Brave art or how one man’s obsession colours Christchurch

The world’s leading street artists have turned Christchurch, New Zealand, into a world centre for street art.

It's not what you would have expected a few years back in the old Christchurch but the world’s leading street artists have turned this South Island city into a world centre for street art while helping transform the city.

Ex-pat Englishman George Shaw, who owns one of the largest collections of works by reclusive British graffiti artist Banksy, was determined to make Christchurch a leading centre of street art by curating a major exhibition featuring street artists from around the world.  

Ten years ago, George Shaw bought an eccentric shirt for a party in the English Midlands. He didn’t know it at the time but that piece of clothing would change his life. The dress shirt had a stencil on the back of men in full toxic waste gear and when the former IT professional found out the design was by renowned British street artist Banksy, he and his wife began researching the artist’s work. They were instantly hooked.  

On a shoestring budget, they began collecting. To fund their new infatuation, they first sold one car. Then they sold their second car. But it was worth it. For the first time, Shaw says he had discovered an art form with which he could identify. “An interest turned into a passion very quickly, then an obsession,” says Shaw. “We put together this amazing collection of art by the major street artists from the northern hemisphere.”

Shaw brought that passion to Christchurch’s city centre through various street art festivals that took place from 2015 - 2017. In doing so, he is helped transform a city long celebrated for its gardens and historic buildings into a canvas for a colourful, transitional art movement.

The 54-year old Shaw says street art has turned Christchurch into “a magnetic city”. It already has more major murals than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere, he says, and architects, designers and organisations are increasingly identifying Christchurch with street art. Part of the reason is that new buildings with blank concrete walls offer as much potential for street art as the walls on existing buildings. There are nearly 50 major murals throughout the city.

Visitors to the city can go on a “street art trail” and see beautiful works such as the bright, abstract colours on the wall of the Canterbury Development Corporation Building. “It’s quite a phenomenon,” says Shaw. “There’s this fabulous energy that’s happening in Christchurch as the city re-emerges.”

In 2009, Shaw visited New Zealand with his wife, Shannon Webster, and young daughters Mattie and Kate. They “fell in love with the place”, he says. “It was one of those crossroads that we all have in our lives. We’re quite adventurous people so we decided to come over here and make a go of it.”

The first opportunity to show off their artworks arose when Nelson City Council asked if they could use the couple’s collection as one of the main attractions for the city during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It turned out to be a huge success, with 40 per cent of Nelson’s population visiting it. The pair, who live in Nelson where their daughters are at school, then took part in a big street art festival called Outpost Project, Art from the Streets, on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, and another one, Oi You, in Adelaide. 

In 2013, Christchurch’s Ministry of Awesome – a group aiming to revitalise the city after the earthquakes of 2010-11 – invited the couple to do something with street art. Shaw’s first visit after the earthquakes was an eye-opener. “The vast majority of the central city was in lockdown,” he says. “The stories we heard from people and the devastation in the central city were heartbreaking and very moving.”

Some street artists had left the city but projects such as Gap Filler (which aims to fill the city’s vacant sites with creative projects) had created bright spots. Still, says Shaw, there were “talented people here who were doing what they could without any major support”.

Shaw says he knew he could help make a difference. “I was reading a book by Tom Wolfe and there’s a real-life character called Ken Kesey who said, ‘Put your good where it could do the most’. I read that two or three times when I was in Christchurch. We realised if we came here we could have a really positive impact on the city.”

The director of Canterbury Museum, Anthony Wright, a big Banksy fan, was tremendously supportive. The subsequent 2014 Rise street art festival became “the most visited show in the museum’s history” and won New Zealand museum show of the year. The Christchurch City Council, Creative NZ, the Canterbury Community Trust, the artistic community, and the public all supported the festival. Another festival, Spectrum, attracted more crowds at the start of 2015. 

International street artists who have made their mark on the city include France’s Seth, Barcelona-based Cuban artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, Dutch artist duo Telmo Miel, and Australia’s foremost female street artist, Vexta. Two South Island artists, Ikarus, from Christchurch, and Deow, from Invercargill, and two from the North Island, Berst and Elliot Francis Stewart. 

Street art is exploding into the biggest art movement the world has ever seen, says Shaw, and it has the potential to transform lives and cities for the better. “We have been able to offer [artists] a channel and outlet that wasn’t there previously,” he says. “We want to entertain people. Our art is about entertainment, it’s not about reverence. Don’t turn your mobile phone off when you’re here, turn it up and add to the atmosphere.”

George Shaw’s top five picks in Christchurch

  • Re:START Container Mall: “It has a unique architecture with great community atmosphere.”
  • Smash Palace: “The best burgers, great beer and an awesome people place.”
  • C-1: “The best place to hang out for an extended coffee and a feed. Their lovely quirkiness is perfectly offset by the amazing music they play.”
  • New Regent Street: “It’s a lively little spot day and night, crammed full of interesting bars and cafes all set within beautiful traditional architecture.”
  • Isaac Theatre Royal: “Gorgeous venue that feels like somewhere in London’s West End … and best of all it has the most amazing piece of street art on its rear wall.”