Cracked Ink – The Character (Part Two)

We pick up with the second part of our interview with Cracked Ink immediately where we left off, discussing the artist’s entrance into the festival scene and how it necessitated a different approach to his work. For Cracked Ink, his character-based creations have unlimited narrative potential, dancing their way across walls, their interactions place them as story tellers. Jump back into our conversation with Cracked Ink as he reflects on the importance of knowing your worth, the role of social media, and the balancing act of an artistic career…

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As you started doing events and festivals like Sea Walls, did it make you think more about the process of creating murals? A lot of artists coming up now, they are almost immediately thinking of large-scale muralism, but that hasn’t always been the case, that transition for writers and for character-based artists or artists who were working in that post-graffiti style, muralism wasn’t necessarily the end goal…

It certainly became more narrative driven, which was actually really good for me, it made me look at my own work. The Sea Walls stuff, it’s all about ocean conservation, which allowed me to start to drill into different narratives. Is it just a visual that people want to see, or a story? It really made me look at my stuff and ask how can I push it in different directions and use different narratives? It was a kick in the ass for me a little bit, it got me thinking again. I started off with good intentions of trying to do something with content, but sometimes you drift off into this little abyss and you forget what it was all about. So that really helped me to re-centre and rethink my own game and what I was doing. From my perspective, these days new people are coming into it from different worlds, which is totally cool and amazing, there are talented artists coming into this world of muralism and stuff, but they didn’t necessarily get the opportunity to grow up the way I got into it, which is going out and painting. I don’t think it is right, I don’t think it’s wrong…

It’s just different.

I think it’s just the way life is. The trajectory of these things, the whole thing has changed.

Cracked Ink's design for the Home mural festival event in 2020, delivered by Pangea Seed, Sea Walls, the Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls
Cracked Ink’s design for the Home mural festival event in 2020, delivered by Pangea Seed, Sea Walls, the Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls

It will be interesting to look back and see the direction of muralism under these new influences. Askew made a similar point recently about how the motivations for graffiti are completely different now that young people have more platforms to express themselves. It used to be that you felt invisible and graffiti was a way to be seen, now you can post selfies 400 times a day on Instagram. That doesn’t mean graffiti becomes futile or pointless, it just means that the motivations have changed.

It’s interesting the whole dynamic with social media. As it has picked up speed over the past five years, it has changed so much. When I first signed up for all this social media stuff it was exciting, because it was about getting your work out there. But it quickly became a bit of a drain, just that whole thing of checking my phone and going through it all. I mean it is an amazing tool to share your work and for people to follow it and catch up on what you’re doing, but that need for likes and follows can make it tough to navigate…

I sometimes think it has the potential to take people away from the primary act of making and doing. You get the feeling for some people, understanding and manipulating algorithms of social media becomes the drive, rather than celebrating the work, it feels less organic. That original power of allowing people to put things in the world, empowering people, it feels like it is now overshadowed by the commercial potential of it all…

I feel sorry for the guys and girls growing up on these platforms. I feel like the purpose of why you do your art, it should always be for yourself. It should never be for someone else, the purpose of being creative and doing art is for you. It’s that outlet of yourself. When you start trying to please other people, it changes. You should be doing it for yourself, and from that people are going to like it, people are going to dislike it, but that shouldn’t change what you do. That’s a big thing that I have stuck to, I always do it for my own reasons. If other people like it, then happy days. If they don’t, that’s not my problem. I’ve always had that attitude. Once you put it onto that platform, whether people are hating it or people are loving it, you have no control over that, it shouldn’t be a focus. Creativity has never been about that.

Once you start fishing for things it becomes problematic because you start listening to an audience rather than building an audience. That’s another issue with the likes of Instagram, we are exposed to styles and trends and we start thinking about how to jump on them. In the past, it was more localised, the engagement was more real and immediate, it didn’t seem so curated. But it also meant that you were influenced by what worked in your surrounding environment. Speaking of local environments, you established the Whanganui Walls event in your hometown a few years ago, what was the inspiration to start your own festival?

Being part of the scene for 20 years and being part of so many festivals, I found it had a really interesting dynamic. When I first started, the chance of painting a big wall was kind of the ultimate goal, and with festivals you would get to paint what you want, generally. Over the years, seeing and being a part of these events, the major thing that I noticed was the amount of stuff that a city was getting and the artists were willing to go and do it for free. It is tricky because when we initially started painting, we’d go and paint stuff in the street, because that’s your zone, that’s your place, you want to be there. But there is a difference between painting a festival and painting in the street. The festival is a curated thing. Ultimately, the festival gets funding to pay for the paint, to pay for the machines, to house the artists, feed the artists, all that kind of stuff. After doing so many different festivals, it really interested me that the festivals never thought of actually compensating the artist. Some of these festival walls are absolute bangers, and the time and the effort the artist takes out of their schedule to come and paint these walls, for me, it seems unfair to the artist. Even though the artist wants to paint that wall, don’t get me wrong, they also have to pay their bills…

Cracked Ink's work for Street Prints Otautahi in Christchurch, 2017
Cracked Ink’s work for Street Prints Otautahi in Christchurch, 2017

It’s not the super-strict commissioning relationship that you might get in another project, but it is still being used and leveraged as cultural capital…

Yeah, you see cities claiming: This is what we did! Well, I’m pretty sure there were other people that were part of it as well!

There are real benefits in having something painted on your wall. A lot of cities use murals for their tourism profile. So, why shouldn’t artists be compensated for doing that work? What other industry would you see that?

It’s such an old view, but it still exists and it’s a strange one. It’s one that I’ve been fighting for so long. I have painted a lot of festivals for nothing. That is the big misconception of going and painting a big wall, I end up going there for a week of my own time, I get materials, I get my accommodation and I get food, the basic things in life that you probably should get, you know? So, what more do you want? Well, that’s kind of old school from my perspective. Starting a festival with my partner Shanti, we wanted to bring something interesting and different to Whanganui because the city has never seen anything of this nature. It’s a small place. Compared to Christchurch, it’s just chalk and cheese. So, it was about bringing something different. But for me as an artist, it was mainly trying to create a festival that could substantiate paying the artist something. The artists get part of Whanganui Walls. We want to make it worthwhile for the artists to come to Whanganui, to take that time out of their schedule, to share their creativity with us. Like we said before, the benefits to a place are just so big. So, I feel like we have definitely helped to breakdown some barriers, and there are other guys doing it as well, like Deow down south with South Sea Spray. It’s important to go into bat for the cause, because there is a lot of old school thinking and often it comes from funding process. But ultimately as a festival organiser, its on you.

It is a big undertaking to fund a festival…

These events require substantial investment. We get support from Harrison Hire Master, who really come to the table for us, and Resene, who are the kind of company that have the backing to go OK, we’re going to give you X, Y and Z for free, which is great, but we’re not asking for stuff for free, we are saying, if you are going to give us a discount, then that’s how much money we need to obtain through funding. The whole principle of Whanganui Walls was always for everyone right through the system to get something for their efforts, whether you are part of the operations crew or you’re volunteering, you’re getting something. That was always the principle of the festival. Because these people are putting so much effort into it, and not just the artists, why are you doing it for free? The time it takes to put on one of these festivals is massive.

It’s not something that you fit in on a lunch break or after work. For an artist, its traveling for a week, working the whole time. You may be getting your accommodation and food paid for, but everything else still goes on back at home as well, so they need to compensate for that. It is also important to remember the years spent refining their work to get to this stage…  

I’ve always been a big advocate of knowing my own worth as an artist. Sometimes, you have to walk away from things to make things right. I get it. Any artist, no matter how well you’re doing, there are always points in your career where you have your highs and you have your lows, but you have to be careful about how you devalue yourself. It is tough if you just continually bounce up and down. If you want to get some stability in your career as an artist, in my opinion, you have to stick to your guns.

We have so many super talented artists in Aotearoa, is there a real need for more mentorship to build up younger artists’ sense of self value? In New Zealand, we have a tendency to think ourselves down, is this festival a way for you to serve as a sort of a mentor figure?

It’s good to spend time with artists and ask where they are at, because there is always that tendency of not wanting to talk about this whole aspect of being an artist. Let’s take pricing a mural. There is always this tendency to just shut down about it, whether that’s because people are not confident of putting a value on what they do, so that they can survive. I’m super open with the way I do stuff. So, if an artist wants to have a conversation with me about what I do in terms of pricing or whatever it is, then I’m super open to it. I feel like without those conversations, we both don’t learn about it. One size doesn’t fit all, and if you’re at the start of your career in the art world, and in particular in muralism, there’s always things that you feel like you can’t account for, or you can’t price into a job. But even if you’re relatively new to it and you are competent and have the skills and stuff, well, why are you devaluing yourself? You’re going to produce something just as good as the next artist who may be charging double that price. I remember when I started first getting some bigger jobs, it’s nerve-wracking man, it’s nerve-wracking pricing a job because you feel like by asking for this much money and you don’t get it, then you’ve lost that job completely. But even now, if I get some decent jobs there are always tools within that process that you can use to give options to clients which ultimately will not scare them off.

Cracked Ink mural for Garage Project in Wellington, 2020
Cracked Ink mural for Garage Project in Wellington, 2020

Other industries take a really hard-nosed approach to pricing, charging travel costs, time, materials… But for a lot of artists, there is the feeling that you can’t charge for things like petrol costs, or you need to take this out so that clients are more likely to agree. As much as we don’t want to emulate aspects of the commercial world, it is actually beneficial to adopt some parts…

What are your expectations if you were being commissioned to paint a wall? When you go to do that job are you wanting to pay your own travel costs? Are you wanting to pay for the machinery or for your accommodation while you are doing that job? You’re not trying to dupe anyone by doing this, but you have to try and align yourself with the expectations of a client. If they’re not paying for it, you are, so it’s really just trying to get that happy medium. From my experience doing quite a lot of large-scale commission work, you just have to be fully honest, be honest with yourself and be honest with the client, and then the conversation starts. They can always say, actually, we can’t do that, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get…

As you noted, you need to set the bar for yourself…  

This has come up quite a lot recently. Being realistic about how you put your pricing in means you might not always get the dream. It’s about trying to be fair to yourself and to the client. You want to get the job, but you have to be really fair to everyone, and managing your own expectations is the hardest bit. There’s always self-doubt, there’s always that feeling that I would love this job, or I need this job, so that’s when we tend to low-ball ourselves, and before you know it, the client snaps your hand off. So, just go for it.

Out of Touch, for Sea Walls in St Croix,2020 (from http://crackedink.com/)
Out of Touch, for Sea Walls in St Croix,2020 (from http://crackedink.com/)

As an artist, you’re not beholden to only one way of working, you can always balance out projects to satisfy both your practical and creative needs…

It’s a malleable situation. Depending on how you want to operate, nothing is right, nothing is wrong. The main thing is if it is right for you. I have a certain style that I paint and I’m super strong on that in terms of commission work. But if you have a multitude of styles within your work and you can adapt to different commissions and you’re happy to do so, then it’s right for you. It’s just finding within yourself what is right for you, and if someone else feels that it’s wrong, that’s irrelevant. If it’s right to you, you do it. If it’s not right to you, don’t do it. You’ve got to find those boundaries. I feel like I’ve found my boundaries. I’m super black and white in terms of my artwork and in terms of the way I process things. If it’s not what I do, I don’t do it. it’s simple as that. But that doesn’t mean that’s right for someone else. It’s about finding the levels that you’re happy with and that might also ultimately mean that I don’t get as much work, but if I’m good with that, and I can get enough work to balance the books and enable myself to continue being creative constantly, that’s the goal.

That’s the key. As an artist, you have to know yourself, right?

If you can get used to the highs and the lows and make it a part of your life as opposed to making a lot of stress for yourself, which is a hard dynamic to get used to, even now it still throws you, then you can ride it. But the one thing I would say is you cannot just hold in on that and just continue because as a creative, you’re doing it because this creativity has to come out somewhere. Things evolve. Things go backwards. It’s a back-and-forth situation, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s an awesome lifestyle. Opportunities come, opportunities go, and when you really take time to think about what you’re up to and where you’ve been and where you’re going you get to see what you’ve built, and you see that you’re ready to keep on building. As a creative, if you are not questioning and challenging perspectives, you shouldn’t be doing it, and if you are, it will open up a lot of possibilities.

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Cracked Ink – The Character (Part One)

Cracked Ink’s work has always stood out as fiercely fresh and unique, with an undeniably playful vibe. His instantly recognizable black and white codex of monster characters have been deployed, in various shapes and sizes, across walls around the world, unfolding narratives inviting myriad interpretations. For the artist, this combination of a personal style and voice, developed over years, with an open-ended potential in how the audience receives the work, is a perfect balance between the need for his work to reflect his own impulses and the audience’s own agency. Moving to Aotearoa with his Kiwi partner from the North of England over a decade ago, Cracked Ink now calls Whanganui home. While he started painting in the UK, here in New Zealand the artist has turned it into his career, painting at international street art festivals, producing notable commissions across the country and establishing Whanganui Walls, applying lessons from the festival scene to a hometown mural event. Always willing to yarn and share his experiences, this conversation sprawled across topics and effortlessly passed the hour mark (hence the two part breakdown), covering his early days in Blackburn, England, his initiation into painting in the streets, moving to New Zealand, making connections, the need to be true and setting up a festival…

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Earlier this year you did some work with Westfield Riccarton Mall here in Christchurch, what is it like working with larger commercial entities?

It is always interesting working with a brand or working with a business. Generally, they have come to an artist because they like the work, so it’s always interesting navigating that dynamic between keeping everything you want, and knowing they are commissioning you to do the piece. You want them to be happy, but you also don’t necessarily want to cross any lines in terms of giving anything up…

Cracked Ink's Westfield Riccarton Mall mural in Christchurch, 2021
Cracked Ink’s Westfield Riccarton Mall mural in Christchurch, 2021

I imagine there’s also times where you are just waiting for the ‘but’…

Totally.

Often there are just so many stakeholders, right? It’s dealing with one person, but before you know it, someone else’s voice is part of that conversation…

You get it from the beginning, generally. If you get a surprise on a job, you just have to deal with it when you get to it. But I try and figure that stuff out straight away, I just put my cards on the table and tell them straight up, and if they don’t like it, then I just politely walk away from it. I don’t get all upset, I just explain that I’ve been doing it for years and cannot twist in that direction, but I always try and help them solve the problem by putting them in the direction of another artist who might be a good fit.

Did it take time to get comfortable with walking away? There must have been times when you just weren’t able to do so, or have you always had that as a kind of philosophical base?  

I set that out pretty much from the beginning. There are a couple of jobs that I shouldn’t have done, but I can count them on one hand, so I have stuck to it. It’s easier for me to stick to that anyway because my work is so quirky. It’s not as if I’m painting realism where a client would say: “Well, we want something really specific…” They know what they’re getting and it’s really easy to twist a narrative into my works while keeping my style. But it means that I don’t get as much work as someone who paints more realistic stuff, because when you paint realism and all different kinds of subject matter, it’s way easier to relate to in some form or another, whereas my work is definitely more specific. But I like that, I don’t want everyone to get it.

It’s an interesting trajectory, from the heyday of the early Millennium, when people working in the streets had that very iconographic, stylised approach, to the rise of realism, which is entwined with large-scale muralism. It was a case of technical development, but also the reality of serving a commission…

It is interesting and it is something that I think about a lot. There are so many different angles, but ultimately, I feel like it is going along with human nature and the laziness of society. For example, you paint a portrait of a famous person, that image is so relatable, and so accessible, that it’s never going to be a failure…

Another Westfield mural, this time in Newmarket, Auckland, 2019 (from http://crackedink.com/)

But where do you go from there? How do you ensure it develops as a distinct voice?

For me, the creative process is starting a sketch with an idea, coming up with a story, then having these different, weird, interesting, non-functional, kind-of-human-but-not, characters bring it to life. That’s what it has always been about for me, actually being creative, trying to make something that’s completely new, that has a style and also has a story from the beginning of where I started. It’s like a family growth…

Even the poses and the actions of those characters have come directly from you, they’re not drawing from another source. In that regard, when did your characters crystallize? Did they come out of another form of expression, or was it a conscious thing to sit down and develop a character?

I was in the second year of my degree for graphic design and this guy, Dean, came onto my course. He was heavily involved with graffiti and we just connected straight away. I feel like until then it really wasn’t my path to get into doing street art if not for meeting him. I would have been 18, so it was quite a while ago, but I feel like my pathway into doing that stuff was purely because at that moment in time I met this person. It’s interesting how a time, a place, a moment can change your life.

We are a similar age, so were you aware of the street art scene emerging in the UK around the turn of the Millennium?

Definitely. I was studying graphic design, I was always doing something creative, often on Photoshop or layout programs like QuarkXPress. Skating was a massive thing when I was at college as well. Skate culture really interested me, even though I wasn’t massively into skating myself. I had a lot of mates who were into it and that whole movement and style from skating got me interested in what was happening in that scene, particularly when I met Dean. At the time a lot of artists were blowing up, The London Police were massive, they blew up around ’96 through to ‘99, straight away it drew me in…

A Cracked Ink character in Christchurch, 2016
A Cracked Ink character in Christchurch, 2016

They had that really graphic quality that must have been attractive to someone studying graphic design…

It drew me straight in. At the same time there were so many different artists that were doing it, the thing I loved about it from that character perspective is that you could interact with any type of medium and apply it to a wall. Other artists were important too, Swoon was massive at the time. I was living in Manchester and Swoon had been in town and you could see her amazing pieces, that intricate detail. I loved both of those styles. It was always a case of how I am going to do something for me that incorporates a super graphic style with these other influences…

You were looking to find a balance that resonated with your own interest?

Subliminally, for sure. Whatever form of art you do, whether it is muralism, street art, illustration, sculpture, you always have your peers, you always have someone that influences you in some way or another, whether that’s directly or just something that sits in the back of your head. I always wanted to head towards a kind of sketchy style because when I was at University, I did quite a broad spectrum of study that included printmaking and photography before I specialized in graphic design. So, I did all the printmaking stuff and I loved it, but when I was doing it, it was more just trying to implement the techniques without really knowing how to twist them into what I really wanted to do. So, when I got into doing all this character work, which was super graphic, super bold, I got a little bit, I wouldn’t say bored, but there were a lot of people starting to jump on that direction, so it was like, how can I keep that essence, but drive it in the direction I wanted it to go? I felt like I didn’t have the confidence to make that switch because once you jump into a style, you kind of get stuck and it becomes scary to jump again…

In those early stages, were you making things in the studio exclusively? How long was it before you started getting up in the streets?

It was actually pretty quick. Dean arrived at the beginning of my second year and when we started hanging out, we were basically a couple of stoners. He had a place over in Preston which was close to where we were studying in Blackburn, we would just hang out and have our little sketchbooks. It quickly became something pretty obsessive actually, just constantly sketching.  We would go back to his place, get blazed and just start sketching. At that stage he was painting quite a lot, so he would be like, come out with us for a jam. I remember the first time I went out. It was under a train bridge near Preston and it was freezing. It was 3:00 AM in the morning, it was pitch black, we had pre-rolled some joints and we just went out freestyling. As soon as I gave it a go, I was hooked on that rush of just going out and painting.  From there it evolved into: how can I take what I do and change it into different things? Paste-ups were massive, I would draw intricate stuff and could literally just turn up and do it…

A character at That Good Will Social Club in Winnipeg, Canada, 2017 (from http://crackedink.com/)
A character at That Good Will Social Club in Winnipeg, Canada, 2017 (from http://crackedink.com/)

How early did you become aware of how to approach a physical space? Was it part of what you were learning in graphic design as well? A graphic designer has a functional element, right? Designing objects for packaging, things like that. Did you pretty quickly understand that the streets provided an important context?

It is something that comes with time. I think everyone has something in them, an aesthetic that they can produce or do and apply to certain principles, but actually just getting out there and having a go is how you become aware of certain things and how things should sit, so I think you kind of learn those things on the go. I don’t think you can ever plan for that kind of thing, it’s something that builds, and then as you get deeper into it, you start thinking differently. You start thinking, what can I do with this? I definitely couldn’t plan for it anyway, but my expectations were small at the time, I just wanted to go out and be in that moment of painting. The more you paint, and the more you go out and interact with the outside world and the surroundings, things kind of evolve, things happen to you, and you become immersed in that world.

There is a long tradition of characters in graffiti, were you thinking of your characters as accompaniments to graffiti or were they always intended to stand alone?  

I think initially that was the thought because I came into it with a graffiti writer, and it works well having the piece and the character. That was definitely the thing for a little bit, that was what was happening. But I wasn’t really tied to that whole situation. I was fresh into it, so it quickly became about how can my characters exist in this world by themselves? I was motivated to get out and try different things. But it’s been a bit of a mixture for me, it started off as a graffiti thing, but it quickly became more, I guess…

Paste ups in Wellington, 2021 (from http://crackedink.com/)
Paste ups in Wellington, 2021 (from http://crackedink.com/)

Studying graphic design, I assume you were thinking of that field as a career, when did you start to think what you were doing in the streets could be something more?  

It wasn’t for ages, really. It was never a part of my thought process when I got into doing stuff in the streets that this was going to be something that I do as a gig. It was just about going out and painting and enjoying that and it was heavily about being with your mates.

Were you making a full-time living from art or graphic design in the U.K. before coming to Aotearoa?

Definitely not in the UK. I was still working a job and all my art was on the side. I was doing exhibitions and stuff in Manchester, and I was trying to earn some money out of some gallery work, but it was never in my thoughts that this was going to be my full-time job. I came to New Zealand in 2006 with my girlfriend who is a Kiwi, we weren’t actually coming to stay. We came with a six-month work Visa but my partner decided she wanted to go back to study. I was pretty chill, I loved the life here, it’s a whole different world over here compared to growing up in the North of England. You’ve got time here, you can breathe over here, there’s more space, less people. It allowed my mind to slow down a little bit and focus on the direction I wanted to go. So, I jumped into it. I just went for it. In the back of my mind I wanted to make something with art my full-time gig, but the reality at that stage was that I was still working on building sides and all sorts of different things to pay my bills.

Cracked Ink's mural for Pangea Seed's Stay at Home Festival for the Planet in 2020, a collaborative project between Pangea Seed, SeaWalls, Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls where over 800 artists painted works at home during the global Covid pandemic (from http://crackedink.com/)
Cracked Ink’s mural for Pangea Seed’s Stay at Home Festival for the Planet in 2020, a collaborative project between Pangea Seed, SeaWalls, Alternative Arts Initiative and Whanganui Walls where over 800 artists painted works at home during the global Covid pandemic (from http://crackedink.com/)

How did you go about building connections here in New Zealand with other artists? Did you consciously reach out to people, or was it a case of diving into the work and letting it occur naturally?  

That happened just from diving into it, getting out and painting. I did an exhibition in 2007 at this space in Auckland. It was my first little show, and it was in this semi-immersive kind of exhibition space, a community centre type of space in Devonport. It was very low key, but Cinzah lived around that way, and was connected with them through some projects, and he left a message in the sign-in book, saying: “Where the fuck did this come from? Here’s my email, get in contact and let’s go for a paint…” I became really good mates with Cinzah and it just evolved from that. Flickr was massive at that time as well; everyone was posting stuff. That was how I met Drypnz. We became mates on Flickr. He asked if I would be keen to do an exhibition in Wellington. Eight or nine months later, still not having had a real-life conversation with him, I rented a car, loaded it up, and I drove down to Wellington with all this gear. I got to Wellington and met Drypnz on Cuba Street for the first time. The opening for that show was a big occasion in terms of meeting a lot of creatives, especially around Wellington at that time, PNTR, Editor, Ghostie. I met Kell Sunshine, although she wasn’t painting at the time, the BMD boys…

That’s an impressive list! I was in Wellington just a couple weeks ago and the footprints of so many of those names are still strong, not to mention their work further afield as well…

It was crazy man. It was such a good time to be around. Meeting all these guys that were in the scene and were already cranking on what they were doing, it just made me want to crank it up more. It just kind of all grew from there really, having that inspiration of those guys and girls to just get in on it and get painting, it really pushed me to where I wanted to be.

Kaikohe Hotel with Cinzah and Wert159, 2013 (from http://crackedink.com/)
Kaikohe Hotel with Cinzah and Wert159, 2013 (from http://crackedink.com/)

Fast forward a few years and in part through some of those connections you find yourself painting in different countries, that must still be pretty amazing. Do you still think about how you travelled all this way to be here in Aotearoa and now you are travelling the world for festivals like Pangea Seed’s Sea Walls

Oh man, I don’t know if you call them manic episodes, but you know when things like that happen, it takes you back a little bit. When I got involved with the Sea Walls crew, it was initially to be an artist as a part of the Napier event, and that was a bit of a leg up for me. Cinzah was running that festival, so he got his mates involved. He mentioned he was talking to these guys from Pangea Seed. He had already been to Mexico for a project, and now he was thinking of bringing Sea Walls to New Zealand. He contacted me and asked if I wanted to be in the line-up, and I was like, sure, and things just went from there. I never expect to be part of the Sea Walls crew, that’s for sure, so to end up travelling to different festivals was crazy.

Continued in Part Two

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Benjamin Work – Motutapu II at the Canterbury Museum

When the Canterbury Museum’s hugely popular Rise exhibition finished in early 2014, the walls of the main exhibition hall were covered with long black curtains, the murals from the show obscured with only teasing snippets still visible for more inquisitive visitors. With Hakē: Street Art Revealed; the Museum has drawn back the curtains, allowing the public the chance to revisit the Rise legacy, while also encountering a new floor-to-wall mural by Tāmaki Makaurau artist Benjamin Work.

A member of the celebrated TMD crew, Aotearoa’s most notable graffiti collective, Work brings urban art credibility, but his involvement also ensures a wider discourse that extends beyond the focus of Rise. Work’s evolution exemplifies the new trajectories of artists reared on graffiti and urban art, while also explicitly exploring the complexities of both cultural institutions and the Pasifika diaspora. Drawing on his Tongan heritage, Work has pushed his art in new directions over the last decade. Inspired by the iconography found on cultural treasures such as ‘akau tau (war clubs), his refined, graphic paintings have sought to find new spaces and ways for audiences to engage with Tonga’s visual culture, both inside institutions and on the streets.

Over the span of a week, Work created Motutapu II, a massive mural that sprawls across the floor and walls of the main exhibition hall. Inspired by the Canterbury Museum’s collection of ‘akau tau, the painting extends outward from two orange diamond shaped mata, or matapā (eyes of the pā), a vertiginous pattern of interlocking black and white lines leading the viewer toward more sacred symbols framing the work. Work explains Motutapu II as a metaphorical representation of ancient gateways marking arrivals and departures of voyaging vaka. ‘Motutapu’ is a name used across Polynesian cultures for sacred or sanctuary islands, neutral spaces for visitors before arrival at the mainland.

In the museum mural, the black and white lines create pathways, leading the viewer to each end of the hall; a hovering māhina (moon) glows in mottled orange to the east, while to the west, a soaring Tavake (Tropicbird) accompanies three figures symbolising Tonga’s chiefly lineage. Inviting viewers into the painted space, while maintaining a reverence for sacred imagery, navigating the complicated task of maintaining traditions and engaging a contemporary audience. After observing the creation of Motutapu II, I had the opportunity to sit down with Benjamin Work to discuss his experiences in Ōtautahi Christchurch, the future directions of his practice, and the experience of working at the Canterbury Museum…

It’s been a busy month for you! It started with the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, then you arrived here in Ōtautahi to paint a mural for the Etu Pasifika Health Centre with (fellow TMD Crew member) Charles Williams before starting work on your floor-to-wall mural at the Canterbury Museum. Is such a busy lifestyle still enjoyable or do you miss your own bed?

We were talking about this the other night, I have friends whose practice often works at this pace, but I think this has been one of the busiest periods I’ve experienced, including the work prior to my month away. I’ve noticed it’s easy to move from project to project and not take time to be present, to really be in the moment, so that’s something I’m focusing on. And once I’m home, I will have time to process what’s happened.

Work's piece for the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at Lower Hutt's Dowse Art Gallery. The unfurling piece is dark blue and depicts a moon glowing at the top of the section on the wall, there are figures on the section rolled along the floor.
Work’s piece for the TMD: An Aotearoa Graffiti Story at Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Gallery.

It must have helped to have had friends and family alongside you for these projects…

Definitely! I can’t function without friends and family. I am a relational person. Most of my life has been experienced in a collective environment, whether it was TMD crew, church settings or amongst my Tongan family. I’m at a point in my life where I have a greater understanding of the way I am, and that’s to help others navigate their way as I find my way.

I assume that is also an influence from your graffiti background, a culture that has a strong sense of collectivism and collaboration, which brings me to the Museum project. The opportunity came from the Museum revealing the wall works from the 2013-14 Rise street art exhibition. The idea was to add a floor mural to extend the narratives around that exhibition. Your work has moved beyond description as graffiti art or street art, both stylistically and contextually, highlighting the evolution of artists who may have roots in those origins. How do you respond to people designating you as a graffiti or street artist?   

They are different practices which I want to navigate how and when I want. This is hard for many people to understand inside of their boxes. I don’t want to be referred to as graffiti artist, street artist or a Tongan artist, simply an artist who is telling stories both old and new.

The floor space inside the Canterbury Museum as the artist prepares to install Motutapu II.
The floor space inside the Canterbury Museum as the artist prepares to install Motutapu II.

You mention that you have become more comfortable in the studio, but the idea of bringing Tongan iconography to public spaces and giving them a new visibility was a central aspect of your work, how has that intention changed?

It has been an important part of my process but there has been a shift of late due to migrating back to Aotearoa, Covid, time alone and making new work. I have seen a shift in style, painting techniques and even using loose canvas. There was a period where I engaged with a lot of institutions, between 2015 and 2019, and it was important for me to engage with our Tongan treasures and bring them out into the public space. But I’m not sure if that’s going be a focal point going forward. What I’d like to do is use those connections and my platform to connect other Tongans that are searching for those answers with those institutions. Many communities don’t realise that they have access to all the museums that hold our treasures.

Working within cultural institutions you must have to consider the colonial history of such spaces. Do you see yourself as challenging that history from the inside, or are you more concerned with opening doors for people who have not had a relationship with these institutions previously and as such have not been exposed to the treasures they contain?   

I hope that the way I move and the way I am, and the work that I make does challenge those places. Naturally I’m a bridge-builder, so for me, engaging with an institution such as the Canterbury Museum, one goal is to reconnect our people with our treasures, but if there are challenges that arise, I have to face them. I don’t go looking for confrontation, but if I come face to face with it, I have to say something because I’ve got the privilege of being in that space and if not me, then who?

Work adds some final touches to the massive mural.
Work adds some final touches to the massive mural.

Looking back to some of your previous work, like the mural you painted here in Christchurch for From the Ground Up in 2013, there was an explicit narrative unfolding in a relatively conventional pictorial format, but your work now feels much more evocative and suggestive without that overt storytelling, a quality that is evident in the Museum piece.

Graffiti was quite literal, it’s a letter-based art form and I painted my chosen name over and over again. This is me! Know me! Read me! I’m famous! Transitioning away from a graffiti aesthetic in 2011, I realised I didn’t have to be so blatant which led me to engage with the more abstract iconography found on our traditional ngatu (bark cloth). The inspiration for that particular mural came from reading Olaf Ruhen’s book called Minerva Reef, a true story of Tongan boxers on their way to Aotearoa for a tournament who were shipwrecked on the Minerva Reef for four months. I used iconography to communicate this story on the wall. It was a little strange at the time painting it in Christchurch but that shifted when I found out descendants of some of the survivors lived in Christchurch and visited the wall.

Work's mural for From the Ground Up in 2013. The image in red, black, grey and white, features figures escaping from a ship wreck with a bird flying above them.
Work’s mural for From the Ground Up in 2013.

Did that evolution come about as your exploration of Tongan artefacts such as ‘akau tau (war clubs) and tapa cloth deepened? What were your experiences with those types of objects growing up?

Ngatu bark cloth, fala (floor mats) and ta’ovala, the mats we wear around our waists, are filled with mostly abstract motifs which are embedded with ancient knowledge, we engage with them from birth. We have an intimate knowledge of them, of their texture, and even their smell. We had ngatu bark cloth and mats folded under our bed, most Tongans do, that’s where you store them, where else do you store these humongous things? Ngatu bark cloth was my first point of reference when experimenting with other mediums, but the war clubs were love at first sight. I was first introduced to them in a book called The Art of Tonga by Keith St. Cartmail, I was instantly intrigued by the iconography carved into them. I wanted to work them into my practice, especially the warrior figures.

I was lucky enough to join you when you were examining some of the ‘akau tau in the Museum’s collection, and I was struck by the small scale of the carved designs on the clubs, possibly because I was familiar with your work’s larger scale, which has been an intentional shift to make them more visible…

I wanted to use my platform to tell the world about our Tongan iconography. I wanted the scale to be impactful and for our people to be proud once they had learned that these are our designs, that they come from our ancestors for us. What better way was there than public murals? I feel I’ve started something that other Tongans will continue with bigger and better murals.

The finished Motutapu II, surrounded by the revealed Rise paintings in the Museums main exhibition hall.
The finished Motutapu II, surrounded by the revealed Rise paintings in the Museums main exhibition hall.

You said that living in Tonga you noticed young Tongan men seem to physically engage with their surroundings, constantly touching or hitting surfaces. That kinesthetic or tactile tendency becomes important in the context of your work as you have to think about how people engage with artefacts and art within institutions. I know you had to grapple with the idea of people potentially walking over the floor mural and that influenced the design, especially the elements drawn from more revered sources. That question of how to treat objects of culture and how we engage with them must be a central concern for you, especially as you shift between sacred cultural objects, utilitarian objects, public spaces and white cube galleries…

My process evolves slowly, I’m OK with it, as long as I’m still exploring different ways to communicate through my work, the speed of change doesn’t matter. Living in Tonga has challenged me to think differently when it comes to materials and the way I present my work. I’ve seen my people touching and desiring to hold my work rather than simply viewing it in a gallery, and I’m now OK with that, but if you asked me five years ago, I would have had a heart attack!

The floor-to-wall mural has become a striking element inside the Museum, while also adding a range of fascinating discourses.
The floor-to-wall mural has become a striking element inside the Museum, while also adding a range of fascinating discourses.

What was the process for the Museum piece, from exploring the collection of Tongan artefacts to producing this massive floor to wall mural? What are you looking for as inspiration in those objects and how do you then translate it to a massive mural work?

An important part of this project was me coming down to Christchurch viewing the space. I was emailed the specs for the floor and walls, but if I’m able to see the physical space, I’m able to respond to the space better. Likewise, with the ‘akau tau, I’ve seen many throughout my years of research but I’m always looking for unique motifs within each museum’s collection. I had a similar experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with Dr Maia Nuku (Associate Curator of Oceanic Art at the famous museum). She took us into the collection of Tongan treasures, which is small, but there was a club there with this small motif of two warriors reaching out towards each other, their hands above their heads. That motif then triggered the idea for a mural which she organised in Spanish Harlem. In the Canterbury Museum’s collection is a beautiful abstraction of a Tropicbird which I included in the mural.

By coincidence, the mural you painted with Charles featured a tropicbird as well…

It was meant to be. There was no prior communication on that. Even though it was a Pasifika Health Centre, it would go against Charles’ kaupapa of painting foreign birds in Aotearoa. The Tropicbird is known as an Amokura in Māori and Tavake in Tongan and is a sacred and significant bird that can still be sighted from time to time in Aotearoa. It is said some elders would cry as it was a tohu or sign reminding them of Hawaiki.

The collaboration between Work and TMD crew mate Charles Williams on the Etu Pasifika Health Centre, 2021. The mural features diamonds of blues oranges and yellow, with a realistic tropicbird fllying upwards from the left. On the right, a massive stylised Tongan Chief figure .stands rigidly
The collaboration between Work and TMD crew mate Charles Williams on the Etu Pasifika Health Centre, 2021.

You have admitted your connection to Christchurch is rather limited, but some of your Scottish heritage does trace back here. Being born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and also living in Tonga, what have you made of your experience in Ōtautahi?

I’ve enjoyed Ōtautahi, but I definitely love Tāmaki! No, I visit a place and try to feel the environment, watch and engage with people of that place. Both Māori and Pakeha have been shaped by the landscape, seascape, mountains, and rivers. My great-great-grandparents migrated from the Shetland Islands to Christchurch and are buried in Linwood Cemetery – something I’m learning more about recently. I’ve engaged with the land and people down here, wondering if there are any attributes of that generation in the people I’ve met. I have questions: Why did they choose Ōtautahi Christchurch? Did they walk these same streets? Did they learn the story of this land?

Have you had the chance to engage with members of the Pasifika community here in Ōtautahi during this project?

Associate Curator Hatesa Seumanutafa went above and beyond her job description in supporting this project. Having a person from Moana Oceania with our treasures in the Museum is vital! Not only for our material culture but as a lighthouse for our people to connect with within the institution. Ōtautahi has a unique Pasifika story, one that is sometimes dominated by the Pasifika stories from Auckland and Wellington. I was able to connect with some of the amazing community here and make space for us around a kava session in the Canterbury Museum indigenising space to talanoa and tend to relationships – the first of many.

Hakē: Street Art Revealed is on display until June 7, 2021 at The Canterbury Museum.

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