Mr. ekse with the Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain in distance
Rasik Green, better known as famous Soweto-born graffiti artist Mr. ekse, has been making street art across South Africa for almost 20 years. He is the artist who painted a massive mural of a woman carrying Johannesburg on her shoulders in Johannesburg’s Newtown district, a neighborhood known for its street art. The large-scale design took him a month to complete.
Growing up, Mr. ekse said he identified as a 90s baby heavily influenced by hip-hop music and culture. But he couldn’t break dance, rap, or DJ. Instead, he took up drawing and easily transitioned into the street art scene. Today, Mr. ekse is a graphic designer, illustrator, and print maker in addition to his graffiti artistry.
He said he has always drawn inspiration for his artwork from his community. A self-proclaimed “Soweto Boy,” Mr. ekse started out merely tagging his signature until people began asking him what his name meant. He then realized he needed to start painting things that better reflected his community so people could relate to his artwork.
“I like to make sure that design changes lives, because it changed mine,” Mr. ekse said. “I turn neglected spaces into beautiful spaces. And the same with people, you want to make sure when they look they’ll reflect on something that we did.”
Dr. ekse recently painted a mural of a woman in traditional South African attire carrying the city of Johannesburg on her shoulders – a tribute of female street vendors in South Africa’s largest city.
He added that street art can turn into a type of collaboration between different groups of people to build on each other’s ideas and share different messages.
Even though street art is his life’s work, Mr. ekse said the bylaws South Africa’s cities have implemented to discourage graffiti are understandable.
“In terms of art, graffiti is a vandal sport,” he said. “I understand where the city’s coming from, but the city has to understand where we are coming from. Then dynamics [can] change.”
He added there is a differentiation between certain types of graffiti. Some tagging is associated with gangs, while other work is primarily associated with kids messing around and vandalizing buildings. However, none of that constitutes street art, the murals that he and many others devote their lives to making.
Mr. ekse said he thinks a good compromise to end the feud between city officials and street artists would be to have allocated spaces where street art is permitted.
“I wish we were not treated as criminals,” he said. “We’re not criminals. All it requires is allocated space…Then we could try and control it.”
“I wish we were not treated as criminals. We’re not criminals,” Mr. ekse said
Despite perceived disorder, Mr. ekse said graffiti actually has many rules. There are four classifications for street artwork, the first being a tag, a very rough signature like a quick scribble. The next phase is a throw-up where two colors become fused together and the artwork grows in size. It then become a dubs, a throw-up that has become much more detailed, before the artwork finally evolves into a piece, a full blow use of color, letters, and the artist’s concept.
Artists also try to place their art strategically to legitimize their work and minimize the risk of being arrested or fined.
Mr. ekse said each level of artwork can only be painted over by the next higher level of work. An artist can paint over someone else’s tag with a throw-up, or a throw-up with a dub. Artists may paint over others’ pieces over time or if they really dislike the other artist.
“The fundamental is it’s got to be better,” Mr. ekse said. “Originality is key.”
Mr. ekse described street art as a selfish game. When it started, street artists didn’t consider the community’s reactions like they do today.
“It was purely for other graffiti artists,” he said. “That’s why the letters, the styles you can’t understand unless you’re another graffiti artist. It makes it difficult for other people to read the art because of that.”
Mr. ekse said this lack of understanding of street art is one of the biggest challenges to what he does. In the future, he hopes more people gain a better understanding about art in general so graffiti can be better appreciated.
Mr. ekse’s typical piece will take him 4 to 8 hours to paint, but he’s always subconsciously planning his designs, thinking of what colors to use or the concept behind his work. Ideally, he’d like his pieces to stay up forever.
“Like cave writers,” he said. “You wish to have that connection in the future.”