Street artists around the world are painting cities with colours, visual expression and social commentary. It has become integrated into our lives, but do we stop and ask who the artists are or why they painted what they did? Brian Rolfe, the artist behind the smiling eyes of Madiba and Desmond Tutu on Longmarket Street in Cape Town, believes that people don’t celebrate themselves enough and that street art gives them the opportunity to do just that.
Rolfe is a fine artist who paints larger-than-life portraits for galleries. He had a career as a forensic artist in the ‘90s and made his mark in downtown Johannesburg with graffiti when he was young. His work reflects a collection of influences from time spent in the streets of Jo’burg – where the energy of migrant workers and people in transit pumped life into the city. “There is always a relationship between people, the streets and the buildings in urban areas. Places rub off on people, but places are also moulded by the people who live and work in them, they give character to a place,” Rolfe says.
Working on Madiba and Tutu gave him an opportunity to pay tribute and celebrate two icons, while giving him a chance to engage in street art – painting these portraits connected him with the city and its people. What he enjoyed most was the interaction with passers-by. Some would stop and chat, some stayed and watched while others checked in daily on his progress.
He was commissioned by the owners of the building to paint something that would create memorable “selfie moments”. Following from the work he did inside the same building, they decided on these portraits, both being inspirational and instantly recognisable people. This resonated with him.
In general street art has evolved from illegal graffiti to commissioned art pieces. Although there is a marked difference between the art forms found on the streets, the lines get blurry as more and more pictures and colour appear – irrespective of whether it’s been painted by recognised artists or kids from the neighbourhood.
Cale Waddacor from Graffiti SA explains the difference: “By definition, graffiti is a scratch, something painted illegally and is often a name or moniker (nickname or tag) whereas street art encompasses a lot more (posters, stickers, stencils, etc.) However, because of the negative connotation of vandalism that surrounds graffiti, people now group the two art forms together as street art. A newer term is urban art which includes even more elements, as well as fine art murals that have been painted on the street. But for me, it is all about opinion. Art is very subjective. I think a tag can be art, but sometimes it’s plain old malicious damage to property. It all depends. And that’s the interesting part of the ever-changing, ephemeral world of street art.”
Rolfe describes street art as, “art in action, art that makes a difference and art that evokes reaction and stimulates conversation. It brings art to communities and makes art accessible to people who might never go into an art gallery or museum. It also brings artists together, it breeds collaboration across cities, countries and continents. For some artists, the action of painting in the street is sometimes more important than the outcome.”
Walking around Cape Town, many names pop up on their own or with others on paintings on walls – a sign of influences, cultures and people coming together to share in the joy of painting.
“Most of the times artists paint for themselves, other times they freestyle and sometimes they will paint something that is site-specific or with the area/community in mind. If someone is commissioning work, they may choose the artist specifically because of their work, style and track record in which case the artist might have more creative freedom; but often when it’s commissioned, the artist will get a specific brief. There is a huge trend of corporates and businesses using graffiti and street art for advertising and for its “cool” factor,” says Waddacor.
Irrespective of the reason, Waddacor is adamant that, “art creates an energy around a place.” Rolfe says, “in many instances, and depending on the commission, it’s a visual expression of a specific message.” Dave Mann, writer, journalist and former graffiti artists says, “it affords people the opportunity to see art as part of their daily lives.”
Most people on the street agree that, other than rude expressions, street art brings communities to life, uplifts people and places, creates positivity and in the case of Madiba and Tutu, it gives people an opportunity to engage with leaders that they will otherwise not have had access to.
Many international cities have had street art districts, but with society being more accepting of street art, it is putting places on the map in a new way. Downtown city streets have become destinations for real life canvases that attract global artists and tourists. With the number of international artists coming to Cape Town, either on commission or doing some painting while traveling, Woodstock and Salt River are now on par with Berlin; Buenos Aires; Philadelphia; Melbourne; Montreal; Reykjavik; and the oldest streets in Central, Hong Kong.
Having documented much of the street art in South Africa Waddacor says: “Street art also works in mysterious ways; artists often paint abandoned and forgotten spaces which then brings new light, which in turn brings new business and gentrification. So, street art works in a circle, it creates newness in the derelict, and then when the area is uplifted, the buildings commission new works. Street art gives a voice and expression to people and humanity in different ways. Street art is free and has more power. It does not ask permission, it paints over grey walls. It’s about making art, playing with environments and making the city look beautiful.”
From a graffiti perspective, Mann is of the opinion that it’s seeing a revival, becoming more appreciated and is also making a difference to a larger portion of society.