Street art has its origins in unsanctioned urban graffiti.
Modern graffiti is associated with the New Zealand version of hip hop culture which arose in Auckland in the 1980s. The American graffiti documentary Style wars aired on New Zealand television in 1984 and inspired young people to take up spray cans. Early hip hop graffiti was mainly found in Auckland and Wellington.
Alongside the tag, a simple and stylised rendering of a name or pseudonym, artists created large and colourful graffiti, often based on oversized lettering. Skilled practitioners produced pieces (large murals) on trains, railway corridors, buildings, walls, bridges and subways under cover of darkness.
Street artists mainly use spray paint to create their works. Spray paint dries instantly and the cans are portable and mess-free. The fumes are toxic though – they may have caused artist Askew One to come down with Call-Fleming syndrome, a rare disease which causes instant serious headaches and temporary stroke-like symptoms.
From crime to art
For early practitioners, the unsanctioned nature of street art gave it credibility at a street level. Permission from building owners was never sought and dark lanes and bridge underbellies were seen as fair game. Authorities and building owners made little distinction between basic tags, which were not intended to have any artistic value, and detailed pieces. Anyone caught in the act risked arrest.
Street artists slowly gained credibility in mainstream society. In 1999 the Dowse Art Museum mounted an exhibition of street art called Style Crimes, followed by Common Ground in 2009. Exhibitions signalled street art’s growing acceptance as a legitimate art form. The artistic quality of the best work was recognised and practitioners were able to make a career out of street art. Some were commissioned by local councils and businesses to create pieces. Organisations for troubled youth ran legal graffiti sessions.
Events devoted to street art were another sign of the genre’s emergence from the underground. An early event was Disrupt the System, organised in Aotea Square, Auckland, in 2000. More recent events include Nelson’s Oi You! (first held in 2010), Taupō’s Graffiato (2011), Auckland’s All Fresco (2013), Christchurch’s From the Ground Up (2013) and Kawerau’s Street Legal (2014).
Askew One (Elliot O’Donnell) is the most prominent street artist in New Zealand and is well known in street art circles overseas. He started out tagging as a teenager in the 1990s and graduated to pieces, and eventually to works on canvas.
Some street artists use pseudonyms – a legacy of street art’s hip hop roots. Some remain truly anonymous, while others are happy to have their real names known. Pseudonyms of New Zealand artists include Component, Eeks, Ghstie and Yelz.
Some street artists work together in collectives. Smooth Inc were at work in Auckland in the 1980s. They were followed by TMD (The Most Dedicated) in the mid-1990s. Cut Collective was founded in 2006. Its members have been commissioned to make public murals, and have exhibited at the Dowse Art Museum, Auckland Art Gallery and Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
Street art is male-dominated, but some women have gained recognition for their work, including Diva, Misery (Tanja Thompson), Flox (Hayley King), Erin Forsyth, Xoe Hall and Mica Still.
While hip hop culture remained an important aesthetic influence, street art diversified over time. Other important influences from popular culture include skateboarding, cartoons and comics. Some street artists incorporate political messages in their work.
Stencils, posters and stickers joined tags and pieces. In the 21st century new forms such as yarn-bombing (also known as guerrilla knitting), where items such as power poles or seats are decorated with wool or knitted fabric, emerged.