Painting the City of Gold
Johannesburg’s booming street-art scene.
Jabu Fakude used to be regularly arrested for his graffiti, bright splashes of color spray-painted without permission on the walls of Johannesburg’s buildings. “In order to be a respected artist, you don’t ask permission,” he says, explaining the gist of graffiti culture. “The only way to be famous is to be notorious.”
But recently, the 21-year-old street artist has watched his work become more and more welcome across Johannesburg, a city that’s developing an unusually positive attitude toward street art — the result of a combination of government acceptance and property developers who see it as an edgy attraction. Today, the mix of clandestine and commissioned work has made the city a place to see some of the world’s best graffiti.
In Maboneng Precinct, a district on Johannesburg’s east side where graffiti is especially celebrated, commissioned works by South African masters run side by side with pieces completed by international graffiti stars. A King Kong–sized piece by Spanish artist Remed, a guardian with a spear, watches over the city. Fifty meters west, the signature wire-like animal paintings by DALeast, an artist based in Cape Town, appear to leap off the walls. These spirals of black, white and gray paint look like three-dimensional sculptures of jumping springbok — the bouncy, deer-like animal that also serves as the mascot for the country’s rugby team.
From surrealist landscapes and Botticelli-esque figures to meter-high, neon-colored words, Johannesburg’s graffiti spans the full range of genres. “International visitors come because of the street art,” says Hannelie Coetzee, a 42-year-old artist living in Maboneng. “It’s a completely contemporary art attraction.”
Graffiti in South Africa started in the Cape Flats in the mid-’80s, when the townships outside Cape Town embraced the music, lifestyle and spray paint of hip-hop culture. Over time, though, the conservative city thought graffiti distasteful and so implemented strict bylaws prohibiting it.
Meanwhile, the hip-hop trend began to flourish in Johannesburg. The city’s lawmakers have even embraced the art, collaborating on citywide projects such as the Back to the City Festival, a government-subsidized day of “live music, street art and break dancing.”
It helps, too, that the city appears as a blank canvas, with its never-ending blocks of abandoned buildings — a side effect of the 1990s post-apartheid urban exodus, when thousands of people fled the cities in favor of gated suburbs.
“If we paint something somewhere in Europe, the very next day our picture could be painted over,” says Rasty, a 31-year-old graffiti artist. “Here, if we paint, two years later it will still be there.”
The permanence is a boon to Fakude, who also works as a graffiti tour guide, walking through downtown Johannesburg neighborhoods showing both illegal and commissioned graffiti. Fakude ends his tour in Newtown, an inner-city cultural hub with museums and music venues.
“This is my masterpiece,” he says, standing arms outstretched in front of a huge blue-and-red wall, where a one-eyed figure holding two white flags stares down a gun barrel. “I called him ‘the cloud man,’” Fakude says. “He stands for peace.”
More and more companies are now approaching the artist to commission work for their external walls — yet another sign of graffiti’s evolution from a shady medium to one that’s widely accepted and even celebrated. For Fakude, that means less time in jail and more money for his art. But he’ll never forget his roots, he says. After all, to be famous is to be notorious.