Art in the great outdoors — a wonderful Dunedin treasure

The Tiger tea ad. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The Tiger tea ad. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
It seems Dunedin is on a winner with street art.

There is an international surge in interest in the craft which knows no boundaries. And it’s free.

If the Mona Lisa at the Louvre is a piece of art you’d like to look at, surrounded by a throng of gawpers, the entry fee is about $43 (a price hike having been imposed just before the Olympics, by sheer coincidence).

My own awareness of the impact of Dunedin’s street art goes back about 50 years, when my son exclaimed as we passed a grocery shop’s huge wall advertisement for Tiger Tea (one of the proudly Otago brands lost when conglomerates took over).

The giant ad showed a tiger with a tea cup in his paw and my son (to his embarrassment) is still reminded of his comment, "Hey, Dad, there’s a pussy cat having a cup of tea!"

Later, I got to know John Noakes, the late artist who created the brilliant murals decorating the Otago Peninsula bus stops. I wrote a feature about them for a magazine and in later times the disappearance of some of John’s work has saddened me. (There was once a cheerful leprechaun of his at Dublin Bay).

During the last 20 years, the city has cemented its place at the top of the street art tree. The city council has adopted the old army rule, "If it moves, salute it, if it doesn’t, paint it" and the town is awash with decorated substations and whatnot.

An international street art festival was held in Dunedin in the early 2000s, and from then on it’s been all go. South Dunedin has become the Louvre of street art, transforming concrete pillars and dull walls into open-air galleries.

Street art by Fintan Magee. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
Street art by Fintan Magee. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
Back in the city you must have noticed one of the country’s tallest murals, a seven-storey picture of a boy with his butterfly net on the wall of the Southern Cross Hotel. Most famous of all is the mural of some bloke called Ed Sheeran in Bath St which pilgrims visit in droves.

You can now do a 90-minute tour of Dunedin’s street art using a map kindly supplied by the visitor centre.

The most recent development in street art has been "installations" rather than just paintings.

They don’t come cheap, of course, but as you know the Dunedin City Council has just unveiled a magnum opus "George St" featuring a wealth of delights — foliage, mazes and even a giant seesaw. Try getting that into the Louvre.

Maniototo has joined the fine-art scene with some lively murals in Ranfurly. In Patearoa the white walls of the pub are a canvas crying out for the treatment. Perhaps a caricature of a bunch of locals huddled around the end of the bar?

Most ambitious of all is the almost complete art installation along Cumberland St near Stuart St.

Originally intended to be part of a new hospital, the spiralling costs of that benighted project have caused a rethink. The word on the street is that the present government, determined to save money, will mothball the hospital scheme but hopes to score some brownie points by presenting the city with the world’s most expensive street-art installation.

High art in the central city. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
High art in the central city. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Several million dollars have been sunk into the scheme already and when it’s officially opened it will be the jewel in the crown of the street art tours. A committee made up of city council, hospital and Ngai Tahu experts has even decided on a name for the installation.

Given the medical origins of the project you won’t be surprised to learn it’s to be called "Piles".

— Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.