Photo gallery: 'The Auckland Straight' - NZ graffiti artist Paul Walsh chats about our graffiti art scene & reveals his new memorial piece

A sign on the wall of Paul Walsh's Karangahape Road studio reminds him: "sleep, eat food, have visions".

The Auckland graffiti artist is dutifully tucking into a bowl of teriyaki tofu when I drop by his shared space just a stroll away from his latest striking portrait on the side of the Rockshop.

The late Queen of Soul - Aretha Franklin.

Paul Walsh with his Aretha Franklin tribute on the side of the Rockshop building on Karangahape Road.
Paul Walsh with his Aretha Franklin tribute on the side of the Rockshop building on Karangahape Road. Source: Luke Appleby/1 NEWS

Walsh's homage stares back at you kindly, with subtle hues of mint green harking back to the 1950s - Aretha's heyday.

Her eyes were the most important part, Walsh says, as he makes a minor touch-up between two spring showers. If you get the eyes wrong, everything is wrong.

The murals have become all too regular as music greats have passed away over the past few years.

A David Bowie mural on the side of the Karangahape Road Rockshop by Paul Walsh
A David Bowie mural on the side of the Karangahape Road Rockshop by Paul Walsh Source: Supplied

David Bowie. Prince. Dave McArtney. Leonard Cohen. Chris Cornell. Tom Petty - the list goes on.

Outside of musical tributes, Walsh describes his style as "pop surrealism", saying it can be seen adorning utility boxes up and down the country.

A Leonard Cohen mural on the side of the Karangahape Road Rockshop by Paul Walsh
A Leonard Cohen mural on the side of the Karangahape Road Rockshop by Paul Walsh. Source: 1 NEWS

A Prince mural on the side of the Karangahape Road Rockshop by Paul Walsh
A Prince mural on the side of the Karangahape Road Rockshop by Paul Walsh. Source: 1 NEWS

His boxes are decorated with everything from dogs in tan coats to space-faring sloths, and he's completed almost 60 now. More are lined up for the rest of the year.

Utility box works by Paul Walsh.
Utility box works by Paul Walsh. Source: Supplied

The locals adopt them, he tells me, and they become an intrinsic characteristic of otherwise "utilitarian" public spaces.

Utility box works by Paul Walsh. Source: Supplied

"In a city where there are huge billboards and advertisements and hoardings - there is a lot of public space which is colonised by commerce, and it's nice to have little parts of it which are colourful items for art's sake - and for no other reason than that," he says.

Utility box works by Paul Walsh Source: Supplied

His work features strong themes of animals and the natural world. He sometimes draws inspiration from internet memes, he says, and always tries to remain apolitical in his public works, so as not to exclude anyone from it.

Utility box works by Paul Walsh.
Utility box works by Paul Walsh. Source: Supplied

Walsh is a rare breed - a fully-professional artist who now makes the entirety of his living from commissions or selling his work.

He was first inspired by M. C. Escher, with block prints of the Dutch artist's work adorning his childhood home - a gift from his absent father.

He recently passed the gift on at the other end of K Road in the form of a large homage to Escher's 'Hand With Reflecting Sphere' - complete with a nosy bystander reflected in the petanque ball held in his hand which he used to work from.

Paul Walsh's M. C. Escher tribute on Karangahape Road.
Paul Walsh's M. C. Escher tribute on Karangahape Road. Source: Supplied

The silicone graffiti protection applied over all of Walsh's works has done its job here too - "stink" has been written in crude red lettering by some midnight critic - but it's no match for a quick rub from the amused artist.

The piece shares the corner of a car park with a large, dominating work by Andrew J. Steel - a twisted mass of his signature human forms spread thickly across a building.

"It's sort of saying: I'm here too," Walsh says. He's never spoken to Steel.

During the mid-to-late 90s, Auckland property owners endured a wave of graffiti plague fuelled by the global proliferation of American hip-hop culture.

A portrait of hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar by Paul Walsh.
A portrait of hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar by Paul Walsh. Source: Supplied

Walsh's artistic talent bloomed both before and during that period, over many nights spent adding his own "weird characters" to his friends' tags and bombings.

The alley on Cross Street near Karangahape Road is a regular haunt for taggers and graffiti artists, Paul Walsh says.
The alley on Cross Street near Karangahape Road is a regular haunt for taggers and graffiti artists, Paul Walsh says. Source: Luke Appleby/1 NEWS

Auckland has its own graffiti "accent" he tells me, often described as the "Auckland Straight" - a slightly diagonal orientation and subtle curve applied to vertical lines. He shows me examples among a mass of tags and "slap-on" stickers in a messy alley at the back of Cross Street, off K Road.

Paul Walsh with an example of the "Auckland Straight" graffiti accent - seen here on Cross Street.
Paul Walsh with an example of the "Auckland Straight" graffiti accent - seen here on Cross Street. Source: 1 NEWS

A work van for the nearby Asian supermarket bears the scars of an adolescent artist who hasn't yet found the difference between damage and design.

The work van of the Lim Chhour Asian supermarket has become a part of the art on Cross Street.
The work van of the Lim Chhour Asian supermarket has become a part of the art on Cross Street. Source: Luke Appleby/1 NEWS

Walsh gestures to various works on the often-repainted walls, calling out names and interpreting the glyphs for me - some of them are friends of his, unable to return and fend off the encroachment of less-developed artists.

He's been called "New Zealand's Banksy", but Walsh spurns that title. He stayed well clear of January's exhibition in Auckland, saying it was nothing but a "blatant cash grab by his former manager".

Unsurprisingly, his favourite music is hip-hop, with the 90s being his "golden era". When he paints, though, he listens to something else.

Street artist Paul Walsh
Street artist Paul Walsh. Source: Luke Appleby/1 NEWS

"I actually listen to podcasts more than anything - simply because it's a lonely job - five hours up against a wall," he says.

"It's nice to have someone talking in your ear.

"But when I'm painting the memorial pieces, I'll listen to the artist that I'm painting."

Leonard Cohen was hard going, he said.

"But Aretha was fun ... I was dancing."

Paul Walsh is due to be a part of the Foliage exhibition at Art Week beginning in the second week of October.

Walsh has just finished his Aretha Franklin tribute mural – the latest in the line of recognisable works. Source: 1 NEWS