Terry Parkes thinks he is the only person with a Wind Wand tattoo.
“No-one else would be stupid enough,” he says.
The hotelier and staunch arts advocate got inked in 1999 after announcing, during a televised fundraising event for the sculpture’s construction, he believed the Wind Wand would be New Plymouth’s new landmark, surpassing Mt Taranaki.
“I said I was that committed to it, I’d get a tattoo. In about 10 minutes thousands had been committed so I had to get a tattoo.”
The next week he followed through – the red wand takes up the length of his upper left arm.
But he didn’t quite get the entire sculpture.
* The Len Lye Centre: From boring to exemplary
* Lightning hits Taranaki home during spectacular electrical storm
* Lightning strikes coastal art structure and New Plymouth port chimney
* Six waving wands to be installed along New Plymouth Coastal Walkway
“The tattooist was going to put a base on it but it hurt so much I thought ‘f… that’.
“When I’m laying on the beach in Portugal or somewhere people will come up to me and say ‘look we’ve been looking at your arm, what’s with the lollipop?’ because it looks so odd without the base at the bottom.”
While the 45-metre-tall kinetic artwork may not have replaced the mountain as New Plymouth’s most prominent landmark, most people would find it hard to imagine the city without it now.
But 20 years ago the mere thought of it getting installed made many residents’ blood boil.
People were up in arms saying what a waste of money it was, what an eyesore it would be, and how it would never attract people to the region.
The project was proposed by John Matthews, a friend of Len Lye and creator of the Len Lye Foundation, as a Millenium project costing $300,000 to make.
Two thirds was fundraised for and the final $100,000 came from the New Plymouth District Council (NPDC).
Former New Plymouth mayor Peter Tennent remembers the day Matthews came to council with the idea.
It was the last council meeting of 1998 and Matthews came in, drew a picture of a stick with a light on it and told the councillors about Len Lye and what a fabulous project it would be for the city, Tennent says.
The councillors told Mathews if he could raise $200,000, council would front up with the remaining $100,000.
“In those days there used to be a fish ‘n’ chips night where all the partners would come in and join us after the last meeting, so all the partners were waiting outside while we’re having this discussion.”
Tennent says if you tried to take the Wind Wand away now you’d get shot, as it is part of what makes the region special.
“I’ve heard stories of people who have never had the courage to propose to the love of their life but they go and touch the Wind Wand, ask the person to marry them and they say yes and credit the Wind Wand.
“Folk who have never won Lotto and then touch the Wind Wand and win $30. You don’t buy a Lotto ticket to win $30 but they credit the Wind Wand.”
However, not every councillor was on board with the idea, Heather Dodunski led the charge against it, saying few people wanted it.
She had always opposed it and believed the old council had a rush of blood to the head when it backed the project originally.
Dodunski wasn’t alone in her views, the Taranaki Daily News was bombarded with letters to the editor with readers articulating their distain for the project.
“What an idiotic, shameful waste of ratepayers’ money. It is a monument to stupidity and arrogance. It will not bring visitors to our city. It will only bring us ridicule,” one reader wrote.
Another said they had never seen such a ludicrous, long, lacklustre, limp, lethargic, Len Lye lamp-post in their life.
But the constant flack didn’t deter the man spearheading the project. Matthews has lived with controversy all his life.
“It was such a contentious project before it went up, there was a lot of discussion and debate and a lot of angry people who couldn’t see the point,” he says.
When Matthews went to council with the idea “a number of councillors thought it was a safe bet because they never thought I’d get the money,” he says.
But soon enough he secured funding from the Government’s Millenium Fund and had great pleasure going back to council saying ‘we’ve got the $200,000 so we want your $100,000’.
When the Wind Wand eventually went up, mini versions popped up everywhere after a competition was run for the best replica in the region, of which Matthews says there were many humorous ones.
“The one I really remember was a bamboo pole with a Red Band gumboot on the top. The change in public opinion was an interesting experience.”
Today Matthews feels a great deal of satisfaction driving past the sculpture.
“Len would be delighted, he would be rejoicing, he would be saying ‘holy smokes’ and thanking New Plymouth.”
Former Taranaki Daily News journalist Virginia Winder remembers the launch night vividly – she won the lottery to turn it on at exactly 12am on January 1, 2000.
Winder and husband Warren Smart got tickets in their Christmas stocking in 1999 and when she won he was less than impressed because he really wanted to do it.
Smart got to join in on the fun though, with the couple and their two children getting to the event in a limousine while sipping on Moet champagne.
“It’s the thing I use when doing ‘things you don’t know about me’ – I turned on the Wind Wand.”
But only weeks after its launch, winds of 74kmh saw the top half of the 1.5m-diameter sphere, which contains the red bulb, break free. It got fixed though and was made more resilient.
It led Winder’s friends to tease her about jinxing it when turning it on.
“I had Wind Wand anxiety and used to watch it from my gazebo, scared it would happen again.
“Everybody hated it in the lead-up but when it broke everyone was devastated.”
Despite its controversial life, the Wind Wand has become a Taranaki icon.
Venture Taranaki acting chief executive Pam Walkin says it has been used extensively in the region’s marketing activity in the last two decades, most recently as one of a number of Taranaki-themed stickers people can use on their photos and videos of the region on Instagram.
“While it was keenly debated at the time, it has grown to become a symbol of Taranaki’s innate spirit of innovation, our rich culture, and the energy that is at the heart of our region.”
Evan Webb, who works with the University of Canterbury engineering school to bring the artist’s works to life and is the director of the Len Lye Foundation, was among the team who built the sculpture.
First they built a 10m Wind Wand, then a 25m one, which now lives on Matthews’ property, and finally the 45m Wind Wand that sits on the Coastal Walkway.
“Dave Marks constructed it from hand and in order to do so he had to walk up and down the length of the wand constantly. We estimated by the end of it he had walked from New Plymouth to Auckland and back.”
The Len Lye Foundation guaranteed the sculpture, which is made of fibreglass, for seven years until NPDC took responsibility for it.
But it won’t last forever, Webb says.
“At some point it will have to be decommissioned and hopefully another one built.”