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Throughout the ages, humans have had the urge to make marks. Public art, as it is now called, is enjoying a resurgence in these Covid times. But it is a very ancient art form.

There is rock art on about every continent. In South Africa it is sometimes called Bushman art because it was mostly created by the San who painted people and animals. It is difficult to say why; some archaeologists think it was to bring good fortune to a hunt as a kind of spiritual exercise. It could be that they painted things they liked. Some of the rock art at the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, a World Heritage Site, is about 3 000 years old. Some scholars believe the depictions in Egypt’s pyramids were influenced by figures created on rocks further south of this continent.

A whistle stop history

78 BC: graffiti found in Roman empire cities like Pompeii is crudely explicit: ‘I screwed the barmaid’. mundane ‘On April 19 I made bread’ and political.

Jumping to Cape Town, prisoners during the British occupation in the Cape colony ie 19th Century “etched” on the outer prison wall.

20th century

1940s: ‘Kilroy was here’ became a symbol of the US Super-GI during WWII and the Korean War. It showed up worldwide (image left: DC WWII Memorial).

1949: Edward Seymour invents the aerosol spray can.

1961: Berlin Wall; on the west side people were free to approach the wall and did so with a colourful commentary (there is a section in Cape Town’s St George’s Mall; it was given to Nelson Mandela after he was released and Germany was unified).

Graffiti becomes popular in New York; writers tag their aliases with their street number.

1970s: tags start to appear outside trains. Styles become more unique.

1972: United Graffiti Artists, a collective that displays graffiti in galleries for the first time.

1980s: graffiti shows close links with the Hip-Hop and Punk movements.

Graffiti becomes a global form of expression with new artists emerging and cities taking on their own styles.

The Broken Window theory is introduced. It implies that petty vandalism leads to more serious crime. Graffiti is seen in a negative light.

2004: Artists like Banksy (a street artist from Bristol, England) change public perception. Graffiti starts selling in galleries again.

2006: Influenced by online and Western tourists, graffiti becomes popular in Asian cities.



In an ironic twist, street art and graffiti writing has made its way into the mainstream without people really understanding what they are looking at, eg ‘tagged’ handbags by Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Dooney & Bourke and Betsey Johnson

Using handmade stickers is popular with street artists and taggers because of their speed and ease to put them up. Shepard Fairey is a street artist and graphic designer best known for his iconic image of Barak Obama for the 2009 U.S. presidential campaign. Fairey’s work is so mainstream that his Obey line of t-shirts are available worldwide.

Like stickers, stencils provide a street artist with convenience because they can be quickly painted onto a surface with a tidy final result.

Discovery is a very important part of both graffiti writing and street art. When stumbled upon, the piece could feel like a hidden treasure (we’ll get this in Salt River, hopefully). Other times locations are chosen for their associations or demographic. (Salt River didn’t set out to have a large concentration of graffiti writing and street art.)


Street exhibitions are on the rise with social distancing and the benefits of being outside, such as “street-facing facades of buildings located throughout Arts District Houston. Large-scale vinyl photo banners, featuring works by global and Texas artists, including Jamal Cyrus, Eric Gyamfi and Zina Saro-Wiwa, featured in FotoFest’s Biennial 2020 exhibition African Cosmologies, will examine relationships between publicness, time, and community—concepts that have been challenged and redefined in 2020 by COVID-19”

Cape Town as a canvas

There are carefully thought through regulations for street art. “If you would like to paint an existing structure, add a structure or perform public art, you will need to get a permit from the City.” says the City’s website where the forms are easy to access.

Street art is recognised for its economic and social value. Cape Town’s Tourism website: “The nature of street art means that it is always changing, with new buildings, alterations, new gates and fences, and even vandals obscuring the art, and in some cases changing the meaning of what the artist originally intended.” (Stefan de Klerk).

Woodstock’s street art has international attention. To quote the UK’s Guardian newspaper, 2017,:“Cape Town’s Woodstock district has been transformed over recent years into one of the city’s most bohemian quarters, with restaurants, craft brew bars and the city’s favourite foodie address, the Saturday Neighbourgoods Market, in a former biscuit factory. But the real symbol of its renaissance is its spectacular street art, where houses are decorated with huge eye-catching murals, created by South African and international artists.”

Salt River is where the main action is now because of the annual summer festival. In February about 25 local and international artists painted created over 100 murals. Some local artists were upset that their work was painted over and visiting artists took precedence. The theme this year was to “spark a conversation and create awareness around the opportunities as well as responsibilities that come with the digital revolution” #4th industrial revolution, #digital art, #virtual reality (vr) and #interactive murals.

The festival is run by BAZ-ART, a non-profit organisation aims to engage, empower and uplift street artists and transform their communities. It has been involved in the new community garden we’ll see in Salt River created during lockdown.

http://www.capetown.gov.za/City-Connect/Apply/Licences-and-permits/Public-art/Apply-for-a-public-art-permit |

PS here are some definitions, though the lines are blurry between ‘artforms’

Graffiti can be defined as writing and/or drawing made illicitly on walls in public spaces. A very common form is when a name, often an assumed name called a ‘tag’, is used. Some are more elaborate and can be thought of as works of art.

Often it is the voice of the voiceless and can be overtly political. After the ‘Fees Must Fall’ there has been an increase in graffiti in South Africa.

Where there is graffiti more will follow. The opposite is also true; a church in Johannesburg which continually removed graffiti no longer has fresh graffiti.

Source: ParkViews, July 2017 based on Jo Buitendach’s talk (MA in graffiti and guide)

Major types of graffiti

  • Gang graffiti, often used by gangs to mark turf or convey threats of violence, and sometimes copycat graffiti, which mimics gang graffiti
  • Tagger graffiti, ranging from high-volume simple hits to complex street art
  • Conventional graffiti, often isolated or spontaneous acts of “youthful exuberance,” but sometimes malicious or vindictive
  • Ideological graffiti, such as political or hate graffiti, which conveys political messages or racial, religious or ethnic slurs

A graffiti writer might be insulted to be called a “graffiti artist” or “street artist.” It depends on the intention of the artist. but there is a great deal of crossover. Because graffiti writing has a bad public reputation for vandalism, many prefer to be called “street artists.” Conversely, many graffiti writers find the term “art” offensive and are happy to be known as “saboteurs”.

A street artist may have a tag name, most don’t use just a tag to get their message across. Their tag isn’t usually the focus – it is more like a signature at the bottom of a painting.

Street art is related to graffiti art – they are both in public locations and usually unsanctioned, but street art covers a wider range of media and is more connected with graphic design. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/street-art

Mural art means, for the City (of Cape Town), art applied directly to a wall, fence or structure, which has been approved by the City by a permit.