South Africa: In Durban, its all about “Writing on the Wall”

Writing on the Wall

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

by Samora Chapman, images by Karen Logan

It was an icy Sunday morning. A handful of graffiti writers gathered to paint what everyone thought was a legal wall on Sydney Road, downtown Durban. The event had been organised weeks earlier and was openly publicized on various social networks. It wasn’t an ordinary graffiti jam. They were gathered to paint the name of a 17 year old kid, a comrade artist, Wesley Fischer aka Eiy5, who was hit by a steaming 18 wheeler truck and killed nearly five years ago.

You wouldn’t know any of this had you read the papers yesterday, although it was widely reported.

The Natal Mercury frontpage barked the headline: “Graffiti gang caught red-handed”

While Paul Kirk reported in the Citizen that: “Seven men, believed to be among South Africa’s most destructive and lawless graffiti vandals, were arrested in Durban yesterday – while allegedly in the middle of a vandalism spree.”

Durban Graffiti

The situation on the ground was a little different from the salacious and hysterical tone of these newspaper reports. Imagine a group of creative Durban youths, assembled on a sidewalk on a Sunday, sipping quarts, listening to beats, doing what they love, remembering a lost homey.

Suddenly a massive squadron of Metro cops and private investigators swoop and bundle them into the backs of police vans, while they were busy choosing the best colours to blend against the cold grey sky. Another fine example of Durban’s war on public art.

Truth is, no sane graffiti writer would stand in broad daylight in the middle of the industrial Durban downtown painting a piece illegally. Durban law enforcement has come down hard on illegal graffiti of late, and two of the artists are already on 5 year suspended sentences. It’s not like they’d risk jail to brazenly paint a wall in broad daylight. Instead this was a group of graffiti artists whose intention was to uplift a dilapidated, crime-ridden area with a graffiti mural, to honour a friend’s memory.

Durban Graffiti

The wall in question has been layered with paint for the past five years. It was legalised so long ago that any permission slip has long since been used as a mull-pad or crumpled up and drop kicked into an ally. Although the group had received permission from the wall’s owner previously, it now appears that the wall had been leased from the municipality and so permission was not the individual’s to give. The idea was, nonetheless, that this was a legal arrangement.

Furthermore, the majority of these writers are the older generation and are not the kids who are bombing the city at present. The kids who are bombing were dossing in their mom’s pad that Sunday morning, wrecked from being up all night getting loose with fat cap tags. I would know. The cats who were arrested were up at 8am doing a burner legal wall with full colours and sketchbooks in hand. Only to be accosted, harassed, humiliated and dragged off to the pits. Depicted as a gang in the media, and treated as flight risks.

They were not going on a city-wide orgy of destruction. It was not a covert, midnight “gang” operation and they are certainly not the most destructive and lawless graffiti vandals in the country.

Sensational gutter “journalism” like this just gives the fat cat argument for a draconian Protection of Information Bill to control the media more teeth. The media are really doing themselves no favours here.

Durban Graffiti Gangs

I headed down to the Umbilo station with a churning stomach. A mixture of fear and dread. As I arrive, the detective addresses me by name.

“Good to see you again Mr Chapman.” He smiles. The corpulent 7ft tall detective, with a handlebar moustache, was frothing with excitement at his “big catch”.

A little media research on the accused would have shown that they are all bonafide artists. Mookie Chapman, my brother, is a professional artist and a fine art student. He’s well known in the art scene as a muralist and portrait painter. He is already making a living out of commissioned family portraits as well as corporate, private and government funded murals. He is only 23. Two of the other cats are successful graphic designers, another is Durban’s most killer surfboard airbrush artist. Another is a working civil engineer. Hardly the gang of “South Africa’s most destructive and lawless graffiti vandals in the middle of a vandalism spree.”

Another artist, Phillip Botha is in the real shit as he’s being accused of violating his probation period – a five-year suspended sentence. If this travesty stands, they may be sentencing Phillip to a stint in Westville Prison. I have graffiti eyes and I can testify that he has not done as much as a wicked scribble on a bathroom stall since his previous conviction.

Back outside the station the detective tells me he’s got evidence of 150 counts of vandalism – video footage, photographs, statements, his sidekick clutching the file with the evidence like she’s holding the Holy Grail itself.

The obvious question is don’t the police have something better to do with their time than chase suburban art fags.

Durban Graffiti Gangs

Once in the station, the blatant irony of the situation became strikingly apparent. A young lady bursts into the charge office in a state of hysteria. Her toddler was with her violent ex-boyfriend and they could not be located. She begged the police to accompany her to the man’s house as she was too afraid to go alone. “Where is your father?” Retorted the cop. For the next 15 minutes the cop proceeded to question and invalidated the woman’s pleas until she finally broke down in tears and begged “please, just please come with me to pick up my child. I don’t want to go alone.” The cop finally agreed, like some kind petulant guardian with far better things to do with his time.

Meanwhile, seven graffiti writers were being interrogated, fingerprinted and detained by the brave and hard working members of the force.

Today the newspapers are backpedaling on yesterday’s sensationalism. As Durban graffiti and hip hop artist Iain Ewok Robinson says, “I would expect nothing less. Two follow up articles today in the paper, this is how they sell mainstream media, they print hype stories using words like ‘gang’ and then follow up with a moderated story the next day so you have to buy both! It’s bullshit, toothless, weak, system fucked tabloid shite!” And largely, he’s right.

“Rapping is my radio / Graffiti is my TV / B-boys keep those windmills breezy.” – Aesop Rock.

Durban Graffiti Gangs

*Get involved. The story has already provoked a response in protest. A new website called Gangs of Graffiti has been launched in an attempt to showcase and profile these artists and dispel the idea that these are gang members. Stay tuned for the peaceful protest when the artists go to court.

**All images © Karen Logan and Samora Chapman.

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