May 4, 2012

Graffiti in Johannesburg

What I love most about living in South Africa is that it has taught me, more than any other place I've ever lived, to step out of my comfort zone.

You might not believe this, but I'm really not all that adventurous. I love to hang out in my suburban bubble. I most love the days when I don't have to leave the house. The internet was practically invented for me, personally (and for Al Gore. Or wait, was it BY Al Gore?).

Which is why getting me out the door to do something a) new, b) not interesting at first glance, and perhaps even c) strenuous is actually quite the feat. Kudos to my friend Bing who succeeded on both fronts last week when inviting me to come along with her on a guided tour to see street art and graffiti in the Braamfontein and Newtown areas of Johannesburg. We were having coffee in the morning (the promise of a cappuccino is the one thing I always gladly leave my house for) and I was going to spend the rest of the day catching up on the gazillion things a blogger does every day (and a husband typically has absolutely no understanding of), but then she tempted me with the prospect of spending the rest of the day with her, and, I admit, an opportunity for cool pictures for my blog. Although honestly, more blogging material is the last thing I need at the moment, what with three hundred plus leopard pictures to sort and a history of Botswana to write.

Scroll down to the bottom of this post for the entire graffiti album

And, graffiti, of all things? Not a topic I typically lose any sleep over. In fact, it is rather something I find annoying. I do not understand, at all, the urge to express yourself on someone else's wall while looking over your shoulder in case a person of authority might come to chase you away or arrest you. Come to think of it, that is possibly the very last thing I would ever want to do in my life. I grant you, however, that the graffiti artist might say the same thing about writing a blog and publishing it for the world to see. 

My curiosity won. And the fact that with the kids still in Germany I had no good excuse whatsoever to have to return home.

So you could have found me yesterday traipsing through downtown Joburg for three hours, carefully avoiding the crumbling asphalt and crazy traffic, at one point barely arresting my foot in midair before disappearing into a wide open manhole, blisters rapidly growing in shoes that were totally inappropriate for that kind of a hike (but very appropriate for sipping a cup of coffee).

The Nelson Mandela Bridge is one of my favorite places in Joburg. 

Metrorail trains as seen from the Nelson Mandela Bridge

The other thing that was totally inappropriate for this particular activity was my little old camera, which I had absentmindedly shoved in my purse that morning, thank God I must say, but still not nearly what I would have wanted to capture all those awesome colors, especially since the battery teetered on the edge of dying any moment. I don't typically leave my house with our good DSLR camera slung over my shoulder, just on the odd chance that something worth photographing will pop up, but I'm beginning to think I should do precisely that. As it is, you'll have to contend with my sub-par photography of all the great graffiti we were treated to, but the good news is, Bing, who is the better photographer in any case, has them all on her blog.

I can highly recommend Past Experiences. Our tour guides Jo and Tania not only vowed us with their huge knowledge of the graffiti scene and their passion for the inner city of Johannesburg, they also provided something interesting to look at besides the graffiti:

Our guide Jo with Past Experiences

There is one thing in particular about the graffiti tour that got me thinking afterwards, and I wanted to share it here with you.

As we roamed the streets and learned all about this cult of graffiti and street artists - that they all mostly got started by going after their craft illegally, that nowadays they often get commissioned to "beautify" certain areas, that here in South Africa there has lately been an exodus of talent from Cape Town to Joburg because Cape Town is starting to crack down on illegal graffiti - I was beginning to form an image of them in my mind. My excitement at the promise of getting to see some of these artists in action was mounting by the minute, and yet when we got to see a whole group of them at the very end of our tour, something nagged at me.

Graffiti artist at work in Joburg

I couldn't place it at first, but then it struck me: These were all white guys, and somehow I had imagined they would be black. I know what you'll say: It doesn't matter. And yes, it shouldn't. But when your mind imagines things you often have no control over the picture it forms. It just does. And mine made the graffiti artists black. Why? And this is the part that bothers me: The only thing I can come up with is that subconsciously I must have thought they were black because they were engaging in an illegal activity.

Go ahead, crucify me now. I just thought I'd be honest. It was a good reminder for me that racism has many layers and influences our thinking even if we're sure we're free from it.

To look at the gallery below, click on the first picture, and then just keep clicking to bring on the next one, scroll with your mouse wheel, or click on any of the images at the bottom. I can't figure out how to program the little "next" arrow on them, and after spending my entire Sunday researching it, I just figured it's not worth it (this from me who cannot let go of such things lightly) as you can navigate around just fine without it. It just drives me nuts that it's not there, but I have to say I'm quite pleased I got the whole Fancybox thing working at all. Blogger SO needs an actual picture gallery plugin with drag-and-drop functionality!

For more information on Joburg graffiti tours and other inner city walking tours, contact Past ExperiencesTo see more and better pictures of the graffiti I got to see that day, visit The Story of Bing.


Anonymous said...

Interesting experience. If you define prejudice as racism, then you could be right. In my opinion, racism also requires hatred and the desire to cause harm, so don't be too hard on yourself.

Sine said...

you're right, they are not the same. But one can lead to the other and if people say they are free of prejudice they're probably wrong. But I've also found that our kids are much more free of prejudice than we are so over the generations these things get better!

Anonymous said...

I felt compelled to respond, though my better conscious is screaming not to for some reason. I am a young, black, expat living in Joburg (originally from the U.S.), and though I appreciate, in some strange way, your honesty, I think you should back it up by becoming better educated about race and culture. Though it's a harsh reality that there are many who think like you, it makes it no less hurtful and puzzling to read. Best of luck to you in your journey of enlightenment.

Sine said...

And I appreciate your honesty too. It is, indeed, a journey of enlightenment. And I thought long and hard about writing that particular sentence. I decided that it's better to say it than leaving it unsaid, because I'm hoping, at the least, that it will make others revisit their own thoughts and stir debate. Which I guess it did.

Sine said...

By the way, where are you from in the U.S. and how long have you lived here? Would love to hear how you like South Africa.

Niklas said...

Hi Sine, I am very interested in moving to Johannesburg and i am wondering what you feel about living there? Do you like it? Would you recommend Moving there? Do you like the Climate for example? Do you Like the feeling Living there?

I have a feeling I want to go there in the beginning of June. I am really excited!

Of what I have read from you You really seems to like it there!

I Hope it was not to many questions!

Take Care! /Niklas

Sine said...

No, just too many exclamation points:-)
Seriously, I think you'll get most answers to your questions from reading more of my blog. Yes, we like it here, and I love the climate and the people. Whether I would recommend moving here would depend on your situation, job prospects, etc. You're welcome to use the contact form to send me an email if you have more questions.

Niklas said...

Thank you.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I hate graffiti in general but if a private owner wants to let them do that to his building then it is none of my business. But the illegal kind should be stamped out as it is a violation of the property rights of whoever owns the property. If it is on public property and is done without permission it interferes with the public's right to equal enjoyment of those spaces. Legal graffiti is technically art but I have never really seen the point of it. I suppose that makes me old fashioned and out of step but what else is new?

Sine said...

I used to hold that more old-fashioned view, and my mother certainly would have agreed with you. She hated graffiti, in abundance in Germany in the 1970s when I grew up. But I think graffiti has evolved, as you can see from these pictures. It used to be just ugly smears, but now it is often very artistic. Still, I have to agree with you that on private property it has no business. The grey zone is public property - yes, cities used to criminalize it but that never seemed to work in stamping it out, probably because graffiti artists enjoy living dangerously and on the fringes, so now most cities have found a different approach, inviting it instead of combatting it. At least Joburg does. it's kind of like cell phones in schools - they used to forbid them with all their might and eventually had to throw in the towel because they became so prevalent. Now it's "bring your own technology" so you can use them in the classroom. Times change.