Nick Lowry – The faster you go, the bigger the mess… (Part One)

When I arranged to sit down with Nick Lowry (at times known as Tepid), I wasn’t sure where the conversation might lead. This wasn’t a reflection of Nick’s temperament, he is a chill guy who is instantly likeable, instead, it was based on the reality that his work is spread in so many directions that there were almost infinite possibilities. When we started to chat, it became pretty obvious that we would sprawl across various topics, shifting back and forth, an apt reflection of Nick’s process as a maker and doer. As a graffiti artist, muralist, painter, collagist, set designer, art director, sticker maker and more, it was fascinating to see how he distinguished these practices, but also had a defined understanding of his creative impulses in a singular sense. It was quickly apparent that Nick’s compulsion to make things is driven by a deep urge, one that doesn’t necessarily require explanation or understanding, but instead is a very human condition that invokes all the contradictions of our nature. By the time we came up for air, an hour had flown by and we had discussed a raft of ideas around graffiti, surfing, music, scenic art, exploring cities, and overthinking things. It is no surprise then that this has become a two-part interview, and here in part one, we start with the diversity of his work, his introduction to graffiti and his thoughts on his hometown of Christchurch…  

From graffiti, stickers and mural works, to set design and film art direction, diversity is kind of a hallmark of your work. What was the earliest creative impulse for you? Was graffiti a gateway into other creative practices, or was it more of a vehicle that harnessed your existing creative impulses?

I think it was more of a vehicle. It was probably intrigue that sparked it off. When I was twelve years old, I had a babysitter, he was probably sixteen, and he wouldn’t feed me until I smoked a joint and watched him paint freights in Belfast, which is pretty funny. So, for me it was almost this hatred of graffiti because I wasn’t getting fed unless I helped this guy out, you know? I hated it until I was about sixteen when I became mates with some guys who were painting, Fader, Astro, Raws, Venom, all those dudes. They were all mates from university. I was watching what they were doing, and I was like, this is actually a really intelligent form of art! Up until then I had always been drawing. I’d been drawing forever. I was really into, strangely enough at a young age, interior design. All through high school I was always building dioramas. So, at an early age I was exploring set design, scenic art and that sort of thing. One of my first jobs was a scenic artist in the Riccarton Players Club, at the Mill Theatre in Addington. Before that was destroyed. So, I think there is a real cross-over for me between graffiti and scenic art, in that there is a really blurry line. When I paint graffiti, I don’t paint for the ‘getting up’, I paint purely for the way colours work and for the names that I’ve chosen over the years. It’s simply a vehicle for style, like it is for a lot of graffiti writers, I guess. Like I said before, I’m just creating these little worlds and the diversity of my art just comes down to how I feel on any particular day. Some weeks I put a lot more effort into collaging or into graffiti, or into set design or muralism, or realism, or just hustling for work. I’ve never been fully immersed in anything. I don’t want to be typecast. I don’t want to be known for anything. I just do it for myself, and everything I do is simply an outlet.

There must be a consistent thread through it all though, something that unifies everything in some way, can you see the way they all interrelate?

Oh definitely…

Not only aesthetically or stylistically, but in the practice and process of each, is that something you think about?

Yeah, I guess I don’t really think that deeply into it. It’s almost like with a creative act, the more I think about it, the less I want to do it. For me being creative is a way of not thinking at all, and that’s why I probably don’t produce as much as I should. But I don’t want to have to think about producing a lot of things, because for me, that just creates pressure and I don’t like that! (Laughs)

TEPID roller tag, central Christchurch, c.2012
Tepid roller tag, central Christchurch, c.2013

That freedom is important?

The freedom of it is really important. It is what it is, and if one week I make fifty collages and for the next three weeks I don’t do anything, it’s because I’ve transferred my energy into something else. I like to surf a lot, and that is one of my most creative outlets. If I’m not making art, I like to do that. I also like to run a lot, and that is strangely another creative outlet because a lot of thought processes go on during that time. I think having physical outlets is really important.

There is a physicality in wall painting and in set design as well, so there is inherently a connection between physical activity and the act of creation in those instances. Conversely, in the case of running there is a sense of freedom, physical but also by extension mental, while surfing offers a physical creative performance…       

It’s a release of a certain type of energy. We get a taste and I think we always want to feel that energy again. I like having a diverse range of things that get me to feel differently. I don’t really think about achieving a consistent style, but sometimes, if I look around this room, if I blur my eyes a little bit, I can kind of see something. I don’t really know how to describe it. I don’t really think about what I do to the point where I can do that.

You talked about leaving things and letting them evolve subconsciously, before coming back to it when it has worked itself through…

Yeah, I just sort of nurture it in my mind and come back to it.

Do you see your work in a progressive sense? Can you look back over time and see a lineage, or are there various trajectories between different points because of that willingness to leave things? For instance, is muralism a progression from graffiti?

I think my muralism is quite immature and unrefined. it’s one of those things that is more of a hobby. Muralism is probably the hardest thing for me, because I am quite critical of what I do, and I prefer to do things for myself. With a mural, you have so much pressure to create something that’s for the viewer and I generally don’t care about the viewer! (Laughs) But at the same time I would like to produce more, and over time it is getting better and I am trying to refine the style. But I don’t visit muralism as much. Maybe I will in the future, but at the moment it isn’t a massive priority. Whereas I think set design is helping me to evolve that further because I have to work within a limited space, and I think that kind of helps set me up mentally.

Mural for Underground Coffee, Durham Street, Christchurch, 2019
Mural for Underground Coffee, Durham Street, Christchurch, 2019

You mean when you are designing a set you are working within a defined space and creating a defined world? Which to me, kind of echoes graffiti and muralism in that you are trying to create something within the space around you…

It’s too much. With muralism, there is almost too much you can do. You aren’t restricted by physics. I like being bound and restrained; you know? If I was given three colours or something and told to only use those colours, perhaps I could manage it. But I think with muralism, it is too easy to overthink it. With set design and art direction, you are given a space and an actor or dialogue, and you are confined to that, and that’s how I like to work.

Did you train in set design at all?

No, I studied graphic design, video post-production and editing.

How deeply do you think about the conceptual approach to set design? Are you constantly thinking practically, in a real-world sense, or do you explore an abstract concept beyond the visual and how an environment might be multi-layered?

Definitely, and I think that’s the beauty of it, you are creating a world through which someone is going to speak their dialogue and it doesn’t have to be literal. In fact, they want it to be as non-literal as possible, so the actor then has a space from which to bounce off, I guess.

You’ve got to achieve that balance between the nuances of each approach…

You also have to think about lighting and shadow, and the way those elements work, so there are a lot of things to consider.

This all leads me to back track a little bit. You mentioned that you didn’t come at graffiti through the traditional ways of Subway Art and Style Wars, or even hip-hop culture necessarily…

No, it was the direct influence of my peers, this supposed babysitter! (Laughs) Just being there when it was being done. My direct influences were my friends, watching things getting destroyed, skating and things like that…

TEPID piece, Christchurch, 2019
Tepid piece, Christchurch, 2019

Does that mean you had more or less of a recognition of the importance of graffiti as a sub-cultural and even historical phenomenon?

I soon learnt. Once I formed that obsession with tagging and throw ups and all the rest, I quickly picked up every book I could, watched every film I could, researched every writer throughout history and then formed obsessions with certain writers and created heroes and stuff like that. So, I soon schooled myself and became obsessed with graffiti and street art.

Were you conscious of the idea of graffiti as a political act and the themes of identity and contestation? Or was that aspect always secondary to the draw of being creative? Although creativity through destruction is political in a way…

I think the importance of graffiti and my understanding of it was about being in a moment in time and the way you deliver it, the aggression behind it and being with other writers. Not to sound like graffiti is a macho thing, but you are with the crew and you are outdoing each other. I liked the idea that there was this aggressive, ‘fuck you’ element to it. The punk influences behind graffiti for me were the main thing when I was younger…

You mentioned the punk influence earlier, which is often overshadowed by hip hop, but punk is a significant influence on graffiti and street art culture…

For me, Christchurch metal was a big influence, which I guess is like the punk ethos. I was a young metal head, but I had a broad spectrum of friends, a lot were really goth, but a lot were also really G, so there was a cross over. But we were all hanging out together. There were skaters and goths and G’s at parties, everyone was hanging out together. I didn’t want to box myself into any one circle. For me, graffiti was a thing that didn’t exist in any boxes, because my social circles didn’t fit into those boxes…

Handmade TEPID sticker, central Christchurch, 2018
Handmade Tepid sticker, central Christchurch, 2018

Christchurch is a small city, so it is more likely that those scenes will intermingle, right? Speaking of Christchurch, what impact has the city itself had on you as an artist? How big an impact do you think the quakes have had on the city’s creative communities?

Well, I spent a lot of my twenties away from Christchurch, in Perth, in Margaret River and in Broome in Western Australia, exploring the desert. I also spent a lot of time in Indonesia and exploring the Philippines. So, when the February 2011 earthquake hit, I was here for two months, and I was like, I don’t have to be here. I had travelled enough to know there was more out there and I could access that with a $400 plane ticket, so I was out…

So, those experiences travelling, have they influenced the way you think about the post-quake city? Has painting pre-quake given you a certain take on the city now?

I enjoy Christchurch’s dark underbelly and industrial vibes. I think it has this very rigid, grey stone element that I quite like, but that a lot of people despise. The city is kind of a juxtaposition of these lovely blue skies and then this grey, sterile, and weathered architecture, which I don’t know, is just kind of a strange mix. And then we are surrounded by natural beauty, if you are willing to go find it. I think it is the most schizophrenic environment to be in, you know? (Laughs) We have this white and seemingly uncultured city, but then we have these explosions of music, like you were saying before, the amount of music that comes out of Christchurch is phenomenal, explosions of art and artists and everything else. There is something in the water in Christchurch, for sure, for a population of 400,000. Maybe it is that energy of where we are geographically?

Since coming back to Christchurch in 2015, have you found new directions have opened up for you as a creative?

It has opened so many doors. I think Christchurch has changed, it’s not as gritty and grimy as it used to be. But for a creative, someone who is on their own, trying to hustle for work, it’s amazing. You can create so many opportunities for yourself, whatever you can envision in your mind, you can achieve, it just depends on how far you are willing to push yourself.

TEPID and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019
Tepid and Hambone colab, central Christchurch, 2019

Does that surprise you, based on your experiences when you were younger?

I think those avenues probably existed then, but the situation didn’t allow us to have that train of thought. Whereas now when you come back and you are left with limited things to do, you really have to, in order to dig yourself out of a hole, you really have to dig, but you don’t have to dig too far to get what you want out of it. There are so many possibilities. There is not a lot that exists in Christchurch, so if you have an idea and you want to get it, you will get it.

It is almost a perfect storm because of the opportunities presented by the recovery, but also, I think, in our contemporary digital world, you can access and experience so many ideas that people are exploring all over the place and translate them to this environment if you want. The inspiration coupled with the opportunity is perhaps unlike any other time…

Definitely.

Although, I guess that can create a sense of homogeneity.

It can be a little bit homogenised sometimes.

I’m interested to talk about some of the more recent work you have been making, and particularly the features of fluorescent colours and wavering lines…

It’s kind of more painterly…

"Teeth" mural, Arcadia, central Christchurch, 2019
“Teeth” mural, Arcadia, central Christchurch, 2019

What is the inspiration for that?

Um I guess, physicality. If I’m making something, I don’t want it to look perfect, I don’t want it to look like it is clean cut or fresh. I was obsessed with painting like that in the past, but I found that as soon as I tried to paint more fluidly, I enjoyed it more. I think it’s more human to paint as rushed and as aggressively as possible. It’s like that classic car crash advertisement: ‘The faster you go the bigger the mess.’ The bigger the mess is awesome! So, much to the bane of all my mates who I paint with, I fucking rush my paintings. I always rush my graffiti, and it’s not because I want to get in and get out, it’s because I feel like I want to spew it out, I want to vomit my shit on the wall, you know? I don’t want to think about too much, because I think you can overthink things and you can overcook it. It’s not like graffiti is ‘get in, get out’, because I’m not doing anything illegal at the moment, sadly. I wish I could, but I’m just an old man! But when I do paint a piece on a wall, I just literally want to smash it…

Is it a need to replicate the energy you get when you do paint illegally? By painting with that speed, there’s an energy that echoes being somewhere you aren’t supposed to be, doing something you aren’t supposed to do, and the work will reflect that…

Definitely. I painted illegal graffiti when I was younger and I got caught enough to be like, fuck! But graffiti is graffiti and if you are not rushing it, why are you painting it? That’s the whole expression, to smash it out. It is a violent art form. As chill as you are, I think the point of graffiti for me is to make it look like it’s going to smash you in the face. I like things that look violent and have that emotional response, like you are going to get fucking sliced or whatever. But then I like to create these really funky colour schemes as well, with really soft gradients, which is my connection to nature, so maybe one day I want to die on the hills violently! I don’t know, maybe I want to get eaten by a shark? Maybe I try to create pieces that look like a violent beautiful death, or something…

Stay tuned for Part Two…

Follow Nick on Instagram or visit his website www.nicklowry.co.nz

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Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson – Travelling Man

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

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

Yeah, about six days, possibly even less now…

You found out you were going about six months ago…

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

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

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

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

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

 

Smash Palace, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

So, is your t-shirt available yet?

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

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

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

Boxed Quarter, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rauora Park, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers, man, thanks for your time…

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

Want to learn more about Wongi?

Check out his website and follow him on Facebook.

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