Artists reminisce about graffiti history

Graffiti artists Mak1one and Falko in Westridge in 1998.

The works of talented Mitchell’s Plain graffiti artists may have come and gone from local walls but their contribution to their immediate community and the world has left an indelible mark.

And while the local “birthplace” of hip hop culture may not be something everyone agrees on, there is no doubt that Mitchell’s Plain has spawned some very influential players on the scene.

While DJ Kool Herc and his peers were pioneering a new genre at block parties in the Bronx in the 1970s, hip hop culture eventually found its way to South Africa a couple of years later, in part, through movies like 1982’s Wild Style and the 1984 hit Beat Street.

Back home, those who were drawn to the hip hop movement credit it with having helped to counter gang culture by promoting creativity and giving youngsters a sense of belonging.

The artist known as Prefix66 and master turntablist Grand Master Ready D, told the Plainsman they strove to achieve excellence in all five elements of hip hop culture: DJing and turntablism, MCing/rapping, breakdancing, graffiti art and beatboxing.

But graffiti artist Falko, who grew up in Westridge, disagreed, saying that when they got into hip hop and graffiti in the 1980s, it was all about being popular.

“We wanted street cred. We wanted girls and we wanted to be popular,” he said.

He made his first mark at Westridge High School in 1989 when the school agreed that he could spray-paint a wall – on a Sunday.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” he told the Plainsman.

“There aren’t real works for us to speak of because we were just imitating, copying and taking credit (for doing) what was being done overseas”.

Mostly, he said, they were spray-painting the names of their favourite rap groups.

He argues that in an attempt to give meaning to their work, artists later conducted research and internalised what they had seen in movies, like Wild Style.

Revealing to Plainsman that his original intention had been to be a hip hop artist, Falko said he had been groomed by “first generation artist” King Jamo, who played an important role in nurturing his talent, by giving him books to copy pictures from. Among these were Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, released in 1984, and Spraycan Art, also by Chalfant, published in 1987.

“He’d walk from Eastridge every day to let me copy (pictures) and guided me to what he thought graffiti was at the time,” recalled Falko.

Jamo also gave Falko the addresses of artists in Germany, France and America, to whom he would write and get information about what was happening elsewhere in the world.

Talking about Mitchell’s Plain’s influence on local hip hop culture, Ready D highlights the contributions of artists like Falko, Mak1One, EJ von Lyrik who was part of all-girl rap group Godessa, and first generation hip hop artist Gogga.

“They had extreme artistic colours, characterised by different styles and techniques,” he said of the graffiti artists.

And, he added: “Cape Town has an easily identifiable sound, which comes with attitude that comes with it. It is generally hard to say where raps come from unless the artists mention the area.”

There were the likes of Klein Fortuin, from Tafelsig; and Beacon Valley’s Mr Devious, who was killed in 2004, and had made his mark on the global scene. Prefix 66 said research was key to giving context and keeping his artworks, relevant.

He recently painted a polar bear and the melting of the world’s “icescapes” due to global warming, in an “artivism” workshop at Community House in Salt River.

Prefix 66 also co-founded Supporting Mentorship Through Art (SMART) which works with youth in impoverished communities to help them become self-sustainable and thereby eradicate poverty.