Following the completion of the mural 'Us' at Vauxhall Primary School in Devonport, we caught up with Sparrow Phillips, the artist behind the brand Component. We chatted about growing in 80's Ponsonby, the influential teachers he had in high school, the balance of making art and making a living and the mural project as well.
endemicworld: Where did you grow up, and what were you like as a kid?Sparrow Phillips: I often try to remember what I was like as kid, because I have kids now. What was I like? So I grew up in this neighbourhood Ponsonby and Grey Lynn.
EW: What year was that?
SP: I was born in ’76 so it would have been the 80s. It's very different now to what it was like back then. It was really multicultural and different. So growing up, as a kid it was super fun. There were always things to do on the street and friendly neighbourhood people. I would ride my bike up and down Richmond Road.
Sparrow The Cowboy, age 5
EW: Were you creative as a kid?
S: I think so, yeah. I always wanted to be drawing, I was into that. Skateboarding was huge for me early on. I had this friend Ford, he lived on Hepburn Street and had a skateboard with awesome graphics on it and I was really excited by the art.
EW: Did that 80’s skateboard scene influence your style as an artist?
S: Yeah, definitely 80's skateboarding Jim Phillips, Santa Cruz, OJ Wheels, Powell Peralta all that stuff. The big black outline with heaps of colour and cool graphics, that was it.
Sparrow and his friend Ford, waiting for the school bus '92
EW: That kind of art access to art makes sense too, because it came along with that skateboard culture.
S: Yeah, it was really accessible. Skateboard graphics are, and we're, so bright. We'd go to the Cheapskate store and the art on the board was just in your face.
EW: That's cool right. These guys are skaters but they’re being creative with the art of their boards too.
S: Definitely. It was rebellious but fun and you're hanging out with your mates it's that camaraderie, that collectiveness. You talked about the art too, that was part of it.
Sparrow (middle back row) at Seddon High School '94
EW: What’s your background? Did you go to art school?
S: Nah, I just did high school. I went to Seddon High School, which is now Western Springs College. That's when I started to really kick in to art. My form teacher was the head of the art department Peter Coxon and he was really influential.
EW: Were you doing creative things outside of school?
S: Skating was still really big for me. I had a lot of friends who were naturally talented at drawing and I wasn't and I would practice but I was never as good as them. Then in sixth form I had a teacher Welby Ings, he taught design and media and he was game changing for me. He was this really innovative thinker and teacher and he taught me that you didn't have to draw really well to be good at art, you could combine design and art. He really just broke down all those rules, and I felt like I could try new things.
EW: When did your career as an artist start?
S: I think it was definitely at high school, the teachers were really encouraging of me and my art, because I wasn't very good at the other subjects. So I did photography, painting, and printmaking in seventh form as my bursary subjects.
EW: Had you decided at that point that you wanted to be an artist?
S: Yeah, definitely. The school curriculum had just changed so I was able to take those three art subjects for bursary and get University entrance, so I was really lucky that gave me a focus. The teachers were super encouraging, they told me I had the talent and was good at it. I got a C bursary and was really stoked, I felt really proud of myself.
Snowboarding in '96
EW: What did you do after high school?
S: So I left Auckland, went down to Wanaka with some friends, rented a house and I basically just snowboarded, it was great. Then around '94 I started thinking I better get my shit together and decide what I'm gonna do. I came back to Auckland, was working in the film industry and art still wasn't really on the radar. I worked in film for a couple of years and then I went travelling overseas.
EW: Where did you go?
S: New York City was the first stop which was amazing. Being 21 and in a city like New York was just unreal. One of my mates who lived there was going out with a famous model, they had this really dope apartment and all the Kiwis would go crash there.
EW: How long were you in New York?
S: I think like six weeks then my money just ran out and I was trying to get to Europe. I was kind of dating Helen (Sparrow's now wife) at the time and I had to ask her for money and it was really bad, because you know we weren't really together.
EW: Did you end up making it to London?
S: Yeah, I went to London after that for a bit. My friends had jobs lined up in France and I had missed out on that but I ended up going and just bunking with them. Like halfway through the [snow] season I got a job and I was snowboarding again. So snowboarding was the main focus, art wasn’t really on the cards at the time.
Sparrow and Les Bishop in NYC '97
EW: You must have been seeing lots of art in these cities though?
S: Yeah, New York was where I first saw graffiti properly, I'd seen it here and wanted to be part of that scene because of hip hop. That's something I didn't mention, hip hop was huge in my life right from the early days as well. I was right into music so I started DJing and New York was where I started buying records.
EW: CD’s would have been the thing in NZ at that time right?
S: Yeah, it was CDs. You could buy records but you had to order them from Marbecks and they were expensive. Records were cool because you got the album art too. Yeah, just everything about New York is amazing, the art, the culture, but I was only there for six weeks and then I had to leave because it spat me out, it was like ‘You got no money. You’re gone!’
EW: What was London like?
S: Yeah, London was cool, a lot of culture there too. Hip-hop, heaps of music the music culture was really big. I got to see Talib Kwali & Mos Def and that stuff live at music festivals and then Notting Hill Carnival in summer was just crazy. It was just so vibrant with so much more happening.
NYC hanging with Damon Ryker and Zane Lowe '97
EW: When did you come back to Auckland?
S: I came back in 2000, so I was only away for two years. You run out of money and it becomes hard and being away from home is hard too.
EW: Was the plan always to come back to New Zealand and stay?
S: Yeah, I was 23 at the time and I was really keen to come back to the family home here in Ponsonby and buy into that. I wanted to set up an art studio and set up my life. So I came back to Auckland and applied for art school, but all I had were my bursary boards because I hadn't really made any new art. And I didn't get in, I was fully rejected because I was considered an adult student at 25.
EW: 25!? That's still so young!
S: I know. I knew the daughter of one of the tutors and I got her guidance on what I should submit so I thought I had a chance, at least an interview but I didn't even get that. But around that time my friend had a computer that had fallen off the back of a truck, he wanted a thousand bucks for it so I bought it. That was when I started doing my art. I had the computer, I had a little bit of experience with Photoshop and had this bootleg version of it and I was ready.
Painting the streets of Auckland, 2007
EW: Did having that computer feel like you could try new things with art?
S: Yeah, it did. That's when I started getting into graffiti and street art. I wanted to do it because it was accessible. I’d seen street art happening overseas, Banksy in London, and was like, ‘Fuck, that's cool.’ I'd also always loved printmaking and from that started doing stencils. The graffiti crews here wouldn't let me into the graffiti scene, it was quite tight and you had to do heaps of groundwork. So I skipped that part and made my first stencil, sprayed it at the top of Richmond Road, then people in my circle started talking about it. It was so cool.
EW: What was it?
S: It was my mate Manuel Bundy, an image of him DJing.
EW: So people were talking about it but didn’t know it was you.
S: Nah, I snuck out and did it at night. It was super fun to see people were getting off on it.
Boba Fett in Melbourne, 2009
EW: Okay so what next? How old were you?
S: I was around 26 or 27 and I was doing a lot of dodgy shit to make money and it wasn't really sustainable. I did this business course through WINZ and I was able to get a ten grand business grant and I started a t-shirt printing business.
EW: What was the brand called?
S: Component, that's where the name came from. 2002 - Component was born. I did the Grey Lynn Park Festival and made like two grand. The next year, I printed like 40-50 t-shirts and made like six grand and thought I was the man, big pockets of money. At a young age I learned that there was money to made in t-shirt printing. So the next year I put all my money into the festival. I had five designs, all the sizes, had something stupid like five hundred t-shirts, thought I was gonna kill it and then the Grey Lynn Park Festival was cancelled. I saw the downside of business really quick and that brought me back to reality. But I kept going kept doing street art, that was always the goal to keep that going.
The Cut Collective crew (L-R Component, TrustMe, Enforce1, Peepshow)
EW: When did Cut Collective happen?
S: So around that same time I met The Cut Collective Guys (TrustMe - Ross Liew, Peepshow - Regan Vause, Enforce1 - Gary Yong) we had painted a few walls together in Wellington we did this gig called ‘All Together Now’ and we just really enjoyed working with each other and enjoyed each other's company. Back in Auckland we painted a few more walls together around Ponsonby and then we decided to get a studio together on K' Rd.
Cut Collective in Melbourne, 2009
EW: How would you describe your art style? And how did you come about it?
S: Bold and graphic, in that genre of street art. Those influences of skateboard graphics, graffiti, poster art, album cover art, I was influenced by a whole bunch of stuff really.
EW: The visual parts of skateboarding, music, those things you did growing up.
S: Yeah, skateboard graphics were a huge influence and then being young 21, 22 going to New York and London, seeing the mishmash of everything on the streets was cool. Artists like Banksy and OBEY they were huge influences. I love art with a message and the way that both those artists are subversive with their messaging I'm really attracted to that, it was always “we’re doing what we wanna do.”
'Balancing Act' skate decks, 2021
EW: How has your art style changed over the years? Has it changed?
S: I think so yeah. I still really enjoy stencil based stuff and street art, I’ll continue to go back there. But I'm doing more commercial work for clients now and I've adapted to that and brought in a lot of colour and geometric shapes. I'm really enjoying it. I never thought I'd do abstract work, in high school I never understood it and thought it was lame.
EW: That's just being young though.
S: I think your mind evolves, when you get older you just enjoy flat colour that means nothing but gives you a feeling. I’ve definitely matured in that sense, but I've definitely got a couple of strings to my bow which I'm happy about.. I really want to dive properly into the abstract stuff and give that a good shot.
EW: You get a real sense of pleasure from these new works of yours.
S: Yeah, totally. There’s that American light artist [James Turrell], his philosophy is that colour evokes a feeling and that feeling evokes a thought. Psychology around art really interests me. When I talk to people about my geometric pattern and they say there is something really satisfying about that pattern I like to think about it from a psychological point of view. What does pattern do to a person? I'm really interested in that.
'Us' mural at Vauxhall Primary School in Devonport, 2021
EW: Can we talk about the mural, how did that project come about?
S: The Vauxhall one? Yeah, so that one was a couple of years in the making, trying to get funding from the Ministry, from anywhere initially for an art based project. Then a teacher Louise Powells, she kind of took charge to get the funding. Vauxhall School is very art focused and I have always been involved with them even before my kids started going there. It was a cool way for me to feel connected to the school and give them a gift.
EW: What’s the meaning behind the mural?
S: It's called ‘Us’ which connects the school and the people involved with the school, but mainly the children. It's about them being able to own it and say 'This is our artwork.' I already had concepts from a project that fell through last year. I based it around these "soul-a-metrics", which represent the early stages of childhood development. So you have the early school - Miro, the middle school - Kowhai and the senior school - Kauri and Totara. We used these symbols to tie it all together. I got 21 students involved from year five and six, we ran a workshop where they learned how to cut and spray a stencil and then they picked their own colourways and I got them to paint a part of the wall.
EW: It looks great. You can see the time and care you’ve put into it.
S: Yeah, it's wonderful and really rewarding. A long process, it took three weeks to paint. It was at the end of a caretakers shed, not the nicest canvas to work on, that all had to be primed. I had two other people helping whenever they could. But now it's looks great, super colourful and bright. I think if you put 150% into a project you get the reward. It’s definitely not about money and as a full-time artist it's a challenging thing to commit to.
The 'Soul-a-metrics' design was included on each side of the mural and is very complex to paint.
EW: Has it ever been about money? Was there a point where you realised that maybe this wasn't going to be the career that would make you millions?
S: Definitely, in those Cut Collective days and when I was starting a business? I wanted to make money, you have goals. But to be honest, it's not about that now. But I still have responsibilities, I have a house with my wife Helen, I have two kids, I have two cars, I have a studio in the city, everything costs money. So, yeah I do want money, I need it for things. It's difficult being on that knife edge of trying to figure out how to have that balance. Why I do this though, it's not about financial gain.
EW: That goes back to your street art roots. It being mostly in public spaces, created for people to enjoy and that's the reward.
S: Definitely, I've always got such a kick out of putting my artwork on the street and seeing that positive reaction from people. That's just 100% satisfaction for me, it's such a great feeling and you can’t pay for that. The best things in life are not necessarily free, but they certainly aren't about money.
New works in the making. Ponsonby Road studio, 2021
EW: Do you think you want to do more projects like this mural?
S: Yeah I think so, I would definitely go in with more caution about the size and the surface. You need good walls, it's like having a good canvas. This one was awkward and had windows and downpipes and doors and stuff.
EW: Was it a good challenge?
S: Uhhhh, I don’t know if it was enjoyable. I do hope to do more of this kind of stuff. I know that I want to do more community based projects, working at a local school is definitely in line with that so this project was perfect.
EW: So what’s next for you?
S: Coming into winter do a bit more studio time. I have plans for more stencil graphic work and I really want to get more into the geometric work too. Yeah just studio time really, I also wanna release a new series of screen-prints too.
EW: Okay, last question? What are three words you’d use to describe your art?
S: Hmmm, that’s tricky. Graphic. Immediate. And connecting? Cool?
EW: Yeah, that's great. Thank you so much for your time.
S: Yeah, no problem.
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