to start some more experimental stuff. A lot of people have asked why I don’t get into tattooing, because it makes sense with my subject matter currently. But I don’t want to keep exploring the same themes and imagery and that’s the connection people seem to make, that my Japanese- influenced work would translate to tattoo. It’s something I have warmed up to in the last six months as I’ve become more confident with the hand-rendered stuff, but tattooing is completely different from painting, it’s a whole new technique. Once I’m back in Wellington, I’m going to use the rest of this year to have a play around and try some experimental stuff, do more freehand work, which is something I have been working on for the last six months. I guess there has been a lot of personal growth down here in the last two years as well…

So, this is an important milestone…

It is an important milestone. About six months ago I realized that it makes sense to have my first show here in Christchurch, because this is where my creative journey really started. Obviously, I went back to Wellington after the 2011 earthquake and relocated to continue my studies up there, but really making things all started here, so it all makes sense. It’s like a goodbye gift, my time here is up, but this is where it all started for me. I never thought I would have a solo show, I never thought I would have my work in a public space where people would want to come see it. I think we all get a little nervous, like are people going to show up? I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me saying they are looking forward to seeing the show. Getting messages like that has been really humbling.

That must be cool because as you have mentioned, the process of creating work and then the step of putting them out in the world can be scary. It’s a long and constantly changing road, the process and development, the failures, the changes of direction…

Yes, it’s a vulnerable position because you work on something for so long and then you think you are comfortable to show people, but once it’s in a public space, once it’s out there, then it could be well received or it might not be. It’s all part of it and I look forward to seeing how people interact with the show on Friday.

Adoration opens at Absolution in the Arts Centre on Friday, 7th August, 2020 at 6pm.

Follow Tom on Instagram and Facebook and check out his website

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And That Was… June 2020

And that’s half of 2020 gone already. Although lets be honest, this year has seen a fair amount of activity, some shitty, but others important and long overdue. This month’s collection acknowledges these struggles, as well as looking to the past, the future and art as a gateway to explore and consider more than our immediate preoccupations. From Askew One’s haunting risograph print with MK Press and Fiksate, to our tribute to graffiti legend Jungle and the countless voices he inspired as a rebellious actor in the local urban landscape, here are our favourite things from the month of June…

 Askew One x MK Press x Fiksate collab

Askew One signs his MK Press x Fiksate collab risograph prints. (Photo credit: Elliot O'Donnell)
Askew One signs his MK Press x Fiksate collab risograph prints. (Photo credit: Elliot O’Donnell)

The month started on a high with the release of Askew One’s limited edition print as part of the MK Press/Fiksate artist collab risograph print series. Following Dr Suits’ initial release, Askew’s striking red and black abstraction continued the popularity of the concept, selling out in just hours. The work embraces and explores the qualities of risograph printing, while continuing his digital studies drawn from urban environments. The result is a twisting, jagged image filled with a sense of terror and dread due to the blood-like tone. Setting a benchmark for the series, you wouldn’t really expect anything less from Aotearoa’s finest, would you?

Graffiti jam for the New Brighton Outdoor Art Festival

YSEK's rhino character from the New Brighton Outdoor Art Festival traditional graffiti wall.
YSEK’s rhino character from the New Brighton Outdoor Art Festival traditional graffiti wall.

The delayed and reconfigured NBOAF signed off with a traditional graffiti jam wall, with a number of local talents transforming a wall in the middle of New Brighton Mall. The green and magenta colour scheme tied the various pieces together, while individual styles and characters by YSEK and Dove ensured variety as well. The wall was intended to represent and celebrate traditional graffiti art, and as such was always going to draw criticism from some corners. The online discussion about the wall’s appearance was interesting to say the least, highlighting the ongoing and deeply held misconceptions and prejudices around graffiti, even when produced legally…

Jungle Tribute

A Jungle tribute sticker on Summit Road, February 2020.
A Jungle tribute sticker on Summit Road, February 2020.

When local graffiti legend Jungle passed away in March of 2019, Christchurch’s graffiti culture spoke by painting tributes across the city’s walls. I had discussed with Ikarus the idea of a larger written tribute that explored Jungle’s legacy, however, by the time we got to sit down with an eye on the one-year anniversary, lock down struck. In addition, what started as an interview with Ikarus, developed into a multi-generational project, stretching the process out. However, by June, the lengthy tribute was finally online. Hearing stories of Jungle’s influence, it was quickly apparent how consistent his impression was, a man who the city’s graffiti culture was indebted to, but also a character who influenced people by his charismatic personality…

Black Lives Matter Protest Posters

June's issue of Art Beat included an A4 risograph poster from the Posters for BLM archive. Pictured is Roydon Misseldine's poster.
June’s issue of Art Beat included an A4 risograph poster from the Posters for BLM archive. Pictured is Roydon Misseldine’s poster.

The latest issue of Art Beat, the visual arts newspaper edited by Dr Warren Feeney, featured an insert of A4 posters drawn from the shared archive Posters for BLM (@posters_for_blm). The three variations, by Stephen Powers, Sara Froese and local designer Roydon Misseldine, were risograph printed by MK Press and included inside the free paper. Importantly, the posters ensure visibility to the cause and serve as a reminder of the potential to raise a voice about oppressive systemic issues. While a small gesture, it attempts to continue this vital narrative. More posters are available for free download (for non-commercial use) from the archive, with a link in their Instagram bio.

Porta x FOLT Skull Collab

The FOLT x Porta skull collab in Cathedral Square.
The FOLT x Porta skull collab in Cathedral Square.

The collection of FOLT skull cut-outs continues to grow around the city (although many have disappeared as well, seemingly too attractive to collectors), and this subtle variation by Porta is a personal favourite. Porta’s recent investigation of pixelated video game aesthetics is utilised here, but with an understated approach, the granite colouring giving a bare concrete appearance that only reveals the highlights, shadows and blocky shapes upon closer inspection.

And that was June 2020, for me at least, let us know what you enjoyed over the month in the comments…

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Street Treats – Vol. 1

While Watch This Space was founded on the concept of mapping out Ōtautahi’s street art, and our online map has been primarily populated with commissioned murals, we have always understood and celebrated the importance, urgency, poignancy, rebelliousness, hilarity and, basically, goodness of guerrilla graffiti and street art. In a time where urban art faces an identity crisis, the power of bypassing permission and making or installing art in the streets, from an elegant tag to a pasted pop-culture riff, is necessary and energising. As a reflection of this belief, welcome to Street Treats, a new recurring series that tries to capture the authentic spirit of urban art by collecting our favourite works of guerrilla art and presenting them to you.

The events around the world in recent weeks have rendered an environment of energy, of action and of hope for change, sentiments that graffiti and street art have also sought historically. Striking images of graffiti-covered walls and monuments have served as iconic backdrops of a time of social revolution, but also a reminder that writing on walls, artistically or not, is a way to attack the structures of our social contracts and the injustice they often protect. The images in Street Treats – Vol 1 are not exclusively political, but they do share the rebellious motivation of bypassing consent and altering the urban environment in which they have been placed. In each case, someone has chosen to bypass authority, to subvert and surprise, to add a voice to the street, as a secretive whisper or a defiant yell. Either way, it pays to listen…

If you have some treasures to share, email them to hello@watchthisspace or message us via our social media (@watchthisspacechch) and we can include them in future Street Treats volumes…

And if your work is featured but not credited the way it should be, get in touch and let us know!

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Tributes to a King – R.I.P Jungle (Part Two)

Our tribute to Christchurch graffiti legend Jungle continues here in Tributes to a King – R.I.P Jungle (Part Two). In our discussion with Jungle’s friend and DTR crewmate Ikarus, we continue to dive into what made Jungle the figure he is in the local scene and what he would think of the many tributes that have been painted. We also hear more from those influenced by Jungle over many years…

In case you haven’t, please read Part One here…

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I remember Jungle’s roll call in the alleyway space in Rise, you guys made it clear to people not to paint over that, which highlighted his importance to local graffiti history. I also remember the opening night of Spectrum in 2015, walking from the YMCA to the afterparty and Jungle standing next to Tilt and looking at the piece Tilt and Tober had painted on the old Police station, just buzzing on it, and there was a sense of respect on Tilt’s part for Jungle, like real respecting real. Having him be part of those things must have added an authenticity for you…

Jungle's THC roll call in the Rise exhibition alleyway space curated by Wongi and Ikarus in 2013. (Photo provided by Dcypher)
Jungle’s THC roll call in the Rise exhibition alleyway space curated by Wongi and Ikarus in 2013. (Photo provided by Dcypher)

Ikarus: Yeah, one hundred per cent. He had an unbridled enthusiasm about shit. If he was enthusiastic about something, you would feel the love for it. He was never too cool for the room, never too aloof to just be like, that shit is amazing! When we started painting for Rise in the Canterbury Museum, that was one of the most fun days ever. The theme of that alleyway, in a nutshell, was a visual timeline of Christchurch graffiti, but instead of being linear, it went over itself like graffiti would. So, the first layers were pre-tagging stuff like band slogans, political sayings or toilet graffiti, and then after that was the era of tagging. Getting Jungle and Lurq and a couple of the other old school dudes to go nuts and tag up the museum was crazy. I never thought we’d be able to paint in the museum and if we did, it would have to be top-notch stuff. Wongi and I did end up doing a big production, but the fact that we had this whole concept and we got to involve a shitload of the Christchurch graffiti scene, from the active kids all the way back to the originators, was amazing. Having Jungle bust out the roll calls and do a bunch of tags and stuff was fucking cool, there’s dudes in that roll call who are in their forties now, some were gangster teenagers, some are gangster adults, and they were in the museum grinning and cracking up, saying ‘what the fuck are our names doing in this museum!’ Nobody saw any of this coming back when we all started out, so that was a fucking awesome day.

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“I feel bad for visiting painters coming to Christchurch they will not experience the unofficial Jungle powhiri.” – Fiasko

“When you would talk to him, he had the coolest vibe. that natural way that made you feel good about yourself. He would shake your hand way too tight while he was doing it though.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns

“I remember a few years back now, Freak and Ikarus painted the open black book [wall] in the city and Jungle did a charo. He was walking around all the homies with his cell phone and was so buzzed out by the Sofles clip [Limitless]. He was the first person to ever tell me about Sofles…” – Omes

“He was just always happy for you, without a doubt, he was always stoked as shit for people, he loved to be there, and he expressed himself so freely and fluidly, no shame or anything, just whatever he had to say, he would say it, you know not in in any aggressive way, or negative way, he’d just say it…” – Freak

“He would always be stoked for you, or to see things, [he would be] mad enthusiastic and shit, [he] expressed himself heavily, from the hand crushing handshakes to the air crushing bearhugs…”  – Freak

“The one thing I will remember him by was that infectious smile, he was always stoked to see a bro.” – Flex

“He used to tell me how much he loved my song ‘ChCh Chillin’ whenever I would bump into him. I can’t remember how I found out, Ikarus probably messaged me and told me that Jungle had got ‘ChCh Chillin’ tattooed on his arm, but I clearly remember the next time I saw him and he showed me, large as fuck on his arm! That shit blew my mind then, and still does now. It’s one of the fondest memories I have from rap music.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns 

The 'Black Book' production co-ordinated by Ikarus and Freak for Rise in 2013. Located on the corner of Colombo and Hereford Streets, the wall featured the work of a number of artists, including Jungle's character and piece at the bottom centre.
The ‘Black Book’ production co-ordinated by Ikarus and Freak for Rise in 2013. Located on the corner of Colombo and Hereford Streets, the wall featured the work of a number of artists, including Jungle’s character and piece at the bottom centre.

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Last year Dcypher said that Jungle is a good example of someone embodying their graffiti. There was obviously the iconic Jungle character, but I think Dcypher’s sentiment was as much about his style as well. Do you think he grasped that concept of how graffiti isn’t just an identity, it’s also an embodiment of that identity…

Ikarus: Yeah, but I think without any self-awareness. The reason he embodies the spirit of graffiti is because it was all coming from a pure place, where you do graffiti for the love of graffiti. I’ve said so many times that vandalism and bombing is the realest form of graffiti because there’s no fucking positive, there’s no good side. The only thing you can hope to get out of it is the admiration and respect of a bunch of other dirtbags, and I say that with the utmost respect. I definitely think Jungle embodied that, but I don’t think he ever really picked it apart. Guys like us, we pick it apart, intellectualize it and look at the motives and the reasoning and what makes something iconic and successful. I’ve thought a lot about the idea of keeping things really simple, having things that are easily identifiable as your own, whether it’s your style, an iconic image or logo or symbol, but I don’t think that’s something he ever would have put a crazy amount of thought into. I think he was just like; ‘I love writing my name’.

He was always drawing his characters, from the time I met him to the day he passed. It was just a straight up need inside to draw and express those things. I’ve had to intellectualize and think about graffiti a lot, why I do it, my motives for it, the line between painting what I want to paint and doing what I want to do, and actually being an adult and turning it into a viable option for the future and something to make money from, which is a big conflict for me, because my original reasons and love for graffiti clash with that really hard. I think Jungle never really had to compromise that. With all the things we tried to get him involved in, he would be like: ‘Nah I don’t want to do it, it’s too stressful to try and keep up with you guys.’

So, I think all the things he ever did were purely for the love. He just did it because he wanted to, he wouldn’t paint for a bunch of time and then suddenly, he’s gone and painted a character in like a super visible spot in the city. It would just be random spurts where he’d go out and just paint a bunch of stuff and I don’t think it was to get fame like the graffiti junkies out bombing every night to be seen. I really feel like he just did this because he wanted to do it, not super concerned who sees it, who thinks it’s dope or who thinks this and that. He was a dude that was pretty comfortable in who he was, what he was about and the people that were around him and I don’t think a lot of that extra bullshit ever really became a factor for him.

A 'Jungle Juice' character by Jungle from the mid-2000s. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
A ‘Jungle Juice’ character by Jungle from the mid-2000s. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

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“Everybody embodies their graffiti, it’s impossible not to, [but] it’s almost like all of his characters were him, but in his mind I don’t think [he thought] they were. I’m not 100% sure about that, but you could just tell it was a Jungle character because it looked like he was standing there looking at you, this mean mug, hard looking motherfucker, just everything that he did had this, yeah that’s fucking Jungle for sure [quality]…” – Dcypher

A Jungle character homage, painted on the giant cans on Lichfield Street, 2019.
A Jungle character homage, painted on the giant cans on Lichfield Street, 2019.

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I guess that’s what made him such a revered figure in some ways, right? That compromise confronts so many people now, so those who avoid it, or stay true to the pure form of the culture, are respected…

 Ikarus: He painted a bunch of canvases and found objects, a bunch of different stuff, but never tried to sell them. He was never involved in any of our exhibitions. We were like, you have dope shit, put it in the exhibition, make some money! I think that’s one of the reasons that he never had to compromise, because he never tried to monetize what he was doing, he just did it. If you said something was dope and you wanted to buy it, he would just give it to you because you fucking liked it. I don’t think it ever became about money for him.

He was a cool looking dude, and then you met him, and he was a fucking cool guy. I think a lot of people expected him not to be, but he’s like the nicest guy in our crew, the truest heart. But yeah, he was uncompromising. When you haven’t made those compromises, you don’t get jaded. That’s not to say he didn’t have a jaded edge or depressed side to his personality. A lot of the work that he did was quite emotionally expressive. I didn’t necessarily even think of it because that’s just sort of the attitude we had, but when I look back at some of it, it just looks more grave now. There was an era where we would just write ‘deadbeats’ and ‘dirtbags’ and ‘trash’ and all that sort of stuff. Now it seems like a really negative headspace, but it never seemed like that it in person, it was just because we were broke depressed kids with a self-deprecating sense of humor. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal, but now, I’m like, how much of that is a window into a mind state?

A Jungle tribute by Ikarus, Southshore, Christchurch, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A Jungle tribute by Ikarus, Southshore, Christchurch, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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“I thought it was over for Jungle and his graffiti. Then around mid-2000, Ikarus and I took him out to bomb some trucks and this is when I think he painted his first filled graffiti. He started drawing and painting a lot. He had such a natural style. It was easy for him. The thing is, he was only ever putting in 25% effort.” – Fiasko

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Did you ever talk to him about the post-quake scene in the city? What did he make of the younger generation and did he take interest in that?

Ikarus: Yeah of course man, of course. All of us are always interested, that’s the thing, there’s no disconnect from being involved in commercial work and doing big stuff for festivals and that sort of stuff. My heart at the end of the day is still firmly tied to the streets. There is a bunch of dudes I talk to now that are like I can’t wait to do this, and I’m just like enjoy the shit you do! That’s one of the reasons I think the younger generations identified with Jungle because he was a dude that was out there still doing tags in the street, still doing characters, not monetizing it. Once money gets involved people’s opinion of where and when or why or what motivates you to do graffiti changes. But he was always interested in the new dudes. We are always looking at the streets and when we catch up, he would be: ‘What about this kid?’ ‘Do we know this guy?’ ‘Who is this kid?’ ‘This kid’s up a crazy amount’… So yeah, he was always watching.

Sewer's Otautahi piece paid tribute to the city, those lost in the March 2019 Terror Attacks and Jungle.
Sewer’s Otautahi piece paid tribute to the city, those lost in the March 2019 Terror Attacks and Jungle.

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“Being a younger writer, I only became aware of who Jungle was and his influence as a teenager looking at photos and learning about our local history. But I remember his work, particularly his characters, catching my eye when I was a child. Seeing that stuff as a young person played a role in making me want to get involved with graffiti.” – PK (TBE)

“Jungle’s influence didn’t have a direct impact on me in the sense that I wasn’t around when he had the city crushed with tags. [Pre-quake] I think I can recall a few of those characters he painted standing out and a piece of his, I think on Bedford Street, although I had no clue who it was at the time, and at that age I never really paid much attention. I think [his] main impact has been indirect. He influenced people around him, who in turn influenced the people below them and so on, until it reached myself and the people I grew up with, a trickle-down effect, I guess. Of course, as I became more involved in graff, I became more aware of who he was and how much of a pivotal and influential person he was to the scene.” – Vesil (FOK, TBE)

A 2019 tribute to Jungle by Vesil in the popular Hereford Street space.
A 2019 tribute to Jungle by Vesil in the popular Hereford Street space.

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Even if it wasn’t a mentor role in the more hands-on way you guys do with workshops or the Black Book Sessions, was he the sort of guy to have conversations with or give advice to younger writers? Or was he just interested in what was going on?

Ikarus: I can’t say how much he was talking to some of these new writers in the last few years, but it’s not like he was a stand-offish guy at all, if people approached him to talk to him, he would have talked to them. I’m a bit of an old man about things now because I’ve done so much mentoring stuff, I definitely talk to some of these young dudes and I’ll be like, this part may not be good for you, or if there’s disagreements between some of the young dudes I’ll try and work that shit out because I know we’re all just trying to do our thing at the end of the day. But I think with Jungle it was more lead by example. I think even if he wasn’t saying anything to you, he was the kind of guy you would watch. His magnetic personality drew people to him.

After Leon passed, I got a message from a dude who now is in his thirties. He shared a memory from back in the early 2000s, when he was a teenager, we’d all been at this wild party in the hood. This kid and his friend had to walk home. We asked them where they were going and they said back to Waltham. Jungle was like, you two can’t fucking wander through the hood, you’re going to get jacked before you even get down the road, you guys just have to come to our house. I think we were flatting together at the time and we made them stay with us so that they wouldn’t just wander out in the hood and get jacked. I don’t remember it, but when he told me about it, I was like, well that sounds like something Leon would do. So, little things like that, not even necessarily any big life changing moments where Jungle would have sat a dude down and said look this is where you’re headed, because I think he would have felt that was corny and it was out of his jurisdiction to sit down and tell someone how they should do things. But he was just a dude that led by example and that little act of kindness was a big deal to that guy as a kid, he said it was really cool that these two dudes looked out for a couple of little tagger kids.

A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2019.
A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2019.

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“At the time, no we didn’t [think about influencing the next generations]. In hindsight… I’m quite surprised at how many different people were influenced by what we [had] done. [I]t’s awesome to see, especially with the progression of what [DTR] are doing. Legal pieces, [I] never thought that would happen…” – BlackE

“I didn’t really ask for advice in the traditional way, we would just be talking, conversating about things and I’d bring things up and he’d give me his perspective on it or what he thought about it, and I don’t know if he knew, but I’d just go off and do what he said or I’d take it on board and apply it in some way…” – Kurs/Horra

“He never treated me like he was above me or like it was some sort of a mentor thing. We were just mates, he liked me because at the time I was just the young gunner and [if] people fucked with me, I wouldn’t just cap them out, I’d fucking go knocking on their front doors, or would start burning their letter boxes, or tag on the front of their houses, you know, he loved that shit…” – Kurs/Horra

“I don’t know if he knew that he had influence on the people, the Jungle I knew he was just all about hanging out with the cuzzies, hanging out with the close ones, you know, the day ones. I’m not going to try and speak for him, but I just feel that he’d be like, meh, fuck, whatever you’re a bundy, what are you up to cuzzies? Because that’s the way he was, before he was a tagger, he was a Crip.” – Kurs/Horra

A TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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Nothing exemplifies Jungle’s influence on Christchurch graffiti culture more than the number of tributes painted on walls around the city, from small tags to pieces and productions. Were you surprised though at how widespread those tributes were?

Ikarus: No, not really. I think he would have been pretty blown away by it, especially the different level of tributes, not just murals, but with younger dudes, probably some who didn’t even know him, painting as well. I mean there’s probably a certain amount of it being a little trending episode in Christchurch graffiti, catching a bit of clout for doing some RIP Jungle tags, but the fact is so many people over all these generations had been influenced by him in such a number of different ways, whether it’s tagging, graffiti, characters or just his general personality…

A tag paying tribute to Jungle in Christchurch, 2019.
A tag paying tribute to Jungle in Christchurch, 2019.
RIP Jungle graffiti, central Christchurch, 2019.
RIP Jungle graffiti, central Christchurch, 2019.

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“Leon would be both shocked and honoured with all the tributes. He always would say how proud [he was about how] graf has evolved… And he always showed gratitude for being a part of it.” – BlackE

“He’d be blown away… to just see that amount of love, because I don’t think the cuzzie felt loved outside of his tight ones. I get all emotional when I see it. [I]t’s like that fucking legendary shit, like that is what they did when Tupac or Biggie or Nipsey or some famous hip hop dude died, started doing murals of them, so he’d be rapt.”  – Kurs/Horra

“I think all the tributes are awesome and even young guys from younger generations have painted pieces for him, and he totally deserves that respect from everyone in this game.” – Lurq

“He would be stoked for sure [about all the tributes], but he was so humble that I feel like he’d probably be like, nah, you don’t need to go to that trouble! I wasn’t at his funeral but that said a lot about the culture that he was in and the amount of people that had the utmost respect for the dude, and that respect goes way beyond just him as a person in a lot of ways, it’s kind of like he really has become this crazy legend now, people would tell stories about him…” – Dcypher

“All the smaller [memorials and tributes] are just as important too, it’s just that sign of respect for somebody who birthed a lot of people’s styles and his influence, it’s a fitting way to show appreciation. Even though he didn’t paint in those last years of his life, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t take away from [the] status he had…” – Yikes

A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2020
A Jungle tribute, Hereford Street, 2020

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Out of all those tributes, do you have a favorite?

Ikarus: Totally, one of my favorites was by our friend Kalis from DMN TNC crew in Auckland, he was in Chile at the time and he painted a beachside spot with a Jungle piece, so the far-reaching aspect of that is super dope. That one would blow Leon away, he would have been like, fuck yeah, this big dope big blue Jungle piece in the middle of Chile by the beach somewhere! I know when a few of his family saw that, they commented on how cool it was. Another friend of ours, Phome, an Aucklander who lives in New York, he just rocked a RIP Jungle tag on the street somewhere, he’s not involved in graffiti so much anymore, but he went out and did that. There were some of the freights and trains that Sewer painted, and some dope tributes including stylized versions of Jungle’s characters by Weks, there were crews around New Zealand, like Triple S crew all rocking a bunch of Jungle pieces and some hip-hop style characters representing Jungle, the TMD guys up in Auckland doing a tribute, those are some that stand out off the top of my head. There were a few internationally well-known dudes that did pieces as well and that was super dope. I was randomly watching a Sofles Instagram Live video, he was just rocking a bunch of different tags on Procreate or something, I didn’t know it was about to happen, but as I was watching, a RIP Jungle and a couple of Jungle tags came up, so that shit was super cool.

Kalis tribute to Jungle, Chile, 2019.
Kalis tribute to Jungle, Chile, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Phomes tribute to Jungle in New York, 2019. Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Phomes tribute to Jungle in New York, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Solfes pays tribute to Jungle on an Instagram Live video, 2019. Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Solfes pays tribute to Jungle on an Instagram Live video, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

The biggest single tribute is the production that the DTR crew painted to mark the anniversary of Jungle’s passing. Obviously, you guys had painted numerous tribute pieces prior to that, but that one was massive…

Ikarus: It’s just something we wanted to do as a crew. It was along the same lines as all the stuff we had been doing for the year prior. The general thinking was that we’re here, we’re still thinking about you, we’re still keeping your legacy alive. But on a more meaningful level, the anniversary was coming up and I know that members of his family all appreciate it and appreciate having that place to go. They actually met up there on the morning of the anniversary, they took a photo of twenty-odd members of the family in front of it before they actually went out to the Marae. We started it a couple of weeks before the anniversary and I made sure we had it all done before the actual date. It was obviously such a big life event for a lot of us, we wanted to involve all four of the full main members of the DTR crew, painting in our various styles, writing Jungle’s name, or Autism, which is another one of his aliases, and obviously the character portrait by Wongi and the portrait of his dog by Dcypher. It was really just the same mentality of the smaller productions we had painted, but on a grander scale to mark the passing of that period of time in our life and again, just also for that aspect of having somewhere for the family realizing and seeing Leon’s impact.

The massive DTR JUngle tribute, featuring pieces Jungle and Autism pieces, a portrait of Jungle by Wongi and Jungles dog by Dcypher, 2020.
The massive DTR JUngle tribute, featuring Jungle and Autism pieces, a portrait of Jungle by Wongi and Jungles dog by Dcypher, 2020. (Photo supplied by Wongi Wilson)

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More than anything, it was really cool to do [the tribute wall] for his family in that [monumental] scale and to the extent that we went with it. I’m pretty sure he would have been pretty hyped on it, having his face up on a wall that’s pretty damn realistic. That’s not obviously the first one that we did, [we] did one as a crew behind Embassy as well, that was sort of the start of it, [but] we always wanted to do something way bigger, it was always the plan for around the anniversary of his passing, so to do it, to be able to get it done around that time was really good, it was fitting. It was a big project to do but it was cool. But most importantly it was for his family.” – Yikes

Ikarus and Yikes, Jungle NHC tribute, Christchurch, 2019. Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Ikarus and Yikes, Jungle NHC tribute, Christchurch, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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What would he have made of it?

Ikarus: He would have been super emotional about it. When we did the Hereford Street Colombo corner, Wongi painted a stylized portrait of Jungle, with the house he grew up in incorporated into it, and that was a super big deal to Leon, it definitely meant a lot to him, so all this shit would have blown him away, he would have been super amazed…

A second incarnation of Ikarus and Freaks Black Book wall, featuring a huge Jungle portrait, c.2016
A second incarnation of Ikarus and Freaks Black Book wall, featuring a huge Jungle portrait, c.2015

He is a central element of a real lineage. It isn’t copied online, his legacy gives the city a real history of this culture before it became what it is now, which obviously is amazing, but slowly there’s a distance between the roots and what’s happening as well. It doesn’t have to be reframed through some positive lens to be impactful, the reason people like Jungle are important is because they represent a different approach…

Ikarus: As much as we already know his impact, there are a bunch of people that don’t. The hardest part for a bunch of people to grasp is the idea that a teenage kid, thirty years ago, running around with his friends getting drunk, smoking weed, writing their names on the back of buses and spraying their names on a bunch of public surfaces, is directly and indirectly responsible for, at least in our little section of the world, a large amount of what happens in the city now. Christchurch has got a crazy amount of street art and murals now. Graffiti evolves anyway so I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been something, it probably would have existed anyway, but if you look at even the smaller towns around New Zealand as an example, some of them are years behind because they had to wait for the Internet to catch up, even Auckland and Wellington had a ten year head start on us, but that’s the coolest part of it all, basically, the murals, the memorials, the tagging, the vandalism, and the article itself, the discussions, people talking about it, it keeps the memory alive…

Junglism piece by Ikarus and a portrait of Jungle by Freak, Christchurch, 2020.
Junglism piece by Ikarus and a portrait of Jungle by Freak, Christchurch, 2020.

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“It is what it is, there’s no shit being shined, he is what he is because he was who he was…” – Yikes

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Based on everything that has happened, what would you say to Leon now?

Ikarus: I fucking told you! I told you fifteen years ago before most of this shit existed anyway! When it was still really graffiti, not necessarily with this big new age street art link and everything that has led to all of this, but even back then the influence that he had on straight up graffiti, and just straight up people, he wouldn’t acknowledge that at the time that I told him. People’s essence and spirit and energy is still with you in the universe, so, I would tell him: I fucking told you!

A Jungle tribute sticker on Sumner Road, 2020.
A Jungle tribute sticker on Sumner Road, 2020.

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“If I was to ever to have a brother in my life, Leon Nga Miraka Hopa Te Karu is my brother. Love Jungle 4evaaa haaarrdd!” BlackE

“Long Live Jungle” – Kurs

“R.I.P. King Jungle THC” – Lurq

“RIP Jungle, King of Kings” Flex

“R.I.P. to a King.” – Omes

“I’m not really sure of the extent of his influence, I’m out of the loop, but he had a massive impact on me and my friends and he has left a massive void in people’s lives, I’d say.” – Fiasko

“Much respect due to the humble king with an unforgettable personality, a true pioneer of Christchurch urban culture.” – 4Higher/Pest5

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Thank you to all who contributed to this piece in tribute to Jungle.

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

Tributes to a King – R.I.P Jungle (Part One)

“Leon Te Karu is a King. Leon = Lion = King of the Jungle. Te Karu = The Eye. I always liked his name.” – Fiasko

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 In March 2019, Leon Te Karu, known to many as Jungle, passed away. Almost immediately, the city’s walls were covered with tributes, from tags and rollers, to pieces and productions. For those outside the city’s graffiti culture, it was mysterious, but for those who knew, it was a reflection of the respect in which Jungle was held as a pioneer who defined the first waves of graffiti in Christchurch with his ubiquitous straight letter tags and iconic characters. Chances are if you lived in Christchurch in the nineties, you saw Jungle’s graffiti. Jungle was not of the new breed of legal graffiti and the street art amalgam, instead, he was a symbol of graffiti’s roots, a traditionalist without caring for labels. And yet, Jungle’s influence extends through generations of graffiti writers, including a strong legacy upon the likes of Ikarus, Freak, Dcypher and Yikes of the DTR crew (of which he was also a member), as well as countless other crews and individuals, many who themselves have proven prominent figures in graffiti culture, both here in Christchurch and further afield.

Telling Jungle’s story required input from those who knew him and those influenced by him. To mark the anniversary of his passing, we reached out Ikarus, another Christchurch graffiti legend, to put together something that explained and celebrated Jungle’s impact on Christchurch graffiti (and broader street) culture. What developed was an in-depth discussion with Ikarus, but also contributions from countless others, across generations, styles and backgrounds. In doing so, the breadth of Jungle’s influence was clear, people consistently echoing the qualities of a local graffiti legend. This story is at the heart of graffiti in Christchurch, what it was and what it has become, but also is about one man’s influence on an entire culture. RIP King Jungle.

The DTR crew tributes to Jungle on Colombo Street in Sydenham, 2019.
The DTR crew tributes to Jungle on Colombo Street in Sydenham, 2019.

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March 6, 2020 marked the anniversary of Jungle’s passing. A year on, is it something you reflect on a lot?

Ikarus: It seems super-fast, for sure. It’s weird that it’s been a year already, it definitely doesn’t seem like it. I don’t know if I think about it every day, but it’s definitely something I think about a lot. A bunch of cool shit will happen and he’s one of the dudes you’d always want to tell because he was always super excited about any cool projects we got to do as a crew. Things like that will happen and I’ll be like, oh that’s right, I can’t tell him.

I’d never really lost anyone super close before, my grandparents died when I was young, so I never really knew them, both my parents are still alive, and I don’t like many people. Whereas Leon is one of the closest friends I’ve had in my whole life, so it’s been pretty weird. I never knew what death was like, but I guess the saying ‘life goes on’ is true because you definitely don’t think about it all day, every day, but then there’s just those points where you do think about it and it’s super strange.

A Jungle character by Ikarus on a utility box just outside central Christchurch, 2019.
A Jungle character by Ikarus on a utility box just outside central Christchurch, 2019.

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“I love Jungle. Just writing this is making me cry… I lost my mentor.” – Kurs/Horra

“[His funeral] was a massive occasion… without a doubt he would have been humbled by it, proud of it.” – Freak (DTR)

“[H]is funeral was massive. He just touched a lot of people [as] a genuine person… he was always a real cool cat and the amount of people that turn[ed] up [showed] that he was a real person in all sorts of scenes, not just graffiti, but to a wide range of people.” – Yikes (DTR)

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I ask that question because first and foremost, you lost a close friend, but as something of a graffiti historian, you are also in the position to understand the legacy and ongoing impact that Jungle had on graffiti and street culture in Christchurch. While the pain of losing a friend must be foremost, have you taken time to reflect on just how big an influence he was?

Ikarus: Yeah man, I always knew though. I told him what an important role he played early on, and he’d just brush it off and laugh, and be like: ‘Don’t be a dick!’ But the reality is that there was a butterfly effect from him being a young kid out there tagging, writing his name on stuff and having a good time with it, that led to so many other people doing it. When we start out as tagger kids, we don’t think it is going anywhere or will to lead to anything else, but the things he did inspired some of the first guys that started doing graffiti here in Christchurch, and on all levels not just tagging, but some of the earliest guys painting pieces, characters, throw-ups, tags, the whole spectrum of graffiti.

I’ve talked to Flex from UAC, who was an early pioneer along with Lurq (who was writing Lyric and LK at the time) and Pest5 (who was writing 4Higher), and he cites Jungle’s tags as one of the main reasons he started doing graffiti. He would see Jungle tags up everywhere and he thought that shit was dope. Those UAC guys back then, in the late nineties and early 2000s, they were out there doing all aspects of graffiti; tags, throw ups, pieces, characters, productions down the train lines at night. They give credit to Jungle as an early influence because he’s one of the first people that was really up in our city back when there was just tagging in the early nineties. Back then I was strictly into tagging and vandalism, anybody that did pieces was just wasting paint as far as I was concerned. They couldn’t tag for shit, so what’s the fucking point? But Flex is that first dude that had just fucking killer tags and he did all levels of graffiti, an all-out king to some extent. He was the first dude to make me think maybe the entire spectrum of graffiti wasn’t super corny, maybe there’s a way to do it and it could still be cool.

So, that small influence on me can be traced back to Jungle, which is evidence of his importance. From there, it’s just a butterfly effect: he affected those people, those people affected the next people, and so on. But, it’s not like he just did that and then was gone, he was always around, not super active, but always involved in the Christchurch graffiti scene. He was always painting something, still doing tags out in the streets and painting characters and stuff like that.

A Jungle character from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
A Jungle character from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

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“It is easy to glorify and embellish the past, but Christchurch was very late to have a graffiti culture. While in most parts of the world and New Zealand it [emerged in the] early to mid-80’s, in Christchurch it was [the] mid to late 90’s. I know it’s a small history and a small culture, but it’s our history and our culture. There wasn’t a lot of outside influence until around 2000. One of the pioneers pre-2000 and a huge influence on me when I started was Jungle.” – Fiasko

“We weren’t better, we strived for everywhere.” – BlackE (THC)

“Even before I got into graffiti, I saw Jungle THC everywhere. It was impossible to not notice. As I got into looking at and doing graffiti, I realised the scope of how everywhere he was.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns (511)

“As far as I know or am concerned, Jungle was the first Christchurch tagger that was all city. Those gangsta straight style JUNGLE PARU tags are still imprinted on my brain to this day.” – Flex (UAC)

“[The first time I met Jungle] was at the house on Mackworth Street in Linwood where I lived with Flex, about 1998.  Maybe Ikarus brought him over. What I do remember clearly is being very excited to meet him, as you do when meeting one of your heroes.  He was humble to the point of not wanting to even acknowledge his achievements in the graffiti scene, saying that his work was nothing compared to ours, as we were doing full-blown wild styles with backgrounds and everything; but my lettering styles, tags especially, were pathetic compared with his.” – Pest5 (UAC, TMD, LORDS)

“The first tags I ever saw were DIRTY, PARU, THC, a block from my house, done in chrome with stock caps and it was super clean. I started noticing lots more tags around the city with THC and had heard that it was a crew called Too Hardcore. I think it was pretty much all Jungle, but he got up so much and with so many different names that it seemed like it must have been a bunch of people.” – Netts (511)

“We used to creep into abandoned buildings up town and I would kind of imitate his style mixed with what I was already doing.” – Kurs/Horra

“[He told me] how [in the early 2000s] he painted a clown on the old Dick Smith in the daytime with cats going past and didn’t give two fucks about who or what was in his way.” – Omes

“[Leon’s influence was] probably more personal over time, but to begin with it was artistic, for sure, because the dude was all city with tags before anyone even knew what was up with graffiti. You knew who he was just by that [presence]…” – Dcypher (DTR, CBS)

“Jungle was one of the first people that I noticed when I first got into graffiti. I would see his tags and his roll calls he would do of the infamous THC crew in all hoods. I can remember seeing his Sir Prise tags with a fucking dope letter S, it blew my toy brain apart back then.” – Lurq (UAC)

A tribute to Jungle by Berst, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A tribute to Jungle by Berst, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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Did you ever have conversations about what graffiti meant to him? Was it something larger than writing his name on a wall to him, or was he more of a purist?

Ikarus: It definitely had that concept. I don’t think he ever personally felt like he was part of the greater movement of the art form in our city. I told him on numerous occasions that a bunch of this shit wouldn’t have happened without him because you’re the dude that inspired these guys to get into it and that inspired this dude to do it and that inspired these guys. You can see his influence in Dcypher’s early work, his characters especially. But when I said you influenced this person and without you they wouldn’t have done this, and then that wouldn’t have influenced me, and that wouldn’t have influenced Dcypher, and that wouldn’t have influenced Freak, he would say, ‘shut up man! That’s not a real thing!’ But it totally was a real thing. He didn’t understand or was too humble to admit that he had this influence on people.

He’s part of the DTR crew, he’s part of our crew forever, but there’s very few walls we managed to get him to come down and paint with us. We’d quite often try to get him to come down and be part of productions, to paint a character, or paint a piece, but he was always like, nah, like he was going to be out of his realm of talent, which is ridiculous because he had the super dope style. He didn’t paint as much as us, but if he did over the years, he would have been insanely good. But he always had that hood mentality of not being good enough, or ‘I’ll come if you’re going to do this, but if you’re doing a big production I don’t want to be involved’. So as much as I told him, I don’t think he ever really understood the level of his influence, but it can’t be denied that he was the first or one of the really early people just vandalizing the city, doing everything. In the early nineties there were Jungle BlackE and Jungle Paru tags up and down the South Island, and in Christchurch he was everywhere…

Dcypher's tribute to Jungle in Los Angeles, 2019. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
Dcypher’s tribute to Jungle in Los Angeles, 2019. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

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“Jungle & I too followed the way of the elder ones before us. Much credit goes to Leon because he was the artistic one. I tended to just pick the spots… We were wowed by a lot of the US hip hop/break/graf culture. And it made its way over here. Auckland [was] where a majority of it was then passed down [through] cousins, friends, and friends of friends.”- BlackE

“Putting it up was primary purpose. Putting it up beat style, always. [W]e had many styles that we threw up. Position was paramount over style.” – BlackE

“When I started, he was pretty much already retired as king of the city. He set the benchmark for us to follow. It wasn’t until later that I saw his outlines and characters, which are in a classic style very dear to my heart, as they capture a certain tough attitude that modern graffiti lacks.” – Pest5

“Me and Flex were, and still are, dedicated Junglists, meaning we love the music called ‘Jungle’, which is a reggae-influenced UK dance music from the 90’s. One of our first questions for Jungle was whether he had named himself after the music genre, but no, he said the inspiration came from the ‘concrete jungle’ that we live in.  We tried to get him into the music, and though he could appreciate it, it was a bit too fast for his taste.” – Pest5

“I guess he has influenced people in that you get your tag up or your homies and crew, all-city, all hoods, and bombing is probably the most important thing in doing graffiti.” – Lurq

“We talked about watching freights at Kaikoura and how to make a tag aggressive, and the art of tagging. Being a tagger not a muralist was always a heavy topic he spoke of. I always remember he told me I was his favourite tagger.” – Morpork (FILTH, TBE)

A Juse 1 character as part of the TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
A Juse 1 character as part of the TS crew tribute to Jungle, Wellington, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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Graffiti goes through eras and styles come to represent both time periods and places, do you think Jungle’s graffiti was representative of a ‘Christchurch style’? 

Ikarus: I wouldn’t say early on that Jungle’s particular style of tagging was distinctive, but the thing about it was that it was everywhere. A lot of people couldn’t tag back then, straight letter tags were basically the height of tagging and he was super good at that. Jungle always had the most ill styles for tagging. When hand-styles became a thing, he was always super up on that sort of thing and doing calligraphic style tags. Coupled with the sheer amount he was up, that was why he was so influential.

A Jungle character and tag from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)
A Jungle character and tag from the mid-2000s, Christchurch. (Photo supplied by Dcypher)

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“Everybody thinks of Black and Jungle, everybody seen Black and Jungle. And that was the essence. You don’t know the words. But you knew us.” – BlackE

“[W]e respected straight styles as the cleanest… Out of a crooked lifestyle, we always tried to be semi straightest.” – BlackE

“He basically got [Christchurch graffiti] started. He was the first writer to really take it all-city in Christchurch, with classic Auckland-style straight letter tags, done in cheap paint with an unforced, natural ability. So, he founded the Christchurch tradition of all-city street bombing with simple tags along bus routes. Many of us may try to emulate his hand styles but It’s hard to imitate perfection… but I still think you can see his influence in Christchurch tagging style to this day.” – Pest5

“I would definitely call him Christchurch’s first all-city king, before I even knew the dude there were just Jungle and Paru tags everywhere, East, West, North, South, everywhere, [in] the most random spots. Anywhere you went there were Jungle tags… That was amazing in itself, but then he had such an amazing style; his characters that he’d just spit out of nowhere, with low effort, just boom! He always downplayed himself, or maybe just didn’t see his full potential, [but] he totally could have been here smashing this shit out with us if that’s what he had wanted to do…” – Freak

“His tags were everywhere. They were simple, stylistic and tuff. From my view, he kind of stopped about 1998 or ‘99 and that was around the time I met him.” – Fiasko

“The meanest tags, the straight letters, gangster straight letters… All pre-graffiti paint, all hardware paint, when you used to hunt and steal caps…”  – Freak

“When he started he was super good at tagging, but didn’t do a whole lot of fill in stuff, because it was just get fame quick, just get up.” –  Dcypher

“I feel like there were two styles of tags back then, the wildstyle posca tags, and the black spray paint straights. He laid the blueprint for and was the king of the straights.” – Jay Roacher/Wyns

Jungle tribute in New Brighton, 2019
Jungle tribute in New Brighton, 2019

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While he would never admit that influence, it’s been undeniable in the last year, with the number of tribute and memorial pieces around town. But his influence was beyond his graffiti style, right? I didn’t know him, but the few times I was around him, there was something about his presence, there was that laugh…

Ikarus: Yeah, for sure man, for sure. Like I said, it’s not like he had a huge involvement in graffiti for the last ten years, just occasionally painting a character on the street or doing tags and stuff. But he was the sort of dude that was always drawing, and just sitting around and drawing all the time is a big influence on people. But, like you say, his personality is one of a kind.

Everybody knows Jungle. The dude was a gangster for sure, he always represented his crew, the colors, which was what he grew up with, and he was still a part of that life and that circle, but even at his funeral when the boys were standing up and speaking about him, they said, Jungle’s not part of this gang because he’s a violent dude or out there hustling and grinding, he’s just the heart of our crew, he’s the most important part. He was just a super genuine, loyal dude, and if you’re one of his boys, he would do anything he could for you.

You would be hard pressed to talk to someone that didn’t like him. You could talk to a bunch of people who think I’m a dickhead, maybe not now, but if you talk to someone from back in the day, I was a dick a lot of the time. But you could go back thirty years and talk to people about Leon and I think everyone would be like that guy was fucking cool. People’s enduring memories of Leon are going to be that laugh, his charismatic personality, that he got along with a bunch of people. When I was young and we would beef with a bunch of different people, I remember thinking, nobody ever has a problem with Jungle, how do you do that? How do you know so many people and nobody has a problem with you? It was because he was just generally fucking cool to everybody, respectful, polite, just a good dude.

At first glance, Jungle could be a scary cat, he hung out with a bunch of scary looking dudes, but he was the heart of that shit, the good guy in the crew. He was famous before I knew him, his tags were all over the city, so he was already a legend in the streets when I first met him. He was tagging Jungle and THC, which was the crew. I was thirteen, so they were probably fifteen or sixteen, which seems like a big gap when you’re that young, and those dudes were like the boogeyman to our generation, because you knew shit could pop off with them. But then I met Jungle and he was just super cool. I think a lot of the tough dudes that I’m super good friends with now, that stems from me being super good friends with Jungle in the first place.

A Jungle tribute in Sydenham by Ikarus and Freak, 2019. (Photo credit M Peate-Garrett)
A Jungle tribute in Sydenham by Ikarus and Freak, 2019. (Photo credit M Peate-Garrett)

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“It is hard to write anything about Leon, as he hated any sort of praise. He would sort of squint his eyes and get a big smile and tell you to fuck up. For the past 5-6 days I have been typing and deleting because I can constantly hear him saying “Fuck up egg”, after anything I write.” – Fiasko

“Meeting Jungle is where he had his biggest influence on me. He was such a humble guy. He was funny and he was accepting of most people. I remember how he just didn’t believe he was any good.” – Fiasko

“[That authenticity] got him the status of being an OG in the graffiti scene, everyone respected the dude and looked up to him. [E]veryone just thought he was the coolest motherfucker in town, so he kind of like just got mad respect from everyone and everyone wanted a little bit of him to rub off on them as far as graffiti goes…” – Dcypher

“Everything about him influenced me. I would ask for advice on all things hip hop. He lived my raps too, he was my biggest support and fan.” – Kurs/Horra

“With Jungle, it wasn’t just about tagging, he was the connect for all things hip hop for me. He was listening to Kendrick Lamar when Kendrick Lamar was still a teenager and he put me onto the Black Hippies, and then 5-6 years later, Kendrick Lamar’s blowing up… everyone he sort of pushed in my direction became real big at some point.” – Kurs/Horra

“… [A] few of us were hanging out at the old hack circle in Cashel Mall, high as can be, and these two cops walk past, one a blonde female.  We’re are all paranoid and silent, then Jungle just blurts out, “Faaah, you’re pretty for a cop!” She just smiles, says thanks, and kept walking on by!” – Pest5

“He was super good at skateboarding too. Skateboarding is a big part of my life and he got real good, real quick and could skate spots that were fucking super crazy, spots that no one else could skate, and so he kind of crossed over into skateboard culture, which was part of the graffiti culture…” – Dcypher

“He didn’t have that ego that somebody as prominent as he was can sometimes have… You can’t help but be influenced by somebody that’s up [everywhere], but then you met him, and he was like this hilarious person, just a genuinely dope dude. A lot of respect.” – Yikes

“Leon was a really humble guy and always asked or was interested in what you’ve been up to when you bumped into him. I’m not sure if he actually realised that he was a fucking legend in the Christchurch graffiti scene.” – Lurq

“… [T]he first time Askew came to Christchurch, I felt obliged to introduce him to the legendary Jungle, but was a bit unsure how it would go as the man was often wary of strangers, and was in one of his feisty moods. After giving him a hearty handshake, he said thoughtfully, “Askew… you’re the man. But fuck you. But you’re the man… but fuck you!”  High praise indeed! – Pest5

“He just loved all my weird shit. He was all about the weird side that I approach graffiti from, he gave me props for that. I’m ten years younger than these dudes, I was watching most of their early careers when I wasn’t even touching paints, so to have someone of that standing give you props, it’s cool man, its humbling.” – Yikes

Askew's tribute to Jungle, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)
Askew’s tribute to Jungle, Auckland, 2019. (Photo supplied by Ikarus)

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Read Part Two of Tributes to a King here

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And That Was… April 2020 (Isolation Bubble special)

Last month I ruminated that March was a strange month, of course, April was no less so, almost its entirety experienced in lockdown here in Aotearoa (only moving to ‘Level 3’ with two days to spare). The rest of the world was in a similar position, and with limited space within which to spread our arms, it felt like we started to notice things differently. Our immediate environment became unavoidable (those dirty windows, peeling paint or leaking tap), and the digital realm an escape where physical flee was impossible. As a result, this month’s list is compiled of those things I encountered in the suburban streets directly within my ‘bubble’, and those I enjoyed online. Surprisingly, in a month where the world essentially stopped and hunkered down, who would have thought a list of cool things would be so easy to compile!

Dr Suits gets slap happy…

A sticker made from colourful geometric shapes stuck on a textured background.
One of Dr Suits’ many collage slaps produced during the lockdown. (Photo credit Dr Suits)

The most ubiquitous presence of my suburban bubble has been the subtly diverse array of stickers and paste ups created during the lockdown by Dr Suits. Both tiny and oversized material variations on his abstract studio works on board and glass and his mural works, they are unmistakable, yet distinctive enough to make you stop and look closer. While they have a slick look from distance, their handmade qualities, pulled ink and vinyl cut-outs compiled together to form geometric and gestural collages, make them incredibly interesting to investigate.

Jen_Heads asks what time it is…

A large circular head with an array of speech bubbles asking questions such as 'Is it beer o'clock?' and 'Is it coffee time again?' and
Jen_Heads’ large Lockdown Jen Head paste up.

It wasn’t just Dr Suits representing Fiksate during the lockdown, Jen_Heads was also busy producing her iconic faces, including a large stay-at-home version featuring the questions we have all had swimming through our heads for the last five weeks… Surely it is beer o’clock, because I’m sure coffee time was like an hour ago, right?

Home –  A stay at home mural festival…

Cracked Ink's poster for HOME: A Stay at Home Mural Festival
Cracked Ink’s poster for HOME: A Stay at Home Mural Festival, organised by Pangeaseed, Sea Walls, Alternative Arts Initiative, Whanganui Walls and Stay Home.

Speaking of staying at home (and how can we not at this time?), the good folks at PangeaSeed and the Sea Walls events, along with Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls, created a unique response to the pervasive conditions, staging a mural festival where participants painted their own homes and shared across digital platforms. Alongside the ecological concerns at the heart of Pangea Seed’s spirit, this was also a consideration of how to unify artists and utilise art in this strange time. It proved popular, with hundreds of artists spread across the globe painting murals in their backyards and studio spaces. The programme also included conversations with artists and panel discussions, one of which I was happy to be part of, connecting with artists from far afield…

Artists share the love…

The right side torso of a Star Wars Stormtrooper
A section of Mark Catleys Stormtrooper paste-up print out he made available during the lockdown period

Lots of artists have been using their digital platforms to share their work, and some have even made their work, or specifically made things to be, available for people to use, a gesture of community. From Tom Kerr‘s lino cut sticker tutorial (see our post here), to Daken’s colouring in templates, and Mark Catley’s download-able Stormtrooper paste-up, artists have been sharing their talents and encouraging people to get cre-active (yes, I just coined a new term).

Kids take to the streets…

A suburban fence is adorned with an Easter message in chalk.
A suburban fence is adorned with an Easter message in chalk.

I have always believed in the human inclination towards public expressions and the lockdown, much like other periods of distress or great change, has seen people taking to the streets to leave their mark, express themselves of communicate with others. And I’m not just talking about the graffiti and urban art that I am normally fixated on. Footpaths have been commandeered by chalk wielding children, writing and drawing and subverting their function. Likewise, fences have been adorned with messages and symbols, symptomatic of the recognition of the potential of public space as a shared environment.

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Book Club

The Covid 19 enforced lock down period will have an undeniably massive impact on all facets of our lives, potentially permanently altering our routines. It is important maintain our mental health, and, for me, making and consuming art are vital aspects of my personal balance. I have been promising to catch up on the growing stacks of books at home for months and now I have this unforeseen time to finally make a dent. Urban art has a long relationship with the written word and documented image (graffiti itself is typographical, and slogan-based street art has a long lineage including The Gorilla Girls and John Fekner), from the early classics to the increasingly flashy publications of today. For an initially underground art movement, new publications (not to mention online content) emerge regularly, from big publishing houses or independent sources, echoing the complex (and at times contradictory) nature of contemporary urban art. Graffiti and street art books have spanned a range of approaches: seminal explorations of emerging creative cultures, academic studies, artist monographs, historical documents, surveys of themes and specific geographic locations, photographic collections and publications accompanying exhibitions and events.

We figured this was a perfect time to discuss some of our favourite urban art books. This is not a ‘best of’ compilation, nor are these entries reviews as such. It is intended to show an array of books, each with something that grabbed us; from the conceptual content to the pure beauty of the physical object, or even historical importance, these are the pages we love. There are also plenty more not included here, books we plan to share with you in the coming weeks on our Instagram page (think of it like a book club), so please let us know which books you would include on your list…

Subway Art – Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper (Thames & Hudson, 1984)

The cover of Subway Art, which features train painted with graffiti

What else could start this list? Perhaps the most revered graffiti book of all time, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s 1984 documentation of the rising force of New York graffiti is responsible for inspiring waves of future writers. Tatty copies, sometimes photocopied, are regularly cited by graffiti artists as their introduction to the culture, used as a guidebook for early attempts. Part of the success of Subway Art comes from its accessibility, avoiding overwrought analysis and focussing on the visual images (Cooper and Chalfant are primarily photographers), but it was also perfectly timed, coinciding with the seminal documentary Style Wars (of which Chalfant was a co-producer with Tony Silver). To put it bluntly, if Subway Art isn’t in your collection, you aren’t doing it right…

Getting Up – Subway Graffiti in New York – Craig Castleman (MIT Press, 1982)

The cover of Getting Up a book, featuring the effect of spray paint

Craig Castleman’s 1982 tome on graffiti culture may not have quite reached the popular status of Subway Art, but it is, for some, equally as important. A sociological study of graffiti culture, Getting Up surveys the youthful graffiti subculture blossoming on New York City subway trains, documenting and explaining many of the concepts that remain central tenets of graffiti today. This might be more of a specialist read due to its academic nature (although it is concise and straightforward), but ultimately it is a reminder of graffiti’s extension beyond art or crime, and into something representative of an entire culture that has spread across the globe. Castleman’s candid interviews revealed the self-constructed community of graffiti and positioned it as a more complicated network than it was considered at the time.

The Faith of Graffiti – Norman Mailer and Jon Naar (Harper Collins, 1974)

The cover of The Faith of Graffiti, featuring a graffiti-ed train in New York

To keep the theme of important early writing going, The Faith of Graffiti is another example of how graffiti writing was capturing the public imagination in the early-to-mid 1970s. While many dismissed graffiti as a plague that was breaking down civil society, others were fascinated by its mysterious nature and practitioners. Norman Mailer, the well-known writer and social critic, brought his own flair to photographer Jon Naar’s images of the infant graffiti culture. Mailer takes on the role of aesthetic investigator (or A1 as his tag moniker in the style of his subject), and interviews members of the subculture before considering the city of New York’s political response to the youthful art movement and even making art historical comparisons. In a sense, Mailer’s stature gave graffiti a legitimacy it was never seeking. The words though are only part of the book, Naar’s photographs providing the necessary visual vibrancy that give Mailer’s writing life and context.

Wall Writers – Graffiti in its Innocence – Roger Gastman (Gingko Press, 2016)

The cover of the book Wall Writers, featuring a 1970s wall heavy with graffiti and posters

Roger Gastman’s Wall Writers accompanies a documentary of the same name about graffiti in its early days. It features an impressive number of interviews with key figures, including Cornbread, Taki 183, LSD OM, Snake I, Cay 161, Junior 161 and Cool Earl. It brings together the keys places, figures, groups and documentarians from the early phases of graffiti writing culture, including dalliances with the art world. Wall Writers unveils the social and historical climate that birthed graffiti as a subculture, including the birth of aerosol, the phenomenon of Kilroy Was Here, and advertising and social messaging. The fascinating social ephemera, along with the personal stories and photographs, make Wall Writers a beautiful production that comes close to what it was really like in those early days, perhaps just with cleaner pages.

The History of American Graffiti – Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon (Harper Collins, 2011)

The alternate cover of The History of American Graffiti, featuring an array of vintage spray cans

Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon’s thick survey of American graffiti essentially takes on an impossible task, the authors even admitting as much, recalling one interviewee declaring that: “Anyone who tries to tell you the history of graffiti is either a liar or a fool.” But while it can never be definitive, it is most certainly exhaustive, with stories and images from cities and regions from coast to coast, and including more specific offshoots of the culture (including freight train painting, graffiti inside galleries and the rise of street art). With images sourced from a huge number of contributors, it is a fascinating insight into how graffiti has mutated in different areas, and yet how consistent influences remain central. Its compartmentalised format also makes it more easily digestible, allowing readers to jump into different cities rather than following a traditional narrative.

The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti – Rafael Schacter (Yale University Press, 2013)

The cover of the book The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, featuring a painting by Anthony Lister on a brick wall

Rafael Schacter’s compendium of Independent Public Art (a term he adapts from Javier Abarca) is a globetrotting survey of the new school of public art practices that have emerged out of graffiti and post-graffiti. From ephemeral interventions to technological approaches, the litany of terms considered is intriguing: emotional advertising, symbolic figurative graffiti, conceptual vandalism, hacktivism, bibliographic bombing, and existentialist graffiti to name a few. A reminder of how far these interventionist practices have come, it is thoughtful and yet approachable. Unlike The History of American Graffiti, which attempts a similar, albeit more defined, geographic scope, Schacter’s Atlas does not seek to recount a history, but to take a snapshot of these artists and their diverse practices, and in doing so, reveal the growing maturity of contemporary urban art as a form of new public art. Schacter also includes a selection of maps made by artists to represent their hometowns, with favourites including Momo’s New York journey and Lush’s typical caustic cartography of Melbourne. For good measure it includes Askew and BMD in the ‘Rest of the World’ section.

Trespass – A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art – Ethel Seno, ed. (Taschen, 2010)

The cover of the book Trespass, featuring a yellow and black design and stencilled font

Edited by Ethel Seno and featuring contributions from Carlo McCormick and Marc and Sara Schiller from the Wooster Collective, Trespass is a more cerebral exploration of the rebellious aspects of urban art. Less pictorial (although still a good looking book), it is the essays that consider the various strands of un-permissioned art (even the distinction between terms such as illegal, uncommissioned and un-permissioned is an interesting discussion) within the urban landscape that take centre stage, from legal status, public space, and counter-consumerism, to urban folk art and environmental approaches. Trespass importantly reminds us of the importance of transgression in urban art, a fact that can sometimes be downplayed in blockbuster shows, crowd friendly festivals and commissioned (and especially commercial) projects. To celebrate such aspects is not an easy task in a published book, where external forces may require concession, but Trespass is able to build an interconnected history of urban art’s disruptive potential.

We Own the Night – The Art of The Underbelly Project – Workhorse and PAC (Rizzoli, 2012)

The cover of the book We Own the Night, featuring an aerosol painting of the title as par tof the Underbelly Project

Workhorse and PAC’s documentation of the secretive Underbelly Project, which saw artists invited to paint an abandoned network of subway tunnels in New York, is like a ticket to an exclusive party. The project itself was so clandestine that even artists were blindfolded as they were taken underground. The book is a revealing insight into an inaccessible gallery now closed forever (or at least until a new generation of urban explorers finds the tunnels and its painted walls). The eerie setting is perfect for a book, silence is a key quality and reinforces the isolation of the project, while the spot-lit images, darkened in the corners, provide a sense of being amongst the creepy surroundings, unsure of each strange creak and crack. Spanning several years, The Underbelly Project saw an impressive array of talent paint the aged concrete, from Logan Hicks, Ron English and dabs Myla, to Dan Witz, Lady Aiko and Remi Rough. Much like Trespass, We Own the Night celebrates the rebellious and outsider qualities or urban art.

Flip the Script – A Guidebook for Aspiring Vandals and Typographers – Christian P. Acker (Gingko, 2013)

The black cover of the book Flip the Script with the title in blue

Christian P. Acker’s typographic text is similar to a number of font-inspired books, but is also a fascinating insight into regional hand-styles across the U.S. It is sweeping in locations and time periods, painstakingly recreating letter forms to create a database of styles, revealing the various folk inspirations behind little details. Contributors present full alphabets of their signature style, while Philadelphia’s Wickets are a uniquely specific example explored in depth as well. As the styles pile up, it becomes impossible to not start imitating as the intricacies are revealed and the reason behind those little details become apparent. Acker presents graffiti hand-styles as folk-inspired calligraphy, type designer Christian Schwartz comparing his field recording approach to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s work with folk music in the 20th century. Flip the Script is also a beautiful book, bound in black cloth and restrained in a blue and grey palette, it is clearly a passion project.

InForm – New Zealand Graffiti Artists Discuss Their Work – Elliot O’Donnell (Reed, 2007)

The cover of InForm, with the title written in light in an urban environment

Elliot ‘Askew’ O’Donnell is not only one of Aotearoa’s most revered artists (let’s be honest, he is a global powerhouse now), he is also a key voice in the discourses around graffiti and urban art. After founding Disrupt with Pest5/Johnny 4Higher, Askew was already acknowledged as a leader of the New Zealand scene by the early 2000s, and InForm, produced in 2007, was another string to that bow. A combination of a snapshot of the scene and a process guidebook, it features the country’s biggest names, interviewed and then photographed painting, their pieces documented at each stage from outline to complete. It is an impressive undertaking for its time and reaffirms the primary status of graffiti in New Zealand urban art culture. While Auckland is heavily featured, and as expected the heavyweight TMD crew, Ōtautahi is well represented by Dcypher, Lurq and Pest5 (who had relocated to Auckland by that time).

Toy Stories – TOGO (137k Gallery, 2020)

The pink cover of Toy Stories, with a plain white text

The newest book on this list, TOGO’s recently published Toy Stories might be one of my favourite things from 2020. The minimal cover, in TOGO’s signature pastel pink, conceals the energy that the nomadic artist is known for. Mischief and compulsion are central themes, captured in TOGO’s en scene photography and anecdotal writing, all based on real experience. Toy Stories makes apparent the feelings and sensory realities of graffiti and urban exploration, all with a combination of zine-like zest and elegant production. In many ways, this is a manifesto, part written word, part visual image, yet all direct, including the documentation of paint splattered garments and shoes, brushes, a balaclava and bolt cutters in a manner akin to a museum catalogue. Toy Stories is an impressive analogue addition to TOGO’s digital documentation of a graffiti artist’s life on the peripheries and a unique addition to Aotearoa’s urban art scene, a beautiful object as an artist book, and yet undeniably authentic.

So, that’s our list, what have we missed? Let us know in the comments and follow us on Instagram for more book club entries…

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