Graffiti in the Mother City: Two Truths, and A Tired Lie
Cape Town is a city that bleeds ink. Intoxicated with aerosol fumes, seeping fresh colours and new stories, Misha Krynauw investigates the heart of the city's graffiti renaissance.
When it comes to graffiti in the city of Cape Town, two things are absolute. One, the art itself is everywhere. Two, it was made illegal by a flippant by-law during South Africa’s 2010 World Cup era, when on the 9th of July it was declared that the artform, “[affected] the quality of life of all residents, and visitors, and [constituted] a public nuisance which [damaged] the image of the City known worldwide for its beauty, and makes it a less desirable place to visit, live and work in.”
Mitchell’s Plein, thirty kilometres away from the Greenpoint Stadium (the epicentre of the Mother’s City’s contribution to the country’s campaign to lure in foreign investment), “was known as the ‘New York’ of South African graffiti, and its birthplace, so it had a vibrant scene, and countless beautiful murals, in many styles by [as many] artists,” @flowrinwatr tells me while we’re in Rocklands for a private commission. “When the by-law was introduced by the Democratic Alliance party,” he continues, “the city ‘buffed’ and painted over thirty years of art history in the ‘Plein.”
Criminalising the art form, and the artist’s self-expression and means of making a living, the government continues to feed into their racist narrative of othering, which dismisses anything beyond their palatable/marketable agenda. This has also trickled down to shape the societal biases that decree what is art; who can call themselves an artist, and who gets to make a living doing what they love. A privilege such as the latter is afforded only to those in proximity to the elitist monopoly. Institutions that are made of people who take great pleasure in hoarding the wealth of the industry’s commercial sector, which behaves like a ‘closed circuit’. Squeezing out anyone who operates or aspires outside of the lines of success that these galleries have determined—and work to perpetuate—to the benefit of their own financial interests, and is based on their skewed sense of worth—worth implicated by the overarching narrative of a city that is willing to criminalise and erase sub-cultures who don’t abide by their blatantly white supremacist-serving aesthetic.
“I would like to make a living creating my work, but I wouldn’t want to stop creating outside,” @flowrinwatr tells me when I ask if he’d like to participate in the ‘art world’ as it stands today. Watching him stop and talk to the kids visiting and observing, gives me the why. That immediate rapport with the audience, their presence, interest and appreciation, the unsolicited feedback, or plain goading and heckling is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a ‘professional’ space. It’s much, much better. I try to think about an institution I’ve worked in, or with, that would accomplish such a feat out of its own inclination, and come up blank.
@goggadedevastator, one of the first South African graffiti artists, has a vibe about him that leads with approachability and openness, as well. He is a wealth of knowledge and good humour, and between the two of them, the artists make a comfortable space for the group of children assembled, for the few hours it takes to transform the tired vibracrete into an exciting montage of purples and greens. “You know, I do whatever I do, with the materials I have on the surfaces I can,” he says. “They always come and knock on your door. They’ll say something like, ‘hey man, you’re the first guy to do this. Come show us something cool. Tell us a good story’. But, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and that means I know why.”
Cape Town is an alarmingly racist, classist, oppressive and violent environment to live in. The arts ecology is its iteration. Made illegal, there is very little room for graffiti artists to work beyond rare commissions, their inclusion in exhibitions incumbent on their ability to be fine artists, as well—ones able to meld their various mediums into a pleasing, ‘urban aesthetic’. The irony is in these institutions that dismiss, degrade, or deign to include graffiti, gentrifying spaces such as Woodstock and District Six, which—like Mitchell’s Plein—have a deep connection to graffiti, the Black and Brown artists, and their communities. Their cultural and political histories. These were neighbourhoods filled with family homes and small businesses and community centres since bulldozed for commercial quarters with astronomical price points.
And yet, Woodstock and Observatory are known for their gorgeous mural works. Graffiti is finding its way back onto the walls of Mitchell’s Plein. The inner-city suburbs are also alive with colours spread at length by known and unknown artists. Legends and novices alike. Lining buildings and bridges, framing the train lines with script, character or tag. While the city’s legislature upholds many antiquated ideals and ideas about what is best for its people, those who perpetuate its ruling on the ground do so for their own benefit, at the human cost of those who fall outside of the lines of its protection. Graffiti artists and art are a perfect example of the demonisation of sub-cultures who were forced underground as punishment for not fitting the mould of what this city deems a part of its ‘bright and beautiful’ face/future. Making whole communities and living areas ‘guilty by association’ with a conversation that those in power are entirely unwilling to have to its full scope.
Of course, that would mean acknowledging where the city has failed to understand and support the creative and general freedoms of working and ‘lower’ class people. It would mean acknowledging what its definition of ‘beautiful’ is. It would mean acknowledging its prioritisation of a capitalist, white supremacist and ignorant-as-ever system and structure through which it claims to do justice by its rainbow nation. It would mean shifting the power at play in the creative and arts industry from those who insist it exists solely on a financial axis, to include those who understand the historical and political value of creative expression and community, and are choosing to welcome the future of the country’s children into a conversation that will connect them with what Cape Town has worked long, and hard, to erase.