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 Dashen Naicker, drugs, fantasy, finances, freedom, gangs, graffiti, Lightee Faze, money, reality, State, Sydney Road. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.