Art for the masses
This is how street art was recently described to me: It’s the biggest art movement the world has ever seen.
It’s a big deal. No longer an illicit after hours activity, street art has become a legitimate art form decorating the most unlikely spaces - from coffee cups to kids books to dental surgeries to small town rural farm supply companies and most unexpectedly, in municipal art galleries.
Making a business from the street art boom are George Shaw and Shannon Webster from Oi YOU! Established in 2009, the business delivers unique street art exhibitions, festivals, installations and murals designed to showcase this growing art form.
In a previous life, the pair worked as IT professionals in the UK. Initially attracted to street art and graffiti art because of the connection they saw with the 80s punk movement, the pair began collecting pieces by Banksy, (who was a relatively unknown artist at the time) and inadvertently found themselves at the epicenter of the street art movement in the northern hemisphere. Moving to New Zealand in 2009, George and Shannon began leveraging their impressive collection of over 80 pieces by some of the world's leading street and graffiti artists in an attempt to recreate that same excitement and enthusiasm here.
One of the ways they have done this is through the production of major festivals like Christchurch’s RISE in 2014. The festival was a huge success, with 248,000 visitors it became the most visited show in Canterbury Museum's history and won the award for NZ Museum Show of the Year.
Building on the success of Rise, Oi YOU! went on to deliver Spectrum 2015 and Spectrum 2016. As a result of the three consecutive festivals, 40 impressive murals remain across the city – without doubt the motivation for Lonely Planet honouring Christchurch alongside New York, Barcelona, Berlin and London as a street art capital of the world.
“With the city still suffering seriously as a result of the earthquakes, the uplifting effect that the murals, painted during Rise and the two Spectrum Festivals, had on the people of Christchurch was dramatic. This made us realise just how important peppering large-scale artworks through urban environments is, it makes sense on so many levels.”
What’s the difference between street art and graffiti art? It seems to me that it’s a bit of a grey area. George explains that it depends on where the artist’s roots lie, and that it’s almost impossible to tell unless you know the artist’s background. He warns that a lot of graffiti artists don’t like being referred to as street artists though, and I’m learning that a lot of street artists don’t even like being referred to as street artists either. Again, it’s a grey area…
Creating art in public spaces with spray paint has meant that artists Mr G and Flox are labeled as street artists. But while they have gained popularity in the street art movement in New Zealand, both are reluctant to be described solely as “street artists,” explaining that that is just one facet of their work.
Lauded in the media recently for work he did in America – a tribute mural of Prince in Minnesota, and of kiwi basketball star Stephen Adams in Oklahoma, Mr G (aka Graham Hoete) says, “I do enjoy street art, but I don’t like being labeled as a graffiti artist. I do so much more than that.”
Despite his reluctance to be pigeon-holed as a street artist, Graham says that with the growing popularity of the art form he has been inundated with calls. “The opportunities that have come my way are mind blowing. I’m now in a position of influence to inspire kids and talk in schools.” Currently working his way through small town New Zealand painting large-scale murals for rural supply cooperative Farmlands, as part of their Heart of the Community initiative, Graham has completed five murals, with a further ten to come.
Graham is attracted to graffiti as a medium because of the scale, colours, and public-ness of it. “It’s not tucked away in a gallery somewhere, it’s there for everyone to see. You can really make a statement.” Specialising in spray paint photo realism, Graham says “People can really relate to it. And they’re blown away that it’s done with a spray can.”
Flox (aka Hayley King) is a spray paint and stencil artist specializing in native birds, ferns and flowers. Graduating with a fine arts degree, Hayley moved away from the academic leanings to showcase her work in gallery spaces, and instead began painting hordings around construction sites, and she loved it. “It was art for the people, in public domains, with no elitism. I was blurring the lines between high art, gallery art and street art.”
As with Graham, Hayley is reluctant to be defined as a street artist – “I think that it undercuts what I do, as it’s so much more than that.” A savvy businesswomen as well as a talented artist, Hayley’s business Haus of Flox offers originals, prints, light boxes, cut works, clothing, stationary, homeware products, murals, graphic design, live painting, projects, and workshops with a range of price points to suit every art enthusiast. Like Graham, Hayley has found that with the rising popularity of street art, she receives hundreds of calls. “Everyone wants their walls done, from corporates to councils, schools, dental surgeries, office spaces, cafes, bars, kids bedrooms, lifts, hospitals. I could go on and on.”
Recalling her early days as an artist when necessity required that she took on every project that came her way, Hayley says that it is a real privilege and an honour to now be in a position to be selective about the projects that she takes on.
While graffiti and street art are rapidly being embraced by the masses though, there is still the less adored tagging: the ongoing thorn in the side for dairy owners, bus stops and railway stations everywhere. Oi YOU!’s George Shaw chooses to believe that the vast majority of taggers inherently want to be creative. Rather than criminalizing them, he suggests providing a dedicated space for them to do their thing - likening it to the days when business owners shook their fists and cursed at skateboarders for taking over their courtyards and footpaths. Given dedicated space in the form or skateparks, skaters now perfect their craft in a likeminded community, without irritating business owners.
Evidencing the positive effects of embracing them rather than criminalizing them, George referred to a project in Tauranga where the council provided a dedicated space for taggers and graffiti artists in the making. In doing so, the city reported a 70% reduction in tagging.
Pointing out that many of the celebrated names in the street art scene had their beginnings in tagging, George says, “What were once considered ‘petty criminals’ are now cherished members of the community. We need to be thinking smarter about how we allow or aid people to express their creativity.”