Hard News by Russell Brown


Vivid, lively, unruly

The following is my column for the November 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine. In the context of the Cultural Hero walls (reach in and give!) and a fairly lively related debate on Twitter (not to mention our Capture blog's epic Art on the Street thread), it seemed appropriate to repost it here.


Silo Park, the Auckland CBD's first harbourside park, is currently enjoying its second summer. It's part of the Wynyard Quarter precinct rushed into being for the Rugby World Cup and it wasn't clear whether it would flourish after the crowds had gone home. It has. We go there.

A good park of the park's character comes from its proximity to the working waterfront -- especially the storage tanks that will eventually, gradually give way to a planned civic redevelopment. But while the tanks are there, why not make a virtue of them?

That's what happened this Spring, when a team led by street artist Askew One transformed one group of tanks, overlooking the water, into a bright, bold work that lifts the whole area around it. If the local restaurants are still of indifferent quality, the giant art that overlooks them, proclaiming the verses of C.K. Stead's poem, 'Auckland', is brilliant.

But behind the tanks lies a story of Auckland's awkward relationship with one of its most vital cultures. Just as Wynyard opened up for the crowds in 2011, something else was being shut down a few kilometres away. In Poynton Terrace, near bohemian Karangahape Road, an evolving street canvas painted and repainted by Askew One over the years was silenced: its colours permanently muted with a dull, grey wash.

Although the wall was part of a privately-owned building, Auckland Council's graffiti prevention team ordered that it be buffed over as part of a curiously-conceived effort to make the area more acceptable to rugby tourists.

The wall became the centre of a controversy that eventually enmeshed the city's new mayor, Len Brown, who acknowledged that the council officers had exceeded their powers and professed his support for Askew. But the art never came back -- in part because the graffiti prevention officers declared their right to approve whatever replaced it. Askew, frustrated, walked away.

The appearance, a year later, of the painted silos, seemed to signal a remarkable turnaround in the official attitude to street art in Auckland. But it's not that simple. Like the Poynton Terrace wall, the art on the tanks is privately funded and, at least for now, on private property. And the attitude of the city's official overseers of public art has not exactly been supportive.

When the work was proposed, Auckland Council's advisory panel for public art declared it would be out of context with Michio Ihara's nearby Wind Tree sculpture, which had been relocated to the park after years of indignity in its former location. Given that the Wind Tree overlooks a basketball court and kids paddle in the pool beneath it, fretting about other art nearby seemed a bit precious.

Waterfront Auckland, which eventually granted the project's founder Hamish Keith permission to go ahead, had an even more unusual reason for being wary of the idea -- people might like it too much. Specifically, when the time came to redevelop the site, Aucklanders might be reluctant to let go of their art. There'd be a fuss. If you need an illustration of the perils of institutional thinking, there's one.

On the other hand, the track record of public-place art that has been sanctioned by Auckland authorities is, frankly, patchy. On one hand, the sculpted tiles in the trenches of New Lynn railway station are entrancing. On the other, I cringe every time I see the "crushed leather" effect of the murals further along the line at Newmarket, as funk-free as their council champions.

But neither of those enjoys what Hamish Keith calls the "blissful visual ambush" of true street art. When Askew wrote a series of illustrated essays on the visual influences on his style in Kingsland and Morningside, the neighbourhoods where he grew up, none of the works he named were actually meant to be there. After all, who places official art in run-down suburbs? They were hip hop surprises; tucked around corners, high on walls. Their creators were famous only amongst their friends and the local kids.

The challenge for Auckland is to embrace the vitality of its street art culture: to, as Gary Yong of the inner-city art practice Cut Collective put it to me, "stop talking about graffiti art and just talk about art. Just blur that line between highbrow and lowbrow."

It's about more than visual style. Street art is, by its very heritage, opportunist and transient -- like the hip hop music with which it is associated, it improvises from the elements to hand. Sometimes, it simply solves a problem: like those looming tanks, or the dull fences around the failed Soho Square development in Ponsonby, now brightened with murals organised and painted by Askew and his "proper" painter friend, Karl Maughn.

Perhaps the best thing the official guardians of public art can do is to just get out of the way of such works and to let the art do its job. Because this kind of art reflects the cultural identity already taking shape in Auckland: vivid, lively -- and just a little unruly.

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