Teeth Like Screwdrivers is one of those people who radiates enthusiasm. Not in the cheesy, annoying way, but simply through a desire to bring people together and to see things happen. I came across his pencil stickers before I met the man himself. They were the type of sticker I love, although simple, they pulled you in through a spark of the familiar that made you ponder, is that what I think it is? Since finally meeting the artist, I have followed Teeth Like Screwdrivers’ busy trajectory, his own prolific and expansive output, his global network of contacts and collaborators, and the formation of Slap City, a sticker and paste up club that that has brought together a diverse roster of artists. When we caught up, all of these factors became apparent both in the scope of our conversation, but also in the way Teeth Like Screwdrivers spoke, excitedly, almost breathlessly darting back and forth through topics. From his early days in Christchurch after arriving from the UK, to the formation of Slap City and his lock down sticker collab project, we covered a lot of ground, fitting for an artist who thrives on activity…
We first met at the giant spray cans, where you were part of a DTR crew workshop. I remember you just had this massive grin on your face enjoying the experience. Is a sense of community and participation a central concern for you? It seems that Slap City is very much about forming a community.
I’ve always organized stuff. When I first moved here, I started the Garden City Session [a Christchurch longboarding group], which I’m no longer doing but has now got like a thousand members. Within the first week of arriving in Christchurch, I got hold of Cheapskates and was like, right, who’s organizing something for skaters? They hit me up with Scotty who was doing Skate School and we did a couple of longboard ones and then it spiraled and spiraled and spiraled. We used to do pub crawls on skateboards. So, I was always the one organizing events, rocking up and being the hype man.
Christchurch’s Flavor Flav!
If I’m really interested in something, it is really easy to do. As a schoolteacher, if I’m doing a lesson I’m not into, it then it’s probably going to be shit, but if I’m into it, it’s going to be brilliant! So, with the sticker stuff, the same thing happened. Stickers were happening, of course they were, but I enjoy the hanging out and someone else going: ‘You could do this…’ It was the same with that DTR workshop last year. I don’t use spray cans, I’m not a graffiti artist. I’m as far from your stereotypical graffiti guy as you can get, but I wanted to see how it’s done. In my head I wanted to make my work look like a marker pen. I love markers, I’m a little bit OCD and I love the different thicknesses. So, I was like, how can I make spray paint look the same? I went and watched them and I realised you could put one line there, then you can do another line there and it cuts that first one back. That was all that was about. But I was loving it because I was surrounded by people who just knew their fucking trade, who were really good and they were just like: ‘You could do this, you could do this…’ I was like, this is brilliant! But I also realised there are lots of ways to do things. There was a really good Safe Kasper artwork on the cans a while back, he’d sprayed the bulk of it and then used a marker for the details, I was like, what the fuck? I can just paint the outline and marker the details which is essentially what I’m doing with a sticker, doing the background and then the marker over the top, so it made sense. But running shit is fun, that’s the joy for me. I like sitting at home and spending an hour just cranking out stickers, but I also like having other people around and bouncing ideas off each other.
Obviously within graffiti culture there has been this history of mentorship and camaraderie in terms of crews.
Skateboarding is similar, you learn, not from the masters directly, but an older person will go: ‘Actually mate, it will be way easier if you just pop your foot off the left and put pressure on there…’ It’s the same thing. I remember I went down to the cans the other day, the DTR crew were doing a big paint jam. I’m an outsider, like I said, I’m about as far away as you can imagine from graffiti writers, but they’re like: ‘Get in bro, grab a can, give it a go…’ I was like, really? It was wonderful.
I feel like when we talk about post-graffiti or street art, it can be more isolated, because you tend to be making something in advance, it doesn’t necessarily have the same sense of community or camaraderie, but undeniably the potential’s there.
Yeah, most people want to be nice, most people are good people, you go up to them and say I really love what you’re doing, can we do something together? They are probably going to say yes, just get in there and see what happens. The worst that can happen is they say no, in which case OK, cool. Christchurch is small enough that you will bump into the same people. If you’re doing something similar, chances are you’re going to bump into me, so that connection may as well be as easy as possible. I don’t know those DTR guys from jot, but they all remembered me from a year and a half ago.
Because Christchurch is small, the competitive element isn’t necessarily as strong as it might be in bigger cities where street cultures have diverged.
Vez is a great example. I saw her stuff all over the place before I met her, and she sent me a message saying: ‘I’m moving from England to Christchurch.’ I told her that I’d started this sticker thing and that she should come along, thinking she’s had artwork everywhere in the world, she won’t want to come! But she rocked up and was just like ‘Hi!’ Now I see her work everywhere and I know who she is and what her stuff is about, and that’s what it should be really.
The fact that Slap City is held at Fiksate is another example of that sense of community in the local scene.
There are lots of examples of it in other cities where people meet at a pub or somewhere where they’ve just got a big old table and they all sit around and just pass some shit around and share. I was like, why don’t I do that here? Then we just kept doing it, then we made it every two weeks rather than once a month. But again, it fits nicely at Fiksate. We go in, it’s super chill, we set the tables up and it’s just like a second wee family. We just chat, talk about what we’ve been up to the last couple of weeks. Someone will have some new things that they want to share, or they have worked on a whole bunch of new stickers and we all kind of pass judgment on them, in a good way!
In addition to that sense of community, has Slap City allowed you to do things artistically that maybe you wouldn’t have done by yourself?
I think I’m keener to get up in the streets. I mean I’m not your typical person who goes and puts things in the street, but you know, we go out and half of us go and have a beer afterwards. It’s all about walking around. People will rock up with some paste and we just go for it. So, I guess it’s not a solo sport anymore. I mean it is, it can be. I’ve spent many evenings just putting stickers up by myself, but there’s something more fun about there being a whole bunch of you. Someone will put one up and you try to put one higher, it’s just that kind of thing. But it could be anything, it could be a bike gang, it could be a record collecting crew. It’s having that little group around you who are just as enthusiastic as you.
That energy and excitement feeds everyone, and opens the gateway just enough for people to come through…
I mean we’ve got it all now. Suddenly it’s gone from me saying I can get a few people and we can do some drawing, to having this crew. People come and go but there’s probably six or seven regulars. Three of them are part of an exhibition at Fiksate [Vez, Bexie Lady and Cape of Storms are all featured in the show Perspective: Women in Urban Art], which is crazy! Bongo’s screen printing now, so he offered to do a run of a hundred stickers for this amount of money, and everyone was chucking money at him and that comes from just talking to people, getting shit done, you know? It is almost self-fulfilling. If I want to go and do some stuff on the street, then I can probably find someone keen to come along. Even if it is just wandering around and putting stupid stickers of pencils up, it doesn’t matter, that’s the fun of it. We are all very different, some crews have a particular style, especially with graffiti, but we’re drawing pictures on paper and sticking them up, it is different. One week a guy came and just did smiley faces, which was great!
People sometimes assume that there’s a right way to do street art.
Right, a particular highbrow view that you have to do this or that. I’m sure in the graffiti world there are styles and techniques that are passed on, but with stickers the joy is that they are literally just a marker pen and sticky paper. You could draw a picture of your own bum and it would count. Anyone can come along and draw funny little things on a piece of paper, and it counts. It doesn’t have to be ginormous.
Touching on that idea of size, there has been a tendency in urban art towards placemaking and an increasingly big scale, and yet really placemaking is also about the small stuff.
I’m a big fan of the little things that are hidden away, the things that you don’t notice at first, but then you do and it makes them even more rad. Paste ups are fun because they let you work on a bigger scale than stickers. You can literally put up any size, but it’s still a smaller scale in terms of just drawing on a piece of paper and sticking it up on a wall. It’s generally never going to be higher than you can physically do it. I guess that’s why making stupid machines to put stickers higher up a wall amuses the shit out of me. There are a few that are up there and I’m just like, it’s so high off the ground! That’s pure amusement for me.
That idea of simply playing in the streets…
I did some pastes in Lyttelton with a mate of mine recently. So, Lyttelton has an issue with peacocks. Someone I might know really closely released a bunch of peacocks into the hills and the farmer on the top of the hill kicked off and started cooking them and eating them! So, me and said friend, we had a few beers and started pasting a whole bunch of peacocks around the port. One day I got a text message from him, he was at work and he said: ‘I think I’ve gone too big!’ He sent me a picture of a massive peacock poster coming out of a large format printer. There’s a spot above the tunnel and we pasted this huge thing up. I woke up the next morning and I’m a long way from the tunnel, my mate’s even further, but I could fucking see it! Everybody in port would be able to see it! It was like a big white postage stamp of a huge peacock head. We were just pissing ourselves because of the stupidity of it! I’m not trying to be artistic, it’s just genuinely hilarious, you paste a huge peacock so this woman who’s been killing them and eating them, every time she leaves port she sees a massive fucking peacock! We are still pasting little ones everywhere; we must have put fifty up throughout Lyttelton. They only lasted a wee while because it was shit paste, but I laughed so much.
Speaking of repetition, how did your pencils come about?
For my art A Level in the UK I made a bunch of skateboards and they had scratched up backgrounds painted to look like they had been skated on and then I added a white silhouette of different pieces of furniture. One of the silhouettes was a classic UK school chair, an orange pre-formed plastic chair with black skinny metal legs and a hole in the back. I realized I could tag it in one hit, and it was identifiable as a chair really quickly. So, for years I wrote FURNITURE, which is a lovely word to write by hand, it’s really gorgeous. I was tagging it and at the end of the E I would then move in and join the chair onto it, so that’s where I started. I realised it’s obviously a school chair, I’m a schoolteacher, it ties in, so what else could I tie in? I went to a compass, and actually I’ve got photos of doing quite big ones on the side of The Drawing Room in town, I even went on a bit of a tiki tour all over Melbourne and Sydney, just sticking stuff up. I did the compasses for a wee while and they were really simple, inspired by a particular genre of stickers at that time. Then one day I put a pencil in the compass, and I was like, oh, I really like that! So, I drew a few more pencils. They were square, so they had the rubber bit at the end with the metal, then they were triangular, pointed as if they had been sharpened by a sharpener. I got a whole bunch of small stickers, but I couldn’t draw the whole pencil on that size, so I just did the nib. But it didn’t really look like a pencil, it just looked like a triangle with the square side. But then when I scalloped it, suddenly it looked like my pencil, and then I thinned the lines. The first ones I did, there’s a few around still, they look like pencils, shaded and with straight lines, but you know, they looked too much like pencils, and it was taking me forty minutes to draw one because my inner OCD kicked in. I needed to make it quicker, so I dropped the end off, scalloped it, and put in the wee dots to make it look like it had been cut by a knife. There’s a book I’ve got called How to Sharpen a Pencil. It’s well worth finding because the boy’s a genius, he literally wrote a book about the different ways to sharpen a pencil. It has all these different pencils and who they are used for, there was this perfect one he called ‘The Architectural’ for architects. It’s really ironic but really funny. One of them was a really long-nibbed, scalloped version and I was just like, that is how I love my pencils! I just copied that and put in a few dots to show that it had been sharpened and now I just draw them non-stop. It’s just gone from there really.
Was there an element of the phenomenology that Shepard Fairey talks about, taking something that might be meaningless but repeating it enough to make it meaningful?
Fucking over and over and over again… I’m a huge fan of The Toasters, a crew from the UK who just did outlines of toasters. I remember first seeing one of them in the mid-nineties and being like, why the hell would you make a sticker with a toaster on it? But also, why not? I wasn’t really into Obey, but there were The London Police, D-Face and a whole bunch of those guys around that time that were doing thick-lined icons on white backgrounds, repeating them so they became like a signature. I’m a handwriting nerd, I love a good-looking tag that’s really been thought out. I like drawing pencils; the lines work really well for me. I love the straight lines, and there’s enough individuality that you can make each one different. You can make them short, long, you can put stupid little rubbers on the bottom if you want to, you can write words on the side, there are lots of options. But it’s still always the same identifiable thing – everyone has seen a pencil. Even with the silhouette stuff, if you’ve seen the pencil and then you see the silhouette, you can see those two are related and maybe there will be a little link in your brain, like, I’ve seen that somewhere before… That is not my idea, I got that from The Toasters, doing the outline and people thinking what the fuck is that? It’s a fucking toaster! That sense of wonderment. People are like I’ve seen your sticker things everywhere, and I’m like great! That’s the point! There isn’t a purpose behind them, there is not some subliminal message, I’m not trying to alter what you’re thinking, I’m literally just drawing a stupid pencil!
Yet even without that intent, they do change the way people think because they are becoming more aware of their surrounding environment.
I think it was Erosie in a video about The Toasters, he says: ‘This is city glitter’, you know? It’s little sparkles that might brighten someone’s day and if it just does that once, if someone says: ‘I fucking know them! I’ve seen them!’ Then great, that’s all I need to do!
When you talk about the silhouette pencils, you are referring to your ‘bluff buff’ pieces, they remind me that the buff itself is essentially a bluff. We can look out and see the way that buff jobs just block out graffiti, they echo the shapes. I mean the most ridiculous buff jobs are the ones where you can still read the graffiti.
Yeah, they have just outlined it, you could go over it with a pen and it would fill in the gap perfectly. There are some great ones around!
No one is ever going to say that the buff itself is an act of beautification.
It’s like that PEEEP Trust, they are actually stencilling their logo onto the walls they buff! At first, I thought it was an artist signing their work. It’s like the classic ‘official’ graffiti walls, with a spray can and it just gets filled. But I googled PEEEP and it’s an actual fucking thing! They are paid, or at least they raise money to do that shit.
It speaks more to masking than improvement.
It is deliberate censorship rather than enhancement.
The pencil bluffs play on that…
I don’t have roots in this. But it creates a grey area. If I’m painting on the wall and someone pulls up, I just say someone wrote the word fuck on it and I’m covering it up, and they go, ‘oh shit, that’s OK mate, see you’. No street artist is going to be using a tub of grey paint and a paintbrush, so the moment they pull up, because it’s essentially a rectangle with a bit on the bottom and a bit on the top, I can square it off and be like someone drew a dick and I’m covering it up. So, it’s making it safer for me because I’m that person.
You mentioned your love of skateboarding, was that the gateway to sticker culture and graffiti?
Skateboarding came first. I had stickers on skateboards first. There is an art form to putting a sticker on a skateboard, there is a certain way you do it. You put it in a certain place because you know that it’s going to get fucked if you put it in a different place. There is also the branding. I’m not going to put any old sticker on my stuff, it’s going to be representing me and therefore that’s important. So, I guess the placement, the branding, it has all led to where it is today. I am still like, why the fuck would you put a sticker there!? You could have moved it four inches and overlapped that one and it would have looked brilliant! That’s my inner nerdiness coming out, but there is a certain way to do it. In Lyttelton, one of Bongo’s pastes was coming off, and I wanted to put my one up, so I took his off and re-pasted it just a bit to the right and put mine so they overlapped nicely. He was like: ‘Did you move my piece a bit?’ Well, I had to because mine overlapping yours makes both of them look better, if i hadn’t it would have fucked up both of our work!
That’s the thing about urban art, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it doesn’t exist in a white cube. The surrounding context of space gives it meaning, but also is part of the aesthetic. A mural on a wall has to work with whatever is going on there and it’s the same with a sticker. There’s a subtlety in terms of placement, and there’s also a mindfulness, right?
That’s trial and error too. The amount of times I’ve stuck a sticker up and it’s just slipped off. It’s all covered in dust and grime! But again, the buffs are a great example. You posted a picture of an alleyway somewhere, and instantly, I knew what had to happen! There’s a light grey, a dark grey, there’s an overlap, there is an obvious point for me to put a buff pencil. Again, it comes back to skateboarding. Skateboarders look at the world in a different way than most others, they will go past a spot and to anyone else it’s not a spot, but a skateboarder recognizes the fact that you could do a trick there, or you know, that curb’s looking really rad. It can be anything and the same thing applies to stickers and paste ups and graffiti, you see a spot and you’re like, ohhh, hello, that will work well…
It’s like those movie scenes where a character’s thought process is visualised and you see diagrammatic lines and mathematical equations in space.
Yeah skateboarders have that in spades! If you watch a skateboarder walking around town, you can just see the way they are trialing shit in their head. It’s just instinctive. I’m finding it’s the same with stickers, I’ve got a pile in my car and when I’m driving, I’m looking and thinking that spot would be perfect… Even colour is a part of it now, I never used colours in the past, I used white and black, now I’ve got all this colored vinyl. I’ve got this bright green, and I’m like, that will look so good on that wall, you know? It’s madness, it’s actual madness!
Urban art, graffiti, skateboarding, parkour, they are all tactical, they are always a response, and that’s the thing, they are constantly evolving. You can’t eradicate something that is not rigidly defined, things that can grow and evolve…
Certain styles of skating have come out of different cities because of the way that councils have tried to stop skaters. When rumble strips first came out in the UK, they were stated to be for blind people, so they can feel them when they are walking. But no, they are not, that’s bullshit. They were put there to stop me hitting it on a skateboard. But people were quickly figuring out how to go over them, doing tricks, and I fucking love that, it’s great.
It’s the same with graffiti, attempts to stop it are just going to change the way it occurs.
It’s just misdirection. I guess it is how cities get their style; if you’re in a city that’s heavy on trains, then a lot of train bombing is going to go down. In the UK, we didn’t have the train thing, so it was always on the buses, which is why stickers came about. You could get on the bus and just slap. If you lived in a city where there weren’t any trains coming through, you did the buses, because that was the next best thing.
And those different vessels mean different styles and techniques evolve in response.
Which is interesting for Christchurch because we are a city of concrete tilt slab buildings. I mean there are some fucking wonderful huge murals, and they are street art, it is definitely art on the street, but it’s also blocked off and lit and fucking ginormous, you know, and I feel that maybe there’s more to it all. I mean, I look at that [gestures to a nearby decorated window] and I don’t know whether someone’s done that themselves or someone’s been paid to do that, and I think that’s a really nice balance. We are so full of the big mural stuff that you can get away with putting a big paste up and no one questions it.
With the breakneck change that the city’s gone through, it’s going to change the responses. So, it’s not just the eradication methods, it’s also the physical make-up. We had broken abandoned buildings that were perfect for graffiti writers to commandeer and then we had lots of exposed walls from buildings coming down which were perfect for murals, now we’re going to find more of these spaces that are more traditional spots, liminal spaces.
But weirdly they will be new! They will be sharp and fucking clean, perfect spaces, which for me, as someone who puts stickers up, I love that! The smoother the surface, the easier it is! I don’t want to deal with bricks and shit, I just want nice, clean walls. Also, the up and the down of this city, you know, there’s stuff on the floor, there’s stuff up high. We don’t have many high-rise buildings, so things stand out more. It’s got a sense of panorama.
Even from here, we can see the lay out of the city. There’s an expansiveness which is kind of inspiring in a way, because you don’t feel smothered or captured.
Or penned in. It also means that you’re not cliquing it, you know? I drive from Lyttelton to here, that’s the whole city, and it takes me fifteen minutes. So, there isn’t anywhere you can’t hit, which is fucking brilliant.
Which gives a real sense of possibility. Speaking of expansive, I really enjoyed watching your lock down collaboration project.
That came about as a lock down version of Inktober. Their first theme was like ‘green’ and then the next one was something else, and I couldn’t think of anything to do with my pencils for it. The collab thing is big in sticker culture anyway, so I just decided to write a list of twenty people I wanted do it with and I just put it out there. Then it became forty and then sixty and it just kept going. The concept is more of a mashup than a collab I guess, taking someone else’s art and doing it yourself in your way or blending your styles together.
You often use other people’s stickers to adorn things anyway, even if you’re not street slapping.
Yeah, exactly, so the mashup is just taking it to this next degree, I guess. MarxOne from up in Nelson, he is the fucking king, he has sheets and sheets and sheets of collabs with different people. As an artist, if someone does a picture of a pencil and they tag me in it, I’m not going to be like, that’s my pencil, don’t do that! That’s bollocks. But everyone has a style. I’ve tried characters and I’ve got a big fucking ginger beard character with a stupid bald head, who is basically me, and people now recognize that and that’s what it should be about and that’s the family thing again. No-one’s going to get pissed off, there’s no reason to, because someone’s literally saying: ‘I really like your shit, can I do my own version of it?’ You just go OK, send me a sticker when you’re done. I did one with Ocky Bop, one of his skulls with pencil’s for teeth. I just drew it and took a picture, and he’s like, I’m printing that shit! Now I keep getting tagged in all these pictures all over the world! It’s not complicated, I literally drew my pencils as his teeth on a sticker and now it’s gone everywhere!
At the end of the day, that’s the beauty of sticker culture, it’s global nature. The internet has changed some of the ways we think about graffiti because now influence can be much wider, but graffiti still has an immediate localism to it. With stickers the mobility is unlimited, as you say, you’ve got pencils in cities all around the world and other people are doing it for you.
My favorite thing is that you send a pack to someone and they go: ‘Well I’m going to keep some for myself and put them in my black book because that’s cool, and I’ve got another fifteen, so I’ll put fucking five of them out in the street and I’m going to send ten to another five people…’
There’s a viral quality.
Yeah, for instance, my pencils, and my gnomes as well, they’re all over the UK and I haven’t sent a single one there. There is a guy called Spirit of Mongoose who is just printing a shit load. Which makes my job way easier. Of course, it’s not even my art, I just scanned a picture, but it’s the thought that this would happen.
The nomination is the act, and then as you say, someone else becomes part of it, and that comes back to family and community, this community is just much bigger than you ever realize until you start to make those connections and networks.
And it’s there all the time, it’s there and it’s getting bigger and bigger and more fun…
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