Amidst the deluge that served as the July school holidays, I spent the fortnight in the dry warmth of the YMCA’s 4C Centre, an innovative space where young people can access an array of creative technology. With an assortment of 3D printers, a laser cutter, and plenty more gadgetry to explore, the 4C Centre was the perfect setting for a pair of week-long scratch-building workshops with local artist Ghostcat, who enthusiastically passed on tips and tricks to the young attendees. In-turn, the rangatahi created an array of impressive miniature urban dioramas; a working street light illuminating a graffitied wall, an abandoned 1980s video game arcade and even a gramophone with a tiny moveable stylus, all manifested through a mixture of manual and digital approaches, attention to detail, and lively imagination.
Day one of each workshop was spent exploring the central city (the weather strangely favouring Mondays); scouting inspiring locations, investigating urban details and considering connections to the surrounding environment. These excursions inspired several recreations of real places, including Sydenham’s iconic skate store Embassy and a dilapidated High Street façade. One build in particular reignited my admiration for an inner-city mural. When discussing potential sites to build with one student, they explained how they passed the red and white mural, I Always Knew You Would Come Back on Colombo Street every day, the work a familiar backdrop for their experience of central Ōtautahi.
As the student set about calculating the scale and rendering their plan, the production came to life. From the corrugated roofing and a cinder block wall, to the flashing and even the detail of the manhole cover embossed in one of the upper middle concrete panels (look closer next time), it was beautifully detailed. Then, as the mural’s layers of colours were built up in carefully sprayed aerosol, the feelings of attachment amplified and the resonance of the work struck.
The mural painted by Sydney artist Numskull (Elliot Routledge) as part of Oi YOU!’s 2016 Spectrum festival, resulted from the Word Up initiative, which invited people to submit a short phrase that encapsulated their feelings about the city. The winning entry, submitted by Hannah Herchenbach, was then painted in graphic blocks, legible for the passing public but undeniably striking as a visual design. The power of the mural comes from its ability to be read in multiple ways. For many post-earthquakes, Christchurch’s central city became a memory, marked by tragedy or lacking attraction. Through this lens, the phrase may be us speaking to the city, proclaiming relief that our city’s heart had returned as the recovery progressed, exemplified by the new buildings that have sprung up around the mural in the years that have followed its completion.
But the other interpretation is that the phrase is the city speaking to us, witnessing and welcoming our return to the changed network of streets that define the inner city. This duality suggests a conversation, an expression of the relationship between us and the surrounding environment. The changing landscape around the mural has also added to its performance. As larger surrounding buildings have sprung up, such as the neighbouring movie complex, the mural’s words have become loaded with further context, the statement transitioning from a confident declaration to an understated assertion, becoming more intimate while shrinking in comparative size. Exemplifying the powerful potential of successful murals, Numskull’s painting encourages us to consider our collective experiences and our relationship with the surrounding environment. I’m glad it came back, even if it never left.
- Based on the mural by Elliot 'Numskull' Routledge,I Always Knew You Would Come Back