To speak about street art is to speak about space. In territories like present-day Palestine or Apartheid-era South Africa, space becomes political; a tool to oppress, to deny, to silence. So when street artists occupy denied territory, to occupy space is grand protest. It’s also worth asking ourselves whose interests are being promoted, and at what cost to the fabric of true artistry, when commercial organisations and big money use street art for their gain.
The fresh paint fumes fill the mid-afternoon air.
Since the morning, graffiti artists have been making their way up and down the giant pillars supporting the M1 highway in Newtown, Johannesburg, to paint the town red. And blue. And black. And whatever other colour palette their Montana spray paints will allow. When the day ends, there will be complete pieces rendered by Jozi's graffiti artists, revered and unknown alike.
Painting the pillars with new pieces has become somewhat of a yearly practice during Back to the CIty, an urban festival which, until COVID-19 flipped the switch on the world, would take place on April 27th, South Africa’s Freedom Day. It’s been held in October for the past two years, and features music performances, food and clothing stalls, and about 15 000 people seeking stimulation.
In months to come, 12 to be exact, people of all sorts will interact with the art on some level. There'll be tourists and Instagrammers keen to leave with a portion of inner-city beauty; religious adherents returning from church on Sunday afternoons; construction workers; and recyclers like Mpho, whom I met recently while visiting the area for the umpteenth time since Back to the City. He’s from White City in Soweto and earns a living from collecting boxes and exchanging them for some change at a depot nearby.
He becomes immediately animated when the focus shifts from him and how he earns his living, to the graffiti. He speaks of an artist who offered to spray paint his carriage one day and how that made him happy. Brazillian artist Mundano’s Carroceiros project immediately comes to mind. Mudano has visited South Africa to speak about his project, which has helped change negative public perception towards recyclers in Sao Paulo. Mpho points at his favourite piece on the pillars, a psychedelic rendition of a woman’s face painted in purple and blue tones, and says that he just likes how “far out” it looks.
How do people in different settings across the city relate to public art? A shoemaker who set up shop directly in front of the pillars in Newtown expressed no interest in the colourful shapes and figures in front of him. He no longer even notices them. "I'd still be here even if it wasn't there," he says.
It’s beneath the M1 pillars that D’bongz Mahlathi’s striking portraits of South African music legends live. What was initially homage to South African jazz greats – the likes of jazz vocalist and teacher Sibongile Khumalo and the grand spectre of South African jazz excellence Kippie Moeketsi – has turned into a shrine honouring South African musicians past and recent. Urban Zulu Maskandi spiritualist Busi Mhlongo shares space with AKA and Riky Rick, two acclaimed rappers whose tragic deaths left countless followers shocked and reeling.
In a city filled with murals and tags at every corner, the educational and political potential of street art can be drowned out by the noise. There are tons of dope artwork, elaborate in both design and execution, but very thin on intent – not that art should always serve political means. But in a city with as rich a past as Johannesburg, with a broad range of inhabitants from all reaches of the African continent and world, it’s worth it to consider how the art exists in relation to its immediate community.
Mahlathi is attempting to situate his art and render his characters in a way that reflects their environment. That Kippie Moeketsi has a mural in Newtown, a stone's throw away from Kippies, a jazz club whose building still stands despite having ceased commercial activity in 2005 due to structural issues. Newtown’s importance as a cultural hub can’t be undermined. It houses the Market Theatre, the Market Photo Workshop, and the Africa Museum, three cultural artefacts that form part of the on-going story of Johannesburg.
“I paint people, and I try [to do it] as realistically as possible. I try to do it as realistically as possible so that [others] can relate to them. I try to paint them in a way that they carry a soul, and the spirit [becomes] evident just looking at the eyes,” he says. Miriam Makeba’s lone piece, one whose existence makes Mahlathi’s project feel complete, occupies part of a wall a block away from this fine gallery of artistic excellence. Makeba’s contributions towards not only South African liberation, but the struggle for liberation by rebel movements from Mozambique to Liberia, are as monumental as her wide-reaching musical contributions. She is part of the era that left with the cast of King Kong and never returned to South Africa until the end of Apartheid was within the realm of possibility in the 1990s.
On the opposite side of the street is another renowned South African artist’s work. Cape Town-based Falko’s characters are renowned in many regions across the world. Lately, he has found comfort painting elephants. As it turns out, he didn’t just fall into it. He has stated in another interview that he was painting them for fun initially, and that the interest in continuing waned in under a year “because I was always just painting commissioned work.”
He found himself in a Senegalese village once. The locals did not approve of the chicken he had painted, owing to its association with witchcraft. That was when the elephants shifted front-of-centre in his murals. "If you go to a foreign community, and the very first house you have an issue with, it could mean that you'll end up having an issue with everybody else," is his response regarding how he goes about painting on people's homes. A positive response could lead to others requesting a paint job. In Mamelodi, he went to a compound that housed a couple of dwellings and asked to paint the houses. He spent no more than 20 minutes on a piece, a testament to how sharp he is with his line work and overall technique. He completed about four other murals that day. One of his trademark gorillas featured on the side of one of the houses.
In person, Falko cuts an approachable figure. His hair, which he often leaves to grow as it pleases in space, is his most striking feature. When working, he's kitted out in a shirt decorated by paint smudges, shorts, and a pair of Adidas sneakers or Grasshopper shoes. He can go on for hours talking about a topic that interests him and his knowledge of the art world, both commercial and indie. He was born in Mitchells Plain in 1976, started painting while in Westridge High School around 1989, and has been figuring it all out along the way. "Growing up [in the Plain] was definitely what was needed to make me the person I am today," he says.
He was an associate of the formidable hip hop fraternity Black Noise at one point, which seems odd considering that he never did like rap music initially. He also deejays under the name Falko Starr, and is a third of the Chief Rockers crew (alongside deejays Eazy and Azuhl) which organised the legendary, now-defunct Classics parties. "I remember when LL Cool J's I Need Love came out, and everybody was rapping that, I was like 'this is some shit'," he says over the phone when I eventually call to speak to him. "My foundation for music is New Wave of Punk and synth pop. I eventually got into hip hop and started breakdancing. [Afrika Bambaata's] Planet Rock was one of the anthems that you had to learn to dance to."
Falko points out that access to what was happening internationally was near-impossible, what with all those thoughtful cultural boycotts courtesy of activists against apartheid worldwide. He says that the bubble they existed inside of during those days resulted in an insular style of painting. "We were basically just figuring it out from what we saw on TV and what we saw in the [Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff's Spraycan Art] book. We were assuming and making our own deductions, and being naive about what we saw. In trying to be a good artist, I didn't know that these kids in America and Europe had a hundred colours, and different nozzles, and all these things. We had Plascon and Dulux, and only 5 good colours out of 16 available. We didn't know the approach to it, the outline, the technique- there was no education on it. Because of that, our art was always shit," he says.
Falko’s character-centric style developed over time. The tenacity with which he pursued his art, in spite of his financial circumstances, quickly distinguished him from his peers. He says that he was painting around three artworks per month. "Considering that I didn't have money, and my mom didn't have money, it was a lot," he adds.
Among the many exciting projects Falko has either initiated himself or got commissioned to undertake are the murals on select taxis in Cape Town, which he did with acclaimed icon Mak One; the Split Pieces project that he part-collaborated on with the Joburg-based Rasty, who also organises the City of Gold Urban Art festival; and Once Upon A Town.
The multi-hyphenate artist Breeze Yoko spends his time in Cape Town, where his creations breathe in an environment buzzing with cutting-edge fine artists like Manyaku Mashilo, or exciting and innovative musicians like Kujenga; where he gets to curate live shows in a shared studio space located in Woodstock; and where he gets to cycle the vast plains of Cape Town and live a wholesome life surrounded by some of the finest artists working in the world right now. He recently contributed to a life-size mural alongside fellow street artists whose aim was to speak back to the injustices currently being enacted upon the people of Palestine, a real-time minefield of genocidal intent and global power indifference.
"Being the way I am, and having dealt with galleries on an entry level, I am really struggling with handing over 50 percent of my earnings. But if you become an established gallery artist, they do bring a lot to the table that you pay your 50 percent for. For now, I'm just happy with people buying it directly from me. It fucks with my worth a little because you can't say you want a million bucks, but you are selling it out of your lounge. Most importantly, I don't wanna put that pressure on myself, or have the expectation that I belong in a gallery. I've basically survived without it for 30 years," he says in response to a question about why he's still not signed to one yet.
Looking at his contemporaries – Nelson Makamo, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Mary Sibande, Dathini Mzayiya – it doesn't make sense why someone who's contributed so much of his time and creativity, and given so much love to various art-spaces over the years, is still so relatively, commercially under-appreciated. "In South Africa, there's a very conservative approach to galleries, and who shows in galleries, and what to show in galleries. People are scared to be leaders here. The cost of taking a risk is high," he says. "The reason I haven't gone that route is because I haven't really found somebody who'll be like okay cool, we got you. Let's do this the way that you see it." According to him, it has been a “blessing in disguise,” because it is allowing him to set up a situation like that for other artists.
Through his travels, the street artist, videographer, video editor, emcee, illustrator, and South African hip hop gem (he's a member of the groundbreaking Groundworkx crew, alongside the likes of Hueman (RIP), Ben Sharpa (RIP), Krook'd the Warmonga, Hymphatic Thabs, and Snazz D) feels that he's made enough connections, and knows enough people who can unlock the infamous door to art nirvana, to make that situation pop.
He cites his 2018 residency in Paris, France, as a period of substantial growth. While he had been to various European cities, including Paris, several times over, it wasn't until his 6-month stay that he had the opportunity to really explore the urban art underbelly in the infamous continent of white-collared oppressors and thieves. "I've seen that there is a market for people who practise the [artforms] that I practise, and [that] it's sellable as well. People are making bank out there son!"
Breeze approaches his craft with the obsession of a scholar. He is conversant with the global art movement, to the point where he is willing to acknowledge that it's been weaponized to rob us, Africans, of our own notions of self. He is an urban legend and visionary of our time, a guiding light from where underground kids have drawn, and continue to draw, inspiration. To see cats like him offer a solutions-based approach to urban art by opening lanes for others is both refreshing, and confirmation that dreams are valid, irrespective of what form they take or are presented in.
The two cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town offer insights that speak to dualities of street art, as well as the politics that govern public art in general. In Johannesburg's bustling CBD, one would be hard-pressed to turn a corner that isn’t infested with beautiful, grand murals by artists from different corners of the world. Work by renowned legends, the likes of Wane, sit side-by-side with that of local heroes like Gogga, Falko, and Rasty. Each of them bring their chops that add colour to the chaos. Precincts such as Newtown, Braamfontein, and Jeppestown are bursting with colourful works. For the most part, an emphasis is put on aesthetic value as opposed to political leanings.
In Cape Town, the city is only happy to commission work that is safe; work that doesn’t challenge; work that is devoid of deeper meaning. Anything else is criminal, as witnessed by their recent clamp-down of protest art in support of the Palestinian struggle for self-reliance and self-governance. The tags are mostly where it’s at. For instance, one would be hard-pressed to not find a ‘BlkThought’ tag around the time of the countrywide student protest of 2015 and 2016 that came to be known as #FeesMustFall – essentially a rally for a free, decolonised education across institutions of higher learning. Similarly, Breeze Yoko and fellow artists contributed to this cause by donating art pieces aimed at raising funds for that movement. Breeze’s independent works in Cape Town, a city renowned for its extreme clamp-down of street art from around 2008, are laden with political and Historical references.
His mural, Boniswa, which can be found in Woodstock – one of the last bastions where public art is not heavily policed, portrays a young girl from the township sailing merrily across the Cape Flats on a boat. There are many ways to read this, the most obvious being the Dutch arrival of 1652 that led to the little-documented dawn of indentured slavery in the Western Cape province, and ultimately led to the brutal Apartheid policies of the late 20th century.
There are many examples of protest art in South African history. ‘We Won’t Move’, seen in Sophiatown during the 1950s – Sophiatown, like District Six in Cape Town, was an intellectual stronghold that fell victim to forced removals , and relegated inhabitants to the outskirts of the city where they populated the now crime-infested townships where zoning according to race is most apparent – is among the most recognizable, alongside “DEFEND HOME” (seen on the American photojournalist Dan Weiner’s image made in Sophiatown during forced removals), and “WE STAND BY OUR LEADERS”, whose traces can still be seen outside the wall enclosing the Drill Hall in Johannesburg central during the Treason Trial in 1956.
But of course these doodles on walls wouldn’t pass in the street art arena; they are relegated to the realms of graffiti, which acquired an association with subversion and a refusal to conform from the on-set. ‘Street Art’ suits the Capitalist agenda because of how it’s been bent to erase its roots in graffiti culture, its distant and unlawful cousin, so that it can be employed to spruce up the ugly face of gentrification.
To end off, I would like to reflect on how street art is perceived by the mainly black, working class people who occupy the city of Johannesburg. It’s not uncommon to see people posing in front of walls while someone make an image of them – either a friend with a cellphone, or one the many photographers who work on the street in the three precincts of innercity Johannesburg: Maboneng/Jeppestown, Newtown, and Braamfontein. Street art adds aesthetic value, and is an indicator of sorts, something to say ‘I have arrived’, or ‘I was here’. Beyond that, and through speaking to randomly-selected individuals over the years, I haven’t found instances of intellectual investment in the art, be it a discussion on the shading, the thickness of the lines, or the overall quality of the artwork, such as what brand of spray paint was used.
To speak about street art is also to speak about space, yes. But beyond that, it’s to speak about the politics of occupying that space, how long that space is available for, and what efforts go into documenting and archiving that moment within the ever-evolving context of a city.