Sunday morning in Maboneng – Joburg’s hipster haven on the east side of the city. Urban regeneration comes in the form of a peanut, banana, date and soya milk smoothie. Maboneng has arrived. What could have been a fantasy is now a high-priced and much in demand reality.
And outside Uncle Merv’s shake shack our little crew is getting bigger. It could be the start of a joke… One editor, one photographer, one blogger and two tour guides meet over a smoothie to wait for Rasty…
Rasty is a legend on Joburg’s city streets. I had heard his name long before I met him.
For the past year I have been interested in finding out more about our street art scene and Rasty’s name follows any inquiry.
Two days earlier I had met him at the Grayscale gallery, of which he is a partner, in Braamfontein, Joburg’s other district of cool. Rasty is legit. He could wear a sash proclaiming him Joburg’s ambassador of street art. He is also the man behind the week-long City of Gold Urban Art festival (April 2012) started “to inspire youth and expose them to a higher quality of graffiti”, he says. In its second year the event aims to “establish Johannesburg as a destination for artists and assist the development of the local street art community.”
In Braamfontein the car guard is curious when I ask him directions. He responds, “Are you going to get a tattoo?”, a smile creeping up his face.
Turns out the Grayscale Gallery’s also home to 1933, a tattoo parlour, and it supplies specialised spray paint for tagging city walls imported from Germany. Rasty is tall, skinny, and covered in them, a Super Mario on his calf, 1933 on his neck. His incredible head of dreadlocked hair is elegantly wound up into a Sikh-like turban. it makes him look majestic. His expression is serene. I forget to ask him his “real” name. Rasty is real enough.
He tells me good graffiti artists make good tattoo artists – both being “outsider art”. I can see the appeal for making a permanent mark. “As a graffiti artist you go somewhere and put in all that time and effort and then you leave it. You can get your photo (and they do and mostly post them online at Flickr to be shared with the world) and that’s it. You have no control over it once it is completed.”
On Sunday morning he is the pied piper leading our troop through the maze of Troyeville’s graffittied streets. The works we stop at are startling in the sharp autumn light. They are full of colour, and playful characters. They are cheeky and subversive, enlivening the otherwise quiet streets east of the city centre. We get an appreciative response from a churchman clad in his green robes. “This is beautiful” he says, gesturing at one of the walls.
Only some of the work is Rasty’s (and his PCP crew members, Angel and Curio). The area is a gallery for Joburg’s graffiti talent. There are also some prominent Cape Town names emblazoned across the walls.
Rasty explains, “Cape Town used to be the mecca of graffiti in South Africa. It started on the Cape Flats and was influenced by Hip-hop culture. Exposure to American styles was filtered through magazines in the mid-1980s. The pioneers were Gogga, Ice, Mak1one (I’m told it’s a silent one) and Falko”.
It then moved its way to Joburg. “There’s momentum at the moment but we are nowhere near cities in Europe and the US that have a long history,” he says. “We still have a way to go. There kids are starting at 13, here in SA it’s much later.” I shake my head in sympathy, and then remember I have an 11-year-old son…
Cape Town artists also look to Joburg since the Democratic Alliance’s bylaw crackdown against graffiti. I have heard it decried by artists, curators and those involved with public art. “Basically you can’t paint an exterior wall without council permission. Not even an extravagant wall number. They think by stopping people from painting legally, they stop it illegally. It’s just forcing people onto the streets at night.”
I ask: “Would it be worth doing if it was legal?” and he replies “It’s about getting your name up, it has an illegal aspect but that’s a small part of it. The primary focus is to put your name up all over the city”. Thinking about it – big commercial brands get to do that all the time with billboards and brand names claiming the cities most prominent landmarks.
“If it wasn’t illegal, you would have more people doing it,” he says. “It’s human nature – think of being a kid and writing your name on a desk. You can’t combat that by talking about the legal aspects.”
We pass an elaborate signature. I can’t make it out but Rasty rates it highly. “People don’t get tagging, why we do it. It’s almost like calligraphy, an art form. It’s about letter style and there are levels of what makes it good or bad quality”.
Name-writing is a crucial part of graffiti. “It all started somewhere with a kid with a Koki in a subway tunnel in New York. It will never disappear,” he says. “And then we discovered the spray can.”
The New Yorker was Taki 183, according to Taki’s official website: “A kid from 183rd street in Washington Heights, Manhattan.” His wrote his signature all over the city and it captured the attention of a New York Times reporter. In the summer of 1971 Taki made graffiti famous in the pages of the paper of record.
“There are different styles – graffiti is more about signing your name, primarily about this whereas street art leans more towards iconic images, logos that can be repeated, or the use of stencils. A lot of street artists start in graffiti and work towards imagery. Graffiti, because it’s about writing your name, is about style, and being an individual. Street art is socially aware, more a comment on society.” We talk about Banksy and his impact, and his incredible film Exit Through the Gift Shop, billed as “the world’s first street art disaster movie”.
“Graffiti is about the fame,” says Rasty, who comes across as someone with little attraction to the spotlight.
His interest was sparked at a hip-hop party when he was finishing high school. “I also saw some interviews on TV, and wanted to try it”. That was in 1999. Rasty grew up near Westdene and Melville, and a big empty wall on Barry Herzog Avenue. It’s one of the “free zones’ in Joburg. Newtown, under the M1 Bridge, is another. His work started drawing attention, and he started getting commissions.
In Joburg the authorities have been supportive. No draconian laws impede this kind of work. Although, he says, even with permission Metro cops might stop you. In places like Maboneng, Newtown and Braamfontein the writing’s all over the walls.
Of course there is etiquette involved. Rasty says from the start he would never spray someone’s house or a place of worship. You also don’t just paint over someone’s fresh work – “If you are going bigger, generally its fine and if you know the person you check with them. There are ways of showing respect and disrespect. To cross out someone’s work is the ultimate insult.”
As we walk through the city it is striking that the eastern suburbs seem more orderly than other parts. The streets are mostly clean, and even though it’s down-at-heel the neighbourhood has a neatness to it, and feels safe.
Ironically it appears that graffiti, so often tied to urban degeneration, is actually playing its part in uplifting the city.
* Grayscale Gallery is at 33 De Korte Street, Braamfontein. This piece originally appeared in Sunday Times Lifestyle For tours of Joburg’s graffiti neighbourhoods contact Past Experiences, the Joburg walking tour company.
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