The Art of Graffiti

By Pablo / Word on the Street / 7th February 2017

Is Grafitti, art?
I suppose it depends on who you are talking to.

To the average pension-pending male or female, graffiti would typically be a nuisance, an eyesore, straight up vandalism. To a policeman, it’s a crime for which the perp should pay a price for. To the creative eye, complex compositions of geometric shapes and brash colours may be rather pleasing. For the Hip Hop souls, graffiti is the visual representation of music which has formed an integral part of the birth of a youthful urban culture that encouraged creativity, bridged gaps between races and initiated peace in savage surroundings all for the sake of self-expression. The point is, art is totally subjective – one persons delight is another’s symbol of destruction.

But then I suppose it also depends on what you’re looking at.

Effortless scribbles on walls and public property is not the focus of this brief discussion – in no way am I arguing that that is art and will undoubtedly make a silver lamp post look prettier. As with every form of art, the quality will vary.

If you’re passing by the Muizenberg trains, you probably will not be impressed with the aesthetics of this so-called art form at first glance – old carriages covered in layers and layers of images and luminous writing in words that you have to say out loud to try and pronounce. Years of messages sprayed over each other and sealed on a steel canvas – until the City decides to dissolve them for good. Overall, a little messy and not the prettiest sight.

But – looking at these trains can make you wander about why the artist has chosen to use it as a canvas in the first place when it most likely will be painted over within days. Of course, some may just live for the thrill of spraying in high-risk areas and getting their pieces up quickly so they don’t get caught. Others, I think, select trains as their surface because of the capacity it has the carry their message. They don’t care how long it will be up there for, who will hate it or who will love it. They care about the distance that the message can travel – the more people that see it, the higher the probability that maybe just one will listen.


Mural in Woodstock by Andrezej Urbanski. He will create more work like this at next weeks International Public Art Festival.

If you find yourself wandering the streets of Woodstock you will be exposed to a more considered form of graffiti like the one you can see in the image above. These complex murals have not just appeared overnight, but rather are planned pieces of emotive story telling which are a medium to express the pains of the past, the politics of the present and dreams for the future. It’s not to say that the pieces on the trains have no story behind them – of course they do, the artists just have significantly less time to complete them in.

The art revolution in Woodstock is largely attributed to public artist and Cape Town local, Freddy Sam, who started by asking residents for permission to paint on their walls after showing them his designs in 2010. His aim was to transform the neighbourhood with an explosion of colour – “colour creates energy, energy creates inspiration and inspiration creates change”.

His initiative, A Word of Art, works closely with the youth who help to rejuvenate their community through murals and initiate social change through art by teaching them the freedom of expression, discipline, self-awareness and that it is possible to create something out of nothing. His work has attracted many local and international artists to come and make their mark in the area.


                                                                                  ‘Make Believe’ by Freddy Sam, Woodstock

Here, we start to think about the incentives behind graffiti and the value it holds. It is clear that Freddy Sam’s was to inspire, train-writers to express and others may be to enlighten or beautify the world around them. One thing for sure is that it’s not for profit. If it was, why would someone spend hours creating something that they can’t theoretically sell? It’s hard to decide whether the work still holds its value on a piece of board rather than public space – only a handful of street artists have ever made a living off their work, hello Banksy.

One cannot use price as a parameter when deciding whether or not something is in fact art. Art, by definition, is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture which are appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

So, is Graffiti art? Well, Cape Town seems to think so.

Despite the general negative stigma attached to it, The City of Cape Town has commissioned several pieces of street art along the MyCity Bus route for the commuters to enjoy- it certainly makes for more interesting sites on the journey, when colourful, sometimes beautiful art, adorns the grey walls that guide you home. 

The City has also made it easier for street artists to take their time on their work; all they have to do is apply for permission from the residing authorities in the area that they wish to paint. In fact, graffiti on walls is now being properly recognised as a form of art that can add more than just decorative value to a particular area – introducing the inaugural International Public Art Festival:


                                   ‘Know your Roots’ by Rayaan Cassiem, a participating artist at this years IPAF.

Started by the NPO Baz-Art – who, like Freddy Sam, believe that art has the power to encourage growth in communities by making the environment and more beautiful and inspiring place – the IPAF aims to transform the Salt River suburb into an art district that Capetonian’s want to work and spend their time in.

This Saturday, for a duration of 9 days, local street artists will decorate Salt River’s walls through a series of live street art painting. The artists are given complete autonomy in their choice of design and story telling – watching them work will be an art form in itself.

The project goes beyond showcasing existing work to creating new work, making neighbourhoods more beautiful and safer, teaching children how to be creative and stimulating new businesses and creating jobs – in a nutshell the aim is to harness the power and creativity of art to improve people’s lives.

Have a look at full list of artists that you can expect to see spreading their magic – everything from influences of cubism to realism to old school tagging. R100 will get you general entry and guided tour of the festival -Buy your tickets through Quicket here.

If you weren’t a graffiti fan before, we encourage you to go and check it out. If you are – we will see you there.

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