How NZ artist Owen Dippie discovered a tumour below his brain

Owen Dippie's striking murals cover walls around the country – and his work overseas has made waves – but a gruelling health battle threatened to take it all away. Here, in part one of a two-part series, he tells his story for the first time.

If doctors hadn't found his tumour, Owen Dippie would have lost his sight at best; at worst, it could have taken his life.

He told 1News: "The problem is, there's a little thing between the brain and the nasal cavity called the floor which is a couple millimetres. If it grows into that, that's when it's very tricky to operate on."

The Kiwi creative is opening up about finding out he was living with a 4cm mass sitting dangerously close to his brain, and the journey to recovery as he questioned if and for how long he'd be able to continue sharing the vivid pieces of work which he is known for.

Growing up, Dippie was pulled towards art. He knows kids like to be creative, but remembers how people would make a big deal about his work and encourage him to keep going.

When his mum framed one of his drawings, Dippie decided to take it more seriously.

He said: "It felt insane to see that."

At eight years old, he was taught how to do oil paintings by an artist who he spotted working on a mural at Putauaki Primary School in Kawerau.

He said: "During playtime, kids would be off running, and I'd just sit and watch this dude create this art. I was just obsessed with it.

"I went home and told my parents about it and they contacted him and got me to go to his house a couple times a week to learn how to paint. That went on for years."

Owen Dippie is opening up about his health journey after doctors found a tumour under his brain.

Dippie says the man became his art master. As a traditionalist painter, sometimes the pair would just spend lessons mixing colours.

"He'd say 'look at that mountain' and then mix up all the greens. Unless I had the greens right, I couldn't paint. It would have been boring to most kids, but it was amazing."

By the time he got to high school, nothing else mattered but art. Dippie had no passion or interest for subjects, with the exception of graphics which he passed without using any rules or theory.

He said: "It was a gift and a curse."

Eventually, someone passed him a spray can and Dippie began transforming huge walls into displays of creativity.

Dippie explained: "People always say I'm a street artist, but I'm a painter. I was an artist before I learned how to do murals on the street."

He started getting commissioned for pieces not just in New Zealand, but around the world.

Among the themes Dippie explores in his pieces, he holds shining a light on mental health close to his heart. Moving work in tribute to the sudden deaths of comedian Robin Williams and Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington gained vast attention.

The work garnered interest around the world, with fans travelling hours to visit his murals.

His wife Erin often goes with him and works alongside him as his manager. The couple were married in 2013 after meeting three-and-a-half years earlier, settling in Auckland.

The Kiwi painter's murals cover walls around the country and the world, including this one on Upper Queen Street overlooking the Southern Motorway in Auckland.

After spending a year overseas in 2018, the couple moved to Mount Maunganui for a change and to be near Dippie's family.

While they were there they began to slowly feel pressure to have children.

He said: "I guess you get to a certain age and people don't even ask 'if' you're going to have kids, they ask you 'when'. I don't know if it was living in a smaller community but it almost felt like you were inadequate or you weren't living up to your full potential if you didn't have a kid so we decided to look at starting a family."

At the time Erin was going through some health issues and was deemed a high-risk pregnancy. Fertility specialists decided to run a series of tests, not just on her but Dippie too.

When his test results came back, doctors initially couldn't believe what they were seeing.

"Mine came back with alarming levels of this thing called prolactin in my blood," he said.

"Initially it was so high they thought it was a mistake within the pathology lab. Normally prolactin in a healthy male is like 400 micrograms per litre, give or take.

"Mine was 36,000 so they were like 'this is a mistake'. They did it again and it came back at 38,000 – that's when I was referred to an endocrinologist at the hospital. That's when all the scans started."

Doctors went looking for a prolactinoma which causes high levels of prolactin and decreased levels of testosterone in men.

Dippie is behind a number of incredible portraits including a tribute to the late Chester Bennington.

They didn't find any masses in the pituitary gland where they expected it would be but they discovered a tumour in his nasal cavity just below his brain in October 2020.

He may have been born with it or it could have developed before his teenage years.

For months he waited before a biopsy could be performed to determine what it was.

He said: "They didn't know if that was what was producing these levels but they needed to do a biopsy of it so these doctors told me I had a tumour just below my brain, and automatically your mind just goes tumour, cancer, so for about five months I was thinking the worst."

Dippie went in for a standard biopsy in March 2021, but when the surgeon cut into the tumour, it began bleeding and wouldn't stop.

"They had to keep removing the tumour. It got quite dangerous given the proximity to the brain, so they had to stop."

Because of the tumour's unusual position, there was a lot of interest from medical staff.

Dippie said: "I had a whole team around me figuring this thing out."

His wife had a nervous wait trying to figure out why his hour-long surgery had taken around five.

Erin said: "Nobody could explain to me what was going on. I couldn't do anything. You prepare yourself for an hour and when it isn't, you think there's a problem or something's happening. They told us it was a simple procedure, but it didn't turn out to be."

Once he was discharged, Dippie couldn't lie down to sleep or bend over for six weeks as he recovered. He'd have to sit in bed upright and needed help getting dressed or putting his shoes on.

On the few occasions he wasn't able to avoid it, he'd leak brain fluid through his nose.

"It was a nightmare," he said.

The diagnosis triggered Dippie to confront questions about himself he'd always wondered about.

After the initial surgery it was a few months before he could draw again, and he started slowly sketching at home before he had the strength to return to his studio.

Dippie wasn't physically strong enough to paint murals so they had to be put on hold while he regained his energy, but he wasn't himself for about eight months.

Tests from the parts they took revealed the tumour was non-cancerous and confirmed it was a prolactinoma growing in a space never seen before.

Almost a year to the day later, the rest of the tumour was removed in March 2022 with a specialised machine to map his brain to assist surgeons during another five hour surgery.

He's got no sinus anymore and they took bones out of his face to be able to reach the difficult places it had reached.

The couple also learned they wouldn't be able to have a baby of their own.

He said: "I discovered ultimately I couldn't start a family, and it's okay."

Having to deal with that finality saw his mental health take a turn – and the emotional rollercoaster forced him to ask big questions he had about himself he'd tried to ignore.

With the support of his wife Erin, Dippie is now back creating new works.

For a long time, Dippie had felt like his brain was wired differently to other people's.

He turned to professionals in search of answers and ended up finding out he has ADHD and OCD.

Erin says her husband is "completely different" and "more outgoing" now the tumour is out and he knows more about how his mind works.

Dippie says it felt like he got answers to big questions he had about himself, and acknowledges the tumour played a part in helping him get there.

He explained: "This whole journey has been something of crazy self-discoveries and truths and realisations. I was always thinking 'why am I like this?'

"It's like you're told you're not normal, then you realise the last thing you probably want to be is normal when you do more research about it.

"It makes perfect sense. It's like a lightbulb moment when you find out about it."

Now on the other side of his health battle, understanding himself better, he's trying to move forward with a new outlook.

The experience rang home how short life can be and taught him not to sweat the small stuff.

He said: "Just being present in the moment. We get so worried about stuff that doesn't even matter – especially me with my ADHD. I can really worry about everything and anything.

"The biggest thing about the journey has been I've had to let go of perfection because I'm always trying to chase it, and it's impossible. Now, the art is so much more natural and it's so much better."

Hoping others take away something about the hidden struggles others can be facing, Dippie said: "You never know what other people are going through and we all learn to put on a brave face. Be as nice as you can because everyone is out there going through something."


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