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Artist Paul Walsh on how he’s not New Zealand’s Banksy, turning a passion into a career and the fickleness of social media

If you live in Auckland, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Paul Walsh’s work – it adorns countless Chorus DSL boxes and the Rock Shop memorial wall. The web designer-turned-artist talks how he made a living out of his hobby and why going viral online is slightly overrated.

Walsh is a self-taught artist from Rotorua whose work spans different mediums, from outdoor spray-painted murals to canvases and watercolour illustrations. He says he begun venturing outside with his art when he moved to Auckland and his friends were experimenting with graffiti, so practiced painting down train corridors alongside them.

He says his inspiration comes from his “old hippy” parents, the UK punk rock music he grew up listening to and local artists such as Dick Frizzell and Elliot Francis Stewart.

Walsh has clocked up both national and international attention for his work, including appearing on the front page of Reddit several times for his whimsical creatures that feature on Chorus’ DSL cabinets around Auckland.

More locally, he made headlines for the controversy that was created after a Grumpy Cat drawing he did on a Kingsland Watercare tower was painted over, with a petition garnering over 400 signatures to bring it back.

“I’d had a few beers and we lived next to a dog park that had a giant water tower in the middle of it,” Walsh says. “I thought it’d be funny to paint Grumpy Cat up there scowling at the dogs. People loved it, then someone went and painted a giant love heart on the front of the water tower and then that along with the grumpy cat got painted off, so there was a giant uproar over that.”

At the time, Walsh was just painting as a hobby while working as a freelance website designer. But the furore around the Grumpy Cat scenario paid off, as it led to a job offer from one of New Zealand’s biggest telecommunications companies.

“Jo Seddon from Chorus, who manages its artwork scheme, got in touch because somewhere in that article somewhere I said, ‘I just want to make my neighbourhood look nicer,’” Walsh says.

She offered him free creative rein with the Chorus cabinets around town, though there was no pay involved. Walsh fundraised to paint 10 of its cabinets via a PledgeMe campaign, and Chorus started paying him for his work after that.

Walsh has now painted around 30 cabinets around Auckland, although they aren’t permanent – the cabinets are being phased out in favour of the copper network.

“But until then, it’s a canvas to decorate the neighbourhood with,” Walsh says.

From web design to real-world canvases

The profile Walsh has gained from embellishing Chorus’ DSL boxes has meant that he has now been able to take up painting as a full-time career, doing commercial mural work for schools, kindergartens, workplaces and people’s homes.

But he’s careful not to take doing a such a creative job for granted – or rely on it.

“One story I’ve always remembered is from Francis Coppola, director of The Godfather. If you ask him what his job is he doesn’t say, ‘I’m a filmmaker,’ he says, ‘I run a winery.’ I read that and thought that there’s no shame in finding a trade and using that as your job, then putting as much energy as you can into your hobby until it starts paying. If it does start paying, great, but if it doesn’t, you’re not left broke and messed up.”

And as for articles that have recently dubbed him as ‘New Zealand’s Banksy’, Walsh laughs.

“I’m working as a legal mural artist with my government name on it, I’m not doing it at night, illegally or in places I’m not meant to, it’s just mural art,” he says, although he does have a connection to Banksy. At a show in London in the early 2000s before Banksy was huge, Walsh believes he saw the mystery man himself. He also managed to snag one of his works that had fallen off the ceiling for free, but lost it out of his pocket later on a night out.

He says he would hate to imagine how much it’d be worth to date.

The fickleness of social media

Walsh markets his work mostly through his Facebook page, as that’s where he finds his target audience is.

But like many industries where social media influence is now king, Walsh says that with art, your number of followers can even effect which jobs you get chosen for.

He’s experienced being passed over for a corporate job because another artist had more Instagram followers.

“One of the specific reasons they stated to me was, ‘We really like your work too, but he’s got more Instagram followers so we’re going to go with him’. It’s like how people gauge how good an artist is now, apparently, which is bullshit,” he says.

However, Walsh has also had his share of viral fame too. Paintings he’s done have made the front page of Reddit and gone viral several times. Just last week, one popular post caused his website to clock up 1.4 million hits in an hour, while the post itself got 70,000 likes.

However, he says all that attention online doesn’t really translate into sales.

“Reddit’s kind of like Instagram fame, you get a lot of numbers but they don’t really translate into work a lot of the time,” he says. “With Facebook, it’s so geographically focused it can translate into a job, so it’s much more worth the investment.”

Social media is great to boost your profile, he says, but the commotion caused by Reddit last week only resulted in one sale of an art print.

“Getting a viral post is cool and really self-affirming but generally doesn’t lead to actual work. Getting a like from some teenager in Seattle is awesome, but they’re not going to buy me dinner,” he says.

For those wanting to follow in his footsteps and turn a creative pursuit into a full-time money maker, Walsh says there’s no secret to it.

“Do it until you get paid for it. You just need to find something you love and do it well, then people will notice you and eventually you’ll be getting paid for it. You can’t rely on it, but don’t let that stop you.

“I did 500 paintings before I was 30 and sold most of them for a pittance, but if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”