Graffiti artists and skateboarders go head to head with Cape Town’s authorities on their right to express their crafts in the streets
Almost every Sunday a group of about 20 people convene on the roads that map Cape Town's heart. Ranging in age from 10 to 45, this crew of Capetonian longboard skaters has, for the past decade, taken part in Alpha Lazy Sundays with a commitment akin to religious fervour.
From midday till dusk they bomb down the hills of Stephans Street, perform tricks around the corners of Christiaans Street and close the day with a series of races along Keizersgracht Street from Walmer Estate to the edge of town.
At the core of the weekly event is 32-year-old Kent Lingeveldt, founder of the best-known local longboarding brand, Alpha Longboards. His destiny was charted on his 14th birthday, when his older cousin, South African Idols finalist Ezra Lingeveldt, gave him a skateboard as a gift.
Central to the day's activities is mentoring the 52 Crew – a development group of 10 young people between the ages of 10 and 18. Fifteen-year-old Fagroedian Rahim is one of them. Living in Woodstock, he has been skating with Lingeveldt for “five months and two weeks”, he tells me proudly.
Despite the fact that the group has skated in District Six for the past decade, this Sunday a police van pulls up and issues a warning instructing them to stop. Rahim, in the blunt manner of a child, suggests a way to resolve the situation.
“I think we must go to the government and make it legal for longboarding,"he says.
“It makes me angry when the police come. We waited our whole week to skate and they come and throw away our fun for no reason."
The use of public space
Little scenes like this are playing out all over Cape Town. Viewed independently, it is easy to dismiss them as inconsequential skirmishes between the culturally and economically marginal and an overzealous police force.
But when you aggregate the incidents of skateboarders being criminally charged and graffiti being covered up at the whim of a citizen who calls a hotline to complain, the battle lines seem clearly drawn. The question is: Who has the right to determine the use of public space?
Lavender Hill is a harsh and complex space. The township is one of the sites where the discarded people of District Six and Muizenberg were dumped by the apartheid government.
Here, people were piled on top of each other in uninspired three- or four-storey council flats, where overpopulation and fierce competition for scarce resources conspired ?to cocoon a hotbed of social ills. Today the media, writing of this community, refers to it as “Gangland”, or “the most dangerous place on the Cape Flats”.
One recent Sunday morning a community-based organisation, Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (Rapcan), organised a festival called “Taking It to the Street”. It would be the launch and debut performance of the organisation's children's CD, Lavender Hill for Life.
As part of the programme, the organisation approached One Love Studios and commissioned two murals in the area. Raised on the Cape Flats, Serjio Rinquist co-founded the Studios with artist Claire Homewood.
IsJa and graffiti bylaws
IsJa, Rinquist's graffiti name, is a slim 27-year-old, with shoulder-length, golden-brown dreadlocks. He lives his life in pursuit of his two passions – graffiti and boarding – both on land and in the ocean.
IsJa is well aware of Cape Town's bylaws requiring permits for graffiti art and had offered to fulfil the necessary documentation for the event.
Rapcan, however, felt permission would be more likely to be granted if the application came from them, so IsJa busied himself with the other logistics entailed in a job this size.
The day before the event, permission had still not been granted and IsJa went into solution mode.
“We knocked on the door of the local ward councillor, pleaded our case and asked for his endorsement of the community process. He refused."
Undeterred, IsJa made another plan. “I called JP Smith [the mayoral committee member for safety and security] and explained the situation. He granted us a provisional permit.”
Relieved, the team set to work. IsJa describes the artwork: “The flat was decorated with a tall tree that contained messages of love and peace. Below it, we inscribed ‘Lavender Hill for Life'.”
The following Monday, IsJa was issued with a R1500 fine for contravening clause nine of the graffiti bylaw of 2010. After weeks of engagement and a number of court appearances the fine was scrapped.
“The point is I shouldn't have been fined in the first place,"says IsJa.
“The whole process takes time and money we don't have."
Skateboarding and graffiti regulations in Cape Town
Skating and graffiti are regulated by the City of Cape Town through two provincial legislative enactments: the so-called 2007 nuisance bylaw and the 2010 graffiti bylaw. In terms of these bylaws, the two activities have been declared to be a nuisance, attracting criminal sanctions unless they are conducted with the direct consent of the city.
Brett Heron, the mayoral committee member responsible for transport, finds it hard to explain why the city has adopted a hard line on skating.
Heron is the kind of guy you want to like. He is reasonable and presents a dispassionate, well-paced description of the search for common ground between the city and the skateboarding community.
He contends that the decision to outlaw skateboarding on city streets is “probably historical”, that the bylaw was “probably written at a time when skateboarding was not regarded as a legitimate mode of transport"and adds that the restrictive regulation takes into account the “concerns of safety of vulnerable users, the most vulnerable of whom are the skateboarders themselves."
With the bylaw updated as recently as 2007, it's hard to know what history he's referring to.
Besides, sports such as cycling and rock climbing remain legal despite being dangerous recreational activities, because enthusiasts are able to assume responsibility for their own safety.
The graffiti bylaw has ostensibly been promulgated to eradicate gang graffiti from the visual landscape of the city by introducing a complex permit process for artists who wish to paint.
Smith, to whom IsJa had turned for help, has been at the helm of a decade-long process that culminated in the enactment of the law, which forms part of an integrated public safety strategy aimed at removing signs of social disorder.
Tall, blond and blue-eyed, Smith doesn't present himself as the nice guy but rather as a tireless defender against the forces of hooliganism.
He views the permit process as a legitimate way of regulating the use of public space. “It's not an unreasonable provision that has been made in terms of enabling the environment [for art]. What there is is a determination by some of the ‘artists' to cling to a complete laissez faire scenario."
Legislation and the contravention of bylaws
The legislation provides for two avenues through which mural artists, a term employed by the law to define an acceptable form of art on walls, can produce work.
The first is by obtaining a permit from the city and the second through a self-permitting system.
According to the bylaw, in order to obtain a permit, the artist requires the permission of the property owner and his or her neighbours, along with a motivation and a sketch. The city then has the right to grant or deny permission without providing an indication of the grounds on which its decision is based. If an artist fulfils the criteria, he or she is able to apply for the right to self-permit.
The self-permitting and permitting process are almost identical, with the distinction being that artists are required to inform the authorities prior to the creation of artwork rather than request permission.
Contraventions of the bylaw are met with heavy sanctions.
First-time offenders are liable to a fine of R15 000 or six months' imprisonment. Conviction for a second offence makes them liable to a fine of R30 000 or six months' imprisonment.
Cape Town is the only city in South Africa to have specifically enacted legislation to control graffiti.
In Jo'burg, for example, graffiti rates only a nominal mention in the public open-space bylaw that says no person may, within a public space, deface, damage, destroy or remove any municipal property.
In general, unwanted drawing on walls is dealt with as malicious damage to property, a criminal offence.
All photographs by David Harrison
Mak1one and art
A brief tour of Jo'burg's inner city and its surrounds is however evidence enough of the city's approach to public art and self-expression. Large murals, sometimes beautiful, other times meaningless, on occasion thought-provoking, complicate the city's visual landscape.
The tacit arrangement in most of South Africa's urban centres is that painting a mural requires the permission of the owner of the wall. Private property owners in Cape Town do not have that option.
Mak1one, an internationally respected graffiti artist, was part of the embryonic moments of hip-hop in South Africa in the early 1980s. Even if you don't know him, his appearance gives the game away. His slightly baggy jeans are covered with multicoloured paint splats and he has personally customised his white Adidas shell-toes so that white is only something they once were.
When speaking on matters of art, mak1one prefers to use his nom de plume. Profiling mak1one, he asserts, focuses attention on the art, not the artist.
For those present at the inception of the hip-hop culture in South Africa, The Base, a club on Shortmarket Street, is fondly remembered as the site of the magic. Weekly Saturday afternoon beatboxing, MCing and break-dancing sessions created a reason for black youth from the Flats to enter the white city centre.
“We would catch a waentjie [train] into town from Mitchells Plain,"says mak1one. “Along the way, Bonteheuwel, Mannenberg, ouense [guys] would be jumping on and you could tell from their clothes that they were hip-hoppers. We used to gather in one carriage and build a vibe all the way to town. When we got to town we would walk as a group from the station up Greenmarket Square to Shortmarket Street. For a few hours there was this amazing space we all shared."
In Cape Town, the incubator of South African hip-hop, the culture filled the identity gap created by the apartheid racial category of “coloured”.
“We didn't have any culture to be proud of,"says mak1one. “You're part of this bastard race and hip-hop comes along and you can be part of it, you can empower yourself to do it and the more you grow, the more the culture grows.”
Skateboarding in the city
As the political wheels turned and change became imminent, these young people began, in the early 1990s, to push the physical boundaries of freedom of movement.
Aligned by their common features as urban, youth counter-cultures; hip-hop bonded with skateboarding.
Thibault Square in the city centre was an important social site where skaters forged a culture that transcended race and class.
Kent Lingeveldt recalls: “It was a home for everybody. There was nothing like coloured guys or black guys can't skate here. It was just, if you were good enough to skate the ramp, you skate the ramp."
But by 1995, skating at Thibault Square was outlawed as business interests squeezed the ragged-looking young people out of the space and into Boogaloos, the mall-based skateparks that popped up around the country.
The National Skateboard Collective has committed itself to galvanising a movement that works to change society's perceptions of skateboarders.
Marco Morgan, a city planner for provincial transport and public works and a founding member of the collective, shares his thoughts on why skateboarders are seldom welcomed in capitalist city spaces.
“Skateboarders deny the production of architecture and urban space as a commodity for exchange, or a place where the exchange of commodities might take place. As a result, we experience similar exclusion from public space to others who are not potential consumers and are therefore perceived as a nuisance."
In October last year, after extensive lobbying, the collective managed to convince the city's transport authorities to lift the ban for four months on all forms of nonmotorised transport on the Sea Point promenade.
During this time, the collective launched the Promenade Monday campaign under the Share the Space slogan.
“The idea was to liberate skaters and say that we have as much right as everyone else to be here on this road. The other part was to start showing conservative people that Sea Point doesn't belong to the residents of Sea Point; it belongs to all city residents,"explains Morgan.
At present, the bylaw criminalising skateboarding conflicts with two formal documents issued by the city.
In its bid application for World Design Capital 2014, the city claimed that, “along with getting their own parks, skateboarders are now more welcome in a city that recognises skateboarding as a viable mode of new mobility transport”. Furthermore, the city's Non-Motorised Transport policy of 2005 includes “all forms of movement that do not rely on an engine or motor movement”.
The list of examples that follows includes rollerblading and skating.
Heron contends that his work requires him to deal with these contradictions. To do so, he has set up ?a task team in which members of ?the skating community are invited to participate.
There is, however, a rift between Heron's reasonable position and the reality of police harassment and violence that skateboarders testify to.
Sitting on the pavement of Christiaans Street, opposite the church, the Alpha Lazy Sunday crew claim that simply holding a skateboard attracts the attention of the authorities.
Do graffiti artists promote crime?
As the sun is swallowed by the ocean and the azan calling the faithful to prayer echoes across the City Bowl, skaters begin trading war stories.
Morgan says: “Cops don't like people with rights. If you're a 12-year-old laaitie [youngster] and you're caught by a security guard, they don't tell you: ‘The bylaw says this and that,' they hit, punch and swear at you."
IsJa believes the laws exclude from the economy those who have built their livelihood on these creative skills. “With the new bylaws, people are less willing to commission murals because they don't want the drama of being in trouble with the law."
He insists that the tense struggle over the conditions imposed on graffiti artists in Cape Town is ideological.
“The authorities have a problem with skaters and graffiti artists because most of us are critical thinkers. We question the things that we are expected to accept.”
According to Smith, the graffiti bylaw is informed by the broken windows theory, a criminology position made popular by Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York City from 1993 to 2001. The theory asserts that crime is more likely to occur in areas where there are visible signs of neglect, such as broken windows.
Such an attitude is tough on graffiti, portraying it as the first step in the downward spiral of neighbourhoods into crime. The adoption of this policy has resulted in New York being ?the most heavily policed city in the world.
Smith refers to the fact that “graffiti, vandalism and tagging … have been scientifically proven to promote social disorder and increase crime”.
''The spreading of disorder''
The science to which they refer is research conducted by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 2008, titled: “The spreading of disorder”. The findings of the research are neither conclusive nor universally accepted.
The University of Chicago Law Review, for example, conducted a five-city social experiment in 2006 that, like a number of studies before it, concluded that there is no causal link between the reduction in nuisance crimes and the reduction in serious ones.
Both graffiti artists and the city seem to agree that safety and the eradication of gangsterism are important goals. The point of disagreement is in assessing the harm caused in pursuit of these goals.
Is the right to freedom of expression adequately protected or does the bylaw constitute an unjustifiable limitation of this right? In assessing this question, one must consider whether crime and gangsterism could be reduced without making dramatic incursions into artistic creativity.
Expression is the lifeblood of a democracy as it is the means through which the will of the people is communicated.
Coming from apartheid, a situation of state-sanctioned and legislated large-scale suppression of the communication of ideas, South African lawmakers bear an obligation to consider whether there are less restrictive means of achieving their purpose.
Smith is adamant that the city merely requires a reasonable process of consultation. “If it is important enough to spend money and time to do then it is important enough to consult the people who have to share that environment with you.”
But throughout the 10-year process of implementing the bylaw, the city has consulted only four graffiti artists.
Unsurprisingly, there remains an unresolved situation of conflict between the city and the graffiti artists within its jurisdiction, conflict that Smith claims cannot be solved through discussion.
“It's not that we're not listening; it's that we disagree and repeatedly communicating that … is not going to change it."
Sitting at the Empire Café in Muizenberg, a cosy spot with a beautiful sea view from the top floor, IsJa brings into focus the issues at stake in this battle: “Just because it's law doesn't make it right. Twenty years ago it was illegal for us to sit in this restaurant but that didn't make it right. People organised and fought to change the laws that they thought were wrong, to create a free society. We're simply continuing that work.”
This edited extract is from Spacewarz in Cape Town, part of Writing Invisibility, a collection of stories published by the Mail & Guardian, in association with the African Centre for Migration and Society, and supported by the Max Planck Institute.