Christchurch's street art walking tour goes behind the scenes

A walking tour showcasing street art in central Christchurch swings by some of the city’s newest murals.

Christchurch's vibrant street art and mural scene has become a strong element of the city's ever-changing streetscape.

As new walls emerge in the rebuild, following the city’s earthquakes in 2011, so too does more art – from inspiring large murals through to small, entertaining “interventions” or paintings.

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 for those who want to learn more about the individual works and artists behind them, a charitable trust run mostly by volunteers is now offering a regular walking tour through the CBD.

Watch This Space launched its 1.5-hour street art walking tours at the end of 2017 –  just a few months after Christchurch was ranked as one of the street art capitals of the world by a Lonely Planet book.

The trust also maintains a free interactive street art database and map that works on phones, tablets and computers.

Its walking tour uses some of the city’s biggest murals as marking points – exploring why, when and how they were created.

Tour guide Dr Reuben Woods, who is well qualified for the role of tour guide as an art historian with a PhD in the subject of street art, says while street art was once something found tucked away in Christchurch, the quakes afforded it new prominence.

The walking tour swings by some of the city’s newest murals, created during Street Prints Ōtautahi (a festival held at the end of 2017), including works by New Zealand artists D Side and Kell Sunshine (Kelly Spencer) and Canadian muralist Kevin Ledo.

D Side says he chose to produce a cycle-themed work in Christchurch because it is “the cycle capital of the country, it holds all the good stats for biking and encompasses environments for all avenues of the biking culture”.

He says the city has a healthy street art scene with “the best collection of walls in New Zealand [with] so many international big names”.

“There also seems to be a healthy un-permissioned scene, [which] reveals the creative realm is active and connected to the people, changing and breathing by its population.”

Ledo’s work pays homage to Maori elder Whero O Te Rangi Bailey, who he first saw in a photograph.

Bailey’s daughter, Maia, contacted him after hearing he was creating the artwork and taught the artist more about her mother.

“I loved connecting with [Whero’s family] and how it brought a whole new dimension to the experience,” Ledo says.

“Unfortunately, Whero is no longer with us, but I learned that she was very well known and respected woman from Parihaka in Taranaki.”

Ledo says he was surprised to see the level of damage the earthquakes had on the city, but “the new areas of the city are gorgeous and well thought-out”.

He was impressed by the prominent and quality murals throughout the city.

“I saw murals from friends and colleagues from all over the world.”

Spencer says her mural “speaks of the conflict many of us experience between settling in one place and planting some roots versus the pull of travel and transience”.

“I've been personally experimenting a lot lately with where the lines blur between both of these human needs.

“In Christchurch, I didn't want to create 'earthquake art', but I did want to reference a topic which speaks of a community exploring [its] own sense of place.”

Watch This Space’s walking tour starts outside Canterbury Museum – a neo-gothic building by the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

Woods says it is the site of “perhaps one of the biggest moments in the city’s post-quake street art explosion”.

He is talking about RISE, a street art exhibition held at the museum in 2012-13 that drew about a quarter of a million visitors.

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.

Woods says 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.

Despite the artform’s new-found popularity in Christchurch, he says street artists see every piece as ephemeral.

They are used to works fading, become obscured or disappearing – either by forces of nature, authority or competition between artists.

“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.”

During the tour, Woods encourages people to not just stare up at the city’s huge masterpieces, but also to look “down and around”.

“Often the term street art is now tied into large-scale murals – those massive, beautiful, colourful, vibrant sort of additions.

“But the roots of this culture come from a much more underground and subversive engagement with the urban landscape.

“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.”

Travel Tips

Tours are every Saturday from 11am to 12.30pm. Group bookings are available on Fridays by appointment only. Reserve your spot by booking online through Eventbrite for $25 per person or pay on the day for $30. Watch This Space encourages bookings in advance so it has an idea of numbers. Email tours@watchthisspace.org.nz for group bookings or with any other questions.

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