The Spray Can as Megaphone
by Michau Kühn
Being a sympathetic observer of the Berlin Graffiti movement, it took me some time to get used to Nairobi. I was vexed not only by the type of images, their quantity and quality, but also by the artists’ understanding of graffiti. In a sense, it was only after our trip that I halfway understood the ‘Nairobian approach’1 to this art form.
The scene2 has been active since around the year 2000 and – though its size is limited – it is professionally organised. But it faces a great challenge with consequences not to be ignored: whereas in European metropolises professional spray can manufacturers see graffiti artists as their main clients and develop their products according to their needs, Kenyan writers complain about the inferior quality of ‘their’ cans, since they do not cover well and lack pressure. So the pieces take significantly longer to create, complicating their nocturnal expeditions. Quite an amount of improvisation is demanded here. Thus, they resort to wall paint or manipulate the caps. It is also hard to access spray cans. Artist Swift9 recalls an event where cans were distributed for free and then tags were found everywhere in the city thereafter. The moment the cans were spent, the activity dwindled. Whereas in Western metropolises generations of writers stole their cans, theft is not an option in Nairobi. There are security guards posted in every doorway, checking customers for weapons, no matter if it’s at an ice cream parlour or a supermarket. They are ubiquitous. Access to cans is therefore a financial privilege that prohibits newcomers, especially young ones, from participating in the scene. Local writers hope to see an enormous boost in the movement once they can finally convince professional can manufacturers, such as Montana, to sell aerosol cans in East-Africa too.
But what was it that vexed me in the beginning? Writers define their own brand of graffiti in Nairobi. More often than not, it is not the name but rather the message of the writer that is foregrounded. They move within a judicial grey area and often consciously avoid clearly illegal activity. The possibility of simply going somewhere at night to pick a spot to paint is not an easy task in Nairobi. The artist Uhuru explains that at night, one runs the danger of being either robbed, asked for bribe money or, in the worst case scenario, getting shot by the police. This fear is not baseless: During the last two days of our stay, police in Nairobi shot seven people dead in ‘self-defence’. This is why most of the times, the artists ask before, and sometimes after, for permission to design a wall.
Most of the pieces are found in residential areas due to the motivation of the artists. The writers of Nairobi do not stop at art; they also understand graffiti as a tool to accuse elites, give people hope, and motivate them to work towards a better society. Positive communication with the population is central. This goal is noticeable in the execution of the pieces: Instead of merely placing their signatures on the wall, they create paintings. Merely talking of graffiti would not do justice to many of these works. They are often several meters long and high, very colourful and detailed, with letters serving a supplementary function. Often these murals invite pause, contemplation and thought, turning the entire city into an addressee. And their writers have something to say: They make calls for unity and take a stand against violence. It was mostly young men of a similar age as our interlocutors who turned into perpetrators during the elections of 2007/2008, claiming the lives of more than 1.100 Kenyans. The pieces criticise political elites who divide the population along ethnic lines and are considered corrupt through and through. Furthermore, they call for a positive relation to Kenya, Africa, and Black leaders: Portraits of Obama, Bob Marley, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela are often the subjects of graffiti. Instead of merely addressing the scene with their names, leaving the population out of the equation, they engage the public, using graffiti as an art form and a medium for communication. People are supposed to identify with the pictures. Overall, this seems to have turned out positively: Artists report mostly favourable feedback from the communities. The production of a work sometimes becomes a neighbourhood happening with many participants and spectators. The pieces often remain visible in the neighbourhood for years; walls are made collectively available. Graffiti artists have even been requested to paint a train. The Guardian, CNN, and Vice reported on the graffiti campaign for peaceful elections in 2012 in addition to the local media. This positive social resonance is mirrored in the number of commissions for artists. They have established themselves as a part of the creative scene and found commercial success. Those who commission their work include Western institutions such as the UN, churches, shopkeepers and even members of the elite. Since becoming established, this small number of artists is known by name, which limits their room to manoeuvre as classic writers outside of the legal realm.
To finish, permit me to glance into a crystal ball: Nairobi still has an enormous potential. There are many blank walls calling to be painted over and the typical milieu which globally feeds the graffiti movement, the urban youth, is starkly visible. A new generation of writers will still find enough space to challenge the old masters, and the city itself with their work.
1 This essay is based on my observations and research, but mostly on conversations we had with the artists Bankslave, Dennis Muraguri (Street Art), Swift9 and Uhuru B. It stems from a subjective experience and does not claim to be an objective description.
2 Even though I refer to a ‘movement’ or ‘scene’, graffiti practitioners are comprised of more or less loose groups of very different individuals with diverging focuses and views. Representing these artists as a group is merely done here to discover and describe correlations that can never be completely congruent.