News / Africa

Graffiti Coming of Age in Senegal

Unity in Diversity mural in Dakar, Senegal
Unity in Diversity mural in Dakar, Senegal


Amanda Fortier

Graffiti art in Senegal's capital city is fast becoming a popular and socially accepted way for a young generation eager to speak out.  Graffiti in Dakar can be considered a tool for development, rather than a pointless form of vandalism.

Below a cement overpass leading into downtown Dakar is a bright pink, 88-foot graffiti mural. Every day hundreds of cars whip by giving drivers and passengers quick glimpses of two historically renowned African figures: Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop facing opposite revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral. Between the two icons is a white banner with the words "Unity in Diversity" written in large block letters. The bottom left is simply signed: Docta.  

Over 20 years ago, at around the same time that hip-hop culture was making its way across the Atlantic from the United States, a young Senegalese teenager started using the bleak public walls of Dakar as his personal canvas. Docta, whose real name is Amadou Lamine Ngom, is known as the "pioneer of graffiti art" in Senegal.

Docta says in the beginning Senegalese did not understand this new art form. They did not know who did it or when they did it, because like all good graffiti artists he worked at night in places, illegally, where it was really rundown, where people urinated or threw their garbage.

Docta says people were confused by his work, because at the time it was more artistic. But at one point he had to simplify the messages so that people could read and understand what he was saying.

Docta Wear signature
Docta Wear signature
Docta's work embodies the gamut of hip hop culture - from rapping, DJ'ing and dancing, to designing his own private street clothes label and founding Africa's only international graffiti festival, Festigraff.

Docta says in African countries, graffiti artists are all inspired by the same feeling and the same sense of duty. They are all living the same difficulties, socially and politically.

At his annual Festigraff festival both African and international artists have a chance to share what unites them: the need to talk to the people, to educate and to defend people's rights. Docta says they are all fighting for the population, and while doing this they are also fighting for themselves.

The images and words they use represent their history, their daily struggles, what the system imposes, and how people should behave. Docta says the true role of graffiti artists in Senegal is to use their work as a trampoline of communication between urban art and the population.

Professor Abdoulaye Niang is a sociologist and researcher who specializes in graffiti art and urban hip-hop culture at Gaston Berger University in Senegal.

Niang says hip-hop graffiti artists use graffiti and writing for an aesthetic reason, to fill some social and cultural function or to serve a political purpose. In the same way that rappers are representing the masses, or present themselves as the "voice of the voiceless," graffiti 'writers' subscribe to the same movement.

Niang says there are some artists who believe that it is not graffiti unless they steal their spray guns or paint where it is not allowed. The need to rebel is a fundamental value in graffiti, it is a rebellion against authority. But this aspect is more relevant in Western countries, says Niang. In Senegal, what is most important is that their work is visible.

Docta is combining graffiti art with health awareness, painting murals in some of Dakar's poorest neighborhoods with messages in Wolof, such as "health has no price." Local doctors are invited to come out, un-uniformed, to provide free AIDS and diabetes testing and to give consultations and medication.

Docta says that while in the beginning the goal of graffiti was to revolt, now he realizes he has to bring something to the population. They can't just say no, it is not going well. They also have to bring forward solutions. They are not doctors, but they can still help by working with those who are.

Docta says most Senegalese have an aversion to going to hospitals, because they think the medical staff is rude or the drugs are too expensive. Docta says graffiti artists can encourage the population and doctors to come together in the street, a neutral space where locals feel less intimidated.

Graffiti in Senegal, like in most parts of the world, is illegal. But unlike in many Western countries, and even some African ones, the likelihood of an artist in Senegal being arrested for graffiti is very slim.

Professor Niang says people here are more likely to accept graffiti because they see it more as beauty than vandalism. He says graffiti is a way for young people to express themselves in a society that still has strong respect for its elders, moving from the margins to the center of decision-making by spreading messages and becoming opinion leaders.

Docta says graffiti artists are actually very social people, but they are also humble and simple individuals who really just want to share and are always learning. Every fresco gives birth to another, he says. It demands that the artist is constantly on the lookout for new discoveries and new points of views. It is only by doing this that they are able to envision a future different from the one they are currently living.

You May Like

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs