Juse1 – Elemental Tools

Back at the beginning of the year, Ikarus shot me a heads up that Wellington  and Aotearoa hip hop legend Juse1 (TS crew) was in town for the second annual New Zealand International Tattoo Expo and suggested I try and interview him. Much like Ikarus, Juse has a lengthy history in graffiti, but his exploits also spread across the realms of hip hop, notably as an MC. On his last day in town we finally got to sit down and have a chat, grabbing a coffee while local artists VROD and Sewer prepped a wall for a colab in the Hereford Street space. Not only is Juse a dope artist, with a can, a microphone or a tattoo needle, he is also a thoughtful figure whose experience has given him insight into graffiti writing, hip hop culture, the relativity of creative processes, and the importance of learning throughout life. Sitting down for a while and listening to him talk, it was clear that he has a lot of wisdom to pass on to the upcoming generations, much like he acknowledges having learnt from his influential mentors…

I know it’s your last day in town, but I will still say welcome to Christchurch! I was looking through your Instagram feed, and one of the things that I got to thinking about was the idea of tradition. Not in a regressive way, your work is always fresh, but there is a clear respect and reverence of the traditions of a lot of the different realms that you occupy, right? Is that a big thing for you?

Yeah, not always consciously pushing it as tradition, but I guess it’s my foundation and it’s something that I have learnt. I always found that when you plant a foundation and you decide to build from it, it is always going to influence some way or another the work you might be doing ten years, thirty years later. I guess in a way, I’ve never been one to drastically jump, whether it be my [graffiti] style or my rhymes. I guess it’s me as a person as well, I kind of tie that not only within hip hop, but also being of Samoan culture as well, it does play as an influence into my creative aspects. The culture is something that is sort of engrained in me, so it comes through. Learning history for me has always been really important, and I guess the more knowledge you gain from history, it influences what you do and how you go about doing things, and how you approach it from all the different perspectives you have, you know what I mean?

You mention those two elements: graffiti writing and rhyming. I have recently been reading a lot about pre-hip hop New York graffiti, the early seventies and the guys who were just as much listening to psychedelic rock, soul and disco, stuff like that, and I was thinking, New Zealand’s possibly a bit different. Because of the time graffiti arrived, you almost can’t remove it from hip hop, right? Hip hop and graffiti are so tightly entwined. Did you get into writing through hip hop as a culture, or did graffiti provide a pathway to the other elements of hip hop?

For me, it came with hip hop. Visually I saw graffiti first, like in the eighties, around my neighbourhood. There were dudes getting up and doing full pieces when I was a kid, but I didn’t know what it was because I was a kid. But when I actually started to get into it, and found out what it was, it was through hip hop, through early Source magazines, through album covers, stuff that my older brother would bring home. I was young so I couldn’t access it at all. Everyone caught a tagging buzz in like 1990, and from there, we just kind of grew. Like you were saying, it is linked with hip hop, but graffiti in itself, the energy of it, can relate to so many things and I guess that’s why so many people who don’t necessarily come from a hip hop background can relate to it just as well. It’s kind of universal in that way. The energy of graffiti is to get busy, it’s a movement in itself, but it can attach itself to all these different genres…

Juse1 on the mic at the Villains hip hop show in Hamilton
Juse1 on the mic at the Villains hip hop show in Hamilton

It has all these off-shoot variations…

Yeah, but personally, it was through hip hop for me. It was through the album covers and the magazines…

When people think about your hometown, Wellington, nowadays they probably think of the trendy hipsters…

The cafes! There’s a lot of coffee there, bro! (Laughs)

But Wellington is also such a key place for hip hop in Aotearoa; the Upper Hutt Posse, DLT… When you look back, do you appreciate that importance?

Yeah, I really do man. Growing up there, before I started travelling around and meeting other scenes, I took it a bit for granted. But going away and coming back, I realised that the city and the scene itself was special. I mean the city, in terms of the environment, allows for people to see each other often. It’s not a big city, but geographically it is centralised, and if you have got to do something, you all come to town. You can stand in the middle of Wellington and guarantee you are going to see at least three people you know. In regard to the hip hop scene, that was a real way for people to link, because everyone could get to one point, and just share whatever they had. I think with the hip hop scene in Wellington, I’m lucky enough that generations before me are still active and are still around, you know what I mean? It’s something I’ve noticed a bit more than in other cities. When I say generations, I mean people who go way back, watching That’s Incredible! [An American television show from the early eighties that became an important early influence on New Zealand hip hop due to performances by b-boy crews] There are still dudes that turn up to the graf walls, or the MC jams or battles, and you still see them. The benefit of having these local pioneers around is that the knowledge is shared, and the scene just grows from generation to generation…

That must be important due to the fact that comparatively, New Zealand has a smaller cultural history in that regard, right? Even looking at those older scenes around the world, many of the older participants kind of disappear and then pop back up, especially now that there are more platforms of exposure, if you think again about the figures from the early New York scene…

The guys who disappeared and then popped back up…

Yeah, like all the photos of Taki 183 at different events over the last few years. I think there was even a photo of Taki and Cornbread meeting for the first time not too far back…

That’s crazy! (Laughs)

So, in places where there is an older culture, those figures can ghost away and become legends, but when they are still around, as you say, it helps feed the culture, the traditions, but it also helps people develop because they can see that historical lineage, right there…

Yeah, if you ever had questions, they were around. The thing Wellington was known for across all the realms, was a being a little bit hard-headed in regard to teaching. If you weren’t doing it right, you were told you weren’t doing it right, you know what I mean? It wasn’t necessarily, do it like me, but just that you’re not doing it right, if that makes sense. It was a harder form of guidance and if you got shut down, you weren’t expected to stop and disappear, you were expected to go work on your shit and come back better. That was kind of the teaching through all of the elements of hip hop, from DJ’ing to b-boying, to writing and MC’ing. Even fashion sense, like if you were trying to rock some new shit and nobody was feeling it, you got told: ‘That’s just wack, bro, don’t come back to the gig looking like that!’ (Laughs) In a way a lot of people, from outside the scene, thought that it was quite snobby, or kind of elitist, but to me it was just a firmer hand to teaching, you know? It wasn’t as cutthroat as people thought it was, but it appeared that way. I definitely see why people can see it that way…

'Cake' piece by Juse1, 2016
‘Cake’ piece by Juse1, 2016

Does that approach help crystallise your own views? That hard-headed-ness, as you say, it’s not, ‘do it this way’, it’s just, you’re not doing it correctly, and surely that helps crystallise an approach in your own head because you are being forced to think about it more and more….

Yeah, it does…

So, did that ensure that you developed a strong, enduring philosophy about letterforms, and how you make letters? Obviously for a lot of people, there’s a science behind their construction of letters, and some people talk in great detail about how they build depth and use negative space, those sorts of things. Is that something that you have developed through that expectation of having to go away and perfect something?

Yeah, definitely, like not just in the elements of hip hop, but life in general, you’ve got to keep learning and studying, especially if you love what you do, and you want to rock it for a while. You should take your own time and discipline to really break down exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it, and yeah, it definitely relates to that teaching that if I wasn’t doing this right, how do I make it right? Not just to please someone else, but for yourself. How can you get the best out of every letter for example? Like, if you’re doing a five letter wildstyle, one letter itself has to be dope before you start doing the next letter, then the next letter, then the whole thing is going to be dope. So, stripping away all the bells and whistles of a letter really helps. For me, each letter, each angle, each arrow, has to be on, you know what I mean? That teaching definitely helped with that, you can’t just be throwing shit around, because it doesn’t really have a foundation or a sense of why it comes from there…

Semi wildstyle by Juse1, 2018
Semi wildstyle by Juse1, 2018

The other aspect is that when it comes to things like composition, colour, balance, those formal aspects, the beauty of graffiti is that it’s not beholden to established ideas that that they would teach in painting classes, right?

Yeah, like red and pink don’t go together, that sort of shit?! (Laughs) Graffiti writing is anti-establishment in most ways…

Yeah, so in graffiti you can find any sort of combination that pops or reflects some idea or reality, or is simply created out of necessity, right? You had these colours, it was what you could get, so that’s what your painting…

That’s it, that’s what you had. But also, the drive was to be seen, to be noticed, so smashing together colour combos was how you achieved that.

At the same time, because you’re not necessarily subject to the normal expectations, you do need that kind of guidance I guess in some way, but you’ve also got that freedom to experiment within all of those things as well…

Yeah, that’s it. You need some knowledge of foundations in all aspects of life.

'Juser' piece by Juse1
‘Juser’ piece by Juse1

Having been active for quite a while, what’s your take on Wellington’s, and more broadly New Zealand’s, graffiti scenes at the moment? Can you define scenes from city to city anymore, or is it becoming too difficult?

Nah, it’s muddy! I’m not saying that it’s wack, but in previous eras you could see definite influences from prior writers instantly. Nationwide you could see it, from generation to generation to generation. You could almost see what the writers were doing at the time, and who they were looking at around the local scene. I’m not saying they were biting, but the influence was there, the style was there. You could define writers from Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, all quite clearly. I’m just talking about New Zealand at the moment, but on a global scale, I think now, you can’t really tell who is from where, because people take influences from everywhere, and put it into one piece, which again isn’t a bad thing, because everything changes and everyone experiments, and with graffiti, it opens up. It’s a realm where there are no rules. I suppose, it’s like, you could do what you want, just make it look dope, you know what I mean? I guess for me though it started changing, and the internet has had a huge influence. You have more access to stuff than ever; you can see shit from anywhere. But the other thing, the biggest thing, is that people stopped learning from other writers, and started self-teaching. To an extent that can be detrimental because you don’t really find out the whole knowledge on it…

Things aren’t just done for one singular reason, right? There’s always more going on as to why something is the way it is, and you need that depth of knowledge to really push it further, otherwise you are only getting that first layer…

And even on top of that, it had a wider effect on crews, because people were going out and learning from pictures, they didn’t really need other people to bounce ideas off or get energy from. I notice a lot of writers are solo these days, they don’t really roll as big crews anymore. Crews had heaps of roles back in the day, like for protection, if you go to a wall in numbers and shit, it became about strength in numbers to a certain extent. But at the same time, the unity of writers is kind of breaking down, it’s more about: ‘I’m doing this’, ‘I’m going to do that…’ So yeah, it’s kind of muddy in the sense of style and influence…

'Cake' piece by Juse1, 2015
‘Cake’ piece by Juse1, 2015

There’s possibly also more mobility as well, right? Like, going back to that global scale, it’s easier to travel now. Also, while it is still a youth culture, it’s not only a youth culture, because you now have people who make their life travelling and painting, right? So, there is definitely a different sense of fluidity and the flow of information and influence is making it all a different game… What about Christchurch and what’s going on here in terms of what you have seen over the last few days?

I’ve been here for a few days, and it’s been a while since I’ve been down, like four years I think, so having a look around is good. I was talking to Ikarus, who obviously is one of the main dudes here, and the older guys in the scene are doing a good job from what I can see, because there is a lot of influence. There’s a range of styles around which is cool as well. But also, people are putting a bit of effort into their burners. When you see people getting down next to each other they make the whole piece work, and you can tell there’s a bit of teamwork going in there, there is a shared understanding. I also haven’t seen much crossing out or capping. You guys have got way more walls than ever now, so there’s probably no reason to cross out people! (Laughs) But I like what I see in the Christchurch scene, there are dudes that just specifically do characters and do them well, there are guys that do backgrounds, and then there are guys rocking letters. There are still a lot of hits around too, which I like, even though there are a lot of legal spaces, people are still bombing and tagging. It looks healthy…

Because of the story here, the murals get all the attention, but of course, when you are thinking about the scene from within the culture, that whole spectrum is important, right? There are the hits, as you say, the handstyles, as well as the throwies and rollers, and when your eyes are open in a certain way, you get as amped seeing a nicely executed throw-up as you do a massive piece…

Yeah, for sure. A throwie, man, if the flow is all there, if you can tell they did it all in one line, man! One-line throwies, whoever masters that shit, that’s hard to do! Especially depending on your name. So, yeah, the scene here looks healthy, man. I guess on the flip side, compared to Wellington, there are dudes who are definitely in the scene, bombing and tagging, but not really pushing it much further, if that makes sense. And of course, not everyone wants to. Some people just want to fuck shit up, and that’s cool, that’s the energy of hip hop. There were a few crews coming through a few years ago, but they all seem to have stopped for some reason, and it makes me wonder why? I’ve been talking to Ikarus about what he’s been doing here, and it’s been good knowledge, it’s been good bouncing energy off someone who has been around the same time as me and has seen everything.

I was talking to Berst a while ago, and he said he found over time that there is this kind of five-year cycle for crews to blow up, to become really prominent, and then disappear, and a new crew comes up. I found that interesting because it is sort of indicative of a certain age range, of ‘growing up’…

Yeah, life comes up! Families and shit, jobs, and then people either stop or they keep pushing. I’ve known some real dope writers, from all ends of the scale, some real style masters, and they just stopped, they don’t paint anymore, and again, it makes you kind of question, why?

Changing direction a little bit, you are down here for the Christchurch International Tattoo Expo, which is another of your creative outlets. There is a strong relationship between graffiti and tattoo. In my mind at least, there are several things that suggest why that relationship was fostered; there’s sort of an outsider quality to both, there’s the idea of that alternative canvas, although in each case very different canvasses or spaces to master, and then there are skills you learn writing graffiti that translate into tattoo, like that certainty of line and mark-making. I’m always fascinated watching someone write a tag to see the refined and certain flow of movement of their hand and arm, how almost intuitive or engrained that movement is. Does that relate as a big part of that transition between graffiti and tattooing?

That definitely does, that fluidity of line and being sure of it, because especially when you’re painting you’ve got to know your start and stops and techniques, and so that mindset comes into play. I say mindset because the physical aspect of it is different, with tattoo you have a 3D surface, so a straight line is no longer a straight line, it’s a curve, and its permanent! (Laughs) It moves, and it cries, and it bleeds, it does all that shit! (Laughs)

Custom freehand tatau by Juse1
Custom freehand tatau by Juse1

It also has a different scale, right?

That’s the other thing, going from painting something humungous to miniscule, that’s kind of a mindfuck at first! But composition is important for a writer anyway. You’ve got to transform your outline from an A4 sketch to a painting a couple of metres wide, so you’ve already got that transition of blowing shit up. The same mindset applies to bringing it back down. I feel like it doesn’t take too long to adjust if you have a writing background, because tattooing is a natural progression for a lot of graffiti writers. But I also think tattooing, like graf, allows all walks of life into it, you can come from any background and make something dope. Definitely, the technical side of things, drawing and just being active, in that sense, translates really well into tattooing. Even the idea that when you are bombing, or painting, you don’t actually touch the wall, you don’t touch the surface, and in a way when you are tattooing you don’t really touch the skin, the needle does, but you do float a bit. So, there are those elements that translate as well. People bug out about how you can go from a fat cap to a fine round liner, but it’s good, I find it really good for me in the sense of balance. If I’ve been tattooing all day, I find it relaxing to go out and bomb something big. It’s different. Switching energies is good. Then vice-versa, before I was tattooing, I was actively doing a lot of painting, commissioned works were my day to day, and to sort of swap that for day to day tattooing, it was a nice shift, you know…

'Tiger Style' custom Wu Tang ink by Juse1
‘Tiger Style’ custom Wu Tang ink by Juse1

Is the blackbook work the middle ground that sits between the two?

Yeah, that’s the grey area! Fuck, that’s a good way to put it…

What about that flow of influence? Do you now find that one influences the other more, or is it quite an equal flow? Does what you are doing tattoo-wise start to influence more of your writing, or does what you are painting influence the tattooing?

It hasn’t yet. For me, with writing, I’m still pushing my own development in letter style. I’ve always been a fan of wildstyle, like well-balanced interlocking, overlapping, twisting around wildstyle. That’s something that even though I’ve been doing it for twenty years, I still don’t feel like I’m mastering what I want to do in my head, so every piece I do I’m pushing a little bit toward that. When it comes to tattooing influences, I guess, the only part that has come through in my writing has been my Samoan background and adding elements of that to my graffiti, and there are a couple of reasons. I was doing that before I was tattooing. Guys like DLT, Daniel Tippett, Opto, Agent and also the legendary FDKNS crew, and for a while, Phat1, they were using moko within their work, and I started using tatau and elements of the Pacific. Dyle was another cat rocking his Tongan patterns in there too. This was in letters and not just in backgrounds and stuff. What I noticed was that nobody puts the Pacific on the map in regard to writing. We could rock letters all we want, but if you put it up next to another piece, you are not going to necessarily say these guys are from Aotearoa or the South Pacific. So, it was more about claiming our identity of who we are. Our original influence was from New York in a big way, but it was important for us to put our hands up and say we love to do this too, how can we make it our own? Not through style necessarily, but by adding what we know is who we are to our work, and I don’t mean just putting some island background, or some trees, I mean adding to the letters, adding to the piece, creating something out of that…

Juse1 in mid-burner action, tatau forming the fill...
Juse1 in mid-burner action, tatau forming the fill…

Actually changing the letterforms, because the letters become the vessel, right? They are a form to subvert, so by making those relate specifically to that cultural influence is important and unique…

Like having a taiaha for an ‘I’, or a hook or a weapon as a letter, because letters are symbols, alphabets are full of symbols, and the way they can interrelate like that is awesome. And it actually works, I’ve had people from New York, pioneers of the game, say: ‘I really like what you guys do…’ They don’t understand it at first, but they like it. (Laughs) But once we told them, they would be like: ‘Oh shit, amazing!’ So yeah, we are adding an older artform on top of an artform, to grow and create something new, which I think is dope…

Absolutely, and there is a rich visual culture to draw on from Polynesian culture. You also just touched on something that I have to ask about, looking through your Instagram feed, there are pictures with Crazy Legs and members of the Wu Tang Crew, in hindsight, is it hard to believe some of the people you’ve met?

Everyone! I count myself blessed in many ways, in that not only through the graffiti side, but also through the MC side, I’ve met a lot of people I’ve literally learned from, through their albums, through their artworks. I never ever imagined that one day I’d be touring with Ghostface [Killah] or having a cipher with the RZA, or one with the GZA, on separate occasions, smoking a joint with Method Man, meeting KRS One, Nas, all these cats bro. Then on the graf side, and even the other elements, I’ve met Mr Wiggles, kicked it with Crazy Legs. There’s too many to name. I kind of forget, and I’m like, fuck that actually happened! But one of my mentors, Kerb1, he told me many, many, many years ago that real hip hop is a small world. I didn’t really get what he meant by that. But now, twenty years later, I think it means that the energy that is shared amongst like minds, means names and fame don’t really come into it, because real recognises real. If you can get on a certain level, and connect on a certain level with that person, it’s good…

'Style So Sick' TS Crew colab, Juse1, Ceaper, Kerb1 and Reakt
‘Style So Sick’ TS Crew colab, Juse1, Ceaper, Kerb1 and Reakt

Do you think that is partly because hip hop was born, specifically in Washington Heights, but in those neighbourhoods, those boroughs, and that mentality of small scenes, even though it went global, hasn’t really changed in terms of understanding or connecting with people…

That’s what it’s about. The elements are tools, and the tools connect communities and people. When people say hip hop, they think of the music of course, because that’s the most commercially recognised thing. But when you break it right down, hip hop is about community, and it’s about people, without people there’s no hip hop, you know what I mean? Hip hop was the tool to help celebrate people being together, or how to connect with another person. So that mentality, from a small borough, no one thought it was going to go worldwide when they started it, but the energy that was created is recognised throughout the world because it happens everywhere, and like you say, that’s what brings people together…

The need for connection is universal. Nearly every subculture has that power to a degree, but for hip hop it is so holistic, because it combines music, dance, visual arts… It takes all the cultural ideas you need to make a deep, sustainable culture, rather than just one primary aspect. Having those four elements makes it so cohesive and inclusive…

It makes it accessible to everyone too, like if you can’t dance, you might be able to paint, if you can’t paint, you might be able to scratch…

I think I remember reading in a Source magazine article years ago a description of the four elements, with the MC as the bratty little sibling who makes all noise…

The loud one! (Laughs)

The DJ was the quiet studious middle child…

The watcher, the observer.

Then graffiti was the black sheep, the older one who left home…

The one who bailed! The rebel who leads everyone else astray! That’s sounds about right! I like that description!

Juse1 character next to VROD piece, New Brighton, Christchurch, 2019
Juse1 character next to VROD piece, New Brighton, Christchurch, 2019

Thanks for sitting down, it’s been awesome to get some insight from your long involvement in the game, and across different realms too…

It’s not as long as some people, but I’m still there! (Laughs)

Sure, but for some people five years is an age…

For sure, I never thought our crew would hit the twenty-year mark, but we did, and we are looking at thirty years soon. Three of us started the TS crew back in 1996, and I never thought it would develop into what it is now, so yeah, it’s a good thing. But like I said, having those pioneers still around has been important. My bro Kerb, he’s been around since 1983 and he’s still writing to this day, he is still a huge influence in what our crew do. So yeah, I guess it is a long time! (Laughs) I’ve been around a bit, but it’s a crack up, these young cats that Ikarus hooked me up with while I’m here [Sewer and VROD], I was telling them about some of the history here, and they were like: ‘Oh, have you been to Christchurch before?’ Twenty years ago was my first time here in Christchurch, I was here in 2000 for the Hip Hop Summit. They were like: ‘I was born then!’ (Laughs) It’s good though, to meet the next generation and kick it with them, to see where they are coming from. I need to do more of it in Wellington…

Make sure to follow Juse1 on Instagram and Facebook …

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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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