Graffiti or street art? Virtuosity or urban menace? While arguments rage over the definition, clandestine art of every colour is changing the face of the Christchurch CBD.
A wild nor’western is tossing birds, bags and dust over the corner site. Someone has parked a Honda Civic close to the two-storey concrete wall in front of us, and there are not enough spray cans to hold the tarpaulin down. Street artist Wongi Wilson— aka Freak, part of the DTR crew—uses the edge of a paint roller on a four-metre pole to sketch out a spidery white line. He stands back, checks his work. The wind picks up. It begins to rain. He calls it a day.
The next day is cold, breezy. The city is quieter. The Honda has gone. By 10am, Wilson is in a cherry-picker completing the outline of an artwork commissioned by local organisation Home & Family. He uses a paint roller, spray cans and—for more subtle shadowing—a garden sprayer with paint diluted and quickly blotted dry. Over the next two weeks, he works consistently, making the most of the clear weather and cordoned car park, at times continuing into the night, the wall illuminated only by street lights. It is intense and very public.
People stop to take photos, drivers toot their horns, a man yells out his truck window, “Make it bigger!” Wilson gives him the thumbs-up and keeps painting, a small figure traversing the 200-square-metre wall, bending into each downward stroke, outlining, filling in, painting over, shadowing, constructing a huge illustrative story of house, home and family.
A couple of blocks south, a hole in a wire fence opens on to the rubbly edge of the railway tracks. The ground is littered with caps, spray cans, energy-drink bottles— trash evidence beneath the rough fresco of tags, cartoonish characters and abstract forms. Illegal, largely anonymous and secretive in their execution.
“To see art, we’d walk the track lines, from one suburb to the next,” says Wilson. “That was our gallery, that’s where we’d see everything we wanted to see. Galleries are structured and formal. There’s a bit of hoity-toitiness that’s not appealing to kids writing graffiti. But down here you’d get the whole graffiti scene—four or five crews with up to a dozen or so people.”
It is about the art, he says, “but it’s also about getting your name out there and being recognised. Not you as a person but your style, your name. You would hear people talking about it—did you see this piece? This tag? That’s how it starts.”
The word ‘Graffiti’ comes from the Italian word ‘sgraffire’, meaning ‘to scratch’. Outdoor walls, even cave walls, have long been used as vehicles for cultural expression. A recent book on Pompeii’s graffiti by United States classics professor Kristina Milnor shows that Rome’s citizens used graffiti to comment on politics, personal relationships and health (“Beware of shitting here,” says one).
But the explosion of contemporary graffiti in cities around the world can be traced back to July 21 1971, when the New York Times published an article about a teenage foot messenger from Manhattan, who, for several years, had been writing his tag name, TAKI 183 (he lived on 183rd Street), on places he visited around the city, including subways and rail cars. (Taki claimed to have been influenced by the short-lived graffiti career of earlier tagger JULIO 204, a Puerto Rican who lived on 204th Street.) The fuse was lit. Over the following years, a rash of imitators transformed subways and trains into public drawing boards for arcane, calligraphic tags and large multicolour ‘bombs’ comprising letters, comic-style characters and backgrounds.
From 1989, when New York declared the subway graffiti-free, many taggers moved above ground, making their mark on buildings, fences and freight trains, brandishing their identity across a city or, by rail, a country.
Ronald Kramer, a sociology lecturer at the University of Auckland, has been following graffiti since growing up in Melbourne and completing his doctoral work at Yale University, north-east of New York. In its original form, he says, graffiti is a rebellious type of public art, addressing race and class tensions, consumerism and the ownership of public space.
“There is a question about who gets to see themselves reflected in that space, whose public environment it is. If you are a politician or a corporation, you get to do that all the time—every corporate building has its logo up there. In emblazoning letters and words across the city, graffiti writers redefine their own identities in relation to this environment.”
Auckland arts commentator Hamish Keith agrees. “We scribble over all our walls. Every flat surface in the city is covered with a commercial message. Street artists have found a way to insert themselves into that process. It’s part of the reclamation of the urban environment.”
Keith aligns street art with the corralling of art by professional curators and galleries, a form of art privatisation that suppressed an “awful lot of talent”.
“The flowering of street art has to do with the collision between institutionalised art and art that is talking to the people from whom it comes. As the gatekeepers exercised more and more control over what went on in art institutions, a whole stream of creativity was pushed into the street.”
Hip-hop culture—graffiti, rapping, breakdancing and DJ-ing—reached New Zealand’s streets on a Sunday night in 1984 when the United States documentary Style Wars hit our screens. Overnight, says Auckland street artist Elliot O’Donnell— aka Askew One, aka Big Elz—“kids were spinning on their heads on pieces of cardboard and rocking their name around the city”.
Askew, one of New Zealand’s most recognised street artists and founding member of the graffiti crew TMD (The Most Dedicated or, “back in the day, The Most Dangerous”) grew up in Morningside “when it was super blue-collar, very multicultural”.
He was one of a group of young artists responding to a second wave of graffiti emerging out of Los Angeles gang culture, using spray paint or marker pens to mark out territory and establish a sense of community.
“Graffiti is a way of forming a sense of identity when you’re young, and a mechanism by which you can build tight and longlasting friendships,” he says.
Without permission of property owners, however, graffiti is illegal. It is dangerous— dodging police, hanging from the roofs of tall buildings, entering insecure buildings. In 2006 a graffiti artist fell to his death while tagging the Capitol Cinema in Balmoral, Auckland. Two years later a 15-year-old tagger was stabbed to death by an angry property owner in Manurewa.
And it is driven. “I used to feel inadequate if I didn’t paint three or four things out on the street a week,” says Askew. “I would start to obsess. It’s impossible to appease that. I was spending 70–80 per cent of my life doing graffiti, with no longterm plan as to how I was going to afford basic things like groceries or health care. I had to start thinking, do I consider myself an artist? Yes. How does an artist survive? In the simplest ways by making paintings that people might be interested in buying.
“So I had a very interesting studio phase when I really worked out what I wanted to express myself outside of, hey, this is my name, this is my name, really fancy, over and over again.”
Askew now splits his time between street art, fine art and graphic design. He’s directed music videos, published a magazine, organised graffiti events, run a gallery. His TMD crew has twice won the graffiti Write4Gold world championships. His figurative work, hero portraits and large-scale murals have appeared in Glasgow (for the 2014 Commonwealth Games), Detroit and Berlin.
You could say he’s gone legit.
“In my heart, I enjoyed doing illegal things, doing graffiti in a way that people didn’t want me to. It made it an exciting adventure and that exclusive world that no one else was a part of, just me and my friends. But you can only be an active graffiti writer illegally while you are young— when you get older it is physically hard, and it’s embarrassing going to court at 30-something years old.”
Today, there are two distinct cultures: street art—literally art on the street—and graffiti art, based on and around the tag name of the artist. Both can be legal or illegal. Both are trending towards more New Zealand and Pacific iconography.
“But it all stems from the original train bombing in New York,” says Wongi Wilson. “If graffiti art was a family tree, that would be at the top, then it branches out from there. In Melbourne now there are people who do nothing but paint trains. There are graffiti artists who’d say ‘graffiti’ and ‘artist’ is contradictory in itself. Then there are graffiti artists like myself who have come from a graffiti background and who are doing stuff with it.”
Around the country, grey facades are disappearing under a multi-coloured skin of words, letters, wild characters and photorealistic figures, as public and private building owners and managers offer up their walls for public art projects, street-art festivals, youth service programmes and sponsored commissions. Manufacturers are developing improved and safer painting techniques: spray-can caps that can dispense paint from pencil-thin width to ‘fills’ 60 millimetres wide; new paints that are based on pigment, cane sugar and alcohol rather than moreharmful petroleum-based products.
The result is bright, often obvious, and upbeat.
“There’s a big difference between gang graffiti and urban graffiti,” says Kramer. “But I still don’t see this rebellious, want-to-tear-down-society thing in the writers I’ve met here. Perhaps when they were younger they had a more rebellious outlook but as they get older they develop a vision of themselves as artists creating aesthetic products within their urban environment.”
Following the devastating earthquake of February 2011, Christchurch’s broken walls were adorned with painted or pasted wishes of strength and resilience. Spray-painted Band-Aids appeared over cracks in walls, hearts and flowers and Kia Kaha messages spilled into the cordoned red zone.
Today, the central business district has become a single large democratised exhibition space as commissioned works by established artists share wall space with tags, graffiti, paste-ups, stencils and largescale murals as part of a city-wide grassroots arts movement.
“We knew we had to do something,” says Wilson. “So we’d paint a massive mural on a building surface so if people walk past, they’re not thinking about the destruction or the earthquake, they’re thinking about the mural. We’re trying to put better memories there and distract from the destructiveness of those other memories.”
In 2013, the Oi You! Rise exhibition brought 15 street artists from around the world, including acclaimed artist ROA from Belgium, to paint huge outdoor murals across the city. The related display at the Canterbury Museum of street-art works and associated paraphernalia by Bristolian stencil artist Banksy, owned by collector and Rise organiser George Shaw, broke all previous visitor records.
“As soon as we came [to Christchurch] we knew this was where we should be,” says Shaw, already working on this year’s street-art event, Spectrum.
“Street art is about inclusivity, about doing something for the greater good. We want to bring as many of the top artists around the world to the city, to layer street art into the rebuild. If we continue to do what we are doing, this will be the street-art capital of the southern hemisphere.”
But street art’s popularity does not deny its training ground—the proliferation of tags that swarm across abandoned buildings, fences, hoardings and power poles.
While 99 per cent of tags, says Wilson, are done by kids who don’t know what they are doing, “tagging itself is an art form. It’s pretty much calligraphy or typography but hip-hop orientated.”
Arts graduate and self-taught mural artist Jacob Ryan, aka Yikes, says tagging “is always the first thing you start doing. It gives you the basis to work from. You learn how to do stylised letters and formulate letters. A lot of people try and skip that step and they fail. It’s a fundamental element. You don’t start off doing wild elaborate pieces. You can’t run ‘til you can walk.”
Millions of dollars are spent each year erasing those fundamental elements. In 2011–12, Auckland spent $4.8 million cleaning 340,000 graffiti sites. In 2013, Christchurch spent $2 million cleaning up after taggers. City bus operators spend about $280,000 a year removing graffiti and window etching from their fleets. (And sometimes not just graffiti—in 2011, a large, authorised mural by Askew in Newton, Auckland, was painted over by council contractors in preparation for the Rugby World Cup.)
Under the umbrella of the Christchurch City Council’s graffiti team, some 1300 social and neighbourhood groups, businesses and individuals volunteer their time to erase the string of tags that appear almost daily across the city’s built structures.
One simple criterion determines whether graffiti stays or is removed, says the council’s crime prevention team leader, Sue Ramsay. “Does it have permission? If it does, it is legal artwork and not graffiti or tagging. If it doesn’t, it is not.”
On a fine Sunday morning in the Christchurch suburb of Phillipstown, three members of the Sunday Assembly, a nonreligious global organisation aimed at “living well and helping others”, take to a list of tagged sites with gloves, paint, rollers and brushes—a general anti-graffiti kit provided by the council through Ministry of Justice funding and donated goods. They begin painting over a fence blotted with mismatched patches of colour previously applied to mask tags. A passer-by on a bike pulls over. “Covering up the tags? Good on you!”
All three volunteers appreciate the complex street murals proliferating in the inner city, but tags on private property are another matter.
“We were concerned we would be covering over great works of art,” says member William Gordon-Wright, a Christchurch GP , “but if they are painted illegally or without permission they have to go.”
For those painting on the streets it is all par for the course.
“You paint it and you hope like hell it will stay forever,” says Wilson, “but the artwork is the artwork—if you see it as it was, you’re lucky you did.”
While some peripheral galleries specialise in street art, graffiti now finds much of its audience on online platforms such as Instagram that allow street artists to produce anywhere and find an immediate following for what is often an ephemeral art form, built over or painted out with religious regularity.
But painting over a tag, says Ramsay, is just the beginning. “You have to work with communities to get them to keep their place tidy and clean. It is about uplifting the whole environment that the graffiti starts out in. Graffiti is the first sign of decline in an area. If it is allowed to fester, people assume it’s okay.”
Around the country, a range of tactics are employed to deter graffiti. New urban-design strategies, such as trees or bushes in front of bare fences and walls, strong lighting, window-protection measures and wall murals—street-art projects are unlikely to be tagged, says Ramsay—are all aimed at deterring graffiti.
Graffiti artists say there are further options.
“You can try and get rid of it all,” says Yikes, “or you can do what other cities do and say let’s take the aesthetically pleasing aspects of it and use it in a creative way that works with the city environment.”
Auckland artist Janine Williams, aka Lady Diva, a member of the international Stick Up Girlz street-art crew, agrees.
“I understand property and I understand why people shouldn’t have to pay [to remove tags], but a lot of these kids won’t tag your fence if their energy is being put into something positive.
Spending millions every year to paint out graffiti is only painting over the attitudes or the reasons why people are doing this stuff. You go to a wall and it’s grey, next day there’s a tag, next day it’s grey, next day there’s a tag. Would you not think after ten years that something’s not working?”
And street art and graffiti have been shown to move gang culture into a more constructive theatre of combat. “Hip-hop gave young men a way to compete through aesthetic means,” says Kramer. “Graffiti writers would fight each other through style and outdo each other through painting.”
In this country, he says, street art gives young people opportunities to explore their creativity “and to use up their excess energy in a way that gels with their interests and that operates as a counter to gang cultures. Both subcultures give a sense of belonging, but urban graffiti-writing culture has a lot more potential to be more pro-social, adding value to the urban environment and being consistent with things like tourism.”
Street art can also lead to other careers. In 2012, New Zealand winery Invivo introduced a range of limited-edition graffiti wine boxes produced by Kiwi and British street artists. Auckland graffiti artist and designer Misery has her own fashion label and design work. Street art has influenced mainstream fashion, product design, music, advertising, television and, as more tertiary trained artists take to the streets or adopt graffiti-type motifs, fine art.
“When people think of subcultures, they think of them as youth movements that last for a couple of years then disappear,” says Kramer. “But graffiti and street art haven’t gone anywhere. If anything, they’ve become more entrenched. Everyone knows Banksy and what his work looks like. In Melbourne, people go to Hosier Lane to photograph graffiti and street art. Most cities recognise that graffiti and street art are consistent with tourism and interesting urban spaces, and the whole street-art thing makes it cool and hip. If you try to argue that it leads to serious crime, no one believes that anymore.”