Art versus Vandalism by Kirsty McCready

Undoubtedly many will have different views on graffiti as an art form:

 Some say its vandalism and others say its art- and then there are a lot of people who are ill-educated when it comes to telling the difference between the two.

I couldn’t find more simple definitions than those of the Oxford Dictionary.

  • Art: the use of the imagination to express ideas or feelings, particularly in paint and drawing
  • Graffiti: drawings or writing on a wall etc, in a public space
  • Vandalism: the crime of destroying or damaging something especially public property deliberately and for no good reason

As there are different views on graffiti, there are different sides of graffiti too.

There is the artistic side, where murals are painted and aesthetically pleasing and then there is vandalism, where property is defaced, tagged and damaged. The one is a legitimate and accepted art form worldwide, and the other is illegal.

Taking the above mentioned definitions of the words in to account, one could say: the gentlemen who were drawing/writing/painting on a public space to express ideas and feelings about their loss of a friend were taking part in graffiti art.

Not all graffiti artists are vandals, and not all vandals are graffiti artists.

Even the average Joe who callously scrapes or draws on school desks or bathroom doors, or those who put up handmade or professional signs (and even newspaper bill boards) on light poles, are guilty of vandalism, damaging public property and wasting the taxpayers’ money.


About 5 years ago, a group of artists approached who they thought was the owner of a wall on Sydney road, and verbally proposed to uplift, paint and maintain that wall. These artists received his permission to paint the wall at their own expense, supplying their own art supplies, paint and time. These artists have painted that wall ever since. They have primed and painted that wall on many occasions and maintained it as if it were their own, as there are few walls which these artists have been given the opportunity to paint- legally and legitimately.

As many know, Sydney road is a dilapidated part of Durban’s streets, and is notorious for the crimes committed on and around it, from drugs, to abductions, rapes to murders. Many people who travel along, and pass the wall, may agree that the art work found on this wall brings a sense of community and beautifies the down trodden area.

The artists who have painted that wall have painted it for a good cause each and every time; on previous occasions they have painted walls for Women’s Day, memorial walls and brought about general awareness of the on goings in South Africa.

Each time the police have driven passed  and made no comment, but on Sunday the 15th of August 2011,the  seven gentlemen who went down to Sydney Road to paint a memorial mural for a mutual friend (who had died in a car accident) were arrested on charges of MI2P (malicious intent to property).  Note- there was NO malicious intent.

The wall, unbeknown to the artists, apparently falls into municipal property.


I went through to Umbilo police station on Sunday, and I must say I have never been so embarrassed to be a South African resident in my entire life. While bail was being determined for the 7 artists, a distraught woman entered the police station. She came in begging and pleading for the SAPS’ help, initially brushed off and then being interrogated by an Officer for the next fifteen minutes or so , just to be handed on to another policeman… My heart went out to this woman.  She was there to report a real crime, a crime of violence, and not being helped at all while 7 ARTISTS received the “full” attention of +- 4 out of 10 police officers on duty, ( while the other 6 police men gave their complete and utter attention to their cell phones and counter tops- sleeping).

When I approached the same ignoramus brute of a man, who brushed the distraught victim of a real crime off, he immediately judged me by my baggy hoody and cap. I was told I was 16 and shouldn’t be at the police station. Angered yet slightly amused by the fact that I am 25 with a Degree in Criminology and Psychology, and probably more suited to fill his position at the police station, I asked what the proceedings were from that point forward – to which all those waiting for a response received nothing more than a grunt and a “wait”.

This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed such absurd behaviour from some of our local “heroes”: on a previous occasion I went to report a sexual/indecent assault which I had witnessed. While the perpetrator was in the area, we assumed that the police would catch the perp., only to have the victim and I interrogated for half an hour and then told to think about changing our minds on opening the case- the perpetrator is still on the streets of Durban and in public eye view every day. So my heart really goes out to the victims of real crimes in Durban, especially when those who are meant to protect us, are so reluctant to stop real crime.

In all honesty, and I’m sure I don’t stand alone on this:

When I walk down an alley or a street, I’m not afraid of graffiti…

Whilst I understand that the SAPS has a job to do, and once the charge had been laid they had to follow it up, I do feel that there was not enough evidence brought forward to make legal graffiti a criminal investigation.

While listening to “Ewok” discuss this matter on East Coast Radio, and hearing what the inspector’s arguments were, I was even more disheartened by the lack of common sense the SAPS have, and the evidence they are putting forward to mark these men as vandals and criminals. The inspector argued that the men who were involved covered their faces, and were obviously up to no good. To reiterate Ewok’s point, the men were using aerosol cans- which most of the general public know is not meant to be inhaled. Even someone who refurbishes the paint work on cars wears masks or items of clothing to cover their mouth and nose- this does not mean that he/she is up to no good.

For all who don’t know about paint, let me quote a few of the precautions labelled on the back of a spray can:

DANGER EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE. CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE. VAPOURS HARMFUL.  Vapours can cause narcotic effects such as drowsiness, dizziness and headache. Inhaling the contents for long periods of time may be harmful or fatal. Irritating to eyes, respiratory tract and skin. Repeat exposure may cause skin dryness or cracking. Do not breathe dust, vapours or spray mists. Avoid contact with skin, eyes and clothing. ALWAYS WEAR APPROPRIATE PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT, INCLUDING GLOVES, SAFETY GLASSES/GOGGLES AND MASKS.

I do believe that the SAPS are grasping at straws for evidence and backing.

Newspapers: spread truth and fact (?)

Not only were the 7 artists arrested, they were also slaughtered, defamed and libelled by the newspapers, naming them as, and making them out to be, gang members and vandals.

Now I’m not a rocket scientist, but I do have more than an ounce of common sense…

Anyone who goes out to vandalise property, would not do so in plain eye view nor advertise a “vandalism spree” on all social networks inviting people to join them.

They would go out late at night, when no one is around to see them and make a run for it at the first sign of being caught. They also would be far less than willing to accompany masses of police vans and private investigators, which swooped in on them, back to the police station. These gentlemen obviously were under the impression that the wall was a legal space for them to paint, as they had received permission to do so. The event was an open invitation for all who knew Wesley, and for those who wanted to pay their respects.  If they had any inkling that it was illegal or municipal property, they would not have even conceived the thought of painting the wall let alone painted it.

Speaking of those with previous sentences:

In every article written, about these graffiti artists the journalists add an extra flair of sensationalism to market their paper.

The ‘papers pride themselves on bringing truth to the community, yet the majority of the articles were full of felonious accusations and comments without factual backing.

Previous comments regarding one of the artists being the “don” or “king-pin” of the graffiti scene is beyond humorous to those who know what they are talking about, and misleading to those who don’t. Adding “gang members” and words with similar definitions to the mix make artists look like mafia members, thugs, social and violent deviants.

To add salt to the wound, the journalists keep mentioning one artist’s father, punishing both father and son with journalistic sensationalism; when the father clearly was not wielding a spray can and “vandalising” Durban city on previous nor recent occasions. I struggle to find the relevance of who the father is and what his position or social standing has to do with anything.

This artist, of whom I speak, had his day in court, he is finalising his term of house arrest and has in no way or form violated his parole. Since his day in court, he has settled down and become a family man, and has been using his art form as a means of income. Corporate companies have utilised his skills and services, and he has been a part of uplifting the community, and performing services and lending his skills to children’s homes, non-profit organisations and even did some of the art work for an international star-casted movie which was being filmed in and around Durban this year. He has turned over a new leaf, and should be commended for rehabilitating himself and other graffiti artists, ensuring that graffiti art is used for upliftment instead of mindless vandalism.

The other artists are young professionals who utilise their talent amongst the corporate world.

Some artists have been commissioned by well know respectable companies to appear in their televised and still adverts, i.e. Mr Price and ABSA; others were asked to paint at the Mr Price Pro (which is a televised festival- reaching all different countries and people of many different walks of life.) Many of these artists have painted murals in restaurants and night clubs, from Hillcrest right through to Durban.

A lot of the artists have painted murals for churches, schools and non-profit organisations free of charge. Others were approached by surrounding municipalities and asked to paint murals, and were asked to tender quotes for their art work on municipal walls and bridges. (I do find it strange that one municipality is so anti graffiti art, when others are willing to explore and exhibit the local artists’ talents.)

Not just the newspapers to blame for the stigma placed on our local artists:

I know for a fact that many of these artists and other artists in and around Durban have attempted to put forth a proposal to beautify Durban’s walls, bridges and other structures, and have been turned down. I also know that these artists have asked repeatedly for legal and legitimate permission from property owners, the municipality and Durban’s city manager for a public space to paint, bringing kids off the street and teaching the community about graffiti as an art form, only to be denied any form of compromise.

In closing, there are a few questions which I feel the municipality should enlighten us with answers:

1)      If all walls facing a street/exterior wall are municipal property, why is it the property owners’ responsibility to repair and maintain those walls?

2)      If the wall the 7 gentlemen painted on was a municipal wall, why were they not informed previously? And why did the municipality not “buff”/ clean that wall with the usual dull grey cement/paint they use on bridges?

3)      A lot of schools/preschool/business’ have art work painted on their walls (street facing and exterior), why do those walls not fall under municipal property and why have the owners not been reprimanded or asked to remove the artwork?

4)      Why were the taxpayers and community not informed about the private investigators being hired to investigate the name change issue and the graffiti artists?

– After all it is the community and taxpayers money, and they should have a voice which shouldn’t fall on deaf ears (such as the outrage regarding the road name changes, which many feel abolished a lot of historical events/influences etc)

Would the tax payer’s money and the private investigators time, not be better spent chasing and catching the real criminals of Durban?




Posted on August 22, 2011, in Kirsty McCready and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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