Most of us learn early on that lurking down back alleys is something to be avoided, but this is one occasion when it will prove to be a journey of artful discovery.

WORDS MARION ROSS / PHOTOS KRYSTLE RAKATAU

Tucked away down the quirky laneways of Taupō is New Zealand’s largest collection of street art. It’s a tad unexpected for a town with a reputation for adrenalin-seeking sporty types, but don’t be fooled. Taupō has a street art scene that is growing rapidly.

THIS COLLECTION OF STREET ART is the product of the Gra ato: Taupō Street Art Festival, which has been a mainstay on the town’s events calendar since 2007. Every Labour weekend, street artists join forces and turn Taupō’s concrete laneways and back alleys into works of art. They come from all over the country and beyond and, over three days, can be seen masked up as artistic creatures, perched on sca olds with spray cans and brushes in hand.

Mica Still, Wellington
Instagram: @micastill
micastill.com

THE CROWDS COME, TOO, MAKING THEIR ANNUAL PILGRIMAGE to discover what new murals have been painted since the previous year’s festival. This is the one weekend in the year when it’s acceptable to hang around in a back alley, eyes on a stranger, watching their every move.

AS THE ARTWORKS UNFOLD, PEOPLE MILL ABOUT SIPPING COFFEE, AND KIDS ASK QUESTIONS like “Why are you painting on a wall?” and “Can I have a go?” The artists are unfazed by the gathering crowds and carry on with their work, occasionally answering the kids’ questions with a smile.

THEIR WORKS ARE BRIGHT, ARRESTING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING, and they are all, without a doubt, created with a whole lot of love. Some depict endangered wildlife, others pay homage to screen stars or heroes like Richie McCaw, and they all have a story to tell.

TANE LAWLESS, LONGTIME GRAFFIATO ARTIST, CLOTHING COMPANY FOUNDER AND WILDLIFE ADVOCATE, HAS A FEEL-GOOD STORY TO TELL. He knows from experience that the rise of street art in Taupō has been inspirational, and transformational, for some of the local youth. They started out tagging anything they could get away with – schools, shops and the front fences of suburban homes. Lawless saw their potential and showed them how to turn their self-expression into art that people would admire.

“I WANTED TO EDUCATE THEM WITH PROJECTS I HAD ON THE GO. I GAVE THEM FREE PAINT AND PUBLIC WALLS TO PAINT GRAFFITI ART. I was keen to help those young fellas out and show them there are other things to do rather than mess with our schools.” With a name like Lawless, the irony is not lost. He is considered a local hero for the opportunities he has given the graffiti-inclined youth of Taupō, and he’s uncovered some budding Banksys along the way.

THIS YEAR’S FESTIVAL HAD A STRONG FEMALE SLANT, A CHANGE FROM WHAT IS TYPICALLY A MALE-DOMINATED DISCIPLINE. Seven women, including Erin Forsyth, muralist Mica Still, and type-designer Kelly Spencer, have lined up in 2017 to deliver the goods. They worked alongside artists who come from a more traditional graffiti and street-art background to create the broadest range of murals in the country.

ROSS LIEW, FESTIVAL CURATOR, SAYS THE WOMEN WHO CAME TO GRAFFIATO THIS YEAR ARE SOME OF NEW ZEALAND’S MOST TALENTED ARTISTS. “They also reflect a global shift in street-based wall painting culture. Originally the domain of traditional muralists and graffiti artists, we’re now seeing artists come to muralism via studio practice and illustration.”

THERE’S CREATIVE GROWTH GOING ON IN TAUPŌ, AND THE GRAFFIATO: Taupō Street Art Festival has surely got something to do with it. The exodus of Aucklanders to take up the more relaxed lifestyle is perhaps also feeding the growth. The town’s laneways are central to its development, with uber cool cafés, back alley cakeries, and design stores popping up in force. As a place to live, it’s getting culturally richer by the day.

TAKE A WALKING TOUR around Taupō’s eighty street artworks. DOWNLOAD THE MAP: TAUPOSTREETART.CO.NZ