The Edyssey: In search of Sheeran-mania in Dunedin

An exclusive walking tour reveals the true extent of a city’s obsession with visiting pop star Ed Sheeran.

Contrary to what an out-of-towner might believe, Ed Sheeran is not the first international pop superstar to ever play a show in Dunedin. In 2004, Busta Rhymes came and played at the Town Hall. In 2006, seven years after their song ‘Freestyler’ was a hit, the University booked Bomfunk MCs to perform at Orientation.

Neither of those acts got a mural. Nor did Lorde when she played here on her 21st birthday last year, or The Beatles when they visited at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. If murals are your yardstick, Ed Sheeran is bigger than any of them.

The numbers back it up. There have been a lot of numbers reported in the lead-up to the pop star’s Dunedin visit, from the $8,350 price tag on the ratepayer-funded mural to the 60,000 visitors the three concerts are set to bring to the city, or the $34 million those visitors are forecast to inject into the local economy.

Reading about it all over the last few weeks has given the distinct impression of a city obsessed. Dunedin does have a history of going a bit funny when presented with the prospect of a visiting celebrity: a notorious 2006 stunt saw famous sheep Shrek taken in a helicopter to be shorn on an iceberg, and earlier this year it was revealed a local madman once tried to assassinate the Queen outside the museum.

How over the top has Dunedin gone this time? Is Sheeran-mania real, or is it the fabrication of an out-of-control media hell-bent on sensationalism over facts? There is only one way to get a true sense of the scale of it all, and that’s to hit the streets of the CBD.

Painting the town Ed

My first stop is the Octagon, where I arrive a little over 24 hours before the first concert. This is ground zero. If the 60,000 visitors to Dunedin this weekend are to reach their spending target of $34 million, or $566 each, a good chunk of that cash is likely to be injected directly into the tills of the bars and restaurants lining the Octagon’s eastern rim.

To ensure these visitors feel as safe and comfortable as possible while eating and drinking, the Dunedin City Council has opted to close the Octagon to traffic for the duration of the long weekend. This pedestrianisation of the city centre – what the council’s marketing arm has dubbed “Painting The Town Ed” – is in full swing when I arrive. Previously drab surfaces are being colourfully yarn-bombed, upcycled pallet furniture is being installed and a mound of paper lanterns waits to be strung from the lamp posts.

These council-sanctioned signs of Sheeran-mania aside, there is surprisingly little other evidence on display. Of all the Octagon bars and restaurants, only two establishments – Ratbags and Innocent Bystander – carry any visible Sheeran-themed signage. Both share the same professionally printed posters promoting “Easter Ed Sheeran” with bands and DJs until late every night.

The council’s headquarters sit on the other side of George Street, on the north-western edge of the Octagon. This is the true epicenter of Sheeran-mania – it was here the controversial bylaw was passed allowing places such as Ratbags and Innocent Bystander to open for trade on the usually sacred Good Friday and Easter Sunday this year. The council buildings, however, bear no external signs of Sheeran-mania.

This is a theme that repeats itself in every direction I walk from the Octagon. I had expected every second shop window to be festooned with attention-grabbing displays of love for Ed Sheeran. Instead, maybe one per block has gone to any effort at all.

Of the Sheeran-themed shop window displays I do find, many feel lazy and half-hearted. Farmers and the Swanndri store have simply popped orange wigs on a couple of their mannequins. The Meridian Mall, Dunedin’s premier shopping destination, is practically a Sheeran-free zone – a subtle orange bunting hanging in the atrium of the adjoining Golden Centre the only hint of festivity.

Libraries can usually be relied upon for a topical display, but at the Dunedin Public Library all I find is a giant screen showing a graph about rates. I pick up a copy of Critic, the University’s student magazine, hoping to at least encounter some sign of youthful anti-Sheeran dissent. All I find is an entertaining feature headlined ‘I Wore a Fedora for a Week and It Changed Me’.

It should come as a relief that reports of Dunedin’s embarrassing Sheeran-mania appear to have been massively overstated. I should feel proud of my hometown for its overwhelming display of apathy toward a pop star whose music I agree is bland and unappealing. Instead, I mostly just feel disappointed.

The mural

I have been saving up visiting Dunedin’s controversial Ed Sheeran mural for a moment like this. Since being painted a couple of weeks ago it has instantly become one of the city’s most famous attractions. At this moment in time it might be the most well-known piece of art in New Zealand.

My own feelings toward the mural have completed a predictable cycle of acceptance: at first I was outraged, then embarrassed by it. For a while I entertained bold fantasies of defacing it under the cover of darkness. Then I realised it is ultimately harmless, nothing is permanent, stopped caring and now mostly just think it’s funny.

Like the Mona Lisa, the Ed Sheeran mural is smaller than expected when you see it in real life. Positioned discreetly above the entrance to a private parking garage on Bath Street (really more of a one-way service lane than a proper street), I initially spy it from a distance and feel a genuine flutter of excitement, roughly comparable to the time I saw veteran TVNZ sports broadcaster Geoff Bryan on Auckland’s Queen Street.

Up close, the mural is bright and appealing. An overnight attack by local vandal ‘Coyote’ has already been cleaned off with no noticeable damage to the original paintwork. People are stopping by to take photos, and the cafe next door has a sign outside featuring atrocious Sheeran-themed wordplay. This is everything I came for.

I decide to take the contrarian stance that the mural is actually good, though there are a couple of caveats. First, the artist including Hayley Holt’s name in a love heart as part of the work, in response to her admitting her dislike for Ed Sheeran on morning TV, surely constitutes some form of harassment. Secondly, it does look quite a lot like notorious Dunedin murderer Clayton Weatherston.

Finding Sheeran-mania

Back in the Octagon, things are coming together nicely. A couple of old ladies are chatting on one of the newly yarn bombed benches and a bloke in a cherry picker is putting up the paper lanterns. Rented trees in planter boxes are lined up and down the middle of an otherwise empty Lower Stuart Street.

I pop into a candle shop called Living Light to take a photo of their window display. They have drawn crude marker pen faces on a few white paper lanterns and topped them with orange feathers. It is one of the more creative and charming Sheeran-themed shop window displays in the whole CBD.

Before I can slink back out the door, the owner emerges, apologising profusely for the barren and untidy state of her candle shop. She says they are expecting a big shipment to arrive on Saturday, including a special Ed Sheeran-themed candle. It will be white with colourful swirls representing his tattoos, she explains, and an orange-coloured top. Kiwifruit scented.

The candle shop owner asks hopefully if I am from out of town. I don’t have the heart to say I’m not, or to explain that actually I just came in hoping to make fun of Dunedin for its enthusiasm for Ed Sheeran but ended up being disappointed by its stubborn ambivalence. Instead I just say I am looking for evidence of Sheeran-mania.

Have you been out to Brighton, she asks. There’s a cafe out there that’s been making special Ed Sheeran gingerbread men with orange hair and glasses. They were talking about it on the radio this morning.

Sheeran-mania is out there after all, just not in the concentrated fashion I was expecting. It’s at the New World down by the Botanic Gardens, where they’ve set up an ‘Aisle of Ed’ filled with only orange products. It’s on the ‘Ed Shearing’ t-shirt they’re selling at Champions with a picture of a sheep that looks like Ed Sheeran playing the guitar. It’s being baked by the trayload in a random cafe all the way out in Brighton.

From a distance these examples of Sheeran-mania might seem undignified and embarrassing, but up close the genuine sense of festivity and good humour of it all makes it hard to stay cynical.

I am trying to find a way to politely exit the conversation and get out of the candle shop. It’s looking really good out there, I say with a gesture out toward the Octagon, I think it’s going to be a great weekend. I am surprised to find not one of the words coming out of my mouth is a lie.


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