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Fighting for the freedom of visual speech

Street artists are as natural in a modern city as a town crier in a medieval village. Hear ye, hear ye.
What we need right now are places where public artists can freely paint walls – in public - with no fear of persecution. Like skate parks, but art parks. This will change the public’s perception of what graffiti artists and street artists are and provide a vital link between artist and community.

My personal path is to convince the council that there is a lot of value in public art and to enable our public spaces to be more alive, to encourage people to be creative, and to establish a local visual culture. If I can move the needle on the council’s policy of eradication and do anything to put the proliferation of street art on the political agenda, I would see that as a massive win for our city. Graffiti is a gateway art form into other arts, young people start in graffiti and become other artists. And young artists deserve better from the council.

I see the freedom of visual speech

Graffiti steered me away from a troubled youth, graffiti gave me an outlet and graffiti gave me a voice. Being an artist has provided me a livelihood, given me a platform and has been an incredible adventure. My art is me making my mark,  the challenge is to create an image that speaks so people can understand.

As a kid we would paint graffiti for fun. I remember being so excited to go tagging and painting under buildings and in random places. It was something fun to do, I wasn't trying to hurt anyone. I wanted it to look good. It was, to me, a way for a kid working in an unrewarding job on low wages to be someone. I looked up to the good graffiti artists in my city and I wanted to be as good as them. I know there's this stigma about tagging, people assume its gang members or violence or misguided youth out trying to destroy people’s hard-earned property. Sure, there is some of that. But most taggers are just normal guys who appreciate this new modern art form and want to be a part of it. Graffiti is a part of NZ culture and it is being systematically destroyed by the custodians of our council institutions. 

I didn’t go to art school or receive any institutional education after high school. I learned to paint on the streets and some of the best graffiti guys I knew growing up are now making advertising in their corporate jobs and still go out painting at night.

Ares Artifex - photo supplied.

Because it matters

In the beginning, my art was reflecting the global financial crisis and I was listening to a lot of audio tapes on personal development and felt sad about dark forms of capitalism.  Over time it evolved into more about people. I was working for a fundraising company and I learned a lot about NGOs and social issues. So, I became really passionate about the climate crisis and the corporate influence of government, and I felt inadequate. I wanted to do something to change it, but I didn't know-how. I saved up $10k, I quit my job, and I started painting art full time.

I struggle to define why I do it or what motivates me to do it, it’s not something I remember deciding. I woke up one day and found myself as an artist. Life as an artist is continually evolving and changing for me. Art is always going to be a way of talking about something else. It's like you don't cook pots, you cook food in pots - artists don't paint about paint, they paint about things that matter.

I want to use my art to do something for the next generation, to tell my story in a way that inspires some other artist to stand up and do something, to change their local community, to create a culture unique to them. 

Ares Artifex - photo supplied.

Powers that be

I have been talking to the council in Auckland for about two years now and have so far painted one council wall and one DOC wall. I've been commissioned by a community organisation in South Auckland, so my ego expects more. It wants me to be this big-time artist already. But you know what? I'm happy with where I'm at. Sometimes I look in the mirror and feel like I'm insane for trying to be a street artist in a city like Auckland. But every day I meet someone new who gives me a bit more hope. Step by step, I can see the path opening out in front of me and I know I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.

Auckland has a zero-tolerance instant eradication policy toward all unsanctioned art. Yet, the council provides no locations for artists to legally paint public art. It’s similar to banning playing rugby on the road, yet providing no rugby fields for people to play on. The sad, unintended consequence of the council’s policy is that because they remove street art from the public realm, the public is not exposed to graffiti art. So street artists' best chances of getting paid employment by having their art seen are severed, contributing to our country’s appallingly low pay and underemployment rates for artists. When people see good street art in public spaces, they want more of it and will be more inclined to appreciate it and in turn, become a patron of the arts.

I have met thousands of graffiti and street artists. Most artists I have met do not want to destroy public spaces. They want to add colour and life to dull lifeless spaces.

Ares Artifex - photo supplied.

What can you do?

If you own a wall, become a patron of the arts, contact a street artist and pay them to paint. If you see a wall that needs art, tell the owner that the wall would look good with art on it. Don't report tagging and graffiti to the council’s hotline without considering its value. Let the owner make that call if they don’t like it.

On the soapbox

As a New Zealand artist, I feel strongly about our place in the world as an independent country and the values we represent. I want my art to portray that and to tell a story of overcoming hardship. Even though, often when younger we do some things we are not proud of, these things do not define us as people. You are not your past. What you do now is what matters. I am a public artist and I paint public artwork for the public.

Jesse Jensen - photo supplied.