After a contested history, graffiti is finally coming of age
Graffiti artists have been used to being chased away by city authorities, but the tide is turning, especially in Johannesburg, where the city is working with the artists
Since its emergence in the US in the 1960s, graffiti has been regarded as controversial at best and a crime at worst. Its practitioners are pursued by municipal authorities who regard their work as vandalism and pass and enforce by-laws to clamp down on it.
But an appreciation for graffiti is growing around the world and cities from New York to Johannesburg have begun collaborating with the artists.
The philosophy underpinning the work of graffiti artists lies outside the realm of mainstream culture, and the practitioners work as an underground sub-culture with codes of conduct. However, they have always contended their work is public art and, like other art forms, deserves to be tolerated if not appreciated as a public good..
They argue that it is the purest form of art as they do not seek fame nor financial reward. Most graffiti artists work anonymously or use pseudonyms.
Earlier in October Johannesburg hosted local and international graffiti artists at the City of Gold Urban Art Festival. A hipster haven and student village in Braamfontein were adorned with beautiful murals that will charm even the most conservative citizens. Dark and neglected alleys were dramatically transformed into inviting and colourful cityscapes.
The festival was sponsored by the corporate sector and institutions, and the City of Johannesburg surrendered some walls of its buildings to the graffiti artists.
The enthusiastic, mostly tattooed, artists worked hard, individually and in groups — or crews, in graffiti speak — to turn unsightly walls into works of beauty.
Festival sponsors included Nissan, Excelsior Paints, Kwick Access Rentals, Once Hotel, the Goethe Institut, Pro Helvetia, Past Experiences, Academy Bushware and Prime Art.
According to Rasty, a tattooed figure who dropped out of a philosophy degree programme to pursue the art of graffiti in the 1990s, and fellow graffiti artist Jester, the brains behind City of Gold Urban Art Festival, the event attracted leading artists from the UK, Serbia, the US and Switzerland.
“Graffiti is starting to be rightly respected and appreciated by the public and, encouragingly, the attitude of the authorities is starting to change and relax — particularly in Johannesburg, which has now become the capital of graffiti in SA,” Rasty says.
“Cape Town used to be the capital of graffiti in SA, but in recent years the City of Cape Town has introduced retrogressive by-laws targeting graffiti.”
Rasty says there are two ways of practising graffiti: illegally and legally. In Cape Town, graffiti artists used to be able to practise their art with permission from building owners. But now they are also required to get the city’s permission.
“In Cape Town, even when granted the permission, you need to carry that letter on you while painting on the wall, otherwise the police will arrest you,” Rasty says. “Anyway, whether permission is granted or not, artists will paint, and that way it becomes out of control.”
He believes graffiti plays a big role in tourism, as visitors often understand a city better by looking at its graffiti. Around the world, artists are making their mark with social and political commentary that resonates with the public. The money is slowly rolling in too, with artists getting commissions do corporate work.
In Johannesburg, a mural of veteran musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka by famous Portuguese artist Vhils went up, as well as Shadow Boxer, a 40m-high mural of Nelson Mandela by Ricky Lee Gordon — both in Maboneng.
On the corner of Juta and De Beer streets in Braamfontein, a gigantic mural of Mandela, commissioned by Hennessy, is titled The Purple Shall Govern, in reference to a famous Cape Town protest in the late 1980s.
“The problem is that these big commissions are done by overseas artists and not local graffiti artists, which is not fair. Perhaps we should organise crowd-funding to enable local artists to create big works too,” says Jo Buitendach, whose tourist guide company Past Experiences organises graffiti tours around Johannesburg.
Her master’s degree thesis in archaeology was based on the value of political graffiti.
The world’s most famous graffiti artist, who goes by the pseudonym Banksy, became influential because of his social and political commentary, often ridiculing politicians and big business.
He has more than 2-million Instagram followers and, according to the Financial Times, is worth $30m. People scour buildings to identify his work and remove it from walls for sale on the art market. People who salvage them, such as New York art dealer Stephan Kesler, make a fortune. Graffiti is coming of age.