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New guided tour showcases Christchurch street art

20 December 2017

As buildings came down in post-quake Christchurch, artists saw opportunity through destruction and found places to leave their mark. As new walls emerge in the rebuild, so too does more art – from inspiring large murals through to small, entertaining “interventions” or paintings.

Christchurch's vibrant street art and mural scene has become a strong element of the city's identity, having gained wide exposure through public events and local and international media. It’s now easy to fill an afternoon with a self-guided tour of the city streets to take it all in – by foot or bicycle. But if you want to go deeper and learn more about the individual works and artists behind them, try a 1.5-hour guided tour through the CBD with Watch This Space.

Watch This Space aims to inspire people to look at things a bit differently as they take in the ever-changing cityscape. The tour uses some of the city’s biggest murals as marking points, exploring why, when and how they were created. “Often the term street art is now tied into large-scale murals – those massive, beautiful, colourful, vibrant sort of additions,” says tour guide Dr Reuben Woods. “But the roots of this culture come from a much more underground and subversive engagement with the urban landscape.” 

Woods, an art historian and art writer, is well qualified for the role of tour guide. Heck, he even has a PhD in the subject. Appreciating street art is not just about staring up at huge masterpieces, he says, but also looking “down and around”. The act of leaving one’s mark on an area – from cave drawings to contemporary muralism, is “something that has been occurring basically throughout time. You’ll find graffiti in some of the most out of the way and obscure places. Sometimes we miss things if we are not looking".

The walking tour starts outside Canterbury Museum – a neo-gothic building by the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Woods says it’s a fitting starting point, as it is “the site of perhaps one of the biggest moments in the city’s post-quake street art explosion”. RISE was a street art exhibition held at the museum in 2012-13, which profiled the best of street art from New Zealand and around the world. It was one of Canterbury Museum’s most successful exhibitions ever, with about a quarter of a million visitors through the door.

For Woods, one of the most striking images from RISE was the banner advertising the exhibition on the front of the museum, which featured a close-up of a can of spray paint discharging a mist of blue aerosol. He was amazed to see “this artistic tool, that for the longest time has also been completely branded with the concept of vandalism, being celebrated on this cultural institution”. A mural by Belgium artist ROA on the outside of the museum was also a big marker in the city’s embrace of muralism. Tucked away, ROA’s work references the museum’s displays with an image of a moa skeleton.

From the museum, the tour traverses the city streets stopping by large murals by artists such as Jacob Yikes, BMD (Andrew J Steel and D-Side), Owen Dippie and Askew. The artworks were commissioned in various ways – some by local government or cultural institutions, others as part of street art festivals and one by a major insurance company.

It is clear that big organisations, including commercial entities, see the value in being associated with “a hip and popular form of art”, Woods says. But despite the artform’s new-found popularity, street artists themselves see every piece as ephemeral. Woods says the works will fade, become obscured or disappear – either by forces of nature, authority or competition between artists.

Just recently, a mural by BMD depicting hundreds of penguins melting with the ice shelf was painted over and Owen Dippie’s much-loved ballerina is now mostly obscured by The Piano. “There’s sort of a natural ability to let go of this when you work in a guerilla style. [Street artists] don’t search for permanence,” Woods says.

Watch This Space’s tour ends in a carpark on Hereford St, which is like an outdoor gallery for Christchurch’s graffiti scene. It is one of the more experimental spaces in the city and features work from a range of well-known local members of the street art community as well as up and coming artists.

Woods says while street art was once something found in “out of the way, tucked away spaces”, the quakes afforded it a new prominence. It will be interesting to see what happens as a more traditional, “clean” appearance emerges with the rebuild, he says – especially to places like the Hereford St carpark. “It feels like an important expressive creative space for the city but what does officialdom think?”

Watch This Space started about a year ago and as well as walking tours, offers a free interactive map which works on a phone, iPad or computer. It also runs a blog with regular updates and articles delving deeper into the street art scene.

Book a Tour

  • Tours are every Friday and Saturday from 11am to 12.30pm.
  • Watch This Space requires a minimum of five people to go ahead.
  • Tickets are $25 per person, available online through Eventbrite.
  • For group bookings or any other questions, email tours@watchthisspace.org.nz.
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