Paint the Town
We meet local artist, Owen Dippie.
After making his mark around the world with his arresting, diverse artworks, we catch local legend Owen Dippie while
he's back at home in Mount Maunganui.
Owen Dippie likes to be behind the scenes so you might not recognise his face, but once you’re familiar with his ‘OD’ tiki icon, you’ll start noticing his larger-than-life murals everywhere.
Owen’s been taking classic portraiture to the streets of New Zealand and abroad for more than
a decade, and has the international accolades (including The Huffington Post’s ‘Best Mural’) to
show for it. “I wouldn’t call myself a street artist,” he says. “I’m just an artist. I don’t necessarily fit
into a certain genre.”
After years of bouncing between Tauranga, Auckland, New York, LA and Europe, Owen and his
wife Erin (who’s also his manager) have returned to the Mount to put down roots. “I do the art but Erin’s also a creative,” Owen says. “She organises my life and she’s amazing behind the camera.”
“I photograph all his work, which can be tough in the busy streets of New York — we only have a
very small window to get it right!” says Erin. “People say it’s not a good idea to work with your partner, but we love it. I handle all the details as Owen can be very elusive — you won’t see him until he’s on the job, and even then, he’s up the boom lift, getting to work.”
Owen was born and raised in Kawerau. “It’s a beautiful place and I’m proud to have grown up there. Most people from the Bay grew up on the beach but I was a river kid. And I’ve always been into art
— I remember Mum framing some of my artwork when I was young and feeling so proud. I then got to high school and art was all I wanted to do — so it was a gift and a curse. I left school at a young age and went to art school in Auckland.”
It was in Auckland he started dabbling in street murals and realised he’d found his calling. Other people started noticing, too — so Erin teamed up with him as his manager, which allowed Owen
to focus solely on the creative side.
“We owned a gallery on K Road for two years and Owen did show after show — it was a really cool time in our lives,” says Erin. “We then moved to New York, which is a place you either love or hate.
We loved it, of course. We even got married there.”
“It’s like a movie,” adds Owen. “I love all the graffiti, then you’ve also got MoMA and the Met.
I’ll go over for months at a time on a crazy painting bender. Travel has taught me that I can live in New Zealand but work internationally, so if an opportunity comes up, we’re more than happy to
just jump on a plane.”
Owen’s collaborated with big names over the years (including G-Shock watches and the All Blacks), but he’s “not exactly an artist for hire”. He really enjoys community-based projects, like his latest piece, Elijah, at Baywave. “We love working with a community to find a local subject, like Elijah
— he’s the coolest little dude who swims at Baywave with his family. This was my first New Zealand project in more than three years, so I’m stoked it was at a place that’s special to so many people.”
With such a high level of detail in his work, it’s hard to believe Owen’s weapon of choice is a humble can of spray paint. “When I was young, I learnt to oil paint, so I apply the same rules to create depth and layers with spray paint.
“I’ve always loved pop culture, so I taught myself how to do portraiture by sketching the celebrities and musicians on my CD covers. The good thing about spray paint is that you can paint over it
if you make a mistake. But with things like eyelashes, I’ve only got one shot.”
“He gets it right every time because he studies the photos — and I mean studies them,” Erin says.
“He can paint his subjects in his sleep.”
He’s particular about who he paints, too. He gets a lot of portrait requests, but no one is ever
random — they have to have a connection, whether it’s a celebrity he admires or a childhood mate.
“I establish a bond with my subjects, which is easy because they’re generally my friends. Some of them happen to have beautiful tā moko, which is something I love to showcase internationally.”
Many of Owen’s most famous murals overseas are self-funded passion projects that he gifts to
the community. “If I get paid for a mural, I’ll then go and do three free ones,” he explains. “I’ve got
so many ideas in my head; I can’t sit around all day waiting for commissions!”
“If we see a space we like, we try to go direct to the owner of the building,” adds Erin. “Owen will
often come up with a design based on a particular wall. And because he has such a great reputation, especially in New York, people trust him to just go ahead and do what he does best.”
Trips to New York may seem glamorous, but the reality for Owen is long days and hard work.
“We try to cram as much as possible into a trip, so I’ll work all day, every day until I lose the light,”
he says. “Heights don’t bother me so much because I’m used to going up on these crazy boom lifts
— I learn to just zone out, even if I’m freezing in New York or battling 40-degree temps in LA.”
It’s not just the elements he has to deal with but also the community itself.
“Sometimes it’s not the safest situation, but there’s usually heaps of positive engagement. My favourite part is talking with people as I work and meeting them on a real level. You never know
how they’ll react, but that’s art on the street — it’s like life itself; you get the good and the bad.”
Take the Biggie (aka The Notorious B.I.G.) and Alfred Hitchcock mural in Brooklyn, for example.
“This was self-funded — I’d always wanted to showcase these two master storytellers together.
It was painted in Brooklyn where Biggie grew up and I couldn’t believe the love these people have for him. They’d even bring me food and coffee.
“The best thing about street art is that it becomes part of the community — people don’t need to know the story behind it to appreciate it. Like Robin Williams in Chicago, people love it and say it’s such a happy mural, but there are some sad undertones about what goes on in someone’s head.”
Owen’s ballerina at the back of the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch has also touched thousands. “I painted this after the earthquake at a time when Christchurch was feeling really down. This job showed me how healing art can be. Like the ballerina herself, this painting is symbolic of the city preparing to rise into something beautiful. It doesn’t matter that it’s now partly hidden by new buildings — it’s the feelings I had when working amongst the people that I hold on to.”
Now he’s back in the Bay, Owen says he’s trying to get used to the “nine to five” of setting up his private studio in the Mount. “I’ve never had a space like this before — it’s a big warehouse where
I can get busy working on my new show.”
When I ask him about the show, he laughs and says “I’ve learnt a skill of not giving a timeline.
All I’ll say is it will be the biggest show I’ve ever done. Everything in my life, artistically, has led
me to this point.”