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Old plates, new paint: Why Mombasa matatus never 'die'

Tuesday June 25 2019

A matatu with colourful graffiti-style artwork

A matatu with colourful graffiti-style artwork in Mombasa. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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Mombasa is a vibrant city with an even livelier matatu culture.

The matatus, with their intriguing and expertly-painted graffiti-style artwork can easily be mistaken for moving giant art galleries as they enter Mombasa Island.

But the matatus’ number plates tell a story of worn out and old vehicles whose outward appearance is to portray them as new, attractive and recently bought.

“We pimp these matatus for our customers..,” says Peter Warui, a matatu owner based in Mombasa.


Peter says many of their customers are youth, and they prefer fancy looking matatus with nice graffiti-style artwork and blaring music.


Some of the artwork on matatus is a reflection of popular culture, and may include local or international celebrities, movie actors and sports stars.

“Our business is all about appealing to our passengers which means we have to upgrade our matatus with different designs frequently,” says Peter.

Matatu owners’ goal is to keep their vehicles on the road for as long a possible and there are several firms focused solely on that.


“When a matatu [is brought to the garage], the owner is given a variety of designs or sometimes the client comes with a specific design he wants drawn on the vehicle. We then discuss the colour and price which all depend on the type of design,” Mohammed Seif, owner of Starmotors in Mshomoroni says.

Mohammed’s firm is one of several garages in the county dedicated to ‘pimping’ matatus.

“We first scrap off the paint on the matatu, and using an air brush we spray a white base coat, then spray the colour preferred by the owner…then finally add graffiti design that the client has chosen,” Mohammed says.

Before the painting process begins an agreement has to be made between Mr Seif and the client on the colour, theme and price.


For body work, Mohammed says he charges Sh100, 000, a job he says takes about three weeks to complete.

The work does not end there. For interior decorations, clients part with another similar amount, a job that entails replacement of seats and roof cover.

The cherry on the cake is the installation of a music system, a service that may cost up to Sh60,000, according to Mohammed.

Suleiman Kombo, a matatu conductor who operates on the Bamburi-Ferry route, says he prefers to work for new-looking vehicles because they make more money.

“We prefer having a ‘pimped’ matatu because…that way I get extra cash on top of my daily salary,” says Suleiman.

To keep these matatus looking even newer, sometimes the outer shell is replaced with new ones.

“For major repairs we take out the whole shell of the car and replace it with a new one which we acquire from outside the Coast like Eldoret town,” says Seif Mohamed Said, the owner of Cashflow matatus.