While there are those who dismiss graffiti as a public blight and associate the practice with disintegrating neighbourhoods and social ills, in Joburg the spread of graffiti has played a role in the city’s upliftment.
In the city centre and neighbourhoods of Braamfontein, Newtown and Maboneng, the wall paintings by local and international artists enliven spaces, create reasons to pause along busy streets and add colour to the concrete cityscape. Many of the large-scale pieces have been commissioned as part of different projects and festivals that celebrate this urban art. They also serve the purpose of creating beauty amid the billboards and advertising hoardings that blare commercial messages at passersby.
Joburg boasts a thriving graffiti artist network and culture across the city and many works are collaborations created by graffii crews. There is a dedicated gallery, Grayscale in Braamfontein, and two annual festivals that celebrate this art form. The City of Gold Festival, usually held in October, brings international artists to work alongside locals, while hip hop festival Back to the City literally takes over Newtown on April 27 (the national public holiday Freedom Day) each year and leaves many new artworks on the specially decommissioned highway pillars.
The pieces are often playful, from Mars’ intricately coloured tags to the pointed references to the city’s missing wildlife. A standout is Ricky Lee Gordon’s (aka Freddy Sam) 40-metre-high mural of Nelson Mandela (cnr Staib St and Beacon Rd, Maboneng) completed shortly after Mandela’s death. It was inspired by a photograph of a young Mandela boxing on the rooftop of a city block, taken by Drum magazine photographer Bob Gosani in the 1950s. The same photo inspired Marco Cianfanelli’s Shadow Boxing sculpture on Fox Street opposite Mandela’s law practice.
On the eastern side of the city, the development of Maboneng, a lifestyle neighbourhood with its live, work and play ethos, has at every step encouraged artists to put their mark on the large canvases of the cityscape. In fact the neighbourhood’s developers have offered many artists residencies in exchange for public artworks.
While some graffiti artists are hooded figures taking their chances with an angry spray can, this is more the exception than the rule. And even celebrated fine artists like Nelson Makamo whose artworks fetch gallery prices have been lured onto the streets to use the walls as a canvas. You can see his work along Van Beek Street in Maboneng.
And it’s not just the city that has a taste for these works. In the suburb of Westdene a neighbourhood project has seen more than 40 murals commissioned on the exterior walls of private homes. The walls of Kliptown in Soweto are covered in work by international artists and even upmarket Rosebank with its swanky malls, top art galleries and corporate offices has succumbed with the arrival of a massive elephant mural on a previously neglected corner painted by UK-born artist Sonny. You’ll need to drive or walk along Bolton Avenue towards Jan Smuts Avenue for the best view.