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Cleaning up graffiti is expensive, but it’s still all over Auckland. Photos: Chris Schulz

SocietyNovember 19, 2022

Auckland spends $4m cleaning up graffiti every year. Is it a waste of money?

Cleaning up graffiti is expensive, but it’s still all over Auckland. Photos: Chris Schulz

On the ground with an Auckland graffiti artist who says cleaning up his work is an exercise in futility.

On a recent weekday night, nearing 10pm, Shayne* and a friend pulled their car into a dimly lit Auckland street near the Unitec campus in Point Chevalier. Under bright moonlight, they hoisted bags rattling with spray cans out of the back seat and headed towards the Northwestern motorway. 

Shayne does this whenever he feels an itch to be creative, sometimes two or three times a month, usually with a friend or two in tow. “In the graffiti scene, we’re up there with the fame. People respect us,” he told me about his crew of like-minded graffiti artists who work together and admire each other’s handiwork. “You see our name everywhere.” 

The pair walked down to the cycleway and found a gated entrance to a ladder leading to a walkway over the motorway. It’s closed to pedestrians and normally padlocked, but on an earlier recon mission, Shayne had seen it unlocked and vowed to return. “We unhooked the the lock and climbed on up,” he says. No cameras were in sight and they wore dark clothes so they weren’t visible to the drivers below them. “It was absolutely child’s play.”

Graffiti on the side of an abandoned house in Kingsland (Photo: Chris Schulz)

On a rattling ramp next to a display board informing motorists of upcoming motorway exits, he and his friend laid down their bags and got to work. They planned to spray paint a “weird bomb slash piece” across the back of the board using their crew name: three large block letters in vibrant colours. It can be seen in many spots all over Auckland, but the Spinoff has agreed not to reveal those three letters, or Shayne’s real name, to protect his identity. 

By day, he works as a tradie on construction sites around the city. By night, usually between the hours of 10pm and midnight, he heads out and paints graffiti street art. He’s been doing this for years, starting by tagging, then progressing to using his own identifiable graffiti name, his work getting increasingly larger, more prominent and sprayed in more daring places.

He posts the results on an anonymous Instagram page followed by hundreds of people. “It’s a little ego boost,” he says about the likes and comments he receives. 

Graffiti covers the side of the St James Theatre in central Auckland. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Over the many years he’s been doing this, Shayne’s been arrested just once. He was caught by police while taking a break to eat sushi in a sewage drain, leaving “criminal damage” on his permanent record. But he wasn’t going to let that happen this night. He was too quick. Standing over the motorway, Shayne and his friend took just 10 minutes to completely cover the back of the board in their desired design. “With spray cans these days you can have specific tips that push out much more paint very fast,” he says. They easily made it home before midnight. 

Talking to The Spinoff after work the next day, Shayne boasted of his achievement and promised, “If you drive into town on the motorway, you’ll see it.” He’s right. On my morning commute from Te Atatū, I spot three colourful letters sprayed across the back of the board on the opposite side of the motorway. Shayne estimates he used about five cans worth of paint on his huge mural. All up, it cost him about $40. The clean-up would cost much, much more. 

Right now, graffiti like Shayne’s is everywhere you look around Auckland. It’s on buildings, hoardings, construction sites, fences, garages, rooftops, walls, railway tunnels, bridges, rubbish bins, letterboxes and footpaths. The shuttered St James Theatre on Queen Street is covered in it. So too is the railway network running through Kingsland, close to where I work. My local Countdown has tags smeared all over its top floor. Car parks around town are smothered in the stuff.

Once you start looking, you can’t stop seeing it. Recently, I’ve seen trains, trucks and vans that have been bombed. The construction sites near my West Auckland home are repeatedly hit by taggers. Empty homes waiting for demolition are a popular target. While working on this story, I pulled out a block for a yoga class and found this tag scrawled across it. 

Graffiti scrawled on the side of a yoga block. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Auckland Council admits that post-lockdown the city has been covered in far more graffiti than usual. “Reports of graffiti have increased and this can partially be attributed to periods of level four lockdown in 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, during which only offensive graffiti could be removed as an essential service,” says the manager of area operations, Marcel Morgan. 

The council deals with up to 110,000 graffiti complaints each year. Over this time, they’ve built up and the council admits it’s struggling to clear them. “Our service providers were dealing with backlogs when we returned to full-service levels,” says Morgan. “During these periods, graffiti would have been more visible to the general public as we could not always meet our normal 24-hour turnaround times for eradication.”

All this graffiti has made headlines. The NZ Herald reported up to 50 new incidents were plastered along the same Auckland motorway section Shayne was working on recently. “We understand that graffiti is an eyesore and can also be a distraction to motorists so we work hard to remove graffiti as soon as practically possible,” said Waka Kotahi’s Auckland system manager Paul Geck.

Graffiti smothers a building near the railway lines in Kingsland. Photo: Chris Schulz

Is it an eyesore? Shayne agrees that petty tags – a tagger’s signature scrawl – are an eyesore, but says the kind of graffiti art he does, mostly large scale, well-designed wall art that’s designed to be pleasing to the eye, is worth admiring. He also appreciates others who invest time and money into their craft, and says it adds to a city’s vibe.  “When I drive along the motorway and I see something at least the size of a van I know someone’s put some time into it.

“You get to a point where you see some graffiti [and say] ‘That’s quite nice,’ you know?”

Morgan, from Auckland Council, admits the costs of cleaning up Auckland’s graffiti is “significant”. Over the past five years, Auckland Council has spent up to $4.4 million of ratepayers’ money annually to clean the stuff up. This, says the man in charge of cleaning much of it up, is because graffiti artists like Shayne are getting more daring. “In previous years, there might have been 100 to remove at height,” Civic’s Andy Flint told told in August. “This year, because they are getting a bit more daring, there might be 300.”

Clearly, this system is not working. A quick stroll around any part of Auckland will reveal graffiti on a massive scale. At the intersection of Upper Queen Street and Alex Evans Street someone has written “MURDA1” in giant white lettering across the window panes of an empty office. It’s been there for months. Down in an industrial estate near Spark Arena, a beautiful bubbly “PORK” can be seen on the top floor. That one’s been there for years. Graffiti is, quite literally, everywhere.

Shayne admits he feels bad he’s contributing to ratepayers’ clean-up costs, but he says he has a code. He won’t spray on small businesses, cemeteries or buildings like the Auckland Museum. “I’ve got too much pride as a Kiwi to do something like that,” he says. “It’s got a lot of history. The last thing I’d want to do is disrespect the place.”

Graffiti smothers the top of a building in Kingsland. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

What would happen if we spent those millions on dedicated spaces for graffiti artists to do their thing? Shayne says we already have those, and they don’t work. For him, creating graffiti art fills a lot of different needs which a public, legal graffiti park can’t fulfil. “It’s about the thrill of it all,” he says. He likes project managing his art, scoping out spots, sneaking out under cover of darkness, nailing his designs then showing off his work. “It’s 30% thrill, 30% graffiti and … 30% of the mission itself”. (He doesn’t say what the other 10% is.)

There are other deterrents. Wellington City Council recently left its “WELLINGTON” sign graffitied because it looked so good. In South Auckland, public murals and early morning street clean up crews have helped ease a chronic tagging problem. “The vans went out at about four-thirty or five in the morning, so if graffiti was done overnight it was gone by the morning and so graffiti lost its credibility and esteem,” Reverend Mark Beale, the leader of a community project, told The Spinoff. “Through the education programmes we encouraged mural painting and the rationale behind that was to give youth a sense of ownership of their environment.”

It worked in South Auckland. Could it work city-wide? Shayne doesn’t think so. He says graffiti art like his is here to stay. “Everyone wants to be famous,” he says. In the graffiti world, having your tag in as many places as possible is called, “Getting up”. “People strive to ‘get up’ the most,” he says. That’s exactly what has happened to his motorway bomb. A few weeks after his night mission, another graffiti artist spotted his work and copied him, opening the gate, climbing the stairs and painting over his entire design with an all-new work. Without a radical plan, the graffiti cycle, it seems, is set to continue.

* Name changed to protect identity. 

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