Since returning home from a stint living in Los Angeles, Dcypher has quickly cemented his reputation and one of Aotearoa’s most talented and prolific mural artists, without missing a beat with his signature graffiti pieces. With his artistic roots firmly planted in graffiti and skate culture, his art has always teemed with the energy of street culture. Much of Dcypher’s work, including his graffiti, reflects the urban cityscape and elements of urban culture, making for the perfect aesthetic for his latest undertaking – the street wear line Dcypher Apparel.
T-Shirts have long been a staple of urban culture; the DIY fashions of Hip-Hop and Punk have celebrated the statement potential of the garment, while the physicality of skateboarding means loose-fit comfort provides a practical attraction. From Jimbo Phillips’ iconic Santa Cruz Screaming Hand, to the Bones Brigade, Powell-Peralta and Vision Street Wear designs, Zoo York and OBEY, tees have been a way to proclaim your cultural, political and stylistic affiliations. Likewise, t-shirts provide creatives with a canvas that reaches a wider audience, stretching beyond the wall or the gallery.
As a skateboarder and graffiti artist, t-shirt designs were a natural progression for Dcypher, his bold illustrative and graphic style translating well to the printed format, while his imagery was already attuned to the urban wear aesthetic. Inspired by the likes of Evan Hecox’s Chocolate Skateboards, he began dabbling in the idea of t-shirt designs while still in Los Angeles, producing images for his CBS crewmates. Dcypher initially considered an online, made-to-order approach, scaling down overheads, but the hyper competitive US market made it a tough proposition to crack.
By the time he returned to Aotearoa, Dcypher had collated a stockpile of t-shirt images. Enter Tim Ellis, founder of fashion company Movers and Shakers. Dcypher had met Ellis through Truth Dubstep, when the artist had worked with the musicians on logos and promotional designs. Ellis brought the industry know-how, connections and capital to Dcypher Apparel, allowing the artist creative freedom to put his designs onto tees and into the world as creative director. The Dcypher Apparel brand was born.
While initially hesitant to use his hard-earned graffiti name as the brand identity, it has ultimately proved beneficial due to his reputation in the urban art world. As creative director, Dcypher leads the designs, but also ensures he has input in where the shirts are stocked, choosing locations based on their connection to skate and graffiti culture, providing the right audience for the brand and a sense of authenticity. There is always a tricky line between making a brand accessible and still elevating it above mass-produced fast fashion, making sure it gets into the right hands – urban wear and youth culture is all about influence. Locally, the tees are available at Embassy on Colombo Street and Encompass at The Tannery, as well as further afield at Cheapskates Wanganui, Fusion in Wellington, Pavement in Dunedin and The Plugg in Kaitaia. Dcypher acknowledges these locations guarantee the right audience and, vitally, respect the cultures that gave birth to the brand.
Although Dcypher’s personal style leans towards the understated these days, favouring a plain black tee, the lure of a t-shirt serving as another platform for his art is undeniable. Rather than developing a completely new approach, Dcypher’s t-shirt designs are drawn from his mural, wall, studio and digital designs, the artist feeling his way through the process and making changes where needed to suit the cotton canvas. And yet, the designs can also be unique from large-scale works, which often require more compromise. The t-shirt graphics are free-form, following the artist’s interests as they develop, rather than being proscribed by briefs from above. The designs (on upsized tees, as preferred by skaters who value the freer movement) feature urban landscapes, Dcypher’s signature skulls, characters and graffiti pieces, sometimes all worked together. Other works take on specific narratives, from corporate greed to Noah’s Ark and Eastern influences. Dcypher’s iconic, but now obscured, Welcome to Christchurch postcard mural (the text mid-construction in reference to the rebuild), has also been rendered as a design. With a growing range, Dcypher continues to develop new ideas for seasonal release, including the exploration of glow-in-the-dark printing.
As an artist brand, Dcypher Apparel is less concerned with fashion trends, and more about the art and aesthetic as a reflection of Dcypher’s style. T-shirts, with their broad appeal and ability to reach a wide audience, allow the artist and his art to engage audiences in new ways. As Dcypher suggests, young people don’t often buy art, but they do buy t-shirts, and he hopes his tees can connect the two worlds.
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…
A Tribe Called Haz, the pseudo identity of Harry King, a young artist and member of the RAD Collective, is in many ways indicative of the alternative and do-it-yourself approach of a number of Christchurch’s young, urban creatives. A Tribe Called Haz’s twisted, low-brow imagery and raw, low-fi style is reflective of an outsider style; his background as a skater and graffiti writer more important than any arts training. His strange, playful compositions and juxtapositions, collating his various influences, experiences and even momentary preoccupations, are wrapped in a subversive and often anarchic energy, full of bright, at times acidic colours, applied in swarming washes of acrylic paint. While his work is very much of the digital and internet age, it is also refreshingly hand-made, imperfect and intentionally unpolished. His work may not be pretty, but it is playful and punkish, reflecting his sense of humour and a desire to confront and unsettle unsuspecting viewers; to garner a reaction, good or bad, challenging the viewer’s ability to be in on the joke. After following A Tribe Called Haz on Instagram for many months, I was glad to get a chance to sit down with him and find out more about his work, how various influences inform what he does, and what impact being a part of the RAD Collective, and social media, has had on getting his work out there…
So, should I call you A Tribe Called Haz? It’s one of the longer monikers I’ve come across, but I feel like it should be used in its totality! (Laughs)
Yeah that’s all good! (Laughs)
I was recently talking to Becca Barclay, one of the co-founders of the RAD Collective, and she said that the running joke is to describe you painting in head to toe black denim, drinking a dozen Diesel bourbon and cola cans, listening to Bon Scott era AC/DC (which in my mind is being played from the radio of a mid-eighties Ford Cortina). While she admitted it is more a joke about stereotypes, would you say it is a fair description?
Ahh, it is about eighty percent true! (Laughs) Yeah, I do love a bit of black denim and you can’t go past Bon Scott, but I don’t really paint so much under the influence, even though that was tied into the last exhibition name. But yeah, it is mainly just me painting in the garage, so it does seem to fit!
But, of course you are made up of more diverse elements than denim and classic rock; you’ve been a skateboarder since you were young…
Yeah, I started skateboarding about 11 years ago.
And you have a background in graffiti as well…
Yeah, that came about through skateboarding as well.
You also work as a builder, right?
I’m a third-year apprentice builder…
So, amongst all those influences, have you had any ‘traditional’ training, or are you self-taught as an artist?
I did art at high school, so I think the highest I’ve been trained would be level two at high school. But I hated doing art at high school. I didn’t like being told what to do, or how to do it, you know, I feel like it is stuff you can pick up by yourself. I don’t really see the benefit in that type of thing. I think it is good that they teach art at high school, but I think it should be kind of like a free period, where you can experiment more.
So, your experience illustrates how influences like skating and graffiti can be as formative as a formal training, in both technical and conceptual approaches to making art, right?
Yeah, it’s definitely just that I like to follow my own path. I pretty much pull stuff out of thin air, or if I just see stuff that looks somewhat eye-catching, it inspires me to do something. I can’t really put my finger on it, but yeah, it’s a time and place kind of thing, and I kind of think that comes from things like skating and graffiti.
What explicitly do you take from skateboarding? Do you connect skating and making art? Is there a shared spirit between the two for you? Is there something in the physical, practical act of skating that translates, or is there a distinct influence in terms of skateboarding’s visual culture?
For me, skateboarding is just something that is free. There are no rules, no one’s telling you what to do. It’s something that can be taught, but it doesn’t mean you will be good at it. Even if you are taught how to do stuff, everything is different for everyone. But yeah, it’s the sense of freedom, it’s just like a good way to put my mind at peace for a wee bit.
I guess the same could be said for the attraction of graffiti? It’s also about freedom of expression, in both similar and divergent ways. You mentioned that you got into graffiti through skateboarding, so did that mean you came at it with a less traditional approach, more San Francisco than New York? Or were you still drawn to the hip hop tradition of graffiti writing?
Graffiti and skateboarding can go both ways. There’s the punk side, and then there’s the hip hop side, and it all depends on who you are, you know? There are lots of punk skaters out there, and you see the old pentagrams everywhere and the anarchy symbols, that A.C.A.B. kind of stuff (an anarchic acronym for All Cops Are Bastards), and then there’s the hip hop sort of stuff, the bolder letterform-based stuff. In my eyes that’s real graffiti, the hip hop side. So, yeah, I lean towards New York for sure…
Do you think Christchurch has that sort of diversity amongst the local graffiti culture? It definitely seems, outside of some figures, that the hip hop tradition has always been the most prominent.
There is definitely some quirkier stuff out there, but overall the scene is more traditional. So yeah, there is a bit of a gap between the two, people can be set in their ways.
Although there is obviously an inevitable overlap in terms of influence, do you separate your work as A Tribe Called Haz from your graffiti output? Are they ever in conversation stylistically or thematically, or do you keep them distinct?
No, they are two separate things. You see a lot of old school graffiti artists, or graffiti artists in general, go through just being hardcore graffiti writers, and then they get to a point where they start doing exhibitions and they go off in a totally different way, and then everyone who is still about graffiti, who grew up idolising them, they kind of turn on them for doing that, and I think it’s just easier to keep them separate…
It means there’s a fidelity to both as well, you’re not having to worry about those distinctions: one is one, the other is the other. Which means they keep fresh when you jump between them. I guess it also means you can be as experimental as you want to be in each realm, and that each can take really divergent paths.
Yeah, they don’t have to correlate at all, it is kind of like a split personality kind of deal!
How did the name A Tribe Called Haz come about? Is it just a moniker or is it more of a concept?
I’d say it is more of a concept. When I first started out, I called myself Postal Services, it was just something out of the blue, it didn’t need to make sense, I just didn’t want to put my name to what I was doing. That way you can do whatever you want, and I chose Postal Services. I ended up changing to A Tribe Called Haz obviously because of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, but also, back when I first started skateboarding, there was a guy and his name was A Tribe Called Steve, and I used to see that written everywhere, so I was like, I’ll see what I can do with this and it has just sort of stuck…
So, there is a lineage there, a reference outside of the obvious one that many people probably aren’t picking up on, a little bit a local/subcultural reference…
Yeah, like I never met the guy, but I could’ve been in the same place, who knows? That’s the cool thing about having a separate identity.
Your work clearly has a sense of humour, it’s often a pretty acerbic humour too. It comes through both in the imagery and in the visual style as well. Stylistically, how did you develop that rough, raw aesthetic? Is it a natural direction for you or have you refined it through exploration? And do you see it as an important part of the sense of humour of your work?
I think with my style and stuff, most of it is just natural. I think it is heavily graffiti influenced, big black outlines of stuff and lots of bright colours. I don’t try and sugar coat anything and visually I just try and make it as simple and as eye-catching as possible. Its not even that I’m trying to make other people laugh necessarily, I guess its kind of selfish in that I’m just painting things that make me laugh.
You mainly paint in acrylic, do the mediums you use play a big part in how you conceive of your work? Do you see a specific difference between using brushes and paint from spray cans?
It’s mainly acrylic. I’ve never touched watercolour. I’d like to branch out a little more. I’ve used a lot of Indian ink and I’ve recently started putting gloss finishes and all that kind of stuff on works as well. Yeah, I’d say the mediums I use are an important part of my work. I like acrylic because it is easy. Pretty much every can of spray paint is acrylic, so it goes hand in hand, it dries quickly, it’s easy to use, all that kind of jazz. I guess I also like acrylic because it doesn’t look like spray paint too.
There is a certain colour quality in your paintings, colours that are quite harsh, and applied in a certain way, quite flat and thick, is that all intentional to create a specific effect?
I like to think of my use of colours and how I put them on paper as kind of bulky, I am trying to make the images quite dense I guess.
Your images are a real mixture; scenes filled with strange going-ons, juxtaposed objects, pop culture references, phrases, mysterious characters, it seems like anything goes. But there is also a sense that whatever you are depicting, they can seem at once mysterious, obvious and filled with potential narratives that the viewer can unravel. How do you come up with your subject matter?
I like confusing people. I like making people think, and maybe if I can offend people, it would be good as well. I’m not really pushing the envelope at the moment with anything I’m doing, but I like that kind of stuff, I like controversy and really topical stuff. My pictures are just based on whatever comes into my head at the time, so they could be anything really, sometimes from my life, but other times just from crazy thoughts. I often do something and then think, this looks boring, I need to chuck some fun stuff in there, to sort of twist it. So that can make stuff pretty out there…
By working with controversial, confronting or bemusing imagery, are you trying to elicit a response from the viewer? To make them feel a certain way?
Yeah definitely. With controversy and people being offended by what they see, it’s all their choice, it doesn’t have to be what they make it out to be. Everything has got two sides to it, or even a third side coming from someone else’s point of view, nothing is the same to everyone…
If you can offend someone in some way, it also means they at least have to consider why they are offended, right?
Yeah, and maybe they can come around to see it from someone else’s point of view, and be like; actually, it’s not as bad as I think… Or maybe the more they look at it, the more they hate it, which is also fine. I just like getting reactions out of people, whether it is good or bad, you know, it is better than someone just looking at something and having no thought of it whatsoever. I would rather make something that someone looks at it and they might ponder on it, even if it’s in their head for a minute, it is still confronting them.
Does building play any influence in your work? Do you see a connection between the rigorous process of building something and the way you create a painting?
Yeah, well I see everything in layers, like you’ve got all your steps you go through to get a house to where it needs to be, and that’s the same with painting; you do your background, then you put whatever you want on top and then it’s just layering and layering. I think with building, it has made me think about other mediums and stuff, but apart from that I haven’t really taken those ideas too much further…
Have you thought about making three-dimensional work, actually building sculptural objects?
Not really, or at least it’s not on my radar at the moment, although I wouldn’t rule it out. In high school I did sculpture as a subject. I think I was in the last sculpture class that Hagley High ever had. I think I was one of the only students, there were three of us, but I was the only one in my year.
Untitled, Aerosol on a trampoline, 2018
How did you come to be a part of the RAD Collective?
I met Becca Barclay about a year ago. She was really good mates with my neighbour and one night we were having a party and one of my flatmates, knowing she is a graphic designer, was like: ‘Oh, Harry draws…’ She came and looked through some of my blackbooks and was like: ‘This is crazy!’ I didn’t really hear anything for a while and then we ended up hanging out a little bit, and she said: ‘I’ve got this idea, I want to get this collective going, I want to do something in Christchurch.’ Eventually we moved into a flat, and now I live with her and Jimirah, the other co-founder of the RAD.
Without the RAD Collective, what avenues would you have explored for your paintings? Would your work have stayed in the blackbooks, or were you trying to find ways to get your work out there anyway?
I think I would still be floating around not really having any sense of direction. It’s good having something to work for and towards. It gives you fuel for the fire. I’ve had so many opportunities so far because of my involvement in the RAD Collective. I think I’ve featured in three exhibitions. Without the RAD, my work would probably have still been in the blackbooks…
It feels like in post-quake Christchurch young creative people have been somewhat empowered to make things happen, and I feel like the influence of urban art is part of that too, just as a source of inspiration, or an alternative approach. In the past it seemed like a battle to get things off the ground unless you were exposed to the more traditional networks. Now it feels like there’s more willingness for people to come together and put things on, and people who may not have taken that step are now exploring new ways to get their work out there…
Yeah definitely, especially with the RAD, I see it as having kind of a do-it-yourself mentality. If no-one’s going to put your work out there, then you’re going to have to do it yourself. You are going to have to try a lot harder, but I think that as long as you’re doing something, you know, you can’t go wrong. So, yeah, I guess Christchurch does seem to have sparked up a bit more of a start-up attitude and things are happening that might not have happened before.
Has being in the RAD Collective inspired you to explore any new ideas?
Yeah, I’m starting to dabble in digital art, like everyone! At first, I was a little bit dubious about it all being on computer because you don’t get the same feel, you don’t get the same effects, all that kind of stuff, but it’s a lot more accessible. You don’t have to carry around your paint brushes everywhere, you can be sitting on the bus or whatever and just be smashing stuff out. I’ve been trying to get back into photography as well…
I feel like your work would translate well digitally, but photography is an interesting direction, because it feels a little at odds with your visual style. Are there any particular influences or interests there?
It’s a little bit of everything, just day to day life. I like urban nature as well… I guess I’m mostly influenced by skate photographers and people from that scene, like Ed Templeton, and even Moki (another member of the RAD Collective), I really like how raw his photos are.
In many ways we are all photographers now, not only do we all have access to cameras, but because of social media, we are also a lot more aware of how we compose and publish pictures. But a lot of people are embracing traditional elements of photography, inevitably inflected with the social nature of ‘everyday’ photography, but with more awareness of the process. Are you part of the movement to reclaim photography a little?
I wouldn’t say reclaim (laughs), but I do like the old school 35mm, all that sort of stuff. I think the digital side has helped with that change, because even though it’s pushed it out a little bit, it has also sort of brought it back, the digital technology kind of became a gateway back to the traditional stuff. It’s definitely a lot more popular than it was when they started bringing out digital cameras and all that sort of stuff…
Like millions of others, Instagram is a primary way for you to put your work out there online and to gain exposure. Do you feel like your work is able to operate as effectively within that digital realm as it does in an actual physical presence, or do you still make your work for people to see face to face?
Yeah definitely, I wouldn’t say it is made for Instagram, but I will do a painting, take a photo straight away and try and get it up so a lot more people will have access to it, as opposed there just being all these paintings sitting in my garage and I would have to ring people, and be like: ‘Yeah, come round and see what I’ve done…’
Do you ever hesitate before posting something, or are you pretty quick to put stuff online?
Nah, I don’t really edit my output, but I might give it a day or two before posting, so I’m giving different posts a bit of space, a bit of breathing room. I never use filters either, it is always a case of what you see is what you get.
The RAD Collective recently held the exhibition Under the Influence, and you and a few other RAD Collective artists painted live on the night. I know you had some nerves about painting in front of a crowd, so how did you manage? Did you get your music playlist right?
Yeah, I was really nervous, but it did give me a good adrenaline rush for a couple of hours! I ended up listening to Powerglide by Rae Sremmurd and Juicy J on repeat for two and a half hours, that seemed to work…
So, you didn’t listen to Powerage!
Haha, yeah nah, no AC/DC that night. It was a really good turn out to the show though, I think everyone involved was really pleased with the reactions…
What else is on the horizon for A Tribe Called Haz?
My books are open! There is nothing concrete, but definitely more paintings and hopefully more walls. I need to hone the A Tribe Called Haz style for my wall work, but I’m keen to explore that…
Chances are you know Uncle Harold’s work, maybe from various exhibitions, perhaps from his recent advertising campaign with Amazon Surf and Skate stores. Although his work doesn’t have a traditional street presence, it is undeniably influenced by graffiti, street art, and most importantly, skateboarding, illustrating the infiltration of urban art within diverse contemporary artistic practices, and perhaps the rise of the expansive term ‘urban contemporary’. Uncle Harold, sometimes known as Josh Bradshaw, has quickly gained a profile in the Christchurch scene, his distinctive paintings and drawings melt away our expectations, objects literally drip from the wall, from retro shoes to coat hangers, from urban elements to iconic logos. The bright, flat colours add to the hyperreal quality of his creations, ensuring they are playful but also suggestive of the need to look again, to look closer, to see things in new ways. We caught up with Uncle Harold outside his ‘home base’ of the Welder Collective, to discuss the influence of skateboarding, street art, his decision to pursue his art full time, the opportunities for creative people in Christchurch, and Consequential, his up-coming show at the Welder…
So, in terms of making art full-time, you are somewhat new to this right? How long have you been totally focused on making art?
Totally focused, like full-time, since mid-October last year, so, like four and a half months now. I think I’ve been taking it more seriously now for a year, but in terms of a full-time commitment, about four and a half months.
How did the Uncle Harold alias come about? Is it an intentional idea to separate yourself from Josh and instead have another identity, or is it just something playful?
It always was intended just to be playful, the name, I was pretty obsessed with old fashioned elderly people names, like Mavis and Edna, that kind of stuff, so that was where the Uncle Harold thing came from. It honestly just makes me laugh every time I see it written somewhere, especially when I see it somewhere quite formal or for a serious art event, when there are lots of fancy words thrown about and then there’s just Uncle Harold, it makes me laugh so much… I try not to take anything too seriously with art, it’s supposed to be fun, especially the drippy style, and the whole Uncle Harold thing just fits really well with that, not taking anything super serious. It’s quite nice to have someone to blame stuff on, that wasn’t Josh, that was Uncle Harold, blame him!
Do you see it having a natural lifespan that you then might reconsider? Or will you keep running with it?
I think I will keep running with it. I was actually thinking about that, I saw something about another artist who went and changed his name and became more serious, but I definitely can’t see that happening anytime soon, I’m still going to run with Uncle Harold for a while yet…
Have you always been a maker of things?
Making stuff has always been there, from back from when I was a young kid making skateboard ramps and stuff like that with my dad. I always liked art and stuff like that at school, but I was a terrible student (laughs) and I sort of lost it for a bit. But there was a time when I was not up to much, so I thought I would pick up the paint brush again and that’s when I started getting back into it fully a few years ago…
So, you would class yourself as fully self-taught?
Absolutely, fully self-taught. I have no formal training at all, it’s all just trial and error for me…
Do you think that makes you more fearless in how you go about things? You’re not beholden to doing things in a certain way, it’s more a case of just giving it a go, taking an idea and running with it…
One of my favourite things is that I don’t have to follow any rules of art, because I don’t know them! So, it all comes down to what I think and feel looks cool and what works. I don’t know if it is technically correct or not, but that’s how I see things, so that’s how I make my work. I almost feel sorry for people who have to watch me make something, it must be frustrating! ‘Mate you’re doing it wrong!’ (Laughs) But that’s what I like about it, it’s cool…
Your other background is skateboarding; how big an influence has that played in terms of that trial and error approach? Has the skateboarding attitude of trying and perfecting a trick over and over again played into your process of making art?
Yeah, absolutely, everything, everything I know, one hundred per cent comes from skateboarding. Like I say, I didn’t know any artists, I didn’t go to any schools or anything like that, everything I know about art and how to do stuff has come from skateboarding. The art I saw was on the bottom of my skateboard. I wasn’t in a gallery looking at anything, it was just what I had under my feet and then that determination of trying something until you do it and not caring about what anyone says or anything, so that has transferred over to my art…
Although you’re not working in the streets explicitly, it feels like your work shares a kinship with urban art and street art, and I’d suggest it ties back to the fact that skateboarding is such a big influence because that is part of that sphere of urban art…
Yeah, I think there are so many similarities between skateboarding and the dudes on the streets painting walls: you’re somewhere where you shouldn’t be, you’re pissing someone off, you’re running from authorities on occasions. You just have to look around Christchurch, I’ve spent hours out in those sketchy abandoned spots skating an obstacle, but there is a whole wall of street art and graffiti behind me, so I feel like that’s a really heavy influence on that street style.
Street skating, like a lot of street art, is about subverting the urban environment, seeing something in a different light and finding a new use for it, does that element come through in the way you make work as well?
Yeah, that is actually the whole reason behind the dripping stuff; seeing something, seeing the potential of something that isn’t anything. You know, some person walks past a bench and it’s a bench, but I walk past it and see the way the ground goes up to it, the angle it’s on, like all that stuff. Everything I paint is about seeing it in a different way than it actually is, subverting these objects…
So, by kind of melting away the façade of objects, you are encouraging the viewer to re-think the object and their take on it?
Yeah definitely, the basic point of it is everyone sees things differently, we can all look at the same thing and everyone will take something different away from it, whether it be the colours, or which parts are dripping…
Which means you can take any object, right from the smallest, most mundane things, like lighters and pens, things that we handle all the time and we often take for granted in many ways, and by transforming them, we become more aware of our relationship with them…
Yeah, I’m a huge fan of making something interesting out of the most boring, everyday sort of stuff we take for granted. You take something you use every day, and you make it into something cool because no one really sees that stuff, you look at it, but you don’t really see it.
We don’t pay attention to it…
So, by subverting it, by changing it, we are forced to reconsider it’s various qualities, both physical and in a sort of associative, experiential way as well…
I’ve heard you introduce yourself as the guy who ‘paints the drippy stuff’, which made me chuckle, because it was this really unassuming statement, but it revealed your recognition of how it has become your signature, you must now have a process, do you have a certain way of essentially melting an object?
Once I’ve decided on the object, and it’s usually always an object, I usually think about it in the order that you see it. So, whatever is closest, those drips will be on top. So, basically, I draw it exactly like it would be in real life, but just completely dripped and melted… (laughs)
Do you ever practice by melting objects?
No (laughs), but I’ve thought about it, and I think I’m going to have a play with something like that pretty soon…
You have found a way to apply this visual concept in a whole range of different media, transforming objects in photographs by painting over the top of the image, but then you’ve also created this three-dimensional approach as well, and that’s extended from paper and card to wood. So, how does that differ, working in the two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms?
Drawing on the photos is actually a lot harder, to find a photo that will actually work with it is quite hard. I’m also very aware that ninety-percent of the time I’m drawing on a photo that isn’t mine, I haven’t taken it, so you have to respect other people’s work, and you have to find a way that it will fit in with the photo and not take anything away from someone else’s work, and yet still allow me to put my touch on it and have it look cool. So, that’s quite hard. The layered pieces, that idea came from my grandmother. She makes Christmas cards and birthday cards, it’s called paper tole I think, and it’s where you basically cut out all the pieces and stack them and they form like pot plants and flowers, and all these delicate, very intricate little things. I was at her house and having a look around one day and I was like, I wonder if I can do that onto my two-dimensional paintings, and I just started cutting them up and layering them and it turned out quite cool…
Obviously with paper or card, the ability to cut and shape is quite straight forward, a scalpel will allow quite a bit of maneuverability, what challenges have come up in using wood, which is literally a much harder material?
My whole family are furniture makers by trade, so I’ve always been around people making stuff out of wood, so naturally as a kid I picked up the power tools and the skills in that department. I always wanted to go to wood, to make something a bit bigger. Definitely, cutting all the pieces out is way more intricate, and you have to be careful because they are quite, I don’t know what the word is, some of the drips are quite tight, so getting the jigsaw in and around there is quite tricky, but it’s the same principle as doing it on paper, except you are using some power tools which I’m pretty comfortable with, so it was a pretty natural thing, I always wanted to go there…
They do present different types of tactility though. There is a delicacy to the paper and there is a different sense of bulk and weight to the wood, does that mean different objects are better for different mediums? Do you find that there is a relationship between the object depicted and the medium you choose to use?
Um, I don’t know if there is, I think if I can generally make it out of paper, I can make it out of wood, but you do have to think about it more structurally. If it is wood, it is going to be heavier, you know the workings behind what you see, the actual structural integrity has to be a lot stronger, so it definitely is way more complex…
Some of those more intricate designs, with intricate bridges won’t work though…
Yeah, definitely, you have to go bigger, the bigger it is the easier it is…
Speaking of going bigger, currently your work is largely studio-based, but it has a style that would translate well outdoors, is transferring your work to the streets a logical step?
I think it is a logical step for me, it’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about and I’m really keen to do. I will go outside and paint some bigger stuff, I’m just very aware of the fact that Christchurch is one of the street art capitals of the world now, and there are a lot of street dudes out here that do it regardless, and I’m very aware that a studio artist going out there and just painting walls…
It can be received in a certain way…
Yeah, you know, there are kids out there doing it because they love it, and you don’t want to step on any toes, it’s a respect thing…
That’s an important thing to acknowledge, people tend to believe that you earn you stripes in the streets, but at the same time, with muralism in particular, it is shifting away from some of the older traditions, and it means it’s a more open field, it is now its own thing, and I think those breaks from traditions are more easily accepted. In terms of that relationship to the streets, your approach, of consistently applying and refining and expanding a visual idea, seems very much akin to street art’s fascination with signature styles; developing an approach and an identity through an iconographic imagery. So, was that idea of repetition and recognition something you were aware of?
It was accidental in the way that I started doing the drippy thing, but I obviously started doing it because I liked it, I still love the way it looks, and I like the idea of always figuring out a way to do it but keeping it new, that you can do the same thing and people will recognise it, and you will know what it is, it might not always be the same thing but still keeping elements of that drippy stuff in there. You always want to progress and try new stuff, but it’s also finding that balance, while keeping that identity that you’ve developed for yourself.
Does choosing to work with a distinct visual theme mean you have been aware of the need to keep it dynamic through intentionally evolving the processes, or have any changes been quite organic, a result of playing around?
I think it is organic, it is that whole skateboarder approach: try until you figure it out. Some might not work out, but some definitely will. I do have a lot of ideas for evolving it, it is a natural progression, so it’s quite organic, but I’m very aware that I have to find new ways to do it. I don’t want to be the guy in thirty years, ‘oh that guys still doing that!’ (laughs) ‘It’s boring now!’ (laughs) And for myself, I don’t want it to be boring, so it’s a very natural progression, but I’m aware that there will be some intentional transitions… It’s quite funny, I feel like I’m getting ahead of myself, I’ve already got all these plans, but because this is so new to me, I’m only just starting, people are only just starting to know my stuff, I’m not holding myself back, but still…
There’s a need to establish yourself…
Yeah, I’m trying to set up and establish myself first before going too far and running out of ideas too quickly…
Your work might be considered a reflection of the growing ‘urban contemporary’ field, and how the footprints of graffiti and street art are now really wide-ranging, with more and more people’s work influenced by these forms, regardless of where and how it is being made. In Christchurch, because we have been given this title as a lively site of street art, do you see that urban contemporary influence becoming stronger?
Yeah, I know from being around ‘fine art’ people, at the Welder Collective and doing those shows, that Canterbury has a pretty rich history of Fine Arts students, but after the earthquakes, you can’t deny it, there is so much of it, the low brow art, the street art, there is so much room for it. It is hugely popular at the moment and there is so much support for lowbrow people to be in those galleries and exhibitions, so you can definitely see the influence from the streets that has popped up, you see so many kids coming out wanting to be in these shows…
Your trajectory is kind of a reflection of some of those the changes, the first place you showed your work was Embassy [the iconic skate and street wear store in Sydenham], and now you are part of the Welder Collective and you have a more specific, dedicated place to work and exhibit, so you must be very much aware of the variety of avenues available…
Yeah, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that our central city hasn’t had a lot in it for a long time, so people were fed up and were like: ‘so and so wants to have an art show’, ‘yeah, sick, finally, let’s do something!’ There are so many people who want things to happen and want to jump in and support you. So, you know being anything creative; a musician, a photographer, an artist, I think there is a lot of support, and that it is actually quite easy at the moment to get that backing to do these shows…
So how did your connection with the Welder Collective come up? How did you end up working here and with this array of creative people?
It’s basically just been a natural progression; you meet someone at an art show or something and it grows from there. Like, I was showing some stuff at Embassy and met someone there who was in this exhibition that I was invited to be part of, then I met someone there who invited me to do something, so all these connections eventually led to someone saying: ‘You should come and check out this space that we have called the Welder’… So, I actually showed up and never really left! They are stuck with me now, I just kind of weaseled my way in! (Laughs)
You have a solo show coming up at the start of March at the Welder, what can people expect and what is the idea behind the show?
It is called Consequential, and it is opening on Friday, March 2nd . Like I was saying, I’m still establishing myself, so this show will be all works on paper, the cut and layered style. But in terms of the theme, it’s really about those standard objects that you overlook that we were talking about. But it’s not about the objects specifically, it’s about the attachments people can form, and whether it’s a lesson taught by someone or something and whether there is an object that can be pulled from that, so it is a lot of everyday objects that have a lot of significance to me personally, so that’s what the whole show is about.
How much of that biographical information do you feel comfortable putting out? Is it enough that you put the work out and the audience make their own connections? Or is it going to be more explicit in how you offer the narrative behind those works?
The nice thing about painting very plain objects is that people can form their own attachments to them. Obviously I’m not explaining exactly what the meaning is behind each thing, but I am putting a zine out that will accompany the show and that will have a wee story or something that gives a brief explanation of what the different objects mean to me, so you can choose to read that if you want to know where I’m coming from, but it’s completely up to you. Each object is standard enough that everyone can form their own attachment to it, like we say, we all look at the same thing and everyone has their own take on it…
And I think with really mundane objects, those stories can range from some really memorable experience, to just some incidental moment, with no apparent significance, simply because they are always around. What are the plans for the next twelve months? Obviously, you had the campaign with Amazon, which provided some pretty big exposure, is there anything else in the pipeline?
Yeah, the Amazon job really opened the door for more commercial work. After that job came out, a few businesses have approached me to do some work with them, so over the next few months there are a couple of exhibitions that I’m part of, but then there will be a lot of commercial commissioned work to come out after that. I’m hoping to plan a show in Wellington for later this year as well.
With those commercial opportunities, were you approached, or did you put dome feelers out?
Nah, I definitely didn’t put any feelers out! They approached me and I’m open to it, you know the starving artist thing, everyone knows that story…
An artist’s gotta eat right?
Yeah, I’m not opposed to taking corporate money to let me do my own stuff…
How differently do you conceive of the commercial stuff to what your doing on a personal level, especially having such a signature, recognisable style? Is there an ethical line you draw in terms of who you work with?
Yeah, you know there will be, you pick and choose your battles to suit your own personal views. I quite like getting a job you might not be too stoked on, but it presents the challenge of taking something and making it cool. If I can go into something I’m not one hundred percent on and turn it into something I really like at the end of it, I actually really like that challenge, so, that’s one way I look at it. I’m not like, ‘oh I’m just going to half-ass it’, if I can make it into something cool then I will happily do it.
Consequential opens at the Welder Collective (Welles Street), Friday March 2nd, 2018 at 5:30pm. You can also check out Uncle Harold’s work in Stoked, at New Brighton’s Fiksate Gallery, March 13th – 19th. Follow Uncle Harold on Instagram: @thejournalofuncleharold, and check out www.thejournalofuncleharold.com for more of his work…