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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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