Long Trip of the Kokos – Robert Seikon and Anastasia Papaleonida

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

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

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

AP: Amazing.

What are your perceptions of New Zealand so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: We enjoy talking about color.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The finished Cosmic mural, February 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP: Almost a year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Seikon and Papaleonida online…

@seikon87

@anastasia_papaleonida

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

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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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