Monday, May 14, 2012

What happens when Graffiti becomes art

Lazoo, Mak1one, Rasty and Curio are gathered at a wall at the bottom end of Kruger Street in Jeppestown on the eastern-side of Joburg’s inner city. The pavement is littered with spray cans and Mak1one looks like he is wearing a Jackson Pollack canvas. Rasty is balanced on scaffolding and spraying a robot motif. His dreadlocks are twisted around his head, so they don’t get in the way of his work. Curio is leaning on a car across the road.
The wall is only a few blocks away from Maboneng or “Hipsterville” as Rasty dubs it, but it is like another country. The street is lined with panel beaters and establishments selling second-hand car parts. Their services are advertised on modest hand-painted signs. The area is dotted with dilapidated and vacant buildings so it’s the kind of territory that would have graffiti artists reaching for cans of spray-paint. An engineering firm has, however, agreed to let the group loose on the exterior wall of their property, so they won’t have to “bomb” it.

“Bombing” is a term used to describe illegal graffiti work that is usually done under the cloak of night, away from prying eyes, witnesses. Speed is essential to bombing. You have to work fast and without much light. It is only when the sun comes up that the artwork is revealed – and then sometimes reviled. Historically, graffiti has been viewed as an incursion, a violation of the urban landscape and public space. To some degree, the graffiti community has accepted and even perpetuated this view of their activities – “bombing” implies a violent and destructive act.
Usually the perpetrator of a bombing would be unknown – at least to the greater public. However, within the once tight and secretive world of urban artists, their identity would be as plain as day. Their work wouldn’t only bear their street moniker, or tag, but each artist has their own signature style.
For 16 years, Curio has been spraying his nom de plume around Joburg. Since he started doing it in parking lots outside nightclubs, the rendering of the letters has become more elaborate, stylised and artistic.
“Sometimes I add another letter, sometimes I jumble the letters. I just keep playing with my name. I am just addicted to bold letters on a wall,” the thirtysomething reluctantly explains. “It means nothing,” he assures, yet this repetitive primal act seems so unlikely from someone like Curio. He parades a “Gangsta” street-look – one of the legs of his trousers is pushed up over his knee to reveal a naked leg – but he is a retiring personality.

I gather that Curio, Rasty and the other artists haven’t “bombed” in awhile. Though their exchanges are peppered with this street term, all are professional graffiti or street artists who make a living from doing commissioned work in their home towns and cities around the world. The advent of the internet has substantially contributed towards its commercialisation. Their work can be seen by anyone now, allowing artists to become minor celebrities who move from town to town, leaving temporary imprints. The work on the wall in Jeppestown will form part of the display for the City of Gold, Urban Arts Festival that Rasty initiated last year. Sponsors, like the Goethe Institut, have supported the event by flying in German street artists Case, Tasso and Atom.