Mapping the city through graffiti

A glimpse of the Graffiti Gallery in Newtown. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

A glimpse of the Graffiti Gallery in Newtown. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

If you happened to take a trip through Johannesburg’s Braamfontein recently, you would have seen a number of new additions to the walls, rooftops and even the buses in the area. Around 15 new public murals were produced over the course of a week this October through the 2018 City of Gold festival.

First started in 2011, City of Gold is a Joburg-based graffiti and street art festival that brings together local and international graffiti writers, and the public for a week of painting, city tours, and film-screenings. After a two-year break in 2016 and 2017 co-founder of the festival and one of Joburg’s most well-known graffiti writers, Rasty Knayles, explains that this year’s festival was all about making Johannesburg an international destination for graffiti and street art – solidifying it as a haven for public and accessible art.

But beyond creating free-to-view public artworks that can add colour and creativity to a piece of architecture, what can public art interventions like this do for the way we view and engage with urban spaces, and with the medium of art?

First off, a little history. Graffiti is said to have started in SA around the late 80s via Cape Town-based artists such as Falko, Mak1One and more. Back then graffiti was a form of reclaiming public space by marginalised individuals, but it was also a means of public expression and creativity actioned out in the most accessible way possible: writing on a wall. From there it spread, and in the late 90s it was artists such as Dread1, Rasty, Kasi, and Cureo who were putting in the work across Johannesburg. As with most graffiti scenes across the world, South Africa’s graffiti writers are prolific in both illegal tags and pieces, and legal murals. The public generally dislikes the former while embracing the latter, although you can’t have one without the other. All graffiti writers who learn to paint striking, large-scale murals have had to get to that point by, quite simply, writing their name on as many surfaces as possible over the years.

In this way, graffiti has always been a form of necessary disruption. Tags and two-colour lettering pieces sprawled across inner-city walls and along the sides of highways can command the attention of a passerby while also distracting from (or pushing back against) other public markings and imagery such as advertising billboards and event posters taking up space in the city. And while City of Gold focuses almost exclusively on the legal side of the art form, every tag counts.

On Day two of the festival, Serbian graffiti duo Sobekcis are moving up and down the scaffolding that’s helping them map out their piece – a two-storey collage-style piece looking out onto Braam’s De Korte street.

“Johannesburg reminds us a lot of Serbia,” says the duo. “It’s this city that’s on the rise, economically and culturally, and graffiti can be a great accompaniment to that, because it’s not a huge investment for the city, but it changes quite a bit. It’s art for the people, you know? It’s on the street, you can look at it and engage with it without paying anything. It encourages people to explore a little more.”

Around the corner, on the walls of a city power building, old-school Soweto artist Dread 1 is working away at his own mural – a large letter and character-based piece that’s alive with the energy and iconography of the city.

“We all do it differently,” he says motioning a rattling spray can towards the wall. “Everybody’s got their own perspective which is cool for a universal viewpoint into the art form, but I do think graffiti can change a lot for those who view it. Personally, I like to have a positive message in my work. Knowledge of self, unity, self-respect, love, just being humane – everyday stuff like that, you know?” 

On one of the final days of the festival, Rasty is busy watching a multi-coloured production take shape across the street through the combined efforts of local artists Mein, Zesta, Paige, Breeze Yoko, Mr Ekse, and Tyler B Murphy. Each time someone walks past and pauses to grab a photo, he walks up to explain the festival and what the artists are trying to achieve.

“There’s not a lot of education around graffiti, but once you start taking notice of it, you end up viewing the city differently – you use different landmarks,” he says. “That’s how you start defining the city or even mapping out new areas or experiences that you have no reference points for. Even if you don’t know graffiti that well, I think it can still achieve that, because it’s such a visual medium and it’s so large-scale sometimes that it’s hard to forget.”

While this year’s festival didn’t have an overwhelming amount of people heading into the city to learn and engage with the medium, it did manage to get a few people to stop and take notice of an artwork taking shape, and will likely continue to do so the longer these new murals stay up.

And even if festivals like City of Gold are achieving only that – reminding people that, rather than being something that’s hung, framed, and fitted with a hefty price tag, art can be the simple result of an empty wall and someone with a spray can looking to make something new – then that’s enough.  

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