A Series Of Doorsby Samora Chapman / 15.02.2012
Last year, the arrest of seven of Poison City’s most prominent graffiti writers sparked a tumultuous public debate on the morality of the art form, both legal and illegal. Musicians, performers, artists and culture connoisseurs united behind the accused as the court date loomed. So what happened to Durban’s Aerosol Seven?
On a windy October morning down at the Durban Magistrate’s Court the Seven were called before the law for the third time. The hype had died down. There was no media frenzy or group of brave protestors with colourful picket signs. Just rubbish blowing around like tumbleweeds and a few vultures lurking, smoking stompies… waiting to be judged for their sinny sin sins.
That day I entered the miserable institution and made my way through the labyrinth of corridors and steel lifts to E Court. The artists/vandals were waiting outside a Kafka-esque series of doors. They looked comical in their suit and tie disguises, like they were dressed for a funeral or a wedding… tattoos sneaking out of their sleeves, piercings poking out of freshly shaved skin.
Phillip Botha was all confidence: “This is a bullshit case,” he grunts. “We must push for this shit to be over today.” Phillip Botha and Jonathan Pozyn are the vets of the party, showing no signs of butterflies despite the fact that they’re both on five-year suspended sentences. “I’ve been in that box every year since 2002,” chuckles Jono. “I hate that box.” Blood-shot eyes the only hint of world-weariness.
“I just hope it’s a black judge,” choons Mookie. “We’re screwed if the judge is white. Darkie ous don’t mind graf. It’s white people that hate it!”
“This is such a waste of time,” says Dok. “We’ve appeared in court twice and they haven’t presented any evidence that we maliciously damaged property. Because we didn’t damage anything.”
Inside the court, confusion reigns. Several cases are heard: theft, assault, destruction, terror… adjourned, adjourned, adjourned. Two beastly looking dudes with no necks march into the dock – the two are accused of assaulting some cat with the blunt ends of their fists. The Magistrate asks the same questions over and over: “Do you want legal aid? How do you plead?” She scribbles in her notebook, eyes glued to the page. “Case adjourned!” The thugs stomp off.
Eventually, the seven artists are called up and shuffle into the dock. The Magistrate suddenly takes an interest. She looks up from her paperwork for the first time all morning and observes the strange posse.
Botha is number one in the dock. “Do you have a lawyer?” The magistrate asks. “No,” says Phllip, “not this time, I’ll represent myself.”
“Oh. So you’ve been here before?” She asks, eyebrows raised. He nods.
Wade Ernstrom has no lawyer either. “Do you want legal aid?” asks the Magistrate. “I don’t know,” he answers. The process continues in this vein descending into dark comedy.
Once representation has been deduced, serious men (attorneys) in black capes come in and out of court, slamming doors, cutting deals. Eventually the State Prosecutor presents his case. He mumbles some inaudible shit in barely audible, broken English… an “Alternative Dispute Resolution” is mentioned. A vicious argument ensues as Jono’s Lawyer Ridewaan Sayed tears the State Prosecutor to shreds, wielding his tongue like a saber.
The art fags lean forward in the dock, trying desperately to follow the battle that will decide their fate.
Finally the Magistrate addresses the Prosecutor:
“Do you have a picture of the wall?” she asks.
“No, but I can go and get one.”
“Do you have an estimation of the damage caused by these seven men?” She asks next.
“No,” answers the Prosecutor, hanging his head in failure.
“Have you done anything since the last adjournment a month ago?” She snaps.
He doesn’t bother answering.
The Magistrate withdraws the charges, pending further investigation. The artists have slipped out of the clutches of the system beast.
“I wonder how we get our bail money back?” asks Shaun Oakley, a free man.
In retrospect, the proceedings left me bewildered. Where was the private investigator I had encountered outside the Umbilo Police station? Giddy with excitement and conviction as he proclaimed the artists were heading “straight to Westville Prison”. His piles of evidence “of multiple counts of malicious damage to property” were nowhere to be seen, and were strangely not passed on to the State Prosecutor who couldn’t even present a photo of the wall. The Prosecutor could have just visited this site where he would have found plenty of snaps of the ‘destroyed’ wall.
In order to get some clarity, I contacted Dave Smyly, the lawyer representing Mookie and Dok, two of the Aerosol Seven, and a great bear-like man of legal wisdom. The two are paying their legal fees with artwork, so in a way Dave is playing the role of patron, curator and saviour to the young artists. He sits with his coffee, a styvie red smouldering between thick fingers.
According to Dave, the charges were never formally put to the Aerosol Seven. There are different stages in the legal process. The very first stage gives the accused the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty. The Aerosol Seven were never given the opportunity to plead and the case was dropped. The state cannot charge a person twice for the same crime; it’s called Double Jeopardy. But, there is a loophole – since the Seven did not plead, the state can charge them again for the same incident. This means that the case is still wide open.
A basic principle of justice is that you are entitled to a speedy trial. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” says the towering Mr Smyly.
There are a few possible answers to the riddle. The most plausible explanation is that the private investigators were scrounging for “real” evidence, instructing the State Prosecutor to stall the case. But nobody expected the Magistrate throw out the case. For the case to be re-opened now, the artists have to be hauled back to Umbilo station and charged again. Starting the whole process over and wasting everyone’s time, money and resources. Dave reckons this is unlikely.
However, the private investigators have recently been hounding the artists with phone calls and questions… hungry for retribution after being eluded yet again.
The irony is that the whole case has boosted the profile of all seven artists. Phil, finally had his first solo exhibition showcased in a gallery in the bright lights of Jozi. Mookie is doing his B-Tech in Fine Art and making a living painting murals and portraits. He recently won a national graffiti competition held by Blackberry. He was commissioned to paint six massive canvasses for the company and was flown to Jozi for a big hip hop jam. Dok is the boss of Durban surfboard art, slaving in the Baron Surfboard factory shaping dungeon… churning out several boards a day. He just got his first big corporate commission – to paint the shiny showroom of a Nissan car dealership.
Shaun Oakley and Wade Ernstrom are both successful graphic designers. The only non-artist is Jono. A structural engineer by day, studying for his B-Tech by night and learning to speak Zulu on the side.
“The whole ‘movie’ as I like to call it actually worked out to our advantage.” Says Mookie. “We got a lot of exposure and it put graf on a public platform where it was debated… and the general outcome was that people believe things should change. Graffiti is gradually being accepted. People know we are legit street artists. We weren’t guilty. We were improving the wall.”
*All images © Samora Chapman and supplied.