New Zealand's world graffiti art champions bring Maoritanga to a global stage

The whole Williams clan. From left, Izaiah, Michaiah, Charles, Azariah, Janine and Keziah.
Raymond Sagapolutele

The whole Williams clan. From left, Izaiah, Michaiah, Charles, Azariah, Janine and Keziah.

Charles and Janine Williams are making their mark throughout Aotearoa – and the world – with explosive murals melding Maoritanga and street art.

The contemporary urban artists combine colourful depictions of native birds with graphic interpretations of traditional Maori design on multi-storey "canvases" to tell visual stories. Behind these tales is a transformation from illegal teenage tagging to international creative success.

Now married with four children, the World Graffiti Art Championship winners, whose client list includes the police and welfare agencies, met as youths spray-painting their signatures on the walls of inner-city streets.

The Messenger mural was created for this year’s Paradox Street Art Festival in Tauranga.
Janine Williams

The Messenger mural was created for this year’s Paradox Street Art Festival in Tauranga.

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Charles, 37, started his graffiti journey by drawing his tag "Metric" on buses he caught to intermediate school in Wellington. Searching for a sense of achievement after the "displacement" of a childhood moving home around the North Island, he was told by other youths – "you're amazing, you're cool". "Tagging... gave me attention, love, belonging." 

It also put him in front of the authorities – fined at 18 for graffitiing trains.

Janine, 37, who grew up in Papatoetoe, Auckland, was drawn to graffiti by her love of art. "I was into fonts and calligraphy, it just looked like a different working of that."

Other artists gave her the tag name Diva, which she prefaced with Lady. In the spotlight as a rare female artist on the Auckland city graffiti scene, she began dating Charles. Marriage and the birth of son Izaiah in 2001 made the couple rethink their direction. 

"We stopped doing illegal graffiti," Charles says. "We wanted to concentrate on the art form, so we started asking for permission (from property owners)."

Red Earth, commissioned for Papakura Art Gallery, 2016.
Janine Williams

Red Earth, commissioned for Papakura Art Gallery, 2016.

Charles and Janine now have four kids – Izaiah now aged 16, daughter Keziah, 13; son Azariah, 12; and daughter Michaiah, 10.

As they honed their skills, they were thrust onto the world stage. In 2006 their TMD (The Most Dedicated) artists' crew made it through to the finals of the Write4Gold International Graffiti Art competition in Germany. TMD, co-founded by Charles, won the prestigious contest and defended it in Germany in 2008.

In 2010 the crew was invited to take part in street-art event Primary Flight, part of giant international contemporary art fair Art Basel, at Miami Beach, Florida. International artists were invited to paint murals across districts of the US resort city. 

"It was quite a big tipping point for us in our art practice," Janine says. "We got exposed to this huge, international street art scene."

It also marked the start of the couple's professional career. They funded the trip from their first major commercial contract, painting murals for KiwiRail on portacoms along the rail network. 

The murals combined native birds and contemporary Maori designs – imagery Charles and Janine have continued to include in their public exhibitions and private collections.

Researching their feathered subjects and their traditions brought about a realisation the birds were "really connected to who we are as Maori", says Janine, whose ancestry is Ngati Paoa and Ngati Whatua. "We were urban Maori and we didn't know what that meant culturally."

The couple, now studying te reo Maori, started "learning our whakapapa, going to our whenua, and then realised why we were painting birds", Charles says. "We were there to tell our stories". 

Ko’ko bird - created for the 12th Festival of Pacific Arts, Guam 2016.
Janine Williams

Ko’ko bird - created for the 12th Festival of Pacific Arts, Guam 2016.

Respect for the land and its people is shown by choosing native birds of the countries in which they exhibit. In Guam as part of the New Zealand delegation for the 2016 Festival of Pacific Arts, they selected the Guam rail – known as ko'ko' by the indigenous Chamorro people.

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The secretive, flightless bird had been driven to extinction in the wild and a conservation effort mounted to save them. To help raise awareness of the plight of the ko'ko' and its special place as a taonga (treasure) of the Pacific island, they painted a two-storey high mural on a building in its capital.

The couple's international recognition has continued to grow. In 2014 Charles was invited to participate in a Guinness World Records attempt, making the world's longest graffiti scroll – a 2245-metre art work in Dubai. 

The following year, he took out top spot at the Ono'u Graffiti Festival in Tahiti.

He has even had a spray can named after him – Phat1 True Royal is on the range of global spray paint and art suppliers Ironlak. The couple draw their intricately-designed murals freehand, using aerosol cans and acrylic paint.

Janine concentrates on concept development and patterning, Charles on drawing. The collaborative process makes communication essential. 

"We are one artist, basically," Charles says. "It's always Charles and Janine." 

A two storey-high mural will take them up to five days to complete. They work from dawn to dusk, negotiating scaffolding, lifts and often unrelenting sun. 

"You're on your feet for hours and hours and hours," Charles says. "You want to produce the best work, so you've got to be quite alert. You've got to make sure you've got sunscreen, a beach umbrella – you've got to be pretty onto it, coz it's always outdoors..."

They put their "time, energy, spirit, soul, body" into their art works. The deeper the connections between the murals and their sites, the greater the emotion they evoke.

The Weymouth, Auckland, couple are proud and grateful they are can a living from their passion. 

Their client list includes Child, Youth and Family (now the Ministry for Vulnerable Children), the NZ Police, the Ministry of Social Development, YMCA, Housing NZ, Auckland Council, Matariki Festival, Converse, Adidas, Te Wananga o Aotearoa, Unitec and LIFETV.

They are passing on their knowledge and experience to new generations of budding street artists through workshops and school programmes.

Janine says their mantra is, "Do. Learn. Become".

They also work with at-risk youth, and Janine has been thanked by the police for helping develop the intermediate and secondary school Tag Free scheme. The programme aims to reduce graffiti vandalism by encouraging students to develop pride and respect for themselves and their community. 

One mural by the couple featured alongside a collection of works by mysterious England-based global graffiti artist Banksy at the Tauranga Art Gallery. A Banksy mural Kissing Coppers sold for $800,000 in 2014.

Janine says she and Charles "both come from a really long time in that artistic journey where it wasn't (considered) art, and 'it won't get you anywhere', and 'what do you think you're doing' and 'it's never going to be a career'." 

The couple's first solo exhibition in more than a decade Huia Come Home will run from June 23 to July 29 at Fresh Gallery in Otara, Auckland. It is timed to mark Matariki, the Maori New Year.

 - Stuff

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