AiW Guest: Ofentse Mashego
In July 2015, the Johannesburg suburb of Westdene launched its own community mural project. The first of its kind in South Africa, and possibly globally, the Westdene Graffiti Project uses the art of graffiti to personalise and improve the aesthetics of Westdene’s suburban environment. Inspired by a non-commissioned mural artwork completed by Tapz, a well-known graffiti artist whose tag adorns many a surface across Johannesburg, the project has set about rewriting popular perceptions of the art form. Tapz’s piece was a site of controversy and created a clear division between those who thought it was a beautiful art piece and those who thought it was vandalism. The latter group seemed to win the day as Westdene Resident’s Association set out to paint over the graffiti.
However, they met resistance in the form of urban activist Clint Hill who fought for, and convinced the Resident’s Association as well as the owner of the property to keep the graffiti up. I perhaps won’t mention that not so long after that, the property was sold, and the new owner proceeded to paint over the graffiti without much consideration of the story behind it. Regardless, the Graffiti Project had begun, and Hill had embarked on a quest to ‘art up’ Westdene.
But how does it work? For a wall to be painted, a resident contacts one of the project coordinators through the Westdene Graffiti Project Facebook page and shares a picture of the wall they are offering. The project coordinators then connect the participant with an available graffiti artist and they are (usually) given free creative scope to colourise the wall. The only request is that the artworks are not offensive and some property-owners do sometimes already have a theme in mind.
Since its inception the project has grown far beyond the organisers’ initial intentions. Currently sitting at 45 walls, the project has not only seen different people taking part but has also resulted in economic activities for the community. The hype may have died down but the project continues to provide a platform on which awareness about South Africa’s graffiti culture is spread. Indeed, the Johannesburg tour company Past Experiences now runs frequent tours of the neighbourhood, guiding both locals and
tourists through the neighbourhood, visiting the walls of the individuals who participated in the graffiti project. On the day of the tours, some residents also set up stalls on the route of the tour and sell goodies such as homemade vetkoeks and lemonade. Westdene has become a uniquely popular site, with residents taking new found pride in what their community plays host to. The question this project asks is; will similar neighbourhoods begin graffiti projects of their own?
We can certainly hope. Some of the graffiti artists may have since been recruited by corporate companies to help with branding; some of Westdene’s artwork may have been painted over (it is not only Tapz’s first work that was lost. Who can forget one resident who defaced their neighbour’s wall because they remembered, when under the influence, that they don’t like zebras?). But still a non-descript dull neighbourhood now has a personality that helps it stand out from the surrounding areas. Westdene is arty, edgy, vibrant. Its open space open and accommodative to artists and ‘hip’, young adults. It is also a space where you feel part of something – part of an eclectic mix of individuals. As one walks Westdene’s streets you see various murals and experience the different personalities and artistic styles of those artists behind them. The pieces mostly make use of wild-styling and masterpieces, contrasting colours either bright or more subtle which blend in with the existing environment. Put together, these elements show how the Westdene Graffiti Project is not only welcoming visitors but transforming, even urging the urban environment, to brighten our days.
Ofentse Mashego studied at the University of Witwatersrand. She has just completed an Honours degree in Urban and Regional Planning. Interested in urban planning paradigms such as new urbanism, place identity and attachment, Ofentse has her focus set on pursuing a career in Urban Design in order to understand all the different components that comprise a community and how the paradigms can be used to create spaces that enhance people’s lives and experiences.