By Tom Etuata, Digital Communicator – Museums Wellington
With mental health awareness week approaching, there’s a particular street in Wellington that has a unique piece of graffiti touching on this subject. A memorial that has lasted for more than 30 years.
Wallace Street in Mt Cook has a graffiti-based memorial located just opposite the old Wellington Polytechnic buildings (now the Massey University School of Music and Design). It’s a memorial to Ian Curtis, lead singer of the 1980s post punk English band Joy Division.
After enjoying a wave of success in the UK and even here in New Zealand (their song ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ reaching No 1), the band were just about to embark on a big tour to the US, when Curtis committed suicide in May 1980, after suffering a history of epileptic seizures, anxiety and depression.
Whereas Joy Division produced hypnotic minimalist beats – Curtis’ depressing lyrics painted a much darker picture. Despite his boyish looks, Curtis’ low baritone voice sounded more of a middle-aged man. He was only 23.
He became somewhat of a cult hero after his death, and his life and music continue to reasonate today – 39 years later.
The Ian Curtis memorial was painted and first seen on Wallace Street in 1981.
It read ‘IAN CURTIS RIP’ and over the years, other words have been added (the years Ian had lived, dates of his birth and death and the words “WALK IN SILENCE” – referring to one of Joy Division’s lyrics from the song ‘Atmosphere’).
The memorial had stood there from 1981 until 2009, when it was vandalised. Wellington City Council’s ‘Anti-Graffiti’ team decided to paint over it – which sparked an outroar from parts of the Wellington community, and it was immediately chalked back up.
Finally, in 2013 artists Maurice Bennett and Andrew Tamati repainted the memorial – adding Ian Curtis’ face to create the version that now stands today. It seemed to please the Council as it has not been covered up and is now sanctioned as a memorial.
It’s great to see the wall is now acknowledged and appreciated for what it is and although I like the new version, part of me will always be fond of the 1981 original. That version had a rawness and purity about it, the innocent bold lettering almost having a Colin McCahon edge to it.
As it stands across the road facing Massey University, the memorial is significantly positioned in a place many young people walk past every day – a solemn reminder that Ian Curtis was also a young person when he decided to shuffle off this mortal coil. Students can not only learn the unique history behind the painted memorial and tragic story of Ian Curtis, but also be aware of depression and the importance of well-being.
The words on the memorial ’WALK IN SILENCE’, in a weird, reversed-psychology sort of way – serve as a reminder of what not to do.
To not walk in silence.
To reach out to friends and family if you are, or know of, someone who’s experiencing mental illness.
As Ian Curtis sings in his low baritone voice during the last verse of the song ‘Atmosphere’…
Abandoned too soon
Set down with due care
Don’t walk away… in silence
Don’t walk away
(In memory of Lynette, Andre and Pua)
For a list of Mental Health services and where to get help, check out the Ministry of Health’s web page below:
and the Mental Health Week Awareness website: