Another Kak Graffiti Pieceby Marjorie Parker / Images by Justin McGee / 08.02.2012
Philip Botha is not an easy interview subject. He is too notorious, too impatient. Too tired of tolerating journalists who throw words around with little regard for consequence. He is in one breath an idol and a scapegoat the next, ready to face damage by attack or ignorance. Maybe that’s cyclically perfect, fair, for a graffiti writer. It’s like this when people write about graffiti. They either use words like ‘gang’ and ‘scourge’ or they fetishise it, imposing all this ideal fiction and limited knowledge on a sub-culture which is too unknown and varied – aesthetically and morally – to make for a neat little article.
Community Service is Philip Botha’s first solo exhibition. Billed as, “an examination of community and environment, and what it means to better an environment”, it seems pretty righteous. We talked to Botha about his work, beyond the press release.
Mahala: What are the most annoying questions you get asked in interviews?
Philip Botha: Does your mom know you write graffiti? What’s your favourite surface to paint on? Is it art? Etcetera etcetera… your typical I-work-for-Independent-Newspapers-type questions.
Tell me about your background as a graffiti writer and artist.
First of all, thank you for calling me a graffiti writer instead of a graffiti artist. Second, I have been writing graffiti seriously for over 12 years. I messed around before that, but at the end of 1999 I said to myself, “I‘m gonna be famous,” and graffiti would be my vehicle. Back when I started writing, it was only me and a couple of friends. We didn’t know anything about graffiti in the rest of the country. I had a friend whose parents could afford a computer and web service and I started searching. I found all these writers in other cities, it made me feel like I was part of something unique. I was already a skater, but I was just another person on a board. Writing graffiti made me someone. I would overhear people saying, “Did you see that ________ tag up there”… or down that road… or under that bridge… it felt good. I was finally making my mark.
As an artist, I have been drawing my whole life. I dropped out of school to attend an art college but I never found my niche. Writing graffiti became my medium, so now, as a gallery artist, I’m fusing my interests, going beyond graffiti, mixing it with other skills. I’m trying to create something I’m happy with and that the public – even the gallery-going public- will like and want to own.
Are you a vandal?
No. Vandals go out with the intention of fucking stuff up. Like jocks go to clubs or sports events looking to fight.
People who know of you will want a comment regarding the last few years of your life and graffiti. What do you have to say?
I did it properly, served my time, now I’m moving on.
Explain your exhibition.
It looks at outdoor visual elements we are confronted with every day: adverts, flyers, whether they’re for a party or event, penis enlargement, abortion or some other bullshit, and covering them in text. Quick phrases that I guess you could call street idioms. They are a mixture of graffiti and sign-writing. It’s also a dig at illegal advertisers (like those doctors promising to help you win back your lover or win the Lotto) who aren’t arrested for vandalism when they cover the streets, yet graffiti writers are. You’re telling me you’d rather see, in big, bold letters, SAFE ABORTION, on every street pole – than some person’s urban signature? If that is so, you need some professional help, not me. So, in a nutshell my exhibition is covering illegal advertising with art, and not the other way round.
Why exhibit? Why take it into a gallery at all?
Well, I’ve always wanted to grow. If you consider yourself talented and you want to broaden or diversify your audience, you can’t keep doing the same thing. I’m not saying that I’ll ever stop graffiti, I’m just doing something else with it, taking it in a new direction. What I put in galleries isn’t necessarily graffiti, it’s just my art. Graffiti will always belong on the streets and the trains.
How do you feel about graffiti?
It’s a love-hate relationship.
“Street Art”. Discuss.
Street Art is the commercial name for people doing public art. I think someone not actually involved in it decided to add the word ‘street’ to make it seem more tough, to give it more cred. Public art is exactly the opposite of what I’m doing: it’s taking art that is usually in the galleries and moving it into the street. Also, most ‘street artists’ are failed graffiti writers.
What needs to be said to correct the general public perception of graffiti? Does it need to be corrected?
There’s nothing you can say to correct it. I can’t remember ever reading an article on graffiti that was accurate. Everyone will always have a different opinion, so rather do interviews or articles on particular people’s views on graffiti. Don’t write it as fact. I recently read an article on ‘graffiti’ in a Sunday newspaper – it was basically a piece on 2 artists that was labelled as a story on graffiti. It should have rather been called ‘a piece on 2 artists.’
So, what’s next?
The 96% Project. It’s a mission to show appreciation for the average guy on the street. Through large-scale text-based murals showing short motivational – I know motivational is a cheesy word – messages, I want to substitute brainwashing billboards with phrases that appeal to an individual rather than a market. I’ve completed a few, now I’m looking for further funding and always, more walls.
*Community Service is up at the Main Street Life Gallery, 286 Fox Street, Johannesburg. Follow Philip Botha on Twitter: @diehonest
**All images © Justin McGee.