Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 2

Part One of our interview with Ikarus covered a lot of ground, but in a sense, we only scratched the surface. In Part Two, Ikarus continues to reflect on lessons learnt and his encounters with a public confused and often angered by graffiti, before diving into how his own work and style has developed in response to his roots and his worldview. He also discusses his formative influences, and how events like Rise and Spectrum afforded him the unexpected chance to work alongside a number of well-travelled artists. Picking up where we left off, let’s jump back inside the head of one of Christchurch’s graffiti legends…

There are some members of the public who are confused by graffiti, and yet I think that means they neglect some of the formal and performative elements, like for me it’s always interesting watching a someone’s hand-style, there’s an aspect of movement, a physical quality to how that hand-style is formed, a reflection of how the hand moves. But when people don’t see it happening, it’s easy to not acknowledge those things…

Absolutely, a good example is when I was working at Project Legit (an organisation that mentored young graffiti artists, providing opportunities for legal walls alongside workshops and more), one of the big conversations you’ll have with an average citizen who doesn’t understand the culture is: “I love the stuff you do…”, even when its name based and character stuff, when they see it happen, “…but I hate tagging”. I’d say to them, I get it, you might have had your property tagged, you don’t like the way it looks visually when you’re driving around the city, because you don’t understand it, that it is someone’s name, it’s all over this place, and you don’t know that particular style, and whatever. But I will always defend tagging, I will always defend the vandalism side of graffiti because as you say, it’s where it all comes from, none of the rest of it could exist without it. So, I would explain all that and I would say, you know this is just an evolution of that and this is how it had to be in in the early days and this is how a lot of young people had to start out. Then they would say, “well, there’s no skill in doing a tag”. Then I would beg to differ and then I would show them, a lot of times I would give them a challenge: “I have this can, I’ll put a cap on it, and I’ll give you a hundred dollars right now if you can do a straight line that maintains its width, its consistency, it doesn’t go fuzzy at the end, doesn’t drip. If you can do a 50cm line that maintains all those qualities, I’ll give you a hundred dollars right now”. Not one of these people ever did it and I would sort of demonstrate a tag with various elements, like flares, down from the same point at each letter, and it has a flow and rhythm to it, and they would see it and I would say, see you couldn’t do a straight line but I could do this, does that take some amount of skill? And they would have to admit that it does. A lot of it comes down to the fact that they don’t think there’s any forethought, or any culture behind it, they just think it’s mindless vandalism. I did once have a lady, I was working on some stencils with a special needs student, and we’d made an Auckland Warriors stencil for him and I was showing him the process of selecting the image and cutting the different layers, and this lady said to me that she thought you just bought a can with a picture on it and literally waved it around in front of a wall and the picture came out. I started laughing because I thought she was joking, and she wasn’t joking! A lot of the time we’ll be painting, and it will only be the bare bones sketched up of various areas and people will come past and say that its really good, and you’re like: well, come back tomorrow and you will really like it! But a lot of it is that they don’t understand the process, very rarely, and especially over the last half a decade, do you see someone who sees the process and speaks to us, they really don’t go away with a negative thought about it you know, because they see that there is something behind it and that people are actually thinking about what they are doing. I mean, it’s sort of a lot easier for us because we are in the public painting a lot of big colourful works, but it wasn’t always like that, we were doing this back when nobody understood it, and you the police were definitely coming, someone was definitely pulling over and mouthing off at you because you were a bad example you know, the resistance that we used to face was crazy compared to what it is now, for sure…

Ikarus in New Brighton, 2016

Even what you were saying before, that people don’t realize the technique that goes into it, like the ten thousand hour idea applies to graffiti: the amount of times a hand-style is performed by someone reflects a real commitment, it is perfected over hundreds or thousands of times…

Absolutely, with graffiti, especially the people into the vandalism side of it, there’s the element of just writing your name over and over again, there’s a certain level of OCD obsessive compulsiveness. I can remember being 17 and a friend of mine had a really nice ‘S’ and I remember sitting for hours and hours and hours and dozens and dozens and dozens of pieces of paper trying to get it, so there’s a certain level of obsessive compulsiveness that comes with it, it’s just something to focus on…

I think of that scene in Style Wars with Skeme’s Mum…

“You do doodle on the paper”! Yeah, yeah, it is like that…

From a personal perspective, in terms of your letterforms, because your style has developed and been refined now over so many years and you can see how perfected your they are, what realisations have come from your personal progression stylistically?

I know what you’re saying, you’re politely saying that I do the same piece all the time! (laughs)

Not at all!

(Laughs) I do hear that a lot though. People ask me why I don’t change my letters, but if you look back over the course of everything I’ve done, it changes. But from day one, I’d never wanted to do anything more than tag. When I was young, I wanted to be a vandal, and I was really anti- graffiti art, let alone what I would of thought about street art back then. I didn’t even like big colourful graffiti murals, I called it borderline graffiti, and I was like argh that stuff, anyone can do that stuff! And I mean that’s still true to this day, anyone can take that much time and produce an amazing piece of work if you have the permission and unlimited hours and you have access to paint, you know it’s still a true thing. It’s one of the things I love the most about vandalism, that it’s pure, you get nothing from it, no one will give you anything. No one will reward you for vandalism, it’s not gonna provide you with anything positive, which is kind of the beautiful thing about it. For people that are really dedicated to it, it is pure, there is no ulterior motive, you do it for whatever reason you do it for and that’s all you can get from it, you know. But as far as my own letter forms, from day one, once I decided, okay I’m getting caught a lot, I’ve been to court, faced various fines and community service and PD and that sort of stuff, I wasn’t willing to give up graffiti, but I also wasn’t willing to keep getting caught just doing tagging and low-level bum shit. So, I was like okay, I’m going to do nice, simple letters, because you can put as many arrows and bells and whistles and fancy fat cap flares and little hooks on the end as you like, but if your basic letterform is garbage, then it’s garbage, it isn’t anything, you know, it’s just a whole lot of colours and squiggles. So, my whole intention early on was only to be able to do a simple letterform and then paint so much that nobody could count me out. I wanted to know that if a kid grew up in Christchurch, was into graffiti and they didn’t know who I was, I wanted it to be their fault, not mine! Some people want to do wildstyle letters, they want to camouflage it, they only want it to be readable by graffiti writers, but I was like no, if I’m gonna waste my time and look at getting myself jail time and getting more fines or PD, what I paint is going to be super simple. I was like, if you drive past it at 60 kilometres an hour or 100 kilometres an hour on a motorway and there is a line-up of five people, your gonna see my name, you’ll read my name first. So, that was always really important to me. Over the years there were times I tried to do like dissected connections and different kinks to letters, and various things but I just found that the thing I went back to that made me happiest was the simplest stuff. You’ll talk to graffiti writers that paint three-day productions, giant, three-metre-high, twenty-metre-long walls, but they get the exact same enjoyment out of doing a ten or twenty-minute chrome piece on a rooftop or in an abandoned building or on the side of a train track. The enjoyment level is different for different things. All I really wanted was to be a tagger, and then when I started painting I wanted my pieces to be big tags, really simple to read, and I think that’s a huge part of it, the simplicity to read and the big bold letters. Especially as my eyes get worse. I’ve got really bad eyesight, so I want my letters to be simpler, my outlines to be thicker, my characters to be bigger, just so I can see them when I stand back.

Ikarus and Yikes, central city

I would suggest that it’s led to a refined style that is instantly recognisable. I never get sick of seeing them. There’s something to savour about that repetition as well, it’s not redundant, that sense of constant refinement is so evident…

Yeah, it is down to things like logos, and I’ve read stuff with different artists over the years and they want their stuff to be like that, instantly recognisable, and that’s what I want. as I say, you’re going 100 kilometres an hour past it, and there’s an instant recognition, people that don’t write graffiti can still read it. A lot of the time people will come to the walls we’re painting and they will say I don’t know what that says, I don’t know what that says, but they say I-carus? I-karus? They can’t pronounce it, but they can read it and they say oh I know that, I’ve seen it, and that’s what I want from it. The same way you see the golden arches of the McDonalds’ logo. You know what it is. So I want it where you just drive past it super-fast and you see that letterform and you see the style of my characters, it’s super simple but you know instantly, oh I know that! Even if it’s not Ikarus that I’m writing, or the exact characters that I always paint, I still want it to be recognisable. It’s a general thing, I mean I’m not special, it’s something that most graffiti artists write for, to have their style be distinctly recognised. Same as Yikes, you know instantly recognisable. You go past his stuff and you are going to know it. His style on the other hand is so unique, and I wouldn’t necessarily say my stuff is unique because it’s really based on traditional letterforms, it’s really just a big colourful tag when you look at it.

You mention your characters, it feels like you’ve developed their own distinct presence over the last however long. It feels like the various characters have a really distinct sense of personality. Is that something you’ve been trying to develop? Or has it just occurred through repetition?

It’s a little bit of both. There’s been some conscious thought on that level. There’s been some characters I’ve done and in my head, I’ve had my own little storylines about certain characters and who they are. Some characters I do it’ll be a visualisation of something that I was thinking about at the time. Again, they’re all fairly similar. They will be the same character but with a different accessory or some sort of thing that is relevant to whatever I was thinking at the time, or if I was thinking about someone. I hide little things in there for my girlfriend, stuff like that…

Ikarus character, Embasssy Wall, Sydenham, 2014

They often seem like representations of your worldview in some way, there is a nice sense of cynicism in some ways (laughs), which I think is important because the letterforms have become an indication of you in some way, just through number and repetition, and now the characters are an outward representation of your experiences as well. They add a personal element, they’re not decorative, they are a psychological element too…

Definitely, everyone tells me my characters are just mad depressed looking! They should be cute but they all look suicidal. It’s accurate, I mean there’s a series of emo girls that I think of as the ‘Suicide Girls’. There’s various characters for various things, like the cool kid characters. There was a period where I was painting my little alien dudes with the brain exposed and that was because of whatever fucking traumatic relationship stuff I was going through at the time. But then I generally just keep using them all. Like there’s a series of boxes and cartoon things, around the back of the YMCA, if you know it, it is speaking about something…

Ikarus and Yikes, Prince tribute characters, Hereford Street carpark, 2015

There’s a narrative

Yeah, they have their own narrative, I just don’t really explain it to anyone (laughs). It’s just something I will have been thinking about and dramatizing it

And that’s it right? It’s the ability to exorcise things but you don’t have to explain it because anyone can come along and build that narrative up themselves…

Yeah exactly, that’s just art in general. I think it was Seth [Globepainter], his painting of the boy on the cloud with a ladder, at Spectrum, I looked at it and thought, with my general frame of mind, oh, look at that sad little kid sitting on a cloud. Then I saw some other people come in and say that boy’s up on a cloud and he’s so happy! It’s a crazy thing, people see different things. Some people see bright colours, and see a message behind it, some people don’t see anything…

Speaking of Spectrum and the Oi YOU! shows, over the last five or six years, who stands out that you have met or worked with that you might not have expected to get to know?

I mean pretty much everyone was fucking awesome, but standouts, from the first show, Rise, Thom Buchanan was a rad dude. He painted an amazing work, an amazing cityscape, and painted for like a million hours and layers over two weeks. I hadn’t seen his work before and he was just a rad dude who did some super rad work. Obviously, Sofles is fucking mind-blowing. Everything he did for every show was just crazy and he’s a super rad regular dude. He’s not even one of these crazy super human vegans that doesn’t drink or anything, he gets down and then does his thing, and then bombs and travels the world. He’s super crazy, he blows my mind! And Tilt! Just painting with Tilt was super cool, because early on Tilt was actually a pretty big influence on the way I do my letters. The dude does throw-ups most of the time. It’s one of those things, like from NZ, Addict, ADT, is another dude that inspires me a lot, simple letters, iconic, logo-istic, if that’s a word (laughs), but that instant identification. Early on Tilt was just going to countries and doing his throw-up and putting the country’s flag inside his throw-up, and I was like, this is fucking amazing and this means you don’t have to do fifty-colour, amazing, super technical, wildstyle bullshit and you can still get known. When I was younger, and I didn’t really do the artistic side of it, I was looking for my own style, and when I was looking through graffiti magazines and watching graffiti DVDs or I saw graffiti, it was always super technical stuff, layered up with amazing lighting effects and shadows and detail, whether it be pieces, characters or backgrounds, and that stuff would blow my mind, but it wasn’t anything I ever wanted to do. So, when I saw something super simple, like the London Police, with the big round faces, the Adidas, it was iconic, it was instantly recognisable. With stuff like that, or Tilt’s throw-ups, I would think to myself: I could have done that, I actually could have done that! Not that those guys can’t draw, but it was instantly recognisable stuff like that led me to think, oh there’s a lane I can get into. I don’t have the patience or determination to do wildstyle! My friend Reakt loved to sit down for five hours with a pencil and an eraser and work out his letters and connections and the layers, and I’m there just tearing through black books page by page doing throw ups and tags. I couldn’t do it, but once I saw that really iconic, logo-like stuff, I was like, okay, there’s a lane, there’s an area I can get into. The same as I just want to do simple letterforms, I can do simple characters. The first characters I did were just big round faces, you know still fairly similar, but I used to call them the ‘Bubblegum Fuck Faces’, and they were just big round colourful fucking cartoony looking faces and that was it, and then it sort of evolved from there and moved on over the years.

The ‘Blackbook’ wall, originally painted by Ikarus, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and others for Rise in 2013, shown here in it’s second iteration…

I know we could go on, but you’ve got some painting to do, and I know this is probably just the first time I hit you up for thoughts and opinions! So thanks for sitting down with us…

No problems.

Ikarus – Guardian of the Name, Part 1

He won’t remember, but I first met Ikarus in the early 2000s. I was a University student and as part of a course on hip hop culture I was taking, Ikarus was painting a demonstration piece as part of a ‘hip hop summit’, as the lecturer called it, at the old student’s association bar. I had taken every opportunity in my studies to write about my fascination of graffiti and street art, and I spent the afternoon intently watching Ikarus paint. I meekly mentioned my interest in graffiti, but understandably, Ikarus seemed non-fussed by some student type’s attraction to a culture that he lived and breathed in real life, not in essays, only serving me a nodding acknowledgement. Close to ten years later, I was re-introduced to Ikarus for a project in the central city Re:Start Mall , affording me the chance to work with him and Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson. Since that re-introduction, I have been able to get to know Ikarus as the funny, acerbic and insightful personality he is. Fortunately, now I consider him a go-to figure for advice and opinions on graffiti matters. I even joked with him that when I have to reflect on any writing or statements, I use the phase ‘What Would Ikarus Think?’

While he laughed my motto off, Ikarus is deserving of his place as a true legend of Christchurch graffiti art. From his early days getting up in the streets, his place in the mighty DTR crew, working as a mentor and tutor for Project Legit, and his involvement in the Rise and Spectrum shows alongside countless independent productions, he has earned respect. Over the years he has forged strong opinions on graffiti’s traditions and history, as well as the rise of the mural art movement that he finds himself part of, despite never holding such goals as a young graffiti writer, reflections that show a deep understanding of his, and the culture’s roots and potential futures.

In early December, we sat in a loud, windy laneway in the Central City and over pizza slices, discussed some of Ikarus’ recent projects, his take on graffiti and street art, and his own work’s development over a long and winding path…

So, Ikarus, you have a couple of busy weekends ahead, this weekend is the opening of the East Frame youth space, where you, Freak and Yikes are painting three of the Oi YOU! donated spray cans (with other selected artists painting the five other cans), and then next weekend you’re off to Auckland for Berst’s Forum event, which will have you painting, giving an artist talk, and are you part of the event workshop?

No, we go home before the workshop, but we’re painting a couple of walls. They got us one wall that we have to paint and then there’s a couple of optional ones during the weekend as well, which we can do…

As for this weekend, give us a little bit of background as to how you guys came to be involved in the youth space project and the idea behind the giant spray cans…

Basically, we were approached by Oi YOU! and GapFiller regarding the installation. Oi YOU! donated the eight large spray cans, and GapFiller along with Fletcher Living, have created this youth space. The whole youth space itself is going to have a basketball court, a café, a little youth centre area, and of course the spray cans. The way that it’s going to work is that three of the cans will be sectioned off and will be for semi-permanent to permanent works, and myself Yikes and Freak will be painting those tomorrow, and the other five grouped together will be what they’re calling an evolving art space, which will be an open space where young artists can practice and not worry about getting into trouble. It’s kind of the first spot actually in the city that’s been officially declared for young people to come and practice their stuff, so that’s really good…

The DTR cans in progress at the East Frame Youth Space opening day event. Left to Right: Jacob Yikes, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and Ikarus

You’ve been pushing for this kind of concept, as an alternative to kids ending up in other spaces, for quite a while and yet you’ve always met some resistance, so what do you think has made this possible now?

Part of it would have a lot to do with the amount of different graffiti art and street art that’s been popping up over the last few years. Public perception towards it has changed a lot than, you know, ten years ago. People see it as a much more positive thing after the earthquakes when the city was really destroyed. A lot of people started to appreciate the splashes of colour and pictures and stuff everywhere. But also, Oi YOU! donating the spots and then GapFiller having done so many different projects over the years, I guess those two names and the results that they’ve shown over the years for projects that they’ve done, I think that probably helped sway the Council towards them giving it a shot. And yeah, like you say, I’ve been trying argue the point for legal walls for a few years now because obviously kids are going to go and practice somewhere and you may as well structure a place where they can do that without fear of getting into trouble, because you know it wastes a lot of tax payer money just to have the Police called and they’ve gotta go down there and chase it up and whether they end up arresting them and charging them, I mean it’s all those things, it’s counter productive and also leads that kid to have a bad attitude about the community, about the Police and you know about the Council and stuff. Even symbolically, having eight giant spray cans in the middle of the city is a crazy thing in far as it being a statement on Christchurch’s part that they now view graffiti and street art as forms of art. So now it’s really good to have a spot where kids can actually come and practice and try and hone their talents and turn it into something more positive than it has been in the past.

Spray cans have had this sort of stigma attached to them for a long time, so as you say, symbolically, these objects show a shifting of the guard. I also remember you saying quite often that what authorities are doing, what they have been doing, is not working, that it’s time to change and try something new…

Yeah, exactly, I mean it’s that classic saying: the definition of insanity is to continue doing something that isn’t working, and expecting a different result. For years the policy or the stance has been anti-graffiti, anti-tagging. It’s been catch a kid tagging and whether they arrest them, charge them with wilful damage, give them community service, or on a couple of occasions people have done small prison sentences for it, but like I say, all that does is foster negative energy and it’s a lot easier for a young person, if they are interested in the art form, it’s way easier for them to get one can of spray paint and go out and write their name on a bunch of stuff than it is for them to be able to gather half a dozen to a dozen cans of spray paint and then find somewhere that their allowed to go and practice. It’s sort of like the proactive vs reactive measure you know, there’s not much point just continually catching kids that are doing it, punishing them and then having no real change. I haven’t seen the statistics, but I’d be surprised if graffiti ever went down based on that approach…

It’s important to reflect on whether the culture of today would exist if there wasn’t that history of having to react against the institutional response. I mean there’s now this really big divergence in how artists come to be defined as ‘street artists’, but a lot of the roots of what is now this immensely popular culture, have to be acknowledged as coming from the resistant nature of graffiti right? It’s born from the need for people to express themselves and to get out and do it. You’re a traditionalist around this in some regards, and it’s going to exist either way, but as you say, just giving a space like this which is going to remove some negative energy is a positive move…

Yeah, one of the things I would always try to explain if I was having this conversation with Council members or just general members of the public that don’t understand the whole art form, is that graffiti and vandalism is going to exist because its so easy. It’s always existed you know, people have written their name on things before spray cans and before graffiti as the culture we know it today was born, people were still writing their names on things. When we were young and there was nowhere for us to paint, the only reason that we got to learn the things we did was because people we knew gave us places to paint. There were a couple of walls you were allowed to paint, like we’d gotten through, not public ones but through owners of buildings and places. So we would have our own spaces to paint, and without that we would’ve, I would’ve just kept on the same path without ever probably evolving into anything else.

Graffiti also suggests that you can understand urban space in a different way through commandeering areas. Graffiti writing is kind of symptomatic of the ability to navigate a space whether you are given permission or not. A graffiti writer will go to those places that a normal member of the public shies away from. I think there is something interesting in that, and particularly in Christchurch, where we’ve had so many spaces that have been empty or available, but now these spaces are being redefined. There will always be a need for people who head out and explore the city and actually illustrate to other people that there are spaces we ignore or forget or don’t know…

Yeah, absolutely, a lot of that has to do with the fact that originally and historically graffiti has that stigma attached to it, and oftentimes it is forced into those areas because they are the spaces that the general public aren’t paying attention to, you know like an abandoned building, your train lines, your rooftops in the middle of the night, your alleyways, stuff like that where regular people aren’t going to be as much, so it was sort of a necessary thing. Plus there’s that aspect that graffiti and street art are, or in the past have been, largely youth cultures, and as a teenager you’re always out exploring a city, through skateboarding or graffiti, or whether it’s just through being among friends. Like when I was young, long before we were even thinking about graffiti, we used to climb a lot of rooftops around the city just because it was accessible, and we wanted to see what’s there and you want to be there. Graffiti became that thing where like I will make a small mark so that the next person that comes will know that I was here as well. It has all grown from that.

Post-quake there is a new generation that have experienced this really unique landscape where there has been so much access to the myriad damaged and abandoned places, so it will be interesting to see where these creative impulses lead a newer generation who have grown up knowing a city that is basically a giant playground…

One giant playground for that sort of thing, absolutely. We’ve definitely had that conversation among ourselves that if we were younger and still in our earlier destructive phases (laughs), when this all happened it would’ve just been like the biggest playground! It has, not necessarily created, but spawned a lot of extra graffiti and vandalism and art because things were in such a state of disrepair, because youth are going to go out and explore these areas, they really blew up. But then also because it had such a huge visual impact, because there was so much, you started to get more and more regular people taking notice of it, and now you know there’s a lot of areas, and I’m not talking about large scale murals, I’m talking about like some of the car parks and alleyways around the city that have just traditional graffiti characters and name pieces where like no matter what time of the day you’re there, you’re generally going to run into people who are there taking photos, whether it’s people who live here, or tourists that have come to see the city in the way it is. I feel like we’ve got a lot of earthquake and graffiti and street art tourism in the last few years, so there’s just constantly people in all these areas now. But ten years ago, even if we were painting a legal commissioned wall, people would see us and call the Police. People would think we were doing something wrong until we spoke to them. Now, 95 to 98 per cent of the feedback you get from your average pedestrian or onlooker as they come past is all super positive and especially from Christchurch residents, you know a lot of them have told us stories about how seeing a certain work really uplifted their spirits in times when everything was super bleak around here…

Ikarus in the Hereford Street carpark

That broken environment exacerbated the impact that those sorts of expressions can have. The interesting thing now is how people reconcile the shiny glass facades that have popped up everywhere against the knowledge that there are all these other types of expression that can make a city lively and vibrant as well. It will be interesting to see how those reactions evolve…

Yeah, definitely, I feel like during the rebuild there has been a really great amount of integration of art and large-scale mural work alongside the rebuilding of the city. It’s becoming a focal point. People see these big walls they have and see there’s an opportunity for a good piece of art or a large-scale work. I think that’s possibly going to continue until it bottlenecks, and everything has something large scale on it… (laughs)

I think the interesting thing is how the different types co-exist, because, as you say, the large-scale murals are generally going to bottleneck, there are only so many walls. But there will always be other smaller spaces for people to leave a mark as well…

There’s only so many artists as well…

Especially wen it comes to artists who have the experience to work on a larger scale, the chance to get to that level is, at least traditionally, tied to those smaller spaces…

Yeah.

So, the Forum event in Auckland is a good chance to connect with other well-known graffiti artists, which must be pretty exciting. Berst has organised the event and he is a pretty key figure in the New Zealand graffiti scene, what is your relationship with him like?

Yeah for sure man, it’s exciting but also just fills me with dread and anxiety! There will be a couple of top tier guys there, but we know these dudes, we’ve met them and painted with them several times over the years. We met Berst in like 2006-07, and back then he was just a super active graffiti writer. He was really amazing, literally the first time we went painting with him I was amazed, but he was just a regular cat man, painting a bunch of freights. But he was super motivated though, that’s the difference. He’s a bit of a super human you know, and he’s really active in trying to widen, I mean similar to what Freak and myself have been doing for years, just trying to widen the general public’s perspective on what graffiti is, what street art is… The event is called ‘Forum’ and maybe half a dozen to ten artists are coming from various places around the country, a couple from Wellington, some Aucklanders. Everybody who is doing it is coming from a different avenue, some are graphic designers for example. Myself, I’ll be speaking about my time with Project Legit, back in 2008-10, as well as some of the stuff we’re doing now, like the youth space project, the workshop stuff we do. Freak  [Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson] is going to talk about his business. It’s sort of a talk about the various offshoots that graffiti has led a lot of people to. There is a lot of stuff that I never would’ve imagined doing or even that I was aiming towards when I first started out, so it’s good to give people an idea about this, about what is behind it, and what can come of it as well…

How you see the traditions of graffiti fitting into what is now commonly referred to as the ‘street art’ movement (which is a problematic term anyway). Specifically in a formal sense, because the formal elements of graffiti, the letterforms, even the elements like character work, the techniques that are important for graffiti writers, they’re distinct and street art has sort of opened this big bag of other approaches which are not perhaps faced with the same stigmas that graffiti writing has had to deal with. As someone who is a graffiti writer and a constant defender of it…

Staunch defender, advocate!

How do you place it within everything that is going on and how have you managed to maintain your roots as you’ve been part of it as well?

The bottom line of all of it is, I feel like with this new wave of street art, and this isn’t to bag any particular image or artist or anything, in regards to the large-scale murals, but a portrait of a face, paint a giant bird, you know, paint a nature scene, give them a pukeko and some native fauna or flora, and it’s an easy sell, you know what I mean? It’s easily digestible and palatable to the public. It’s a commodity and it’s able to be commercialised in that respect. While all of those things are great, a lot depends on where an artist has come from and their general stance on various aspects of it. Like you say, traditional graffiti in the way of name-based colourful pieces, cartoon style characters, bright cartoony colour combos, stuff like that, is often, I feel, driven to the wayside in the wake of this new emerging style of street art and street murals and large-scale work. They are all great together, but I personally would hate to see the traditional stuff pushed all the way out of the way for the new stuff. As anybody who has sort of invested in the history of any movement, the new stuff couldn’t exist without the old stuff, and I feel like it has to have some sort of precedence, it has to have some sort of importance.

Ikarus, Christchurch central, 2017

Talking about lineage and legacy, I’m thinking about some street art imagery and some of the imagery you’ve talked about, and you know often it’s coming from people commissioning work rather than artists. Because if you think about some of the imagery that would have defined street art at the turn of Millennium, it was those subversive riffs on popular culture, and you don’t really see those images turned into murals either. Likewise, it can still be hard for artists to get the chance to do something abstract when it comes to commissioned work (at least in Christchurch), and with letterforms there’s a lot of the same qualities as abstraction as well, so many artists have to exist within this compromised, dichotomous approach: “this is what I want to do, but this is what I’m going to have to do…”, and reconciling that becomes a real challenge…

Yeah absolutely, I find it the same. I do a certain amount of commercial work and from time to time the subject matter is going be something you’re not the most stoked about, but as long as you can keep it true to your own style and the definition of what you’re doing, then you can basically do it. Like I say, the bottom line with graffiti, and the whole idea of it as an art form, is that you do what you want to do, but with that said, within a defined set of rules and guidelines, an as much as you can bend and break those guidelines you do need to know them, to know the history. I mean it’s the same as any culture, you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run and you’ve got to know something of the history of the thing you’re interested in and where it came from…

Like you said earlier, some of the defining characteristics of graffiti, it doesn’t seem like people should have such an antipathy to things like bright colours, names, cartoony characters… We all write our names thousands and thousands of times over and over again, we use signatures in our day to day business, and we take pride in our signatures, so there’s not that much difference, but that affront to private property overrides any aesthetic enjoyment…

Yeah and that’s it, traditional graffiti in its name-based, character-based cartoony form, is of course derived from tagging and vandalism and destruction of property, so it is always going be tied in with that. Newer street art, like with a bird, or scenery, or a portrait, is very far removed visually from the idea of writing a name. Often as well, the mediums the new artists are using, it’s paint rollers, brush work, there are still cans involved, but it’s not the same thing, and I think that lends to the palatability of the new forms of street art and mural work. Whereas traditional graffiti as an art form is always going be difficult, and so it should be. But they are branches of the same tree, it’s an evolution. Graffiti as an art form is an evolution of a basic signature, it’s all based around a name and around having your name known, manipulating letters, the structure of letterforms, working with different colour palettes to create something unique and visually appealing. But yeah, like I say, the main problem it has as an art form and the main reason it is held back is that vandalism side. Plus, a lot of people that are practitioners, traditional graffiti-style artists are perhaps not the most personable people (laughs). You know they are not always the most eloquent, they don’t always want to explain themselves. We’ve gotten good at it because we’ve spent years at the forefront of it, trying to change people’s perception of it, so there’s sort of like a bunch of go to phrases and references, that I can draw on.

Check in next week for Part 2, where we talk about the public perception of graffiti and the technical qualities people don’t necessarily see, Ikarus’ own stylistic development and influences as well as some of his experiences in Christchurch’s post-quake explosion of art in the streets… 

A Conversation with Flox

On September 15-16, The Exchange hosted a one-night, one-day pop-up shop, a joint venture between jeweller Cathy Pope, artist and illustrator Ema Frost, and artist (and all-round renaissance woman) Flox. The Auckland-based triumvirate transformed the Waltham space into a unique retail experience, packed with jewellery, clothing, books, prints and original paintings, representing the changing dynamics of our methods of consumption; offering an alternative to both online shopping and the dreary mundanity of monolithic mall culture.

We took the opportunity to speak with Flox about the pop-up shop concept, her experiences travelling and painting at various events and festivals, her stencil process, and her reflections on post-quake Christchurch…

Hi Flox! Welcome back to Christchurch!

Always good to be here!

Tell us about the pop-up event here at the Exchange, and how that came to be…

So, myself, Cathy Pope (a jewellery designer) and Ema Frost, who is another painter/designer, last year we got together to a start a project called the Painted Peacock Project, which took us up to India, where we worked with some kids and painted a mural. Aside from that we’re really great friends. After we came back we just really enjoyed working together, and there’s a lot of really great connections with what we do, so we thought well, let’s try this pop-up idea that we’d been talking about. We’ve since had two pop-ups, we did our first one in Napier and the second one in Tauranga. Both of which were really successful. Luckily for me, the Tauranga one coincided with an event, and it’s quite good when I can tag a pop-up onto a festival or something that I’m in town for anyway, you get an even more fantastic response because you’ve just done this great big thing for their community, and it’s really cool, just that whole give and take thing.

Yeah, absolutely

So it’s fantastic to be here in Christchurch. This is the first time in my entire career actually that I’ve been able to do something at this scale, for Cantabrians. I know I’ve got a lot of fans down here, and a lot of my online purchases are from Christchurch. So, I said to the girls, why don’t we do one in Christchurch? Why don’t we go the extra mile, pack the van up, like pack that shit in, like a Tetris game and just drive it down. So, Ema and I did the road trip down and Cathy and her husband Martin are going to drive the van back and we get to fly home, which is cool…

Sharing it out!

So we’re sharing it, it’s a beautiful kind of sharing philosophy that we have, and at the end of the day, you know, we’re all trying to make a buck and to live off what we’re all passionate about. The pop-up format is a good way to expand audiences and allow for different communities to come and look and touch and feel and have that kind of retail experience. You know online is online. Everyone shops online these days but you can’t beat being able to actually see the piece in the frame, touch it, feel it, lift it up, you know. That’s the thing.

Particularly when they are unique items…

Totally. Even in Auckland, in my showroom, people come in and say, ‘Oh it’s so good to see the stuff!’ And a lot of the pieces, they do get up there in terms of price and I wouldn’t expect people to not want to have a look in the flesh first. So, yeah, I’m super excited about tonight and tomorrow and it looks like we’ve had a really good response online so we’re hoping for a good turn-out.

Pop-Up Shop at The Exchange, September 2017, photo courtesy of Flox

I imagine it will be, Christchurch seems to have developed a better reputation for coming out. There feels like a bit of a sea change, but it’s understandable when for so long there wasn’t much to do…

Absolutely, as you said before, I have been down here a multitude of times in the last ten years and every time, obviously a lot has changed down here, but I go back with this renewed sense of energy, cos so much has changed and I feel like it’s quite motivating. I mean, you guys have been through shit, it’s been hard, but I think now you’re on the other side of it, there’s a lot of positive change, it’s cool to see.

Touch wood!

Touch wood!

Opening night of Pop-Up Shop at the Exchange, photo courtesy of The Exchange

Just going back a little bit, when you talked about the experience in India, and then in Napier, which was the Sea Walls event right? (Sea Walls New Zealand is co-ordinated by artist Cinzah Merkins, and is a tie-in to the international Pangea Seed Foundation events which combine muralism with ocean conservation themes)

Yeah, it was Sea Walls, correct, correct.

Such events are becoming more and more common, where there is a social tie-in to the ever popular street art or mural festival. They obviously present muralism as a vehicle for social commentary and serve as a realisation of the power of these forms. Through your participation what reflections do you have on such events?

Yeah, you know it shows thought and discussion and it really brings a community together, you know, like public art does that anyway, but on top of that we’ve got this incredible theme running through, such as Sea Walls, which is basically marine conservation. We were given a range of topics to choose from. Firstly, it brings communities together because it brings up topics that need be discussed and talked about. But also, from an artist’s point of view, you’re really connecting and you’re really forced to think outside the square and maybe try something new. So you’re growing yourself. You know, with those festivals, personally, every time I paint a mural I want it to be the best I’ve ever painted. So it’s a growing exercise, from a technical and process-driven point of view. But also, the level of communication that you get and feedback from communities is unprecedented. It’s phenomenal.

As opposed to festivals that might undertake discussions about what graffiti and street art are becoming now, these events with social or ecological themes, they move in a different direction, away from the insular reflection and show the inherent ability of these types of expressions to be part of our wider discussions. You know, urban art is often considered rebellious, something people try and solve, but this shows the potential for these cultures to be part of a whole wide range of our communal experiences, which ultimately must be really fulfilling, because I assume ten years ago this wasn’t something you thought would be happening, right?

It’s moving so quickly, like these whole subgenres that are happening and the whole muralism thing, twenty years ago, it was just graffiti, and that had its own origins. But I think fundamentally, when you’re comparing maybe the graffiti world and then this whole street art thing and then the muralism and the festivals, the difference is that I always liken us to the ‘hippy’ artists, the tree huggers, you know, because our intent is to engage, to say ‘Hey come and have a look, I’ve got something to say, and I want you to be able to read it and to have a connection with it.’ I want you to be a part of this genre or this thing that is going on, whereas graffiti was really closed. I wouldn’t have a friggen clue what that said, what they were writing was for those people only, so I think the arms are moving wider and wider, and muralism again is just this whole other thing, it’s just like this huge growth, it’s just blowing up isn’t it?

And it’s raising some really interesting questions around who gets to define and appropriate terms, is post-graffiti/street art/urban art/muralism the same thing? Are they different limbs of the same body? But in many ways its feels like all these arms need to co-exist so that it isn’t co-opted by institutional powers to say this is what this is, and that is one of the dangers I guess, and it’s really important for the sense of ownership and that is why I think artist driven initiatives are so key…

Yeah, I think so, and I think one of the greatest things of any subculture that arises is that it is completely natural and it just comes out of nowhere, you know, and then suddenly you’ve just got this thing, and you’ve got to make a label for it, ‘Quick! What’s it called? What is it?’

Its our human nature to categorise, isn’t it? Recently I was talking to some students about Christchurch’s post-quake landscape and the changing types of creative expressions and interventions, and one student asked why certain cities have become popular sites for graffiti or street art? And my response was that there are so many reasons, and things happen organically, be it a socio-political influence, a response to the physical setting, or it can be just a group of people coming together at a specific time…

It can be a specific situation, like the earthquake, there are so many reasons. Then you’ve got gentrification, that’s another one…

It is really interesting in Christchurch in the inner city at the moment, you may remember a few years ago it was much more haphazard, but you’ve got more and more of these shiny glass facades popping up, and it’s changing the landscape. It is quite interesting to think about what the response might be, there’s room for some really cool guerrilla projects because that physical surrounding is such a big driver of how artists respond to areas.

Absolutely, it’s about using what’s there too, looking for those opportunities.

So when you visit other cities and produce work, how much of that experience of the physical, the social, all those other issues that the actual event that you’re there for, or if you’re just travelling yourself and you get the chance to produce something, how many of those issues come into consideration, I mean is it everything? Or is it often something more personally driven?

Thinking of Taiwan for example, I had the wonderful opportunity to stay there for three months on a residency, so I had the freedom to take my time and create a new body of work and respond to some of their social issues, you know, and also draw on some of the parallels that Taiwan has with New Zealand. So you have those situations where you have freedom and time, and then for me because I work with stencils most of the time, I’m having to pre-plan. So I’m not one of those artists that can rock up, (laughs) like when we did Sea Walls there were 23 artists, and I’d been working for three weeks leading up to it, and then we got there on the first day and I’d say 70 per cent of the artists didn’t know what they were painting! That’s a luxury right there! But I felt really confident because I knew exactly what I was going to do, and I actually like the whole planning thing. It has become almost like a graphic design exercise for me, that’s the challenge. Lately I’ll work really hard on these graphic layouts and Photoshop stuff, and some client driven jobs will require me to do that, but far out the last few walls I’ve done have been really well matched to the brief, so for me the process means that I can’t rock up to a city and, unless I’ve got time, and create a new body of work there and then, or get stuck into a wall. But certainly I like to respond thematically to a locale, and I think that travel has become an integral part of my rollercoaster process. With my practice I get asked to do stuff all the time that may not be as artistically rewarding, and because I’m doing that I have to make sure that I’m well fed, artistically, so I’m doing the festivals and I’m doing the fun stuff, so there’s sort of like two ‘me’s happening at once, and travel is the way in which I come back round to the beginning of that loop and re-influence myself and get that whole new inspiration from new cultures and new locations. For me that’s key, that’s how I work now.

And it just becomes a legacy that you can carry on and build on right?

Totally.

All those experiences feed each other…

And for your audience as well, it shows that you’re constantly on your toes, and you’re moving things along and you’re creating new stuff, and like I said, it’s for me too, otherwise, I’d be bored shitless!

Absolutely! That’s a good transition to talk about your diverse practices. We’ve talked about wall works and murals, but obviously your work ranges from clothing to light boxes to painted panels and beyond, do you think that’s driven by your own explorative nature, or is it tied to the processes you use, or again, is it all of them? Does your approach present constant opportunities to collaborate?

I get asked to do a lot, and now I do a lot of public speaking, and I work with students a lot and I say: ‘I think the best piece of advice I ever got and I’ll pass it on to you guys is that versatility is key.’ In this day and age, when you go to art school and you practice to become a painter, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go off and be a fashion designer or a photographer. I mean, you don’t have to be one thing. I think industries are crossing over in all sorts of ways, and I think that if you can show versatility then that’s essentially keeping doors open. So, yeah that’s always been part of my philosophy, just doing all sorts! (Laughs) But also, if we look at the business side of things, I’ll think: ‘Well, I haven’t really been doing many kitchen splash backs lately, but far out, the private commissions are going off at the moment!’ So it’s sort of like, if somethings not really flying, something else is…

In those commercial elements, say the splashbacks for example, do you find that inspires you to push your work in new directions that may reflect that experience, but without the utilitarian value? Do you find the commercial or practical stuff inspires your more freestyle practices? I’m just thinking that working on that glass surface of a splashback, it must present a range of problems, therefore a range of solutions, therefore a range of possibilities…

Yeah,

Do you find that they overlap quite a lot, do you find them seeping into one another?

Yeah, definitely, there are heaps of cross-overs like that, you’re learning on every job. You’re learning something that you can then take to something else. I mean thirteen years of doing this, you kind of take for granted the level of skill and knowledge you’ve got in your little kete, because it just seems normal. But it wasn’t until I started teaching workshops and I’m like actually, that thing there, you should be teaching them that because I’m just taking that for granted now, it’s just second nature for me. So, yes, there’s all sorts of stuff that crosses over, like you know kitchen splashbacks or outdoor exterior wall stuff for the council, yeah all sorts. I’m constantly learning.

So let me ask about your stencil techniques and processes. I was fascinated when you were here for the 2015 Spectrum show, I had the chance to see the show being put together, and I will always remember seeing all your plates laid out for your indoor wall work, it was an enduring image for me about the process of creating a larger stencilled work. What are your thoughts on the progression of stencilling, because I look back at the very political lineage, it was about a graphic nature that could be replicated and get out to as many places as possible…

It’s like signwriting almost isn’t it?

Absolutely, and what it did was allow preparation and readability, for images that could be replicated anywhere to suggest a particular message…

Repeated as well, repetitive…

And then from there slowly we’ve seen the rise of processes that sort of lead to the likes of Logan Hicks producing massive works of photorealism…

Highly skilled…

Almost mechanical in precision.

Like it’s gone back to the actual photo, like it is the photo.

What I’m getting to (in a long-winded manner!), is that one aspects I love about your work is the painterly quality, which shows the potential of stencilling as a medium, so it’s not just a way of producing a representation image. There is something beautiful in masking space and exploring negative space.

There is, and that’s the fun part about stencilling. I think my background, when I went through art school, I was really interested in printmaking and there are a lot of principles very similar to stencil creation: positive and negative space, what part you leave and what part you take away, that’s the bottom line of stencilling. But for me, my stencil aesthetic has always been evident. I remember the day that my partner at the time, we were working together in Cut Collective, and I remember when we did our first power box together. I was Flox, just, and I was just dabbling, mucking around with the stencil, and we’d finished it and printed it out flat and looked at it, and he was like, wow, I’ve never seen stencilling that looks like this, this is really unique, it’s really different. And up until then, all we’d really seen was you know, Banksy, and its that whole posturized kind of, very Photoshop looking stencil. And so this, over time, that’s the way in which I make marks, the scalpel is my pencil, so I’m really lucky. I feel like inherently, I have his thing in me that I feel so confident with a scalpel now that I’m really scared of a pencil. Like it’s flipped on me, like I get quite anxious when people say, ‘Can you draw something?’ and I’m like ‘No, I can’t draw anything actually, but I can cut!’ But, yeah, what I love about it is that there’s the whole stencil cutting creation, which is unique to me and because I’ll project up on the wall the image and I’ll draw my rough guidelines, but then really at the end of the day I’m ad-libbing with my scalpel, and that’s my special time, and then the painting part, I still get to be playful and although the stencil is rigid, it is what it is, but I can do all sorts of beautiful shading and splatter, and that whole painterly thing, I can be really creative with that stuff, the under-lying stuff, so there’s the combination of the rigidity of the stencil but also the intuitiveness of the painting process as well. I think that’s quite a nice blend.

And I think it’s often overlooked with the way people approach stencil techniques, they’re thinking blocks, a hard and fast positive/negative concept of form. But when you combine the rigidity of a plate with the amorphous nature of spray paint you get this nice combination…

Yes! You get that nice marriage. It’s funny because people will ask me, like a big bird of mine, how many stencils is that? And its only ever one, so I do all the shading and all the colours, and all that stuff freehand underneath, and then I put my stencil line layer, the top layer, whatever you want to call it, on top and that really confuses people, it seems way more complex than it actually is. But it’s not many layers, its one.

But it is layers of paint.

It is layers of paint. And that’s what I teach, I don’t hide anything, my kaupapa for my workshops is to teach exactly what I do, all my tips and tricks, and I just think, the more you can share the better, and who knows whose coming through? We didn’t really have any role models you know, it was kind of like walking through blindly for those first few years.

Which can be quite freeing right? Like you’re not living up to something, and yet at the same time it can be daunting…

It’s both isn’t it? You don’t really know where you’re going, however yes, it is really liberating.

I’ll stop before we get too far down the rabbit hole! Finally, coming back to Christchurch several times, what is your perception of how the city has changed, both in the obvious physical standpoint, but also compared to other cities? Is it a site of great potential or as some people might suggest, a site of lost opportunity? Which might seem cynical, but rebuilding on such a level is obviously a difficult proposition…

It is and everyone’s always got their perceptions, like one of my best friends, she comes down here a fair amount, to visit her sister in law, or some family member, and I always go on to her about how much I love Christchurch, and every time I come down things are moving and there’s this sense of motivation in the air, and new cafés and restaurants are opening, and she’s like, ‘Really?’ I don’t know if it’s the circles she hangs out in, but it’s just so depressing, but I guess I am part of the creative movement, and I’m surrounding myself with certain types of people, and that is what is motivating, and its up to the person isn’t it? To be a part of whichever part they want to be a part of. But for me, yeah, I’m not sure about missed opportunity, but from what I’ve seen I feel like people are really moving and changing and it feels like there’s a lot of really entrepreneurial types out there.

Flox’s wall for Spectrum, Welles Street, 2015

And I think there is an interesting type of entrepreneurship, in that there’s a social element, it’s not just the economic opportunist, it’s the social contribution…

People are a lot friendlier too, I mean compared to Auckland, you know, it’s a lot more open door, and maybe it’s easier to generate networks. But also like you say, for so long, there wasn’t much to do so people are really amped to be a part of something.

I think seeing your city deconstructed imbues in you a willingness to try things, to explore things, an that’s one of the interesting conflicts with the rebuild, you know, as this wild west landscape is disappearing a little bit, that control comes back and it will be interesting to see if that willingness of people to try things, to do things, endures…

I think so, it feels like you’ve got some good planning in place, I don’t know the ins and outs, but I’d like to think we in an era now where people are actually thinking about these things, it’s not the nineties, so I don’t know, touch wood right?

That’s right, as wishy-washy as its sounds, it’s a journey everyone’s on, and everyone’s experience is going to be slightly different as well.

That’s very true. Like we were just saying before, like imagine if we had a place like this (The Exchange) in Auckland? Obviously Auckland’s got its own problems, it is so widespread that it’s very difficult to create those cool little networks, those communities. In saying that, I’m right in Greylynn, so I do have that to a certain degree, but still. Not to mention, the price, the cost of rent, to have something like this you’d have to be a millionaire, times two!

It’s quite interesting to walk out of this space into the surrounding industrial area…

Yeah, I like that!

And yet, you’re still a stone’s throw from the central city…

It’s just there! It’s only five minutes! I like that and I hope these places survive through the build…

Definitely, it will be telling to see what legacies remain, and which are cast aside. And as I say, I hope the majority of people are willing to embrace ideas that have been borne of the challenges of the whole experience.

Like they’re genuine to that right?

Yeah, part of an attitude that has become fortified by this whole thing. Thanks for speaking to us! I’m looking forward to your pop-up, I’m sure you have a lot to do before the opening, so I will let you get back to it!

Thank you!

Find out where to see Flox’s mural in Christchurch on Watch This Space’s interactive map here or find out more about what Flox is up to on her Facebook page.

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