A Boy and his Crayons04.07.2011
As the country shifts its attention to the cold streets of Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival, many will notice that the walls of the old settler town have been carpet bombed by stencil graffiti. Details are as sketchy as the origins of Osama bin Laden’s purported porn stash. However, this much we can say: the graf writer whose stencils have been showing up in the Grahamstown CBD of late – plastered in busy streets for, I suppose, heightened exposure – may or may not be a local schoolboy, scribbling on walls under the alias “Fink”.
And they’ve attracted the attention of some heavy hitters. Like Joburg photographer Christo Doherty, Head of Digital Arts at WITS, who took photos of the stencils in town and posted them on Flickr, the photo-sharing website, some time earlier this year. A Flickr user named mrbraggins1 responded favourably to one of Doherty’s pictures of the stencils – a gorilla holding what looks like a glass pipe used for dagga-smoking, with the word “Grefzly” written on the pipe, and asked who the artist was.
“I believe that this work in Grahamstown is by a local schoolboy,” responded Doherty. But when I approached Doherty, who claimed to “know someone who knows the artist”, requesting that he forward my questions, he replied, “apparently he doesn’t read email… Sorry about that. It looks like you’re going to have to… just speculate about the motives of the artist.”
Fink, which has a range of derogatory meanings from a strike-breaker to an informant and generally refers to a contemptible person, as in “ratfink”, but could also just be slang for “think”. Outside the Wimpy on the corner of High and Bertram streets, it is written under the stencil of a girl.
By and large, the City of Saints is a student town. During recess, it’s desolate, the locals looking more dejected than a Garfield cartoon. Moreover, without the annual Arts feast, the town is, in the words of the late E’skia Mphahlele, “so British it’s not funny.” Yet, what is funny is how graffiti – ranging from tagging and stencils to “commissioned street art” has assimilated itself so well into Grahamtown street life, appearing more and more on street corners and abondoned old buidings.
The Fink stencils began appearing in April this year. Soon after business owners raised the alarm and got the local cops involved. Even before the comment on Flickr, Fink’s “public artworks” appeared to be the work of an upstart: mug-shot sized portraits of Steve Biko, Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema (I think?), a Batman-like bird creature – the kind of simple, minimalist stuff that you can produce meticulously in private and execute on walls in a couple of seconds.
After all, even Blek le Rat, that French man who was among the first to popularize stencil graffiti as another form of street art, began spray-painting rats, “the freerest creature in Paris,” he once said.
Recently, the mystery deepened. A “triptych” of a Native American appeared on High Street, the busiest in Grahamstown, and the canvas for most of Fink’s stencils. Although this time the artist wrote “Mr Stevenson” underneath and not Fink, as usual.
As Fink’s public campaign evolves over the duration of the fest, you can be sure the Grahamstown locals will have plenty to talk about at the Long Table.
*All images © Thabo Jijana.