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Saturday, 22 November 2014

THE QUEST FOR IDENTITY: MATATUS AND GRAFFITI IN KENYA



It was a cool Wednesday morning when President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya took a Matatu (never done before by a Kenyan President), from state house to the City Center; a route not covered by the public transport system that is widely used by the low and middle class in Kenya. In his speech a while later, he mentioned that he welcomed graffiti on Matatus, a total reversal of a previous government policy which had aimed to streamline the public transport system in Kenya.
President Uhuru in the Matatu with Bob Colymore CEO Safaricom

Matatu 'picks' President Uhuru
Why had he made this statement?

To understand this, I went back in time and looked at the checkered history of graffiti, and its effect on our collective psyche not just in Kenya, but also around the world. 

The journey starts, many centuries ago in a prehistoric cave when a testosterone filled youth fresh from a hunt drew stick figures of men running after a buffalo, killing it and thankfully sustaining the community. Research estimates that most of the prehistoric artwork and graffiti being discovered across the world was more likely to have been done by young boys from the age of 9 -17 than any other demographic. The use of rude and salacious language in graffiti was prevalent in Ancient Greece and so to the Roman Empire .

Ancient graffiti from Wadi Rum in southwest Jordan, a valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock

Gladiators could become immensely popular. In Pompei, graffiti on the walls often depict popular gladiators, such as these two thraeces, M. Attilius

Graffiti borrows its name from the Italian word graffiato meaning “scratched”. In its most primordial definition is simply means to scratch a design onto a surface.

People of varying literacy, stature and age have used graffiti through the centuries. Some to express conquest like the Vikings in Rome, or French soldiers in 1790 in Egypt and others to notify posterity of their existence.

Of imperative quip at this moment is to realize that discovered ancient graffiti should not exemplify the collect mindset of a generation. It just so happens that it is a lasting legacy of an individual. 

Contemporary graffiti picked up from where the French soldiers left off, with American and Australian soldiers in the 1st and 2nd World Wars doodling “Foo was here ” and “Kilroy was here” wherever they traveled around the world. 



These two graffiti doodles, which were initially used to ascertain the inspection of ships and submarines, were later used in the two World Wars to depict the magnanimity and protection offered to the world by the advancing American armies. A pop culture arose from this.

The 1950’s and early 1960’s were inconsequential in terms of graffiti in America.
Sightings of simple graffiti of a high school name or initials with a graduation year on bridges or water towers were noted but uncommon. 



All that changed in the late 1960s when Taki 183 , a young graffiti artist, gained fame through an article  by the New York Times, which wrote about his incessant tagging of the streets he visited as a messenger in New York City. Soon kids everywhere were mimicking him to express individual identity.

The idea behind putting their names up in public and familiar places was to show a rejection of their working-class environment. Most who worked in menial, low-class jobs felt that they had no individuality in the workplace; that they were just part of the city's life-blood and could not be distinguished from the next worker. Turning to art, graffiti writers posted their names in as many places as possible, in essence to let the world know that they were still conscious and were still human beings. As Omar, a New York City graffiti writer puts it (Walsh 35)


The late 1960s culturally also saw the continuing Vietnam War and the rise of a large anti-Vietnamese War movement and with it the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. May 1968 also saw the near collapse of the French economy, with massive general strikes and civil unrest. The premise for these events was class discrimination in the French society. In both instances graffiti was used to express the cultural frustration of the masses.

Graffiti writing matured and evolved very quickly in the 1970s as style wars set off a competitive streak for who had the best aesthetic style and whose work was on the most number of trains and walls. This became the way graffiti writers gained repute. As the complexity of the artwork increased hierarchically (from tags, throw-ups, pieces, top to bottoms, end to ends, whole cars to whole trains) so did its recognition as an art form, fit for exhibition.

Head to Freespace for an outdoor screening of the iconic documentary Style Wars

More people joined the bandwagon in New York City as graffiti writers. As this happened, the vandal nature of this art form span out of control and a crackdown ensued with a state sponsored anti-graffiti network. The graffiti writers were forced out of the subway system and onto the streets.

police in bombed train in NYC

It is at this critical juncture that hip-hop another subculture that would be embraced across the world was evolving. Hip-hop manifested itself distinctly in four features. The rap music (oral), turntablism or ‘DJing’ (aural), breaking dancing  (physical) and graffiti art (visual).
Hip-hop borrowed from a lot of musical genres prevalent at that time from calypso, jazz, rhythm and blues, salsa and rock and roll. Indeed Hip-hop still tends to embrace and integrate many forms of musical genres making it one of the most practiced genres in existence today.
 
Hip Hop Collage
What the originators of hip-hop noticed was its potential to draw teenagers out of gang life and violence that was rampant in America. The potency of hip-hop was recognized when it spread across the world and became a staple for the youth in the 1980’s and 1990s. The concern grew when it started to romanticize violence, law breaking and gangs, with the commercial success of gangsta rap in the early 1990s. Its emphasis shifted to drugs, violence and victimization of women, this would ostracize it even further.   

The Matatu industry in Kenya has morphed from the 1950s when it was illegal, to 1973 when President Jomo Kenyatta officially recognized the industry. Initially even after recognition the Industry ran without Transport Licensing Board (TLB) and public transport service (PSV) licensing for a time, a dangerous precursor. This would later make the industry a problem child for the Kenyan government, when it later grew to be the dominant public transport industry in the country. 

With its preeminence the industry formed an association, the Matatu Vehicle Owners Association (MVOA), which became a magnet for political groups to engage with especially during the late 80’s and early 90’s as Kenya entered a period of agitation for political reforms. The association was disbanded and control was left to smaller Matatu route-based associations.
There was a turning point in the early 1990s in Kenya, when more and more youth in Nairobi (to begin with) joined the international hip-hop bandwagon and started listening to the gangsta rap that was grabbing the attention of youth across the globe. It was an international phenomenon. For the first time the youth could collectively express their rebellion against the confines of society. 
Matatu with graffiti
Nissan Matatus with graffiti and sound

In certain routes in Nairobi Matatu owners discovered that they could attract these young people as they went to school or came back home by playing this music loudly and having resplendent graffiti plastered on their Matatus. A competitive streak for passengers ensued to a point where school-going students would wait for hours at a bus stop just to take the Matatu they preferred. The best Matatus were the ones with the best and loudest sound, awe-inspiring graffiti, and a superb interior. These were the 1990s that I remember. Some routes had better-looking Matatus and their ‘street cred’ was higher than others. Kids wanted to move to estates that had better Matatus.  The competitive streak degenerated to a point where plasma screens were installed on any space available on matatus, even the emergency windows. The situation had grown awry and unchecked for too long. It was time for the government to step in.  
The late Michuki, had to bring order into the industry and graffiti was one of the first casualty. Drabness and conformity ensued and thousands lost their source of income in the graffiti business.
Graffiti is illegal in a number of countries around the world mainly due to the fact that it is considered vandalism of private property and also because it costs money to restore a location once ‘unacceptable’ graffiti has been applied.
But as graffiti has gained public acceptance so has the price tag related to works done by street artists like Banksys , whose works can command six figure dollars rates.
Around the world, cities have taken varying stances towards this art form. Some are extremely pro-graffiti like London and Paris with legal graffiti walls and art collectives. The same is true across European cities, Asia, South America and Africa, depending on the vibrancy of the culture.
Some Australian and American states take a different viewpoint and graffiti writing is considered illegal and punishable. There is argument that zero tolerance is an approach to take. The only problem with this approach is that it is costly to sustain and it curtails talent.  
Stop Graffiti!

The best approach is to embracing this art form with projects initiated to encourage graffiti artists towards a more constructive use of their talents.
As more commercial entities embrace and place graffiti art, as a center fold in their marketing campaigns, more eye balls are able to digest and accept this art form which was previously frowned upon.
Well-done graffiti sites can be tourist attractions and do have an aesthetic feeling to them. Here are a few one , two , three.
So as President Uhuru, takes tentative steps to allow graffiti back on Matatus. I believe it imperative to liberate graffiti artists to express their creativity, without restriction. The more important aspect is being able to channel this creativity over time to the benefit of the country as a whole.
I also believe through this gesture, graffiti artists will be allowed to evolve and get better since their artwork will be open to the public and judged by the collaborative word-of-mouth system present in our society. The best artists will get paid better, and this will drive competition and allow them to aspire for greater achievement.  
The benefit to our economy will manifest itself when people around the world come to know this unique and distinct feature that Matatus have which may be translated into tourist revenue.
But then the graffiti subculture will have to liberate itself from the negative perceptions that have been with it over time related to vandalism, rebellion and unruliness.
The question for me is, will Matatus still be these loud, fast, works-of-art, contraptions of death that I loved when I was younger and now can’t stand as I grow older? Only time will tell. But I must admit a good graffiti is a wonder to behold.

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