Flossin Mauwano, Rimshot. What comes to mind when you hear those names? For anyone who is a regular in Nairobi and its environs, you must have come across them inscribed all over different sections of Nairobi’s highways, concrete surfaces. In the case of Flossin Mauwano, he is no longer just a mere individual, but a movement in its own right.
Recently the “faceless graffiti artist” was trending on Twitter. Reason- his sign was spotted along the Nairobi Expressway. This elicited different reactions from Kenyans, netizens, and regular folks alike. While others were amused at just how far the artist had gone to leave his mark on the expressway, another section termed him as nothing more than a vandal. The artist however denied the claims that this was his handiwork, saying it might have been a fan who did it.
You’d wonder how it got there seeing as to just how high this inscription is.
A little known fact is that he began this trend as a campaign to warn drivers of accident hotspot areas after having lost his parents in a grisly road accident along Langata Road. Read more on his story here, https://www.pd.co.ke/lifestyle/meet-flossin-mauwano-citys-faceless-famous-king-of-grafitti-26778/
The first thought that might cross the mind when you think of or hear the word graffiti is ‘Its probable vandalism’. Graffiti can be perceived as either illegal, unauthorized, antisocial behavior; or an impressive and social form of art.
Graffiti, derived from the Italian word graffio, meaning “scratch” can be defined as a form of visual communication, usually involving writings or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or any other surface in a public space. It has over the years been associated with vandalism, with many jurisdictions globally prohibiting it.
Fun Fact, Graffiti is a punishable crime in Singapore. Can you guess the punishment? Caning. Imagine that!!😂😂
Graffiti however has a long and rich history, with markings going back to the ancient Roman ruins, those of the Mayan City- Tikal, on rocks from the 16th century in Spain and medieval English churches. In an effort to curb the spread of this notorious form of art in Western urban areas and cities, mural programs dubbed “free walls” were introduced. They sought to provide legal opportunities for urban youths to express their artistic creativity in a somewhat controlled manner.
Read more on the history of graffiti here https://www.britannica.com/art/graffiti-art
While society’s perception is that of vandalism, to the artists themselves, it is a way of expressing themselves. It has been a deep-rooted tradition in protestation of social injustices globally, with the “underdogs” taking up any surface they can to express their ideas, feelings, and opinions on a variety of things affecting society.
Graffiti ; as an Art Form
Nairobi is a fast-paced, multicultural city with vibrant graffiti, art, thriving cafes, restaurants, shopping malls, and lively nightclubs. As a matter of fact, Nairobi’s traffic is the only thing that moves slowly.
Even the slightest hint of the word “graffiti” can evoke a frenzy. Some love it, while others despise it; some believe it is a crime, while others believe it is about freedom of expression. But one thing is certain: graffiti is a huge part of modern culture.
Graffiti is an art that is steadily grown and is highly misunderstood in Nairobi. However, some or let’s say most are eye-catching and very pleasing to look at. The city has really good graffiti that you’ll die to see.
Over the weekend we set foot to hunt for graffiti within the city center and also outside and what we found made our day. Moreover, we wondered why we haven’t taken the culture more seriously, why would a building in the CBD be poorly painted and graffiti exists.
Here are the types of graffiti as an art that we found
Tag Graffiti; the most basic form of graffiti is mainly the artist’s signature. These types of signatures tend to be found along with road infrastructure, but why would someone feel the need to sign public infrastructure? (The most annoying form of graffiti if you ask me)
Pieces; usually 3D art that comprises different colors. They’re the kinds that would wow you and leave you questioning where you were when God gave other people talent. The most notable piece in the city center is the large piece at the ICEA building on Kenyatta Avenue which is devoted to the marathon world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge. A similar piece can be found in Jericho Estate.
Jericho estate is the center of this type of piece. Graffiti art does adorn the walls of most houses, whoever the artist is, they deserve a large venue to display their work. Unfortunately, some of them were covered by campaign posters.
This type of Art can be found in several places in the city, for example, on the seats along Luthuli Avenue, on tree beds along the streets, and another one is on the walls of the bus station along Kenyatta Avenue.
The last category of Graffiti as an art form is Murals. They are the most advanced form of graffiti usually covering the whole wall and incorporating several effects. Street art is usually brightly colored and covers a large space on the surface it is painted on. It is usually neat and easy to read hence it is more socially acceptable as compared to the other broad categories of graffiti. This form of graffiti is usually commercialized and you’ll get them in private properties of those who enjoy art. A good example is an art that’s on the newly opened The Imaara Shopping Mall along Mombasa road.
The art mural on the Extelcoms House gives Aga Khan Walk (Nairobi’s only pedestrian street) a whole new level of interest. I am attracted to the street often because of its vibes, the art offers a great instagrammable environment, and makes you want to hang out there. The city market also gives the downtown the same feeling.
The negative perspective graffiti portrays is very much a consequential attribute of its historical background – viewed as a sign of resistance and rebellion. And as one traverses the neighborhoods of Nairobi, it’s pretty obvious you must have come across some graffiti tags on walls, along highways, and in all the wrong places, exponentially defaming graffiti.
Graffiti; a tool for social change
However, efforts to change the narrative have been taking shape in cities across the globe, and evidently, our capital is not left behind, with various public open spaces, walls, and buildings within the city center and some neighborhoods getting characterized by intriguing, flamboyant, and colorful murals of artistical expressions; giving these spaces and neighborhoods new and welcoming vibrancies while simultaneously publicly conveying messages and social expressions.
So, what positivity would you associate with graffiti and street art in an urban setup? Thinking of that, would you rather be submerged in a concrete jungle of grey surfaces and sometimes just the primary colors all over or be surrounded by speaking walls full of expressions and vibrance? As a practical approach to tactical urbanism, graffiti has been a way of activating open public spaces in the neighborhoods of Nairobi, showcasing evolving cultures while creating communal memories of public history.
Graffiti is growing into a norm of public expression in Nairobi; becoming a voice to the communities, mostly the youth whom through active involvement and interaction with the urban communities, express these feelings, experiences, sensitizations, and messages through graffiti. Let’s have a glimpse at some recent interesting case scenarios within the capital.
- In 2013 MaVultures, a movement led by Boniface Mwangi a social-political activist together with artists from Pawa254 created several pieces of graffiti in Nairobi’s Central Business District. This was a move to highlight social and economic injustices and depict MPs as vultures preying on citizens. You notice such moves have often actively caught the public eye, forcing them to ask questions and seek clarity on the state of governance and competency of those in power.
Read more here:
- In Kibera, a public art youth project dubbed Kibera Walls for Peace was founded in 2013 to champion unity and peace amongst ethnic and political divides ahead of the 2013 general elections, after the area was adversely hit by the 2007-2008 post-election violence. Part of the group which involved graffiti artists made many murals in the neighborhood.
The youth project also collaborated with Kenya Railways and other local artists to make pieces on the ten-vehicle train that snaked through the slums daily to Kikuyu Town, displaying messages of peace and creating awareness of the vices the communities need to avoid in the electioneering period.
Another scenario that has caused an uproar is the prices of basic commodities which have been recently skyrocketing! Hasn’t this caused such a hullabaloo already? Activists are now taking to the streets of Nairobi on the matter. For instance, the residents in the neighborhoods of Korogocho initiated a movement; the Njaa Revolution, demanding the lowering of prices of basic commodities lest the local leaders risk losing their support in the forthcoming elections. Would you guess what means they used in trying to catch the public eye with their demands? Graffiti!! – such a powerful tool to the masses, you could say, right?
Certain stakeholders have also often appreciated the power of graffiti in reaching out to the masses. In 2013, Duracoat Paint commissioned a graffiti project at the JKIA as a peace campaign dubbed ‘Spray for change’ where ten of Nairobi’s most prominent graffiti artists were allowed to share their visions of a new Kenya. I believe this is also a clear indication of the international acknowledgment of graffiti as a communication tool.
Read more here:
So, don’t you think the pros of graffiti by far outweigh the cons? What do you think could be done to facilitate the changing narrative on graffiti and street art?
For starters, in chapter four of the constitution of Kenya 2010, the Bill of Rights provides for freedom of expression which includes freedom of artistic creativity. However, there are no policies on graffiti, and there are no legally outlined channels and protocols to follow in seeking permission to make such outstanding and vibrant forms of public expression in the public open spaces, especially within the central business district.
In embracing graffiti, there is a need to advocate for policies on graffiti that would ensure the allocation of funding towards graffiti to ensure the beautification of cityscapes and ensure an urban society with active public social expression avenues.
While there is still a lot that needs to be done to change the narrative concerning graffiti and street art, there have been huge strides on the same. The recent collaboration between the Nairobi Metropolitan Services and local artists in the beautification of the streets of the city is a testament to that. I however feel strongly that there needs to be clear policies and guidelines concerning this vibrant form of art. Currently, the sector runs unchecked and at times, the cropping up of graffiti all over the city is viewed as a debasement.
The artists need to be allocated spaces within the city where they can display their art. For instance, what if most of the old buildings within the city are revamped with murals, like in the case of City Market and Ex Telecom house? Wouldn’t that break the monotony of the concrete jungle with a warm vibrance of intriguing, educative, and flamboyant artscape?
What are your thoughts on this? Feel free to share and tag us in any picture of graffiti you come across in the city. We’d love to see it.