Walls of Hope & Inspiration - Central City, Christchurch
1 November 2022
I remember saying to visitors of Christchurch immediately post-earthquake, “Come back in 10 years’ time. Then you’ll see a city to remember.” And sure enough, Ōtautahi Christchurch is now popping with increasing colour and interest. Residents and visitors alike can’t fail to see the giant murals adorning some of the buildings.
It was initially in response to the 2011 natural disaster that many local artists started to take to the streets with their art. They painted gap fillers as demolished buildings revealed bare walls. And with this vibrant arts scene growing, Christchurch is earning itself a strong reputation as the home of street art. Lonely Planet’s 2017 street art guide ranked Christchurch alongside New York, Barcelona, Berlin and London as one of the 39 cities with a rich street art scene.
I met with Reuben Woods, creative director and lead tour guide of Watch This Space, a charitable trust dedicated to sharing and celebrating Christchurch’s street art. Since 2017, its primary purpose has been to map street art and create a legacy item for the people of Christchurch. In addition, the trust connects artists with businesses who want to commission work and also offers tours around the city, so that visitors can start to enquire about these masterpieces and look at the commentary behind them.
“There are more than 650 pieces of art that have come and gone, or still remain on the walls of our city today,” says Reuben. “For many people, it’s a source of fascination, so our hope with Watch This Space is to open up intimate moments of enquiry for people about the art.”
Reuben describes himself as an art historian, writer and curator. He is certainly well qualified for his role as tour guide and has written a thesis on graffiti and street art in post-earthquake Christchurch. Our tour starts at the Canterbury Museum, a fitting place to commence, with a landscape most people are familiar with: the neo-Gothic architecture and a reminder of how the city once was.
“The street art scene started around the early 1990s in Christchurch, but it was always on the periphery,” Reuben says. “In the wake of the earthquakes, the anger towards un-permissioned art softened in the face of such an overwhelming landscape.”
In this initial post-quake era, there was a desperate need to respond to the broken environment, and artists were among the first to ‘speak’ by making colourful statements often with political overtones about the problems of the rebuild.
“I remember the ballerinas, printed on paper and pasted on broken walls by an anonymous artist,” says Reuben. “This showed a need for residents to play and enjoy our city again as well as showing that culture is just as important as construction.”
And so it began that guerrilla artists became less of an ‘evil’, as people began to appreciate the need for cityscapes that told a story or evoked a memory. Many were afraid to come back into the city, but slowly this urban play started to give the city an identity and a reason to visit.
The Canterbury Museum may, for some, be an unlikely site for urban art, but in 2013 it held a highly successful street art exhibition called RISE. Created in partnership with OiYOU!, it featured a 21st-century streetscape filled with art from around the world, including works by Banksy (probably the most well-renowned street artist) and others from all around the world. It became the most-visited show in Canterbury Museum history.
“This event was a huge success,” explains Reuben. “Artists were allowed to paint directly onto the museum’s walls. Probably for the first time ever, civic officials were rubbing shoulders with back-pack-carrying graffiti artists.” Over 250,000 people visited the exhibition, and several of the paintings are still standing today: in the bird aviary, the café and behind the curtains of the main gallery.
As more and more people saw these impressive vistas, artists could see how their art could provide navigation for people at a time when the environment was very confusing, with fencing, red cones and signage forever changing, as buildings got demolished and rebuilt.
“The street art became a familiar way for people to navigate the city. For the artists, from sometimes working without permission, to now working to foster new relationships, they strengthened their self-belief and started to make a difference,” says Reuben.
On our two-hour walking tour of the city, Reuben introduces me to over a dozen different artworks. From posters to full-scale murals over eight metres high, I see an eclectic mix of strikingly beautiful art. Having my own personal guide makes the tour incredibly personalised and unique.
One of the highlights is seeing the artwork of ROA, renowned, globe-trotting artist from Belgium. Situated on the outer side of the Canterbury Museum, this artwork now forms part of the museum’s collection (containing its very own artefact identification number).
Affectionately known as ROA’s Moa, the black and white painting occupies the whole of the northern side of the museum’s wall. Featuring a moa skeleton, with a kiwi bird and a South Island black robin among the bones, Reuben explains that the painting is a commentary on the interconnectedness of our ecosystems. “We see the kiwi in the painting to have fallen, and the robin perching precariously on a rope, where other ropes in the painting have already been severed,” says Reuben. It speaks of the peril facing the natural environment, the impact of industrialisation on wildlife and a warning for what might be to come for our native animals and natural world.
More than just the interpretation of the art, Reuben also points out the ways in which the painting has been completed. “There are lots of imperfections in this painting, like the drips of paint and the stray spray marks,” he says. “In the city landscape, where there’s a lot of perfection of graphically produced signage and street markings, this is a pleasant contrast to that.”
Like many others around the city, this wall must have been difficult to approach; it’s down a narrow side alley with windows and pipes across it. ROA, like many street artists, has had to adapt and approach spaces so the art can fit into the available area. In this case, Reuben tells me, ROA used a cherry picker crane and worked for several days to produce the work. As with all street art, it’s exposed to the elements of wind, rain, high and low temperatures, so it’s incredible to see the art enduring so well, almost a decade after its creation.
Another highlight for me is the work of Chimp, a Wellington-based full-time artist and designer. It’s a colourful artwork of tūī and tītipounamu surrounded by lush flowers and bees. His mural sits next to the Justice and Emergency Services Precinct on Lichfield Street and is solely produced using aerosol painting. The level of detail is exquisite, and it’s incredible to see what can be achieved by propelling paint through a pressurised hose.
“Aerosol was originally an industrial tool with limited colours,” says Reuben, “but through the artists’ experimentation and the technological developments as aerosol companies realised there was a market for any colour and type of paint, the medium of aerosol has developed exponentially since the limitations of the early 1970s.”
Festivals seem to be a large part of the muralism scene, with further significant events happening from the RISE festival of 2013–2014. In March 2022, there was an inaugural 10-day FLARE festival, an event presented by ARCC, a collective of inner-city building and business owners and place-makers, featuring artists from across Ōtautahi and wider Aotearoa. Over 30 street and graffiti artists came together to profile their large and small murals. Seven headline artists painted seven significant murals throughout the city. It shows there’s a real thirst for these events and the impact they can have. Business owners are similarly wanting to activate the streets. “It’s a fantastic way to bring together the mixture of buildings that we have here in Ōtautahi,” says Reuben.
There are so many highlights of my tour, and it’s a delight to hear that Watch This Space is offering school tours as well as corporate tours and community group tours. And if you’d prefer to see more, there’s even the option to have a tour by bicycle.
Work is underway to launch the next FLARE festival in 2023, and this scene is undoubtedly adding to the attraction for tourists of Christchurch as a destination, not just a gateway city.
This is an art that, at some level, appeals to all generations. We can probably all relate to writing our name on a school desk or carving our initials in a tree. No longer an act of vandalism, street art is firmly on the map of Christchurch. Murals have the ability to speak of the now and bring us together in our exploration of the city. This street art of Christchurch tells of what the city is, what it was, and what it could be.
Riverside Mural – DTR Crew (Dcypher, Wongi Wilson, Ikarus and Jacob Yikes)
Completed as a partnership between Riverside Ltd, ChristchurchNZ, OiYOU! and Madeknown, this wall tells a story of central city heritage and the global women’s suffrage movement, which started in Ōtautahi Christchurch. This incredible mural almost appears 3D, although it is painted on a flat wall. It’s the wall’s two peaks and the clever design that seem to trick the eyes into thinking it’s a three-dimensional form.
YMCA Building – Kaitiaki
Irish artist Fin DAC’s mural Kaitiaki (guardian) showcases elements of Māori culture and mythology and is a symbol of protection for the city. Fin DAC is well known for his images depicting beautiful women, with eye masks, gorgeous clothes and elegant makeup. His style called ‘urban aesthetics’, combines modern urban stencil art and the traditional art of portrait. Fin DAC worked with apprentice Jacob Root on this work. This work also represents the challenges that artists are struggling with about how non-Māori represent Māori in a culturally sensitive way.
Little High Eatery – Olive
This amazingly detailed depiction of a stray cat, Olive, was produced by Palmerston North-based artist Swiftmantis. This oversized painting aims to highlight the plight of stray cats, and champion the work of the Cats Protection League, where Olive was living at the time of painting. In a heart-warming development, the cat was adopted in the weeks following the FLARE Street Art festival.
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