News / Africa

South Africa’s Graffiti Outlaw now a Top Artist

Radebe paints murals, such as this one at the Noord Street taxi rank in central Johannesburg (S. Radebe)Radebe paints murals, such as this one at the Noord Street taxi rank in central Johannesburg (S. Radebe)
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Radebe paints murals, such as this one at the Noord Street taxi rank in central Johannesburg (S. Radebe)
Radebe paints murals, such as this one at the Noord Street taxi rank in central Johannesburg (S. Radebe)
Darren Taylor

This is Part Four of a five-part series on 
visual artists in South Africa 
Continue to Parts:     1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 

Sandile Radebe tossed his dreadlocked head back and chuckled when he recalled his recent past, “ducking and diving” away from “cops and criminals” on the mean streets of inner city Johannesburg.
 
He was part of a graffiti crew called Skyf – South African slang for a joint of marijuana.
 
They emblazoned walls, trains – “Any good surface we could find, really,” said Radebe – with the letters S K Y F in various forms, shapes and colors.
 
His crew didn’t have much money to practice their mischievous art, so they’d steal spray paint.
 
“We’d just like go to hardware stores, wear baggie pants and hoodies, and pretend like we’re buying ink or something and then we’d just ‘rack’ – get the cans in our pockets,” Radebe admitted.
 
Skyf soon got a reputation for being unconventional among those who know the graffiti art scene in Johannesburg.

  • Sandile Radebe is now a long way away from his previous life as a graffiti renegade on the streets of Johannesburg [Photo: Darren Taylor]
  • The King Kong mural was based on the album cover of the 1950s South African hit musical, also called King Kong (S. Radebe)
  • The mural he created for the King Kong jazz club in Johannesburg (S. Radebe)
  • He’s now using cardboard to create his art, and is blurring the boundaries between art and architecture (S. Radebe)
  • But Radebe remains dedicated to what he calls the “essence” of graffiti in his art, and he often still uses graffiti lettering (S. Radebe)
  • He enjoys working with primary shapes and colors(S. Radebe)
  • Radebe paints murals, such as this one at the Noord Street taxi rank in central Johannesburg (S. Radebe)


“We started incorporating stenciling and stickers in our work. We also did our own experiments and didn’t limit ourselves to traditional graffiti methods,” said Radebe. “We started doing murals with brushes. I remember some guys [fellow graffiti artists] were like, ‘Yo! How’s that graffiti [you’re doing]? You guys are using brushes!’”
 
Brushes are used in mainstream art and are considered “very uncool” by many graffiti artists, Radebe explained, and added, “But my crew’s objective wasn’t to be cool. Our objective was to do what we wanted to do. We were like rebels in that sense. We didn’t want to conform, or maybe we didn’t want to limit ourselves to the traditional form of doing graffiti – even though we respected it, we came from it, we learnt it, we knew it. But we also realized, no, it can’t be static; it needs to grow….”
 
Police threat
 
Radebe said doing graffiti in central Johannesburg is “dangerous – to put it mildly. You have to run; you have to lie. Sometimes you have lucky escapes.”
 
He recalled once doing a “throw up” – a very simple form of graffiti. “It’s just letters that you spray in one color and then you outline them. You do it fast and then you make a quick getaway.”
 
One of his friends interrupted his work to warn him that a vehicle was approaching.
 
“I just stood there next to a public phone – like I’m waiting to make a call at three o’ clock in the morning! It was the metro police and [they] did not even realize what was happening. [They] just stopped by the robots [traffic lights], took a left and then drove off. My friend was like, ‘Let’s leave!’ and I was like, ‘No, I’m almost done.’ Then we carried on….”
 
On another occasion in the early morning hours, Radebe and his crew were confronted by four police officers.
 
“We’ve got paint all over our clothes and backpacks filled with spray paint cans. A cop asks us, ‘What are you guys up to? Where are you going?’ We were like, ‘No, no; we’re from a party and now we’re going home.’ They were like, ‘So why do you have paints in your hand?’ We were like, ‘No, no; we were working earlier on and then we went to the party afterwards.’ Then they looked at us and said, ‘So you’re the guys that go around painting trains?’ So we just kept quiet and they let us go.”
 
Knives and a gun
 
While creating his graffiti pieces Radebe said he sometimes had “unfortunate experiences” with criminals.
 
“Once I was doing a piece on a wall with a friend. He was the lookout. I sprayed until I finished. As I lit a cigarette three guys were in front of us. Two of them have knives; one has a gun. We stop right there. They search us…. They took all the money we had, they took our phones. They took my friend’s shoes….”
 
But he acknowledged that the danger is part of why he created graffiti.
 
“I don’t want to sound as if I enjoy myself while being confronted by cops and criminals, but there is a certain satisfaction in creating art in difficult circumstances…. Put it this way: if it was easy to do graffiti pieces it wouldn’t be as much fun.”
 
Radebe added, “Then, being challenged by people who want to prevent you from doing your art, whether they are cops or criminals – that just creates a bigger desire in graffiti artists to do their thing.… That’s what gives you a sense of activism. It doesn’t matter [what the challenge is, you develop an attitude of] ‘I feel that what I have to say is so important that I can’t stop just because there are cops; let me think of a way of getting around these cops….’”
 
He said his passion to make art is also why he stole spray paint from hardware stores when he was younger.
 
“In a sense, stealing is a tradition in the graffiti world. You never buy spray paint; you steal it. It’s a natural part of the process. So we are criminals too – artistic criminals!” Radebe exclaimed, laughing.
 
He said, “The graffiti world is a very interesting place to be for especially young artists. It’s exciting, it’s daring, it’s frowned upon by a large part of society, so it’s rebellious – and all of that inspires great work.”
 
Graffiti as a scourge
 
But, for many people the world over, graffiti is not “great work” – it’s a modern-day scourge and a blight on city landscapes, signifying urban decay.
 
When VOA put this to Radebe, who has an honors degree in art from Johannesburg’s Wits University, he smiled and commented, “Okay. Now we’re getting to the important stuff….” He’s adamant that graffiti, when done properly, is art and that people who label it otherwise are simply uninformed.
 
I wouldn’t call it ignorance; I just think it’s lack of exposure. They don’t understand – because graffiti’s a coded language, especially. They don’t understand the value of graffiti. They don’t understand what it signifies,” Radebe said.
 
He insisted that true graffiti practitioners serve as writers, artists, communicators and social commentators, with their work often being about issues such as crime, political and police corruption and violence against women and children.
 
“Their creativity is very important. It’s adding value and stimulating that public space. There’s just a gray building that has nothing…and if you put a blue line [on it] you’ve activated that surface; you’re giving somebody something to look at – whereas normally they’d just walk past…. True graffiti artists want to beautify their city,” said Radebe.
He added that not being able to see any beauty in graffiti “equals not being able to read the aesthetic. People call it urban decay because they feel left out in this conversation. They don’t understand how it works. That’s how many aspects of life work: if you don’t understand something, you can’t like it.”
 
Amazing realm
 
Radebe has completed projects that he said transcend the art of graffiti, while still maintaining its essence. He was inspired to do this by criticism he received in art school.
 
“My lecturer said to me, ‘But graffiti’s generic. It’s all the same. I go to Switzerland – it’s the same; I go to Japan – it’s the same; I go to California – it’s the same. Where is the value in it?’ I just took that [comment] directly and said, ‘Okay … Generic? That’s what you said. Cool….’”
 
He then acquired stencils.
 
“I started building these three dimensional graffiti letters out of cardboard, so it became sculptural. I started putting them in a room. I started hanging them, suspending them. And because [my lecturer] said [graffiti’s] generic I [sarcastically] made a lot of them….”
 
Radebe added, “As much as they were generic, they weren’t the same thing to look at. By virtue of being three dimensional if I make one face that direction and the other one face another direction – it’s not the same. So I was basically challenging that lecturer…”
 
He said the project was his entrance into the “amazing realm” of abstract art.
 
“I started free styling. I added an element of ornamentation where I decorated the inside of my letters. I made bubbles, I made prints. I covered parts of the physical space with prints of graffiti,” Radebe explained. “It just grew into an installation. I had lights, I had sound; I had music. It was this graffiti world that I had imagined. It was this imaginary graffiti universe, really. You walk in there and everything’s graffiti….”
 
This work, he said, gave birth to a new style of painting for him.
 
“I use shapes – prime shapes like triangles, squares. I like painting in straight lines. Some people still say it’s not art but I don’t care. I use shapes to focus on the primary principles of painting: line, form, composition, shape, color. My work does not read like conventional graffiti anymore but more like a constructivist painting.” Some of Radebe’s later works have won awards.
 
Graffiti mazes
Radebe said he’s “intellectualizing” the process of graffiti and the language it uses.
 
“I build huge cardboard mazes. So instead of someone reading graffiti on a wall and saying, ‘It means this,’ I’d like them to walk inside of it. It’s an experience of graffiti; you’re walking inside of this maze. And by you walking in this maze, you know you’ve participated in the creation of the meaning….”
 
He’s now walking the line between art and architecture.
 
“I am going to make art in a much more physical way,” said Radebe. “I’m thinking of making a graffiti tower of concrete in a public space, making a landmark of sorts….  I’m exploring options….”
 
He said he’s become interested in the city of Johannesburg “in a much more architectural sense. I’m interested in how city buildings are designed. So I’ve started imagining my work as being a feature of the city. My thinking has now shifted from purely expressing [myself]. Now I’m thinking about how the city operates and how do we add value to the city and how do we stimulate a public domain within the city [as artists].”
 
King Kong
 
To pay the rent, Radebe continues to accept commissions to paint murals – such as one he completed on a large wall near the entrance to the King Kong jazz club in central Johannesburg.
 
The venue is named after landmark South African jazz musical and recording King Kong, which took the country by storm in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Musicologists have labeled it “the first all-African jazz opera.”
 
Radebe explained, “The owner wanted a mural to reflect Africans’ love of jazz. I sat down with him and we designed it together. I suggested that we incorporate the city of Johannesburg somehow in the mural, because it’s a city with a rich jazz heritage and also because King Kong is part of the Johannesburg landscape.”
 
The roof of the club offers a panoramic view of the city skyline, and Radebe used this in his mural along with his unique version of the King Kong record cover.
 
“The original album cover has Sophiatown [an area in Johannesburg once famous for its jazz music] on it. So we substituted that image of Sophiatown with a view of Johannesburg from the rooftop of this building – so that when a person is at the bottom of the building about to go up [to the club], they sort of get a sense of what they’re going to see when they’re up there.”
He painted the mural using pink and red and light and dark shades of blue and white blocks containing thin black lettering to spell King Kong.
 
“So you have eight blocks of different sizes and shapes – like one block is thin and rectangular and another is fat and square. I took those blocks from the original King Kong album cover, and then I added the skyline of Johannesburg, in light blues and dark blues, as it is seen from the jazz club,” said Radebe.
 
Engaging with people
 
He said he can’t think of any place better to make art than in busy public spaces.
 
“Then it confronts the people…. They are forced to engage with it. Seeing you in the process of doing it, and them talking to you, is an opportunity for you to explain what this work is about…. It’s mostly about what they feel about it rather than what I’m trying to stipulate about it….”
 
He said as an artist he’s stimulated by interacting with people.
 
“On the first day they see you priming the wall. They look; they observe. The second day they see you adding colors; the third day it’s starting to take shape; they’re starting to see what you’re doing. They always stop and talk to you about it. So you always engage the people that use the space,” Radebe commented.
 
He added, “Almost all the members of the public I have spoken with when I’ve been painting in a public space have never been to an art gallery before. They consider galleries to be only for elite people and only for very clever people. Taking art into public spaces means many more people see my work.”
 
For him, being an artist carries huge social responsibility. “I consider a big part of my work to be educating people about art and about the importance of art to society. If artists don’t do this, art will be lifeless.”
 
But, with Radebe constantly roaming the city streets to create his unique works, there’s little chance of that happening – not in Johannesburg.

Listen to profile of artist Sandile Radebe
Listen to profile of artist Sandile Radebei
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