National | Arts

Te Arawa artist sets new record painting NZ's largest mural

Te Arawa artist Laken Whitecliffe has achieved a new record by painting the biggest mural in Aotearoa.

The 12-storey-high painting is on Huia House in Grafton, Auckland. Whitecliffe describes it as a visual representation of the beauty of Aotearoa, featuring huia, tui, a Pohutukawa tree, butterflies and a sunset over an ocean.

“It's talking about creation and life and the beauty of New Zealand and reflecting that beauty in the streets... tying in Ranginui, Papatūānuku, Tangaroa and Tāne Mahuta, Whitecliffe says.

The inspiration for the mural came from a charity auction fundraiser for Mercy Hospice, the home that cared for his own father in his dying days.

During the auction, Whitecliffe asked for the audience to bid on a mural that he would make, on the biggest building they have available. A heated bidding war ensued and Ted Manson won by donating $22,000 for the mural.

The building that was selected was made with the patients and staff of Auckland Hospital in mind.

“The idea, especially with Mercy Hospice, was how artwork can be kind of serving for people in pain, rather looking out over a grey city.”

Covid delayed the mural, but as soon as he could, Whitecliffe was back at it with house paint and brushes. It took 34 days to complete.

“I was on three different swinging stages so that was also difficult trying to like line them all up from different angles. It was scary at first, but it gets a lot easier as you go.”

Laken has left his distinctive signature around across the globe and he’s often doing it for charities like Refugees As Survivors or the Breast Cancer foundation.

“It was always so much more fulfilling when I could give back," he says.

“When you actually feel like you're making a difference, as well as the visual difference to the city, it's just like a double hit.”

During his travels around the world, Whitecliffe has seen how murals have transformed cities. He’s determined to do the same for Tāmaki Makaurau and wants the city transformed into an art gallery.

“There's great artwork and museums but how incredible it would be when you walk down the streets and rather than advertising, you just see beautiful artwork everywhere and big scale ones. Because that's been the frustrating thing, that there are not many larger-scale projects in New Zealand. They're very small.”

Auckland Council spends around $4 million each year removing graffiti. But Whitecliffe is urging the council to approach things differently. Instead of penalising graffiti artists, he wants to help train them to paint murals instead.

“All the people who are in control of budgeting have never made public artwork so they don't know how to do it. And it's like, well, you've got the resources. I'm one. There are many other artists who can put it down into a system where it can actually happen.”