Gangs and Graffiti by Dashen Naicker

It was with some alarm and amazement that I read the article titled ‘Graffiti gang caught red-handed’ in The Mercury (August 15, 2011). I don’t fancy gangs much. They stab joggers and shoot giraffes with homemade handguns. My friend says they kill kittens and make biltong from unicorns.

The above is, of course, preposterous. Sensationalism and hearsay are dangerous. They sacrifice veracity for venality and dilute public discourse. Which is why we read newspapers like The Mercury, which in their words “prescribes that news must be reported in a truthful, accurate, fair and balanced manner”. Such a prescription invokes responsibility and accountability. As an influential conveyor of information (or ideology) to the community at large they have the agency to define and refine this community’s collective consciousness and the social mores attached therewith.

In the world of print media, headlines act as snippets of a story so as to entice readers. Such enticement does not exempt them from the levelled objectivity contained within the article. So when a disparate assembly of aerosol artists (with different positionalities and backgrounds) are grouped as a “graffiti gang” it is, indeed, worrying. The word ‘gang’, especially in a country wracked by excessive gangsterism, conjures notions of wanton violence and menace. The seven youths arrested on Sunday do not in any way resemble a gang. Whilst gangs offer a sense of identity and belonging, this sense of identity is rather fascistly aligned to the gang, restricting a sense of individuality and any knowledge of self. However, graffiti allows individuals self-expression and self-actualisation in that it is, essentially, an act of personal expression and freedom.

I am privileged to know the young men arrested on Sunday. We have shared influences and ideas, paint and pens, hugs and handshakes. Many of them detest violence, yet visit gang-ravaged neighbourhoods, risking their personal safety, to enhance these areas, adding colour and in doing so, removing the colour barriers this society is still beset by. So to link their work with gangsterism replaces accuracy with accusation. When such accusation is unfounded it is an ominous portent.

Sunday’s ‘malicious damage to property’ was in actual fact a memorial for a young member of the community tragically killed in a car accident. The Sydney Road transit walls are well known for being adorned with appealing murals. Contrary to city engineer Mike Diamond’s view, prior permission had been granted for graffiti writers to paint this wall. Sydney Road is a busy thoroughfare for companies and commuters alike. To think that this number of graffiti writers would so brazenly and openly damage property requires some stretch of the imagination. What does not require any stretch of the imagination is why graffiti is targeted with such zeal by the law and law-enforcers. In South Africa malicious damage to property remains a higher priority crime than drug-related crimes. Visit your local police station and read their list of priority crimes if you feel you require proof. Drugs cost enormous amounts of money to individuals, they cost lives, they cost families, they cost single mothers’ television sets. Drugs however, with all their costly culpability, do not directly cost the state. Therein lies graffiti’s persecution. It is a financial expense to the state. A cardinal sin in a capitalist state unless this expense does useful things like buying European arms or renting out unoccupied police headquarters (to combat gangs of course).

Graffiti can be a little too in-your-face. But so can posters for penis enlargement and cheap abortions. You tell me how to explain to my eight year old cousin what a penis enlargement is after he asks inquisitively. I’d rather he asked me what the colourful letters painted on the wall say, which he does, enamoured with their textures and tones. These letters pose no immediate threat to my little cousin. Nor do they pose a threat to police officers. Neither did Andries Tatane or Jeanette Odendaal. Yet, the municipality hires a private investigation company, costing millions of rands, to find and arrest graffiti writers. Wally Simelane’s daughter was raped and killed in Inanda in 2009. Leanne Pillay’s boyfriend was murdered in Verulam in 2007. To date, no private investigators have been hired to solve their tragic cases. We live in a society where the Orwellian control of public space is valued more than life itself. Such hypocrisy seems stranger than unicorn biltong or graffiti gangs. But unicorn biltong and graffiti gangs are fictional, and this is real life.



Posted on August 17, 2011, in Dashen Naicker and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Dashen you’ve made such an eloquent, moving statement with this piece. Thank you. Reminded me, sadly, of how this incident is an ugly symptom of a much darker disease. One that’s definitely worthy of a loud, articulate fight though. This blog is fast becoming the most incredible archive of inspired, incisive reflection on not just this injustice, but the broader issues that need to be tackled within the society that has spawned it. What’s best is that this commentary is coming mainly from the young(ish!) generation. We know what’s going on and we’re smart enough and organised enough to be to call them on it. I think this may just call for a documentary… thanks for the inspiration.

  2. wrek kms.fsu.bws

    Truly moving shit man and agreed I think what has been said here should be printed as a front page article in reply to what has been slammed against our mates, aweh much respect to everyone who has a bit of common sense to actually understand the bigger picture here

  3. We subscribe to an all encompassing culture. We live a culture that breaks down all barriers of prejudice, race, gender, politics and class. We are not only a movement but a family. Life Check stand up and stand together to protect your family. 031 speak up so we can be heard and justice can be served. Art is not a crime and we are not criminals. We believe in beauty, freedom, expression and growth. Growth towards a better future. A future filled with beats, and sprayed walls, verses and bboy freezes. We can change OUR world if we only open speak up and UNITE!!! 031 ain’t nothing to whut….!!!!

  4. its very irritating when people write about something they dont understand. i thinks its about time we showed them what we are really made off. artist and art lovers unite, cause if we dont take a stand now this will carry on…… big up faze on the piece

  5. Massive failure of the Durban Justice system ! ! politicians and magistrates / police dont know anything about priorities ? ? why are they spending time and money catching people who had permission who were standing there in broad daylight painting a memorial mural for a friend who had passed away? all the while REAL Crimes are committed every few seconds – with over 50 murders in SA per day … half of the Durban police force and some private Dick were sitting there like peadofiles watching a bunch of youth expressing themselves artistically without harm to anyone !

  6. Michelle Hankinson

    Powerful and moving piece Dashen, thank you. It is truly shameful that like so many other critical movements, the integrity of this form of expression suffers at the hand of ignorance and repression. Keep on keeping on people….x

  7. I’m no good at posing a good argument…so I’ll simply say “Art should be free”, something a poet and friend I know said. Don’t be Un-fazed ever Dash.

  8. My manz. This is beauty. How sad though that this silver bullet would strike neither head nor heart of those at which it aims.

    Our enemies are not, and will never be, thinkers.

    This is our dilemma.

    Keep sharpening your tools as i keep sharpening mine. One day we will find a way to slay the beast.

    Quest Love.

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