Photo: 'Past the Vision' by ZER 61x91cm (sold)
May 1, 2022
It didn’t take me long to get involved in graffiti. It was in my first year of high school, 2007 and I would either head out solo or with friends and we would wag school or sneak out at night to paint on whatever we could find in the never ending quest to “get up”.
The culture of graffiti drew me in and held my attention for the remainder of my youth; celebrating birthdays and nearly every special occasion with painting on walls. I spent hours and days sketching on the kitchen table, comparing sketches with friends and competing with one another on walls. We’d geek out over new pieces around town, from the writers we admired and we would cross out the writers we didn’t respect.
Graffiti is an addictive high.
It provided not only an emotional release but also allowed some of us to freely participate in art without having to partake in the politics of the mainstream world of art.
Photo: 'Stan Doubt' by ZER - 61x91cm
Aside from minor arrests, with nights in the cells that never materialised into any real life-impacting charges, I was lucky enough to avoid any real trouble while tagging as a youngster - unlike some of my cohorts. This was helped by the fact that whilst I was an active tagger, I didn’t come close to the most active amongst my friends - let alone amongst all the taggers in the city. I was hardly a priority for the cops.
That being said, in 2008 or 2009; the local council and cops had started posting flyers of “hit-lists” that had the names of all the writers they were looking for at that time. Every now and then you’d see yourself on these lists posted up around town. I think this backfired for the police as it only contributed to giving us the attention we were looking for, validating us in a weird way and thus providing further incentive to keep doing it.
One of the more hilarious interactions we had with the cops in my early years of tagging happened whilst we were celebrating a bro’s birthday. We were painting at a semi-legal alleyway wall in town and towards the end of our jam, the cops showed up on what I (as a teenager) interpreted as a power trip. They demanded to know what was going on and if we were painting. One of the boys turned to them and said “yeah there’s paint on my hands bro, I’m the paint man!”.
At that moment, we all took off from the alley in different directions and linked up a few blocks away, to celebrate a successful getaway and to go back to our painting a short while later. Tagging, despite being a usually solo or isolated activity, is a constant cat and mouse game with everyone from other writers, various authorities and yourself (there’s always another spot to go paint) but it’s a damn fun one too.
Photo: 'Shifting Specs' by ZER 51x51cm (sold)
As the years went on in my life, tagging started to take a backseat to other priorities like paying rent and ensuring I had a roof over my head so by 2013, I stopped writing - aside from the occasional tag. But tagging is like riding a bike, once you crack a style it’s difficult to lose that ability. Despite putting a hold on tagging, the friendships I had made through graffiti maintained.
Fast-forward to 2018 and I had linked up with one of my bros who was still heavy on his art and graffiti tip. We spent a week towards the end of the year kicking it and tagging as if it was still 2010. During this week the bro and I were nerding out about one liners, his were pristine and I had one from years ago, but it needed updating. So I began the process of updating my old style. I ended up moving to Auckland a couple of weeks later with a new goal; clean oneline tags on everything.
Photo: ''Untitled 14', by ZER 120x120cm -
Painted at the beginning of the second lockdown, I didn’t have any new canvases or paints but at 7am I just had to paint something and painted over what this used to be. I don’t know if there’s a particular inspiration other than the instinctive need to do it.
In early 2019, I was practising my oneliners on little bits of trash at a friend’s place in Auckland. He got annoyed and said “yo, if I give you a canvas, will you stop tagging on the rubbish?” So naturally I said yes - despite knowing that once it’s on the canvas, it’s no longer graffiti. Over the next few weeks I kept the canvas at the bro’s house and would pull up every couple days to do more work on it. Eventually after a few weeks I had finished it, posted it online and a few days later it had been sold. I wondered if I could do it again or if it was a fluke, so I bought a new canvas, worked on it and it sold.
After selling a few pieces in a relatively short period of time, it hit me that I could take the steps to pursue art full time. In 2021, I gathered a couple of friends with similar art backgrounds and put on an art show in Auckland City. Since that show, I’ve been expanding and elaborating on the styles I started with. A lot of my art addresses ideas of identity and the layered complexity of individuals but whether it’s graffiti or on the canvas it’s always about making something that looks fresh and fun to look at.
Committing to taking my art seriously, I started experimenting with art, leading to less graffiti-centred work and more abstract pieces.
The philosophy of making something new and fresh is always a motivator in anything I create.
I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to pursue art in a way that actually makes me an income and I’m forever grateful to graffiti and all the writers who made it possible for a kid like me to find their niche and run with it. Cherish your neighbourhood taggers, it gets bleak when they’re gone.
The views expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not reflect nor represent the views or experiences of those people, institutions or organisations that the author may or may not be associated with.