Fine line between art and graffiti

WILL HARVIE AND LAUREN MANN
Last updated 05:00 13/01/2014
Graffiti
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ

BATTLEGROUND: Danny "Deow" Owen during a street art battle with Samantha "Sami" Lee in Christchurch.

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They are hard to miss: Squabbling gulls three floors high, a mosh pit of humongous humanoids, a series of folding louvres that seem to be in three dimensions. They are among about 40 officially sanctioned large murals that have been painted across central Christchurch and Sydenham since early December.

But alongside this legitimate street art are many scrawls of colour and indistinct lettering, some in apparently dangerous places on damaged and partly demolished buildings. They are illegal tags or graffiti, and according to most observers, cankers on public and private property.

So the question arises: Does sanctioned street art encourage graffiti vandalism? The tools are often the same: spray paint and felt markers. The locations are public and highly visible. The skills seem the same. Does one lead to the other?

In one sense, yes. According to photos on the website What Is That Christchurch?, some of the artists who recently finished commissioned murals also tagged when they were in town.

But in another sense, perhaps not. According to data collected by the Christchurch City Council, there were 596 reported "graffiti vandalism incidents" in the city in December 2013, down from 1335 in December 2012. Data for the early weeks of January were not released.

There's often an increase in tagging in December and January, says community support unit manager Carolyn Gallagher, who oversees the council's anti-graffiti programme. She estimates the data, which is collected from complaints to the council's graffiti team, captures about 80 per cent of tags in Christchurch.

Organisers of the street art festivals - Oi You! Rise in the central city and Canterbury Museum, and From the Ground Up in the CBD and Sydenham - were prepared for Cantabrians to draw a connection between tags and art.

"We thought very carefully about it," Canterbury Museum director Anthony Wright says. The museum ran two comprehensive risk assessments and came away from both believing "the highest risk was that the museum might be seen to be glorifying graffiti".

"We certainly aren't condoning or encouraging or glorifying graffiti," he says. "That's been part of all of our messaging, including in the show. We've been careful, as clearly as we can, to differentiate street art and graffiti, which is vandalism."

He was "fully prepared for there to be some kind of backlash", but instead got overwhelmingly positive feedback. "I am flabbergasted," he says.

The difference between the two is that "street art involves a relationship between the property owner and the artist", Gallagher says. "There is an agreement that the street art will be created on the property and the owner is happy with that and encourages it . . . whereas tagging is damage to property, there's an invasion of property owners' rights. There's quite a strong demarcation."

Prominent Christchurch street artist Wongi Wilson, whose work features in the museum and on many walls around Canterbury, insists art doesn't encourage tagging. Until now, the only thing young taggers saw of themselves in the media was negative, he says. Exhibitions instead bring appreciation and admiration.

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It's strange to "criticise people for being creative", says George Shaw, co-owner of the Oi You! exhibition and mastermind of Rise. "As a society we need to come up with creative ways for aerosol can artists to express themselves", he says. Painting over graffiti time and time again and expecting a different result is not bright, he says.

The call is echoed by Wongi, who recalls spray painting on more-or-less allowed walls along the rail tracks in Woolston when he was a kid. That doesn't exist any more and young taggers need somewhere to practise their skills to become street artists, he says. Otherwise they'll take to the streets and hit private and public property.

Gallagher insists that the council helps provide young spray painters with sanctioned walls. Besides, "you don't need to practise on the side of people's buildings.

"You can buy some canvas or do it on your own shed at home, couldn't you? Why go down to the neighbours and spray their letter box to practise?"

SPRAY CAN COMBAT PROMOTES STREET ART

A corner of Christchurch is turning into a battleground where artists armed with spray paint congregate every Saturday.

Over seven weeks, eight people will go head to head in live graffiti art battles as part of Style Walls - a new event organised by some of the city's most prominent street artists.

Sponsored by the Christchurch City Council, and part of the Art Beat Project, the event is inspired by similar competitions run internationally.

Style Walls organiser Emma Wilson said the focus was on finding and developing new talent.

"Overseas, big name artists compete but here in Christchurch we don't [have] as many established artists and we thought it would be a great opportunity for the young and emerging."

"Christchurch is the centre for street art at the moment so there is no better place for this to be happening."

In the competition each artist is given a panel measuring 2.4m x 2.4m, five cans of spray paint and three hours to create a masterpiece.

The winner proceeds to the next round until only one person is left.

At 17, Samantha "Sammi" Lee, is one of the youngest competitors and the only female to be selected for this year's event.

The Ellesmere College pupil took on Invercargill-based Danny "Deow" Owen in the second round on Saturday.

"There are not a lot of females I know of in street art," she said.

"I am more used to using paints on smaller areas, where you have more control, but I have done a few big areas with the cans."

Wilson said Lee did a great job, especially as it was her first time using cans, but ultimately Owen's work was better as it blended the colours and was more detailed.

Christchurch artists Wongi "Freak" Wilson and Nick "Ikarus" Tam of the DTR Crew are judging the style, can control, use of space and use of colour of the competing artists.

Style Walls will take place every Saturday on the corner of High and Hereford streets between midday and 3pm, with the grand final taking place on February 15.

All work from the competition will be shown at a yet to be finalised location from February 22.

Organisers are hoping to use the funds raised by the exhibition to run Style Walls as an annual event.

- The Press

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