The Gift of Graffiti
Art is an act of service. It’s there to deliver a message, to bring life to a space, to tell society what needs to go and what we need more of. It uplifts, it expresses, and it breaks barriers. We look to art for guidance, like a wise old ancestor who understands the world from a place of transcendence. It is a reflection of society both firmly embedded in it and floating above it with a watchful eye. This is particularly true for graffiti: an extremely public form of art, which is in dialogue with a space, a culture and each person of that space and culture simultaneously. Because it’s so “in-your-face”, graffiti is a powerful medium with a lot to say.
There are a number of things you might imagine at the thought of graffiti: from thoughtless bathroom door vandalism to luminous lettering that you can’t actually read sprawled over a wall, or the name “Tapz” appearing every time you turn a corner in Johannesburg. Perhaps you imagine a commissioned mural, all colourful and alive, floating high above the CBD. There are many forms of graffiti, ranging in intention from protest to vandalism to social upliftment. Here’s the lowdown on the main categories:
Tag- simply an artist’s name or symbol (kind of like a street-style signature, if you will. “Tapz” is a tag)
Throw up- a more elaborate version of the tag and intended to be completed very quickly (i.e “thrown up” in a few seconds).
Paste up- a poster that is created by the artist beforehand then pasted up quickly in the street
Stencil- a stencil is created by the artist beforehand then sprayed over on the street to create an image
Sticker- (sometimes referred to as a ‘slap’) designed by the artist then stuck up around public space (it’s basically a mini paste-up).
Mural- a full piece painted on to a wall (murals are often commissioned artworks).
Versatile, indeed! Graffiti has evolved very quickly in South Africa. Entering the scene around the 1980s, it manifested mainly as protest art in response to the political turmoil at the time. It was still young and experimental, and very much looking to the more distinguished street art overseas for inspiration.
But just a few decades later, there are tons of local graffiti artists making waves across the country, contributing to what’s become a distinct and thriving scene invested with a lot of passion and compassion.
Many local graffiti artists see their role as one of reviving cities and uplifting communities. Johannesburg artist, R1 has said he believes art in the street can have a big impact on the regeneration of the city. The late artist Pasetlheart (RIP) said, “I am an Artist not by choice, but by instinct. I choose to use art to its full potential to change lives and bless our community.” And a blessing to the community it is indeed.
A perfect example of the social upliftment that graffiti can be, is seen in Once Upon a Town’s project from 2019 sponsored by Red Bull, in which one of our “O.G” graffiti artists, Falko, teamed up with local social documentary photographer Luke Daniel to travel to rural towns across South Africa, painting colourful murals on homes and public property (with permission). The process of this artist duo showing up unannounced and asking locals if they could paint pictures on their homes was some boundary-breaking community engagement. Luke Daniel commented that “Art speaks where language doesn’t.” This is truly a gift of connection. The project brought people across the country together in the name of beauty and gift giving. Check out the mini documentary here!
Faith47 is another well-known and respected artist on the local scene. Her Warwick Junction project in Durban similarly shows community appreciation. She painted giant murals of the local tradespeople on columns under the bridge. The paintings hero the people of the community, reminding us that it’s the people who bring a space to life: it’s our presence, stories and spirit that shape a place, and we need to be mindful of how we allow spaces to speak to the people who inhabit them.
Graffiti has the power to change society and positively enhance a place. Our artists are cultural heroes. South African cityscapes can be harsh. It’s no secret that we face challenges and often very harsh living conditions here, yet art continues to flourish and evolve, and this is an inspiring example of the South African spirit, the Mzansi that continues to rise, colourful and vibrant, through our spaces.
Are you a graffiti artist with something to say? Or perhaps you’re aching to join the movement but could use some guidance. We Grow South Africa is looking for Graffiti coaches who can teach the next generation the ins and outs of this unique art form! Sign up here to be a coach, and get your name out there teaching what you love.
And if you’re a noob wanting to know more- check out Graffiti South Africa to get inspired and learn more about the local scene.