Street art brings post-quake city to life

Last updated 08:24 06/10/2012

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Street artists are bringing life back to Christchurch's quake-hit streets. SAM SACHDEVA looks at the rise of the colourful movement and how it could help the city's recovery.

In Christchurch, grey is often the colour of the day. Much of the earthquake-hit city is a mish-mash of steel cordon fences, partly demolished buildings and vacant sites.

Yellow cranes and orange traffic cones have offered some variation, but in Christchurch the picture can be bleak. However, colour is slowly returning from an unlikely source.

Street art, installation pieces and murals are springing up in empty sections and on the walls of decrepit buildings, as mostly anonymous artists attempt to bring life back.

In Gloucester St, a Pac-Man made of tape is chased by ghosts down a wire fence, while a host of colourful characters crowd a Colombo St wall in Sydenham.

University of Canterbury student Reuben Woods, who is working on a thesis about the city's post-quake street art, says the destruction in Christchurch has made it easier for budding artists to leave their mark.

"There's more space to fill, and there's less defined ownership of space. There are a lot of empty lots around owned by businesses that aren't operating, or that look like they're abandoned, so it doesn't seem villainous to do something with it."

Woods was inspired to look into the phenomenon after seeing colourful street on an overseas trip.

"It got me thinking, we've got a city with all these blank walls and spaces, so why not make a nice change from the dull, grey spaces and destruction all around us?"

He sees the street art not as vandalism, but as "proclamations of existence" that show the city's residents have not given up on their hometown.

"Walking through a city like Christchurch with the fences and cones and empty lots, it can be a really hard situation to accept.

"When you're able to stumble across something that shows the existence of life or brightens up the environment or makes you think or do a double-take, that's an important part of the discourse around the recovery."

Sumner artist Jason Kelly is among those trying to brighten up the city.

Kelly's first piece, a jelly-themed work on the former site of the quake- hit Ruptured Duck restaurant in Sumner, is a tongue-in-cheek look at the rebuilding process.

"It was just another empty lot, and I was looking at the walls and thinking about adding a bit of life and humour back into the area."

Another earthquake-themed work, on a damaged home in Cashmere, quickly followed.

Kelly says artists are quickly warming to the idea that they can use the street to show their work to the city's residents.

"If they're able to put something positive into a space for people to look at, it's all about enjoyment isn't it?"

Joy was also what inspired Jess de Boer to put her paint brush to good use.

The Kenyan-born woman, who moved to Christchurch just over two months ago, has started to paint large murals on the city's blank walls.

De Boer's regular bicycle visits to the Peterborough Library took her past the wall, with street art which had been vandalised by taggers, and brought about the idea of restoring the site.

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"A bit of colour really lifts up the place."

She has been using her own paint and equipment, and is ready to put her skills to use in other parts of the city.

"I can't wait. I want to get permission to do as many walls as I can do."

Christchurch artists are not alone in using the streets to combat disasters, whether natural or man-made.

Jonny Robson, a British expatriate who runs street art tours in Buenos Aires, says the scene in Argentina's capital became mainstream after the economic collapse in 2001.

"People were miserable, and the streets were full of people painting complaints and political art.

"They basically used the streets to channel their negativity and anger."

The work of the Argentine artists, as with their Christchurch counterparts, was helped by the fact that parts of the city had been abandoned and left to the elements.

"A ludicrous number of empty buildings was falling into ruin, so people would paint on them and do stuff to them, and there was technically nothing people could do," Robson says.

"There was a general feeling that the rules didn't apply any more, because society had collapsed."

While the difference between the two cities makes it difficult to draw exact parallels, Robson believes officials in Christchurch should take a "calculated step back" and allow street art to flourish.

"It's a fantastic way of regenerating an area at no cost to the Government, and it can give a bohemian character to areas that would otherwise be run-down."

Whether that will happen remains to be seen; the Christchurch City Council was unable to comment on its stance towards the city's street art.

However, street art enthusiasts in Christchurch agree that the scene should be left alone and allowed to thrive.

Street art enthusiasts in Christchurch agree.

Woods hopes the city can have "a real blossoming of creative spirit", with the street art from the recovery period complemented by other work when the newly rebuilt city is unveiled.

Kelly also wants the works to stay in place, and believes Christchurch could develop a unique street-art culture.

"I can see that style of work really evolving from a Christchurch perspective. With the rebuild, we might become a quite art-based city."

Whether those lofty goals can be reached will not be determined for some time.

Until then, the unofficial artworks will continue to brighten up the days of the city's weary residents.

- The Press

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