Dcypher – Homecoming (Part One)

Dcypher has been living in Los Angeles for a decade, but the Christchurch-bred artist has still made a significant contribution to the post-quake city’s walls. From commissioned works such as his cut-up patchwork of iconic kiwiana on the Wharenui Pool in Riccarton, or his on point ‘Welcome to Christchurch’ greyscale postcard for 2015’s Spectrum festival, to more informal jams and productions with his DTR crewmates, he has made the most of his sporadic trips home. Dcypher, of course, has pedigree, he is not some out-of-towner drawn to the opportunities in Christchurch, but rather an important figure in the city’s pre-quake graffiti history. Dcypher’s legacy now extends across decades and geographic settings, tracking the progression of an artist across the globe, and the transition between graffiti traditions and the new mural renaissance. Prior to heading State-side, Dcypher had already developed a notable local and national profile. From his role as a tutor and artist for Project Legit in the early to mid-2000s (an art programme that served to mentor young graffiti writers and provide legal opportunities for painting), and numerous local projects and commissions, to his regular inclusion in issues of Disrupt Magazine and even Askew’s 2007 book InForm, where, alongside Lurq and Pest 5 (although the latter had relocated to Auckland by that time), he was one of the few featured artists from outside of the North Island, Dcypher was able to fashion something of a career from his graffiti roots, a transition that might have been unexpected, even amongst the graffiti culture renaissance of the mid-2000s in Aotearoa. However, when he left Christchurch for the United States in 2008, he, like most people, had no idea of the monumental changes the city would endure just several years later, and indeed, the creative opportunities that would emerge in the recovery period. As a result, Dcypher has been returning to a different city, not only from the hometown he left behind, but also in comparison to the sprawling and stretching metropolis of Los Angeles to which he has become accustomed. That environment, coupled with the wisdom of experience developed over years of work, has ensured Dcypher’s output expresses a well-honed practice, striking and crisp, distinct but ultimately indebted to graffiti as the culture from which he emerged, a balance he continues to maintain. While he was recently back in town, I sat down with Dcypher to find out about his views on Christchurch’s current scene, his experiences as an artist abroad and what his future may hold. While the open-air setting of Smash Palace may have made the difference between mid-winter Christchurch and bright Los Angeles abundantly clear, it was obvious that while the man might not reside in Christchurch for now, he maintains deep connections to the people, places and unique characteristics of his hometown.

You have been back in town for a couple of weeks now, what have you been up to since arriving? From all accounts you pretty much hit the ground running…

I started the Lyttelton skate park mural with the rest of the DTR crew, Ikarus, Yikes and Wongi, pretty much a few days after I arrived, and that took about eight straight days of just painting. The weather was good though, and everything worked out. Then I just got straight into the Airport mural with the Oi YOU! guys, George [Shaw] and Shannon [Webster]. That was a good fucking two weeks of straight work. I think George added up five hundred hours or something, so, we had all of us working on it. It was all acrylic, which is pretty much the first time I’ve ever done like a full acrylic mural, so it was a learning curve for me. But yeah, the result was good, and yeah, I have just been trying to relax after that.

So, when you say acrylic, you mean with brushes rather than cans?

Yeah, brushes, rollers, trying to learn new techniques for fading without spray paint, that kind of thing… But mostly, yeah brushes and rollers.

Was that just a condition of working at the Christchurch Airport, because the mural is located inside the actual building, right?

Yeah, obviously with all the passengers and commuters within the airport, they can’t have spray paint fumes going about the airport, so they were pretty adamant about just keeping it all acrylic.

A section of Dcypher's mural at the Christchurch Airport, 2018
A section of Dcypher’s mural at the Christchurch Airport, 2018

Having made a career out of wielding a spray can, did it take a while to get your head around the brushes and rollers? Using a can would be second nature now, and you mentioned having to work on fading techniques, did it impact your stylistic approach as well?

Yeah, I had an idea that it was going to be the case, so I designed the mural with that in mind; using various techniques with acrylic paint to achieve the look I wanted. But in knowing that I was going to use acrylic paint, I had to design it and sort of tone it back a little bit and keep it quite simple, which isn’t necessarily my kind of style. The style that I chose was also something that I knew the Airport and the general public could palette. So, I guess it’s not necessarily my most interesting  work in that sense, but it was an awesome learning curve to be able to use acrylic. I mean, I guess we’ve always used acrylic paint from the get go alongside spray paint, so I’ve always had an ‘in’ on how to go about it, and I’ve always tried to mess around on canvasses and use acrylic paint on a smaller scale where it makes sense to use brushes. Spray paint only works down to certain scale…

I was just going to say, it’s kind of the opposite of cans, they are easier to go bigger, whereas with brushes, it’s easier to go smaller, although obviously rollers help with larger works as well…

Yeah, but just seeing what a lot people have been doing overseas, especially in Europe and stuff, as murals get bigger and bigger, people are starting to shift to using acrylic with brushes and rollers on that really large scale. It is actually easier to use acrylic paint than spray paint; it’s cheaper, it goes further, it’s faster, the longevity is better…

A lot of people I’ve talked to have mentioned environmental concerns as well, not completely moving away from can use, but it seems to be something people are wary of…

Yeah, I think, if you were an artist that had the opportunity to be able to do that, then that would be cool. But I think it is probably not really an environmental thing, it’s more of a technique thing, just because best results are the end goal, you know what I mean? And environment is secondary, like everything else that humans do! (Laughs)

Detail of the Christchurch Airport mural, 2018
Detail of the Christchurch Airport mural, 2018

I guess as well, the evolution of this contemporary muralism movement into its own beast, it means you are getting artists from different backgrounds now, you aren’t necessarily coming from a graffiti writing background or even necessarily that aerosol experience. Mural artists are increasingly switching between streets and studios, combining those two worlds, like, I think of the Spanish artist Aryz, as a prime example of that sort of approach, he is definitely taking muralism into a painterly direction…

Yeah, that’s who I was referring to before. That guy is definitely the best muralist by far at the moment. And he was doing a lot of that stuff with rollers and brushes, ten years ago, you know what I mean…

To see some of the latest stuff he’s been doing, it literally looks like a studio painting on a massive wall, the painterly quality brings a totally different element to it…

For sure…

You mentioned that the Christchurch Airport mural came about through Oi YOU!, you have developed a pretty good relationship with George and Shannon over a couple of projects, beginning with your inclusion in the first Spectrum show (at the Christchurch YMCA in 2015). What was it like for you coming back for that show? Experiencing something like that in your hometown, and having some international context for festivals and events, was it easy to get on board with what they were doing?

Yeah for sure, they totally went about it the right way. They could have just had international artists of a high calibre come through, but by also involving local artists to do their thing, people who have set their feet in the city, a long-time before they arrived, it showed George and Shannon understood having that as an important part of it all. Those artists being represented in the festivals was a strong point to get across, that there are people that have been doing it in the city for a long time before this stuff had come about…

Witnessing, and of course contributing to (as one of the headline artists) that Spectrum show as it came together, and thinking back over all the years growing up in Christchurch, were you still taken aback that it was actually happening in your home town?

Yeah, I always feel like whenever you leave somewhere, awesome things happen, and you feel like you are missing out! (Laughs) I was just stoked to be invited back to produce work. I could have been overlooked, going off and doing my own thing, so definitely, it was awesome to get involved and to have that event and be a part of it all…

Dcypher's Welcome to Christchurch wall, for Oi YOU!'s Spectrum festival, Welles Street, 2015 (photo credit: Dcypher)
Dcypher’s Welcome to Christchurch wall, for Oi YOU!’s Spectrum festival, Welles Street, 2015 (photo credit: Dcypher)

It must have been cool that all the DTR crew were involved as well [the exhibition even featured a DTR colab room, with portraits of the members in a darkened room]; to have that collective recognition as a crew as well as individually…

Those guys were all involved from the get-go, George got them all involved, I just kind of came in from the side, off the back of all that, which is cool. But yeah, it is awesome that they have been able to give an amazing amount of people opportunities to produce work and that’s kind of the essence of the whole idea and how it should go down…

As you said, the first thing you did when you got back this time was the Lyttelton skate park project with the rest of the DTR crew. You guys have a pretty lengthy history in the context of New Zealand, and Christchurch graffiti history, how is it getting back and painting together? Is it a different type of relationship than you have with CBS, your Los Angeles crew?

Yeah, you know growing up with a bunch of guys and painting regularly, there’s probably a little bit more of a brotherhood sort of thing. In the States, there are so many players that it’s a huge family and it can be hard to make those same types of connections. So yeah, working with those guys is always awesome, you don’t even have to think about it, you know, everyone’s already on the same wavelength and you just go ahead and make it happen. Whereas in L.A., there’s a disconnect so to speak, with guys you haven’t necessarily grown up with since you were fourteen years old, you know what I mean…

Section of the DTR crew (Dcypher, Ikarus, Yikes, Wongi) collaboration for the Lyttelton Skate Park, 2018.
Section of the DTR crew (Dcypher, Ikarus, Yikes, Wongi) collaboration for the Lyttelton Skate Park, 2018.

When did you leave for Los Angeles?

I left in 2008, during the global recession. (Laughs) I basically landed, and Obama was elected. People were crying and shit. It was pretty amazing to be in the United States for something like that, at that time, and to be part of it, to feel like you were a part of it. But being there wasn’t easy in the beginning, I was doing a lot of construction work, there weren’t a lot of opportunities. I was sort of working my way up, meeting a lot of other artists, painting various little projects. Doing things to prove yourself to people who have already lived and worked in the city for a long time and have their foot fucking firmly in the ground. Slowly but surely, I was able to become a full-time artist over there…

Did you have any connections before you went? Were you down with CBS before you went?

No. I had some good friends of mine who I grew up with in New Zealand, two American guys, whose father was based here through Operation Deep Freeze when they were kids. I grew up skating with them, doing graffiti with them, and they had moved back to the States. They were originally from San Diego, and one of them was, actually both of them, were in L.A. at the time I arrived, so I had two really good friends that I hadn’t seen for a really long time to go and start the whole thing alongside. They had already figured out a bunch of shit. To go to Los Angeles by yourself is a big undertaking, and to have someone there as a liaison to help you get through it and figure it out, is ultimate, so I owe a lot to those guys, for sure…

I remember your profile in InForm, the 2007 book produced by Askew featuring a number of New Zealand graffiti artists, you commented on how the Christchurch scene was really small and everyone painted together. That probably highlights how daunting it must’ve been to move somewhere like Los Angeles, which would be like ten or more cities the size of Christchurch…

At least…

Piece for the Pico Union housing corporation, aka the Grafflab, in Los Angeles, 2015. (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Piece for the Pico Union housing corporation, aka the Grafflab, in Los Angeles, 2015. (Photo credit: Dcypher)

That feeling of starting again, of starting over in terms of reputation, that must have been pretty strong…

Yeah, for sure. But it is refreshing, its humbling to have to work your way back up again. The calibre of work in the U.S. is fucking insane. Just the level of competitiveness is crazy. New Zealand has that kind of tall poppy thing, where if you think you’re better than everyone else, you are going to get cut down quick, you know. Whereas in America, if you think you are better than everyone else, for some reason everyone holds you up on a pedestal.

Do you think that is a unique thing to the United States, something about the mindset there?

It’s a combination of both freedom and capitalism that sort of drives people to do what they do. I mean there are guys in the States who do illegal graffiti and have done illegal graffiti for their entire lives and have never been snatched up, they have refined that shit to an amazing level, where they can go out and produce work without running into too much bullshit. But, at the same time, the competitiveness, you know, it keeps you on your toes.

It is sort of L.A. in a nutshell I guess. It’s a city of contrasts. I imagine anything can happen at any time, in any place…

Yeah, for sure…

Was the American West Coast scene an influence on you coming up? Or were you more inspired by New York and the East Coast, or maybe European writers? An American tourist remarked to me recently, not knowing anything about you, how one of your pieces here in Christchurch looked like something from Los Angeles. Has that West Coast, or more specifically Los Angeles style become more of an influence by living there? There’s that long lineage of ‘West Coast’ artists across a number of fields, and that specifically Los Angeles aesthetic that can be found in music, film, fine art, street art, graffiti…

To begin with obviously it was the New York influence, Subway Art and books like that, before the internet. Then once the internet happened, it was definitely European stuff. I was always more into East Coast hip hop stuff than I was into West Coast stuff, and I kind of liked the grimy, cold aspect of the East Coast. My Mother’s from Boston as well, so I have an affiliation to the East Coast. But once you get to California, and you get a little bit of the lifestyle, it’s definitely influential. It always has had its own style and everything going for it, but my eyes weren’t necessarily open to that. I did see a lot of stuff through magazines and stuff before the internet too, that was all West Coast, but at the same time I wasn’t really thinking about where in the States it was from. When I was young it was just what was aesthetically pleasing. So, I guess it did have an influence on me. There were a couple of guys I remember, like this guy Clown, who had some interviews in some magazines back in the day, who I’ve actually been able to meet since moving to the West Coast, which is pretty crazy. There were a bunch of other guys as well, and obviously all the CBS guys too. I think the Europeans have always taken what writers were doing in the United States and really pushed it in another direction, in more artistic directions, whereas the States has always kept that illegal, raw sort of graffiti, like you’ve got to keep it the real deal, there’s no using some weird technique, people shut you down real quick with that sort of stuff!

Extinction wall, Venice Beach, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Extinction wall, Venice Beach, 2015 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

It feels like the Los Angeles influence isn’t only apparent in stylistic terms and letterform traditions, but through the environment itself, it is also evident conceptually and in terms of the imagery you often use. I’m thinking of the architectural elements in a lot of your work, to me, they have the feeling that Los Angeles as a sprawling, built environment, with a certain physical nature, is influential. Do you think that imagery, and even just the conceptual approach to your work, has been a response to living there, to that landscape?

Yeah for sure, obviously as you’re developing your work, you are taking reference photos and stuff like that all the time, and Los Angeles being the insane metropolis that it is, it was kind of inevitable that that was going to find its way into my work, because I’ve always sort of been interested in infrastructure and cityscapes and stuff like that…

Do you see a connection between building letterforms and architectural forms? In terms of how a letter, or a piece, is built up and constructed, it feels architectural in how space is considered, and angles are created and used…

I think earlier on I thought about that a lot. I remember doing some really sort of structural letters that almost looked like buildings in the past. But I do kind of separate my graffiti style from canvasses and mural stuff. It is always in there to some extent, but I try and stick to traditional letterforms, developing it in my own way. I guess always having some sort of architectural element in the background was kind of where I started pulling that stuff from, you know, backgrounds for graffiti stuff…

As you get older, when it comes to your letterforms, is there less influence from what other writers are doing and more of a continuation of what you have already developed? That idea of constant refinement, which is something that comes from the compulsion of writing, from repeating a tag ten thousand times, to perfecting a certain signature letter? For you, is your style becoming more and more insular as you get older, entangled in your own history of writing, more so than really taking notice of other sources?

Yeah, for sure. Like maybe from guys I initially painted with, but with any outside source, it’s not a good look to be doing that. Like you say, you do a tag ten thousand times, fifty thousand times, and over time you start to understand how everything fits together, it’s like an ongoing puzzle, within your own mind. It just refines over time. There are certain aspects that you might see another person doing, but it’s probably more technique than it is style. Because with style, it is hard to adapt someone else’s style, you are always going to have your own style, it’s almost impossible to reflect another person’s style, but technique for sure…

Los Angeles, 2014 (Photo credit: Dcypher)
Los Angeles, 2014 (Photo credit: Dcypher)

Like you were saying earlier, that from the pre-internet era, there were the influences of Subway Art, Style Wars, and there was what was on the walls around you, those influences were what you had, now with the digital age, you can see all these different styles, you can see writers from all over the world, in some ways it must be harder to develop a personal style amongst so much information…

Yeah…

Because so many things have been done, but also, you’ve seen all those things as well. You are nowhere near as isolated. Of course, that isolation meant that some really interesting local styles developed as a mixture of certain influences, like in Brazil, with the combination of hip hop graffiti with pixachao, or even Los Angeles and the influence of Cholo graffiti, but it is getting harder and harder to even see that happening because everything is available to everybody, everything seems more global.

Yeah, I think that graffiti has always had regional styles too. You could pick someone’s style from where they were in the world, even with the internet you could pick someone’s style; if you understand graffiti, you know someone from the West Coast of America as opposed to someone from the East Coast, versus someone from Brazil, versus someone from Australia, to some extent. Graffiti has always had its own specific styles, even within countries, it’s sort of like, ‘oh this is more of a northern style or a southern style’, which is awesome. It means the direct influence of what you are seeing in real life is what really has impact on your style, rather than seeing awesome photos on the internet all day long, which won’t ever have as much impact as walking up to a wall of a legend dude who has been painting twenty years in your city and just being like ‘Holy shit! That’s insane!’

To be continued Homecoming (Part Two)

In the meantime, check out Dcypher’s various platforms:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dcypherart/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dcypher_dtrcbs/

Web: https://www.dcypherart.com/

 

 

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

A Tribe Called Haz – Garage Days

A Tribe Called Haz, the pseudo identity of Harry King, a young artist and member of the RAD Collective, is in many ways indicative of the alternative and do-it-yourself approach of a number of Christchurch’s young, urban creatives. A Tribe Called Haz’s twisted, low-brow imagery and raw, low-fi style is reflective of an outsider style; his background as a skater and graffiti writer more important than any arts training.  His strange, playful compositions and juxtapositions, collating his various influences, experiences and even momentary preoccupations, are wrapped in a subversive and often anarchic energy, full of bright, at times acidic colours, applied in swarming washes of acrylic paint. While his work is very much of the digital and internet age, it is also refreshingly hand-made, imperfect and intentionally unpolished. His work may not be pretty, but it is playful and punkish, reflecting his sense of humour and a desire to confront and unsettle unsuspecting viewers; to garner a reaction, good or bad, challenging the viewer’s ability to be in on the joke. After following A Tribe Called Haz on Instagram for many months, I was glad to get a chance to sit down with him and find out more about his work, how various influences inform what he does, and what impact being a part of the RAD Collective, and social media, has had on getting his work out there…

 

So, should I call you A Tribe Called Haz? It’s one of the longer monikers I’ve come across, but I feel like it should be used in its totality! (Laughs)

Yeah that’s all good! (Laughs)

I was recently talking to Becca Barclay, one of the co-founders of the RAD Collective, and she said that the running joke is to describe you painting in head to toe black denim, drinking a dozen Diesel bourbon and cola cans, listening to Bon Scott era AC/DC (which in my mind is being played from the radio of a mid-eighties Ford Cortina). While she admitted it is more a joke about stereotypes, would you say it is a fair description?

Ahh, it is about eighty percent true! (Laughs) Yeah, I do love a bit of black denim and you can’t go past Bon Scott, but I don’t really paint so much under the influence, even though that was tied into the last exhibition name. But yeah, it is mainly just me painting in the garage, so it does seem to fit!

But, of course you are made up of more diverse elements than denim and classic rock; you’ve been a skateboarder since you were young…

Yeah, I started skateboarding about 11 years ago.

And you have a background in graffiti as well…

Yeah, that came about through skateboarding as well.

You also work as a builder, right?

I’m a third-year apprentice builder…

So, amongst all those influences, have you had any ‘traditional’ training, or are you self-taught as an artist?

I did art at high school, so I think the highest I’ve been trained would be level two at high school. But I hated doing art at high school. I didn’t like being told what to do, or how to do it, you know, I feel like it is stuff you can pick up by yourself. I don’t really see the benefit in that type of thing. I think it is good that they teach art at high school, but I think it should be kind of like a free period, where you can experiment more.

So, your experience illustrates how influences like skating and graffiti can be as formative as a formal training, in both technical and conceptual approaches to making art, right?

Yeah, it’s definitely just that I like to follow my own path. I pretty much pull stuff out of thin air, or if I just see stuff that looks somewhat eye-catching, it inspires me to do something. I can’t really put my finger on it, but yeah, it’s a time and place kind of thing, and I kind of think that comes from things like skating and graffiti.

What explicitly do you take from skateboarding? Do you connect skating and making art? Is there a shared spirit between the two for you? Is there something in the physical, practical act of skating that translates, or is there a distinct influence in terms of skateboarding’s visual culture?

For me, skateboarding is just something that is free. There are no rules, no one’s telling you what to do. It’s something that can be taught, but it doesn’t mean you will be good at it. Even if you are taught how to do stuff, everything is different for everyone. But yeah, it’s the sense of freedom, it’s just like a good way to put my mind at peace for a wee bit.

Oscar the Moe, acrylic on paper, 2018

I guess the same could be said for the attraction of graffiti? It’s also about freedom of expression, in both similar and divergent ways. You mentioned that you got into graffiti through skateboarding, so did that mean you came at it with a less traditional approach, more San Francisco than New York? Or were you still drawn to the hip hop tradition of graffiti writing?

Graffiti and skateboarding can go both ways. There’s the punk side, and then there’s the hip hop side, and it all depends on who you are, you know? There are lots of punk skaters out there, and you see the old pentagrams everywhere and the anarchy symbols, that A.C.A.B. kind of stuff (an anarchic acronym for All Cops Are Bastards), and then there’s the hip hop sort of stuff, the bolder letterform-based stuff. In my eyes that’s real graffiti, the hip hop side. So, yeah, I lean towards New York for sure…

Do you think Christchurch has that sort of diversity amongst the local graffiti culture? It definitely seems, outside of some figures, that the hip hop tradition has always been the most prominent.

There is definitely some quirkier stuff out there, but overall the scene is more traditional. So yeah, there is a bit of a gap between the two, people can be set in their ways.

Although there is obviously an inevitable overlap in terms of influence, do you separate your work as A Tribe Called Haz from your graffiti output? Are they ever in conversation stylistically or thematically, or do you keep them distinct?

No, they are two separate things. You see a lot of old school graffiti artists, or graffiti artists in general, go through just being hardcore graffiti writers, and then they get to a point where they start doing exhibitions and they go off in a totally different way, and then everyone who is still about graffiti, who grew up idolising them, they kind of turn on them for doing that, and I think it’s just easier to keep them separate…

It means there’s a fidelity to both as well, you’re not having to worry about those distinctions: one is one, the other is the other. Which means they keep fresh when you jump between them. I guess it also means you can be as experimental as you want to be in each realm, and that each can take really divergent paths.

Yeah, they don’t have to correlate at all, it is kind of like a split personality kind of deal!

How did the name A Tribe Called Haz come about? Is it just a moniker or is it more of a concept?

I’d say it is more of a concept. When I first started out, I called myself Postal Services, it was just something out of the blue, it didn’t need to make sense, I just didn’t want to put my name to what I was doing. That way you can do whatever you want, and I chose Postal Services. I ended up changing to A  Tribe Called Haz obviously because of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, but also, back when I first started skateboarding, there was a guy and his name was A Tribe Called Steve, and I used to see that written everywhere, so I was like, I’ll see what I can do with this and it has just sort of stuck…

So, there is a lineage there, a reference outside of the obvious one that many people probably aren’t picking up on, a little bit a local/subcultural reference…

Yeah, like I never met the guy, but I could’ve been in the same place, who knows? That’s the cool thing about having a separate identity.

Untitled, acrylic on paper, 2018

Your work clearly has a sense of humour, it’s often a pretty acerbic humour too. It comes through both in the imagery and in the visual style as well. Stylistically, how did you develop that rough, raw aesthetic? Is it a natural direction for you or have you refined it through exploration? And do you see it as an important part of the sense of humour of your work?

I think with my style and stuff, most of it is just natural. I think it is heavily graffiti influenced, big black outlines of stuff and lots of bright colours. I don’t try and sugar coat anything and visually I just try and make it as simple and as eye-catching as possible. Its not even that I’m trying to make other people laugh necessarily, I guess its kind of selfish in that I’m just painting things that make me laugh.

You mainly paint in acrylic, do the mediums you use play a big part in how you conceive of your work? Do you see a specific difference between using brushes and paint from spray cans?

It’s mainly acrylic. I’ve never touched watercolour. I’d like to branch out a little more. I’ve used a lot of Indian ink and I’ve recently started putting gloss finishes and all that kind of stuff on works as well. Yeah, I’d say the mediums I use are an important part of my work. I like acrylic because it is easy. Pretty much every can of spray paint is acrylic, so it goes hand in hand, it dries quickly, it’s easy to use, all that kind of jazz. I guess I also like acrylic because it doesn’t look like spray paint too.

There is a certain colour quality in your paintings, colours that are quite harsh, and applied in a certain way, quite flat and thick, is that all intentional to create a specific effect?

I like to think of my use of colours and how I put them on paper as kind of bulky, I am trying to make the images quite dense I guess.

Untitled, acrylic on paper, 2017

Your images are a real mixture; scenes filled with strange going-ons, juxtaposed objects, pop culture references, phrases, mysterious characters, it seems like anything goes. But there is also a sense that whatever you are depicting, they can seem at once mysterious, obvious and filled with potential narratives that the viewer can unravel. How do you come up with your subject matter?

I like confusing people. I like making people think, and maybe if I can offend people, it would be good as well. I’m not really pushing the envelope at the moment with anything I’m doing, but I like that kind of stuff, I like controversy and really topical stuff. My pictures are just based on whatever comes into my head at the time, so they could be anything really, sometimes from my life, but other times just from crazy thoughts. I often do something and then think, this looks boring, I need to chuck some fun stuff in there, to sort of twist it. So that can make stuff pretty out there…

By working with controversial, confronting or bemusing imagery, are you trying to elicit a response from the viewer? To make them feel a certain way?

Yeah definitely. With controversy and people being offended by what they see, it’s all their choice, it doesn’t have to be what they make it out to be. Everything has got two sides to it, or even a third side coming from someone else’s point of view, nothing is the same to everyone…

If you can offend someone in some way, it also means they at least have to consider why they are offended, right?

Yeah, and maybe they can come around to see it from someone else’s point of view, and be like; actually, it’s not as bad as I think… Or maybe the more they look at it, the more they hate it, which is also fine. I just like getting reactions out of people, whether it is good or bad, you know, it is better than someone just looking at something and having no thought of it whatsoever. I would rather make something that someone looks at it and they might ponder on it, even if it’s in their head for a minute, it is still confronting them.

Does building play any influence in your work? Do you see a connection between the rigorous process of building something and the way you create a painting?

Yeah, well I see everything in layers, like you’ve got all your steps you go through to get a house to where it needs to be, and that’s the same with painting; you do your background, then you put whatever you want on top and then it’s just layering and layering. I think with building, it has made me think about other mediums and stuff, but apart from that I haven’t really taken those ideas too much further…

Have you thought about making three-dimensional work, actually building sculptural objects?

Not really, or at least it’s not on my radar at the moment, although I wouldn’t rule it out. In high school I did sculpture as a subject. I think I was in the last sculpture class that Hagley High ever had. I think I was one of the only students, there were three of us, but I was the only one in my year.

Untitled, aerosol on trampoline, 2018

Untitled, Aerosol on a trampoline, 2018

How did you come to be a part of the RAD Collective?

I met Becca Barclay about a year ago. She was really good mates with my neighbour and one night we were having a party and one of my flatmates, knowing she is a graphic designer, was like: ‘Oh, Harry draws…’ She came and looked through some of my blackbooks and was like: ‘This is crazy!’ I didn’t really hear anything for a while and then we ended up hanging out a little bit, and she said: ‘I’ve got this idea, I want to get this collective going, I want to do something in Christchurch.’ Eventually we moved into a flat, and now I live with her and Jimirah, the other co-founder of the RAD.

Without the RAD Collective, what avenues would you have explored for your paintings? Would your work have stayed in the blackbooks, or were you trying to find ways to get your work out there anyway?

I think I would still be floating around not really having any sense of direction. It’s good having something to work for and towards. It gives you fuel for the fire. I’ve had so many opportunities so far because of my involvement in the RAD Collective. I think I’ve featured in three exhibitions. Without the RAD, my work would probably have still been in the blackbooks…

It feels like in post-quake Christchurch young creative people have been somewhat empowered to make things happen, and I feel like the influence of urban art is part of that too, just as a source of inspiration, or an alternative approach. In the past it seemed like a battle to get things off the ground unless you were exposed to the more traditional networks. Now it feels like there’s more willingness for people to come together and put things on, and people who may not have taken that step are now exploring new ways to get their work out there…

Yeah definitely, especially with the RAD, I see it as having kind of a do-it-yourself mentality. If no-one’s going to put your work out there, then you’re going to have to do it yourself. You are going to have to try a lot harder, but I think that as long as you’re doing something, you know, you can’t go wrong. So, yeah, I guess Christchurch does seem to have sparked up a bit more of a start-up attitude and things are happening that might not have happened before.

Has being in the RAD Collective inspired you to explore any new ideas?

Yeah, I’m starting to dabble in digital art, like everyone! At first, I was a little bit dubious about it all being on computer because you don’t get the same feel, you don’t get the same effects, all that kind of stuff, but it’s a lot more accessible. You don’t have to carry around your paint brushes everywhere, you can be sitting on the bus or whatever and just be smashing stuff out. I’ve been trying to get back into photography as well…

I feel like your work would translate well digitally, but photography is an interesting direction, because it feels a little at odds with your visual style. Are there any particular influences or interests there?

It’s a little bit of everything, just day to day life. I like urban nature as well… I guess I’m mostly influenced by skate photographers and people from that scene, like Ed Templeton, and even Moki (another member of the RAD Collective), I really like how raw his photos are.

In many ways we are all photographers now, not only do we all have access to cameras, but because of social media, we are also a lot more aware of how we compose and publish pictures. But a lot of people are embracing traditional elements of photography, inevitably inflected with the social nature of ‘everyday’ photography, but with more awareness of the process. Are you part of the movement to reclaim photography a little?

I wouldn’t say reclaim (laughs), but I do like the old school 35mm, all that sort of stuff. I think the digital side has helped with that change, because even though it’s pushed it out a little bit, it has also sort of brought it back, the digital technology kind of became a gateway back to the traditional stuff. It’s definitely a lot more popular than it was when they started bringing out digital cameras and all that sort of stuff…

Like millions of others, Instagram is a primary way for you to put your work out there online and to gain exposure. Do you feel like your work is able to operate as effectively within that digital realm as it does in an actual physical presence, or do you still make your work for people to see face to face?

Yeah definitely, I wouldn’t say it is made for Instagram, but I will do a painting, take a photo straight away and try and get it up so a lot more people will have access to it, as opposed there just being all these paintings sitting in my garage and I would have to ring people, and be like: ‘Yeah, come round and see what I’ve done…’

Do you ever hesitate before posting something, or are you pretty quick to put stuff online?

Nah, I don’t really edit my output, but I might give it a day or two before posting, so I’m giving different posts a bit of space, a bit of breathing room. I never use filters either, it is always a case of what you see is what you get.

A Tribe Called Haz painting at the RAD Collective event Under the Influence, Box Quarter, April 2018 [Photo credit: Lindsay Chan]
The RAD Collective recently held the exhibition Under the Influence, and you and a few other RAD Collective artists painted live on the night. I know you had some nerves about painting in front of a crowd, so how did you manage? Did you get your music playlist right?

Yeah, I was really nervous, but it did give me a good adrenaline rush for a couple of hours! I ended up listening to Powerglide by Rae Sremmurd and Juicy J on repeat for two and a half hours, that seemed to work…

So, you didn’t listen to Powerage!

Haha, yeah nah, no AC/DC that night. It was a really good turn out to the show though, I think everyone involved was really pleased with the reactions…

 What else is on the horizon for A Tribe Called Haz?

My books are open! There is nothing concrete, but definitely more paintings and hopefully more walls. I need to hone the A Tribe Called Haz style for my wall work, but I’m keen to explore that…

Cheers man, keep up the good work…

Thanks very much…

Check out A Tribe Called Haz on Instagram:

@atribecalledhaz

Cover image photo credit: The RAD Collective

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The RAD Collective – All Together Now

In late 2017 I started to notice a new name popping up across my social media feeds. I wasn’t even completely sure what the RAD Collective was; a collection of visual artists? A promotional entity? A clothing brand? Something to do with skateboarding? As I delved deeper into the world of the RAD Collective, the answer didn’t necessarily become any clearer, they seemed to be all of those things and more. Even when I asked people about them, I got a range of descriptions and explanations. I explored the artists, some familiar, others new, and found a range of approaches, often tinged with a rebellious, playful or acerbic edge, but always distinctly independent. The RAD Collective remained something of an intriguing mystery.

Eventually I was introduced to the RAD Collective’s co-founder Becca Barclay. When we finally sat down to talk about how the collective came to be, how it functions, and the group’s goals, her passion and energy for the concept was clear. What also became clearer were the collective’s diverse identities and operations. Made up of a number of young creatives, including artists, designers, illustrators, graffiti writers and street artists, photographers, filmmakers, musicians and writers, the RAD Collective facilitates collaboration and cross-pollination, while also allowing members to retain their individuality and flourish independently. Although not an explicit element of their formation, the RAD Collective in some regards reflects the evolution and influence of urban art. They span subcultures and decline singular definitions, while embracing and celebrating the subversive qualities of diverse street cultures among other influences. Where once it seemed everyone belonged to a ‘tribe’, adhering and dissolving into expected activities and appearances, the RAD Collective might represent an eroding desire for labels, a new willingness to be all things and nothing.

So Becca, the RAD Collective seems like a pretty fresh approach in Christchurch’s creative scene, obviously it is distinct from the likes of graffiti crews, where did the inspiration come from? Was there a specific influence that set an example to follow?

The RAD’s initial idea was born at Design School at ARA. It was originally, and still will hopefully be, a collaborative ‘alternative’ underground magazine, focusing on different creative practices and sub-cultures and how they intertwine with one another.  Within each issue, numerous creatives will work together on one artwork or article. My third-year research project was focusing on how sub-cultures were represented in print media from the 1950’s until now (so that was me diving into A LOT of David Carson’s work on alternative publications Beach Culture and Raygun, but also various culture prints like Monster Children and i-D, and even skateboard magazine Thrasher).  But I wanted the RAD to really reflect the idea that all these ‘groups’, whether they might be skaters, artists, musicians, street artists, don’t conform just to their own sub-culture, and they each feed the others. We have really tried to keep that as the essence of what we do as a collective. We have our main inner group, but with each exhibition or event we collaborate on, we invite other artists or work with diverse businesses to create alternative or urban showcases. I don’t think any of our members would even refer to themselves as a part of only one sub-culture. We are huge fans of Young, Gifted and Broke (YGB) from Auckland, and the idea that all these creative people are among one team, I think is a really awesome and inspiring approach.

 I have been wondering, is RAD an acronym?

 Hahaha, no! I just think it looks cooler and way more ‘oomphy’ in capitals!

I have often wondered if a defined subculture such as hip-hop could come into existence anymore. Obviously there have always been localised versions within subcultures, with distinct elements based on the specific environment in which they are embedded, but in the digital age, it seems that influences and information are so accessible and diverse, that people will not necessarily seek any singular sense of definition. But, with that said, is there something that defines the members of the RAD Collective, or at least a common thread that unifies them? Or is diversity the defining element? Is there a concerted idea around who ‘fits’ stylistically, or is it more a question of who does something conceptually or materially that adds to the group’s potential?

That is a really hard question to answer because I would usually describe the common thread throughout the RAD as ‘urban’ and ‘alternative’, two words not necessarily used together often and probably a bit of a cop-out on my behalf as they’re both extremely broad! I’ve never really seen diversity as our defining element as we truly are one big team. But in saying that, our diverse skill set is why we work so well and can offer value, to not only our members, but also to the community and the events we work on. As I mentioned earlier, I doubt any individual members of our team would conform themselves to one subculture. I love to use Harry King, otherwise known as A Tribe Called Haz, as an example of this. He is a full-time builder, but loves urban art and is a graffiti artist, his ‘crowd’ are skaters, he’s been skating since he was ten. But our running joke within the RAD is that all his paintings and illustrations are made with him wearing black double denim, listening to pre-1980’s AC/DC and sinking twelve cans of Diesel bourbon and cola, because he ‘looks’ like a bogan! So, no, there is no idea around who ‘fits’ stylistically, whether that is the artist or their art. It is definitely more about the person who is involved, who can add value, and who we can help out. A lot of our team now are friends of friends or people who we’ve approached to join with an idea or project in mind that might crossover into their specialty, so that is pretty cool. But not only does that add value by making our team more diverse and skilled, but it also opens the potential for collaboration across creative fields people might have never dabbled in before.

RAD Collective member, Tomoki ‘Moki’ Peters in front of a series of his photographs at the RAD exhibition at Papa Hou at YMCA, late 2017. Photo Credit: The RAD Collective

Who makes up the RAD Collective, and what roles do people play? I know you have a large number, but does it need delegation, or even a consensus around projects, or do people sort of pick and choose what they want to be involved in?

The collective is made up of around twenty people; we have some more involved members than others, but that’s just because we have pushed out a lot of visual art exhibitions so far, so our schedule has suited certain members more than others. We would usually put a call out to the team to come over or meet us for a Bodgie Beer (the famous house brew at Christchurch’s Smash Palace) and from there we discuss new projects and exhibition ideas. We then clean the idea up, present it to everyone else and people pick and choose if they want to be involved and their level of involvement. Some members will only exhibit occasionally whereas others are involved in every exhibition, and the whole exercise, from helping with branding, to setting up and packing down.

You mentioned that the magazine is still a driving goal, and I look forward to seeing how it materialises, but how did some of the other events come to fill the gap, so to speak, from art exhibitions to being involved in the King of the Square event (an invitational street skating competition staged in Cathedral Square)? There are always a lot of necessary tasks behind getting anything done, so are responsibilities shared around, or do people have specialist roles?

Thank you, we are excited to see what comes of it as well! I was very lucky that one of my close friends and influences, Billy McLachlan, is the organiser of King of the Square, and he knew about the RAD and basically encouraged me to get involved and for us to sort it out and get into it. At this point we had a team together but didn’t have too much going on.  Alongside King of the Square, also in November 2017, we staged an opening exhibition at Papa Hou, the arts venue at the YMCA. From there we approached Audrey Baldwin to become a part of First Thursdays and then Ōtākaro approached us about doing something for the Evolution Square launch. It all happened in quite quick succession, so that was a full on eight weeks of planning and organising. Myself and Jimirah Baliza, who is the collective’s co-founder, will usually do most of planning and administrative things, but there are heaps of people in the team who help us out along the way! At the end of the day we’re asking a lot of these creatives to turn around exhibition pieces in the time that they do, so we try keep their workload at a minimum.

Members of the RAD Collective at the King of the Square event in Cathedral Square, November 2017. Photo Credit: The RAD Collective

How do the group shows come together? Is there generally a theme that artists work to, or is there a sense of trying to pin down what members are doing in the presentation? Do you take the lead from a curatorial point of view?

In the past, we’ve been approached to do group shows and there has been very little turnaround, which means it has been a couple of hectic, stressful weeks! With our upcoming show, Under the Influence, we have had full control from start to finish and the idea came from having a catch up at Smash Palace with some of the team. With past shows where we’ve had such a tight turnaround we haven’t asked artists to work to a theme, but we did with this new show. People seem to have interpreted it two ways: looking at their influences in life or art, or from a drinking or party culture point of view. We usually don’t want to pressure the artists into doing too much other than making their exhibition pieces, but with big shows like this one they will probably have a small job on the evening. I would love to say I do take the lead from a curatorial point of view, but usually it is launch day and Jimirah and myself and whoever else is running around, usually Kophie Hulsbosch and Lucia Kux, are all hands on deck getting as much done as we can! For this show Jimirah, Kophie, Lucia, McChesney-Kelly Adams and I will be doing equal parts curating and setting up.

What makes Christchurch, and specifically post-quake Christchurch, the place for the RAD Collective to work? I know one member has recently relocated, that is always going to be a reality, especially for young creatives, but do you think it is now a place that might be able to retain and sustain people and their creative appetites and goals?

 We are so lucky being from Christchurch as the art and design community have really helped us out and welcomed us with open arms! ARA, other creatives, event organisers and even Ōtākaro have all helped us out along the way and really embraced what we are doing. We have been incredibly lucky in that respect, but I think that reflects the sort of environment the RAD was born into. People want to see a more creative Christchurch, people want events and interactivity within the city and, luckily for us, they are stoked when they see young people at the forefront of it all. If it wasn’t for that, The RAD would never have been nearly as busy or successful as what it has been to date.

But yes, we are so gutted Tomoki Peters, who is a really talented photographer, has left for the bigger, brighter lights of Melbourne, he was definitely a team favourite. But we’re lucky we live in the digital age, so he will still be exhibiting with us and will still be a huge part of the RAD. But as you said, that’s the reality of it, of course some of the crew will move and travel. But yeah, I genuinely believe Christchurch is an attractive place to stay or to come back to, now more than ever. There are so many creative opportunities, events to work on and co-working spaces popping up, and that momentum and energy within the city keeps building.

The RAD Collective take over the store front window of Sydenham skate store Embassy for First Thursdays, December 2017. Photo Credit: The RAD Collective

As a collection of young people, how does the RAD serve as an example for others? Will it be an evolving concept with a lengthy life span and constantly expanding roster, or is it a celebration of the now, an embrace of the potential to combine and get stuff done in the immediate environment?

Hahaha, oh man, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the RAD being an example for others to follow, but I would hope people see us and realise that with a bit of determination, a good mindset and kindness to others, as cheesy as that sounds, you can almost do anything! I love framing everything I do regarding the RAD within a sort of mantra: Do it with passion, do it with compassion, do it with humour and do it with style. If people can see us out there doing it with a smile on our faces, then that’s all that really matters to me. Again, I know it sounds so cheesy, but it’s true! Also, I like to think a bit of naivety never hurt nobody, ya know?

I do think the RAD will be forever evolving. That’s the beauty of a collective, people will always come and go, but I think the true essence of this sort of rebellion, these alternative ways of presenting art, will stay the same. For me, this is my dream, I will do whatever I can to not only one day make the RAD into our magazine, but also grow the RAD apparel, promotions and events, and even develop a RAD artist fund where we can continue to work with super talented young people through workshops, exhibitions, projects, events and collaborations together. That’s the dream anyway!

The lifespan of the collective and the idea of having goals for the RAD does matter to me and some of the other members, although maybe not all of them, but the main attitude within the group is to definitely make the most of now and get stuff done, most def!

With all that said, what is next for the RAD? What is the long-term plan for world domination and what are the shorter-term projects coming up? You have already mentioned the exhibition Under the Influence coming up… 

Yep, next up for the RAD is our exhibition Under The Influence. The show opens 6pm on Friday, April 13th, at the Boxed Quarter, on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets. What we have planned is not your average art exhibition, we have light projections from our motion designers within the courtyard, we have some up and coming DJ’s playing, we have three of our street artists doing live painting, we have a heap of food vendors and a courtyard bar to get yourself a cheeky Friday night beer! And, of course, we have our exhibition, there are twenty artists contributing and we are all so excited! We are also going to be rolling out more winter merchandise. Once that is done, then it’s time to focus on the other exhibitions and events we want to execute for the year. As I mentioned, in the long term we would love to do more event promotion, we’re also aiming to paint some murals around the city, do more pop-up shops, more digital and immersive exhibitions, more collaborations with local businesses, and then about half way through this year we are really going to knuckle down and figure out how we can make a somewhat eco-minded, alternative, honest, underground publication that isn’t half-full of advertising! We are also currently working to find our full-time artists a home to work from, so it truly is all go! We are super excited, so whoever wants to come down and check out Under the Influence, we would all love to have a beer with you!

Head down to the Boxed Quarter (corner of Madras and St Asaph streets in the central city) on Friday, April 13th, from 6pm to see Under the Influence. For more information, check out the RAD Collective’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/812991845578842/

 Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring interviews with a number of artists from the RAD Collective, so keep tuned and get to know some of Christchurch’s up and coming talents…

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