The concept behind the Street Treats series is to reflect the diverse expressions on the walls of the city beyond the large scale permissioned murals, reaching into the traditions of urban art culture’s roots as a subversive, rebellious and independent art movement. Of course, it gets tiresome to use terms like rebellious for an artistic culture that is thoroughly mainstream now, but it is important to remember the potential of these types of expressions as both visual messages and tactical invasions of our heavily designed environments. Commentators (often those attempting to defend the ‘art world’ by dismissing street art, as if they are actually in competition) can often charge street art with a vacuity, and as such a lack of conceptual heft and valid commentary. However, the point is as much about the manner of expression as the content – the act is the message. There are of course exceptions, explicitly political messages that favour bludgeoning bluntness over sophisticated subtlety. The reason for such a decision is another aspect of street art’s aesthetic – the audience must be commandeered – they are not arriving inside a white cube with an idea they will be confronted, but instead engaged in their daily activities, necessitating an immediacy. Of course, in this type of situation, even a lack of message can impact a viewer, by simply adding an air of uncertainty and inquisitiveness to a stroll through a city. To that end, the selections in this volume run from wide-ranging political commentaries to nostalgic popular culture references, and importantly, the intervention into our surrounding environments, making use of the spaces and fixtures that we often take for granted, revealing the potential for transformation…
Don’t forget to share your own pictures from the streets by tagging us in your social media posts with #watchthisspace or #streettreats…
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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…
During the Covid-19 lock down, with our guided tours unable to run, we applied to Creative New Zealand for funding to create a virtual tour – a video series where you could learn more about some of the city’s most beloved graffiti, street art and murals from the artists who created them, all from the socially safe distance of your couch. With our friend Centuri Chan manning the camera and the editing desk, we talked to 17 New Zealand artists to get some insights into a range of works and topics, from Ikarus‘ take on graffiti writing and Paul Walters‘ stories about the massive SALT mural, to Jacob Yikes‘ discussing his signature style and Flox recalling her Ode to Hinewai work in Beckenham.
Originally conceived as a singular continuous feature, it became apparent that a segmented, episodic approach would prove more manageable, more adaptable and more consumable. As a result, the concept evolved into 16 individual vignettes, forming a cohesive series and spread across multiple platforms, including our online map entries. Featuring artists from around New Zealand (Paul X Walsh, Cracked Ink, Berst, Chimp) alongside local talent (Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Dcypher, Dr Suits, Nick Lowry (Tepid), Dove, Jacob Root (Distranged Design), Josh O’Rourke, Jen Heads, Caelan Walsh), the series spans an array of styles and projects, highlighting the multifarious approaches within Ōtautahi’s urban art scene. Artists share humorous stories, intriguing insights and technical details, providing context and content to works that have become familiar sights in the city. With a level of normality returned, we like to think the Ōtautahi Christchurch Urban Art series is a perfect companion to a guided walking tour!
The Ōtautahi Christchurch Urban Art series can be viewed on our YouTube channel, via our social media platforms or on our website. With new episodes released each week, follow and subscribe to our various forums to receive notifications when new episodes go live!
Check out some of the videos below:
Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:
Urban art, and graffiti in particular, are viewed by many as masculine realms, physical, aggressive and competitive. But, the reality is that women have long had a vital role in the history of wall writing and street art, from subway graffiti writers like Lady Pink, to post-graffiti icons like Swoon, and leading members of the contemporary mural movement like Maya Hayuk. In Aotearoa, the female presence in urban art has also been notable, and Fiksate’s Perspective exhibition, opening on November 6th, brings together an array of artists to share their diverse experiences and reveal the myriad stories and pathways of women in urban art.
Organised by Fiksate owner Jenna Lynn Ingram (Jen_Heads), Perspective brings together established and emerging female artists from around New Zealand (and further afield), with a diverse range of practices, from typography-focussed graffiti writers to spoon-loving street artists, collagists, paste-up artists, photographers, videographers, traditional painters and mural artists. This diversity reveals the approach of Perspective, less concerned with an explicit historical narrative or thematic or stylistic similarities, the show primarily explores the scope of work of the collected artists, from Flox’s beautiful stencils to Kophie Su’a-Hulsbosch’s empowered portraits or Befaaany’s striking urban photography. In doing so, notions of the female urban artist are both celebrated and challenged.
Accompanying the exhibition will be a limited-edition risograph zine, produced by Jane Maloney of M/K Press, providing additional insights into each artist’s background and further highlighting their varied experiences, from the challenges they have faced to the different environments that have fostered their approaches and nurtured their talent. While more fluid and non-binary gender identities may render gender specific exhibitions less necessary in the future, Perspective is an important moment in Aotearoa urban art, a celebration of some amazing talent.
Perspective opens 5:00pm, Friday November 6th at Fiksate Studio and Gallery, 165 Gloucester Street.
It seems like an age ago that we were introduced to Brendan Stafford and Greg Dirkzwager from local sustainable tech company Gen Green. The guys from Gen Green had the idea of lighting up some of Christchurch’s beloved street art murals using sustainable solar lighting, not only exposing the art in a (literal) new light, but also activating spaces in the city that often feel dead after dark. When they asked Watch This Space to help them realise the project, we were excited to join forces…
While such a plan seems straightforward enough, the reality is more challenging (even more so when you throw in a global pandemic). The first step was to select the works, looking at those pieces that would be practical and impactful, a difficult task in a city with so much urban art to choose from! We narrowed down the list to ten murals, although as time passed that list changed. The works formed a sort of trail to wander, spanning a section of the central city.
The next phase was to consider how to light the works, both from a design standpoint and more practically in terms of installation. Our imperative was always to ensure the works were not altered, the lighting instead simply highlighting or echoing the existing visual effects of the works. While the lights and charging panels are relatively small, finding solutions to avoid detracting from the works and to ensure safe and secure application was an important task. This was were Guy Archibald and George Clifford and the team at Living Space Group, a local contracting company, joined the project, contributing their skills to ensure all the requirements around installation were met.
With the lights installed, ten works of street art are now illuminated, creating an urban loop to explore the city, and just in time for the summer sun to play its part! And even if we do say so ourselves, they are looking pretty amazing!
Locate the lit up murals on the map below, and for more about each work, click onto our online map:
As the city continues to shift, refresh and transform, the little things matter more and more. The vacant and damaged spaces that encouraged more bold and brazen interventions are now less prominent (some of our favourite spots around the city face imminent revitalisation). The necessary contrasts of our urban surroundings are increasingly supplied by the small, unexpected things, clashing with the washed concrete structures and shiny facades that continue to stretch and grow. (Do I sound like a broken record?) Those little details that make a city lived in and alive can raise so many ideas, from the explicit to the subtle, the pointed to the more amorphous and undefined. Yet in each case, their mere presence serves to explore what it means to be part of and have a voice within a larger conglomeration. They provide a sense of the human and authentic (with just a touch of dissent, of course) and signs of contrast and contestation amidst the monolithic towers of progress (both literal and metaphoric), .
This second volume of Street Treats features a host of artists and threaded themes, from the traditional, yet entirely timely ACAB/1312 element, to graffiti’s unerring ability to speak of ugliness and beauty concurrently, or in the case of Teeth Like Screwdrivers’ ‘buff bluff’, the inherent potential in the blocks of grey paint that cover graffiti. Levi Hawken’s concrete sculptures have echoed the physical make up of the cityscape while speaking of his graffiti and skateboarding roots, and notably the Black Lives Matter movement. Vesil’s graffiti continues to be a highlight, diverse and well-placed, with an assortment of accompanying characters and accoutrements raising the spectre of playful nostalgia. Anonymous scribes contest election billboards and the future of human utility (I think…), or more hopefully, remind us that ‘love is rife’. Stickers and paste-ups continue to have a rising presence in the city, with acerbic, humorous and intriguing additions to urban walls and fixtures. In the case of FOLT’s skull cut-outs, it is as much the absence as the presence that is striking as these popular sculptural pieces are removed. Cosmik Debris’ paste-ups suggest the molecular science behind all things and the scale of being, while Dr Suits blurs the line between art and advertising, without anything to sell. This collection revels in the details of the city, details that many overlook. Yet, when you start to look closely, there are always surprises, always discussions, and always alternatives…
Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:
With the return of Level Two, August has been a bit of a roller-coaster, with the highs of communal gatherings matched by the returning weariness of congregations and the tiresome political bickering and conspiracy theory wackiness dominating much discourse. But that is where art is so effective, it can be both a glorious shared activity and a private independent adventure, a distraction from what is going on and a reflection of those same issues. The month started with a sense of excitement as I met with artist Tom Bell to discuss his upcoming show Adoration, which provided a great opening night. As time passed, more things turned my head. It was clear people were busy, from guerrilla interventionists, to mural artists, and it felt like the city was alive with activity. This energy has been somewhat tempered by the potential of a shut down (at the time of writing this at least), but it gives me pause to believe that even when difficult times emerge, art can always find a way to help out…
Tom Bell – Adoration @ Absolution
The month kicked off with a farewell as Tom Bell presented Adoration at Absolution in the Arts Centre. Tom has been based in Ōtautahi for several years, working as a graphic designer, while diving back into painting more recently as a creative outlet. His art has long been entrenched in Japanese imagery, and Adoration played homage to that ‘adored’ visual style. Intricately cut and painted plywood, with subtle layering and flashes of detail made for a striking collection. The turn out was also impressive, with Absolution jam-packed, a well-deserved result for the artist’s long path towards Adoration.
Levi Hawken’s urban installations
Auckland-based artist Levi Hawken’s concrete sculptures were introduced to the city at the Fiksate show Urban Abstract last year. Placed within the gallery setting, they were immediately recognisable as versatile aesthetic objects. But Hawken’s works are undeniably influenced by the urban environment and they gain so much from their placement within the cityscape. It was therefore an awesome surprise to see a number of his small works mysteriously applied to walls and fixtures around the city, subtly subverting expectations.
Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson’s TradeStaff mural update
We all know Wongi Wilson’s aerosol technique is mightily impressive, and that rings even more true as time passes and he refines his approach. That reality is instantly recognisable with his recent refresh of his own TradeStaff mural on the corner of Colombo Street and St Asaph Street. The original mural, painted around 2013, had become a familiar site in the CBD, but the new work, still in progress when I first saw it, is incredibly striking, almost invoking the proletariat intensity of propaganda posters…
Catching up with old friends…
Over the month of August, we have been putting together a project that we can’t wait to share… but for now, it is enough to say it has been a heap of fun catching up with a bunch of our favourite artists and revisiting some of their most memorable works (including some more recent additions), such as Berst and his God of the Forest in Sydenham and staircase mural inside the Canterbury Museum (pictured).
Distranged Design on Manchester Street
Distranged Design’s newest outdoor work on Manchester Street is an impactful surprise, anonymous eyes peering out from an expressionistic blue background splashed across a distressed wall. Staring at passing traffic from behind hurricane fencing it is an alluring sight and forms part of a larger collection of interventions in the vacant lot…
What were your highlights from August 2020? Let us know in the comments below…
Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:
For the latest entry in our photo essay series, we reached out to Befaaany, a Christchurch photographer whose work showcases the urban and concrete landscapes of the city. After being impressed with her striking pictures on Instagram, we knew she would be a perfect fit. Befaaany’s response was a beautiful collection of black and white images that run the gamut of urban expression, small stickers, bold graffiti, abstract paintings produced in perilous environments and the ephemera of a eradicated presence. In compiling these photographs, Befaaany is able to highlight the issue of street art’s gentrification and mainstream popularity, a process that has in many ways clouded our recognition of street art’s subversive and disruptive potential…
Local street artists are constantly finding new ways to create art in a city filled with council-funded installations from international artists. These have included challenging gentrification of graffiti directly, blurring the lines of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ street art, disguising their art into the city, and leaning into the temporary nature of their art form. – Befaaany
Follow Befaaany on Instagram to see more of her amazing work…
Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:
Earlier this year I received an email connecting me with Bulky Savage, a New Zealand-born artist living in Berlin, who was seeking a wall to paint while home visiting family. We traded some messages and attempted to find some options, but ultimately it appeared that nothing would quite line up. Intrigued by a Kiwi artist now based in an epicentre of urban art, I dived into his Instagram to become familiar with his work. His quirky menagerie of characters, seemingly indebted to the influence of cartoons, were immediately endearing, while literal washes of colour added vibrancy but also a suggestive symbolism. Imbued with a sense of playfulness, they were equally comfortable in the digital illustrative realm as they were on the streets.
Fortunately, B.S. was finally put in touch with the owners of Riverside Market and before returning to Germany, finally got the opportunity to produce a mural to mark his temporary homecoming. The wall painting, featuring one of his recurring hollow-eyed skull characters and a flow of colour echoing sloshing paint, is on a somewhat secluded wall in the laneway beside the bustling market. However, that seclusion doesn’t stop it from being a striking sight once you are introduced, beguiling in its seemingly open narrative, with confectionery-esque colours set to flood the ground.
While we had only exchanged brief pleasantries via email, when we finally chatted face to face (or at least via a Messenger call, as is the way in these pandemic times), it was quickly apparent that B.S. was instantly affable and an hour quickly passed. We discussed Berlin, his entrance into the street art world, his experience here in Christchurch and importantly, the state of the world and the modern economy…
While I’m sitting here in Christchurch, you are in the morning sunshine of Berlin, how did you come to live in Germany?
I grew up in Auckland. my dad is English but has been in New Zealand since the late seventies, and that’s kind of how I managed to be over here, with that [British] passport, but who knows how much that’s worth anymore…
So, at what age did you leave New Zealand, and what drew you to Berlin?
I turned 23 very shortly after I left New Zealand. I just wanted to get out. Our tiny little home in the middle of nowhere is great, but it is very hidden away, so I just wanted to see what was going on in the world. Europe was obvious and I had the passport, so that made things a bit easier. I wanted to learn another language, so I wanted to go somewhere in Continental Europe. I bumped into a bunch of German people as I was leaving New Zealand and again while I was travelling, and Berlin came up. It was always a blip on the radar, but I didn’t know anything about it except that it has always had good music. But by my second day here, I was just like, yeah, this is cool, I could do this for a bit. I did spend two months living in London when I ran out of money. I couldn’t get a job in Germany, so I went to London and worked for two months and squatted and got some cash together before settling here.
My impression of Berlin was that there is a palpable energy to the city. It was busy and there was a grit that wasn’t evident in Munich, for instance.
There is a little bit of everything here in Berlin, something for almost everybody. You either love that chaotic kind of energy like you said, or you don’t, certain people just don’t get on with it, but yeah, it totally grabbed me. I never really had a trajectory until I got to Berlin and saw the street art everywhere, and I was like, this is where I need to be!
So much of Berlin’s history can be seen and felt in the streets. The streets speak in many ways, re-presenting different eras and epochs, and that lineage almost informs the graffiti and street art in Berlin with a potency that some cities lack. While muralism is often charged with complicity in gentrification, in some ways urban art itself has been gentrified, but in Berlin it felt different.
Yeah, I guess that is always one of the conundrums of being part of this kind of art scene. It does kind of run both sides of the gambit. It is part of the problem and the solution! Berlin was definitely a bubble within it all, at least for a while… Gentrification has become more of a problem recently as the city folds a bit to the mighty Euro and murals do get absorbed into that as well. But yeah, muralism is only one layer of the street art and graffiti scene and there will always be people telling stories from the streets here.
A lot of people have said that Berlin’s a place for lost people. You get a lot of people coming here because they don’t really know what they’re doing with themselves. They spend a couple of years here and then figure it out and go and make money somewhere else. I guess I never got out, I became entangled with Berlin. But it’s become part of my art style and my lifestyle. I guess it’s also spoiled me, I’m not really sure that I could go and do what I’m doing somewhere else, in the same way anyway.
You explore a lot of different creative activities, so how would you describe what you do? Do you define yourself by any particular discipline or medium?
I like to say that I’m an artist who does street art sometimes. I bore easily, but if I’ve got different things to play with, I can always move on to something else. I really like photography, but everybody does photography, so it’s a much more difficult market to break into. I do digital stuff, and I’m trying to get back into painting with paint brushes again and things like that. But spray cans particularly are my jam. I’ve gotten good with those and its really nice to feel capable with something like that. That’s the problem with being multidisciplinary, it’s really frustrating working with things where I’m almost there, but I’m not really there. It’s nice to work with something where I can be like, bang, bang, bang, it’s done the way I wanted it. That is very satisfying.
There is something about the material qualities of aerosol that seem a particularly good fit for an urban environment like Berlin. One of my enduring memories in Berlin was stumbling across a Blek Le Rat stencil, it had almost all been painted out apart from the feet of the character and his name, but I always remember being struck by the way that the paint sat on this brittle concrete surface. But there is a lot of discussion going on now with artists about how to balance environmental concerns with the reality of aerosol, is that something that you think about?
Sometimes. There are always concerns with all sorts of different things for me, not just environmentally, but also keeping myself sane, so I have to balance out the impacts that I have with keeping myself happy. That might seem selfish sometimes, but I live in Germany and Germany’s pretty good at taking care of that stuff. There are proper waste bins for spray cans at a lot of the walls you paint these days, which is good. I hope they get taken care of properly, you don’t really know, there’s only so far that you can go when it comes to things like recycling. I can put all my stuff in all the right boxes, but I don’t know what happens after that. I’ve heard that they don’t even recycle themselves, certain things get sent to China, stuff like that. That is completely out of my control, so I try to not worry about that as much. Its great now that they don’t have things like CFCs, I’ve had people come up and say what about the ozone layer, and actually, you know, technology, baby!
Aerosol really informs the entire process, the final image, the process of making that image, even the conception of that image, it’s a defining tool for a lot of artists, and one that is so hard to replicate…
You can’t get that effect with anything else; air brush is close, but it’s also not. I have been working on an exhibition; it was planned for the first week of lock down. I wanted to make smaller scale works, so I’m using stencils, but I had to use spray cans because I want that beautiful gradient and that granular effect that you get from aerosol. There was nothing else I could use that would work like that…
It was initially adopted by graffiti writers primarily for mobility and efficiency, but increasingly, it’s actually the aesthetic that has become the attraction. The mastery that has been achieved over generations has become what drives and defines its continued use. When did you start using spray cans?
In New Zealand there were a couple of people on the periphery of my friends that were getting into street art. Cinzah was best mates with a girlfriend of mine at the time, and I went along to a couple of his shows and he was doing some paste ups and things. I was like, this is kind of interesting. I really love his style, it’s fantastic. But I was already on my way overseas, so by the time I got to Europe, that was really my first proper introduction to spray cans. I think it was maybe two or three years after I got to Berlin that I really started playing around with spray cans, so I guess around nine years ago. They are a difficult tool to master…
You mention the influence of street art, were you attracted to the act of painting in the streets? Often that is the biggest leap, because it is a decision imbued with more significance as you get older, when you’re more aware of a lot of the mechanisms in public space…
I hadn’t considered it before, but when I got to Berlin it was so pervasive, I felt comfortable getting out and being part of it. I just went out on my own. I made some paste ups because I couldn’t use spray cans at the time, but I could draw. I was all about drawing to begin with, I still am to some degree. I’d gone into a little gallery which is not really around anymore, it was run by this guy EMESS, a stencil artist, and I talked to him about the kind of stuff I was doing, and after that I went out and made my own paste ups. I went out with a sponge, totally the wrong gear! One of those pieces was still around recently actually, it stayed up for like eight years, which is pretty impressive for a paste up. Then, finally, I started doing street art workshops and teaching people how to do stencils, and that was when I really started playing around with spray cans a lot more, just taking it from there and putting it onto the walls as well. I did the illegal stuff here and there, but I’m not sure that I would have done it anywhere else besides Berlin. It is a lot more relaxed here than it is in most places. But the illegal side of it wasn’t really a draw card for me. A lot of people, particularly in graffiti, love that side of it, going out, getting into spaces that you shouldn’t, running from cops, that kind of thing. I guess my parents raised me to be a ‘good boy’, or at least put the fear in me! I was much more into the actual creation and painting part of it. I’ve got a bunch of friends who paint trains and things, and it’s great, but I just don’t have that in me. I like taking my time. That’s why I’ve gotten into murals, spending a couple of days painting is really rewarding to me.
Even if the illegal aspect wasn’t as attractive, were you still interested in how to situate a work in space and the encounter that you can create with an unsuspecting public audience?
When I was still doing paste ups and things, I’d like to have bits on corners of buildings so you could see it on one side and then pop around and there’s another part of it as well, leading people in certain ways. Interacting with outside spaces is a big part of the street art scene, and now, when it comes to murals, I still like that idea. I don’t want to put big messages into my art. I like to just have something that will pop and grab people’s attention, something a bit out of left field that will make them wonder what’s going on there?
Design and illustration are increasingly tied to urban art, as an interconnected pathway and through the iconographic approach of post-graffiti, the creation of an instantly recognizable and relatable icon. Has your design background influenced your work?
I studied design at Massey University in Wellington for a couple of years because I was young and foolish. I basically thought that was how you made money in art. But really, I’m more into the ‘art’ side of things. You can see that my work is very graphic, although I would say maybe more Pop Art these days. But the graphic design thing, I didn’t only do it because of the money side, I love graphic design as well, and it has definitely influenced my style.
There is an unmistakable, recurring quality to your work, notably with the hollow-eyed character, did that develop as an intentionally recurring presence, or was it something that just kind of emerged and endured?
I think I drew the first iteration of that character just before I left New Zealand. I used to work at Cosmic Corner and I did a drawing of that little character one day at work. Characters and cartoons have been a massive influence throughout my life. The Simpsons were my favourite thing growing up, and you can see the shape of Homer’s head in that character. I just kind of absorb things from everywhere. While I was traveling, I started to really develop the characters and then I came to Berlin and that’s when I was like, this is where I can take them. Over the years, I just played around with them and they took on their own personalities. There is the big fat businessman who keeps losing his head, there is the little sad guy, the introspective guy and then the crazy worm guy. They are all sort of similar, and I guess through a slow process I have imbued them with bits of my own personality.
Do they occupy their own universe or are they part of our world? The Simpsons live in Springfield, which is famously never revealed on a map, it is sort of a contained universe, but they are also part of the broader world through storylines and their pop culture status. I guess as soon as your characters are added to public space, they start to occupy our world as well, right?
I have given them this world they inhabit, which is kind of like Springfield, I guess. It’s called Crushington and it is this relatively colourless place. There’s a Crushington in New Zealand as well, which is funny. If you look at some of my line drawings, there’s this kind of desert-like landscape, these big open spaces influenced by New Zealand, where you’ve always got that big horizon line, whether it’s the sea or the mountains. There is also a little bit of Colin McCahon in there. I love Moebius’ style as well, the desert line he uses, I stole that bit. But I like how you were saying The Simpsons are part of our world, but they’re not, because I feel the same with my characters. For the most part they are two-dimensional beings in our world, and I really want to get into sculpture over the next couple of years and bring them into a more three-dimensional form. I want to play with that idea and bring them from their world into ours, because there is this second space they inhabit where they are more like what I know. I haven’t really shared it so much, but I’m going to have an exhibition about Crushington at some point soon…
Kaws has shown with his Companions that there is so much potential to explore those three-dimensional incarnations, different materials, various scales, and even playing with the perception of high and low…
That’s one of the things that always drew me to the street art and graffiti world, if you want to do it, you do it. You can take that style, or you can take from there, take from there, take from there, and that’s why I think it’s been such an interesting movement, you have all these people coming from different backgrounds and different influences coming together and making something completely different. It’s exciting…
The waves or oozing colours are another recurring element in your work. Do you want to dive into that imagery a little bit? Metaphorically, of course…
I really started with those in 2017. I did an exhibition called Bit Sick, playing around with the B and the S of my name, and it was about how crappy 2016 was, and how sick I was of everything. I’ve always been someone who just goes with the flow and the waves were an aesthetically pleasing sort of rolling vibe, but also fit with the theme, because in that exhibition I had things about being sick of art, sick of commercialism, sick of America. Of course, 2017 came through and really shat on 2016, and things haven’t really got any better since!
By 2020 you must be more than a bit sick…
Well, you know, it all flows and rolls downhill! The exhibition that I’m working on at the moment, which was going to be out already actually, was very timely as well, it was all about not seeing the bigger picture and being focused on these little pieces, as interesting and attention grabbing as they are. Again, it is making us all feel a bit sick and now quite literally making the world sick. It’s really just about being over things as well; the state of myself, of the world, just expressing my feelings at the time. But there’s not going to be any characters in the exhibition, it’s just going to be the waves. They have become really fun to paint with spray cans as well, the shapes, the really nice blends as well, giving it a sense of solidity, so that’s become more of a focus…
I’m thinking of the idea of a purge, or a cleansing, and once you take away that figure, the idea of size and scale changes. If the wave becomes the sole focus, it becomes something else, right? When you see it come out of a figure, you automatically scale it relative to that figure, when you just see that wave filling an entire frame, that can be either overwhelming or it could just be a close-up of a small trickle. There’s something about that idea of the bigger picture and smaller details, and that social element becomes strangely more pertinent when you take them away from the figure. So, tell me about your experience painting here in Christchurch earlier in the year?
I’d never painted in Christchurch before, but my parents live just outside of Cheviot [a small town north of Christchurch], so when I go back, I fly into Christchurch. I would just get to see little bits of it as we drove through, or if we visited somebody there. I remember going there when the city center was still completely locked down after the earthquakes, but this was the first time I got to spend a little bit of time in Christchurch for some years, and it was cool. I saw a lot of opportunity there, personally, as much as the earthquakes were terrible, I love seeing old destroyed buildings, maybe that’s why I’m in Berlin. It’s not something that you really get to see in New Zealand, so I really liked that. I liked the show of power, but then also how the city has risen up from the ashes of it as well. The city is really interesting at the moment.
I found it incredibly interesting that Christchurch became this microcosm of a big city; you had shiny new buildings, you had broken buildings standing there empty and covered in graffiti, becoming spaces for people to explore. Different people could do different things. If your mindset was to explore those broken spaces, you could do that, if your mindset was to sit in a bar and drink a cocktail, you could do that. There was this interesting juxtaposition of old and new and broken and shiny. One thing that does is reveal a lot of the power structures that go into making a city. Christchurch has become interesting in that regard, and graffiti and street art have a role here as both dissenting voices and part of the rebuild as well. It shows why these forms of art have become such a dominant visual voice the world over, because they can adapt to different environments. How did the mural in Christchurch come about?
In a very winding way. Knowing I was coming back to New Zealand mid-last year, I started reaching out to people in September or October, mostly through Instagram. I got bounced around. I got in touch with Preston [Hegel] down at The Exchange, he was doing some cool stuff and was like, oh maybe you could talk to this person… I got bounced around between a bunch of different people before I got put in touch with the guys from Riverside Market at the last minute. I just said I’m going to be coming down in like two days and they said: Sure, we’ve got a space, you can do what you want. It just fell perfectly into place. I was slightly freaking out that I wasn’t going to be able to get a space to paint, and coming from Berlin, I was just like, what is this?! Where are my walls?! In Berlin, if you want to paint, you just go and find a wall. I have a wall that I can just go and paint anytime I want just down the road. I wasn’t necessarily looking to leave a massive mural, I just wanted to find somewhere to paint, if it could stay that would be a bonus, if not then c’est la vie. It worked out great, those guys were really nice, they were just like: What do you need? Here’s money for the paint. They paid me for it as well, which is fantastic. It was this very last-minute design, because I was like, let’s see what the wall’s going to be like and go from there…
The wall is quite high and relatively narrow so that obviously played into the design and I guess allowed you to use those recurring motifs in what seems like a natural fit…
Well, I had ideas floating around in my head of what I wanted to paint. I’d actually thought of having it the opposite way around, with the character at the bottom and all this stuff coming up out of it. But there was this big generator at the bottom of the wall, so I just flipped it around. Most of the time I tend to let the wall tell me what the piece is going to be, so I guess that’s good practice for when it comes to spaces like this one.
There are little references to food in the tattoos on the character, but there was no input in terms of what you had to include, that was just something that you added in?
Yeah, the guys were just like, do what you want. Which was amazing, because when you’re being paid to do something, a lot of the time they are like, it needs to be like this and fit inside this box. But I was really given freedom with it and I guess maybe that was why I thought if they’re still letting me do this then I’m going to throw in these little references to the space. I always like to let the tattoos kind of tell a story. I love tattoos, and part of the reason people get tattoos is to express little things about themselves or their experiences. I quite like incorporating them into my art in the same way, so if there’s meaning to be read from what I’m doing, which generally I try not to do, then it can be read in the tattoos…
Any artist would love that freedom to create something that is your own, but how do you think your work communicates to the crowds that go past, is there an intentional aspect that they should read, or do you encourage them to come up with their own narrative?
Yeah, story and narrative are really interesting for me. I love cartoons, I love stories. Life is stories. But I don’t want to preach, I like the idea of leaving something really open. We are human beings, we make meaning out of everything that happens, whether that’s actually what it is or not. So, instead of trying to push people towards my view or what I want to say, I prefer to leave that open and more abstract, so that people have something to play with. I often talk about Stik, the London street artist, who got famous for doing stick figures, but because they are so basic you can project your friends or your relationships or anything onto them because it’s such an open canvas. These very hyper-realistic pieces are beautifully done and technically fantastic, but there’s a bit of a distance because it’s just a picture of somebody that you don’t know. So, I like a more open experience…
Did the freedom of the mural energize you to strike out and do anything else while you were here? Is there anything hidden around Christchurch that I might not have stumbled upon yet?
No, to be honest I was a little bit out of shape and the mural was exhausting. I think I did about 19 hours in two days, and on the first night I was just completely burnt out. I was thinking about going and painting on the cans while I was there, but I just burnt myself out, I just went to bed! But I would love to come back and do some pieces in other spots, when and if that ever becomes a possibility…
Are you a Kiwi living in Berlin or a Berliner from New Zealand?
Good question! I’ll always be a Kiwi, but Berlin’s definitely become home for me. I would like to be able to split my year between the two places, because my heart is somewhat split, half of its here, half of its there, particularly with my parents being there. I love New Zealand, it’s refreshing. New Zealand people are almost the opposite of Germans in a lot of ways, very easy going, very open and welcoming, whereas you know, Germans are a lot more strict. That’s harsh, its an over generalization, obviously! But yeah, I love coming back to New Zealand, and just talking to the bus driver. It warms the heart. Christchurch in particular is looking interesting because there’s so much space, so many opportunities there at the moment, which was really good to see.
A small part of the reason for being away for as long as I have was because we had the John Key government which was in no way supportive of arts and artists, and as far as I’m aware, it’s still not super easy to be an artist in New Zealand when it comes to support from the government and things like that, but maybe that will start to change…
With lockdown precautions in so many places, it’s clear that people have been relying on art; on music, on film, on a range of forms of art, to get through isolation. And yet at the same time, no one ever positions the arts as vital, they talk about tourism or other industries, which is infuriating because if anything this situation reinforces how important the arts are to humanity. But we seem to have to go through this every time something significant happens, it was the same after the earthquakes as well. There’s still a real need to acknowledge artists’ ability to make their living doing what they do because what artists do makes life better…
Yeah definitely. I wouldn’t want to claim that my art enriches people’s lives, maybe it does and that’s fantastic. I always tend to feel a little bit selfish about my art, it’s something that I need to do, it’s very much my own expression and when someone can connect with it, that’s fantastic. Knowing that people have bought my stuff and have it hanging on their walls is nice, but again, the money side of it is not why I make art. I’d like to be able to just make art and not have to worry about the commercial aspects of it, you know? Universal Basic Income baby! People always think we need to make money and that becomes a driver and that’s when art loses a little bit of itself. I need to eat, so I have to make art that’s going to sell, but it would be nice if we learn something from this whole thing about what’s important for people, for people’s health and mental health. I run a little gallery and art shop space here as well and it’s interesting and frustrating thinking about what sells and what doesn’t and what you need to do to make money from it. I always feel still slightly grimy making my art into easily package-able things, being channeled into commercialism. Down with capitalism!
When Aotearoa entered the level 4 lock down as we faced the threat of Covid-19, many of us took to a daily walk within our bubbles, nominally for exercise, but if we are honest, as an escape from the confines of our homes, to remind ourselves that the world around us was still there.
Luckily for me, my suburban surroundings provided plenty of points of interest, and chief among them were the constantly expanding series of stickers and paste ups produced by the prolific Dr Suits.
Dr Suits’ output over the last few years has shifted to a process-centric fixation with abstraction. As he has investigated materials and techniques, he has also grappled with the transference between street and studio. While he has produced a range of outdoor works (including commissioned murals and even a basketball court), the lock down period saw perhaps the most cohesive body of street work he has created. From small vinyl stickers to large-scale paste ups, sweeping textural waves and various geometric forms of flat colour were juxtaposed to create items of intrigue. To learn more about this flurry of creativity, we caught up with Dr Suits to talk about the inspiration and motivation for these (sub)urban additions and how extraordinary times have inspired his work…
The notable thing about this body of work was just how quickly it seemed to come to fruition and appear on the streets, was it something you had already considered, or were you specifically inspired by the lock down?
It was spontaneous really. I think a lot of my work happens like that, when I find a delicious tasting fruit, I feast on it, until there’s no fruit left.
When we entered lock down, we just raided the studio for a bunch of materials and resources with no clear plan of what we were going to do with them. We just wanted to make sure we had stuff to work with at home. The stickers were great because they were small, and I could just mess around in the lounge.
The stickers led to the much larger paste ups, a form that you have a bit of experience with…
They were something that just came out of the stickers. It was a similar process, I just wanted to do the stickers bigger. I had the materials, the paint, the paper, the glue. The beauty of paste ups is that you can work on them at home, and then it only takes ten minutes to install them, which was great for lock down. It reminded me of the post-quake period, when I first started doing paste ups, but I adapted them to my present artistic approach.
A lot of your previous paste ups were illustrative. These works are a clear reflection of your more process-driven abstract direction of the last few years…
I thought of a few ideas to do some illustrative paste ups with more on-topic commentaries, but I couldn’t find the motivation because I was too distracted with the process of making these stickers and just doing what seemed natural…
Do you connect these works in any outward sense to the Covid-19 pandemic?
I could probably think of something more specific if I wanted to, but they are a direct response to that situation because if I didn’t have that situation they wouldn’t have been created, so in some ways they are a direct response.
The paste ups and the stickers both use a collage technique, but they can be experienced very differently because of their materials and size. Were you interested in how people would respond to the different works?
It’s more driven by the process of creation. I know people are going to respond to them in their own way and that’s what I like about abstract art. People always see something that you don’t see or think something that you don’t think. Even though they use the same process, I wasn’t really thinking about it. Obviously, the paste ups don’t demand as much inspection because they’re so big that you can see them from afar, you may or may not notice that it’s collaged. I was just really enjoying the process of cutting the shapes and overlapping them and exploring different compositions. That is really similar to the way I previously would do it, but I would use Adobe Illustrator or something like that to play around with shapes and I would just pick the ones that I liked. But with the stickers, each one was a development, and I would just keep each one, it wasn’t just picking the ones that I liked and then using those as a composition to make into an artwork…
When you’re putting the paste ups on the wall, are they constructed with the final image in mind? I’m assuming they are applied on the wall in sequence…
Yeah that’s right. With the stickers, I’d start with the background, with the brushy effect using the wide-tip Molotow marker, and then I would just cut shapes out of colorful vinyl, some which I’d spray painted first, and I’d play with compositions. Then I used those stickers to inform the larger paste ups.
Were you thinking about spots for paste ups in a different way to the stickers? I assume there was less planning around the stickers, whereas the paste ups would require some forethought…
There’s an abundance of spots out in New Brighton, so it’s not hard to find a spot. And during lock down it was so quiet, no one was around, I mean I could have painted them if I wanted to. At the time, I was more interested in the collage approach and finding those small imperfections where they are slightly offset and seeing the depth between the layers, the paper sticking on top of another layer which is on top of another layer and building up. The paper ripples and it creates little shadows and as it gets wet it shrinks and it might warp a bit, the stripe might move off to the side a little…
In terms of placement, what makes a perfect wall? It feels as if your works like to have room to breathe, but also it seems that geometry is an important consideration…
Definitely, I really like a wall to have similar or reflective elements that are going to make it relatable to the work. I like to have contrast, but I also like it to have some sort of unity. That balance is what I like in my work more generally anyway. You want it to stand out, but you want it to fit in, so I try to find texture or line or some shape or something in the composition of the space that’s going to contribute to the overall composition on the wall, like a box or a down-pipe, a color or a paint change or a set of windows.
Do you feel this has taken your studio work in a new direction?
Definitely. The stickers started developing with more curves and softer lines and the collage approach to the process is something I’ll take forward.
Your work seems to evolve in quite a fluid progression, with certain elements recurring and coming into focus, does it feel that way to you as you are working?
think with abstraction, it can be very sparse in terms of the elements you’re working with, so the changes are noticeable really quickly when you do change an approach or technique or some process behind how you make an image. I can really latch on to something just by changing that one thing and that change becomes a solid basis and everything else around that can change but you are still kind of keeping a consistency within the work.
There’s an anchor…
I like to have an anchor, especially with colour or shape or composition or texture. The anchor’s a link, you could look at it two ways; it’s a safety thing, I don’t want to jump too far away from what I’ve been doing, possibly because of fear, but also it keeps it recognizable from previous work so you can see a progression, that connection between where you are going and where you’ve been.
Has this series made you think about the street/studio balance?
I’d like to do more of the paste ups. I’ve got lots of ideas for those, but I can see them influencing my paintings as well. I want to take that same process, just do a little collage sticker and then maybe do a paste up or a painting directly from that, maybe try to do both, and just push that image out in more than one way…