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Painting the Town Red

Christchurch-based Jacob Ryan, or ‘Yikes’ as he is known in his creative circles, is one of New Zealand’s most eminent street artists with a formidable talent for applying his magic to the canvas as well as brick or concrete walls. “Both practices feed off each other, but the processes are quite different,” he says. “Plus, I work with completely different materials. On large paper, I use only spray paint to mix into other wet mediums, washes and metallics; with my outside work, I use a lot of roller and spray paint to cover large areas, then add details with spray paint and a little bit of brush — generally working on similar subjects, just executed differently.”


Jacob, who has a diploma in fine arts from the Design and Arts College of New Zealand, describes his work as a combination of “freestyle line work and block colour, combined with surrealistic scenery”. Whenever possible, he will marry up the art to the surroundings in some way “for a more dynamic work”.


“To create a powerful and well-executed work outdoors I feel it’s important to work with the environment that you’re in,” he says. “I see painting these walls as a really good way to get my name out there as a multi-disciplinary artist, because my studio works and outdoor works feed off each other. It keeps what I’m doing interesting to me, and the end result is a mass of my art around the city.”


“Everyone has different tastes, and that’s sweet,” says the artist,
“but just because I create using a spray can doesn’t mean I’m vandalising. It’s a tool.” 


Christchurch’s abundance of street artwork has even been praised for assisting the city with a psychological boost following the 2011 quakes. Reuben Woods, who has a PhD from Canterbury University, last year completed the grandest ever study of Christchurch’s public art for a doctorate titled, Painting Ruins: Graffiti and Street Art in the Post-Earthquake Christchurch. He had studied graffiti as an art student—also travelling to Europe and North America to investigate their scenes. Woods concludes that the earthquakes provided a context for graffiti within the city, and discusses how the artists responded out of necessity and instinct to their shifting environments. The “emotional impact of the quakes” coupled with the “highly visible damage” and constant change “rendered this complicated urban space an attractive one for intrepid artists” who “filled and marked these spaces with a multitude of issues” as residents sought to make sense of their loss.


Humans have, of course, been expressing themselves on walls for millennia — the first cave paintings are thought to be up 40,000 years old — but graffiti is a far more modern phenomenon, beginning with ‘tagging’ (vibrant, stylised signatures) in New York in the 1960s, hurtling through to the ‘train era’ of the 1980s when subway cars were swamped with confronting, colourful creations that engraved the movement in the wider public’s consciousness. In his book, Graffiti Lives, Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, Gregory J Snyder writes “graffiti is the public application of an alias for the purpose of fame”, and that “much of the allure of graffiti writing is getting away with something that is illegal”.


Jacob admits to being caught once as teenager, while painting a large piece on a railway, but no longer conducts his art at night: “Besides, my larger works require more than 100 cans, so I’m not planning on attempting to run from anyone!”



Snyder puts forward the belief in the ‘broken window theory’ that petty crime such as smashing a window — or spray painting a wall — increases the chances of more serious offences to follow; while other’s see graffiti as “the most important art movement of the second half of the 20th century”.


Jacob says the public opinion here in New Zealand is generally mixed, but puts it down to “tunnel vision and ignorance”. He accepts that not everyone will embrace such work, but says the “fear of a spray can curves people’s thoughts”.


“Everyone has different tastes, and that’s sweet,” says the artist, “but just because I create using a spray can doesn’t mean I’m vandalising. It’s a tool.” While New Zealand is still behind places such as Germany and the US, he says his craft is generally accepted by the art community: “There has definitely been a shift in attitude in Christchurch where I have been able to produce a large number of my works—I have had nothing but positive comments while painting. We really do have some of the best graffiti and street artists.”


I ask the difference between street art and graffiti. “Street art practically comes from graffiti,” Jacob says. “In the same way bombing and piecing come from tagging, I see street art — or muralism — as a progression from all of those. I started in this very way, from writing my name on things to what I’m doing now. It takes a lot of skill and patience to be good at it. A lot of people don’t understand how tricky it is to master spray paint. Doing graffiti and working with letters first taught me so much of what I use in my process today so that, as I mentioned before, one feeds into the other. For a huge work, it really comes down to the size of the wall, but I’ve managed to complete a 27-meter-high wall in five days — but they were very long days, however.”


And as for the dream space to express himself? That would be the moon: “Richard Branson, I’m looking your way!”


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces