Dr Suits goes to Taupo

Our pal Dr Suits recently ventured to the beautiful Taupo for Aotearoa’s longest running urban art festival Graffiato, an event now over a decade old. With the dust settled on a whirlwind trip, we thought it would be good to catch up with the artist to hear about the experience and his production on the town’s BNZ building. With a diverse catalogue of public works, it is surprising that this was Dr Suits’ first time as a featured artist at a festival, with his abstract compositions providing a stylish point of difference from other mural styles. Joined by his good buddy and technical painting whizz Porta, Dr Suits created a striking, colourful piece that explored subtle developments of his style, with tonal variations and new iconography drawn from his studio practice, providing that point of difference from other guest artists, which included the likes of Milarky and Xoë Hall as well as a selection of local artists…

How did the opportunity to paint at Graffiato come about?

The invitation came as a bit of a surprise, really. I was walking along the beach at the time, and my phone pinged, it was Olivia Laita from Aotearoa Urban Arts Trust, asking if I was interested in doing Graffiato this year. She was curating the event and thought that my focus on abstraction would be a point of difference to what they already had, so she just wanted to reach out to see if I was keen. This would have been well before lockdown at the start of the year, so Olivia and I have been in contact via email since then…

Image via Graffiato Taupo Street Art

How much did you know about Graffiato?

I knew a wee bit about it. I knew that Wongi has been, that Handbrake and Chimp have been, so I knew a few artists that have been part of it, but I hadn’t really done much research into it. I didn’t realise how many murals they actually have up in Taupo, so I was blown away when I actually got up there…

This is the eleventh year of Graffiato, it is the country’s longest running street art festival. I am not super familiar with Taupo, but it’s not massive, so when you have been doing something that long, the legacy must build up…

Definitely. It’s run by an organization called Town Centre Taupo, so all of the murals are focused around the central business district which is not a huge area, so if you find one of them, you’ve found a vein and you just follow them around…

That is exactly how I like to get to know new places, I find some street art and let it lead me to more…  In terms of your festival experience, you had some involvement with the Rise and Spectrum shows here, but this is your first out-of-town event, and also your first time as a headline artist. Knowing that your work is somewhat non-traditional in terms of muralism, coupled with your strong studio output, have festivals and public works always been a goal?

I really like the idea of diversity within my work and having a broad range of outputs. Murals are lots of fun and a good way to reach a diverse audience as well. So, is it a goal? Yeah, sure. Is it my main goal? Not really, I’ve got lots of goals. I don’t tend to hang on to one too strongly…

Dr Suits’ red zone roadside mural

There is an increasing number of events in Aotearoa now, with Boon Street Festival, Whanganui Walls, South Sea Spray…

I’m totally open to those invitations, festivals are lots of fun. You meet lots of great people, you get to be part of a broader community and you get your work out there as well…

You are process-focussed as an artist. How is the conception and execution of a mural work different from your studio output?

It comes down to the wall. For instance, the nature of the wall in Taupo was challenging because it was broken into two sections and it was elevated from the ground. Above the wall was a series of windows, including to round port-holes, and down the right-hand side there was a pipe. It was a challenge, but I just designed around them. I mean, I could imagine someone who’s going to paint a realistic style might find that really distracting, but because I work in composition, I could use it to my advantage and make it part of the design. I just had to take into consideration where I could use my big brush [the artist’s handmade tool for creating textural patterns] and the directions I could drag it, and which areas I would want to do block colours, like over the pipe to make it disappear. I realized I needed to not do much with the big brush or go too technical at the top, where I would have to mask out the windows. I didn’t want to waste my time masking those windows out.

Dr Suits at work in Taupo (Image via Graffiato Taupo Street Art)

People may not realise that there is real time pressure for these types of events. You were saying you pulled a 14-hour day on the Saturday…

Yeah, we flew up on the Friday, and painted the Saturday and Sunday, we had the option to paint on Monday as well if we needed it, and then we flew home on the Tuesday. The weather was looking pretty patchy for the weekend. So, I decided to modify and simplify the mural ever so slightly, just to make sure that the rain wasn’t going to be a hindrance…

And you had some help?

The coolest thing about the invite was that they asked if I wanted to bring someone with me. Straight away I was like, I’m taking Porta! He’s a machine and we work so well together. We just look at the picture, we hardly even need to talk. We are in sync. By bringing Porta, we got through so much more work than if I was trying to explain things to a local artist.

There is a level of trust, as well I suppose, and that synchronicity is vital. Also, Porta’s so relaxed that it just helps eliminate the potential for stress…

We’ve got really similar taste in music, so that helps as well…

I can imagine! So, tell us more about the actual work, you touched on some of the elements. The work seems to combine elements of previous outdoor works you have created, but it also brings in aspects that have been prominently featured in your studio work as well, so it seems like a slightly new direction in some ways…

That was the idea. It was an open brief and I wanted to do something that was really striking, I wanted it to be recognizable within both my studio work and from of my past murals or ground works. I wanted to smoosh everything together and come up with something that the town likes, and if they don’t, well I like it….

Dr Suits and Porta add some detail (Image via Graffiato Taupo Street Art)

Originally the plan was for you to do a ground mural, right?

Yeah, Olivia saw the basketball court and the piece that I did in the red zone and was really excited to get a piece on the ground, but it never fell into place. They showed me places that wouldn’t be suitable, like a tiled surface or a rough paved area. The places they had available were mainly pedestrian areas because a lot of the town at the moment is currently being redesigned, so all their roads and the way the traffic moves is being redone and they didn’t want to get something painted and just dig it up. So, we went down the road of painting the BNZ building, which was cool, I’m stoked on that wall…

A festival is intended to have a level of public engagement, but we live in the age of Covid and obviously that affected the event, there were quite a few artists and Olivia herself, based in Auckland, who couldn’t be there, and I’m sure there were other changes, did you still get a sense of that communal festival experience?

Absolutely, the crew have been running Graffiato for eleven years. You can tell that they are really passionate about looking after the artists and making sure the public are engaged. They run a well-oiled machine. They’ve got good sponsorship with paints and equipment, so when we were picked up From the airport they were like, do you guys want to start today or tomorrow? The weather was looking pretty iffy, so we said it would be good to start that afternoon and they just said, sweet, we will get you a scissor lift onsite by 3pm and you can start. They had the projector back at the house and we were good to go. We were well looked after, they put us up in a really nice Air B’n’B, there was food in the fridge, with beers and wine. We had a little car to zip round in…

Dr Suits’ final production for Graffiato (Image via Graffiato Taupo Street Art)

Those types of things make a big difference, right?

It just made it so easy for us to paint the wall. They would bring us lunch at the wall. They had a volunteer sitting on the wall with us to talk to visitors so we weren’t getting distracted, unless we wanted to be. Big ups to Linda, she would hand people a map and a flier with all the information about the festival and talk to them about where the next closest mural is and talk about our mural. There was a photo of our concept down at the bottom and she would talk them through it. That volunteer element meant that we could actually get the work done in the time frame. There have been commercial murals that I have worked on where people are coming and going all day and pretty much someone is always talking to a visitor…

It is interesting, because talking to people is a really important part of this new profile of urban art, so you don’t want to seem too cranky or unapproachable, and of course, it can be fascinating meeting new people, but it can end up eating up a lot of time. You were the only South Island artist at the event this year, why do you think there is often an under-representation of our artists at these North Island events in particular?

Maybe it just comes down to the cost. The logistics of getting artists up there. I mean, the other artists probably just would have driven. I know Milarky just drove from New Plymouth…

We have such a strong reputation here in Christchurch in particular, but maybe you are right, it might be the practicalities, although we still bring a lot of North Island artists down to events here. With all that said, who did you enjoy spending time with?

Me and Porta and Milarky were in the same house, so we got to hang out a little. But I just really enjoyed hanging with Porta, we basically spent the whole weekend together, apart from when I was asleep. Apart from that we didn’t really hang out that much with the other artists. There was a briefing at the start and we all caught up at the end for some pizzas and beers, but everyone was really trying to negotiate the weather and seeing if they could maximise the sun and weren’t really away from their wall. Julie, one of the organizers from Town Centre Taupo, picked us up from the airport and was saying there is a bit of a running joke that she chains the artists to the walls. She makes it so that the artist doesn’t have to leave other than to go to the toilet. If you need paint, they will go get it, if you need coffee, they will go get it. They do a circuit, and you see them every hour with paint or coffee or something to eat, you just put in an order…

Follow Dr Suits on Instagram for more of his work

Follow Graffiato on Instagram to see what other artists got up to…

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