City Art Reader 24: Right before your eyes – a street art walk and talk
She survives. The eyes of Teresa, one brown, one blue, painted by Melbourne street artist Rone Wright, still gazes out from the brick wall on the Cathedral Junction building.
Others have gone. Australian artist Anthony Lister’s flash of flocking seagulls on the side of the Les Mills building was painted over in preparation for work on the east frame’s new One Central housing development.
Others remain hidden. The Piano blocks all but a frilly slither of Bay of Plenty artist Owen Dippie’s blue ballerina on the back of the Isaac Theatre Royal (a better view can reportedly be had from the top of the spiral slide in the Margaret Mahy Playground).
Rone, ‘Teresa’, 2013
“But Ballerina is still very much part of the narrative of what Christchurch has been through,” says art historian, curator and street art chronicler Reuben Woods. “So much of the layered history that was on the walls of the city has been knocked down – this is an opportunity to have at least something that reflected that post-quake period as part of the city.”
This Friday, 8 November, Woods is leading a tour of the city’s street art, from large scale murals to small, uncommissioned interventions across the rapidly changing landscape of the city, as part of the Art Seen programme of gallery and studio visits
Director of Art Seen Karin Bathgate says it is an opportunity to introduce a mainly gallery clientele to art they may have walked past many times “but maybe not taken in.”
“Street art is as much a part of the arts scene as the gallery spaces. The streets artists are artists in their own right – the buildings are their canvases. We all see it, we all have an opinion about it, but we don’t know much about it or the people behind it.”
Outdoor walls, even cave walls, have long been used as vehicles for cultural expression. In classical times, Rome’s citizens used graffiti (from the Italian words graffire, meaning “to scratch”) to comment on politics, personal relationships and health. In the twentieth century American artist John Fekner initiated a form of street art when he began stencilling text messages on to walls in the 1960s. Around the same time French Fluxus artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest was applying charcoal and chalk life-sized figures to the streets of Paris. The exact geographical location of the first “tagger” is difficult to pinpoint. In the late ‘60s Philadelphian graffiti artist Cornbread began inscribing his “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” message across North Philadelphia. Over in New York taggers Julio 204 and Taki 183 were writing their names on city walls, in subways and on rail cars. A clampdown on graffiti in the city’s subways prompted an explosion of tagging and bombs above ground in a typographic response to race and class tensions, consumerism and issues around personal identity, cultural visibility and the ownership of public space.
Since then two distinct cultures have emerged: graffiti art, based on and around the tag name of the artist; and street art – literally art on the street, an identifiable iconography now influencing mainstream fashion, product design, music, advertising and, as more tertiary trained artists take to the streets or adopt graffiti type motifs, fine art.
Christchurch has squeezed this sixty-year history of street art into less than a decade. After the earthquakes a proliferation of tags, graffiti art, paste-ups, stencils and murals burst out of the industrial corners and railway corridors of the city to swarm across newly exposed walls, containers and expanses of fencing. Alongside temporary installations, Gap Filler projects and guerilla gardens, this profusion of words, letters and characters transformed the damaged fabric of the city. Some were messages of strength and resilience – spray-painted Band Aids appeared over cracks in walls, Kia Kaha messages spilled out into the cordoned red zone. Some were comments and critiques of the rebuild process. Some fed into organised street art festivals – during Rise in 2013 and Spectrum in 2015 and 2016 about 30 or so large-scale murals by street artists from across New Zealand and overseas grabbed public attention in prominent parts of the city. Some were commissioned as part of a raft of new art projects, youth programmes and civic initiatives to brighten up public and private walls.
Kevin Ledo, ‘Whero O Te Rangi Bailey’, 2017
For people living and working in the city, this explosion of urban art softened the raw edges of the damaged city, gave a much-needed vitality to the streetscape and offered a rare experience of art-making in an increasingly polished urban space.
“We are surrounded constantly by digital imagery,” says Woods. “In advertising, on ordinance signs, you have these perfect constructions with that crisp, clean aesthetic. Even when we look at public art projects, often we are looking at something produced by fabricators – the artist’s hand is quite removed. With street art we are seeing true paintings in our public spaces. It is actually the hand of someone – there’s a wavering line, gestural qualities, an urgency sometimes in the brushwork. If you get close you can get a real sense of the tactility and the authorship of the artist. At most they might have a team of assistants doing some part of it but on the whole the artist’s hand has been there.”
Looking closely at these works also gives an insight into the sheer skill required in the fragmentation and reconstruction of letters and motifs, the outlining, painting, shadowing and the construction of a single huge illustrative story on the unforgiving surface of a brick or concrete wall.
“There’s a reason why Rone’s painting in the Square is so iconic. It is not just timing and placement, it is also the way he has so deftly handled this distressed surface and created something of beauty out of it. That comes from his background as an urban artist – working on those areas, understanding those type of spaces and figuring out a way to make his work become part of that surface.”
For street art across the world, says Woods, this shift towards civic endorsement and employment has been a complicated – and often incomplete – transition.
“If you look at the roots of graffiti culture and graffiti writing – marginalised groups finding a way to express themselves and their identity – that still remains a big part of it.”
In the immediacy of the post-quake environment, he says, there were still street artists bypassing permission, using their art form to reconcile the experience of the earthquake and call out political figures on the rebuild’s progress – or lack thereof. Even the recent focus on street art as a way to beautify areas of the city is not that far removed from the original use of urban spaces for expressions of anger and identity. “If you look at the graffiti that started to appear on subway trains in New York and compare it to what was going on in that setting, it was a beautification project even then – it just happened to be done by young people without any support who had no other avenue for that expression. When they started to make whole (rail)car paintings, there was no doubt they were pretty stunning, particularly when you consider these were being made by people with no formal painting and using a form (i.e. aerosol) that was not intended for that use.
“That lineage led to an explosion in the late 20th and early 21st century of what we might now consider street art – stencils, paste ups and very iconographic and immediate forms of expression. They always came from that idea of putting something out there and bypassing the systems that were symptomatic of other controlling factors or other realms which weren’t accessible. But when things start making a connection with the public, it is inevitable they will be harnessed by other channels.”
Around the world, street art is being enlisted as a civic-building opportunity consistent with liveable urban spaces and tourism – as seen in the endless photographs of graffiti and street art in Melbourne’s Hosier Lane. This can present difficulties, particularly, says Woods, when commissioning bodies start to have a say in what something looks like.
“In some cases there are conditions on what the artist is able to do and at times that means the output isn’t reflective of the ideas and processes the artist is interested in, which can be a challenge for an artist. Street art has been about developing a recognisable style, harnessing that style and maybe creating something iconic or unmistakeable – that has also always been the search. Once those things start to be impeded in some way it can impact on that long lineage of what these art forms have been”.
But there are also benefits – benefits to the city as a vibrant, changing, even challenging space, and benefits to the artist.
“Artists can earn a living doing something that perhaps wasn’t available without that type of support. A while ago it might have been seen as a far possibility for local artists to work full time as artists in that sphere and that means opportunities to do things on certain scales and locations that they never would have access to – or if they had, it would have disappeared very quickly.”
Decypher and Paul walters, ‘SALT Mural – Evolution Square’, 2019
As street art becomes a desired and validated part of the city fabric there are also growing expectations that they won’t disappear. Graffiti and street art have often been short-lived, painted out or built over with zealous regularity, their legacy reliant on online platforms such as Instagram. Is this changing?
“We always recognise that things may disappear – when you do something without permission there is a chance it may be gone in an hour or day or week. Artists have been able to reconcile that reality. With the expectation of financial input there is definitely a view for something to have a longer legacy from the commissioning body, but I think artists generally are aware of the state of flux urban art represents for an urban space. In Christchurch we have been presented with this idea that we are rebuilding and that we are going to have a finished product of a city, but that is never the case – a city is always in a state of flux – so that is another reason why muralism suits urban space because it reflects the transitory nature of urban space.”
Still, it is sad to see the demise of some of our more iconic works. He points to the painting-over of Lister’s seagulls. “There is this idea that there’s a period of time when these types of things are suitable, then at a certain point people will want to return to clean grey walls, which is very disappointing. That was a fantastically missed opportunity – there could have been an apartment with giant seagulls staring in the back window rather than a grey wall.”
As the city rebuild ushers in a slick new architecture of steel and glass, as damaged buildings are repaired or razed, some are describing street art as undergoing a rubber band effect.
“That rubber band has been pulled out but now it has been snapped back somewhat, at least for some. Since late 2017 there has been an arrested stage and we have been seeing more street art disappear than appear, but every now and again there’s a new appearance of something. There are spaces in the city that have become notable as organic and dynamic spaces. Hereford St carpark has become a fascinating spot where graffiti appears in all its forms. For me it is the type of space that we would benefit from having more of, even though I understand the lack of desire to have spaces that aren’t controlled.”
The tour on Friday finishes at Fiksate, a small gallery in Gloucester St, close to New Regent St, specialising in urban contemporary practice and illustrating the move by graffiti artists to more studio-based work. A sign that street art is coming indoors? Woods, who helps out at the gallery as a writer and curator, says it is more a recognition of the huge influence of street art on a certain generation.
“There are more and more people whose first exposure to art is on the streets. When we are talking about graffiti, we are talking about something that is 60 years old so there are very few generations that haven’t grown up with graffiti as a talking point. I’ve dealt with a lot of school groups over the years – their connection to graffiti and street art is so strong. Young children are growing up and maintaining an interest in the art happening in their streets or their art is being influenced by the work they encounter on the street. Fiksate presents that changing dynamic and the changing value of urban art, not just as its own thing but also as an extending influence. And artists are becoming increasingly fluid – we have artists who are still heavily involved in graffiti culture as well as producing studio work. That studio work may be completely different and it may also extend into other areas – their background in urban art has led them into filmmaking, photography or other forms of expression.”
Outside the gallery space, the new wave of contemporary muralism may also suggest a new trajectory for street art.
“A lot of people are suggesting it is something different – it is a result of urban art but for some artists it is a different thing. What they are doing isn’t street art or graffiti, it is muralism in some form and we’re not sure what the name of it is – that may come with a more historical viewpoint.”
Will this new urban art scene investigate and challenge the direction the city is taking? he asks. “Or will it become an aspect of regeneration or beautification? It is a global thing evident in almost every city – from Dubai inviting a number of well-known artists to paint a prescribed space to look like a ‘real street’ art area to places in the east where responses to the Arab Spring were painted on the walls.”
Kristen, ‘Askew One’, 2014
The Art Seen walking tour begins at the Rolleston statue outside the Canterbury Museum at 10.00am finishing at Fiksate Gallery on Gloucester Street at midday. It costs $20 per person. For enquiries or to book a place email: firstname.lastname@example.org or text: 0275 355 422