Mars is a Joburg icon. Drive around Newtown, Fordsburg, and along Barry Hertzog Ave and you’ll see his telltale signs. The 25-year-old graffiti artist has pretty much made his mark across the city. This week his exhibition From The Ground Up is on at Two By Two Gallery in Newtown. It’s definitely worth seeing. Before Instagram and inner city gentrification there was Graffiti and with it came the mingling of exhaust and paint fumes, the scraping away of rot and unearthing urine-stained sidewalk weeds for the perfect spot. There was finding the best wall and owning it, but most of all burning the rest. This is graffiti and it all started from the ground up.”
This is the story of #Mars…
For 10 years graffiti artist Mars has marked Johannesburg’s walls, alleyways, bridges and train carriages. This month the 25-year-old whose day job is as a graphic designer takes on the challenge of a different set of walls, inside the gallery. His debut exhibition sees him make the transition from public spaces to a commercial gallery, from ephemeral works to lasting art pieces. It is a first for the artist and a rare transition in the local graffiti world. Talking of the exhibition he says: “Maybe it’s not graffiti per se because I personally find that with graffiti if you just slap it on a canvas and put it in a gallery, it doesn’t really work. You’ve got combine it with elements of illustration, design, typography or fine art just to make it more… so people can maybe take it home. I think it’s a different space altogether. There are all sorts of different rules.”
From the Ground Up is at Two by Two Art Studio, 41 Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, Newtown until October 24.
What was the first thing you ever wrote on a wall?
“I think fuck or something. Give anyone a spray can. That’s the first thing people always write, or they draw a giant penis. You give anyone a spray can and that’s the first thing they will do I guarantee it. I have even given a can to girls who just want to spray … I am talking about grown women in their 20s.There should be some sort of social study based on that … To start it’s always something negative like you’ve got a spray can so it must be bad.”
Where did you learn about graffiti?
“What really got me into graffiti … I was watching TV I saw spraypainting in this movie 187 with Samuel L. Jackson. Good movie and like I say so we went and wrote all these swear words and nonsense in an abandoned church next to my house… Then I met all the kids who were doing it and they showed me a few things, what makes good graffiti or crap graffiti. No one really knew at that time. This was almost 10 years ago in the northern suburbs. We had very little idea of what the whole graffiti concept was …”
What attracted you to the spraycan?
“A natural progression really. I was first into skateboarding. It’s sort of the same, in the streets… I watched the kids on TV smoking, skateboarding and then spray painting so we were like let’s go and spray paint just for the hell of it. It really didn’t have anything to do with art. Looking back it was just something I felt was missing out of the whole picture. We had the skateboards, cheap wine just no spray cans. A lot has changed. I don’t even drink anymore but over the years it has become more of an escape thing, to get away from normal everyday stuff I guess.”
How do you choose your walls?
“Usually walls that have got other graffiti on them. There’s a bit of etiquette. You usually go for one that already has graffiti on it because that way you know they don’t clean the graffiti of that spot. The last thing you want to do is go on someone’s brand new wall and they clean it. Also I don’t paint on people’s walls. I wouldn’t go to a suburb and put tags or whatever. Usually it’s with a crew who spray paint together. We’ve got our walls where we have asked for permission. This is where we do our big murals, the proper stuff and you get permission for that and maybe every year we revisit that … Let’s say we’ve got 10 walls we revisit and update the mural and those are usually high profile walls where a lot of people drive by and some people stop … Maybe we get work out of it … A lot of people will see it.”
Tell me about the legal illegal divide.
“You get the owner’s permission. The legal ones take more time and people put effort, money, spray paint into it. Some of the best walls are done that way. With the illegal stuff you don’t ask, you don’t put a lot of time or resources in because it can get cleaned any time and you don’t want to get caught … but ultimately the reward can be the same.”
What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve ever been in?
“I don’t think I want to talk about that.”
What’s your proudest work?
“It’s different degrees. Commissioned work I don’t find really rewarding to be honest with you unless its a very open project but when people ask me to do stuff for money it’s often their way. I think I get a lot of reward out of doing mural walls with concepts where I can spend time there for a day or two come back. It’s satisfying just make a an overall aesthetically pleasing conceptual sort of art piece, something with a bit of effort. You know what I mean. I think afterwards it’s nice. You take a photo and see what you did. All graffiti people keep photos… Proudest work. There’s different pieces. I guess it also depends on the memories attached to them like when I look at my photo it’s not just the graffiti on the wall. ‘Okay that day was this Saturday and we went to Soweto the four of us and we did this … ‘There’s a whole memory behind it as well, a whole experience to it. I have been some crazy places that I never thought I’d be because of just doing graffiti living this sort of lifestyle. I have met some really interesting people as well that I have become good friends with overseas and here so it’s a lot more than what’s on the wall.”
At what stage were you ready to say I am now a graffiti artist?
“Shit! I don’t know maybe only recently. I feel like I am only now starting to really do graffiti, I mean real art whereas the past few years I have just been trying to get to a stage where it can be something … Feels like it.”
How has the graffiti scene changed since you started?
Drastically. Like when I first started there was no imported spray paint, no spray paint shops just the stuff you get at the hardware store really terrible local brands. There was no media no book, no magazines. Even the Internet wasn’t as big. And just in past four years since the graffiti shops have opened up and since the Internet has blown up and people are getting super famous just off the Internet which is cool it makes it very accessible to a lot of kids, a lot of different people. Right now there’s a world, a global scene. It’s not any more a new York scene or an Rome scene now people from all these countries like us can see what’s going on there and they can see what’s going on here … We’re still very primitive compared to first world countries but eight to 10 years ago … Just so much more information out there. It’s also become popular amongst mainstream media in advertising, clothing it’s just really gotten a lot bigger even the response I have gotten for this show has been a lot more than I expected.”
What does it feel like to have your work in a gallery?
“Well the whole concept of it was just that. To make the transition from graffiti in the street to graffiti in the gallery or maybe not graffiti per we because I personally find graffiti if you just slap it on a canvas and put it in a gallery it doesn’t really work so you got to combine it with elements of illustration, design, typography or fine art just to make it more so people can maybe take it home and or look at it. I think it’s a different space altogether, all sorts of different rules. Like in the street you know what you are doing. You have to paint it first with a primer and then you do your thing. On a canvas. You have to keep in mind maybe I should say something, should I leave a message behind, or you got to keep in mind who is going to be looking at it. It’s very different and it also opens up a lot of doors. Personally that’s what it was about, this whole project, just to get into the gallery scene. A whole transition. That’s why a lot of the work is experimental it’s not just graffiti, it’s a mix mash whole bunch of other stuff. This is just like the platform show. Maybe in a year or two I will do another show which will have some sort of social outlook. Once I am in there and have a bit of a voice I can maybe concentrate on just one concept.”
Whose work do you admire?
“There’s a lot of people, local and international, graffiti artists, fine artists, illustrators … I can appreciate most types of art. Even the stuff I don’t like I still try to understand … Local scene I like the guys that I paint with, the crew is called demolition squad and some of those guys are doing good artwork not just graffiti. Into other areas I guess it would be TAPZ, and Rasty. I like the way he has gone into tattooing. In Cape Town I like Toe and Sure. They paint a lot. One of the things I admire about them. They are constantly doing something every week.”
It seems more difficult to be a graffiti artist in Cape Town?
“Don’t get me started. That’s why I admire Toe and Sure because they still keep doing it regardless of what has changed there but in the past two years the Cape Town scene has been cut down to almost half in size because of the bylaws and the new government there stating that you need proper regulations and permissions for walls. Now in Cape town you can’t just ask the owner can I go paint your wall, you have to go through the council and get papers and paperwork signed, such bureaucracy. To get a wall that you might not even get or you’ll only get in two months time so a lot of guys have found it more difficult, especially for the younger guys A lot have come to Joburg.”
Is there a message in your work?
“A lot of the message is just that graffiti is really an art form, as well as what this exhibition is really about is that I am trying to show people that its an art form that can be taken seriously. In first world countries they got shows like this, got graffiti artists at Art Basel. I am just trying to build up a bit of a platform for this kind of thing here. That is the whole concept right now. Different works have different concepts. A lot of the time it’s just pushing the technical and sort of aesthetic boundaries of graffiti and how it looks and how it should be and how it shouldn’t be. There’s a lot of rules within graffiti as well that I am trying to break. Graffiti artists wouldn’t use … Purists wouldn’t use acrylic paints and things like that.
“Spray painting in that abandoned church one day I drew an alien face that I wanted to spray paint there. As a kid I drew aliens and the normal stuff that kids draw, guns and … Thing little boys draw. So I drew an alien and then figured graffiti needs to have a word next to it so I asked my friend at the time what should I write and he said you might as well put mars there or some planet. Because that’s the most obvious fucking thing. And then it kind of just stuck with me.. I kept writing it everywhere and everytime I did something.”
Do you think you’ll ever stop?
I’d like to think not. In another five years I’d have been doing it for half my life. I went into design because of graffiti. My tattoos, my appearance and what I do… it’s all based around a can of aerosol
Is what you do about the pursuit of Freedom?
“Isn’t all art about that. Of course like all art it’s a way of escaping, freeing myself ,getting rid of stress, tension, whatever, when I am happy, sad or whatever the case may be. In a lot of ways it’s also freedom in the sense of ….What we see is a lot of visual pollution, a lot of advertising out there and it’s stuff put there not by the public. It’s stuff put there by big corporations with a lot of money. We live here. If I don’t want to look at a billboard that’s trying to sell me something I shouldn’t have to and if I want to put something up that I want to look at and I don’t have a million rand to spend on it and pay for it legally I can just go and do it. In that sense it’s taking back public property. I don’t think it’s fair that corporations can just choose, well, to bombard us with whatever they want and it’s not even anything pretty, not even anything good to look at. not anything expressionistic, just shit they are trying to sell us. On whose land and at what cost? We are all on earth. Just because he’s got a million rand he can put something there and I can’t?”
Does Jo’burg need graffiti?
“Every city does. It’s the everyday working man’s expression… I go to work I pay my taxes. If I saw a city with no graffiti I would think there’s only robots living there. It’s just something people are inclined to do, like carving your girlfriend’s name on a park bench.”
See the work at Two By Two Art Studios