Bankslave is a graffiti artist and member of Spray Uzi. We met him in his studio at PAWA254,
a community centre for activists, journalists and artists.
Interviewers: Nadine Lorenz and Michau Kühn
Tell us more about your motivation to do graffiti. What was your motivation at the beginning and has it changed until now?
About my motivation to do graffiti? Say, you know, because graffiti is not selfish like any other paintings that are being done. When people work on canvases, some of them are just in galleries. People go there and pay to see it and it's not for everyone. And everyone needs art. Everyone needs to be inspired. And graffiti is here, it's not selfish, it's for everyone. Get inspired; get those colours out there. Just everyone, just make the place beautiful, the streets beautiful. And I might want to show off my art. That's how I do it. I do it with graffiti. Street art in the streets of Nairobi. So that's how I got inspired just to go out there and just paint.
How do you do your graffiti? Like, what kind of spots do you choose? What kind of pieces do you do? And what kind of material do you use?
Mostly, where I do my graffiti is where I will find a good audience. Like the people who are passing by. That is a key thing that I have to keep in mind. Of course I have to do a research first. I have to ask around what they feel about what I'm going to paint over there. So that's the key, that's the first thing I do. But then I just go there and just paint. I don't paint churches, I don't paint on banks, I don't paint on places that are considered religious. So I have to choose the spots and mostly I do the legal spots. Legal spaces.
Would you please introduce yourself and tell us since when you are in graffiti?
My name is Bankslave and I have been a graffiti artist since 2000.
Yeah, 2000. And I've been painting Nairobi and some parts of Europe for all this time.
How have you come to graffiti? Was there something special that put you into it?
Yeah, I've always wanted to do my work in the streets. I've always wanted to do my work where everyone is passing by, can be motivated and inspired to see what I'm doing. So I started out painting on canvases and that, I thought, was just too selfish. I thought I would just go outside and paint for the world, you know. So that's why I discovered graffiti and discovered the spray can. And I started out doing paintings on music videos for my friends. You know, for the backdrops, so that they look colourful and nice. And that went on and I became like a full-time graffiti artist.
But was there something special that put you into graffiti? Like in Europe the older generation says it has always been the movies Beat Street and Wild Style in the cinema.
Yeah. I used to see some graffiti pieces in magazines. There was The Source which we happened to have. And we just saw these nice pieces done by the TATS crew at the back cover. And that kind of brought up that fire that I wanted to paint in the streets of Nairobi. In the streets anywhere. You know. So that's kind of what brought it to me – the paint, the pictures.
Was there any graffiti in Nairobi before you started?
Before I started? There were graffiti pieces done on matatus, our taxis. So we had like a lot of pieces with really nice colourful lettering. And I thought this is really “Wow!”, you can't wait to see the next one, you know. And that kind of like brought that feeling of wanting to go out and just do a big piece in the streets.
And how did you and your alias Bankslave come together?
You know, Bankslave is a name like any other. Just because I thought I could get a name that speaks about me, speaks about my hassle, you know, getting money. And being inspired by my second name Esendi, which means 'cents'. You know, I got to get a name that combined these ideas. So I just thought Bankslave would be perfect for me.
I think I'll come back to the question of legality later. But what kind of pieces do you do? Do you use a lot of characters for example? Do your pieces have a message? Or do you just write your name in letters?
My pieces are mostly realistic paintings, mostly about tributes, about recognizing our heroes so that we get to inspire, you know, the youth, the people who are coming in as new graffiti artists. And everyone who is passing by. Just to make people remember a face that I've put on the walls. So it's mostly about tribute, mostly about the fallen people who have died and who were heroes. I get their pictures and then I put them on the walls. So they live forever. And mostly it is about putting peace, about speaking to the community in a positive way, rather than writing my name on the walls.
What kind of material do you use?
Mostly, I use spray paint. Spray paint, roller and paint. When I do big pieces I use spray paint.
How important is personal fame to you?
I would say when I started, I was looking for fame, too. Because I was like, showing off my skills with art. But it came up to turn down when, you know, I started to see what's going on. When you get older you see what's going on in society. And you want to address these things that are going on. Be an activist in a way. And this brought down the thought about being famous with art, and encouraged me to use the art form to transform lives. Change the mind-sets of the community. So that's how I got to turn down about fame.
Do the people on the streets know your name? So, they don't know you in person, but they know what Bankslave stands for?
Yes, I try a lot to put my name out there because Bankslave is my brand. And I'm trying to use it to, like, do more pieces and more jobs in the future. Like when I'm doing my t-shirts, when I'm doing my companies. I'm going to be still using the brand Bankslave.
Bankslave as a brand.
Bankslave is a brand that I'm going to use in the future. You know, even if I'm going to be doing books, photographs, fashion. So that's why I keep putting it out there to the people of Nairobi and the world. Just to spread the word out there. For people to know that this is a brand that is going to transform Kenya. And I tried so hard, you know, just put it in the streets and in a way that people can relate to the brand in the street.
What do you mean by “transform Kenya”?
"To transform Kenya” is just to, like, bring something new. You know, in terms of art, in terms of style, in terms of ideas. What I'm putting out is kind of like something that is out of the box. Something new, something funky. Bankslave is a funky person, is a person who loves life, who's fun and that I would like to show it in a brand with more colour.
During our research, we found a lot of political graffiti during the election campaign in 2007. I know you have done it with other guys, but is this Bankslave as well? A political message, a political transformation?
Yeah. With a political angle, I worked with very, very big artists in Nairobi. Like my boys here, Swift9 and Uhuru Brown, and some other artists who are still up and coming. The aim was to try to speak to the community and to tell them about the atrocities that were done in the country before. And just to use it as activism and let the people know what is wrong and what is right through images. So we went out to do, like, big pieces of art in the streets of Nairobi. And people really loved them, people liked them. And it's all, all, all over the world.
Yeah, I saw one of the political pieces in Kenyatta Street in the bank district. There's a black and grey one with a vulture, it was about the elections.
Yeah. What we classify as a vulture is, you know, the way the vulture eats, eats up everything and even if you're dead, the vulture will still eat you up. So that's what we portrayed our politicians as, because they are like taking everything. You know, they're asking for more, every time and people are suffering. People are poor, you know. And we had to come out to fight that. But in a clever way, through images.
What inspires you? I mean like places, music, spots?
Inspiration always comes about in life, you know, whenever you walk and where I come from - in Kibera1. The population is quite big in Nairobi and people live in a place like Kibera where it's really crowded. And you get to see a lot of things happening every day. So you get inspired by that. Every day you have something new that you want to tell the community, you know. It can be like story telling. And it's our way of life, you know. That's how we put it out. Through images. So it's just life that inspires. And also like the happenings that are happening currently. Like you find a leader like Nelson Mandela, just dead the other day, you get inspired because of what he did and you just say: “Now you have to paint somewhere. You have to show the Members of Parliament, you know, that they're always taking money from the people who are down in society”. So that's how we come to the streets and just put up his face. Just to show the MPs this how you have to be; how you have to live and this is how we will honour you when you're gone.
And is there something that inspires your style?
Sometimes, you know, you get to be versatile in your style. But content always comes in differently. So even some contents would come in that would inspire me just to do some writings in the streets. So contents, of course, kind of like you find that you can't put a face or an image or a character to your style. So it makes me go into writing. I would go out and just get a brush and that would change my style, of course. But I have to be versatile. To get this information out there. For the people to relate. Because that's the key thing. The people have to relate to what you're saying, because this is Nairobi. You know, if you just write something, they're going to be: “Oh, that is witchcraft. Oh, that is devil worshipping”. They're going to go in the negative way. But when you get something there that is really simple, something that they can see and recognize, then they're not going to be having questions and then you're going to do your piece and it's going to be to the point.
Can you say something about the Nairobi and East African scene?
The Eastern African graffiti scene is still a growing scene, you know. And we were trying to make it, like, where we can earn from graffiti. Because I've been living from graffiti. I'm earning from graffiti for these past years and I still want to earn from it because we have brought it in a way that people can accept it. Rather than vandalism where other countries do even have a police task force on graffiti artists. And over here it's ok, because even the police like it. But you have to come in cleverly, to choose your walls and where you're painting.
But what if a new generation of graffiti artists comes up doing graffiti art in a different way than you, for example street bombings, would you accept that?
Bankslave: Of course.
You wouldn't stop them if they carry out acts of vandalism?
Of course, I know whenever there's like a lot of spray paint there will be vandalism. And I know there will be a point where it's going to be hard to stop. Because graffiti can't be stopped! [laughs] Graffiti is still going to be there and is still growing in Africa and with time there are going to be artists who are coming in, you know, like trying out. But at least for our sake to control it, when we go outside our pieces have to be just to the point. So that when the other generation comes in, they're going to have some people to look up to. Yeah. So that's how we control it.
How big is the scene in Nairobi?
It's not really a big scene there. But it's a community of around, I think, around fifty artists in Nairobi. Yeah. But they're not that active. So I would say it’s more or less twenty artists that are active.
And how would you describe the relationship between the artists?
It's quite a small amount of artists and we are still struggling together. We can't get fights, you know, like in other countries. I know there are people fighting each other because of the spaces. And over here in Kenya, we are more concerned about how to get paint. Because we are struggling with the low quality paint and the paint that doesn’t cover up. We have to use spray paint mixed in with can paint, with the brush paint and roller. So we apply all these different techniques to create a nice artwork out of it. So it brings us together more than it would separate us. So we have a good relationship with each other as graffiti artists in Kenya.
And if there were no more problems in getting good spray cans in Nairobi, what do you think would happen?
I think if we had spray paint and quite a lot of it, it would create a lot of commotion among graffiti artists. I think that would come by.
Do you do something else in art besides graffiti?
I would say just graffiti is my whole life. Because when I'm not doing graffiti, I'm researching about graffiti. When I'm not researching about graffiti, I'm just watching graffiti movies. I'm meeting graffiti people; my life is just all around graffiti. And I'm doing graffiti on canvases, I'm doing T-shirts. I'm going to open up a company. It's going to be just graffiti the whole time.
Can you make a living out of graffiti?
Yes, it's possible.
Tell us something about the feedback on graffiti. Not only the positive, but also the negative feedback.
I would say the feedback hasn't been negative. Most of the people who have seen my pieces have appreciated them. Have appreciated them through the years and that's been keeping me going. Because sometimes when I'm writing, just writing my name with a marker on a bus or somewhere. And then I find someone just writing there: “Good artwork, go on". You know, that kind of like makes me – I don't know who that is – but it kind of really motivates me to do what I do. And it's a fun thing, you know, I'm having fun with life, like everyone else who makes money out of singing, of all these other arts, of football, and everything else. So why not have fun just painting.
But does graffiti have enemies in Nairobi? Is there any negative feedback on this art?
Of course, of course. You got to have negative feedback, probably from other artist who do contemporary painting.
Oh, what a surprising answer.
Yeah, because some of them, you know, like, discredit graffiti from art. They say that's not art. But for me it's art and it's full time art. And they're scared of it because we do the biggest murals and we do it really quickly and so fast that it would take them probably like 6 months, you know.
And definitely more people see your art.
And more people will see our art. So for them, we get to be rivals.
Yeah. I'm surprised.
Yeah. That's how it is, that's how it is.
Can you imagine graffiti in a gallery?
Yeah, I think, I've seen graffiti in galleries. Even what Banksy does. It is a clever approach to graffiti.
Do you think a gallery is a good place for graffiti?
I think if you have to sell your pieces, a gallery is a way, you know, to get the money. But the pieces still remain outside. Their home is outside in the streets.
Where do you see the future of the Nairobian graffiti scene? Is there an upcoming generation?
I see the future of Nairobi street art like far better, because I'm still hungry of getting spray paint here. And yes, yes, yes. Of course there's going to be a next generation of graffiti. Most definitely. Because it's a nice way of expression and there are going to be kids coming in to paint. So, it's not only in Nairobi. It's all over Kenya and East Africa. So the thing is still growing. We are still painting and with time we're going to be having, like, a lot of graffiti artists in East Africa.
Do you do some work with Nairobi’s youth?
Yes. You know, sometimes we have jams where we have a couple of graffiti artists come along and just paint. And we have a spot downstairs where we go and just have a barbecue and have fun when we're painting and with that we are trying to bring up a culture. Because it just started, you know. And we want to bring it, because before that there was another jam that we had when we were meeting with a lot of artists. That's where we discovered ourselves, and we call our crew Spray Uzi. And we discovered ourselves when we were painting in this art jam. It was called 'Words and Pictures' at Wapi. So 'Words and Pictures' was big and then, because of the funding, it went off. But we're still trying to bring another event like that. There are kids, even youth coming in to just learn how to paint. We give them masks, we give them spray paint and then they just do their thing. Explore.
Does your work out there have effects on the people in the city?
Yeah, I think what they see is this artist who just came in and wants to express himself and is taking over the spaces of Nairobi. And the first time we started, people were criticizing, you know, the art form. And through the years and our online presence, it opened up their minds, Kenyan minds, to a lot of art, artworks in the other parts of the world. So through that they come back to appreciate us, to appreciate what we do. So they see what we do in the streets of Nairobi and they like us and then they say: “Keep on doing what you're doing. It's good work”. So there we found a lot of appreciation to, through and with the people of Nairobi and we're still going to go on because, you know, we're taking these spaces and we're using them to educate and make people know that we are here, we are artists and we are here to inform and to teach. And so just to show our art out there, you know, show off what we are good at in. So we're just showing off in the streets of Nairobi. Showing the world that we also can paint.
What is special in Nairobi for graffiti artists? What would be different for you if you painted somewhere else like in Dar es Salaam or a European City?
In Nairobi, graffiti is a new art form. It's quite an explosive, colourful thing. And we do this in Nairobi and people like it more than they would, I think, in any other place in Africa. It's something new, it's really vibrant. People are scared of new things, but our approach was something that was different and something that was nice. So, that's the effect that has brought people to our pieces in Nairobi and I think it would be different if I did it somewhere else in the world. Because people would be like looking at it as, like: “Oh, that's just street art”. But here, because it's new and it's different, people like it a lot.
What kind of relationship does the scene have to authorities, especially to the police? Do you have any experience with the police?
I think you're asking if we get into trouble with graffiti. Yeah, I think the people you get into trouble with are the City Council, you know. Because the police have a lot of crimes they want to take care of in Nairobi. So the City Council are the ones who, you know, they always ask you if you have permission to paint their walls, you know. Because every wall is owned by the city. So if the City Council police finds you, you're going to be in trouble.
Is every wall that you paint licensed?
No, I prefer just to go on a wall. If I like the wall, I prefer just going on the wall and painting it. And then question later.
What happens if a police car comes by?
When you're going to paint in the streets as a graffiti artist, you're always prepared that you're going to paint. There are the positive and of course the negative aspects. Maybe you’re going to get robbed, or you're going to get arrested. All those possibilities are in the back of my mind, but I get to be careful. I know it’s just like the way a soldier does when he goes to war. So you have to be prepared. I'm prepared when I'm going to these walls, especially a wall that I like and that is controversial. I'm always prepared and if the police come, you know how to deal with it later. But I have to finish my piece because, it really hurts when you have something inside you and you want it to come out. You know, you have to get it out. And it's a nice feeling when the next day you are passing by you're seeing the piece that you did last night. It’s a very nice feeling. Yeah, so, it's a good feeling when you go out to paint.
Ok, one last question. Can you say something about Nairobi? Do you like it, or what kind of relationship do you have to Nairobi besides graffiti? Is Nairobi is a nice place to be for you?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Nairobi is where I was born and it's a nice place to be, and I'm always trying to make Nairobi a better place. Yeah. A better, colourful place with my art.