Street art: Signatures of style

American graffiti artist Eric Orr is exhibiting his latest body of work at Auckland’s Rebel Yell Gallery in K’ Rd. A big player in New York’s street art movement in the 1980s, Orr gained notoriety for his trademark “robot head” icon. His work now hangs in galleries and private collections throughout the world.

Orr has visited New Zealand several times. It’s the reaction to his work – and his message of promoting legal street art rather than random tagging – that keeps him coming back.

On his first trip to New Zealand for the Auckland Arts Festival in 2007, Orr found himself surrounded by young people watching fascinated while he painted panels at the base of the Sky Tower.

He returned the following year and travelled throughout the country doing painting demonstrations and workshops in schools, youth clubs and community centres.

Orr will spend February 11 and 12 painting at Splore City in the Auckland Town Hall. The first-time event is billed as an “urban taster” to the three-day biannual Splore Festival to be held at Tapapakanga Regional Park next February.

But while Mayor Len Brown is full of praise for artists such as Orr, he has no time for illegal street art.

“Tagging is criminal damage. It impacts on people’s perceptions of themselves, their view of their community.”

Brown takes the issue so seriously he has included the launch of an anti-tagging initiative in his “100 projects in 100 days” campaign, which kicked off when he took the helm in November.

He wants to get fresh tagging and graffiti cleaned up within 24 hours and to completely rid Auckland of it before the upcoming Rugby World Cup.

Auckland-based artist Charles Williams, who goes by the name of Phat1, thinks Brown is doing the right thing in painting over graffiti as soon as it pops up. But it’s the education side of his campaign that he’ll be watching with real interest.

“If it was my house or my fence, I would love it to be cleaned off. So what he’s doing so far is good, but he needs to think of educating and mentoring systems for these kids. Because at the moment it’s like telling someone they’ve done something wrong after they’ve already done it,” he says.

Williams is among a growing movement of legal graffiti artists in Auckland, whose work is in hot demand here and overseas. He’s now in his 30s but he understands the mentality of the young people literally making their marks throughout the city, because he was once one of them.

“Street art can be both vandalism and art. It depends on location and content but mostly on the intention of the person who put it there. It’s open to personal interpretation too. Some would call vandalism a form of art in its own right, but of course in the face of a system that views things in black and white, the complexity of issues like this are a forgone conclusion for expediency’s sake.”

What’s more, Low says, more needs to be done to encourage young people into the arts.

“There can always be more facilities for young people, especially those who don’t find sport very engaging. More could be done to engage kids artistically full stop – not just those attracted to graffiti and street art.”

For artists like Low, Williams and Orr, it’s with some scepticism, even mild amusement, that they sit back and watch the sub-culture they’ve been a part of for so long cross over into commercial territory.

“It’s the Banksy scenario. It’s not until someone really grabs a hold of it and adds value to it that it becomes really accepted,” says Williams.

“Banksy started off on the street. And suddenly you had people paying tens of thousands of dollars for his art, which is vandalism.”

“Tagging started in New York because there was no guidance,” he says. “So we were out there – mostly teenage males who, when that machismo factor kicked in, wanted to be noted. It’s misguided, but you have to understand that those kids are reaching out.

“Even before the spraycan people were carving their names on property. You’ve got to show them this sort of destruction’s not acceptable. There’s a different way to do it.”

Orr’s exhibition at Rebel Yell Gallery in Auckland runs until Wednesday. For more information about Charles Williams visit:

The Lost Playground show at Britomart runs until February 28.

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