Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Gary Silipa, art gallery director

By Jennifer Dann

Glen Innes art gallery director Gary Silipa led a double life as a computer network engineer during the day and illegal graffiti artist at night until his addictions got the better of him.
Gary Silipa's art is his passion. Photo / Michael Craig
Gary Silipa's art is his passion. Photo / Michael Craig

1 What's the attraction of painting illegal graffiti?

The secrecy, the risk of getting caught, the creative control, and just being out at night - when you walk around in the day there's cars, people everywhere. At night it's a whole other planet. It's quiet, everyone's asleep. You feel alive and the world seems like one big playground.

2 How did you get into graffiti?

Growing up in Tamaki - Glen Innes, Pt England and Panmure - I saw a lot of tagging. You'd wonder who the person behind each tag was. As a teenager it felt natural to try it with my friends.

There were a lot of walls in the neighbourhood to paint - some with permission, some without.

3 Did you ever get caught?

I got arrested once when I first started tagging but I never lost a job over it. I studied computing at Auckland University and worked as a network engineer for Auckland Regional Council. There were times when I'd show up to meetings in boardrooms with paint all over my hands from being out 'til the early hours. They knew I was into spray painting but I don't think they really knew what was involved.

4 Why did you stop doing illegal graffiti?

I realised it had become an addiction. What was a passion became an obsession. Somehow it got twisted and consumed my thoughts. I couldn't sleep. At 2am, I'd hear a voice in my head saying, "What are you doing sleeping when you could be out painting?" I'd feel compelled to get out of bed, grab some paint and gap it. At the same time I was depressed and drinking a lot just to function. Even though I had an amazing job, it was not what I wanted to do. Everything seemed to boil up to a point one crazy night where I couldn't handle life any more. It was May 22, 2010.

5 What did you decide to do?

I chose to stop running from God. I needed to pick up my personal relationship with Jesus to figure myself out. I knew I'd have to give up my addictions if I was going to be honest with myself. But to give up graffiti meant I had to give up the identity I'd built. To give up drinking meant I had to face reality of the depression I was living in. I had to start figuring out who I was before I could do anything else. I've always been shy and thought that was a bad thing then I realised that some people are introverts. Learning to understand myself was a journey.

6 How did you rediscover yourself as an artist?

I had to start again from scratch. I tried to draw. I'd sit there with a piece of paper and a pencil - hours would go by and I couldn't draw a thing. I didn't know what I did outside of painting my name. I was just lost. It was like learning how to walk again.

7 How would you describe your art now?

My solo exhibition "Not to speak is to speak" at Fresh Gallery in Otara last year was based on a photo my friend took of a kid sitting in the laneway here in Glen Innes reading a book he'd found in the bin. I wanted to highlight child poverty in New Zealand. Sometimes I make art based on important issues, sometimes I don't. I'm enjoying experimenting. I really love spray paint. It's a medium I feel comfortable using, that defines my place in time with distinctive characteristics. I also like making art with objects used outside of their intended functions. I've reclaimed a lot of discarded materials.

8 When did you realise that art could be your career?

Art was my first love but I'd never thought of it as a career option. My parents emigrated from Samoa to give us the opportunity to go to university and get good jobs. I stuck around at the council for the amalgamation process. Connecting the IT systems of all eight councils was a massive job. Then I did a community leadership course through my church, Faith City in Manukau, where they asked "What are your dreams?" I vividly remember hearing a voice in my head that said it was time to resign. So I did. I had no clue how to make a living as an artist. I was pretty naive.

9 How have you survived financially for the last five years?

The first few years were really tough. It's been a really humbling experience. I sold a lot of stuff. I moved out of my one-bedroom unit into an art studio in an old factory in Onehunga with my friend Askew One. I also have some side hustles to make some cash - mainly IT contracting and painting houses. Last year I got a part-time job teaching art at the new Te Oro performing arts centre in Glen Innes and this year I got the opportunity to teach a paper at the Manukau Institute of Technology on painting outdoor murals. Preparing lectures and marking assignments was a lot more work than I'm used to but I learned a whole lot in the process.

10 How did you come to open a community art gallery in Glen Innes?

When I got the job at Te Oro it made sense to move my studio to Glen Innes. This space was a lot bigger than what I needed for myself so I spent a few months fixing the place up and last September opened the first art gallery in Tamaki. People still say to me how hard that is to believe.

11 Have you been able to exhibit many local artists at The Good, The Bad?

We've had eight shows in our first year and we've exhibited over 43 local artists. Before this gallery, local artists had to show their work in galleries outside our community which made it difficult for their families and friends to go. Now they can show their work where they live with support from their community. That's an amazing thing to be part of.

12 What are you doing for Artweek Auckland?

An outdoor mural project called Bradley Lane which I started with some friends in 2013. We've curated a series of murals in the laneways behind the main shopping centre in Glen Innes. We began with two walls and our own paint. From humble beginnings we've built it every year to the point where we've now done 10 walls, we've secured funding from the Mungakiekie-Tmaki Local Board and we're part of Auckland Art Week. The artists who have painted walls so far are Misery and her husband TomTom, Askew One and Elliot Francis Stewart, Haser and Berst from the international TMD crew, Beck Wheeler, Andrew J Steel, Dside and me. The feedback from locals has been massive. They think the walls look cool and the laneways feel safer to walk through.

• Artweek Auckland is in 10 neighbourhoods across Auckland from October 8 to 16.

- NZ Herald

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