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. Continue reading