In the wake of the Christchurch destruction, the artistic and cultural leaders of the community began to search for ways to make a positive change; leading to the rise of skilled and vibrant street art, which can be found on walls all over the city.
Kiwi artists have had a presence in the global street art community for quite some time, but the art form was not widely recognized in New Zealand until the past decade. The TMD crew, an Auckland based graffiti group, has been a major presence on the global street art stage since its creation in 1996. They won the world Write4Gold Graffiti Art Championships in 2006 and 2008.
“New Zealand’s always been known for having very creative artists,” said George Shaw, the founder of Oi YOU, a company that puts on street art festivals around Oceania. “The TMD crew grew out of Auckland and they took home the graffiti world championships twice. One reason they are able to do that is because the guys in the TMD crew are super innovative.”
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Shaw, a native of Birmingham, United Kingdom, got into the street art movement after his wife, Shannon, stumbled across the world-renowned graffiti artist Banksy. After years of collecting works by Banksy, Shaw and his wife moved to New Zealand in 2009 with the hope of bringing the street art movement to the country. They formed Oi YOU and soon had their first major show in Nelson, a South Island city regarded for its local arts scene.
“Our timing was good because we came here in 2009 and in 2011 the Rugby World Cup was happening and the small city [Nelson] that we’d moved to was hosting three games,” Shaw said. “They wanted something that was a cultural event that set them apart. They saw the ability to have a collection of works by Banksy on show for the first time in New Zealand as being really attractive, so they funded us to do that first project.”
The project was a success and it wasn’t long until they were invited to be a part of another show in Sydney. In 2013, Oi YOU hosted a major exhibition in Adelaide, Australia, which led to an invite to do a show in Christchurch.
“We got invited to Christchurch which had recovered enough from the devastation of the earthquake,” Shaw said. “I think they looked at what we were doing and they thought if we bring that to Christchurch that would make a big difference. That’s exactly what happened.”
Shaw said when they arrived in Christchurch it was still under military lockdown.
“The place was just like a post-apocalyptic disaster area really,” he said.
The Canterbury Museum gave Oi YOU three exhibition spaces to use and the artist painted 15 walls throughout the city. The show, RISE, opened in December 2013, bringing in a record 248,000 visitors over three months and, according to Shaw, had a major impact on the people of Christchurch.
“The process of painting murals really had a positive effect on the people,” Shaw said. “All they had experienced for two years was the devastation and the destruction of buildings and the dismantling of buildings. We started painting walls. For a lot of people that was the first sign that they had seen that something [positive] was happening.”
Shaw said that the people of Christchurch really embraced what they were doing and that the success of RISE led to the production of two subsequent shows in the city. Shaw brought in artists from across New Zealand and around the globe to produce the shows. One such artist, Jacob Ryan, paints under the name Yikes. He is a Christchurch native who has seen the street art scene evolve in his hometown since the earthquakes.
“Before the earthquake, Christchurch’s scene was rapidly decreasing in number and was solely seen on the train lines,”
Ryan explained. “Once the earthquake happened, it sort of went a little quiet, but it wasn’t until a project called ‘From the Ground Up’ and RISE happened that Christchurch saw a dramatic increase of large scale stuff and not only that but huge amounts of graffiti art as well.”
Ryan said that he first got involved with Oi YOU during the RISE festival where he painted a wall inside the museum alongside several other Kiwi artists. The following year he was invited as a headline artist for Oi YOU’s SPECTRUM, a series of two shows that were housed in the city’s YMCA and ran in 2015 and 2016. Shaw and his fellow Oi YOU artists produced a show where they painted on different layers of Perspex, which he said took great skill to pull off. They also built a replica of post-earthquake Christchurch with broken buildings, exposed walls and power poles with power lines running between them.
While both SPECTRUM shows were a huge success, the YMCA has repurposed the space used by Oi YOU, forcing them to move elsewhere to produce their next show.
This year’s show, PARADOX, will be hosted in the city of Tauranga on the North Island. Oi YOU will be using an art gallery to create many different installations including a set of murals that will fade from color to grayscale. They will also paint walls throughout the city.
Over the last seven years, Oi YOU has helped street art grow into a major movement in New Zealand. Their importance to the street art community is evident around the country.
“George came in at a really nice time and solidified it (graffiti) as art,” said Charles Williams, a Māori street artist who paints with his wife, Janine. “I think he removed the fear. When it comes to graffiti and when it comes to spray cans, people have an automatic fear that these guys are vandals.”
Charles is a founding member of the TMD crew, which formed in 1996. Janine joined the crew in 1999 and the two of them have painted together ever since. Charles and Janine Williams explained how the inspiration for their work comes from their Māori heritage and said they hope to see other artists immerse themselves in their work.
“What I’d love to see is people painting from their own stories or their own journeys or their own identities,” Charles Williams said. “What happened is you see art and art almost ends up being like fashion, something that you wear or you do but I want people to embody it. This is who you are and this is a part of me. Something with meaning and something special.”
Janine agreed with Charles’ future outlook, adding,
“We’re gonna be a part of that. Help change the culture.”
This change in culture finds its roots in Christchurch among the broken buildings and cracked streets.
“Everyone who goes to the city knows the thing that strikes them the most is the huge murals that are around and a lot of people go to Christchurch now just to see those murals,” Shaw said. “Now the city is bouncing back and it is starting to rebuild. In some ways, it is going to be a better city for the pain.”
While Christchurch is still physically recovering from the earthquakes, it is already creating a new cultural identity for itself. The art around the city reflects the resiliency of the people who continue to call it home. According to Shaw, the legacy that Oi YOU created in Christchurch can be seen across the country.
“From what we’ve done in Christchurch we’ve been invited to do this venture in Tauranga… they see street art as a way of engaging with this new wave of people and as a tool to getting people talking about the city and visiting the city,” Shaw said. “The benefits of putting on a big street art show in your city, like we proved with Christchurch, is that you get huge waves of tourism, but you also get a talking point and a real point of difference that it brings to that place.”