The last laugh
Kiwi artist Regan Tamanui is spraying his talent across Australia, so why has no one here heard of him?
Urban historians called it a city under siege. Melbourne, at the turn of the millennium, tagged, stencilled, pasted – bombed with street art.
"We owned the town," wrote artist Adrian Doyle. "It was awesome."
And in that town, a man who signed himself Ha Ha, who used a spray can and stencils to create multiple images of robots and the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.
As he tells documentary maker Nicholas Hansen in the movie Rash: "I set myself goals. And my goal was to go through two tins of paint each night...and if you get caught? Ha ha. Ha ha."
That was then. Tonight Ha Ha stands in an Auckland dealer gallery. He wears black jeans, an untucked white shirt and a sweatshirt embroidered with a cartoon mushroom. His nephew skids over the concrete floor. "Where's Uncle Regan?"
Regan Tamanui, aka Ha Ha, credited as Melbourne's most prolific street artist, has gone legit. The Hamilton-born 39-year-old has held 18 solo exhibitions across the Tasman. Last month he featured in the San Francisco group show Young & Free: Contemporary Australian Street Art. His spray stencils are collected by Australia's National Gallery in Canberra and he has completed commissions for Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art. So how come no one here has heard of him?
Tamanui is not your usual "art establishment".
When the National Gallery bought its series of Ned Kelly stencils, curator Jaklyn Babington said: "The image is a play on the pop movement's obsessions with repetition, with a nod to Andy Warhol's celebrity portraits and a humorous Australian art historical reference to the most famous of our national painting cycles – [Sidney] Nolan's Ned Kelly series."
But last week, Tamanui told the Sunday Star-Times: "At the time I didn't really think anything of it. I just thought I'd spray paint some Ned Kelly heads around town and I'd do it really repetitively in certain areas."
Ha Ha identifies with the outlaw. "Ned Kelly was a criminal. Just like graffiti or whatever you want to call it. The act of stencilling runs in that same vein of thought. The cool thing is that Ned Kelly was loved by the people, and with street art, it's the people's art. It's like the voice of the people."
Tamanui, 39, never went to art school.
"I've got heaps of friends who did. They all say if they could relive their lives, they wouldn't go. All of them still have debts they don't want to pay off."
He has drawn since he was a child. "And at high school I did oil painting classes and read heaps of books..."
The Fraser High School graduate was accepted into Auckland's Whitecliffe College of Art and Design but decided to live in Wellington instead.
"And me and one of my friends were sitting in this cafe and we thought, shit, we should move to Melbourne. Two weeks later we did.
"I went over there with $500. Just sold my car and went over, stepped off the plane and got a job pretty much straight away...it was really easy over there, 'cos you could go on the dole and get a cash job as well. Every Kiwi I knew was doing the same thing, and making good money."
Friends introduced him to street art. "They were into graffiti. They'd go paint trains and I'd sit in the car park and call them up if security rocked up."
His own tag, Ha Ha, came from the distinctive laugh of The Simpsons character Nelson – but his work would soon progress beyond "graffiti".
"I started noticing stencils around Melbourne. There was this guy called Psalm. He's the Australian godfather of street art, in my world, and I used to see his stuff around...I thought, `I'm going to try this instead of tagging'...we used to go out and do the shit everywhere and it was fun."
Busted once, he says "Back then the cops were really cool. They didn't really give a stuff. Now they're focusing on the vandalism and crime side of it."
TAMANUI'S ADOPTED city has a love-hate affair with street art. Authorities once removed a stencil by Banksy, arguably the world's most famous exponent of the art form. But they also put a perspex cover over another to protect it from vandals.
Street art tours dominate tourism websites. The skins of conversation sprayed and pasted on Melbourne's Laneways once topped a Lonely Planet poll for the most popular cultural attraction in the country.
"Street art could be said to be the first distinct artistic movement of the 21st century," writes artist Miso in the book Street/Studio.
In Melbourne's Laneways, Ha Ha sprays simple, hand-cut stencils – the Wikipedia page on the city's street art scene features his version of cricketer Merv Hughes. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is another recent subject. But at Auckland's Orexart, the 12 portraits that form the show Personal Heroes required up to 30 separate layers of stencils and paint.
There would be more portraits, says Tamanui, "but I ran out of resources and money and shit like that.
"I've got a massive bill at the art shop".
In the last weekend of the Rugby World Cup, portraits of famous players – Sir Colin Meads, Graham Mourie, George Nepia, Bryan Williams and the like – could be seen as a commercial no-brainer. Has Tamanui sold out Ha Ha?
"But the whole idea of the show is it's all about rugby before it became a national corporation," says Tamanui. "So I've got pre-80s rugby players where dudes had to work on the farm, or have a real job."
According to the gallery blurb, "Personal Heroes is Tamanui's lament for the passing of the mantle `individual hero' over to `corporate property'."
"Everyone's got to make money," says Tamanui.
In fact, Tamanui is an early supporter of the street/gallery crossover. In 2002, he helped set up Early space Inc in Collingwood, Melbourne. Run through the influential Blender Studios where Ha Ha and other artists worked, it's cited as Australia's first street art gallery.
He was also a founding member of the Australian arm of the Stuckist movement – a
pro-painting, anti-conceptual art group. Actually, he confided last week, it's been a while between manifesto readings.
"I think it was because I was the only person with the internet. We were checking out art stuff, and we were like `can we join your Stuckist movement...?' And the funny thing is we got all this publicity and we really didn't know what to do with it."
These days he quite likes Damien Hirst's conceptual stuff.
An hour with Tamanui is an hour of gentle stops and starts. A broad smile that goes all the way to his eyes every time. When he agrees with something, he says "totals" emphatically. When he disagrees, it's a laid-back "nah".
He is fascinated by space, aliens, the moon, conspiracy theories, and magic mushrooms. He traverses the importance of Star Wars the movie (his first drawing was inspired by the moment Darth Vader's ship pulls up alongside Princess Leia's); the fact that he won't vote because politics is corporate bullshit; and, oh yeah, "I'm a cult leader".
Splutter into your latte. He's serious.
It's a bit complicated, but in short, the global collective consciousness is manifesting the internet as God (or a second coming) and the powers-that-be want to be able to shut that down at will (like a crucifixion). Etcetera. So far, he has 17 members.
"I believe that I am you and you are me and we are everyone..."
Tamanui was raised Jehovah's Witness. Growing up, he wanted to be an astronaut. He once saved for two years to buy a telescope. He has, reportedly, built three robots.
"I realised my robots weren't going to take over the world so I made stencils..."
Funny peculiar. And funny ha ha.
Regan "Ha Ha" Tamanui – street artist
Born: 1973, Hamilton
Educated: Fraser High School
Claim to fame: His work appears in Banksy movie
Exit Through the Gift Shop, "only for a few seconds but it's pretty cool".
If there was a spray paint called Ha Ha: "It would be apricot-coloured. Apricot makes an image look warmer."
Personal Heroes at Orexart, Auckland, until Saturday.
Sunday Star Times