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Art, Culture

Enter the Ghetto

by Samora Chapman / 13.09.2011

Durban is humming. The arrest of seven graffiti writers almost a month ago has not only put graffiti on the public agenda, but it has simultaneously revitalised the city’s graffiti scene. New graffiti murals have sprung up all over the city like weeds, a new exhibition inspired by street art opened at the The Collective gallery and one of Durban’s most razor sharp emcee’s, Jet, recorded a track backing up his wall writing brethren. These are just a few of the activities building awareness ahead of the trial of the “031 Seven”, which kickstarts tomorrow, Wednesday 14 September, Durban Magistrates Court, at 08:30am.

The most recent activation was the Crime Seen Tour, initiated by Iain “Ewok” Robinson and Street Scene Alternative Tours. The idea was to embark on a kind of pilgrimage around the city to see some of the holy walls while Ewok gave an oral account of Durban’s graffiti culture and local history.

Eighteen people showed up for the tour on a bright and breezy Saturday morning. There was unfortunately no representation from the municipality, police or the mainstream press. Ahoy Mr Sutcliff! You missed out my friend.

The tour kicked off at The Collective, where street art and graf has been absorbed into the traditional art gallery space, featuring price tags and real names instead of free scrawls and nom de plumes. I strolled around the rather disappointing exhibition. Warren Raysdorf, the cartoonist, was a standout. But graf seldom works on the confines of a canvas and I was itching to escape into the alleyways.

Ewok Tagging

The group stepped outside the gallery and was immediately faced with the filthy truth: fat cap tags not five metres from the gallery entrance (painted with the same can that was used to paint the name of the exhibition in the gallery I might add). The people gathered around as Ewok announced: “here we have a prime example of tagging!” He then continued to break down the methodology and thought process behind the tag. The form of the letters, the speed at which it was painted, the cap used. Suddenly the tag had grown in stature from a filthy scrawl to a beautifully contemplated and unique signature. The crowd oooh’d and aaah’d and I danced around taking pics of the tourists instead of the wall. A group of art critics gathered on the side of the road examining the details of a tag. It may just have been an historic moment.

From there we travelled to Alliance Francaise to see a mural painted (by my brother) Mookie of the 031 Seven. It was painted in mixed media – acrylic and spray paint – and depicts the Durban cityscape with a family of elephants floating above the buildings, like ghosts. An obvious reference to the death of Andries Botha’s controversial sculptures.

Elephants, Mookie Chapman

We continued to Peace Avenue, Morningside, where Dok (also of the 031 Seven), Mookie and David were painting a crumbling and dilapidated wall. The tour group danced with excitement at the chance to see a wall in progress and meet the artists – covered in paint and as dirty as vagabonds. The trio dutifully answered questions about their paint, the wall, and the process of connecting colour to concrete.

From there we checked out pieces at the skatepark and then continued to the crime scene itself on Sydney Road where the 031 Seven were apprehended. The city has now claimed that the wall is actually a national monument, as it was once an abattoir and this somehow transforms the anonymous brick wall into a national treasure. Chicken bones, rat carcasses and rubbish painted the sidewalk as the art connoisseurs waded through debris to try and get a good look at the wall.

Durban Aerosol Seven

The next stop was Wentworth in south Durban, commonly known as the ‘cancer belt’. The people of Wentworth live in the shadows of Engen and SAPREF oil refineries. This is where Durban graffiti’s wall of fame can be found, amongst neglected square buildings that look like prisons, polluted skies and bare concrete. Durant Road runs through the middle of Wenties and is rumoured to be the dividing line between two gangs. Here a wall stretches for about five kilometres and is completely covered in graf.

We walked the length of the wall and checked out the layered pieces spanning the 15-year history of Durban graffiti… from ancient pieces by Cade, Aksent and 2kil to brand new pieces by Somz, Tax, Tapz and Mars to name a few. A lady from the community walked by as the art connoisseurs studied the wall. I asked what she thought of the graffiti in her neighbourhood. She smiled and said: “Oh I love it… I look at it while I walk to work and it takes me out of my mind. It’s like meditation”. It was a completely unexpected response.

Wentworth, Ewok

We eventually made our way to the heart of the Poison City graf scene – Berea Park – the writers’ bench. A place where writers meet up on a regular basis to paint, catch up and sip a cold brew. This is the spot that really showcases the hottest new styles. It gets re-painted almost every week. It’s the artists’ art gallery. There were some burner new pieces from Polizia, Saikad and Gift. At the forefront of the new generation writers.

Berea Park is one of the spots where the legalities are a bit of a grey area. It has been painted for many years, some of the residents have embraced it and given formal permission and the cops have basically turned a blind eye. But times have changed and graffiti writers can no longer paint a wall without a written affidavit. Unfinished pieces hang on the wall – evidence of another painting session shut down.

The arrest of the 031 Seven has already sparked something of a revolution. As the authorities strive to quell the graffiti plague, they are in fact provoking the culture. They are forcing all the artists to unite and push their art to a higher level. The days of spontaneous jams might be over, but the scene is growing from strength to strength. As Promo said, “don’t they know that graffiti cant be stopped!”

*All images © Samora Chapman.

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