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ian curtis
October 4, 2015 | by  | in Features |
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The Ian Curtis Memorial Wall, Wallace Street: An Investigation

When we moved to Wellington, we lived in a small hovel on Wallace Street in Mount Cook. Leaving our home, we would wander down to the Adelaide Road Countdown to buy mince, passing the series of murals on western Wallace Street. As we crested the hill, we’d come upon a large blue and black mural. It was imposing, sat confidently beside an odd neo-urban piece —“RIP Ian Curtis – Walk In Silence, 1956–1980”, it read. At first, we didn’t really give it much thought. But we continued to run out of mince, and the walk to Countdown became routine. Slowly, clumsily, we began to wonder about this curious tribute to a post-punk icon. What the fuck was this thing doing there?

Ian Curtis died in 1980 just before his band Joy Division embarked on a tour in support of their acclaimed second album, Closer. Curtis was a tormented figure—a depressive and a lifelong epileptic. He hanged himself in his kitchen on 18 May 1980. Curtis was an icon to a generation of disaffected youth in the Thatcher years; his mystique and popularity have only grown since. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, “Disorder”, and “She’s Lost Control” became anthems to swaying pallid youths in alienating post-industrial England and (clearly) the rest of the western world. We should say at the top: for our part, Curtis’s staunch brand has always been too much for us. Neither of us has been arrested and we both have jobs (for now). For us, Robert Smith’s flavour of Boys-Don’t-Cry sensitive alienation has always held more sway than the hard-nosed boot-wearing of the punk scene. That is: we aren’t active fans of Joy Division, just Interested and Aware.

One night, after another meaty bolognese, we stumbled upon a poorly-edited Stuff article about the memorial that seemed to hint (if Stuff articles are capable of “hinting”) at a long and interesting history. We learned the memorial was subject to a twenty-year to-and-fro between a small cadre of Wellington punks who would tirelessly repaint this thing every time the Council removed it. Stuff was unclear on how exactly this weird conflict began, nor how it ended up in this uncomfortable détente in which the WCC has let the thing be. We decided to investigate.

We learned there are two main phases to the wall’s history: the period 1981–2013, and the period from 2013 until today. Between 1981 and 2013, the Ian Curtis Memorial Wall was little more than a rugged “RIP”, painted and re-painted by a series of dedicated supporters. This was the stage we refer to as the “battle”—the period in which the Ian Curtis tribute would, again and again, be removed by Council officials, only to reappear days later in a slightly altered form. In 2013, Wellington artist Maurice Bennett organised a new memorial by Andrew Tamati Wright. This is the blue and black memorial we walked past with our mince and the one you can still walk past (with your mince) today. Although Bennett’s new memorial was arranged without Council permission, it has been left alone by the Council (and others) for the last two years. Obviously, questions remain. What drove this turn-based battle, and how did it end up at an uncomfortable dénouement?

One night, after another meaty bolognese, we stumbled upon a poorly-edited Stuff article about the memorial that seemed to hint (if Stuff articles are capable of “hinting”) at a long and interesting history.

And it is uncomfortable. Curtis is supposed be a symbol of everything the Wellington City Council’s maintenance and sanitation team is against. Curtis was a symbol for those who fought the Establishment—for those who ended up on the scrapheap of ruthless 70s capitalism. Has this icon of deindustrialised, hopeless communities become a sanitised, placatory totem? Why the hell is the Wellington City Council providing tacit endorsement to this anti-establishment martyr? By what process does the Council decide which outsider icons should be immortalised on Wallace Street walls?

The Fairfax hacks at stuff.co.nz didn’t seem to have uncovered much—they established Ian Curtis was a “lead singer” of a “gloomy Manchester post-punk band”. The bar was set low.

One thing in the Stuff articles had caught our eye: the creative comment from a Richard Maclean of the Wellington City Council. When tensions were at their peak in 2009, Maclean had said “Clearly our graffiti team are not big fans of Joy Division. One person’s punk art memorial is another person’s vandalism.” Later, in 2013, when Maurice Bennett was planning the newer, “sanitised” version of the memorial, Maclean said “In the tradition of the Curtis wall, the Council is happy to turn a blind eye”. Maclean’s views certainly seemed to have evolved over the last few years. We wondered where he sat now; the Council seemed a good enough place to start.

As we discovered, Maclean’s evolution has continued apace. We sent a tentative email from the Salient news account and ended up with some blindingly good stuff. In his first response, Maclean said he would hand us over to a “Clayton”, who he described as playing in the “fantastically good” Wellington band Beastwars, although he had “no idea whether Clayton is a Joy Division fan”. And he wasn’t done; “I’d guess that most people under the age of 20 (except those who went to Wellington High School) wouldn’t have a clue who Ian Curtis was…”

After an anxious wait, Clayton (of Beastwars fame) responded. Our circuitous route to some sort of answer continued. Clayton promised a response in the near future, and told Maclean (and, because we were privy to the email chain, us) he had a “framed poster of the Closer album above his bed.” We had ourselves a self-described “bit of a fan”. Surely Clayton would be able to provide the answers we needed.

We thought of the endless war described in Orwell’s 1984. Maybe the wall had always been sanctioned.

Unfortunately not. After yet more waiting, Clayton seemed to get cold feet; he palmed us off to the much more reticent Katie Taylor-Duke, who toed the Council line with disappointing loyalty. Taylor-Duke initially seemed keen on street art—“we love it,” she said; “it activates streets, adds colour, interest, reflects communities and tells stories about our city’s past, present and future.” Despite deeply-held reservations about the ability of streets to be “activated”, we decided to plough on. Katie answered our questions in full, but the Council wasn’t risking anything—they were playing it safe. We did learn some things, though:

  1. As a “general rule of thumb”, graffiti is classified as art created on others’ property without Council consent.
  2. The Council now officially sanctions the memorial: “it’s recognised as a memorial artwork that more formally reflects the heritage of the wall as a remembrance to Ian Curtis.”
  3. The Council does, occasionally, remove tagging from the mural.

Despite Taylor-Duke’s best efforts, almost all of our questions remained. There was no hint of irony in the Council’s conflicting positions: one day attacking the wall as a blight, the next removing tagging from the wall, now considered to “reflect communities and tell stories about our city’s past”.

We thought of the endless war described in Orwell’s 1984. Maybe the wall had always been sanctioned. Maybe the “battle” had been orchestrated by one of Taylor-Duke’s predecessors. Maybe it once suited the Council to wage war with this post-punk Goldstein. Maybe the “punks” were in on it. Maybe they, like Clayton, were Council employees. We didn’t know, and we were no “Closer” to finding out.

And yet, that doesn’t fit either. At least some council employees were clearly Joy Division fans and all were human. Richard, Clayton and Katie were nice. Clayton has a bed for Christ’s sake. He plays in a band. For his part, Maclean seems to hold an odd but endearing grudge against Wellington High School and his comments identify him as at least a bit of a larakin. These council employees were not agents of some shadowy surveillance state. They weren’t trying to manipulate us. At least if they were, they were doing a bloody good job.

And so, with low expectations, we moved to the second hit on our Google search. We found the wall’s Facebook page, a digital shrine to a real-life memorial descriptively titled “Ian Curtis Memorial Wall, Wellington, New Zealand”; a place where 700-ish Curtis fans can congregate and discuss Ian Curtis and his Wellingtonian memorial. A quick look at the group suggested most members were there to discuss music. The most recent post saw group members discussing their top ten Joy Division tracks, while just below someone had posted a link to Joy Division’s “Ceremony” on YouTube. There was some discussion of the wall, though; a bit further down members posted about the 2013 Bennett-Wright wall and, stretching back to 2011, we found some commentary on the battle between artists and the Council. We opened up a chat and sent out a clumsy opener to the site’s administrator. Could this be one of the punks? Maybe our correspondent would have personal experience of the battle.

As it turned out, we got a response from a man named Bede who told us he was at work. We were bemused. What was a committed punk doing in paid employment? We wondered if Richard and Clayton were running the group. Had our Orwellian fears proved correct?

In true punk style, Bede first apologised for his delayed response. After that, he really came to the party. Bede reckons “one of the great things about the wall is that this four piece band from Macclesfield could be paid tribute to just months after his [Curtis’s] death in a street in Wellington, New Zealand… This was 1980, there was no internet, nothing went viral and news doesn’t spread the way it does today.”

As it turned out, we got a response from a man named Bede who told us he was at work. We were bemused. What was a committed punk doing in paid employment?

Bede considers the wall much more than a simple memorial to Ian Curtis. He says the original artists “took it upon themselves to see this blank canvas on Wallace Street and in hindsight—make history.” Bede says for some, the wall represents the “power of the people”, while for others it is a “f**k you to authority”. He thinks “the wall has become a shrine of hope” for those who are “struggling out there not to give up. It also shows people that regardless of what obstacles they have to face in life, they can do something special that can live forever. That’s an important message.”

The wall clearly means a lot to Bede (and others in the group). The wall obviously exists as a powerful symbol for many people, and for many good reason. But as far as we were concerned, Bede’s tone was slightly too palatable. We don’t know many punks, but we’re led to believe they wouldn’t asterisks out their “fucks” over email.

We’d noticed something else on Bede’s page. Fans of the wall didn’t seem to agree about which was the “real” memorial: the rugged tributes or the new, toned-down, Council-sanctioned iteration. One commenter said of the new wall, “I think it’s bourgeoise crap that just means the middle-class wankers don’t paint over it daily.” But others loved the fresh new wall; a photo of the new mural had garnered 10 “likes” and one commenter described it as “awesome”.

Perplexed, we asked Bede for his view on the intra-punk disagreement. Bede was again conciliatory, telling us “I agree with both of them… Either way the wall is here to stay and that is all that matters.” But others disagree. Is permanence the goal for the Ian Curtis Wall, or was the impermanence of it kind of the point?  

With some trepidation, we messaged the fellow who castigated the new wall as “bourgeoisie crap”, one Tony Hitch. We wanted to know what those on the front line of the battle against the Council thought. Did they see any value in this new memorial? What was it like, creeping out in the dead of night to slick new paint on that mossy Wallace wall? Would Tony be able to tell us?

Hitch answered our questions and then some. He told us the new wall was “too corporate. Too acceptable. Too boring.” Tony was disgusted that “even the drips were painted on… WTF if you want some paint drips just drip some paint. FFS!”

It emerged that Tony isn’t just a supporter, Tony was one of the artists. Tony described painting the wall “with an old scrubbing brush… with paint stolen from a Council paint job.” He told us how he used to hide the paint “over at the polytech in the flax bushes and the scrubbing brush in a gutter above the garage down the street.”

Tony’s war stories didn’t end there. He says “At first people threw butts and abuse, but around 2011 I started not even wearing a hat and making a decision to try get arrested for tagging. Completely exposed and at all times of day.” Tony told us the Council never had the wall painted over for long. He said on only one occasion was the wall gone for more than 24 hours; when he went away for a week “over easter”.

Tony described painting the wall “with an old scrubbing brush… with paint stolen from a Council paint job.” He used to hide the paint “over at the polytech in the flax bushes and the scrubbing brush in a gutter above the garage down the street”.

Tony Hitch painted the Ian Curtis Memorial Wall between 2004 and 2013. He says he painted the wall “more than 50 times”. Hitch was only one of many who took up the mantle, and while we didn’t hear from any of the “originals”, he provided a lucid portrait of the pre-truce. Tony believes ardently in the original wall and when asked why he spent so much time painting and repainting the tribute, he responded simply “it deserved to stay.”

We also approached Maurice Bennett, the Wellington artist who organised the current iteration of the Ian Curtis Memorial. Bennett told us the wall is a Wellington “icon” and agreed to meet with us. Unfortunately, Bennett has been very unwell and had to cancel the appointment.

Bennett’s position can be found elsewhere. In 2013, when organising Andrew Tamati Wright’s interpretation of the memorial, Bennett paid homage to the originals. He said the wall was “sacred… it’s part of our city and a taste of what makes this city so great.” Bennett made it clear he has a love of Joy Division and that he wasn’t willing to wait for Council approval (though that has now been given).

From our limited interaction with Bennett, it is clear he is not the villain Hitch suggests. Bennett did not hope to present a “corporate” or sterilised version of Tony’s earlier efforts. Bennett, like the punks, seems motivated by a devotion equal and not entirely opposite to Hitch’s.

If you want answers, you’re in the wrong place. None of the avenues we explored provided clear direction; this is a human tale of misunderstanding, tenacity and accidental compromise. What started out as an effort to “get to the bottom” of the wall ended up somewhere off to the side.

The Battle of the Wall was not a sinister, Orwellian attempt to neuter revolution. We initially imagined a tale that spoke to the dialectics of control. Our early understanding was that the establishment replaced a jagged countercultural icon with a sterile compromise that offended none and pleased nobody. But Richard and Clayton at the Council are not Machiavellian agents. They are just a couple of people doing jobs, who are Joy Division fans like the rest of us. At one stage, they were told to oppose the memorial and (probably) reluctantly they did so. When they stopped receiving that direction, they happily allowed the wall to stand.

The wall was a human accident; the memorial a result unintended. There were clearly some “punks” like Hitch who refused compromise, and some who thought permanence was useful; throwing our friendly Council staff into the mix only complicates matters. So are we left with a shaggy dog tale par mediocre? Well, yes. But is that such a problem? This is a human story with mostly random shit happening and a resolution that may sit uncomfortably. What we once saw as the result we now understand as a result. Maybe Hitch will again take up arms and retrieve his paint from the flax. Maybe the Council’s position will shift again and Maclean will be forced to renege, sending the troops in to remove the hallowed memorial. Maybe all of this will happen and maybe none. All we know is that we were (and continue to be) wrong.

The Ian Curtis Memorial Wall just is.

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