On your way to work or strolling around Auckland city on a sunny day, chances are you’ve walked past paintings and murals by some of New Zealand’s most prolific street artists and graffiti writers. Their vision and imprint on our cityscapes, helps to bring life and colour to otherwise dull, grey scale walls. And it’s an increase in support that has helped to make this possible.
Exhibitions and festivals around New Zealand have also helped to boost the profile of our local talent – in Auckland, the K-Road Business Association launched the All Fresco Festival last year, commissioning artists from across the country to create murals in and around K Road. And this year, Canterbury Museum launched street art exhibition ‘Rise’ hosting the work of local and international artists—a somewhat surprising, but welcome change to the rather formal setting of the museum. It is an increase in opportunities like this that allow the audience to engage and get up-close-and-personal with the work.
So is it fair to say that times have changed, and that these artists are finally being acknowledged and respected for their contribution to society?
Chris Jackson, organiser of ‘Street Legal Festival’ says that there’s greater support in general for these artists, whose work is now seen as an asset to the urban environment.
“Building owners are starting to realise the impact these murals are having on their properties. People now identify buildings by their artwork which lifts their visibility and profile. Landlords are increasingly making their walls available as canvasses.”
Jackson is adamant that these artists need a place to showcase their extraordinary talent. The impetus behind ‘Street Legal Festival’ (which took place in Kawerau during Waitangi weekend this year), was as much about the local community as it was for the artists involved. It was the first festival of its kind in New Zealand which featured more than 20 of New Zealand’s best ‘street’ and graffiti artists who created 26 murals, located on the main road on the entrance to Kawerau.
“We wanted to engage the community of a small Eastern, Bay of Plenty (BOP) town. We wanted to inspire our local youth to aspire to a career in art or music regardless of their background or where they were from. We also wanted to support NZ street artists and up-and-coming young musicians and showcase their work over NZ's national weekend, as a celebration of NZ street art and music.”
Although the day rained out, with a less than anticipated audience of around 350, Jackson isn’t fazed. He believes it is a worthwhile project which has long-term benefits for the community, and subsequently more than 1000 visitors have come to view the new artworks. Jackson maintains that festivals like Street Legal also provide an opportunity for artists to explore new directions whilst being a chance to bring them together in one place.
“Our artists travel globally as Kiwis do, and their work can be seen around the world. Their skills and talent are as good as anywhere. They draw inspiration from their surroundings and are not afraid to explore boundaries. The diversity of NZ artists and their backgrounds is huge. They are a close-knit community - they draw support from, inspire, challenge and collaborate with each other. That is the strength of the NZ street art scene I believe. They are an awesome bunch of people.”
Many of these artists prefer to let their work speak for itself. Some have a social or political message (‘street art’), while others use aerosol and public walls purely as a means to explore a visual aesthetic (graffiti). Styles and techniques vary; some artists are more illustrative or painterly, where others can be abstract or cartoony. But while festivals are helping to boost the profiles of these artists and provide accessible art to the public, it’s still commonplace for artists to encounter some form of resistance irregardless of whether their work has been commissioned and they’ve been granted consent.
Russian born- Misha Uteev aka Wert 159 is an architecture graduate, painter, installation artist and graffiti writer based in Auckland. Currently in Doha working on a mural for an entertainment centre, he’s often juggling personal and commerical projects and refers to himself not only as an artist, but also an entrepreneur. With his paintings located around NZ and Europe he prefers to paint in a comfortable, quiet environment— one that is devoid of ‘trouble’ that could be caused by painting on an unauthorized space.
“Unfortunately there are not many spaces that are vacant as such. All the time it is permitted walls which are approached by myself ‘in- person’ or they’re known to be legal (and) sussed out for the artist to paint.”
Uteev sees graffiti and street art as serving a function—that it beautifies the landscape rather than detracts from it. But he’s aware that his views aren’t necsessarily shared.
“…When somebody runs towards you and says your tag is illegal and it destroys our society, it is very hypocritical. To my belief it does as much damage as putting massive billboards along the motorways to our city’s visual image and our city’s aesthetic view.”
I was painting a commission for The Yellow Camera Shop when I was blind-sided and tackled to the ground, to look up and find a policeman standing over me. I tried to explain for some time that I was actually doing a job- the same as a regular painter…It was very humiliating.
Auckland-based Erin Forsyth aka Eyesore is a graffiti artist, professional freelance illustrator and curator. With a host of solo shows and group exhibitions under her belt, she’s a versatile and adaptable artist who also dabbles in moving image, and says that no matter the medium, her basic ‘character construction’ and way that she sees the world, is highly visible in her work. But when it comes to creating art within the public domain there is always that possibility and risk of confrontation.
“I had a very negative experience when working on a job on Queen St. I was painting a commission for The Yellow Camera Shop when I was blind-sided and tackled to the ground, to look up and find a policeman standing over me. I tried to explain for some time that I was actually doing a job- the same as a regular painter…It was very humiliating, especially as Smith & Caughey's was having a sale next door! I later received a letter of apology from the officer in question.”
Despite situations like this, Forsyth does feel that attitudes to street art and graffiti have shifted as a result of international artists like Banksy having gained popularity with mainstream audiences.
“Yes, the public is definitely more accepting of street art than ever before, perhaps due to the easily digestible Exit Through the Giftshop. But there is definitely still a lot of confusion about the difference between street art and graffiti.”
Terminology and definitions may be some way off in relation to how the public ‘understand’ the art work, but from a layman’s perspective, perhaps of greater significance is a basic ‘acceptance’ and appreciation of the craft and skill that has been applied to beautifying our streets and alleyways. Chris Jackson puts this very succinctly.
“Street Art brings art to the people in their own environment. It's there for them to see every day and the smiles on their faces as they pass by say it all really.”
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