Cape Town - While graffiti art remains illegal in Cape Town, a new book offers a unique look into the lives of its elusive protagonists, who have left their mark across the city’s surfaces.
In their terrain, graffiti artists are known as “painters” or “writers” and the soon-to-be-launched 250-page Painting Cape Town will feature the works and thoughts of 29 of the city’s painters.
Author Matthew Olckers, 24, started painting when he was in high school.
During his first year at university, Olckers photographed graffiti art around Cape Town for the blog that he launched in 2007.
Olckers explains the beginning of his idea for a book.
“The blog was a snapshot of graffiti around the city. Through that I connected with a few graffiti artists.
“I started painting with them and learnt about the graffiti scene, which I didn’t understand. I continued taking photos and the blog became more popular.
“I also did online interviews with graffiti artists. The end goal was always to make a book or something tangible out of this site. When I started I had a dream in the back of my mind that I would do this for five years, and then make a book.”
But until now, Olckers wasn’t certain that his dream would ever become reality.
He completed his Honours degree in economics last year. And now, after two years of hard slog, he’s set to launch his book on February 28.
Olckers explains that most of the painters wanted to remain anonymous, for fear of arrest. But his study of their work and lives reveals the stories behind the many images on passing trains, highways and the walls of irritated suburban homeowners.
“There are amazing stories that are traded between graffiti artists, and they are never put down on paper. I find it extremely fascinating and wanted to write about that,” Olckers says.
“There is one story about an artist who evaded the police by hiding in the sea water at St James. The artist waited there for a good couple of hours, then got out of the sea and started jogging with morning joggers to blend in.”
Real names have not been used in the book and Olckers adds that most of his subjects also preferred being interviewed by e-mail.
“Most of the artists want to protect their identity because their painting is illegal.
“They set up fake e-mail accounts and then contacted me. We’d be in contact over e-mail. Some of them saw the announcement about the book on my blog, and then put me in contact with other artists too,” he says.
Over the months, Olckers pieced together interviews with photos of graffiti art. He worked with photographers to visually document the offerings of artists who remained “secretive” about their work, which they merely wanted “to be seen out in the city”.
“The aim is fame. For a true graffiti artist involved in the subculture the aim is to spread their name across the city. The aim is to make the graffiti the most stylish, and to have the greatest quantity of it.
“Graffiti artists have a huge amount of ambition and dedication about what they do. It doesn’t matter where you come from, as long as you are able to paint the best.”
While graffiti art is widely viewed as vandalism, with many believing it devalues properties, some painters have gone mainstream, showing their work at art galleries. Others have collaborated with big-name brands to cash in on commercial work, giving prominence to a different breed: street artists.
In his book, Olckers explains the difference between graffiti art and street art. “Graffiti artists paint their name while a street artist is trying to push a concept and an idea.
“Street art in Cape Town has become popular, but there are not many dedicated street artists here who regularly paint conceptual work on walls,” he says.
In addition to artist interviews, a history section in the book documents the beginnings of graffiti art in Cape Town, back in the mid-1980s, when hip hop took the Cape Flats by storm.
Olckers is also working on a number of other projects relating to his passion for graffiti.
He has previously produced a series of graffiti gift cards and says he now wants to work with local government officials to ensure that painters aren’t arrested for expressing their creativity.
“I want to make sure that a legal park is created, so that people can go there and paint,” he says.