Exploring Johannesburg: the graffiti capital of Africa

Johannesburg is a much-misunderstood city but despite misconceptions it’s one well worth visiting too, with a wealth of museums and galleries, world-class jazz and – as it turns out – a thriving street art scene. With guide and founder Jo Buitendach, Rebecca Hallett takes a walking tour of Maboneng Precinct to discover a lesser-known side to the city.

“For me, the tag is a key part of graffiti,” our guide, Jo, tells us. We’ve passed murals seven storeys high on our way here, so standing in front of what look like some scrawls in a doorway feels… well, a bit confusing. Why are we starting here?

She continues. “Of course people are drawn to the big stuff, but the tags are where it all begins. You get someone starting with a small tag like this, then they get involved in the local graffiti scene, meet established artists, play around and learn how to express themselves in a larger, more creative way. Without these little tags, which most people overlook, you’d never get the huge, colourful pieces we’ll see later.”

The city’s image is still defined by its troubled history, but the vibrant street-art scene actually emerged from the city’s degeneration.

She points to some spiky letters spelling out “Bias”, telling us “this guy’s a friend, and works as a guide for us – you’ll see more of his stuff later”. As she helps us to tease out the words from what at first looked like impenetrable scrawls, slowly the tags start to make sense. It feels exciting, getting a glimpse into a community we aren’t part of.

If you’re a first-time visitor to Johannesburg, you may be surprised by Jo’s description of the city as “the graffiti capital of Africa” – I certainly was. The city’s image is still defined by its troubled history, but the vibrant street-art scene actually emerged from the city’s degeneration in the eighties and nineties. Faced with soaring unemployment (it’s still around 25 per cent) and a dearth of opportunities, many young Joburgers used the landscape of crumbling, abandoned buildings around them to express their frustrations and pass the time. Scrubbing out street art was hardly a priority, so the scene was mostly left alone, maturing over the years.

By now there are even government-commissioned murals, like the one we move onto next. Just down the road from our introductory tags, Jo points to two giant figures embracing on the side of a building, rendered in simple black, white and red. “This piece is by a French artist, Kazyusclef. It was actually commissioned by Maboneng Precinct – you can tell it was commissioned because of the scale, you couldn’t do that on the fly.”

Not all the bigger pieces are government-commissioned, though. We pass some vibrant pink-and-orange gates painted by Johannesburg artist Ryza – he’s even done the padlock to match. Jo explains that local businesses and residents who need a wall smartened up might offer it to an artist: one gets a free paint job, the other a free canvas. Even big businesses, from Ray-Ban to Nando’s, have got in on the act, commissioning pieces as a way to both advertise inventively and nurture up-and-coming talent. It’s hard to miss the huge brown eyes staring from the second storey of a warehouse off Fox street, part of a Falko mural commissioned by Adidas as part of their “I Art Joburg” project.

It’s clear that the artists here form a close-knit community marked by mutual respect and care.

Jo draws our attention to a smaller piece below Falko’s beautiful mural: a pair of cool turquoise lips painted on the corrugated-iron doorway below. They’re the work of Pastel Heart, a well-loved Durban graffiti artist who died in 2015, much too young. His work has been left, not even a stray tag encroaching on its space. “It’s a mark of respect,” Jo says, quietly. Whatever your preconceptions about graffiti, existing as it does on the borderline between legal and illegal, it’s clear that the artists here form a close-knit community marked by mutual respect and care.

And it’s this respect that characterizes Jo’s approach too. Touching on this, she points out “I am not a graffiti writer or artist, so I’m always cautious not to talk for them.”

We carry on through the streets. Every few steps Jo’s exchanging greetings with someone we pass, stopping for a chat with another.

“The community is just hugely, hugely important to me,” Jo explains, when I ask how she knows just about everyone in downtown Johannesburg. “I’ve always felt very strongly that I would like as much as possible to assimilate into a place, and not make the community feel like they’re on display.”

She’s certainly doing a great job of educating us – and correcting our misconceptions. We pass some men pulling large, heavy bags on carts, their clothes threadbare, their bags full of bottles, cans and scraps of plastic.

Perhaps seeing my pitying glance, Jo tells us that these guys are the local scrap collectors, a self-organized group who collect recyclable waste in various districts, and are something of a Joburg icon. “I’m not sure how long they’ve been doing this, but it feels like a long time. Many people admire them, and realize the important job they do – and it’s a small business, which is great. But I think it’s an incredibly tough life.”

Johannesburg’s street art is most meaningful as an ever-changing public gallery, capturing the present moment.

Jo moves us on to Market on Main, a warehouse full of creative, hipster-friendly stalls, where I spot t-shirts printed with images of the Johannesburg scrap collectors – as iconic as Jo said. “There’s so much good stuff inside the market,” she tells us, “but don’t forget to look out on the streets as well. The stalls out here are full of creativity and local crafts.” And the walls, too, peppered with tags and small murals I may have walked right past before this tour.

Before coming here, I had expected the street art in Johannesburg to be unrelentingly political, confronting the city’s fraught history in ten-storey-tall murals. But while there’s plenty of politicism there, the artists are also looking forward to the city’s bright future, and creating some truly beautiful work along the way.

I think back to two imaginative pieces we saw earlier, encapsulating this mix: on one wall of a courtyard was a looming portrait of Dutch colonialist Jan van Riebeeck swathed in modern African wax-print fabric (“Africa’s colonising him right back,” Jo said with a wry smile) by Gaia and Freddy Sam; and on the other was a triptych by Afrika47, who explores gun violence by decorating weapons with traditional Zulu beadwork, photographing and painting the results.

Standing there, craning my neck to gawp at first one stunning piece then the next, I felt that, more than exploring the past or looking to the future, Johannesburg’s street art is most meaningful as an ever-changing public gallery, capturing the present moment. And in a way that’s what Jo’s tours are doing, too. At their heart is her passion and drive to share with us the beautiful pieces which are there now – and which, by the very nature of the art form, could be gone tomorrow.

Image credits top to bottom (left–right): Street art by Nelson Makamo © Rebecca Hallett; Tags by various street artists including Bias, Dekor and Mein © Rebecca Hallett; Street art by Falko and Pastel Heart © Rebecca Hallett; Street art by Kazyusclef © Rebecca Hallett; Street art by Ryza © Rebecca Hallett; Make Your Mark Wall with street art by various artists © Rebecca Hallett; Street art by Nelson Makamo © Rebecca Hallett; Street art by Hannelie Coetzee © Rebecca Hallett; Street art by Afrika47 © Rebecca Hallett; Street art by Gaia and Freddy Sam © Rebecca Hallett; Street art by Mr Slippers © Rebecca Hallett.

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