Writing’s on the wall for Jo’burg’s graffiti artists

Johannesburg’s graffiti may come under threat when a review of the city’s bylaws and the rules governing the art form is completed.

From the pillars under the M1 highway on Henry Nxumalo Street in Newtown to the walls of derelict buildings and high-rise structures, graffiti has gained a life of its own.

But Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba believes that it is a “deterrent to investment” and it needs to be “cleaned”, possibly by implementing the bylaws that keep Cape Town’s graffiti artists in check.

The mayor’s office said a review of the city’s bylaws will start soon, with the aim of improving the ease of doing business and revitalising the inner city.

“Mayor Mashaba understands the importance of creating an enabling environment in our city for businesses to flourish and employ more people,” his spokesperson, Tony Taverna-Turisan, said. “Part of this is to ensure that the inner city is cleaned of deterrents to investment, of which graffiti is one such element.

“This may include looking at Cape Town’s graffiti bylaw. However, we would need to make provision for the beautiful street art that can form a part of the artistic expression in our inner city,” he added.

The Johannesburg Roads Agency is scrubbing off graffiti along its main routes in a bid to get rid of “unsightly” work.

“We have a number of areas where we are cleaning it off, specifically on the M1 and M2 highways — that’s the target for graffiti,” said the road agency’s spokesperson, Bertha Peters-Scheepers. “Not only is it unsightly, it leads to miscommunication for the public when it’s over a directional signboard. It’s ruining our road signage.”

Graffiti is part of hip-hop culture and was born during the late 1970s in the predominantly black and Latino boroughs of New York City.

In South Africa, the trend emerged in the dying days of apartheid. Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg are now home to the country’s most prolific graffiti artists.

“Life is gonna be even harder here. They’re creating criminals out of people who are not,” said Breeze, a graffiti artist known across the continent and who specialises in murals of political leaders such as Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko.

“Graffiti contributes to a lot of tourism — people come to Jo’burg to see the scene and there are even tours. That’s how the Maboneng precinct [in Johannesburg] became famous, by inviting people to do these bold art pieces. [The clean-up is] gonna fuck up a lot of things.”

He said graffiti should be respected as a legitimate art form that has become part of the DNA of Johannesburg and Cape Town, lightening often gloomy realities. “In the most hardcore grimy areas, such as Jeppestown, people have accepted it because it makes the space more bearable with those colours,” he said.

Peters-Scheepers said Jo’burg’s bylaws prohibit graffiti, specifically writers’ tags (signatures), and encouraged residents to report misdemeanours.

In 2010, Cape Town passed a graffiti bylaw prohibiting any private property or business owner from allowing graffiti artists to do murals and tags on their premises without permission from the council.

The move was met with widespread resistance from graffiti writers, among them one of the country’s first, Gogga.

“My work stood still for about a whole year because of the clashing, repressive bylaws … It’s like going to the principal’s office to get a permission slip, bra.

I’m chasing a living now and I have to deal with something trivial. I mean, you even need permission to paint a guy’s house,” he said.

Although Mashaba’s office is only just starting its review, Gogga claimed it’s already being used to suppress the art form in Johannesburg’s wealthy areas. “The bylaw is essentially in effect across the country. In the affluent areas like Sandton, they enforce it strongly. The police came to me and said we are not allowed to write there.”

The art form is accompanied by its own sense of adventure and danger. Writers face immediate arrest if caught in the act and others are sought by authorities for vandalising public property with their tags.

One of the most famous tag writers is Tapz. Although droves of people drive or walk past his tags across the country every day, the writer’s true identity is known only to a few.

“A good graffiti artist, you see their work. A bad graffiti artist gets caught,” said Gogga, offering some insight into the world of spray cans, dirty hands and faceless artists.

Breeze said graffiti needs to be decriminalised because of the “unacceptable” levels of persecution street artists face. “The amount of times we have been shot at doing graffiti, it’s ridiculous. Being in jail for graffiti, locked up with murderers.”

He literally risks his life for his art.

“I almost caught a bullet in the head from a security guard with live rounds ’cos they thought we were trying to break in. But we were just painting, man,” he said.

After successfully unseating the ANC in the City of Johannesburg during the local government elections, the Democratic Alliance promised to implement its Cape Town style of governance in the country’s economic hub. But it has maintained that “at all times, the best interests of our residents will be of paramount importance.”

“Mayor Mashaba has set an ambitious target of achieving a minimum of 5% economic growth in our city. Bold leadership and decisive action is required to achieve this,” Taverna-Turisan said.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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