Images of Emily Gardner's mural of All Black Kieran Read confronting a wild lion drew the battle lines early on in the lead-up to the Lions' test series.

But it's not long ago that she was spending her days with a calculator in hand - not a spray can.

Emily Gardner, in front of the mural she painted in the lead-up to the Lions' test. Photo / Supplied by Adore
Emily Gardner, in front of the mural she painted in the lead-up to the Lions' test. Photo / Supplied by Adore

Gardner, 30, graduated top of her class, with an economics degree.

She spent three years working in finance before embarking on a Masters in International Relations and Human Rights with the idea of making a move into political policy.

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A "stable middle-class job", was all Gardner aspired to growing up in Regina, one of Canada's worst neighbourhoods characterised by high rates of violent crime, prostitution, drugs and alcohol.

She was raised by her mother, a "very good woman" whose struggles with her own demons meant Gardner was put into a group home in her early teens, till she went into her grandmother's care. But this pushed her to seek a stable life.

"I wanted to escape the poverty that had held my parents back and create a more conventional life."

Gardner, her partner and the portrait of her grandmother, Joyce Gardner, who died in 2015. Photo / Supplied by Adore
Gardner, her partner and the portrait of her grandmother, Joyce Gardner, who died in 2015. Photo / Supplied by Adore

But when her grandmother died from cancer while Gardner was still studying in New Zealand that existence began to lose all meaning.

"I didn't have the resource to return to Canada at that time, so I would call her in the hospice on a cellphone that my family placed by her bed.

"I would listen through tears to the last words I was going to hear from the woman who had loved me when no one else would and raised me when no one else could."

Not being able be there made her feel as if she had wasted her time aspiring to be a middle-class citizen.

"If I had failed to earn the power and the freedom to be with my grandmother when she was meeting her end, then what had I really achieved at all?"

She stumbled across tagging, with her partner Liam Hindley, who worked with her on the Kieran Read mural.

"By writing my name on walls I could see a clear mark of myself on what seemed to be an otherwise alien and often unforgiving city."

A baby tiger Gardner painted on a wall in Grey Lynn. Photo / Supplied by Adore
A baby tiger Gardner painted on a wall in Grey Lynn. Photo / Supplied by Adore

She found it put the colour back into her life and helped her cope with the loss of her grandmother.

"When I was ready I painted my grandmother. Her portrait is up behind Bhana Brothers on Ponsonby Rd."

In the two years she's been painting, under her tag name, Adore, it remains the one she's most proud of.

"That was unrefined, unexpected - it just came."

And even as she came to terms with her grief, Gardner continued to paint.

"I wanted to paint powerful creatures. A peacock, a stallion, a tiger, a lion. I loved it."

Her tigers drew the attention of Tiger Beer and kick-started what has become a profitable career in the art world, with regular work with the company along with a range of private and other corporate clients.

Entering the art world is where, for now at least, Gardner feels she fits best.

"I feel a weird disconnect from the image I have with a spray can in hand as compared to the person I actually am: I like early bedtimes, I'm an avid consumer of science fiction, a Star Trek enthusiast, but I know I look a lot more daring and interesting when I'm sneaking around in alleys trying to paint something cool.

"It definitely looks more exciting than being a settlement officer for [a bank].

"I confess I miss some of those comforts but I would never go back in a million, billion years."

Gardner's portrait of the American singer Diana Ross. Photo / Supplied by Adore
Gardner's portrait of the American singer Diana Ross. Photo / Supplied by Adore