Walls are large, blank surfaces, highly visible, and
– especially in towns and cities – they are everywhere. Not surprisingly, they become a space for creative outpourings, opinion, information, advertisements, protest, beautification, celebration, and sometimes desecration.
Graffiti, it is said, started with the tag. The style of graffiti that we have become familiar with in the cities of South Africa originated in New York at the end of the 1960s. Street artists using spray cans created rapid but often beautiful “calligraphy” on the sides of subway trains. These designs were mostly elaborate signatures, called tags: the secret alphabets of particular artists, working quickly in the night. The tag was both the artist’s code name and a visual label. The trains on which they painted were moving “canvases”, seen for miles as they travelled, by thousands of people. Graffiti literally travelled fast.
Indeed it has now travelled throughout the world. Why does street art and graffiti have so strong a presence and energy? In large cities everywhere, there are invariably parts that become decayed, alienating, and neglected. High walls can become inhuman, the spaces between them run down and blighted.
Graffiti and mural art can change one’s experience of such spaces: it is not created by city officials, but by people who live their lives there. Walls might be the place to show defiance and anger; yet increasingly, instead, mural paintings are being made that humanise, beautify, amuse, and astonish.
Some wall artists work alone, using nothing but their spray cans, and perhaps a ladder. Others work in teams with massive equipment, like cranes and scaffolding, creating murals that cover multi-story buildings. Either way, according to Johannesburg graffiti artist Rasti Knayles, this impulse stems ultimately from the desire to leave one’s mark. “It is to say ‘I was here.’”
Knayles embraces the short-lived nature of this kind of art. He enjoys the fact that other artists will soon spray new images over his own. He compares wall art – in that sense – to the rock art of the San, who simply added new images over old, creating a palimpsest of overlapping forms.
Another mural artist in Johannesburg, Breeze Yoko, celebrates the public nature of his art-making because people engage with it: they stop, and debate, question and respond. He too speaks of a continuity with San rock painting, but the link for him is his subject matter: animals. Life-size cows might seem incongruous on walls in inner-city Johannesburg; for Yoko, however, they are a symbol of African values. “People relate, they recognize themselves. I am trying to develop an African voice in this art-form – otherwise who are we talking to?”