Sunday morning in Newtown. We joined the lovely Jo Buitendach from Past Experiences, the original city walking tour company for a graffiti walk. Jo’s in the process of writing her M.A. thesis focusing on the heritage value of graffiti in Newtown. Hopefully it will end up as a book. She has an anthropological take likening it to early human’s need for self-expression once realised in rock art.
Newtown’s streets are quiet on a Sunday save for churchgoers and the sounds emanating from a nearby charismatic church. The area is under construction. Cranes tower over the area adjoining the Market Theatre, where a shopping centre and office development will soon start to take shape. Behind the freeway bridge, towards Fordsburg the old grain silos are being converted into apartments and shipping containers have been stacked atop the building like Lego, to be converted into accommodation units. In not so many years Newtown has been reinvented more times than most can recall – under the banner of Joburg’s cultural precinct.
With all the changes it has become a perfect site for graffiti artists to practice their art, an outdoor gallery displaying an incredible range of exhibition-worthy work. From graffiti to tagging, stencilling to chalking, it’s a multimedia experience to walk the streets and see work by big names like Rasty, Angel, Faith 47, Mars, Tapz, Mein, Love and Fin, Mr Slipperz and Solo One to mention a few, a local and international mix. There’s humour and social commentary, revolutionary messages, paid for commercial stuff and just plain great to look at pieces.
I am a big believer that graffiti art in Joburg is more linked to the city’s regeneration than to the classic narrative of urban decline. Jo mentioned that the City of Joburg had even gone so far as to commission some works, a really progressive step, although not all graffiti artists would agree (See Sole One’s comment above on commercial graffiti). There’s also not too much regulation in the city, with bylaws existing as a wish list rather than enforcecable rules and no maintenance budgets for artworks in public areas. With Newtown already protected as a heritage zone – as far as I know no new developments can be built that are taller than three storeys ensuring that the view of historic points of interest from the ring road above the city is not obscured – Jo’s thesis raises some interesting issues. Should graffiti be protected? In most cases it’s the graffiti artists themselves that decide whose work is worthy of a long lifespan. So the huge concrete columns flanking Museum Africa under the bridge are legally repainted each year as part of the back to the city festival. And walls are repainted and painted again. Graffiti is ephemera, it’s power lies in its ability to respond to right now. Cue the Marikana works and the Tatane chalking (pictured).
Jo quotes Banksy, “Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.”
* The tour is part of the Joburg festival programme that runs until August 31. It started and ended at Sci-Bono science museum in Newtown where I can recommend both the museum and the coffee.
If you spot any misattribution of works – please let me know…