From hay shed to urban legend

The Kai Rulz motto on the side of a former church in Balclutha, with a slight variation on the popular spelling.
The Kai Rulz motto on the side of a former church in Balclutha, with a slight variation on the popular spelling.

"Kai Rulz." It can be seen painted on walls, etched into wet concrete and, if the rumours are true, someone has even managed to scrawl it underneath the London Bridge.

It is hard to know exactly when the slogan hit the streets, but Clutha District Mayor Bryan Cadogan said he first saw it painted on a hay shed on the outskirts of Roxburgh.

It gradually became something "kids now took a real pride in", he said.

Kaitangata ward councillor Bruce Graham knew the hay shed Mr Cadogan was talking about and said it appeared there in the early 1980s.

The strangest place he heard of it being written was on a famous graffiti wall in the United States - somebody told him their children spotted it on the way to Disneyland.

South Otago Museum curator Gary Ross said he thought the saying had been around for about 40 years.

Stickers with Kai Rulz on them were given away at this year's Kaitangata Car Show and the town's pub, the Bridge Tavern, sold T-shirts, beanies, hoodies and singlets all bearing the slogan.

Manager Lex Mills said they were very popular, particularly for people going overseas or as presents.

One woman recently came in and bought six T-shirts to take to family in Rarotonga and told him she could not find anything with Balclutha written on it, he said.

"It is just one of the main sayings here, no-one can tell me what it really means . . . or where it came from, but we sell a lot of T-shirts."

At Christmas they stocked children's sizes for the first time, and they had been selling fast, Mr Mills said.

One Kaitangata couple got married on a beach on a tropical island years ago with the groom and the best man wearing Kai Rulz T-shirts.

Other examples of the slogan making a name for itself included a South Otago race horse called Kai Rulz and someone with the number plate KAIRLZ.

A Facebook page called Kai Rulz also existed, but only contained the explanation "Kai Rulz - political ideology", its brevity had not stopped 10 people from "liking" it.

Despite not knowing exactly where or when the motto first sprang up, most people had a story about the strangest place they had seen it, or when they first heard it.

Councillor Graham said it gave the town, with a population of about 800, a real sense of identity. "It was probably a bit rebellious at first, a bit of graffiti . . . that became a real group thing."

Associate professor of sociology at Canterbury University, Michael Grimshaw, said the motto conveyed a real sense of pride.

In the early 1980s there was a regional downturn in New Zealand that brought about a breakdown of small towns, he said. He described it as an act of identity that sprang from the people themselves, not the local council or someone in authority.

He also noted the tagging element of the movement.

"It's almost an act of resistance in that way . . . taking pride in who we are, saying here we are."

What was perceived as a negative becomes a positive, he said. "It's saying you might think we're a small coalmining town in South Otago, but we're actually proud, we don't have to apologise."

Prof Grimshaw described it as a self-perpetuating myth about community that had taken on a global spin. "It's become like an urban legend."

The Southland Times