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Taming the street artist

Unidentified artist - Ghuznee Street
Pigeons - Newtown
Chinese Mission - Hallfrederick Street
BMD - Newtown
Ghuznee Street murals
Jon Drypnz and others
Jon Drypnz - off Garrett Street
Jon Drypnz - Swan Lane
Michael Tufferys - The Barracks in Hopper Street
Mark Amery thinks there’s quite a lot missing in how we’re represented by our street artists.

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Mark Amery thinks there’s quite a lot missing in how we’re represented by our street artists.

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Across from Hamish McKay and Bowen Galleries in Wellington a large stretch of asphalt has replaced a charming old building. For several dilapidated years the building served principally as a support for a giant advertisement for an apartment block. Now, even a long neglected apartment showroom behind it has gone. Instead we have carparks and an explosion of murals. Amongst the interesting array of street art is ‘Gingerella’, the pretty visual icon for All Good Organics Ginger Ale up large .

There’s a happy alliance in the ‘Cuba Quarter’ between independent street art and commerce. On Cuba Street proper Phantom Billstickers now paste their posters inside colourfully painted old style picture frames. Street media also isn’t so rough around the edges anymore.

In parts of our big cities in New Zealand it’s becoming rare to find walls unmarked by large patches of wall painting. There’s nothing illegitimate about much of this work anymore. In the face of tagging, street painters in Auckland and Wellington have been given increasing amounts of territory by property owners. Taupo holds an annual street art festival, Graffiato, and Christchurch – no lack of wall space there – held the Rise Festival a year ago.

The growth in large-scale mural work has been noticeable in recent years. The area around Cuba Street is a particularly concentrated example. Surrounding some of the city’s finest dealer galleries, a street gallery snakes round the back of parking lots.

These are the gaps in the teeth of the city. Once-treasured buildings have been removed and not replaced. For now, Pay and Display proves more profitable. Backsides are revealed that can be given edge by tattooing. Street art is integral to the gentrification of Cuba Street. It is key to its image. As if to emphasise the point, at the very bottom of Cuba at the entrance to Felix Cafe a rotund clownish figure spills starry magic fluid out of vessels, like a Sandman sprinkling sand in our eyes. The signature reads ‘Trust me Enforce1’. Take a second look and the motif cleverly turns out to be a coil of rope and some jolly jellyfish, speaking of the sea and wharf environment close at hand. 

That work dates backs to 2012. There’s been a rash of these commissions, big and small to help make establishments hip and keep away the graffiti. As one accomplished patchwork painterly abstract work’s signature down an alleyway in Marion Street proclaims: ‘_SO _FASHION!’.

Every wall is up for grabs. Indeed, are many left? Spotting the opportunity to assert themselves in one of the few blank spaces left amongst the visual cacophony, the local private galleries counterpoint with their tidy typography and clean cut formalist design on a wall outside Bowen and McKay, advertising their First Thursdays open late programme.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I love the visual revelry of Cuba Street. I’m lifted by each new joyous dance of line and colour; I’m tickled by the cheeky, cuddly figures of the over-sized cartooning. I’ll take it over drab conformity any day. I recommend a wander around the back alleys between Cuba, Vivian and Ghuznee Streets to see the glorious array.

Yet the limited range of street art in Wellington also disturbs me. It says little about the city, the land or its inhabitants. Indeed it avoids it. From Belfast to San Francisco to Auckland the work that has really hit me has asserted different identities, histories and politics of place. It is about giving presence to what people care about that binds them - things less visible on the commercial high street.

In Wellington, colourful and textural blissed out abstraction and wacky humour present inoffensive adornment of space. It smoothes over the city’s rough edges. It does not present the cultural and community diversity you might imagine. In Ghuznee Street, one exception, quietly sitting behind the brighter, brasher work, sees the face of a Polynesian woman staring darkly out, surrounded by fern, flower and the curling figure of the extinct Huia.

There is strong, distinctive work. Often however these artists’ entrepreneurship has seen them become almost too pervasive. Not their problem. Prolific duo BMD are well known in Auckland and Wellington for their fun, surreal animal figures, with rich textural patterns. A strong Wellington example can be found on Hanson Street, viewable from the new Countdown Supermarket. A ribbon scissors diagonally, dramatically across a large landscape-shaped wall, like a rumpled piece of luxuriant fabric at a carnival. Given a Llama like head, this strange creature is drugged out dreamy behind shades made of Escher cubes.

Jon Drypnz is an artist exploring his own street aesthetic. Bringing the language of the modernist canvas to the street, his work is notable for its sophisticated collage-like structuring of space with fluid swirls and pools of abstract motifs, or ragged patches of colour, more muted in tone than most street art. A new work in the corner of the Swan Lane car park demonstrates the depth of expression he is achieving with subtler gradations in tone, featuring his signature leaping lone figure.

In a welcome Wellington City Council commission, Sheyne Tuffery worked with Massey students in 2014 to create ‘The Barracks’ in Hopper Street, a large colourful stencil work acknowledging Mt Cook’s history as a pa site and a police barracks. More of these kinds of commissions please.

Playing with a toy building block aesthetic there’s some strong play with a simple graphic language by Tuffery, if a little too many twee ideas are overlaid. Most powerful is the giant shadowy figure of a policeman on horseback staring down oncoming vehicles on the busier Wallace Street.

All I write of is street art as tamed, approved activity. Its roots however remain firmly in growing wild, flowers popping up through the cracks. An example: the full elegance of the historic Chinese Mission Hall on Frederick Street has become exposed by the demolition of a building on Taranaki Street. Yet giving it presense today is the divergent painting on its exterior. Working organically together are traditional Chinese painting inspired images, tagging and constructivist style design. Framed by the wild flowers and security fencing of the vacant lot, there is beauty in this rough coming together of past and present that no amount of curation could have provided.

Finally, one of my favourite public projects of the last two years in Wellington is the artist Bent’s propagation around the city of giant pigeons through paper paste-up. Installing in unexpected sites, always trying different visual strategies with a singular subject, the artist continually surprises with his inventiveness. Cocking their heads, these unwanted birds with their suddenly big beady eyes ask us to consider what their abundance has to say about our urban culture. 

Written by

Mark Amery

28 Jan 2015

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.