Outlawed expressions: Doing graffiti in Joburg

Johannesburg - "The City of Cape Town declares the existence of graffiti anywhere within its area of jurisdiction to be a public nuisance, which is subject to removal in terms of this bylaw. No person shall within the area of jurisdiction of the City, without a permit issued by the City, apply graffiti or cause graffiti to be applied to any property; natural surface; wall; fence; structure; or thing in any street or other public place.”

These are the words of Cape Town’s 2010 graffiti bylaw, effectively outlawing the art form in local hip-hop’s birthplace. Cape Town even allegedly employs its homeless community by giving them paint cans so that they can buff over existing graffiti.

In Johannesburg, new DA Mayor Herman Mashaba said last year that the city would look at reviewing its own bylaws.

“Mayor Mashaba understands the importance of creating an enabling environment in our city for businesses to flourish and employ more people,” his spokesperson, Tony Taverna-Turisan, said at the time. “Part of this is to ensure that the inner city is cleaned of deterrents to investment, of which graffiti is one such element.”

Graffiti would fall under the new Outlaw Advertising Bylaw, which went under review in June this year.

The mission

This week I had the pleasure of accompanying some of the best graffiti artists or writers, as they’re sometimes called – in the city on bombing missions and it’s a thrill. Most of them asked not to be named in City Press’ coverage for fear of prosecution for their work. One cat even told me he was shot in the leg back in the days when the train yard scene was big. I’m told that the feeling of seeing a panel you painted roll by on the tracks is equal to no other. I, however, am not built to evade flying lead and so a wall in the city would suffice.

I linked up with popular writers, Empty and Ason, at studio 6 at Joziburg Lane. Empty was sketching at a desk; Ason smoking and looking at the view. Both brothers were wearing Nike Air Max joggers (strangely enough, a lot of the writers I have met rock these regularly). I guess you never know when you need to sprint. “The plan is simple, we’re going to bomb a wall in the city,” the charismatic Empty, a renowned writer from Soweto, tells me.

“A quick throw up [a large piece executed quickly] and maybe a few tags here and there.”

We bought paint at popular graffiti store Grayscale in Braamfontein and hit the avenue.

I have zero drawing talents even though some graffiti artists will tell you that it’s not just about drawing. Empty, who has been a writer since he was 17, said: “It’s more about the can control, knowing how to handle your tools well.”

Empty now owns his own studio, making the transition from the vandal life to selling high-end contemporary art.

He and Ason consider Ekse, Underrated, Dreda and The X-Men their inspirations.

Ason has been a writer since 2008. “I like that classic shit man, in terms of my style,” he explains. He was put on to the game by the likes of Empty and legendary crew, Every Day Krooks.

We roll around the city listening to Apollo Brown and puffing “organic” cigarettes. On one of the busiest roads in the city Empty chooses a spot that’ll be perfect for him and Ason to get up.

(Photos: Phumlani S Langa)

Smoking with loud rap blaring and a crate of aerosol cans, I’m instructed to park the car. My palms are sweating, but my two partners in crime are unfazed.

My role is to be the eyes while they paint.

“People don’t really care; the authorities need to stop acting like this is as widely hated as they make it seem,” Empty said, while the laid-back Ason grinned. They’re unconcerned with any new bylaws that might be passed by Mashaba. “Even if they legalised it, we’d still be bombing. Fuck it!”

For Empty, graffiti is art. “People see it differently, but like any other art form, it has the ability to both uplift and cause chaos.”

They tell me to keep look out and to be discreet with the camera. They start with an olive-green primer and map out the space their characters will take up on the wall. Then they fill the space inside the letters by rapidly spraying back and forth in horizontal lines, reminding me of a laser printer.

They step back to review and check, almost like they’re having a chat with the grimy brick wall. They do a second outline and incorporate bubble effects and other small design features.

Spraying is about being quick, but patient and calm enough to execute. They use NYC Fat Caps for their spray paint, which are known for their precision. The further away you spray from the surface the wider the jet. “Can control is critical,” the two seasoned writers inform me. Then they polish off this unshapely blob of paint by extending and widening lines to give the outlined characters strange effects. The two get very technical.

After 30 minutes of what was actually soothing and fun, we stood and gazed upon a pair of freshly painted throw ups. A new addition to the gallery of the streets, and we were even smiled at and encouraged by pedestrians as they passed by. Their work is centred on the traditions of classic graffiti from New York, with the idea being a name shorter than six letters, written with a flavour or groove to them. Granted, we may not all be able to read what they’ve written, but that’s because these brave foot soldiers of hip-hop are not creating signage. They are crafting rebellious calligraphy.

The quiet deep thinker, Ason made a remark about the new bylaw being passed, “We’re still going to be out here bombing and growing the culture.”

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