Street art – also called graffiti – in Newtown, Johannesburg.
In South Africa, street art has become a unifying force in the post-Apartheid era. Many from previously disenfranchised groups are able to take a semblance of control by decorating their communities with the symbols and stories of their culture.
The Newtown section of Johannesburg, adjacent to the Central Business District, is known across South Africa for its incredible street art. Street art allows residents and internationally known street artists to express themselves and take pride in their collaborations.
Street art in Newtown, Johannesburg
According to Bongani Mathebula, a tour guide in Newtown and street art expert, this particular craft is evolving. Artists are polishing up their work and fine-tuning their styles.
“Most of the graffiti artists are starting to take their work very seriously,” he said.
For over a decade, the Newtown district has hosted the annual street culture/Hip Hop Back to the City festival that includes a competition where graffiti artists compete for the winning piece of street art. Mathebula said Apartheid caused people to abandon areas of central Johannesburg and the competition is meant to stimulate pedestrian traffic through Johannesburg thus helping reduce the city’s bad reputation.
“There’s a big stigma about Johannesburg being dangerous,” he said. “Back to the City will encourage a lot of youth and anyone else to come back into the city. Johannesburg is one of the biggest graffiti destinations for international artists.”
Some Johannesburg residents are unsure of the future of street art under the city’s current mayor, Herman Mashaba. At the end of 2016, mayoral spokesperson Tony Taverna-Turisan referenced graffiti as a “deterrent to investment” that has hindered development of Johannesburg’s businesses and employment opportunities.
Johannesburg media outlets like the Mail and Guardian and Sunday Times immediately condemned the anti-street art comments of Taverna-Turisan. The mayoral spokesman’s comments also sparked a backlash that echoed through Johannesburg.
“Johannesburg is one of the biggest graffiti destinations for international artists,” Bongani Mathebula said
No anti-street art regulations have been implemented in Johannesburg but many still worry Johannesburg will follow the lead of cities like Cape Town and crackdown on street art altogether. Persons concerned about a crackdown include those working in tourism. Many tour companies, like Main Street Walks and Past Experiences, offer walking tours to show tourists the street art in Newtown and other districts of Johannesburg.
According to Cale Waddacor, founder of Graffiti South Africa, a website dedicated to South African street art, the city’s tourism industry does not support the removal of street art in the city. He said that many view graffiti as “visual pollution,” and don’t see the value the artwork has.
“There are many sides to an art form, both good, [like] murals, and bad, [like] tagging,” he said. “In recent years, graffiti has acted as a key element to many rejuvenation projects, especially in the inner city.”
Jo Buitendach, founder of Past Experiences’ downtown Johannesburg walking tours said she thinks street art has a huge positive impact on the city, especially for the inhabitants of the communities where it’s located.
“Art is never a bad thing, it brings color and interest to everyone,” she said. “It is also healthy to have artistic freedom for artists.”
“We have bigger fish to fry,” she added. “This city is full of crime and poverty and we should be working to fix that, not remove art off a wall. The graffiti isn’t drug or gang related either.”
Mayoral spokesman Taverna-Turisan has recently acknowledged a distinction between wall creations that are art and graffiti that is damaging to the city’s image. According to stakeholder relations officer Luyanda Longwe, Johannesburg has designated walls for graffiti, such as on Empire Road in the downtown area.
“The only sites that would not be allowed [for graffiti] are those not designated and therefore by law enforcement would be used,” Longwe said.
Nationally acclaimed graffiti artist Mr. ekse, who has been practicing graffiti for almost 20 years, thinks a compromise like this could be the best solution for the craft.
“I understand where the city’s coming from,” he said. “But the city has to understand where we are coming from…I wish we were not treated as criminals. We’re not criminals.”