MiB keeps Wits looking cool with his surreal graffiti.
Perceptions of graffiti in Johannesburg range from it being beautiful artworks to malicious damage of property. Removal of graffiti is a difficult process and where to draw the line between vandalism and art is often difficult to find.
Hanre Heunis spends his time removing graffiti from other people’s property. The managing director of a local graffiti removal service, Heunis believes there is an artistic side to the practice of street art. He says many property owners think that graffiti is vandalism because they did not choose to have their walls defaced or tagged (when a new graffiti artist spray-paints their name on a wall to practice and develop their own style).
Property owners who have been the victims of repeated tagging often remove the tags because it makes their business premises look unprofessional or decreases the value of the property. “There is a fine line between being artistic and repeat tagging,” said Heunis.
There is a high concentration of graffiti in the inner city and removing it is a highly-skilled, specialised and expensive process, says Heunis. It involves chemical testing, high pressure water tanks and newly developed products that often need to be imported from the United Kingdom due to a lack of local manufacturing. Removal is also extremely labour intensive as more porous surfaces require more applications.
But perceptions are shifting especially when artists ask for permission, according to Vorster, an ex-Witsie who did his honours in Fine Arts. “If you wake up in the morning and someone’s tagged your window it sucks … get permission and do your art … you’ll be surprised how many people say yes.”
Graffiti artists find it exciting to work illicitly at night but it often means that the quality of the work decreases because there is less time and more pressure to get the work done in a short amount of time, according to Vorster.
The other side of the (street art) coin
In Johannesburg there are a few designated walls for street art on Barry Hertzog Avenue and Empire Road but Brian* says these walls are mostly used for graffiti style advertising and the limited amount of wall space restricts the art.
One of Vorster’s first tags was a Vodacom telephone box, he saw it as a victory when the box was removed. Vorster now gets permission for his work and is often commissioned to do murals. One of his commissioned pieces was removed for safety reasons because people were constantly taking photos at the wall, which made the owner feel unsafe.
Brian* says he doesn’t mind his art being removed: “It [the art] has its lifespan. It doesn’t faze me, I just need to do more. For every one that is taken down, I need to put up another one.”
*Names have been changed.
Sprite has launched a nationwide talent search for the best emcees, dancers and graffiti artists in the country, and this week they’re at Wits main campus.
Sprite is looking for skilled dancers and emcees or “b-boys” who have a love for hip hop.
The winners of the Sprite Uncontainable Talent Search in each category will win a trip to New Orleans with Talib Kweli, the American rap master.
Jody Elliot, one of the ladies handling entries, said: “Anyone can come to the Sprite truck on the Library Lawns and show their talent to the judges in a private booth. Dance groups have a dance floor that they can use and there are also boards put up where people can show their graffiti skills.”
The search will be at Wits for the remainder of the week from 9am to 5pm. There will also be free Sprite given away during lunch hour.
Sprite’s tagline for the competition is: “Show us what you got and represent your hood.” Wits is sure to have some talented representatives.
It may look cool, but graffiti is costing Wits University tens of thousands of rands every year.
The removal of graffiti cost the university R88 000 in 2011, up from R38 000 the previous year.
According to Grounds Manager Andries Norval, American films glamorising graffiti have influenced Wits students.
Norval said it is easy to paint over graffiti on a white wall. But with a lot of Wits buildings, the colour is in the plaster, so painting doesn’t work and the patchwork can always be seen.
“You can sandblast if off… using sand that is sprayed under pressure…but if you do it on surfaces like wood and marble, you actually damage the building.”
“Proper graffiti is a work of art.”
Norval made a distinction betweengraffiti and “the squiggles they call tagging”.
“Proper graffiti is a work of art. If it’s done with the proper permission and in the right places, I’ve got no problem with it.”
He pointed out that Wits has a few designated graffiti zones, such as the pedestrian tunnel between East and West Campus, where students can paint without consequences as long as the material is not offensive to anyone.
Clarifying what is and is not allowed, Norval said: “Definitely not political. Definitely not religious. And definitely not contentious.”
Vuvuzela asked Norval what he would say to taggers who argue that the university is curtailing their freedom of expression by restricting them to designated areas.
He replied: “Ask him: if I paint on his car that is parked in a public space…would he like that? Yes or no? And does he not think this money could be better spent on better teaching facilities or fixing lecture venues or even library books?”
Campus Control officer Aaron Ngcongolo agreed: “It’s not good, because this thing is making the place untidy.”
Sharni Hart, an honours marketing student, said: “It’s a campus and it should be kept neat and clean. You can express yourself in another way. You don’t need to write all over campus.”
Several students expressed their appreciation for the graffiti in the designated zones.
As he walked past the colourful murals in the pedestrian tunnel connecting East and West Campus, 1st year economic science student Tarrin Skeepers said: “This is one of my favourite spots at Wits. Period. Because I just love the artwork. I just love the creativity.”
Ngoni Goba, a 1st year LLB student said: “It gives the university a youthful feel.”
Norval could not speak about the situation at other universities in South Africa, except to say that he visited the Soweto Campus of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and saw no graffiti there. The UJ officials he spoke to told them that they do not have a problem with graffiti.
- An American university also faces high graffiti removal costs
- An Australian city’s art programme to prevent graffiti
- Aghan artists use graffiti to fight war and oppression
- A South African graffiti artist moves from walls to high-end galleries
See more graffiti from the Braamfontein area of Johannesburg