Dunedin has long been a haven for creative types of all stripes. Now a burgeoning street art scene is breathing new life into its old buildings and helping to grow its cultural tourism market.
If you were a poet with writer’s block, or a painter struggling to find inspiration, it’s not hard to see why Dunedin might be the perfect tonic.
That dark, moody landscape and wild coast; the imposing buildings casting back to another time; the relative isolation, far from the pressures of bigger cities. It also boasts a number of bare wall spaces crying out for street art, with local businesses amenable to the expression otherwise known as graffiti.
Not to mention the fact it’s cheap. Many artists are able to find huge, light-filled studio spaces in Dunedin for just a fraction of the price they would in the main centres. Take Jack Hill, fashion designer. He moved his studio from Wellington to Dunedin soon after showing his collection of utility-themed unisex clothing and caps at iD Fashion week, upgrading from a 50 sqm space to a 550 sqm studio and store in a beautiful old white-brick building on the main street.
“You can see the workroom through the French doors from the shop, and it’s cool letting people see that the clothing is made here while they shop,” he says. His space is so large that he is able to have a photography studio on site and that can also be used as a conference room. All of this saves money.”
“I’ve had two shows up here, I shoot everything here, and I also have big cutting tables so I get to do a lot of things here that I previously had to outsource.”
Painter Jeffrey Harris, known for his figurative, intense pieces, works in a similarly impressive studio: a large ground floor warehouse converted from an auto repair workshop, with huge overhead skylights.
Harris liked Dunedin ever since he first went there in November 1969. Its old buildings give off a certain atmosphere he felt immediately at home in.
The solitude of the city can be inspiring as well, he says. Away from the centres of fashion, one is more free to work away in their own direction, without the pressure of having to conform to “any current idea of what art should be.”
“It is not for everyone, as it can be at times a bit isolating, but that suits my temperament and is one of the many reasons I like living here.”
But you don’t necessarily have to be a solitary soul in Dunedin, says Company of Strangers designer Sara Munro. Her fashion label often works with local artists, inviting them to collaborate on t-shirts and do their window displays. She recalls when designer Anne Mieke from Underground Sundae did one for Christmas: everything white, an upturned fridge, white glitter ice-skates and “all sorts of junk”.
“People were coming in off the street asking if someone had thrown a fridge through the window and who was going to clean it up,” she laughs.
One of the wonderful things about being an artist in Dunedin is the collaborative, supportive scene, and the quality of life artists can have as money ebbs and flows, she says.
“It’s so cheap for artists to rent their own space or combine with other artists in large warehouses,” Munro says. “There’s a great community and people love to help each other and collaborate. The art school here has given the world some of New Zealand’s greatest artists.”
BrandAid owner Luke Johnston, who designed Dunedin’s identity, agrees. “We’ve spawned more than our fair share of artists and writers.”
Johnston has also been involved in Dunedin’s burgeoning street art scene - whereby international and local street artists have been invited to splash colour and life onto the city’s unused walls.
He helped kick-off the trend by funding the first large scale street art by Belgium artist ROA on the side of the building where he works.
That one mural - a giant Tuatara – has since captured the imagination of the city, and the council, and there are now more than 30 pieces of street art dotting the central city.
The old buildings - once empty and decaying - are now being reborn as shared spaces that have character that can't be replicated in a new building, Johnston says. And now they’ve also become giant canvases for a thriving street art scene.
“I love the way the explosion of street art that followed has breathed new life into old walls. I think this clash of old and new typifies the Dunedin of today.”
A trust has been established to facilitate these enormous pieces of public art, and a walking trail has been printed for tourists, much like what you might see in Berlin.
Closer to home, Wellington’s cultural tourism market has taken off with a similar initiative and the city now hosts an arts trail, two sculpture trails and a writers’ walk.
Illustrator and designer Emma Francesca has also been inspired by the street artists, as well as Dunedin’s older features.
She produces figurative work that tells stories of altered perception and fictitious creatures, harking back to the ancient traditions of classical fables.
“I love photographing architectural details and textures for more design and illustration projects and drawing inspiration from the international street artists that have graced Dunedin’s walls with their characters and stories.”
She and her husband moved to Dunedin from Perth in 2015, and are drawn to the city’s lifestyle. As an artist, she says the city’s culture, character and heritage are appealing and the city has provided the infrastructure needed for an artist to be continually stimulated.
“It is big enough city to have access to culture i.e. galleries, libraries, museums, theatres, and festivals. There is a lot of entrepreneurial spirit down here too, with people basing themselves in Dunedin but working with clients all around the world.”
This story originally appeared on pages 118-120 of Idealog issue 63.
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