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Story: Public and street art

From sculptures by established artists to hip hop-inspired graffiti art ‘pieces’ and murals promoting socialism, peace and feminism – public and street art is prominent in New Zealand towns and cities.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Mural from the New Zealand Communist Party's Unity Centre Hall in Wellington

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Public art

Public art is located in public places, rather than galleries and museums. It is usually outdoors, but may also be in public areas of buildings. Because public art is located in public places and is often funded with public money, it can be controversial. Public art is sometimes chosen and managed by charitable trusts, which usually work closely with local councils.

Sculpture

New Zealand’s first public art was pou (wooden poles) and other Māori carvings. Pākehā settlers put up statues of colonial leaders and notable people, and monuments to commemorate wars. Objects such as town clocks and fountains can also be seen as public art.

In the 1950s modern sculpture began to appear in public places like civic squares and shopping centres. Russell Clark produced a number of public sculptures. In the 1970s and 1980s institutions and companies commissioned sculptures. The Wellington Sculpture Trust was set up in 1983, and by 2014 had commissioned 26 sculptures. Other cities also developed collections of public sculpture.

Murals

Murals are paintings and other media on walls. Few early murals survive, as they were often painted over. The most important mural artist in the mid-20th century was James Turkington. He painted works in restaurants, hotels, shops and public buildings.

In the 1930s murals promoting socialism were commissioned by unions and other labour organisations. From the 1950s government departments and corporations commissioned murals. Artists included E. Mervyn Taylor, Milan Mrkusich, Pat Hanly and Ralph Hotere.

From the 1980s many murals were commissioned by councils and businesses. Some had political subjects such as peace or women’s suffrage. Some towns, notably Katikati and Ōpōtiki, have created murals in an attempt to stimulate their economies.

Street art

Street art has its origins in urban graffiti and hip hop culture. People painted tags (simple, stylised words) and large, colourful graffiti. They created pieces (large murals) on trains, buildings, walls and bridges, without asking permission. Anyone who was caught was likely to be arrested.

Street artists slowly became more accepted. The Dowse Art Museum mounted an exhibition of street art in 1999. The artistic quality of the best works was recognised, and the artists could make a career from their work.

Askew One (Elliot O’Donnell) is New Zealand’s best-known street artist. Some artists work in collectives. These include Smooth Inc and TMD. Street art is influenced by skateboarding, cartoons and comics. It sometimes includes political messages.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Public and street art', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-and-street-art (accessed 20 November 2017)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 22 Oct 2014