And that was… March 2019

When I started the ‘And that was…’ series, I didn’t expect this column to be as difficult as March proved. The month got off to a terrible start with the passing of a true graffiti king, the legendary Jungle. Then, on March 15th, the horrific terror attacks sent shock waves across the city, and indeed, the world. Even in these awful times, the art on the streets has played a role and performed acts of tribute, memorial and communication. And it has continued to do its own thing as well, providing distraction from difficult realities. So, although it is not really fitting to describe this list as a ‘best of’, here are five things that made March 2019 unforgettable…

Jungle – RIP to the King

Leon Te Karu, also known as Jungle, was an absolute legend of Christchurch graffiti, and without his presence, the city’s culture would not be what it is today. As Ikarus confided in me, without him, there would be no Freak, no Dcypher, no Lurq, no Pest5, and no Ikarus. His influence is that important. L.A.-based Dcypher noted that he had never met anyone who embodied their graffiti more than Jungle, an important acknowledgement in a culture built on a visual form becoming a signifier of one’s presence. It is little surprise then that tributes to Jungle have appeared across the city, the country, and indeed, the globe, from Christchurch to Chile, paying respect and honouring a massive influence.

Dcypher, Jungle tribute, Los Angeles (photo credit: Dcypher)
Dcypher, Jungle tribute, Los Angeles (photo credit: Dcypher)
Ikarus and Wongi 'Freak' Wilson, Jungle Tribute, Sydenham (photo credit: Millie Garrett-Peate)
Ikarus and Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Jungle Tribute, Sydenham (photo credit: Millie Garrett-Peate)

The Christchurch Terror Attacks

By the time of writing, the impact of the March 15th Terror Attacks had not manifested explicitly in the city’s urban art, but there were quickly messages of support, not just at memorial sites, but also as annotations of graffiti, highlighting the sense of solidarity the city was importantly trying to extend… The importance of public space as a site for communication was revealed once again. Will more responses appear as artists figure out the discussions these events have created? And importantly, what forms will they take?

Dmonk, This is Your Home..., Central City
Dmonk, This is Your Home…, Central City
We Stand As One poster, central city, Christchurch
We Stand As One poster, central city, Christchurch

Joel Hart – Dopamine

Another event impacted by the Terror Attacks, Joel Hart’s second ever solo show, Dopamine at Fiksate, was due to open that Friday. Understandably delayed, the show eventually opened a week later to a bumper crowd. Hart even ran a silent auction of a work on the night, with all proceeds going to a victim support charity. The show’s impressive collection of fascinating portraits and explorative use of materials such as copper and brass sheeting, mirror surfaces, light boxes and intricate hanging sculptural cut outs, as well as a diverse colour palette, have ensured its popularity, while also hinting at new directions for the artist.

Joel Hart, Hush, mixed media on brass panel, 2019
Joel Hart, Hush, mixed media on brass panel, 2019

Dead God

Although lower in profile than some other entries, I have been enjoying these Dead God stencils around the city. The intricate cellular cut-outs and overriding punk vibe catch my eye whenever I stumble upon them, often in spaces I probably shouldn’t be hanging out. With little information about the artist, it’s time for some research…

Dead God stencil, central city, Christchurch
Dead God stencil, central city, Christchurch

Edo Rath

So, technically it was the last couple of days of February, but it felt right to include visiting Dutch artist Edo Rath’s playful cartoon serpent on one of the Giant Cans amongst the darker tone of this month. The bright palette, sharp, crisp line work and fun use of patterns and shapes made this small addition stand out. Check out Edo on Instagram

Edo Rath, Manchester Street, Christchurch, 2019
Edo Rath, Manchester Street, Christchurch, 2019
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Caelan Walsh – Stepping Out

Caelan Walsh is a thoughtful guy. The often faceless and pseudonymous nature of graffiti writing leads to perception of graffiti writers as senseless destructive forces. Caelan is eloquent and intelligent, and importantly, well-versed in the complexities and contradictions of both the world of graffiti, but also of the public perceptions. He also represents the tensions graffiti writers feel when moving into the realm of commissioned work, and the dreaded sphere of the ‘street art muralist’ (dum-dum-dummm!). In the latter stages of last year, with support from Watch This Space, Gap Filler and the Enliven Places fund, Caelan produced a sprawling ‘kiwiana’ mural on Tuam Street. Walsh segmented the long wall into an angular geometric grid populated with icons of Aotearoa; from a gumboot wearing farmer, sheep, and a rugby-playing kiwi, to a horde of sunglass-wearing penguins, a tuatara, a pohutakawa tree, and the tino rangatiratanga flag. Laced with bright colours and patterns that differentiate each segment, the playful comic stylings are a perfect fit for the still in-progress area, with Gap Filler’s pump track sitting directly in front. After a long back and forth to actually sit down and chat (this seems to be a theme with my interviews!), when we did, Caelan deftly jumped between a range of topics, including graffiti history, the various ‘moods’ of the culture and how he navigates those divergences, and his experience on the pump track wall…

Let’s start by talking about the ‘kiwiana’ mural you completed along the Gap Filler ‘Roll with It’ pump track on Tuam Street. How did that project come about?

Thanks to you guys! (laughs) I kind of got thrown in the deep end on that one! It was the first properly commissioned wall I’ve painted, full stop, and on top of that, it was also the biggest wall I’ve ever painted, so it was obviously pretty intimidating. That’s why I came up with the idea of sectioning the wall up into smaller parts, each with different images and colours. Along with trying utilise all the space effectively to avoid it getting tagged through. I could look at it as twenty-two smaller pieces rather than one big wall, which would have been more intimidating…

I imagine that the idea of segmenting it up into pieces was necessary when you haven’t had a lot of experience working on commissioned murals of that size. Your background in graffiti means that even with bigger pieces, you are often collaborating, and as such you are using a smaller space rather than the entire wall, so is that must have been quite a big change…

Yeah, definitely. There were other challenges too. I’m horrible at working with colours. I just can’t put them together. So, a lot of the time when I’m painting, I’ll push other people to come up with a colour scheme, so it’s like: ‘Cool, whatever you said, we are doing that 100%’! But, working on my own and having to conceptualise that on a larger scale, it was definitely something that I couldn’t plan ahead. A lot of the colour choices were made by starting with just picking one colour up and going from there. Obviously, then in the section next to it I would use a different colour to create that contrast and develop it from there. Then I would step back from the wall and think, oh I haven’t got enough pink in that section, I’ll work with pink now…

Pump Track mural, Tuam Street, 2018. Photo Credit: Manjot Kaur
Pump Track mural, Tuam Street, 2018
(Photo Credit: Manjot Kaur)

Do you approach graffiti pieces with that openness to change as well? When you are working on a piece, do you have a strong idea of how you want it to look, or are you open to change as well?

With graffiti, I really have quite a strict idea in my head of how I want the process to work, and how I want it to sit on the wall. But I also don’t like to complete a sketch because I feel as though then it has become its own entity, and then you are just replicating something until it’s completed on the wall and there’s not really much fun in that. So, sometimes I’ve gone to walls with three different sketches and I might like different parts of each one and there will be other ideas in my head as well. So, I guess if you were to look at my sketches, they would look like big scribbles, but they will turn on different lights in my head…

So, when you are drawing or sketching for a piece, it’s not so much about creating a plan as it is exploring ideas that you can then explore further on a wall. But with a commissioned mural you often have to show a more developed idea and some kind plan, which means they are necessarily distinct processes for you…

Yeah, I think I was pushed a lot more with the mural work because obviously the owners and everyone involved wants a proper idea. With Graffiti, my basic style or structure is in my head, I can see it already on the wall, but when I’m explaining a mural to people, often I can tell that they don’t really get it until they physically see a drawing of it. So, that was a big challenge for me, because like I said, I don’t like finishing sketches, I like it to be more open, especially going from ballpoint pen to using a spray can, there are completely different effects involved. I am definitely more confident with a spray can than a brush or a pen. I can’t show that I’m going to shade here or have some drips going down here…

Collaboration with Tepid and Dove, New Brighton, 2019
Collaboration with Tepid (left) and Dove (centre), New Brighton, 2019

Technology is making that transition easier though, at least in some respects, right? I was recently watching a video of someone using a Posca pen with a Crayola add-on airbrush piece, to create the effect of a tiny spray can painting a stencil. Obviously, there are problematic elements to the embrace of technology, but it must at least make some of that transition easier…

I think with some of the programmes they have on iPad’s and that sort of thing now, it is crazy the different ways you can digitally replicate how you would paint on a wall. It is not something I’ve had a chance to muck around with a lot, but in some of the work I’ve done with Dove especially, he’s used that technology to map out how something would sit on a wall, and that just makes a crazy difference when it comes to actually visualising a large-scale project…

Collection of sketches, 2018/2019
Collection of sketches, 2018/2019

Do you have a process to scale up from a sketch to a wall? Often artists have a specific approach that is slightly different depending on the individual…

For me, it’s the same with everything; graffiti, murals, I just start by taking steps. I step out the length of the wall. Say it is twenty steps and then for example, if it’s piecing, and you’ve got four people, sweet, you’ve each got five steps, and I just mark it out and work from there…

Even that simple approach, it essentially represents one of graffiti’s core attributes: the ability to solve problems. There’s always been that DIY nature, where you can do more with less by problem solving. You are constantly having to overcome problems when you are painting graffiti or making art in the streets in that manner, and that’s why I guess that transition to large-scale work is so achievable, because of the skillsets you pick up painting without permission, or painting without the support mechanisms of a studio space, or a commission…

In terms of proportions, even with my graffiti, my work is quite mathematical. I guess it ruins some of the natural flow when you explain it, but I’m literally looking at the first line I did on the wall and following it from there. I’ve got maths going in my head, like, that width between each line is twenty centimetres, so I should make it about that the whole way through. I’m stepping back and judging widths of the letters themselves and the space between them along with the thickness of each individual line itself. So, I’m actually thinking about how certain attributes that come later will affect the piece as well, especially adding shadows, it’s something a lot of people seem to struggle with, but there’s almost a mathematical formula to how a piece sits on the wall. I also use shadow to help add dimension to my pieces rather than one flat image sitting on a wall, so it is a series of intertwined connections overlapping and underlapping each other.

Game and Dove, Christchurch, 2017
Game piece with Dove character, Christchurch, 2017 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

With drop shadows and those types of effects, it is literally mathematical, right? It is about the angle created by the light source, the angle you are trying to project and those types of things. It’s also something where you can fall onto either side, though, right? You can be looser, more chance driven, and all about how it looks and feels, or you can be more precise and adhere to spatial relationships and certain effects that you are trying to achieve. Your graffiti letter style is kind of angular and quite strong in its line work, do you that comes out through that kind of mathematical approach?

Like you said, you can go either of two ways with it. I’ve probably wished I was more comfortable doing a more natural approach, but like I was saying earlier, my pieces are very controlled. To add even more mathematics and numbers, I’m also always trying to add my work into a certain slot of where I feel comfortable. Like, I want to do pieces at the moment, I need to do everything in my head that justifies it being a piece, to then fit into that slot where I can be like: ‘O.K., now I’ve done forty-seven pieces.’ If it’s missing certain elements to it, then I can’t class it as a piece.

So, there’s a classification process going on in how you are building your body of work?

Yeah, so, it’s something that I’m almost forcefully trying to do. I’m sort of restricting myself. I’m not going out as much and doing more creative stuff, stuff off the top of my head, because in my mind, that would fit into a different slot. Which is perfectly fine, it’s just my sense of control makes want to be able to categorise what I am doing…

Social piece, Auckland, 2010
Social piece, Auckland, 2010 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

Is there an end goal in mind then when you are taking that approach?

Like you were saying, it is just building a body of work. Not so much to show other people, it’s more just self-confidence, knowing that I have got that body of work behind me. That will allow me to feel more comfortable going out and doing weirder, less-appropriate sort of things…

Does it give you a good sense of how far you have progressed already? Does it become obvious to you?

Yeah, with my letters at the moment, I do make some dramatic changes, but generally speaking, each piece I paint, I’m trying to develop one letter. So, there are four letters in the name I write, right now I’m working on developing the ‘O’, so if you look back at previous works, the other letters will be the same, but the ‘O’ will be different. The next piece, I might decide I’m happy with the ‘O’, so I will start developing the ‘D’, so then, like everything, you will actually see the natural progression of how it’s changing. Right now, I’m actually reverting back to a lot of my earlier work from the beginning of last year, stylistically, because I feel like I drifted off in the wrong direction and now I’m going back to that body of work and seeing where I was going with that. That’s why having that control of doing a piece is important I guess, I can see where I was going wrong, or what I need to do instead. Even with that amount of control, you still make mistakes. I’m not particularly happy with my style at the moment, I think it has sort of regressed a bit over the last few months and that’s why I’m looking at the older work and hopefully bringing it back…

Character piece, unspecified location.
Character piece, Auckland, 2016 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

That’s a really mature, thoughtful approach. Was that compulsive element, repeating a tag or developing letters over time, was that always one of the attractions of graffiti for you? And how do you relate that sort of approach to commissioned projects? Do they require a slightly different approach?

You could definitely say I am a bit obsessive compulsive and that definitely is evident in the way I paint. With the commissioned work, I think as long as you get the O.K., I’m a lot more open to switching things up. The pump track mural, I did control that a lot as well, specifically to ensure it had that more comic effect, with very bold colours. There were a lot of parts, especially the birds, where I would have liked to have thrown in more detail, but it would have taken away from the rest of the mural. Although I knew there was more that I could add, I had to control myself and let it be what it was. But now, after doing that, I’m definitely a lot more confident in being able to wing it a bit more, to chuck my own flavour in there. There are definitely challenges that come with painting concepts and ideas that I have never really attempted on paper, let alone a wall.

Commissioned work also generally allows more longevity. You can often physically revisit a work over a longer period. Does that affect your thinking as well? Which reminds me; we were just told that your mural will stay in place for longer than originally thought as well, the project has just been extended, which is good news! So, what is that shifting mindset like between a work that might only be there for a day and then disappear, and a work that is somewhat more protected? For someone who is so analytical and thoughtful, is it tricky constantly being reminded of a work, thinking I could’ve done this, I could’ve done that…

Yeah, absolutely, especially with that mural, because I was working between a lot of other commitments. There were a lot of hurdles I had to get over, so it ended up taking a month and half of on and off days. So, yeah there were a lot of sleepless nights thinking about something I really wanted to do before I forgot about it. I was borrowing my friend’s ladder, and near the end I just got him to pick it up so I couldn’t really do anymore work without having to organise more stuff. It was almost a case of someone having to just take the can out of my hand and be like, that’s enough, it’s’ done.

Collaboration with Dove, Hereford Street carpark, 2019
Collaboration with Dove, Hereford Street carpark, 2019 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

I guess when you are having a jam, generally you are looking to finish within a shorter time frame, although there are other reasons you might finish when you finish, but with the longer time afforded a commissioned work, it is probably good to have some limit imposed on you…

Yeah, well, graffiti is incredibly speed-based, especially in New Zealand. It is almost frowned upon to spend any longer than a day on a piece, although, in my opinion, if your piece needs three days of work, then put three days in, make it the best possible.

Some of that comes down to the spot though, right?

It’s definitely tossing it up a little bit. But yeah, with my pieces, especially doing the fill and the initial outline, I am sweating trying to just get it done, to get the piece up on the wall. Then I will spend the same amount of time just tidying it up, stepping back and looking at it. My main goal is to try and finish it before everyone else, so I’ve got that five or ten-minute window of being able to step back and look at it. I took a similar approach to the mural as well, but with no experience or any time frame to go off it was really hard for me to tell what speed I was meant to go.

You mention the New Zealand scene as a whole, you are based here now because you are studying here in Christchurch, but you are from Auckland, right?

Yeah, born and raised.

So, growing up in Auckland, what influences were the strongest impact on you growing up? What got you involved? Auckland is so different from Christchurch, what were the biggest things you noticed coming down here?

Well, since coming down here, I’ve always looked at Christchurch as almost being in a time warp, almost ten or fifteen years behind. Not as far as skill goes, there’s some amazing artists down here, but the train tracks down here now look like how Auckland looked in the early 2000s, and that was the era that got me into graffiti, so I love the scene down here, it’s what we’ve now lost in Auckland because of the buff…

The Christchurch Rail Corridor, 2017
The Christchurch Rail Corridor, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Caelan Walsh)

It’s almost nostalgic for you… (laughs)

Yeah, and the creative energy, with so many blank walls, like in Auckland, every spot has been done to such a high level, that it is almost like: what’s the point? It’s already been ‘kinged’, someone’s already done something better, whether it’s a stomper, a tag, a piece, it’s already been done. Down here, even along the train tracks, you’ve got walls that have literally never been touched. Whatever you do on it, it’s going to be the best thing that’s ever been done on that wall…

There are two ways to look at both of those things as well, like you say, if somebody has already done something amazing, it’s either what’s the point, or there is a real drive to try and better it, or, when the are no precedents, you’ve got the freedom to do something without expectations, or you can get lazy and the level gets pulled down…

I guess from my point of view, being a bit older, I can really see opportunity down here. When I was younger in Auckland, I didn’t appreciate how lucky I was to be a part of that scene at that time, even in the early 2000s, I remember thinking, I wish I grew up in the 90s! Then when the buff hit in 2011 (when the Rugby World Cup was staged in New Zealand), it was like, oh crap, we were painting in the golden era of Auckland graffiti and we took it for granted! We should’ve been out doing pieces on all these spots instead of tags! But down here, it’s different for me, with that maturity that comes with age, and a desire to just do pieces, just being able to have that confidence in my style, I can quite confidently make a wall look better than it was…

Which again is a mature attitude, it is not what every writer is trying to do…

I do contradict myself quite a lot, and I still feel a lot of the different moods of graffiti. I think it’s important though, it can be very restrictive sticking to one set of views. But, generally speaking I like to paint for the act that I am making the wall look better than it was. It might not be publicly appreciated, or aesthetically pleasing to everyone, it’s still graffiti, but its better than the tagging that was on the wall before. This is also my general argument or, I guess, defence if I was to be approached by the public.

Canvas works, 2018
Studio works, including a benchtop and painted fridge, 2015 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

For most people, it is the legal issue, the private property issue that is the most upsetting, and that is what leads them to say they don’t think graffiti is aesthetically pleasing, and that is sort highlighted by the way a buffed wall, with patches of mismatched paint, is clearly not an aesthetic improvement…

I find that very ironic, there are some very bad clean up jobs around that look worse than the tagging itself did. A particular example of this for me is when people tag using their fingers on a dirty wall or window, obviously it is still vandalism, but it is simply moving dirt around on a neglected surface that no one has taken the time to maintain. I would argue the wall was not aesthetically pleasing to begin with and the tagger simply pointed that out. With that said, I do hear the argument, even from writers, that they would be pissed off if their fence got tagged. But for me, I’m a pretty placid human being, if someone did paint my fence, I would go and paint it out and get on with my day, it’s not something that really stresses me out…

A fence is an object that defines territory, and as such it invites responses in some way, right? I’m not saying a fence deserves graffiti, but it does say: ‘this is my space, keep out!’ So, both because of that symbolic presence, as well as the physical form, something is likely to end up on them… it’s almost inevitable, even if it is not necessarily pleasing.

It comes back to that core emotion that people look for from graffiti, why people paint, we’re looking for that mental reaction. nothing beats being in the city at two or three in the morning, with no one else around, you’re walking down the middle of the street, and whatever you want to write on, whatever you want to climb, no one is stopping you, the city is yours, you own it…

[American graffiti historian] Roger Gastman has written that at its core, graffiti is about young people exploring the city, and as you say finding that freedom, those boundaries seem to vanish. On the flip side of that, how did you make the decision to take on commissioned opportunities? Were you influenced by what other people were doing? Did it germinate in Auckland, or was it more a case of the opportunities in post-quake Christchurch? Was it something you always thought you might do, or was it something you came around to?

Like I was saying before, I contradict myself a lot. I go between wanting to be a reclusive vandal and wanting to screw society up, to wanting to make society better, make it more beautiful, be a part of the wider community, go to events, talk with people. In Auckland, I guess, I got into the concept of tagging, not that I ever thought I would do it, but my older sister, who is in her late thirties now, a lot of her friends were ‘gangsta’ taggers, they don’t tag anymore, they have all moved on to actual serious crime, a lot of them are in jail now. But I was opened to that at a young age, and a lot of them were amazing graffiti artists, classic old school wildstyle painters. I can remember being eight years old, and trying to copy a drawing I had found, and I was just drawing heaps of arrows, and being like, how do you do this? That lasted maybe a couple of days, then you move on to the next little game or whatever. But then I revisited it as a teenager. One night I was staying at my mate’s place, and he was like alright, we’re going tagging. I was like, what’s that? I thought only people from the hood did that? Which is a racist view, really, that only poor neglected kids go out tagging. Why would a proper citizen, from a private school, who has the opportunity to be successful, start tagging? But ever since then, I caught the bug for it.

That’s what they have said about New York, that because hip hop was very Afrocentric, everyone assumed graffiti was the same, primarily the realm of poor black and Hispanic kids. But the reality was that graffiti was broader, it wasn’t as defined by your position in society as some of the other elements of hip hop…

It’s kind of funny, when you get more involved in the world, people still have that view, that it’s brown hood rats out tagging, when its just as likely to be middle-aged men with full-time jobs and families. Some of the most prolific taggers I knew in Auckland as kids are looking at owning their own home, or already own it, dealing with full-time job, a lot of them are sober of everything and they are still out every second night painting. I remember seeing an article years ago about Deus from Auckland, and the article was so racist, the actual headline was like: ‘Taggers are not just brown, poor and from South Auckland’, or something like that, and then it had a picture of Deus, an older white guy with missing teeth, quite an eccentric guy, dressed like he’s a bit homeless, and he’s one of New Zealand’s best artists, the complete opposite of the stereotype of what people think of graffiti, and he is at the pinnacle, especially of character work in New Zealand…

What are your next goals? You have talked about this cataloguing approach to pieces, and this increasing commissioned work, is that just a case of balancing the two, or does one become a focus?

I think that the commissioned work motivates me to do other things, because I don’t want to be known as a muralist. I enjoy painting murals, but as soon as I allow myself to be known as a muralist, or a ‘street artist’, that’s what really opens up my work to getting destroyed by younger taggers. So, there’s that certain aspect of keeping up my rep, whatever rep or street presence that may be. I’d like to let people know it’s cool, if you want to do it, take the opportunity if you can…

Some people decide it’s one or the other and go for it whole-heartedly, so actually deciding to do both and how you go about contending with both worlds is quite challenging…

I was having a discussion with Juse from Wellington, and we were saying it takes maybe like ten or fifteen years into your career before you can really know your work, which to some people sounds like a hell of a long time, but in art and graffiti, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. If you look at people like Askew, he has been doing it since the early nineties, but its only just in the last like five years you can see that he has really found his purpose and found comfort in doing what he wants to do, and that’s more than twenty years of work that’s got him to that point…

The penny doesn’t necessarily drop quickly, right?

Yeah, like I remember starting out and being like, I’ve done graffiti for like two years, I’ll be good soon! My first piece was around the beginning of 2006, so I’ve been doing it for over ten years…

Pure Mongrel Fitness, commissioned work, 2018
Pure Mongrel Fitness, commissioned work, Christchurch, 2018 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

It’s a constant journey of self-discovery, right? You admitted earlier how there are always elements of your work you are unhappy with, and that is kind of what makes it such a long journey. It’s about your own standards, developing ideas, there is no end goal…

It’s bloody hard, you know? For anyone thinking of taking this up, it’s a big commitment, and you are never going to be satisfied. There’s always another spot, another piece, a different colour scheme, there’s always something. There are so many people in this scene, even since I got into graf, the scene is crazy big, and every country has a heap of cities and every city has suburbs. There are some amazing artists from all walks of life doing it, constantly pushing boundaries. I don’t think anyone could have imagined where graffiti would go…

It’s crazy, when you think about the roots in Philadelphia and New York, and now everywhere has its own scenes and micro-scenes; the hip hop tradition, punk, skateboarding, trash, anti-style, and then within all of those, you’ve got people doing different things, and with so many people…

It’s like all art, everything is influenced by your surroundings. We have the internet now, there’s obviously a lot of hate for it, in some ways it’s not as natural, but at the end of the day, it has just opened the doors of where you can take influence from, we’re no longer taking influence from our scene or street, we’re seeing every single suburb in the whole world…

The key thing is that if you are taking influence from somewhere, you need to know why something looks the way it does. If there is a cultural influence, there is a responsibility to understand that influence, and you also need to understand the relationship to space and place of where you are, and how it relates to what you want to do. There are a lot of things to acknowledge…

That’s exactly right, New Zealand has a great example of that; the tagging style ‘straights’, which is actually a very, very refined, rigid typography which takes a lot of discipline. It developed in the early nineties, from an old FDKNS member’s trip to Los Angeles I believe, and he came back with a lot of photographs and that developed this style and it’s since become a completely unique New Zealand style. Like you said, without understanding it, you could copy it and it would look like straights, but it’s not straights, it hasn’t got that discipline, and you need to understand why the letters look like that. Even now in Auckland, there is a West Auckland style of straights, an East Auckland style of straights, and you can’t just mix the two together, which I noticed in Wellington or Christchurch, where people just kind of copy the idea of straights, and there’s something missing from it or added to it. It makes it unique I guess, like Christchurch has its own form of straights, Wellington does too…

Straights, Auckland Rail Corridor, 2003 (Photo credit: ill_jill)
Straights, Auckland Rail Corridor, 2003 (Photo credit: ill_jill)

But they are not strictly the form that developed in Auckland, which brings its own specific influences…

Even just growing up in Auckland, if you showed me a set of straights, I’d be able to tell you what era it was done, because every year it is changing, or there was a particular style or letter that was pushed, and that was another thing, I guess, biting, copying was sort of expected with straights, if you were pushing it, you were expected to know what went before…

Perfecting it rather than pushing it because it is a specific visual language you are aiming to replicate. Shifting focus, tell me more about your field of study, because there is an interesting connection…

I’m doing a Batchelor of Criminal Justice, which is a Criminology degree essentially…

RCH container mural, March 2019
RCH container mural, March 2019 (Photo credit: Caelan Walsh)

Did your graffiti writing background influence your decision to go in that direction?

Yeah, not so much in the sense of actually writing graffiti, but the consequences of it. I’m not embarrassed to say I do have a criminal record, I’m very strong in my morals, if I think it is right, I’ll do it, even though it might be against the law. I think I’m pushing eight or nine times just on wilful damage charges. Just dealing with the court system, I’ve seen a lot of people who have been abused by the system, just because they have a lack of knowledge of how to deal with it. I’ve been lied to, I’ve been taken up the garden path, and told we won’t charge you, and then you admit to something and it’s like sweet, you’re under arrest. I don’t know about other countries, but in New Zealand they don’t teach your rights enough in school. I think every school should have some class about knowing your rights, because Police and anyone with authority can abuse their power…

I’ve always believed that any education programme should have some moral or ethical philosophy component. If we had more people who understood, not only their rights and how the justice system works, but who also have the ability to make up their mind about what is morally and ethically right, it would go a long way. So, when you finish, will you try and connect those worlds?

Obviously, I do have issues with a criminal record, which does impact where I can go for now, it will take time, but I will get where I want to go. I definitely want to end up doing some sort of social work. I’m already putting myself out there as someone willing to talk to people. I’ve gone to a lot of my friends’ court cases as support, because it’s a scary, intimidating thing going to court, even if it is just for drinking in public and its just a $200 fine, it’s still really intimidating. So, just having someone there, telling you it’s all good, that the worst that can happen is you might get home detention. They are thinking they might go to jail for two years, so it’s important to have someone who can say it is alright, don’t stress out and be confident with what you are doing. I’ve always found the worst punishment is not knowing, once you get charged, you got a couple of hundred hours of community service, O.K., I will knock that out, and move on. But that few months of: Am I going to get charged? Could I go to jail? Just getting stuck in the system is an incredibly scary thing…

Thanks man, it’s been really interesting, I look forward to seeing what comes next for you… Do you have any shout outs?

Yeah, shout out to Watch This Space obviously and Gap filler, also my boy Dove, the FOK and AOC crews and anyone in Christchurch that is doing their thing at the moment. And thanks to Cent for documenting the scene and helping out with some photos!

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And that was… January 2019

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

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

  1. Face Value @ Fiksate Gallery

Face Value Promotional Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jonny Waters – Dizney Dreamz

 

When I sat down with Dunedin-based artist Jonny Waters the morning before his new show Dizney Dreamz opened at The Anchorage, it was the first time we had met in person. Yet, even outside of the collection of social media messages and e-mails we had exchanged in both arranging an interview and as part of other exhibitions Jonny had been a part of, such as CAP’D at Fiksate in 2017, I had been encountering Jonny’s work for such a long time, I kind of felt like I knew him already.

From Christchurch to Wellington and more recently Dunedin, in addition to the digital realm, his stickers, fridge magnet installations, paste-ups and more recently graffiti and character paintings, as well as his studio works, have always been distinctive and memorable, showing an exploratory, inquisitive and playful nature (a fact exacerbated by the various monikers he has employed). This sprawling body of work is reflective of his own journeys, and, for me at least, has provided touchstones of different time periods (like a Christchurch chalkboard message from 2010 that was recontextualised, and protected, by hurricane fencing in the wake of the earthquakes, indeed it is still there today) and places (I still remember literally stumbling upon a small sticker in the fringe of the Wellington CDB a few years back and immediately making a connection between similar versions I had photographed back in Christchurch).

We caught up with Jonny on his return to Christchurch (where he lived and studied for several years) for his new show, which features a new batch of quirky cut-out characters, playful riffs on his love of nineties cartoons, their recognisable silhouettes framing transformations that rip apart nostalgic expectations. We spoke about these works and their relationship with his previous work, his experiences in different cities, and mixing his roles as both an educator and an urban artist.

Jonny, your show Dizney Dreamz opens tonight (January 25th) at The Anchorage…

Correct.

You are currently based in Dunedin, how did an exhibition in Christchurch come together?

It’s been in the pipeline for probably four or five months. I was looking for a space in Christchurch, where I wanted to have a show. I’ve had lots of shows in Dunedin, but I really wanted to push for a show in Christchurch because it’s close to home. I grew up in Ashburton and left when I finished high school to study here for three years, and those three years were super fun and I learnt a hell of a lot and made some amazing connections and friends. So, I wanted to come back here and have a show to, I think, spread my wings a little bit, but also to get back to my roots a little bit more, you know? To be back on the old Canterbury soil…

You are working with Kin Art for this show, how did you make that connection?

Yeah, I’m working with Justin from Kin Art. I’m pretty sure Justin hit me up on Instagram, and he said: ‘Hey, I’m actually in Dunedin in a couple of days, do you want to meet for a coffee?’ So, we met, had a yarn and then he came to the studio, and checked out the works. At that stage, Mickey and Minnie (two of the works in Dizney Dreamz) were half or three quarters done, and he really liked the look of those. I showed him the other cut-outs. Obviously, they were unpainted, but he was really keen to talk about having a show. Then a few months later I came up to The Anchorage, checked out the space and the size was perfect.

It is an interesting space. It is a café, but it offers a decent environment to show work, it’s not like those cafés where there is not really any suitable or even defined space for work…

It’s got a clean aesthetic. It’s functional for people to walk around without being in the way of anyone else. It works really nicely as an exhibition space and a café space. It has nice walls as well. I like that it’s got different sections, so you can show this work over here, that work over there on that wall, and kind of split things up a little bit…

I want to come back and talk about Dizney Dreamz in more detail, but I’m also interested to talk about your background. You mentioned that you grew up in Ashburton and came to Christchurch and studied at CPIT, or what now is ARA, but since then you have lived in a few different places, and I have to admit I have stumbled across your work, under various identities, in a number of cities. Has art, and in particular, urban art, always been a way for you to get to know a new environment?

I think so, definitely. A lot of people may not agree with this or may have a different opinion, but it is actually a lot easier to meet other writers or street artists and link up with them and become part of their community and their environment than it is to try and connect with people in the art world, generally speaking. I don’t know whether that’s the traditional elitism or that feeling of exclusivity, but I have definitely found that. A lot of people have this weird stereotype of: ‘Oh, big bad graf guys, isn’t it scary to reach out to them?’ But ninety-five percent of the graffiti and street art people that I have met have all been the most lovely and nice natured people, so that’s been a really good foundation to discuss art and graf and to find spots to paint. But a lot of the time, the people that I’ve met through graffiti in the different cities that I’ve lived in have been in touch with the art world as well, not the fine art, high art world, but the low brow, funky, weird, illustrative, urban contemporary thing… It all depends. The artists that create urban work in every city shape the feeling and vibe of the environment. A classic example is the BMD guys when they were going full gas in Wellington. They created an environment that felt more friendly, creative, playful and relaxed.

Just a Kid with a Vision, fridge magnet installation, Poplar Lane, Christchurch, 2010
Just a Kid with a Vision, fridge magnet installation, Poplar Lane, Christchurch, 2010

You are now based in Dunedin, you have lived here in Christchurch, briefly in Sydney, and in Wellington, does that ring true for all of those places? How does each city compare in terms of their own distinct vibes and scenes? Obviously, this can depend on timing and who you connect with, but how have you found different cities?

I think each city has a really different flavour, but I think that depends on who you hang around with as well; the people that influence your view about where you are going, whether you push it one way or go in another direction. Unfortunately, I haven’t painted here that many times. I’ve painted a few times with Gerald and Hurls, just my regular mates in the crew, but my graffiti and street art foundations are here through mostly stickers and random wall installations. There are also more guys in Christchurch who are just into bombing, which is awesome, I respect that one hundred percent, but I just can’t afford to live that type of graffiti lifestyle. It’s always been a more fun outlet for me, the legality of it comes secondary. But Dunedin is so chill. It’s like, we’ll go for a paint, we’ll buy a box of beers, it’s more about hanging out, it just so happens that we’re painting as well. In Dunedin we have also got so many spots that you can do that, it’s like a grey area. Yes, it’s illegal, but the cops aren’t going to arrest you, they are kind of safe spots in a way. I don’t think they mind because it keeps it somewhat ‘contained’. Wellington is similar as well. There are a lot of spots you can go paint and not worry about people stressing out. I’ve painted a lot up in the gun emplacement barracks up near Brooklyn, and people are always up there walking their dogs or having a few beers at a picnic, and they are cool, they are interested in what you are painting, they are not like: ‘What are you doing?’ I prefer a chill vibe and would rather not get paranoid about shit.

Does that also allow you to be a bit more adventurous in what you do?

What I enjoy doing is mixing it up and being deliberately quirky. If every tag I have done is slightly different in some way I think there’s something funny about that and creates a style in itself. Same thing with pieces. I literally paint how I’m feeling on that given day. I might have painted something I have actually sketched out beforehand maybe 2 or 3 times max? It’s fun to say: “Well what could I have a crack at today to mix it up”. Sometimes it looks good, sometimes it looks shit! (Laughs)

Did your experience within educational institutions impact your feeling of a city as well? Because you also studied in Wellington, right?

I did, I was at Teacher’s College in Wellington at Victoria University.

And here in Christchurch you were studying visual arts?

I did a Design degree. At ARA you’ve got three streams, and I think it is still the case: Multimedia, Visual Communications and Visual Arts. I did Visual Communications, so basically a Graphic Design degree…

Was that environment important for you, not so much from an educational perspective, but a social one? Did you find yourself surrounded by a certain crowd, or in a certain creative community, that changed the way you think about art?

Changed the way I thought, or fostered it?

Either. Was it there that you started to think about the streets as a site in which to work, or was that already happening?

It was interesting, because I grew up in Ashburton, where you are not surrounded by any urban art whatsoever. The only time I ever got to see any urban art was on the internet or when I came up to Christchurch as a kid, and that cemented quite a strong idea of what I thought about Christchurch’s identity. I loved it, and I’d try to talk to my dad about it, and he’d be like: ‘That’s just bullshit!’ So, I was like, ‘Oh, cool, so it’s bad as well! It’s rebellious!’ Aside from that, it had a real impact on me and that’s why I started doing stuff outside of my normal artwork under different names. But the guys who I went to ARA with, they had a bit of an influence as well. We all started going out doing stickers and stuff like that, but we each had our own interests. In the classroom or studio, we all developed our own niche and our own approach. I guess we figured out the ways we each operated best and what mediums we preferred and that sort of thing, and that was completely supported by our tutors. I specialised in things like 3D studies, design things but pushing them into an art world. I also liked illustration, and I really enjoyed life drawing. I was putting an artistic twist on graphic design, whereas other guys were getting way more into typography, web design and stuff like that. I was always swaying towards art…

Did that reflect a desire to be using your hand, rather than technology?

I hated the computer. I got sick of it. I just wanted to draw all the time, so I was like, I will just scan it in and chip away at these works, I’ll literally just use Live Paint, Illustrator, whatever, and be like: ‘Cool, that looks awesome!’ I did this final year project, Monster Mash, a big alphabet poster, all the letters were really weird and quirky and humorous, a little bit distasteful, not P.C. It was purely illustration, the only graphic design that was involved was how they were laid out and the type face chosen for different titles and stuff. That is sort of where I headed in the end, and I wouldn’t change anything about that. Honestly, some graphic design I find tedious. I don’t like computers so much… Did I mention I don’t like computers so much?

That ‘Do-It-Yourself’ quality has long been a part of urban art culture; did you make that connection?

Definitely, I think it has always been pretty obvious. The crossover, the look of the different characters that I draw, is really obvious. I didn’t think so back then, but it is. I mean there is always going to be a crossover, and some artists do it really well, they have a really natural crossover in their aesthetic for the urban stuff they do and the art practice work, but for me I think it is unavoidable. (Laughs)

It is also interesting that you started with more of a post-graffiti, character-heavy style, and then moved into letterforms later…

Yeah everything at the start was character-based.

Alphabet (detail), digital print, 2017
Alphabet, digital print, 2017

Often your lettering has embraced characters not just as accompaniments, but as part of the letterforms themselves…

I’ve always loved that, creating, making characters out of type. That Monster Mash poster, that sort of thing. It’s almost like problem solving: how am I going to create this letter that is still a letter but is also really funky and cool, weird and quirky, you know?

That is at the heart of graffiti, right? How do I take a letter and recreate it where legibility is no longer the primary goal?

I guess I’m not necessarily taking the traditional approach, but yeah. I’ve had a lot of traditional dudes, who follow that path, say to me: ‘That’s really cool, you’ve got your own twist on it.’ Then, I’ve got other people who would be like: ‘What the fuck are you up to? You’re like dissing the culture of graffiti!’ I think these days there so many people doing amazing weird shit that you have to be open to change.

Mural on the 'LegenDairy', Dunedin, 2016
Mural on the ‘LegenDairy’, Dunedin, 2016

But people have been pushing letterforms so far for a while now, so you aren’t alone. There are the likes Augustine Kofie and Remi Rough, who have taken their work towards the abstract, but it’s developed from letters…

Exactly, it’s the same with what Askew is doing, a lot of his abstract patterns all developed from letters…

As a teacher, how do you balance celebrating the rebelliousness that was a vital recognition when you first discovered urban art with the responsibility of teaching?

The two worlds? That façade? You’ve got to be a careful with what you say, how you frame things…

I’d love to be able to say to every kid, this is important because it is illegal, or it developed from illegal roots…

Because the artist did illegal stuff for ten years, that’s why this is important! (Laughs)

So, how do you approach that with students, or in the workshops you run?

When I was at Kings High School (in Dunedin), for three years I ran a street art camp. All year ten students had to choose a camp each year, there was no art camp, nothing cultured, it was all sporting or academic, science camp and stuff like that. So, I was like, stuff that, I’m going to create an art camp! Every year we came up here to Christchurch, we did a graffiti workshop with Ikarus, and then we always had a look around at the street art. That was when all the big walls were still up, you had Lister, Owen Dippie, all these amazing walls to check out. We would do a trip out to New Brighton as well. The boys really loved that trip, it was great. It was letting them in and showing them who you are, but only so much, you know? It wasn’t like I was taking them out and showing them how to do a tag, it was framed in a street art context. It just so happened that I chose graffiti to be framed within that…

But that’s the challenge now, right? Urban art is so complex now. There are so many approaches…

It’s such a melting pot…

But those rebellious roots need to be acknowledged…

Sure, especially with the way the street art movement is sort of being defined as ‘more important’ now…

It’s easy to take kids to see amazing big murals, and the artists are amazing, but it’s important for kids to not think that that is what street art is exclusively…

Exactly, and that is what I tried to ensure, actually doing a graffiti workshop and learning about letterforms, about painting a piece, not a character, not a ‘street art’ painting, they were actually learning about a graffiti piece. Shout out to Ikarus for all those workshops as well, because he was amazing with all the kids. Even in the classroom, the kids know that you are in that world, that you are part of that world, but they don’t know much more than that. I was always really careful about any specifics, and generally I was pretty quiet. I wouldn’t say like: ‘Oh, I painted this sick piece in the weekend, you should go and check it out’, you know? I was very much, this is me as an artist, this is the work I do as an artist, and I sort of left that stuff out of the spotlight when it came to anything professional or school related…

I guess the most important thing to do would be to let them make their own decision around the socio-political motivations for making art that isn’t permissioned. If a young person is able to decide that they believe in something enough to do it in a certain way, that’s empowering for them.

Exactly, and the thing is, if a student was getting into graffiti, I would never deter that. I would actually support it, and probably, if I trusted them enough, and they trusted me, I would give them some advice, a heads up, and you know look out for them a little bit. But there is a very, very, fine line. You’ve got to stay professional.

Just because of urban art’s longevity, we are now seeing more and more people in ‘upstanding’ positions who have grown up writing graffiti, or making street art, and not just as artists, but in other realms as well.

There are lots of people moving within these different worlds, like Berst is in education as well.

And it isn’t just that direct crossover, but there are more people who recognise graffiti and street art’s validity and importance as visual cultures.

As forms of expression…

Coming back to Dizney Dreamz, we’ve touched on that illustrative and character-based approach, which is very evident in these works; these sort of grotesque, surreal, re-imagined cut-out Disney characters. A lot of the influences and ideas we have been talking about come out in these works, there is a trace of your work over time in these works…

I think so, but in a cohesive way. Obviously, it helps that they are all Disney characters, but they have all got a similar aesthetic in the way they function as pieces as well. There are different linkages, the pieces flow with each other, I think that there are certainly a lot of those influences coming together, but it’s also about how they interact with each other in this specific show. There’s a little bit more thinking involved. When I’m doing all the sketches for these pieces, figuring out how I want to design them, there’s always so many different options or varieties with how things can go. There will always be one piece where I’m not happy with that, or that’s not right…

Goofy, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018
Goofy, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018

That relationship between each other is even more important when the added context and information of the street is removed as well. There is more emphasis on how they work as distinct objects of display.

Exactly.

Rather than each character being framed within a block or a canvas, they have an autonomy or sense of independence through the cut-out shape, and that allows that flow through each one to another with those whips and angles and lines. The eye is led around each piece and on to the others as well…

They are just really interesting to view. That space they create, negative or positive, is really interesting. I’ve always wanted to choose characters like Mickey and all his mates, because they are really interesting silhouettes. They are so recognisable, so I’m able to communicate almost instantly. Most people are aware of Mickey and these Disney characters, so you’ve got that initial connection sorted, and from there you can go further and get closer and get a feel for what the work is about…

Yet, because the silhouettes are so recognisable, you are then surprised and intrigued because that recognition is blown apart by the detail…

Exactly, it might annoy some people because it ruins their image of Mickey Mouse, or whatever character, but the whole idea is about nostalgia. The early nineties or mid-nineties, for me, was super cartoon-based, it’s got a real strong place in our subconscious and I think that’s what nostalgia does, it’s like a collection of dreams, and hence Dizney Dreamz. I think the work in this show is trying to change the way we feel about our own nostalgia. So, if anyone sees a silhouette of Mickey Mouse, they know straight away its Mickey Mouse. Then, whether you like it or not, you get a feeling like: ‘Oh when did I last see Mickey Mouse?’ It’s all tracing back, but it’s recreating an experience when you see these works, it’s like reinterpreting nostalgia. I’ve had this fascination for a little while and it started with a show at Kiki Beware in Dunedin, it was really off the cuff, and I wanted to do some paintings on cut-outs. I don’t even know why I thought of it, but these silhouettes were so cool. That show was smaller, there was Bugs Bunny, a smaller version of Mickey, Sonic the Hedgehog, Speedy Cerviche from Samurai Pizza Cats, Chucky from Rugrats. They were awesome, and a lot of the feedback I got was that these were something new, that people had never seen shit like that before. So, I was kind of inspired after that, I guess. Then I eventually got to planning my first solo gallery show, Tooney Lunes, taking Looney Tunes characters, fifteen of them, and turning them into warped, fucked up characters. It sold really well, it had big numbers going through, and I was feeling pretty positive and good about it. Then this show follows on, and the whole crux of the idea about it is trying to manipulate your feelings of nostalgia towards characters or things that you may be attached to…

Art Bimpson/Bart Simpson, from Neo Nostalgia, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2016
Art Bimpson/Bart Simpson, from Neo Nostalgia, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2016

That sense of the grotesque, which has been a feature of your work for a long time, aids that approach…

Yeah, I never thought of them as grotesque, more playful. But now that you mention it…

Yeah, there are limbs coming out of unexpected places, that then disappear into each other, there are wrinkles and bumps…

They are all smiling and everything, but it’s like, are you happy though? Are you really happy? (Laughs)

Are you attracted to that imagery because of the fun you can have in creating it? It allows you to do almost anything you want, because you aren’t seeking perfection or beauty…

I think again, it’s like a problem-solving thing, like I said with the letters; you’ve got this silhouette, you’ve got the frame work, what are you going to do to make it look interesting? It doesn’t necessarily have to look pleasing to the eye. It’s good if it does, but it doesn’t have it at all. In regard to inspiration, I’m really inspired by Kaws, I’m really into his work, and I think there’s probably some similarities in taking familiar characters and changing them, morphing them and layering them. Another huge inspiration is Rob McLeod from Wellington. He works with cut-outs as well, my work would probably be more Pop, with brighter colours, whereas his works have gotten more subdued and darker. Some of his stuff has got pretty grotesque and quite dark, so he’s a huge influence. But my favourite artists are Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Francis Bacon, even if it isn’t as obvious in these works…

Sketches from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on paper, 2018
Sketches from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on paper, 2018

With someone like Basquiat, there is an urgency in the mark making, but there is also an often a violence that comes through, an unease…

Even when you’ve got those happy colours, this doesn’t feel right, you know? (Laughs) That’s how I feel when I look at Francis Bacon’s work as well, you’re a little bit unsettled…

Which is what you are trying to do through the lens of nostalgia, right? Speaking of Kaws, considering you are working with cut-out shapes, longer term, have you thought of expanding into three-dimensional sculptural pieces?

Wow, I don’t know. I’d certainly be open to the idea of things like that, but I just love painting. I love painting in two-dimensions. These works are still two-dimensional surfaces obviously, and I don’t think I will ever lose that attachment to painting, but I’m not really into the traditional canvas thing, at the moment anyway. I might go back to it, but I want to keep exploring other ways of creating paintings that are two-dimensional, but different in some way.

I suppose it comes back to the fact that you were more interested in drawing and painting even when you were studying graphic design. These cut-out works have that certainty, that sharp line work, but there is always a sense they are created by hand…

There is no mechanical quality.

Donald Duck, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018
Donald Duck, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018

Yeah, there is no mechanical production, which can become hard to replicate in that sculptural process. When you start dealing with fabrication and manufacture, that process impacts that freedom.

Exactly. But I don’t know, I probably need like a month to reflect and think about where things might go. I want to have a few more shows this year, wherever it might be, whether it is in Dunedin, or in Sydney, when I go over there for a cousin’s wedding, I might try and tee something up there. I feel like maybe the cut-outs may have done their dash, but with these ones, the whole idea was to be bigger in scale and because of that I could play around in media. There’s spray paint in there, there’s a thicker use of paint, there is a little bit more of an abstract quality to the layering. I think that’s almost pushing it as far as this sort of aesthetic can go, because the previous ones were really flat and clean, and in some ways, it looked really nice. But I really like the layering and detail that has come with these works. I don’t know how much further I could push that…

Are you more likely to develop those ideas in the studio, or on walls? How much influence do those different approaches feed into each other?

I think they are always cross-contaminating. It’s what you are confident with; I wouldn’t use spray paint in these works if I didn’t feel comfortable with that medium, because it’s high risk. You don’t want to fuck up a work when you want to have a decent show. So, it’s a confidence thing. It’s what you are safe with, which sounds bad, because people say art should take risks, but I think there is already that risk-taking in other elements. When I’d finish cutting in and doing the different layers of these works, I thought about doing some splatters and stuff like that, like a big line through it. I thought about seeing how it goes. I did a few tests of that idea a few times, and it looked cool, but it actually detracted from the design too much. It took too much away, it drew the focus away too much to the action of doing that, so I was like, nah I’ll keep it subtle…

Wile E. Coyote, from Dizney Dreamz, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2018
Wile E. Coyote, from Tooney Lunes exhibition, Dunedin, mixed media on plywood cut-out, 2017        

Are you still trying to create a character that has a sense of being able to function as a working body? The silhouette gives that suggestion, and while the details subvert any expectations, you still read them as functioning, albeit mis-formed, creatures…

Yeah, I still want them to function as a whole.

Any shout outs?

Shout outs to The Anchorage for hosting obviously, big thanks to Justin and Kin Art, thanks to Watch This Space for the interview. Big ups to Christchurch in general, I’m loving being back here and having a show!

 

Dizney Dreamz is at The Anchorage until February 23, 2019…

Follow Jonny on social media:

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Berst: The Faith of Graffiti (Part Two)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

Are you talking about stylistic lineage?

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

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

A five-year cycle?

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

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

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

Like the German influence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

In terms of appropriation?

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

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

Yeah? (Laughs)

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

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

A perception from the community?

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

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

The Broken Windows theory…

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

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

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

No, of course not, of course not…

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

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

It loses something…

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

But teaching the motivation is a different thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That must be a hectic schedule!

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

Yeah, ideas push evolution and development…

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

Berst, Christchurch, 2018
Berst, Christchurch, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cultural capital…

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

Berst, Tauranga, 2017
Berst, Tauranga, 2017

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

That’s what I’m talking about…

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

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

There’s got to be that distinction…

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

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

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

Cheers man…

 

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

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Berst – The Faith of Graffiti (Part One)

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

Exactly, they were learning in different ways…

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

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

Totally, a huge impact.

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

Yeah, I’ve seen videos…

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2017

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

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

Spreading the gospel!

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

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

Definitely, it’s a resource.

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

That question!

You know, it is such an outdated question…

Such a binary option…

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

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

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

Signature-based graffiti…

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

Over fifty years…

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

And has had that longevity?

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

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

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

What is that essence?

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

Berst, Auckland, 2018
Berst, Auckland, 2018

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

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

 

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

Check out Berst on social media:

Instagram: berst_1

YouTube channel: Bobby Hung

 

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

Dcypher – Homecoming (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, they are huge for sure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would totally agree with that.

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

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

Dcypher and Ikarus, Hereford Street, Christchurch, 2017

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

Ahh, yeah, you are probably right there…

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

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

New Brighton, Christchurch, 2018

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

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

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

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

For sure…

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

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

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

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

What specific cities have you enjoyed painting in the most?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of sight, out of mind…

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

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

Yeah, cheers man…

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

Facebook: @dcypherart

Instagram: @dcypher_dtrcbs

Web: https://www.dcypherart.com/

 

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

Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps

Street Wise Presents: Everybody Eats – Everybody Helps

Hosted by Exchange Christchurch – XCHC

Saturday, August 4, 3pm – 9pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dcypher – Homecoming (Part One)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For sure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you leave for Los Angeles?

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

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

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

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

At least…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, for sure…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah…

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

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

To be continued Homecoming (Part Two)

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

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

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

Web: https://www.dcypherart.com/

 

 

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

Kophie Hulsbosch – Future Proof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christchurch, 2017
Christchurch, 2017

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

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

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

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

Queenstown, 2018
Queenstown, 2018

How did you become a member of the RAD Collective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explain the idea of green-washing a little bit…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve got some mural work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money is evil! (Laughs)

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

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

Featured image credit: Handmade Photography

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