By: Natasha Archary
Some call it art, others refer to it as vandalism. Graffiti has always been a contentious topic in South Africa, with many viewing it as an early sign of a degrading neighbourhood. To “conservative” surburban folks, graffiti is unsightly, a gateway to further crime and urban disintegration. But there is beauty in free art and it can be a tool to effect social change.
The powerful, symbolism behind most public art is phenomenal. You don’t need to be an artsy type to appreciate the deep-rooted social messages behind most murals. Across the world, during periods of segregration and racial tension, graffiti is often the “voice” of the opressed. With messages calling for freedom and resistance. During apartheid in South Africa, street artists played a somewhat vigilante role, think “V” for vendetta lines, with their strategic street-art.
Calling for people of colour to rally and take a stand, this was one of the means of communication for the struggle regime. Today, walking through Braamfontein, Newtown or Maboneng, you get a taste of the street-art scene. Although remarkably different from the “we won’t move” theme of the apartheid era, graffiti has evolved dramatically. Gigantic murals, vibrant caricatures and deeply poetic, rich in hidden meaning, it is art, whether snotty artsy nay-sayers choose to admit it or not.
There is an African movement with international and local graffiti artists banding together and there’s no doubt that Africa is fast becoming a powerhouse for the arts scene. The urban renaissance, if you would. A melting pot with diverse roots and influences from both abroad and local. A google search for graffiti in South Africa brings up hundreds of dedicated blogs on street-art. It’s incredible how something once referred to as a crime is now receiving corporate backing.
With many marketing gurus opting for a graffiti advertising strategy, it is the new vanguard and an artform that is far from a dying trend. Unlike New York, Euro-style or Brazillian, African graffiti does not have a “signature” look and feel to it. Most local artists draw inspiration from current affairs, political news or scandals. There’s a mix of humour and social factors influencing the street-art and it is probably because of this that street-art in South Africa is thriving at the rate it is.
What many do not know about graffiti (cough cough –the conservative urban folk) is that it is an artform that has hierarchical levels. Yes, there are bombings – the tags, outlines and the bold lettering – which are carried out illegally and at speed. But then there’s the commissioned side to it. This is often the larger pieces, or massive murals that are prominent in the inner city. These are painted legally and are strategically chosen across the city.
Maboneng is a prime example of this. During the gentrification phase, when the area was undergoing a revamp, graffiti was the option to attract more tourists and a younger and hip crowd. Hugely popular, Maboneng is one of the preferred hangout spots for the modern day student, tourist and urban South African.
Whether you love it or hate it, graffiti is here to stay as an expressive public artform. To understand and truly appreciate the streetart, you should book a walking tour of the inner city, with guided tours taking place daily, it will give you a better sense of the artists, the murals and where and how the artform originated.