Why Nairobi's graffiti culture is here to stay

How often do you board matatus with glitzy drawings or pause to enjoy dramatic street art

IN SUMMARY

  • A presidential directive three years ago lifted the ban on matatu graffiti but public service vehicle operators still have run-ins with NTSA over "vulgar, explicit and demoralising" images.
  • In the US, a homeless woman was jailed for spray painting government buildings with expletive-filled graffiti against President-elect Donald Trump.

How often do you board matatus with glitzy drawings or pause to enjoy the scenery of dramatic artwork on street walls in Nairobi? What you may not know is that this graffiti is growing in popularity and tenacity.

Kenya's capital city has seen an increase of this art form despite several attempts by government to crackdown on what is deemed as offensive street art.

A presidential directive three years ago lifted the ban on matatu graffiti but public service vehicle operators still have run-ins with the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) over "vulgar, explicit and demoralising" images.

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Activists such as Boniface Mwangi were also in the soup after using graffiti to convey messages against corruption and bad governance.

READ: Graffiti artists turn to walls with a stinging political message

Kenya is not the only country whose artists constantly grapple with tough laws pertaining to graffiti. Last year, a homeless woman was jailed for spray painting government buildings with expletive-filled graffiti against US President Donald Trump.

In November this year, Canadian police arrested a man for 18 cases of vandalism graffiti as this form of art contravenes the law, the Argus Observer reports while in the UK, an investigation was launched after antisemitic graffiti was found outside a synagogue in October, says the Yorkshire Evening Post.

READ: Homeless California woman jailed for anti-Trump graffiti

Mohamed Kartarchand of Moha Grafix company with one of his client's matatus in Eastleigh, Nairobi on November 10, 2017. PHOTO | BENJAMIN OPIYO | NATION MEDIA GROUP Mohamed Kartarchand
Graffiti artists Easmon Kimani (left) and Caleb Akama at the Dodi Body Builders garage in Industrial area, Nairobi on December 19,2014. PHOTO | WILLIAM OERI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 
A graffiti artist working on a matatu on January 28, 2016. PHOTO | JAMES EKWAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP 
A Rongai matatu sprayed with graffiti on January 28, 2016. PHOTO | JAMES EKWAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP 
A Rongai matatu sprayed with graffiti on January 28, 2016. PHOTO | JAMES EKWAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP Rongai, matatu, graffiti

Controversial art forms are bound to trigger legal action. However, in Africa, graffiti is mostly synonymous with celebration of culture and heritage. Jeffy Magina, a graffiti artist based at the GoDown Arts Centre, says even though his work is not a regular source of income, he lives for it.

The Bachelor of Commerce graduate from Strathmore University does not limit himself to street art but also works on canvas which is what aesthetes will occasionally buy. “I started doing graffiti from a young age, in primary school. It is a rebellious form of art that stands out as it conveys powerful messages.”

READ: Aboard the “Beast” of Ongata Rongai

Blackberry, the beast of Rongai, one of the most popular matatus plying the Rongai-Nairobi CBD route. PHOTO| FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP Blackberry, BEAST, RONGAI, MATATU, GRAFFITI, NAIROBI

Mohamed Kartarchand, popular for matatu graffiti, calls his work “moving art”. He runs Moha Grafix company and has been in the industry for over 10 years. According to him, Kenyans appreciate his work which is why most matatu owners are quick to "pimp" their rides as commuters opt for the more artistic vehicles.

The war against graffiti may continue despite positive contributions it makes to businesses or individuals but suffice it to say, this form of art has come of age and is likely here to stay.

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