The trio’s work focuses on environmental conservation and conscious living. These messages are common in their murals and street art, and have earned them recognition.
Looking at their outstanding work, there is no doubt that BSQ Crew, (Bomb Squad Crew) is changing the way Kenyans view street art. And earning a decent living from it in the process. In their lingo, the process of creating graffiti is known as ‘bombing’, hence their name.
ART ENCOURAGES FREE EXPRESSION
Bebeto Ochieng, 23, Kenneth Otieno, 28, and Wanyande Musasia, 24, won the Best Graffiti Crew during the Kenya Art Fair in 2016. The European Union was their first big client, and the Queen of Belgium, no less, went to see them work at the EU headquarters in Belgium. Their’s is a unique story of the perfect meeting of minds.
Bebeto, 23, the youngest crew member, is a muralist and graffiti artist on a mission to change how street art is perceived.
“This kind of art encourages free expression, but is misunderstood. It is seen, by some, as a form of defiance or rebellion, and its artists are vilified”
He says that finding a wall to paint on within the city is near impossible, but hails Nairobi’s Jericho as a graffiti friendly neighbourhood, where this form of art is freely expressed and appreciated, perhaps because a number of pioneer graffiti artists hail from here.
Bebeto lives, breaths and dreams about art. His hair is a form of art in itself - nutty dreadlocks achieved by twisting, combining and re-twisting locks multiple times. His parents wanted him to pursue a degree in economics, so they were not pleased with the path he chose.
His art adorns private homes and is proudly displayed in a number of offices, schools and street walls. When not busy doing life-size murals or graffiti, he spends time doing string art, popular with the youth.
“Many who love art cannot afford expensive murals. Youth have a penchant for the human anatomy, particularly the curvaceous body of a full-figured African woman. I began to draw and sell these for as low as Sh4,000. Now I have a devoted following and draw on demand” he says.
Bebeto is part of the revolution seeking to mainstream street art with an African touch, and is convinced that to make this art form acceptable, the message must change.
“We are moving away from angry expression and violence and embracing constructive messaging in street art. BSQ Crew is about environmental conservation and conscious living. These messages are common in their murals and street art and have earned them recognition.
A life size mural by the crew, worth Sh100,000, is prominently displayed at the European Commission office in Belgium.
Bebeto and his partners, Kenneth and Wanyande, are students of Patrick Mukabi, a top Kenyan artist, who took the trio under his wing and taught them everything he knows about his craft.
“Mukabi has been instrumental to my success, our success. He allowed us to create our own kind of art, just the way we saw it, and gave us free access to his studio,” Bebeto, a father of one, says.
Meet Kenneth Otieno. His quiet manner and tough-looking demeanor are misleading. Underneath that exterior lies a brilliant mind. Ochieng is an astute artist and poet, whose words resonate great wisdom.
“Because of art, I think about and see life in vivid colour. Art has taught me perseverance and patience. It gave me hope at a time when there was hopelessness and misery all around me,” he explains.
Otieno, aka Kaymist, cut short his education to find work just to put food in his stomach and raise enough fare to travel from his rural home in Karachuonyo, Homa Bay County, to Mathare, Nairobi, where his sister lived. His parents could not afford to send him to college and feed his seven younger siblings too.
Once in Nairobi, he made a living making and selling simple bead bangles and pendants, and would supplement that income working at construction sites. It was here that he came face-to-face with his ‘destiny shaper’.
“One day, a woman asked me to help her carry goods to her house, where I saw some paintings in her house. I told her that I could draw, and she asked me to draw something for her.”
Otieno drew two boys pushing a tire past a fruit stall. While he was disappointed that the woman did not buy it, the drawing compelled him to seek out art exhibitions to sell his work. That is how he found his way to the Godown studios in industrial area and became the eager student of Mukabi.
This encounter would irrevocable change his life and put him in contact with the two young men, that are part of BSQ Crew. He too aims to change the negative perception of street art.
“Street artists are seen as idlers and trouble makers, on the contrary, we are a dedicated team of creators. Our goal is to help people appreciate art and enjoy free expression.”
Brian Wanyande is a fine art graduate from Kenyatta University. Unlike many parents today, Brian’s mother encouraged him to follow his passion from an early age.
“She’s the reason I picked up a pencil to draw even before I knew I could. Her encouragement kept me going. I credit my mother for my success.”
Brian says art has unique challenges and dry spells, but he is happy right where he is.
“Art is my full time career, and I believe that with time, and as I better my craft, I will be able to afford the lifestyle I desire and also comfortably take care of my mum and siblings.”
He encourages young people who want to make a career out of art to do so with confidence.
Immaculate Juma, 26, is an advocate. She is also a passionate artist and the glue that holds BSQ Crew together. They met while learning to paint from Mukabi.
“Being around artists a lot, I constantly heard them lament about non-payment or dishonoured contracts. I discovered that artists often work without contracts and when they do, they often fail to read the fine print; consequently, they lose money and copyright to their work.”
Immaculate began offering free legal and financial advice to artists back in 2013, but it wasn’t until recently that she became the brand manager for BSQ Crew.
Her job entails negotiating and scrutinising contracts for them. “My goal is to make art attractive, marketable and profitable,” she says. She also believes that artists must change their thinking and engage with clients professionally, and that they need to clean up their image to be taken seriously.
This, she points out, is a vital part of the art revolution.
Interested in what the BSQ Crew does? Read on.
What does it take to succeed as a street artists?
Talent, passion, hard work and patience go a long way. More importantly, identify and work closely with an established mentor to open doors.
Obviously, one does not need a college degree to become an artist, but you need to be talented, however, education does expand your worldview and teach you things you would never know otherwise.
Do you need capital to start?
Not necessarily. We all started with no money, but we had some work to showcase our creativity when we sought mentorship.
Can one comfortably live off art?
Oh yes, but be prepared to start small and grow - we are all self-reliant. The cheapest art we have sold went for Sh1,000, while the most expensive so far has sold for Sh100,000. The biggest challenge we face is lack of acceptance and understanding of our kind of art.
What motivates you to keep going?
We want to make street art acceptable and encourage free expression; art is a labour of love. Do it for the love of it, not the money. In future, once we get to where we want to be, we plan to pay it forward.
We want to share the gift that we have been given through art.