A Graffiti walking tour in Johannesburg

Next time you are out and about somewhere gritty and urban and spot what looks like a messy mark spray-painted on a wall stop and look at it again. It might just look like petty vandalism but actually what you are looking at is called a tag and is an important and integral part of the very hip and happening art of graffiti. Get me!


I had no idea about this. Or that a wall covered in different squiggles and pictures was known as a guest book. Or that graffiti artists “speak” to each other using tags and signatures sprayed over the top of each others work. Or that there is quite a difference between graffiti and street art. I had no idea about it – but I do now, thanks to a wondefully informative walking tour of the Newtown area of Johannesburg that I went on with three friends last week. Okay I am never going to be the world expert on spray painting walls but I do at least know now what a tag is. And that it isn’t just a senseless squiggle on a wall.


Ostrich by Fin

Johannesburg, as anyone who follows my South African-themed posts knows, is very much an up-and-coming city. Having once been known more for its lawlessness and crime than its markets and coffee shops, our tour showed us that things are definitely swinging the right way. But what was interesting was that graffiti – regarded by some as part of the problem of lawlessness – is actually very much a part of that positive change. I guess just the fact that these very popular walking tours exist proves that this is the sort of thing that people want to learn about.


Dr Foods and Wu

Our guide for the day was Jo, a font of knowledge on all things graffiti. Jo is an academic who lectures on the art as well as guides tours. But she is also someone who seems completed invested in the area and the people of Newtown. Even as we walked around, she exhanged greetings with street sellers and taxi drivers, coffee shop owners and passing security people. In addition, Jo is personal friends with some of the artists and was able to add some proper “colour” to the ongoing discussions as she took us round the various painted walls of the area including not telling us who the well-known but anonymous “Tapz” is.


Rat by Tapz

As a bit of history and background that I picked up from the walk, graffiti in South Africa originated in Cape Town post-Apartheid when artists gained the freedom to express themselves and moved up to Johannesburg more recently. Most of the artists are male (although apparently the biggest artist in South Africa is a woman) and I understood the more well known ones are white but that younger black artists are now coming through the ranks. Although most of the art we saw was “home grown”, Johannesburg does now attract international talent and one of the pieces we saw was by famous American street artist Shephard Fairey. The locals living and working in the graffiti-heavy area we were shown around mostly seemed non-plussed by the art they were surrounded by; but apparently locals are taken on tours too to help them understand why all these foreigners keep coming to take pictures of their walls. We also learned that the graffiti was under threat from the new mayor who was making noises about “cleaning up the city” (something that has apparently already happened in Cape Town). I fear they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they do this as street art is something of a draw for tourists these days.

I won’t go on too much about the graffiti as actually I think it is something you really need to see for yourself to understand. Whilst some of it does look untidy and could be called common vandalism, it’s only when you see graffiti in it’s true urban home that you start to get an appreciation for what it is and why it is there. I can’t say I loved all of it but that’s not what matters – it isn’t about liking what you see (although I did like some of it), it’s more that you react to it. Certainly this is the sort of tour that helps you understand a city and see it from a completely unique angle and I would urge anyone visiting South Africa to try and go on it. Jo even runs special child-friendly versions so there is no excuse to not bring the kids – if you are worried about safety she said she had never had an incident in all her seven years of guiding (although did warn us to look out for the potholes!) and if you are worried about walking in the heat much of the art is contained in a small area and often under the shade of flyovers.


At the end of our tour, the four of us bade farewell to Jo and set off back to Pretoria in my car. Along the way we pointed out “Tapz” paintings – he has evidently started to move along the motorway towards the capital. Funnily enough, Pretoria is so far virtually graffiti-free – although maybe not that suprising given the character of this rather staid city (it is like naughty Joahnnesburg’s older and far more sensible sister). But watch out Pretoria – there are four young (at heart) expat mums who have recently got the graffiti bug and are limbering up with their spray cans at the ready. If anyone sees any blank walls please let me know!

We used PAST Experiences for our tour: highly recommended.

A Day in My Expat Life – Pretoria

Welcome to the first in what I hope will become a new series showing the reality of expat life. Since I moved to South Africa, I know I have posted quite a lot about our travels – pictures of safaris and wildlife, sunshine and holidays. But of course there are just the edited highlights – the reality is that day-to-day life here isn’t that much more exciting than anywhere else (just with better weather). Forget cocktails on the beach and champagne receptions – this is what a normal 24 hours in a life overseas looks like. Starting with my own “normal” day here in South Africa I hope to share other photographic logs from expats around the world. If you would like to feature please get in touch – details at the end of the post.

DAY: Tuesday 17th May

Time: 07.00


Every day starts with tea – usually at the breakfast table after the kids have left for school and my husband to work. This gives me a few quiet moments to myself, when I catch up with the news on my BBC app and read any emails that have come in overnight.

Time: 08.00


After getting dressed, Cooper our miniature schnauzer puppy, knows it’s walk time. If he is lucky I meet up with friends and their dogs and  take him to one of the few places in Pretoria where we can let them off the lead. Today though it was a walk round the block firmly attached to me to stop him running off and eating every dried frog/chicken bone on the path

Time: 09.00


I had an appointment in Johannesburg this morning so was leaving Cooper in the capable hands of our domestic helper Sarna. She comes to us twice a week and takes care of the washing, ironing and cleaning. I don’t know what we are going to do without her when we return to the UK.

Time: 09.30


You can easily drive to Johannesburg but I find the Gautrain a better alternative. Linking Pretoria with Joburg and Oliver Tambo airport, the trainline takes you right into the main shopping areas and is wonderfully clean, efficient and safe.

Time: 10.30


My meeting in Johannesburg was with Hannah who runs Translating Me, a business that helps expats settle into their new life. We had never met before but we had so much to talk about I don’t think we stopped nattering the whole time we were together. It helped that Hannah introduced me to this wonderful cafe, the Patisserie, which sells the most incredible macaroons. I will certainly be returning and bringing friends from Pretoria!

Time: midday


Back to the station to take me home – these two security guards were carrying on a conversation across the tracks. Their presence makes the station feel very safe.

Time: 13.00


On the way home I popped into our local supermarket, Woolworths. It is completely different from the chain that used to be Woolies in the UK – best known for it’s “pick n mix” sweets selection and selling records back in the day. This version of Woolworths is more or less the food part of Marks and Spencers, an upmarket British chain. According to Wikipedia, it is also not the same as the Australian version of Woolworths. Confused? I am! However I am very grateful that it exists as it is a great place to shop with a fantastic range – although prices have gone through the roof recently.

Time: 13.30


Checking out with a smile! Service is always great at Woolworths – I think they hand-pick the friendliest workers to employ.

Time: 14.00


Back home and gardener Lucas, who works on our compound and for us every Tuesday, has been helping keep Cooper entertained. I’m not sure what our local staff (including the guard at our gate) thought of him when we first got him as unfortunately many people here associate dogs with aggression as they are trained to guard homes. However Cooper seems to have won them all over and now they all seem to love him – until he steals something of theirs and hides it in the bushes!

Time: 14.30


Grabbing a sandwich I manage to get a bit of work done at my desk knowing the girls will soon be home from school.

Time: 16.00


And they’re back! One little boy is ALWAYS glad to see these two – although two or three times a week it’s a quick turnaround to horse-riding or swimming lessons. The girls have a long day as they leave at 6.45am and often are not home until 4pm or later if they have after-school activities. We all look forward to the weekends and holidays!

Time: 17.30


As it’s a tuesday, the girls have swimming lessons – they swim two or three times a week at the Universty of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre, one of the top training grounds for South African athletes in the country. Let’s hope some of that skill and competitiveness rubs off on them! Usually I drop them off and my husband picks them up on the way home from work, giving me time to prepare food for when they get home. Tonight it was the not-very-inspired pasta bolognese for tea.

Time: 20.30


And so the day ends with a sleeping puppy and a roaring log fire – our only heating system in the downstairs area of the house. The days may be bright and sunny but the nights at this time of the year are very chilly. Blankets are your friend!


If you would like to feature in A Day in My Expat Life please leave a comment below or email me at clara@expatpartnersurvival.com. All I need are around 10-12 pictures snapped as you go about your ordinary day, sent to me with captions, the date and approximate timings. I will do the rest! Please note: high quality pictures aren’t necessary, camera pics are fine as this makes it a lot easier to do 🙂

Seeing Johannesburg for the first time: a walking tour of Fordsburg

Yesterday I finally entered the behemoth that is Johannesburg. And came out not only alive, but carrying packets of spice and some rose petal jam. As well as lots of pretty pictures on my camera.

Joburg (as it seems to be known colloqially) is one of those infamous cities whose reputation strides before it. Known for years as a centre of terrifying crime, it is finally starting to get its day. In the past few years, the city has gone from mass robberies and tyre burnings to street art and hipster markets. I have seen it mentioned many times as one of those “up and coming” places that you must get to before everyone else arrives….which is probably news to the many people who have been happily living there for years. But it is definitely being cited as one of the hip and happening cities on this planet right now.

photo tour b and w

Nevertheless, for someone like myself living in cosy, provincial Pretoria, sprawling Johannesburg is still a fairly daunting prospect. So I was grateful when one of the parents at the school my children go to invited me along on a photography group walking tour in the city – a great way, I thought, to not only learn more about the country I live in but also to start to get a feel for Johannesburg and it’s districts. As well as have a social outing and meet some new people.

As it turned out, the tour was of an area that I would otherwise probably never have thought of visiting, which was even more of a bonus. I should probably have started with Soweto, where I could have learned more about the Apatheid regime and the uprisings against it. But I do at least already know a bit about that era (after all, didn’t all us students in the 1980’s sing Freeeeee Nelson Mandela and take part in protests aginst our government’s support of the South African government of the time?), and I look forward to learning more. Yesterday was about visiting the area where some of the most recent immigrants into this “rainbow nation” have made their homes: Fordsburg.

man in meat restaurant

We were met by our guide Ishvara (a South African chef with a side-line in tour-guiding) on a street in the middle of this compact centre of immigrant life. Right next to us was an old train carriage that had been adapted into a meditteranean restaurant. Next to that were some toilets bearing an inscription that told you the building now housing the Ladies and Gents had once been the focus of a communist uprising. Across the road was a huge banner proclaming that this was a place to buy your “share” (eg a goat or other sacrificial lamb) for Eid. We were surrounded on all sides by a reminder that this was an area that was forever changing – as new immirgants arrived, those who were more established moved on to other areas.

old and new

The old and the new…

We set off as a group and were taken down streets, into shops, through covered market areas, past a huge variety of colourful streetlife that made me feel more like I was in South London than South Africa. It was a good reminder that we are becoming ever more multi-cultural in this world and wherever you go you will almost certainly be able to source a good curry.

Each street or couple of streets was home to a different culture and thus we met and photographed people from Pakistan, Morocco, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia….it was certainly a fascinating insight, although difficult in such a short space of time to really understand how these people felt about living here or how intergrated they were able to be (not very much I understood – but these are the first generation. It usually takes two or three generations before cultures properly mix). We did learn though from our guide that these were peaceful people, trying to make a living from their clothes shops or their jewellery outlets. No-one was interested in some of the more extreme ways of others of their religion – many of them had moved from their home countries to escape from that way of life.


two women in black

The friendliest street in Fordsburg - smiling Somalis

The friendliest street in Fordsburg – smiling Somalis

Overall, it was a very interesting whistle-stop tour of a fascinating part of Johannesburg. We ended with a return to the South Africa more familar to most of us – a traditional Afrikaans-run butchers shop. It felt like a fitting ending and a good way to remind us that although there were many people arriving in Johannesburg and bringing with them their culture, food and way of life – we were still in South Africa.

And we're back in South Africa....

And we’re back in South Africa….

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