The illicit becomes mainstream: graffiti in Joburg

Past Experiences  and Joburg graffiti tours 

Over 2 years ago I joined a fascinating tour of graffiti in Newtown with Jo Buitendach of Past Experiences. Somehow life has a habit if getting in the way and I didn’t write about it at the time but got re-inspired after attending a recent talk on Joburg graffiti.  So given the time that has lapsed, and the nature of graffiti, some of these images might now be outdated.  If so … then think of them as adding to the historical archive! 

What is graffiti? 

Graffiti in its most simplistic refers to writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view.  And it is in the word illicit that for me, the essence of graffiti lies.  And (I would argue), the more accepted and legalized it becomes, the more it transforms into something else.  

Stay at Liz at Lancaster Guest House

Stay at our well located Guest House and visit Johannesburg Graffiti Tours. View our Johannesburg Guest House for Rates and Availability!

Source: Washington Post. [Nick’s Dad should have known better]

Graffiti goes back thousands of years and rises out of a basic human impulse to make one’s mark, to leave one’s trace – ‘Kilroy was here’; a heart carved into a tree; scratches on a school desk or a toilet door. There are examples from ancient Egypt, from Pompeii, from repressed societies around the world. It often gives a voice to the voiceless, to those not recognized and unheard by the mainstream. In that, the content can often be political or include social commentary. And of course it is often just plain humourous.

One of my best bits of graffiti came from a colleague with a wonderfully dry wit. He told me of some graffiti in the men’s toilets at Wits which reads:   

There are 3 things I hate in life: 

  1. Lists
  2. Vandalism
  3. Irony 

Graffiti as a sub-cultural art form

Tapz Throw-up and Chimpanzee piece Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse 2015

Modern street graffiti became ubiquitous in the New York in the 1970s and became widely practiced in inner city Joburg from the 1990s.  As suggested, in its ‘purest’ form it is illicit and so has to be effected quickly and often in ‘secret spots’, in dark hidden places.  By its very nature it is non-commercial, not for profit. It is anti-mainstream, anti-bourgeois, against authority. In this it is sub-cultural and so the making of identities is very important. Graffiti-ists have pseudonyms – so that they can be recognized by those ‘in the know’ but not identified by authority and law enforcers.  This becomes a powerful way of making a group identity. Artists who regularly spray in Johannesburg are Myza420, Mars, Rasty, Tyke, Curio, Mein, Bias, Ryza, Riot, Drake and Tapz – all pseudonyms obviously. 

Throw-up Newtown 2015 Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Jo starts her tour explaining tags. Here is Mars’ tag.  Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

Graffiti is very much a part of  hip hop culture and in this is solidly grounded in the cult of masculinity. Many sites are challenging to reach and physically difficult to paint on: high bridges, moving trains, tunnels with passing traffic, etc.  Because it was initially illegal and so needs to be executed quickly, the medium is very important – spray paint as well as stencils. And another marker of sub-cultural graffiti is the style – bold unblended colours, dark energized outlines, flattened planar shapes, and often a very graphic almost comic-book style. 

Sub-cultural graffiti: tag; throw-up and bomb  

Throw-up by Tapz. Source:  Liz at Lancaster

There is a hierarchy of graffiti types from the tag, to the throw-up, to the bomb, to the piece, to large scale murals. And within this there is a code of respect between makers:  So somebody can make a throw-up over a tag, or a piece over a bomb, or a mural over a piece. But never the other way around.

The tag: 

is a fairly basic linear signature (it’s also used as a verb). See above left. 

A throw-up: 

is more detailed often with chrome lettering and a black outline as seen above the right.  

The bomb (below):

is more intricate but still quite simplified with letters formed by large bold jagged angular outlines or rounded bubble shapes.

Jo standing in front of a Bomb by Mars & Ray: Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
A B-Boy Bomb by Demolition Squad. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

All of these will form a recognizable logo that identifies the graffiti-ist.

Now here’s the contradiction: pieces and murals are sanctioned and even commissioned

As graffiti artists develop and become more proficient and their works become more complex and more acceptable, so individuals, businesses, local government make walls and spaces available specifically for graffiti-ists to fill with their images. It is often here that a ‘piece’ is painted. This means that there is a shift on the illicit /legal spectrum and graffiti-ists begin to produce pieces which (in my understanding) become street art – although many graffiti-ists would argue vehemently with being called a street artist. There is obviously sub-cultural social cache in being identified as a graffiti-ist. And then of course … the next step is to get paid for what you do (large scale murals and public art) with quite significant corporate backing.  And finally the ultimate subversion of sub-cultural graffiti – the works become so recognized and valued they are moved from public places for all to see into museums.  And the cycle of subversion comes full circle.   

‘Piece’ or street art? 

Pieces tend to be larger scale, more intricate, more time-consuming and often quite figurative. And are often sanctioned by officialdom.  In many cases they are site specific as with the murals on the bird seed factory below, as well as those on the old Price’s candle building – both in Newtown. Many are humorous and quirky and in that they are also much more mainstream and have in fact sometimes even been commissioned.  As I said, I know graffiti-ists will hate me, but once it moves from the illicit to the sanctioned, I would call it street art.  I am not making a value-judgement by making a distinction between graffiti and street art, but rather signaling an understanding of graffiti as being deliberately on the margins and challenging ‘the centre’.  

Birds on Kingsbury Building which housed a bird seed merchant. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
‘Dreaming about a worm’ Kingsbury building. Newtown. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
A piece/street art on the wall of Price’s candle factory. Source: Liz at Lancaster
Suited humpty-dumpty candle with two little drain-pipe legs, also on Price’s wall. Source: Liz at Lancaster
Tapz’ work with Fred and Ruby – 2 pooches who came for an urban Sunday walk. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Reksa Smooth Bunny. Can you spot Fin’s painting of Digit (Jo’s dog) at the bottom just above the stones on the street level? Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Rasty is one of Joburg’s top graffiti artists. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse












Commissioned pieces 

Driving home from inner city grittiness to tame middle-class suburbia after the graffiti tour, I passed Bias Ray working on a commission for a recording studio in Greenside. Is this graffiti or is it street art?  [An aside: Bias says his name was chosen as a statement about how people view graffiti and the consistent vandalism-versus-art debate.] 

Graffiti artist Bias Ray working on a commission in Greenside for a recording studio. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse 2015
Brenda Fassie street art Greenside recording studio. Source: Liz at Lancaster  Guesthouse 2015

Hip-hop festival and famous international artists 

2006 saw the first Back to City hip-hop and street culture festival in Joburg.  

Pillars under the motorway in Newtown. Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse
Think Wild: winner in 2015 Back to the City Hip Hop Festival









The pillars under the motorway in Newtown were painted in one such festival.  Now this is far removed from a covert, illicit, “I was here” marker. There is even competition with a winner being recognized (See Think Wild above right) . Subculture has moved into mainstream!   


Rao’s animals. Maboneng


2012 I Art Joburg brought out international muralists such as Steve ‘Espo’ Powers who produced the MAMA mural and Rao whose huge wonderful huge animals are painted as resting on ledges high up on a building in Maboneng.  We have whole building facades painted by established artists: Stephen Hobbs’ Craftsmen Ship and Marcus Neustetter’s Rocket Factory (both in Maboneng) and what of Faith 47’s large-scale murals in Sandton? 

Full circle: The Banksy effect 

One of the best known international graffiti-ists, whose identity has remained a secret despite being involved in graffiti-making for over 20 years, is Banksy a whole fascinating phenomenon in himself. He is King of the Subversive, yet in 2011 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles put on a survey show of street art and graffiti in which the ‘Banksy effect’ was evident: his extraordinary achievement to bring urban outsider art into the mainstream commercial art world.  Which comes back to the point I was making about the contradictory values between the illicit and the sanctioned.  

It could be said that Banksy’s subversiveness diminishes as his prices rise. He may well have reached the tipping point where his success makes it impossible for him to remain rooted in the subculture he emerged from.
(Ellsworth- Jones Smithsonian Magazine Feb 2013)

 For more on Joburg graffiti see 

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