Whenever I am in Johannesburg I am on a mission that usually involves shopping, wining and dining. I never have enough time to go sightseeing. On this visit, I determined to explore more of the Johannesburg Street Art scene. I looked for an expert to enlighten me and the natural choice was Jo Buitendach of Past Experiences.
Falko is one of the forerunners of graffiti in South Africa. He has a unique style and has worked for more than 25 years to establish graffiti as a credible visual art form.
Jo is clearly passionate about what she does. She gives back to the community in numerous ways and as we walk through the streets there are smiles and greetings from people along the way. She knows many of the artists personally and some of them have partnered with her on the tours as well. Knowing the artists gives her an insight into their work that allows you to discover their journey and the motivation behind the art. She points out little details and suddenly there is a light bulb moment when you also understand the story.
Mars is one of the city’s most prolific artists. His signature is the use of bright colours and a look at the lighter side of life.
What Is Graffiti?
Within street art, there are numerous subcultures. Graffiti is often thought of as defacement of property, but even so, it has a message. It might just be a name or a political commentary by those who want to influence public opinion or it could be a territorial statement. Sometimes it is simply a personal message. It is a way to have a public voice and give back something at the same time.
It can essentially be categorized in 3 forms:
Tags – this is the writer’s signature
Throw-ups – two coloured outlined text
Pieces – the riotous colourful murals
Artists refer to themselves as “writers”. Even then there is a hierarchal system amongst the writers which Jo explains as we continue on our tour.
If you look at this tag carefully you will see the letters in the tag forming the writer’s name. It’s there a couple of times!
What is Johannesburg Street Art?
Johannesburg street art is mostly about smaller scale pieces. There are stencils, stickers and wraps, but most of the work is tags. As we walk through Maboneng it is wonderful to see the edgy urban regeneration of the area. It is fast becoming the trendiest part of the city to explore.
Jo defines 2 categories of the art we see as we walk. Public art is more formal, paid for and commissioned usually by the government or large corporations while street art and graffiti are sometimes commissioned or happily permitted in places like the precinct we are exploring.
Freddy Sam’s Nelson Mandela tribute mural took just 4 days to complete and is 10 storeys high and was a commissioned work.
Artists from around the world and all over South Africa are finding that they are able to express themselves freely in Johannesburg. A new creative generation is looking at art differently which promises an exciting future for the city.
New York street artist Steve ESPO Powers is renowned for his unique typographic style. “Mama Afrika” celebrates the city.
Even though it is a contentious topic in South Africa local street artists are gaining recognition both here and internationally. Large corporates and brands like Adidas and Ray-Ban are jumping on the bandwagon and injecting vast sums of cash into the city and using street artists for their advertising.
Sonny is a British artist based in South Africa. He finds his inspiration in the patterns of Africa and fantasy.
I believe that street art is becoming more acceptable and it is an expression of today’s contemporary art. It is dynamic and constantly evolving. It tells a story of what is happening on the streets and in its own way has a part in shaping the future.
Johannesburg like any other city has many people who look at painted walls and call it vandalism. Thank goodness there are more and more people, like me, who love it.
This part of the city for many years was a no-go area because of the decayed buildings and crime. Maboneng is now living up to its name, the city of light, and the transformation and creative energy that abounds in the area is a joy to experience.
Next time you are in Jozi take the time to explore the Johannesburg street art scene with Jo. You can’t help but feel inspired.
Disclosure: I received a discount on this tour. Naturally, these opinions are my own and are based on my experience.
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