Graffiti artists turn to walls with a stinging political message

Sunday March 25 2012

Photo/CORRESPONDENT  My inspiration comes from the fact that, through this, I have the ability to communicate with the next person and pass the intended message”  — Swift99, graffiti artist

Photo/CORRESPONDENT My inspiration comes from the fact that, through this, I have the ability to communicate with the next person and pass the intended message” — Swift99, graffiti artist 

By DANIEL WESANGULA [email protected]

The images hit you hard in the face. They virtually jump out of the concrete surfaces they are painted on. A huge, menacing vulture sits on a throne with a briefcase overflowing with cash cuffed on his wrist with a chain.

Around it is evidence of all manner of scandals that have taken the Kenyan economy on a free fall. In another, vultures arrogantly walk around with their families.

These images are all over the city of Nairobi, courtesy of the deft hands of a group of young graffiti artists. They are on public toilets, buildings and roads. Their message is loud and clear: use your vote to rid Kenya of vultures. The reference to the political class is quite overt.

Socio-political awareness

The artists, who number four, say they are using this art form to create socio-political awareness. And they are doing it at great risk – at night. A diesel generator hums a foot away as they work and the only other sound is the shake-and-hiss of a spray paint canister.

When darkness descends on the city, the four artists get on with their mission to shine their own kind of light in the darkness – heralding a new dawn in political activism.

And when the sun comes up the next day, their nocturnal activities become the subject of the people’s attention.

The young men will have turned the wall into a concrete canvas, subsequently creating some kind of street gallery.

“This is pointed at the ruling elite,” explains their coordinator, award-winning photojournalist Boniface Mwangi, “the demigods who have taken advantage of us and capitalised on every Kenyan weakness to have their way.”

The mural he talks of is rather interesting, the underlying theme being the Kenyan politician. One cannot miss the vulture with the briefcase labelled “Stolen Loot”.

“This was not a shocking depiction of our representatives to Kenyans. It is common knowledge that a majority of politicians rob us and continuously loot from the public coffers.

In a way, those who saw the murals connected with them. They understood where we are coming from,” says Mr Mwangi.

From wall to wall, the graffiti artists continue their spray paint revolution. But they hope their work will eventually mean much more than a colourful wall or an interesting caricature.

“After the fun and games, the murals should make the public think harder about the choices they make in their political representation,” says one of the artists involved in the project.

For fear of being targeted by the authorities that have already termed their work illegal, he only gives his street name, Uhuru.

“It’s an expression that speaks to the freedom of my art and my consciousness,” he says of his street name.

Uhuru says they are trying to reach young Kenyans the best way they can to get politically active and take responsibility for the leaders they elect.

“For a long time the youth have been the biggest complainers about life’s unfair nature. We keep lamenting about bad leadership, yet we are the ones who put these bad leaders in power,” he says.

In the murals, the artists have a checklist of what they believe leadership ought to be and what it ought not to be.

The text reads, “Describe your MP vulture” but “MP” has been crossed out with red paint. A list of options is given: thieves, irresponsible, selfish, pathetic, missing in action. The list goes on and on.

“All we want is a political awakening among us, the majority,” says another member of the group nicknamed Swift99.

“My inspiration comes from the fact that, through this, I have the ability to communicate with the next person and pass the intended message.”

Friends who realised that he does his sketches and artwork with a kind of speed alien to fellow artists gave him the name Swift.

“My work speaks for me. They named me, and I answer to it,” he says.

Pedestrian crossings

Their canvas extends from walls to tarmac. On several pedestrian crossings, their message continues to be spread.

“We want to be on everyone’s faces. When you look up we will be on a wall, when you look down you will see us and remember that a big part of the problems touching on your life is down to the fact that you put an inefficient person to lead you. And we want you to be angry about it,” says Mr Mwangi.

“Next time when you go to the ballot you will remember the broken promises, the pot-holed roads, high inflation prices and your undying dedication to Kenya by constantly paying your tax.”

But, in their bravado and somehow “cool” (though not in the eyes of the city fathers) choice of protest, they have their fears. The biggest among them is failing to get noticed.

“What if the point doesn’t sink in? What if we trawl the streets looking for walls with no effect?” asks Mr Mwangi.

This would take the stuffing out of them since they are solely motivated by the hope that their actions will trigger some kind of revolution among their peers.

“Middle class Kenyans, get off Twitter and Facebook and do something positive offline,” says the two-time winner of the CNN Africa Photojournalist of the Year award (in 2008 and 2010).

He is also a TED fellow and the founder of Picha Mtaani, a UN-funded initiative that focuses on reconciliation through photographic exhibitions and debate.

The Kenya ni Kwetu campaign may run into millions of shillings in costs due to the tools used in the creation of the art and logistics. It has been rumoured that there are well heeled sponsors behind the project but the coordinator would not be drawn into the discussion of funding.

Mr Mwangi and his team may have achieved one of their goals – to be on everyone’s face – but only for a day or too. Soon after the hours worth of work was complete City Council officers, albeit late in the day, diligently painted over the murals.

Deep blue has replaced the once white and tagged walls. And, like hurriedly applied make-up that fails to conceal evidence of scars from a previous fight, renegade strokes of the spray paint peep from under the council’s blue.

But, in this onslaught, the pedestrian crossing stencils have survived. Maybe the city authorities will just let the tags disappear by natural attrition.

But the counteraction by the council has not dampened the activists’ spirits.

“Let the games begin,’ says Mr Mwangi. “They can’t always have askaris stationed at every wall looking out for us. We are just beginning, there is more to come.”

All this, the artists hope, will have a snowball effect and their campaign dubbed Kenya ni Kwetu will achieve its aim – improving political awareness among young Kenyans.

“We want to bring about a ballot revolution with the more than 100 murals in the pipeline. We want change. We are a vessel that gives a voice from the people,” says Smokilla, another graffiti artist. His name, like that of the others, was given to him by his friends.

“Growing up, I used to be that creative guy ... did matatu art and smoked a lot… I guess friends just looked at me and thought it an appropriate street name,” he says.

He too sees a revolution on the way. “We want to be a part of those who want it to come through the ballot, and not through violence,” he says.

Kenya ni Kwetu
But they also recognise that very few people know about their Kenya ni Kwetu campaign. For instance, how many have heard of or seen the murals outside Nairobi?

Or how many, outside the urban youth bracket, can connect with their concept? Would it have been received with the same vigour and interest if it were done in any other part of the country, say in the rural areas?

They say they have thought this through. “It’s not only about graffiti. We will be on radio, we will merchandise, we will be on community radio as well,” says Mr Mwangi.

“The murals were only a stepping stone and they will continue to be part of our campaign.”

But the murals still remain their hardest punch. “From message to location, we believe the attention of both the public and the those in power was caught,” says the fourth artist, BankSlave. His inspiration is purely political.

“Impunity, scandals, hatred, division and poor leadership. These are the things that turned my attention to the project. I had to stand up and speak about these ills the best way I knew, through my art,” he says.

And not all of the attention the murals have received has been positive. “We have had ill-motivated politicians send emissaries to our offices. They come offer us money in exchange for a say in what we do. We know they just want to ride on the popularity of the whole thing,” says Mr Mwangi.

As the walls are repainted, and warning issued from City Hall, the group says they are just beginning. More provocative works are afoot.

“We want to hit where it hurts most. We want to hit at our collective conscience,” says BankSlave. His name, he says, is a corruption of his surname and the fact that every one is enslaved to something.

The search for more concrete canvases is on. They will inevitably land on a number of blank slates and let their creative juices run wild.

After the fun and games, however, the hard part will begin. Will their intended message get across? Will the sight of the vultures preying on our weaknesses inspire a political awakening amongst a rather passive youth and middle class?

There are two answers. Either their kind of revolution will indeed come or their stinging murals will remain, as some describe it, a childish eyesore in a city labouring to regain its long lost sheen.