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…

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Bloom n Grow Gal – I Can Parallel Park

The flowers were intriguing. They were familiar and earnest and yet other-wordly. They sprang forth from the concrete surroundings with a fantastical whimsy, part of a city-wide takeover alongside the pasted images populating our walls. I soon found out that the artist behind my new favourite paste ups was Bloom n Grow Gal (BGG), or Lydia Hannah Thomas (sometimes just Lyds), a Northern Irish artist now living in Christchurch who was part of the Slap City collective. Soon, I found out BGG was also busy curating and hosting exhibitions, the first being More the Show, a group show of work by Ōtautahi wahine that included music, food, drinks and an array of creations. The show was hosted at The BOXed Quarter and drew an excited crowd. I finally met the artist one Sunday morning at Green Lane markets, quickly chatting about a range of topics it become clear that she was an energetic, enthusiastic force. Wandering around the market we bumped into each other again, this time she was busy drawing on the floor next to her stall, her energy focussed on her creative output. Now, BGG is presenting PB n’ Jam, a unique show in collaboration with Flux that combines art and music, with live art and performances creating a byline throughout. We caught up with Bloom n Grow Gal for a chat about her journey to New Zealand, her illustration background, her introduction to Slap City, tending to flowers and the shows she loves to put on…

I’m going to put you on the spot, how would you introduce yourself?

Terribly! I’m not very good at telling people about myself! I would just say I’m a doer, I’m a people pleaser, but I hate talking about myself! I love talking about art and music, but when it comes to introducing yourself, “Hi, I’m Lydia, I’m 30 years old. I’m from Northern Ireland…” Arghh, I hate it!

 How did you get from Northern Ireland to Ōtautahi?

I was always dreaming of getting out of Ireland. I don’t know why, I’ve just always kind of enjoyed my own company and doing things for myself, by myself. I’m like a loner but I have lots of friends! I worked out a way to get out of Ireland and that was going to university, even though it was to do illustration, which seems pointless looking back now! I wouldn’t recommend! But all these things happen for a reason. So, at university I met somebody. His parents lived over here so we came over here, and I felt free and a little bit empowered being so far away from everything. I think I was really hard on myself back in the UK. I judged myself and never thought myself any good. I felt like there was a lot of competition in the UK and it wasn’t nice, it felt like everybody was out to get you. New Zealand felt to me like this like fresh chapter. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know where I was. I was so far away from it all. So, now I’m here.   

And how did you end up in Ōtautahi?

I just love the beauty of it. It sounds terrible because places like the West Coast of Ireland are just amazing. But there was something about flying in over the Canterbury Plains and the Southern Alps, it was just so beautiful. When I came here seven years ago, Christchurch wasn’t very appealing. So I ended up living in Methven for years and I think I ended up getting a little bit lost. I was trying to find out where I fit in this country town, but I realised that I just didn’t. I kind of met somebody in Christchurch and I started coming here and going to the art gallery when that re-opened and going to all these other pop-up galleries, and it started to become exciting. Then just before lockdown last year, I went through a break-up, I lost my job, I felt like I had nothing to lose, so I came to Christchurch. The first person I met when I moved here was Ben Lyttle. He was like this chilled creative and honestly, he was the first creative person I’d met since I came to New Zealand. I remember feeling that enjoyable sense of creating again, which I hadn’t felt for so long. That led me to Slap City. I remember the first Slap City that I went to, Vez passed me a bit of sticker paper and was like, just draw and I thought my god, I haven’t drawn in seven years! But I feel like that’s how it started, by simply drawing again. It was so enjoyable, I missed it living in Methven, driving trucks and going to the pub…

You weren’t doing anything creative in Methven?

I’ve always enjoyed making gifts. I’m known for always making birthday cards or a painting or something like that for people. I was doing a lot of baking, I don’t anymore, but I guess that was like my creative output, almost without even realizing it. I’ve always had sketching. I’m always sketching my food, my drinks, things that are in front of me, which is weird because my flowers are in my head, the complete opposite. I think I’ve got like seven years of creativity built up inside me. But I think I needed that, because I think university was so competitive with this weird grading system of putting a mark on your art, which I never really understood, that it really knocked my confidence. That’s why I’m like, don’t go to university, just do you! But at university, I would put on shows for people to show their art and I guess I saw the pleasure people get out of seeing their art on show and people buying art to put on their walls, and just knowing people are having a good time.

Is a sense of positive community important to you? It seems like things like Slap City and the shows you are putting on are all about people coming together…

That’s why I enjoy doing the shows, because I don’t care what your background is, I just think your stuff is amazing. I love it when people have side hustles taking photos or weaving or painting, it doesn’t matter if they are a lawyer or a teacher by day. Who cares about your background, history, education and whatever, this is what you are producing, and it is amazing! I’m so happy that I’m able to give people a platform. There was a girl in the last show [More the Show] who said she had a friend who wanted to be part of it. I got in contact with her and she said she had a pair of earrings, is that going to work? I’m like, that sounds so great! Everybody was doing their own thing, and this was her take on her art, a pair of earrings. I’m like that’s awesome! For some people earrings are just a piece of jewelry that you wear, but actually somebody’s taking the time to think about it and put their creativity into them. So, I was really happy for them to be in the show. It was her first show and she ended up selling them, it was amazing!

Bloom n Grow Gal collab with Teeth Like Screwdrivers

That idea of defining what art can be leads to the question of how you started making art in the streets, which itself is a way to break down conventions of how art is presented and consumed…

I want to say I’m precious about things, but I’m really not, I’m actually quite good at just throwing stuff out, of getting rid of things. I mean, I packed up everything in the UK and came here! But yeah, the idea of going out and putting my art in the streets just excites me. There is a flower not far from here, it’s slowly peeling away and it looks even better than when I put it up! Just walking around, doing my ‘dog walk loop’, I get to see how it changes and weathers. It’s really exciting. Should I add to it because somebody’s written over it? Or should I just leave it? Will somebody do more to it?

There is a lovely sense of both contributing to the landscape but also recognizing that you have to let things evolve as well. Did you have any previous experience making art in the streets?

When I was at university, I did a little bit of wheat pasting, but not a huge amount. It’s weird, I used to love taking a lot of film photography because it was so cheap to get it developed. I remember my ex and I were both so fascinated with billboards and stickers. We went to Berlin and Prague and all our pictures of us on holiday aren’t of us, they are just of these walls with drawings on them. I remember being in Budapest and drinking in this bar and it had all these illustrations on the walls and we just sat there for ages. So, although I wasn’t doing it back then, it’s amazing how fascinated I was by it all. I think my lack of confidence back then was why I never put my work out there, but now it’s like, yeah, let’s just do it.

It’s interesting, because street art was supposed to make art more accessible and participatory, it removed the elitist structures…

I think Slap City really boosted my confidence. I still watch Beautiful Losers on repeat and I remember ten years ago thinking, these people are so cool, I could never be that cool! But now some people think I’m cool! I’m getting tagged in posts by people I don’t even know. People are posting about my art. I never thought that it was good, but everybody takes it a different way and sees it in different ways. I think I’ve been so harsh on myself, and Slap City has been so positive. Everybody is like, let’s collab, let’s do this, that’s awesome! There was somebody a couple of weeks ago and it was their first time at Slap City. They were so rigid, and I remember that’s how I felt my first time. But you just keep going and then you’re like, I could do anything! Now I’m going out on my own and pasting up at night. Honestly, it makes me so happy. It’s like the best form of therapy.

Ultimately, whether it’s that circle around Alleged Gallery or the Slap City collective, they are communities of people with shared interests who want to support each other. And while the internet helped foster those networks, it feels like more recently it has been divisive and tribalistic and toxic, so it’s refreshing to have those real-world connections…

A couple of years ago I started going through my Instagram and saying this is not good for me, this doesn’t interest me, and my Instagram has become more art and street art influenced. It’s really more focused on joy and my inspirations. It shows the headspace and transition that I have been on over the last couple of years. It got me thinking about Slap City and that sense positivity and how maybe if I had that ten years ago at university it might have led on a very different path. Looking back at it now, it’s no wonder I was a mess, it was too competitive, but now I’m just so empowered to be creative. I feel right now there’s just such a great community within Christchurch, people supporting each other. It just keeps you creating, getting better and better without even realizing it. I look at what I was first doing at Slap City late last year and how I kept going and I kept doing things…

I first saw you flowers on Madras Street…

My first ones!

I loved the stylization, the appearance of nature, but in this surreal, fantastical style. They were so simple but so striking. I asked Teeth Like Screwdrivers who had made them and he said, “Our Lyds” and you could kind of tell he was so stoked that you were putting your art out there. Where did the flowers come from?

I can’t keep plants alive to save my life, but I’ve always been fascinated with flowers. Growing up my Grandad’s garden was just beautiful. It was massive and had so many flowers. As kids we’d always plant sunflowers and have sunflower races. I’m quite a colorful person so I just love the colors of flowers as well. They are just all so individual. They come and go, they are not meant to last forever. If I could just keep flowers alive!

In that regard they are fitting for art in the streets, where everything is fleeting. It is also interesting that you note the individuality of flowers, because we tend to think in categories, right? But flowers, like humans are all distinct. Was that in your thinking when you started drawing flowers?

I think I say it was now, but honestly, I don’t really think I was thinking about it. I just was doing it because I was really enjoying throwing one out and being like, oh, maybe I’ll change that or I’ll do that again. I like to do it fast, without overthinking the process. I think they end up being really pretty and people seem to enjoy them. I did this series of flowers on pieces of paper, like 100 of them, all drawn individually. I did them sitting and watching films. It was like therapy. It went through my mind to photocopy them, but I love how I’ve drawn every single one and every single one is individual. Just like flowers. Maybe I will change, maybe I will do photocopies, but I don’t know…

More recently, there have been the coloured A4 pages with lettering over the flowers, with phrases like ‘I can sing’, ‘I can dance’ and ‘I can parallel park’…

I’ve always loved text. I’ve always been so fascinated by short but bold statements. I love typography. I don’t think I’m very good at it, but I just love to dabble in it. It’s kind of ironic, because I’m severely dyslexic, and I spell a lot of things wrong sometimes, especially the first ‘parallel park’ one that I did! I’m quite inspired by David Shrigley’s paintings, how they are not necessarily positive, but they are to the point, and that’s why I began with ‘live, laugh love’. It was kind of taking the piss, but people can put their own interpretation on it, just like I have my own thoughts about it. I just needed something short and sweet. Recently, I was parking and my friend said can you parallel park? And I was like, I’m 30 years old! Of course I can parallel park! So, the affirmations grew from that…

Earlier we were saying that neither of us consider ourselves amazing singers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sing, right? We absolutely can!

It just feels like I’m in such an empowered position writing these messages on pieces of paper and putting them around Christchurch, literally nothing’s stopping me! And if somebody sees the ‘live laugh love’ works and it puts a smile on their face, that’s great, knowing that someone might have a chuckle, I like that idea. But I also love that I don’t have to stick with this, I don’t have to keep processing it. It was something I did. I really enjoyed it. Now let’s see what the next thing I can do will be. I’m thinking about song lyrics, digging back into my Yeah Yeah Yeahs phase. I’m going to go buy some supplies today…

Music is so important for so many artists, you have a wide range of musical tastes, right?

I don’t know how people can sit in silence. It freaks me out! I’m into a lot of dance and jungle at the moment, it makes me want to get up and move my body. I feel free and like I’m enjoying myself. But I was watching something the other day and an advert came on with Radiohead’s High and Dry and it triggered something in my brain that took me back ten years ago to university. I just had to listen to that song. I started listening to it and for some people it might mean something else completely, but for me it was like OK, I need to draw right now! That is what inspired me and then that led on to all these other bands on Spotify shuffle. Music definitely is a trigger. I like how music puts you in the mood and I love a wide range of genres. I was listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs the other night and Skeleton came on and it got me really emotional, but in a good way. It brought out all these sad statements, thinking about past boyfriends and breakups and things like that. But it was good because it made me feel creative. I think you still need to embrace the shit times and the music that triggers the sadness. But then MIA comes on, like Bad Girls, and I’m like, right, give me my big black marker, I want to go to town! But when I listen to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Radiohead, that brings out smaller, more delicate drawings. Music triggers different kind of moods and how you want to express yourself in different ways. Sometimes when I’m pasting, I will listen to going for a run music, getting the blood pumping. But then I start and I take the headphones off and look around sheepishly, haha!

You already have quite a multi-directional practice, making art in the streets and at home, as well as organizing and curating shows. Do you put much thought into where it all goes next?

When it comes to art, I am so chaotic! Sometimes I lie awake at night and I always have my diary or something next to my bed, or if my diary is downstairs, it’ll be my phone. My notes are just full of ideas, some don’t even make sense! Half the time these ideas come to me in the middle of the night. I’ll wake up and kind of sketch it down. I think that’s why the flowers are good because I can just smash a load of them out and I’m done. Then sometimes I can go for a couple of days where nothing inspires me, maybe I’m a bit tired or something. I have no structure to my art whatever!

Putting together the shows must be an extension of your need to be creative as well. Your first show I was aware of was More the Show at The Boxed Quarter earlier this year…

Yeah, that was my first show in Christchurch. It was inspired by meeting Sofiya Romanenko. I was blown away by her photography, they are so beautiful, they needed to be on show. So, I thought, let’s just do this. I will be in it because there will probably be nobody else, so it will be me and Sofia. But then I asked a couple of other people, thinking maybe five people would be in the show. But then it grew to 15, and I was like, oh my goodness, and then it got to 25! I was so overwhelmed by just how many people wanted to be part of it. I still can’t get over it. I don’t even know how to put it into words. But I put on More the Show with 25 artists, and it was really amazing. I can’t believe how good it was to give a platform for people to express themselves. I worked really hard, but it was so unbelievably rewarding. It was so exciting. Artists were messaging me, asking is this OK? Is this going to work? I’ve got something a little bit bigger, or meet my friend, she’s also an artist who would be great. I was creating another family within Christchurch and that was so important to me as well. I met so many amazing people. I was on cloud nine and then it was over, and I felt really sad, like I didn’t have a purpose. I thought it was just going to be a one-off thing. But then my brain started ticking away and I was like, OK, let’s do something else. Zak from Flux popped in and he was like, do you want to do something? He had this idea of bringing music and art together, which totally got me. Back in the UK I loved going to art and music festivals, so its a dream to be bringing art and music together. I can’t believe I’ve been given this opportunity to work with artists and musicians and it’s all going to come together in this beautiful place. So, I was like OK, now I have something to put my mind to again and start creating. In my head, I realised 25 artists was awesome, but maybe this time I would stick to fewer people, so it’s a little bit more relaxed. The idea of PB n’ Jam was that the artists would be the peanut butter, you know a little bit nutty, and the music would be the jam. I thought sticking to Slap City people would also suit the vibe, people like Teeth Like Screwdrivers. When I asked him, he was like, why me? I’m not an artist! But the thing is, he is, of course he is! I still can’t get over how shocked people are when you ask them to be part of something and it reminds me of myself when I was younger and had no confidence. Nobody asked me to be in an art show and now I’m in that position where I can be like, you should be in this show. This week people have been sending me updates of what they are doing and I know I’ve chosen the right people for the job because everybody is just psyched for it…

Photo credit: @verygoodphotoalbum

People really value the chance to be included…

Even with More, it was just so positive. I’ve not had a negative experience and I am just so excited to doing this with amazing people…

How will PB n’ Jam combine those elements of music and art?

When Zak and I first talked about it, we were thinking of a festival, which was really great, but was probably too much for me right now. So, we decided I was going to do the art show part and Zak would do the music part. Then we had the idea for live art. I’m getting some boards off Green Lane for live painting on the night. We also started thinking about visuals and projections, which took me back to my Mr. Scruff days in the UK, the gigs with projections of doodles and illustrations, with tea being served at the back! So, we’ve got visual projections which will help tie everything together; the music will be playing, the artists will be working, visuals will be projected, there will be a nice flow between the art and the music.

Who are you excited for people to see?

I love all the artists, but I’m excited to see what Teeth like Screwdrivers and Bongo come up with. All the other artists have been in shows, but asking these two street artists, who kind of throw things up all over the place, I think I’ve really kind of caught them off guard and tested them. I really like what both of them are planning, I’ve got a couple of little tasters and I think they definitely got the point!

PB n’ Jam opens 5:30pm, Friday, 13th August at Flux in the Boxed Quarter

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