Cinzah – Something Bigger

Napier artist Cinzah has a calm, relaxed demeanour. But that laid-back manner belies his busy schedule. The artist, whose work spans muralism, fine art, illustration and beyond (in 2012, along with his friend, filmmaker Karl Sheridan, Cinzah produced Dregs, the first feature-length documentary film about the New Zealand street art scene), is a regular in festivals around New Zealand, Australia and further afield, exhibits his studio work, completes commercial commissions, and in addition serves as the regional director for the Sea Walls New Zealand mural festival, working with the international PangeaSeed Foundation, a not-for-profit ocean conservation organisation. Add to the mix a young family, and you get the feeling that you might be able to do more with your time.

I first met Cinzah in 2012 while he was shooting through Christchurch on his way to Dunedin to film for Dregs. I was able to hang out, watching while he painted a wall in a dishevelled post-quake New Brighton well into the night. Some five years later, we were able to catch up as he painted another wall in New Brighton, this time for the event Street Prints Ōtautahi. There was a fitting quality to his Street Prints station, returning to the seaside village, but this time under very different conditions and surroundings. We sat down at a rowdy suburban pub, and between bursts of classic rock cover music, reflected on Cinzah’s varied experiences, his distinctive style, and the street art and mural culture in Aotearoa…

So, Cinzah, like many of the other Street Prints Ōtautahi artists, it has been a pretty busy few weeks, you basically arrived in Christchurch straight from the Street Prints Mauao event in Mt Maunganui. With such a hectic schedule have you had a chance to think about the different environments? Although both events come under the Street Prints umbrella, just from a physical point of view, they seem like quite different locations in which to be painting, have you reflected on the change in setting and the distinct qualities of each event?

We kind of all just arrived and hit the ground running. It’s been flat out from Street Prints Mauao up in Tauranga, straight down to Ōtautahi. But yeah there’s definitely differences, in terms of the geographies. Tauranga, Mt Maunganui, it’s a very beachy town, with summer vibes you know, it is very tourist-orientated, whereas down here,  the architecture’s completely different, the mix of gothic and Victorian English styles and straight up rubble and construction stands apart from the Mount. Obviously, things are still in repair and there’s a lot that’s still going on, it’s also really interesting to see how the quake and rebuild has affected the local graffiti scene, with the last few years of festival-produced works, large scale commissions as well as the juxtaposition with unconventional, un-commissioned, guerrilla works and interventions, like the array of graffiti.  It’s good to see all the different elements of the culture are alive and thriving. There’s basically no graffiti in Mt Maunganui, apart from what we’ve produced over the last few festivals there. (Laughs) So yeah, that’s an immediate difference…

There is an echo for you specifically at least, painting by the sea in New Brighton, you’ve still got the ocean air…

Yeah, exactly, except that it’s arctic! The easterlies are chilling my balls! (Laughs)

Welcome to Christchurch! (Laughs)

Yeah! (Laughs)

There’s also a nice personal narrative for you because in 2012 you painted in New Brighton during a brief stop-over in Christchurch. Looking back, how has the area changed in terms of your personal recollection?

There’s a lot more art. More public works, graffiti, interesting uses of abandoned spaces, some good cafes, and Fiksate Gallery is an awesome little addition to the hood.  When I came through in 2012, there were the odd piece around, the main mall was all just shut shops, there was basically nothing open. I started painting one little semi-abando (abandoned building), which had been partly demolished, and I remember one guy coming out, I don’t know if he had one of the businesses there, but he basically gave me permission to paint the entire street: ‘Oh yeah, you can paint here, or you can paint here, you can do this shop or that shop…’  It’s great to see positive changes here, there’s a lot of potential for this neighbourhood, its good to see people inhabiting these spaces and the community taking ownership.  New Brighton is heading in a positive direction.

Cinzah’s piece in New Brighton, 2012. The building was eventually demolished in 2013.

You have a lot of festival experience; do you have a process for getting to know cities and places? Is it just hit the ground running and get a vibe as you go, or do you like to spend a little bit of time exploring before you start painting?

Definitely, if the schedule and life allows, I like to have a day or so on the ground to acclimatise and adjust to my environment and the surroundings. I like to get out within the community and meet people and talk and get a feel for what’s going to work in that environment, what sort of work would suit, depending on what is going on around there, and also just to get a feel for whether the community is supportive. Is art really going to add to that environment or will it detract from things that might be happening there?  I usually have a preconceived idea, or concept mocked up before arriving, but I like to allow room for this to breathe, grow and be influenced by my surroundings and experiences that may present themselves.

There is a definite responsibility, right? It feels as though within the muralism movement there is a growing recognition of the need to respect and engage with locations and the communities, not just the people, but with the local cultural, social and even spiritual histories and narratives. Have you found your thinking around these issues has had to grow as you’ve been more involved in events? You offer an important perspective as both an artist and as a festival organiser…

Yeah, definitely.  You’ve got to look at the motives behind an event.  What is the purpose of the festival? Is it just a beautification project? Does it have a specific mandate to engage people into deeper discussions socially, politically or environmentally, or is it contributing to an act of gentrification?  More and more cases of this are popping up globally with big developers and corporations that have an ulterior motive behind these events, pushing out homeless to allow for new hospitality hubs and ‘arts’ districts, where artists can no longer afford to live.  It’s important to do your research before getting involved in a project.  I’ve always considered my environment and held this responsibility fairly close to heart, although I’ve been walking this walk a lot more frequently lately with my role within PangeaSeed, working in small communities, with local iwi, tangata whenua and so on. Art can be considered invasive on some notes when a festival rolls into a town, produces a bunch of work and leaves, without following certain protocols or doing the proper research. As a result, the locals can be left feeling startled, without the opportunity to express their unique voices and stories. The work needs to be well considered and thought out, it’s important to engage with the local communities, and create work that is relevant, that acknowledges and speaks to it’s audience.

With that changing ethos, and the strong socio-political foundations of many festivals, it also raises questions for both artists and curators. Do you select artists who already engage with specific concepts that suit a theme, or present a challenge to artists with an interesting visual style to expand their work into new areas? As an artist how do you respond to a brief that is possibly outside of your existing approach?

With Sea Walls, first up, the artists we work with need to be good people, produce good work, and be easy to work with. We often approach artists that dabble in the environmental arena thematically, although it’s a bit of both.  If someone has killer work, and can tackle a massive wall, but hasn’t experimented with work that relates to the mandate of PangeaSeed, that doesn’t limit their opportunity. We have a massive family of over 200 contemporary muralists from all around the world, and this whānau continues to grow.

Personally, I really enjoy responding to a brief, it’s good to have some boundaries to get the ball rolling, to spitfire ideas off.  Working in the public arena artists have an integral role to deliver a message with our work, it’s an amazing opportunity to really say something when you’re thrown a giant canvas smack bang in someone’s town.  It can definitely be challenging at times to work within a guideline in a festival environment.  With these two Street Print festivals, Tauranga’s theme was: ‘He aha te mea nui o te ao / What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata / The people, the people, the people.’ I think that theme really hit the nail on the head for Mt Maunganui. The works created a really strong identity for the area and paid homage to many important local figures, it really connected with the people that will be living with these works.

Graffiti and post-graffiti have traditionally been about a search for personal style, and that’s where this challenge really becomes apparent: evolving a personal style to make it engage with issues or ideas raised for a specific event or commission…

Tauranga’s theme lent itself perfectly to the majority of the line-up. Portraiture was pretty dominant, there was Fin Dac from Ireland and he paints his female portraits, Adnate was over from Melbourne, his work often focusses on indigenous people with a hyper-realistic kind of approach, Mr G, Askew, who has been going in different directions recently but still has elements of figuration and portraiture within what he does, Claire Foxton, I could keep rattling them off… A huge amount of the line-up were portrait artists, so that becomes a really fitting interpretation of the theme behind the festival. But I think when you throw somebody in who maybe has a graffiti background, like writing letters, or somebody who has more of an abstract approach, or just doesn’t paint figures, then you’ve got a whole other super interesting hurdle, you’ve got to think outside the box as to how you approach things.

Cinzah’s Street Prints Mauao wall, Mt Maunganui, 2017 (Photo credit: Cinzah)

A lot of that comes down to public reception as well, right? Because it is generally easier to understand portraiture, and that human connection, I mean that’s why it has always been such a prominent theme. So, it’s not so much that it’s not possible when you’re dealing with graffiti letter-forms or abstraction, it’s just that possibly achieving that immediate level of understanding is more difficult…

Exactly, it is instantly recognizable or relatable, but art is all subjective, it is all open to the viewer in terms of the interpretation of the work.  People make all sorts of calls as to what my work is about. Sometimes I paint things that are super obvious as I want to deliver a strong, direct message, other times it’s a little more expressive and abstract and that’s when you get all sorts of interesting responses to the work.  In San Diego I painted a 35 metre long wall depicting local shark species, with a massive 100,000,000 type piece in the background, as this is the estimated number of sharks that get killed annually for the global finning trade. I couldn’t really be more upfront and obvious with this work but that was the intention, to be in the public’s face and to educate on the most basic level about this issue.  I still get tagged and messaged all the time on social media about this work, people have spread the mural all around the net and it’s become a really strong conversation starter. The works I’ve created for these two festivals are definitely more abstract or symbolic with their meanings, a little more in line with some of my personal studio works and gallery based stuff.

It really shows the growing maturity of graffiti and street art muralism as public art: the ability to engage with and explore themes that haven’t necessarily been part of the culture previously, so this is allowing that growth and evolution to occur, even if it is challenging some of the bedrocks that people still hold dear…

Yeah, definitely. I feel like it adds a whole other level of substance behind the work, it doesn’t make it so much about the artist, it is about a greater purpose and you are addressing something bigger than yourself and it is not flying in on an ego trip and making work that you think is fucking rad and leaving. There’s a little bit more guts behind it, I think.

With Street Prints Ōtautahi, you are painting in New Brighton, you’ve got others painting in Lyttelton, other artists are dotted quite disparately around the central city, is it strange to be somewhat isolated when you are part of something that is essentially a shared experience as a group of artists? You told me about the amazing programme you put on for Sea Walls artists [including cultural excursions such as sailing on waka hourua with Te Matau a Maui, visits to significant local geographical and cultural landmarks, and even giving artists the chance to swim with sharks in shark tanks, giving them a personal connection with the often misunderstood animals], and with Street Prints Mauao, you all spent a night on Motiti Island staying with Mr G’s whanau, these types of experiences must be important elements now, especially with so many festivals and the need for a sense of legacy and identity…

I guess having an extra-curricular programme pulls everyone together. We are all staying at the same place, we’re eating together, we’re hanging out together, we catch up every evening, so you know there is a real community vibe with what we are doing here, but definitely, the map is kind of dotted out, I’m out here like you said, there’s a couple in Lyttelton, others are more central, which in some ways means you’re kind of pushed off the map, out to the side, although I’m really happy about it, its great the festival curators considered other areas that might kind of get left off the map, because of the geographic lay-out of the city.  Talking to a lot of locals while I’m painting, they’ve been saying: ‘Oh you are out East side, this is great! Don’t forget about us out here!’ People have been saying it is really brilliant you are out here, because New Brighton needs a bit of love, it needs an uplift, so it’s all been really positive, and I don’t mind because it is a well-organised event, I’ve got my own wheels, so I don’t really feel like I’m miles out from everybody else.  It’s a different vibe altogether from Tauranga.  Mt Maunganui was a really close circuit, which creates a really seamless legacy of work after the festival, I’m not sure how this will hold up with the separation of the works…

Fill us in a little bit about what your piece. What is the concept? Paint us a picture with words…

The work that I’m painting has got a large moth that’s migrating towards a big golden sphere which could be read as the moon or the sun or whatever, but the concept I was thinking about was how to translate what has been happening here and the idea of the reconstruction of a city, with basically a new beginning, a new birth, a new undertaking or some sort of transformation. So, I was thinking about different ways to interpret that, I was thinking about the life cycles of insects, from eggs, or larvae, to caterpillar to pupa or chrysalis to adult, it’s more or less about transformation and the symbolism of having the perseverance to push forward, to follow the light side and keep progressing against all odds. Follow the light! (not Jesus, unless you’re into Jesus) I want the work to inspire hope… It sounds cheesy, super fucking cheesy! (Laughs)

Cinzah’s Street Prints Otautahi mural, New Brighton, 2017

That’s the problem with painting with words, right?! (Laughs) Because the wall looks awesome…

Yeah, just go look at the picture! (Laughs)

In terms of your work more broadly, for me there is a storytelling element that is suggested through almost mystical or mythological imagery or iconography rather than overt narratives. For instance, the animals that you depict, like serpents, moths and even manta rays, for me, they have symbolic associations, but they don’t need to be explicit or obvious to the viewer, and when they are combined with the graphic, decorative style, including the use of gold, there’s a really suggestive quality to the imagery, is that a fair reflection?

I think you’re on the money there, I’m naturally really interested in art that has a narrative, is telling a story, often from different cultures’ folklore and mythology.  My works are inspired by life, what ever is going on around me at the time, from physical as well as metaphysical experiences.  Some of my works have an iconographic feel, possible due to the use of gold. In my gallery works I use 21 carat or 23 carat gold leaf and actually I’ve done some murals where I’ve used gold leaf in them as well, although due to budget and time this piece is basically straight fat gold chromies.  I love the way gold catches the light, it has this other quality to it. I like the idea of creating icons, although I wouldn’t say my works are inspired by religious icons… because I’m not religious at all… (Laughs)

I see them as more elemental, more mysterious, almost ancient symbols that are open to interpretation. With that said, I can totally see them on illuminated manuscripts or something…

Yeah, that’s really awesome to hear because I am inspired by mythology and folklore, and I think it is really interesting to see how ancient civilisations have interpreted events throughout history. I like to weave my own little narrative, and create my own little plots within my work…

You mention your use of gold leaf in your studio works and of gold in different forms in your street works, do you feel like the relationship between street and studio is stronger than it was in the past, or are they still quite distinct for you personally?

Yeah, I feel like they are quite distinct, but at the same time they cross over a lot with subject matter, and lately more thematically as well. I think it is getting more and more seamless, heading in a direction where it is becoming more and more entangled between each other, and I do really want to explore different techniques that I use on my paper works, but on a large scale on walls, maybe limiting the colour palette or potentially going completely monochromatic and seeing how that translates to a large scale. I used to paint really loosely and really gesturally, like the piece I did back here in New Brighton in 2012 with all these loose splatters using Astro caps, Blaster caps and home made jobbies, just making a big fucking mess, and it is so much fun! And I guess over the years I’ve become more and more refined with the mural work and got tighter and tighter and tried to apply as much detail as I can, while holding a really strong graphic approach. I really enjoy painting the way I paint now, but at the same time it can become a little bit clinical, so the direction I’m heading probably brings a little bit more of the looseness and freedom of some of my ink washes and gestural studio works, potentially experimenting with using more acrylics. I mean I don’t think I’ll ever really stop using aerosols all together because I just love them as a medium, but from an environmental point of view, and for the body, they’re not the greatest…

Detail of Ethereal Flow, a studio work (Photo credit: Cinzah)

That’s a question a lot of artists are facing right? The paint companies are starting to explore how to combat that, but it is a difficult dilemma because there is a quality to aerosol painting that is really distinct and really attractive, especially when it forms such a strong part of the culture that has raised you.

Absolutely.

When you were here in 2012, you were in the midst of shooting Dregs, your documentary about the New Zealand street art scene. If you were making Dregs in 2018, how would it differ? Do you think the scene has changed dramatically?

It was definitely a snapshot of a time. It’s a little capsule as to where all the different artists were at that time, I mean, I haven’t watched it for years and I don’t know if I will watch it again! (Laughs) But, it was a really amazing experience to produce that documentary, looking back, it is really awesome to have that period and everybody’s views, practices, goals and aspirations documented historically for the New Zealand scene, before Dregs there wasn’t really anything produced in a feature length format. It is interesting looking back and seeing where all the individual artists were with their careers and their projections of their trajectories of where they wanted to go. I remember one of the questions we asked was: Where do you see yourself going in the next five to ten years? Looking back at each and every artist, they’ve pretty much all done it, and that’s really awesome to see! (Laughs) It would be really rad to do a part two, and visit the same lineup, get some proper funding and go and see all these artists internationally to celebrate where all the ‘Kiwis’ have got to…

It is interesting because if you look at the size of the culture in New Zealand, and even the sense of isolation that is still felt, the talent that’s developed here over a relatively brief period is incredibly high…

Absolutely, there’s such a strong scene in New Zealand, we’ve got some incredibly talented artists that are world class, and I think nowadays you’re seeing the rest of the world kind of realising that. You are getting a lot more of us that are working internationally, getting flown out for different events and so on, which is really awesome. When we were making Dregs, I had a turning point, I was internally fighting with the whole Kiwi tall poppy syndrome of ‘you don’t make it until you go overseas’,  I had this huge desire to go and travel and to paint internationally, but at the same time I thought, fuck that! Why do you need to go to New York, or travel to these other places to prove yourself and to prove your talent back home? So I had this idea to flip that and to bring the rest of the world to New Zealand and I didn’t really seriously plan to do that you know, it was just something that I thought would be a really amazing thing to achieve, but I guess that thought stayed with me subconsciously as down the line I ended up being involved with PangeaSeed and bringing Sea Walls out here, and over the last two years we’ve brought some of the top contemporary muralists from around the world to New Zealand.  Recently there have been a number of events that have brought amazing talent to our shores, including this event right now which has a really strong line up of national and international artists.  We’re getting a lot more attention down on this side of the world…

In many ways, the world is, at least logistically, a smaller place, right? From a Christchurch point of view, to think back that the likes of Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, Tilt, Buff Monster, Sofles, all these artists that you see in book and magazine pages, have all visited the city is amazing, but in many ways, you appreciate that they are just normal people who came up in the same way. And in that way New Zealand is an attractive place to come, because I imagine a lot of them didn’t expect to end up here when they started painting in the streets…

Exactly.  When I started out there was no way I ever imagined I would have been to the places I’ve been with my art, and it still blows my mind, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities that have come about my way, and like you said, vice-versa, having these guys come down here and be involved, and meeting these guys and you’re completely right, everybody’s just normal, awesome, regular dudes that are doing the exact same things we’re doing but on the other side of the world. For them, New Zealand is this remote, isolated, exotic island nation at the bottom of the world that a lot of people would really love to visit, so to throw them that opportunity, it’s just as exciting as it is for us to head to America or the Caribbean, or to Europe or whatever…

To finish, there is one question I’m obliged to ask, just to keep up a tradition you started: Potato or Kumara?

Argghhh! It’s still kumara man! Haha, I had forgotten about that question! Awesome!

Cheers Cinzah!

Check out more of Cinzah’s varied projects:

www.cinzah.com

MrCinzah on Instagram

Sea Walls Napier 2017 – https://vimeo.com/216788917

Sea Walls Napier 2016 – https://vimeo.com/172784145

Sea Walls Mexico 2014 – https://vimeo.com/102981926

 

 

Spread the word about what's happening in the Christchurch urban art scene:

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… 

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Can Do – Reflections on an evolving art space…

Saturday, December 2nd, saw the official opening of the new ‘Youth Space’ in the central city’s East Frame. The space, a project facilitated by GapFiller, Ōtakāro and Fletcher Living, combines a basketball court and a rock climbing area, with perhaps the most forward-thinking element: an evolving art space that allows artists to freely paint in public without fear of repercussion. This is a first for the city, a step further than those spaces where painting is tolerated or ignored, but not technically allowed (those peripheral spaces that have long served graffiti and street art’s development, such as alleyways and train tracks). This is an innovative move that has been pushed for a long time by those from the cultures, but has too often fallen on deaf authoritarian ears.

The space contains eight giant spray cans which have become literal objects for art. The eight cans are physically split in two groups, with three cans intended for more established artists to produce long term works that will be refreshed sporadically, and five serving as ‘free-for-all’ surfaces, as evolving canvasses. They will operate on a first come, first served basis, and as artist Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson has noted, people should be prepared to document their work, as any contribution may last a week, a day, or a minute, as is the nature of such a space, and of course, is an undeniable aspect of guerrilla street practices anyway. On the opening day Wilson, Ikarus and Jacob Yikes, from Christchurch’s famed DTR crew, painted the three ‘permanent’ cans, while local artists Beksi, Dove, Bore, Smeagol and Drows were given the opportunity to give the five other cans their first layer.

The ‘permanent’ cans with works in progress by Jacob Yikes, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson and Ikarus

Notably, the surfaces on which people are invited to paint are part of the lineage of the city’s ongoing love affair with urban art: the giant spray cans were fabricated as part of Oi YOU’s Spectrum shows, and if they are aware of history, the city’s youth can now paint on surfaces to which artists such as Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, Sofles, Berst, Seth Globepainter, Tilt, Flox and many more are historically connected, even if no longer visible. That these objects are in proud place in the inner-city streets is testament to a shifting opinion around the art with which they have an unavoidable kinship. It is also important to note that the cans are not buildings, they are specifically in place as surfaces for art and that is both unique and partly why the concept works; their decoration is not an affront to private ownership, not even by association.

Of course, such a concept is not without risk, and it should be admitted, it will not prove a cure-all for vandalism (which is not the explicit goal of the space, but will surely be read as such by some). Vandalism, which is not a by-word for graffiti, and exists without a pen or a can of paint, is driven by a desire to fracture physically and symbolically, and a permissioned space will not attract those who are interested purely in transgression. But it will importantly provide an opportunity for artists to develop, to experiment, and to grow and that is no small thing. Indeed, the potential this space provides should be celebrated as a significant shift in thinking around these artistic cultures. Also, it should not be expected to rival the sheer scale and cohesive appearance of the grand murals dotted around the city (and notably nearby). The space will instead produce an aesthetic more akin to urban art’s natural state, a visual quality that many find infinitely fascinating, created in layers over time and representative of thousands of voices, but admittedly, others find harder to comprehend. This is always at the heart of such an undertaking, the various positions and desires of contributing factions will be at odds, a microcosm of the city at large.

The future of this innovative approach will of course be in some way determined by outcomes authorities are interested in, regardless of whether such desires are realistic. But with planned workshops and other events, it will become an important and fascinating location for the city’s ever-evolving graffiti and street art cultures, an important step in the city’s creative evolution, potentially unearthing new stars and providing a continuing reminder of the potential found in opportunity.

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Carnaby Lane Party Recap

New Brighton’s Carnaby Lane got an impressive facelift over Canterbury Anniversary weekend, with several notable artists producing an array of works along the bright green wall that frames the small laneway. With the sun beating down and DJs Ruse and Nacoa providing the musical backdrop, Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson, Joel Hart and Dr Suits (assisted by his Fiksate crew-mate Porta) captured the imaginations of the passing crowds. Throughout the day the artists, all working in close vicinity, provided intimate insights into how their work comes together. The relaxed but vibrant atmosphere, created by the mixture of music, food, drinks and art, as well as the ideal summer conditions, made for a perfect storm. We were there throughout the day and captured the artists in action…

The Carnaby Lane Party on Saturday, 19th November.

Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson: Wongi’s work, the largest of the three, depicts a monotone female figure, with her hand thrust forward, two fingers raised in a peace sign, the hand bursting to life in colour and sharp detail. A segmented disc of translucent yellow, orange, pink and purple separates the figure and the hand, framing the image and popping against the dark grey background. Wongi noted that he had chosen the image to play with a “beachy vibe” in honour of the location, but without the usual cliché, instead of seagulls or surfers, his character has a summery, music festival feel. The image is another example of Wongi’s ever impressive photo realistic technique, highlighting his aerosol mastery, an expertise that was made apparent to the crowds that stopped and watched the Christchurch legend in action, gaining insight into the sketching and refining process with which he builds form and brings his images to life.

Wongi’s wall buffed and ready to go
Wongi refers to the original image on his phone, an example of how technology plays a part in his working process
Wongi starts to bring the detailed hand to life with colour, while his toolbox lies in the foreground
Nearing completion, Wongi makes some final touches
Wongi ‘Freak’ Wilson’s finished piece

Joel Hart: Joel’s signature work, titled ‘The Shadows’ was an impressive sight coming to fruition, highlighting his swag bag of techniques and sure-handed processes, from his large stencil plates to the use of screens to print directly on the wall. The female portrait, her hand extended outward and three butterflies fluttering above, is indicative of Hart’s current body of work, where he is experimenting with “more-multi-layered” details of patterns and embellishments that reward inspection. Assisted by young up and comer Jacob Root (Distranged Design), Joel’s greyscale subject is brought to life by the violet backdrop and flashes of pink and green that all deftly play off the garish bright green wall behind his work.

Joel’s stencil plates lay in wait
The plan, and the necessary tools
Joel Hart works with one of his large stencil plates
Joel applies a screen to the wall
Joel Hart’s finished work, ‘The Shadows’

Dr Suits: Dr Suits’ geometric abstraction provides a unique example in the context of Christchurch’s mural scene, suggesting an exciting direction for the artist. The work draws on Dr Suits’ ongoing exploration of printmaking and mixed media techniques, here transferred to a wall and the colours heightened and flattened out to create a crisp, vibrant composition that pops off the wall and draws the eye in multiple directions. Detail is added in a section where the black paint is pulled, rubbed and scratched to mimic printing techniques. For Dr Suits the piece is indicative of his preoccupation with creating works that can be “translated by the individual but have no certainty”, instead evoking more visceral or emotive responses fed by associations of memory.

Dr Suits’ wall, marked out with blocks of colour being added

 

Dr Suits at work with the roller
Porta takes on the technician role and tapes up an area of Dr Suits’ work
And the tape comes off…
Dr Suits’ finished work
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Carnaby Lane Party, New Brighton

Local businesses have been busy transforming New Brighton’s Carnaby Lane, and on Saturday, November 18, the lane will host a party to celebrate! While the event will feature DJs, live music, food and drink, and Lego (don’t worry, this will make sense on Saturday!), perhaps most notably, several of Christchurch’s leading street artists will be painting live throughout the day. Wongi Wilson, Joel Hart and Nathan Ingram (aka Dr Suits) have each been allocated a wall space to adorn in their signature styles, adding some colourful vibrancy to lane. John Collins, who alongside his wife Alesha owns BearLion Foods in Carnaby Lane, explains that when he developed the idea to revamp the popular but downtrodden laneway, street art was always a key component to his vision. While the laneway has seen the addition of landscaping, lighting and other amenities, the murals will provide a unique element, especially since the participating artists are some of the most prominent in Christchurch’s urban art and mural scene. Collins grew up in Melbourne and witnessed the rise of that city’s impressive street art reputation, even painting in the famed city’s streets himself. This interest extended to his global travels, and sparked the recognition that what was painted on walls often had a transformative effect on the surrounding spaces. Collins notes that while his painting days have finished, he is excited to see what effect Wongi, Joel and Nathan’s work will have on the laneway:

“When we took over the lease for a shop in Carnaby Lane, my wife and I had always agreed how ugly that bright green wall (facing our door) was and how great it would be to get some street art to create some vibrancy for the lane. Three years later the opportunity has now been handed to us and we are super stoked to have three pieces being painted by three awesome local artists. I can’t wait to watch the boys complete their pieces and the impact it will have on the lane.”

For New Brighton local Nathan Ingram, who is a founder of Fiksate Studio and Gallery in New Brighton Mall, the laneway event was an immediately attractive opportunity. Ingram jumped at the chance to paint one of the wall panels, both to expand his own practice outside of his paste-up and studio work, and as a way to contribute to his community. He has been excited by the range of events hosted in New Brighton this summer and sees the Carnaby Lane Party as another occasion for the seaside village to celebrate the local community’s positive and creative spirit.

The Carnaby Lane Party kicks off on Saturday 18th November at 11am, and runs through to 6pm, so get along and watch some of the city’s best execute their craft live. More details can be found at the event’s Facebook page: Carnaby Lane Party, New Brighton.

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Face Value at Fiksate Gallery

Fiksate Gallery is busy gearing up for Face Value, the New Brighton studio and gallery’s latest exhibition. Face Value features an array of artists from diverse backgrounds and locations, each tied together by an interest in portraiture, or perhaps more specifically, the depiction of faces. The selection of work illustrates the attraction of portraiture for so many artists, including those with street backgrounds, and how such explorations are incredibly varied both in conception and their reception.

We caught up with Fiksate artist and Face Value curator Jenna Lynn Brown (a.k.a. Jen) to find out what inspired this exploration of portraiture and how she pulled it all together….

Hey Jen! How are you?

Hey! I’m great thanks! My partner Nathan and I have been very busy getting Face Value ready and of course juggling this with our new four month old baby Frank!

Yes congratulations on Frank’s arrival! To be fair you two are not known for being idle, you have always had an impressive work ethic, but I’m guessing at the moment down time is really at a premium!

So, how did the concept for Face Value come about…

The concept of Face Value came about through my own exploration into portraiture. There are so many ways to interpret the most familiar and important aspect of our humanity and individuality, our face, and this fascinates me. I work with a really abstract version of a face which communicates a self-portrait styled look into my own psyche, and by following several other artists who use portraiture in totally different ways, I really wanted to put together an exhibition that shows this amazing variety of representations. After throwing a few lines out about this concept a couple of months ago, I’ve had a great response and can happily say Face Value has a great line up with a huge variety of styles.

Your ‘Jen Heads’ have become an iconic element of your work, taking on both your own inner psyche as you say, but also a life of their own, showing the rich potential found in faces as subjects. You have a range of artists involved, how did you select specific contributors and was this variety always an intended element of Face Value?

There are a few ways I selected artists for this show. There are artists that Fiksate knows and have shown before and whose works already show portraiture themes like Jacob Yikes, who is, in my opinion the most prolific and exciting artist in Christchurch. Joel Hart is also an exciting artist whose multi layered, pop-art inspired works are gracing large walls, magazines, news articles and TV shows. I also used Instagram to find artists, I feel like Instagram has revolutionized the way we see art in this generation. Through Instagram I’ve been able to research, contact and communicate with artists of different backgrounds and mediums all over the world. And then there’s good ol’ word of mouth and people getting in touch about taking part in the show. However it wasn’t an open call for artists this time around. I guess the key is that each artist I selected shares an affinity to portraiture in their own unique and individual style and each will bring a different flavour to the show.

Jacob Yikes, 2017

You definitely have a diverse line up, and the local and international flavour shows both the growing scene here, but also the way social media, and technology generally, has made it easier for communities to engage and connect. Do any of the works or artists stand out to you for any reason, maybe exposing some key themes or unexpected revelations within Face Value?

There are certain artists who I feel embody to theme of Face Value one hundred per cent. Voxx Romana is an international street artist who has just had a solo show in Paris and his work can be seen around the streets of Europe and the USA. His work is always focused around a strong and powerful image of a person, and very frequently a well-known figure or celebrity. Voxx creates portraiture that speaks of strength, power, mystery and his works make you think, which I believe is a key theme in Face Value.

Voxx Romana, 2017

Importantly, alongside those with a background in street art, there are some stand out illustrators in this show, one from Australia who goes by Lusidart, and four NZ based artists; A.K. Illustration, Hibagon, Jessie Rawcliffe and L.A Buckett. Their works are powerful, intricate and have a slightly mysterious quality about them which draws you in, like there is something deeper behind the subject’s eyes.

Luisdart, 2017

We also have a surprise for our followers and any street art connoisseurs! A very special artist is up our sleeve from the USA, who, if his work arrives on time, will be shown for the opening, otherwise, keep an eye on our Fiksate social media for news on the impending arrival of some seriously great work!

Face Value opens at Fiksate Gallery, 115 New Brighton Mall, on Friday 17th November at 5:30pm. Face Value will run until December 17th 2017, but opening hours and viewing times will vary, so check the Fiksate website for more details.

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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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