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Is Graffiti vandalism or art?

To the average South African, painting on walls with a spray-can, represents vandalism, with the resulting loss of value to property, degradation of an area, and financial outlay. But to a budding artist, these "drawings" mark a blank canvas which they cannot resist – it calls out to him, just waiting to be filled with his art!

To channel our local graffiti talent in a positive and constructive way, our ‘legal’ mobile art screen at Spar Walk was erected in June 2012. 

The material has deteriorated since then and we had to remove it entirely. We intend sourcing a new canvas to start up this project again as we deem it helpful.

Sure to become a talking point in the community…

- when captions or “tags” are sprayed, or written with permanent markers (“bomb” pens), on private, municipal and government property – walls, bridges, road signs, private signage, trains, stationery vehicles … the list is endless! If it is there, it can be tagged or “bombed”! (See list of definitions). Graff is considered vandalism if it creates distress and financial outlay to the owner. It shamelessly shows no regard for others, and is not necessarily a sign of poor upbringing! Eye-openingly enough, tagging and bombing are activities indulged in by youngsters from ALL backgrounds, with the off-spring of wealthier backgrounds being the most active! Many of the tagging, bombing “crews” are made up of young people (boys, and a growing number of girls, some beginning as young as 8 years old!) who come from a background with no strong father figure, and a broken, most times dysfunctional, family. Becoming accepted as part of a graffiti crew, equates with being accepted as a family member. The code of loyality within a crew is so strong, that members would (seriously) rather die than betray one another, and would move Heaven and Earth in support and defence of each other!

is about EARNING “RESPECT”, and involves the writing of your “tag” name all over the place, and the more tags a graffer has out there, the higher his chances are of being invited to join a recognised and more reputable crew. (Tag stickers – stickers with your tag scribbled on in permanent marker – are also used to stick on one's travels everywhere … on poles, doors – basically anywhere! Petrol pumps and cash registers in shops have all been “tagged” with labels! It is easier for one to stealthily place a sticker without being caught!) Basically, it is advertising yourself as brazen and audacious, and having what it takes, to be a crew member! Crews will also tag when out and about, to advertise their presence and to “claim” territory. Crews will often make deals with each other, to prevent “turf wars”, by trading their regular areas for a night, so new graffiti in an area is not necessarily created by the regulars! Crews which have earned a reputation are highly respected, and every young and up-coming graffer aspires to one day belonging to one of them. Crews will respect each other's pieces, unless they are going out to declare themselves better! Generally, they will not paint over or on each other's productions, and if they do, they are inviting retribution! This activity has unfortunately encouraged the gangster mentality in some youngsters, with many of them carrying weapons (such as knuckle-dusters, ninja stars, flick knives, batons etc.) Adding fuel to the fire of unacceptance by general society...however, the general graffiti mentality amongst themselves is one of acceptance and tolerance. Many have the kindest, most gentle and generous souls found in our population, loyal and self-sacrificing, showing empathy for sectors of society who are forgotten and unseen. Many a homeless person has received a meal sacrificed by a graffer, or been given a warm, cherished hoodie to wear ….many a neglected and abused child or animal has received kindness and affection …

A piece or production of Graffiti art is called a “moving exhibition”, as it is not going to be there forever. A crew will usually leave the art for a month, perhaps as long as 3 months, then “roll” (prime) over it, and create a whole new artwork. World-renowned Graffiti artists, such as Banksey, have often been lambasted by an adoring public, for painting over a piece, before producing a new one in its place. Some productions are so good, that fans want them to stay! A Graffiti artist itches to constantly re-create, something “normal” people do not quite understand, as an art piece is usually regarded as something to be preserved!

what is considered “art” is a personal preference. Not everyone has an appreciation for Picasso or Salvadore Dali, but their creations, once considered abominations and perversions, are now seen as credible and reputable – with much respect in the evolution and history of Art. Most recognised art movements throughout Time, started out as unacceptable and received much criticism, with many artists facing the threat of being thrown into jail for heresy or defamation! Even Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo faced artistic persecution, financial ruin and ostracism, as some of their ideas in their time, were labelled as extreme, radical, offensive and even vulgar! Impressionism and Surrealism were art movements that grew from traumatic world experiences, (particularly during and after World War 1), and were a way for many of the artists to express their horror, pain or political outcry as to what they were feeling or experiencing. Many surrealist artists used optical illusions to hide their intended message, and were very often ostracised, even seen as evil. “Pop Art” arising from the 60's was labelled as a movement of utter rebellion and anarchy, and led to the degradation of society, yet formed the basis of how all our media is presented today! (What upset our parents, excited and inspired us, is considered as quaint and amusing to our children!) Looking back in time, art forms and movements tell the story of social conditions of a particular era ….important recordings and expressions of social commentary ... and this is now what we face with GRAFFITI. Graffiti is a form of expression our Youth have embraced, and it too, is an evolving art form that is painting a history of our Time… and these artists have plenty to say!

- Graffiti is NOT going to go away, so if you hate it, fighting it is going to just add fuel to the fire! Our Youth have a mindset of rebellion against authority (nothing new over the Ages) but this is THEIR way of doing so today – a “new” way, that upsets society and authority, the desired end result! Perhaps the solution is in understanding, not necessarily personally accepting, but reaching across the generational divide. We live in a world so constantly bombarded by technology and a drive to succeed, ever-growing economical fear, and threat of state securities, resulting in the generational gaps just growing wider every day. Older generations have the mental and emotional maturity to have the capacity for reaching out to the younger generation, in an effort to learn about and understand their culture. In so doing, thereby help guide, inspire, encourage and mentor our Youth, as they try to “find themselves” in a world so totally filled with pressures and fears, and learn to respect the World around them, because they have been given guidance and shown respect for themselves. They will pass the baton on one day … Let us be progressive and informed in how we view our youngsters and their choice of artistic expression, and keep up with the rest of the World, as they are becoming more accepting and understanding of the Graffiti art movement..

is actually quite an involved art form, which requires a lot of skill, planning and fore-thought. The difference between a tagger and a real Graffiti artist can be distinguished by the quality of their work. An artist will spend many hours sketching and planning a “piece”, and it could take a considerable amount of time before the artist is ready to paint his “production”. (Many a young graff artist achieves high standards in Technical Drawing classes, and the subject helps with designing the optical “illusions”. Many pieces can not be “read” without a trained eye, and this gives great self-satisfaction to the artist!) Characters are gaining huge popularity, and many graffers will design a character as their signature logo. Colour choices are carefully made, and colour swatches are regularly kept. A spray can is not necessarily a spray can! Imported Montana paints are the most sought after, and do not come cheaply! (Montana paint gives a dense but smooth, matte finish, saving layering of paint, and resulting in less paint being required). Graff crews will often pool their finances and import large quantities of Montana cans, caps and “bomb” pens, and then become suppliers on the streets, so cutting costs! Caps come in different sizes and applications, providing different lines and textures, and an artist will jealously tend and guard his collection of caps as a regular artist would his set of paintbrushes! “Bomb” pens are basically high fluidity permanent markers, leak-proof, with large wells of paint-like ink, coming in various colours, nib sizes and shapes, and have a long shelf-life. Stencils are often skilfully designed and created, in order to leave a recognisable mark around town – almost like a tag.

is the main draw-card for many a graffer! Many Graffiti artists are super-fit, and live for the thrill of “getting away with it”, not being caught, jumping on and off moving trains, train-surfing, free-running through busy shopping malls and heavy traffic, over roofs, escalators and stairs, always up for a dare. Teenagers have always had a need for excitement , stimulation and victory, but many miss out on being mentored into sporting activities (where the need for healthy excitement, competition and winning would be met). Being a recognised and respected graff artist is the ultimate high... and this desire should not be underestimated! It takes a wise and understanding older generation to reach across the divide, and try to find a common ground for the two sectors to live and be, side-by-side, retaining and maintaining respect for self and others...

Definition of terminology
this is your name or name of your crew, made with a marker or spraycan. Very often with a hidden meaning or symbolism.
a person who practices tagging.
the prolific painting or marking with ink.
your painted design.
a complicated piece, jointly procuced and worked on by a crew.
or “priming”. When primer paint is used to create a “canvass” on which to do your piece or production.
to copy another Graffiti artist's style – an absolute taboo, inviting retribution!
the term used to describe the removal of Graffiti, particularly off trains.
to beat someone in a Graff Jam (competition).
a well done wildstyle, admired new technique.
toning of two colours, and blending.
older train coaches, having more suitable flat-sides, easier to paint on.
a siding where trains are parked overnight.
a person who practices spraycan art and who is actively involved in tagging, piecing and bombing, and is recognised as a practitioner of the art of Graffiti!
a name painted quickly, and often on the run, with one layer of spraypaint and an outline.
old-school bubble lettering, usually used by “toys”.
different types of prime and spraypaints, used to create pieces.
the nozzles used to vary the width of line and texture of spray.
a learner, beginner, or person who has little knowledge or practice of Graffiti art.
not of any quality, associated with novices.
scarf or bandanna, worn as a gas-mask while painting.
use of steel wool or brushes, to rub away pollution and dirt, leaving behind your piece, or production.

Many countries around the world are recognising the use of Graffiti as a tool for rehabilitation of slums and ghettos. Encouraging the crews to do a “trade off” has also encouraged pride in an area. By offering LEGAL WALLS for crews to regularly paint, in return for the crews to help clean up the areas of illegal graffiti, litter and pollution, has also given credibility to the art form. Many Graffiti artists are now sponsored by brand names and companies, and these artists are fast becoming wealthy and their work is sought-after! (Brazil has even gone so far as to give government grants to crews, in a successful effort to divert criminal activity, revitalise degraded neighbourhoods and reduce drug trafficking.) Many older Graffiti artists have moved on, becoming upstanding, wage-earning citizens, and are now mentoring the younger generations following in their footsteps, helping to keep them from drugs and being absorbed into gangs.

In South Africa, recognised Graffiti artists are very quickly making a name for themselves, are sponsored by companies such as Dulux Paints, and top brand names. In Johannesburg, we have Rasty, (responsible for many of the murals in and around the city), Durban's Ewok, who is also an accomplished Shakespearian actor, and Cape Town's Falco, who recently featured on the TV series, “A Country Imagined”, with Johnny Clegg. In Durban, the BAT Centre regularly gives opportunity to artists to display their work, and the Life Check events are eagerly anticipated. The uninitiated enjoy the spectacle, as it is something fresh and new!

What is known as CREATIVE ACTIVISM has led to the rejuvenation of many neighbourhoods. In Cape Town, all the crews and artists were brought together, and sponsored to paint murals in places of safety, children's homes and dirty industrial areas. The Graff artists said that it was important for people to feel proud of their places, so that they could be proud of themselves and each other!

In the December 2010 edition of the Reader's Digest, an article entitled “Pimp your Street”, encouraging the upgrading of neighbourhoods, made a point about tackling the Graffiti problem. They suggested:- “If you can't beat the taggers or Graffiti artists, join 'em! Designate a wall a “Graffiti art area”, and challenge some local schoolchildren to create a mural so fine no-one would dare touch it!”

LEGAL WALLS are fast becoming an essential area to have in a neighbourhood, and will go far in keeping the Graffers from being tempted to paint elsewhere. Graff Jams can be utilised as fund-raisers for local charities, or towards the upliftment of the area, and can be organised to be fun events, bringing together all in the neighbourhood. Local schools can start Graffiti clubs, as an extra-mural activity, and schools can have inter-school Graff Jams! Prizes of sponsored paints and fashionable clothing will be a major draw-card! Businesses are starting to utilise local Graffiti artists and crews in doing unusual and thought-provoking interior office designs, or murals. Graffiti art painted on canvasses can earn pocket money, as many a youngster who is not artistically inclined, but appreciates the art, craves a “piece” of their own. Stencilled “portraits” are popular, and a Graffiti artist has many a creative idea for presenting a disitinctive artwork, that – who knows? May just fetch a pretty price for the owner one day … Progressive, forward-thinking art galleries may well consider investing in a piece or two!


Material compiled by Mrs Letia Leigh