Street art in Dunedin

By: Liz Light

Street art in Dunedin Bezt (Poland), The hunter becomes the hunted Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Natalia Rak (Poland), Love is in the Air Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Art by Aroha Novak (left) and Sean Duffell (right), both from New Zealand Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin DALeast (China), Defoliation Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Mica Still (Wellington) usually paints wolves Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Fintan Magee (Australia), Chasing the thing white cloud Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin FLOX, an Auckland-based stencil artist Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Pixel Pancho (Italy), Riding the dreams Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Phlegm (UK), Songbird Pipe Organ Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Aroha Novak (Left) and Guy Howard-Smith (right), both Dunedin artists Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Fintan Magee (Australia) Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Phlegm (UK) Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin A group painting in 2010 for the Dunedin Festival of Arts Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Work of an unknown New Zealand artist Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin Works of Sean Duffell (left) Dager (right), bot New Zealand artists Street art in Dunedin
Street art in Dunedin ROA (Belgium) Street art in Dunedin

MCD checks out Dunedin's world-class street art

Dunedin has always been cool; climatically and metaphorically. And it has always had a lively art scene. In fact, it was the first city in New Zealand to have a public art gallery and the first to have an arts society. Now it has world-class street art with 28 major wall pieces in the heritage areas around The Octagon, and to the south of it.

The concept of street art has been embraced by Dunedin and its movers and shakers. It’s coordinated by a committee of volunteers who find buildings with blank walls, persuade the people who own the buildings to agree to have art on them, and then raise the money to pay the artist and buy the paint. Visitors can take a self-guided walk around the street art, with information picked up at the ICentre, or have a truly lovely two-hour guided walk around Dunedin’s amazing walls with Victoria Gilliand.

Victoria has long been a street art enthusiast, an interest that began while travelling overseas. At home, in Dunedin, she was cataloguing the graffiti art long before it became conventionally cool. Victoria shows me enormous, unmissable works but also takes me down back alleys with graffiti art, stencil art, stickers and painted electricity boxes. Much of the work is commissioned, but some of it simply appears in the dead of night.

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Many great artists had humble beginnings, Victoria explains. "Graffiti art is usually found in car parks, along alleyways and along railway lines. Often it’s illegal and done by different, unconnected people with spray cans, doing the job quickly. Many people hone their wall-art skills this way and evolve to be marvellous muralists."

But many of Dunedin’s muralists have come to street art from a fine arts background, and instead of making studio-sized art, they make massive paintings using buckets of paint, brushes, and rollers, hoisted aloft in cherry pickers.

There is a worldwide street art scene and many of the most highly regarded members of it have painted walls in Dunedin.

One of these is ROA—a world-renowned Belgian street artist. While his walls are high profile, he keeps a low one and little is known about him. Victoria knows that he is 41 and has always loved drawing animals and skeletons of animals. In recent years, since he became a globally acclaimed street artist, he has always painted a native animal or bird of the country he is commissioned to paint in.

In the case of Dunedin, it’s a tuatara lying on its back, nibbling the end of its tail. As with most of ROA’s work, the tuatara is in black, white, and shades of grey. The realism of the painting is impressive, as it’s on a bumpy brick wall with oozes of grout between bricks.

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Phlegm, who has done five major works in Dunedin, is also highly regarded in the global street art scene. With a pseudonym like that one would expect him to be Flemish but no, he is from the UK and he chose that name because, in Greek medicine, phlegm is one of four humors—the one responsible for an unemotional temperament.

Phlegm is a cartoonist, illustrator, and comic designer. He prefers to work in fine detail with Indian ink and a dip pen and seldom uses colour. His characters are distinct, detailed and tend to have odd figures. They usually originate in his comic books and are vast, wall-sized, extrapolations of the tiny originals.

In Dunedin, his wall works include ancient mythical figures riding a moa, a pukeko catching a rat by the tail, and the one I enjoy most, the Songbird Pipe Organ. It’s a whimsical scene of a mythical human levitating above the ground while playing a pipe organ that is liberating numerous colourful caged birds into the air. Sounds weird? It is, but you have to see it.

The biggest art work, 20 metres by 15 metres, on the back of the Scenic Southern Cross Hotel is created by Australian, Fintan Magee. It’s of a boy, sitting astride a man’s shoulders, catching clouds with a butterfly net. On the adjoining wall, at right angles, a girl peers at the process through a kaleidoscope. It’s whimsical and optimistic and it beautifully captures the wonder of childhood.

On the theme of ‘simply lovely’, Natalia Rak has painted a wall in Liverpool Street, called Love is in the Air. It’s a much larger-than-life depiction of a cute little girl kissing a boy on the cheek. It’s cheerful and fun rather than schmaltzy and resonates with the love between siblings. It depicts Natalia and her younger brother. 

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Natalia is Polish, has a fine arts background and moved from studio-sized paintings to massive murals without a hiccup. She is only 31 and is already well-known on the street art scene.

Of the international artists, one that can’t be missed is the Haast eagle (Defoliation) by Chinese-born DALeast. He is a sculptor, painter, and digital artist who creates all his images from what looks like thousands of painted metal shards layered to create a fractured yet powerful picture. The Haast eagle, extinct since 1400, claws out in a predatory way, and swoops upon invisible prey. But it’s disintegrating in flight, metal shards flying off like figurative feathers and leaving a trail of tragedy.

This, Victoria says, is most people’s favourite. I admire it enormously and am in awe of DALeast’s skill and the intricate detail he put into this powerful picture. But it is not my favourite; it’s too sad.

One of the unanticipated bonuses of the tour is that it’s primarily through a once neglected and now trendy part of Dunedin city with lots of heritage buildings in the process of restoration. At street level, there are funky cafes, designer shops, art shops, and edgy boutiques. It’s good to see international artists on Dunedin’s walls but New Zealand has its own superb street artists, too. Auckland-based FLOX is a young woman doing pretty well. Her wall work is often stencil-based, over which she uses the vibrant colours available in spray cans. Native birds, ferns, and flowers that celebrate Aotearoa, are often depicted. Her website shows that walls are just a small part of her portfolio; she does intricate and lace-like paper cuts, appealing wood laser cuts, screen prints, and paintings. All are recognisably FLOX in their delicacy, bright colours, and pretty optimism.

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In Dunedin, her piece is on an alley wall adjoining The Octagon. Its floral, slightly Art Nouveau, and she has seamlessly incorporated a drainpipe, that drops in front of it, with skill.

Annabel is a lovely laughing girl, with messy paint dribbled hair, on a lumpy brick wall. Jon Thom is the artist. He is Christchurch-born but he went to art school in Dunedin and now has a studio, The Artists Room, in one of Dunedin’s funky heritage buildings.

This is one of my favourite walls, as it captures the optimism and vibrancy of Dunedin, its creativity and youthfulness, and its respect for its heritage.

There is much more great art in Dunedin; the beautifully painted bus stops are a whole other story, as are the art galleries and the sculpture. But walking with Victoria was a superb morning outing and I learnt more with her than I ever could have on a self-guided walk. It was an informative introduction to this quirky southern city. 


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