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NZ Herald: A new life carved out

Whatawhata-based artist Bino Smith has lived a wild life, from being a patched Mongrel Mob member for 11 years, to working on the sets of Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, developing a friendship with Sir Peter Jackson along the way.

Now, the Maori-Croatian artist is living a quieter life, concentrating on his art and selling his carvings for top dollar, both here and overseas.

“I always mucked around, doing different things. Like today I might paint, draw and do some carving. I can’t just stick to one thing. I get bored. I have to have at least five things on the go.”

Bino said although he joined the mob at 15, he was never a “typical mobster”.

“I was the mob artist. I carved their bulldogs and designed the patch for our chapter. And my brothers and sisters are all mobsters. But I’m the one that shouldn’t have been a mobster. I did all the things that you shouldn’t do. I had lots of mates outside the mob, which wasn’t allowed ‘cos that’s when you can get infiltrated. I got on well with the police, I never caused trouble, I eliminated it. My aunty always used to grab my cheeks and say ‘how’s your art going?’ I mean, I’ve been stabbed a few times. I should’ve died. But I didn’t.” Smith said he chose to leave the gang, and his family, behind to “discover himself”.

“I’d been wanting to leave for a few years, but one day I just thought ‘f**k it’. We had this meeting, and they were starting to drink and I thought I’d better do it now while they were all straight. So we finished our korero about what needed to be done, and they said is there anything else, and I stood up and just threw my patch on the table and said ‘I’m outta here’. And my brother looked at me and I just stood there waiting for someone to abuse me, or step me out, but then they just carried on doing what they were doing. I think they thought I was joking.”

After a short trip to Brisbane, Smith discovered a market for his pounamu and flew back to New Zealand to collect his things and say goodbye to his family.

“My mate rang me in Brisbane and said ‘bro, you’ve got to come work on this new movie, The Lord of the Rings’ and I was like what’s that? Never heard of it. But he was hassling me right through. So I rung him up and said I was coming home to Wellington, my marae is based in Wellington, Hongoeka Marae. I was going to see my elders and have a bit of a party then I was flying back out. I was flying in on the Friday and flying out on the Monday, and he said at least come out to the Miramar studio and have a look. So I decided to. And that was me. I’d already made my mind up. I’d never seen polystyrene carved before, I’d done everything but polystyrene. This was in 1998.”

But Smith said it was after a family tragedy seven years ago that left him wanting to delve deeper into his Maori heritage, moving to Hamilton and enrolling himself in Waikato University to learn to speak Maori.

“I carved my way right through uni, using stone, and doing drawing. Then I went to Te Runanga to finish it off, to do Rumaki, which is total immersion, and I guess that’s what I should have done in the first place. The uni is still very English. It’s just how it’s structured. So what you see on my Facebook page is everything I’ve done since then.”

Almost two years on, you will find Bino’s artworks in galleries around New Zealand, with the average price of his surfboard carvings around $4500. He also sells his contemporary Maori drawings and stone carvings at the Hamilton night markets.

“Only in the last three years I’ve actually thought ‘I’m good enough to be an artist’, whereas I’ve been told all my life. It’s surreal really.”

Originally published on the New Zealand Herald website, click here to view.