There is nothing more thrilling than setting foot in a new country, so distant and different from your home. And nothing is more fulfilling than learning to understand the complicated history and culture of the community you enter. Perhaps one of the best ways to do it is through the city’s street art.
Only about 30 miles from the most south-western point of Africa lies the city of Cape Town, South Africa – a metropolis surrounded by summits with colorful and descriptive names such as Lion’s Head, Devil’s Peak, and Table Mountain. The country has eleven national languages and imported left-side driving from the British, and within the city, Dutch-like Afrikaans is the most common language, while cuisine comes from all over the world, from Cape Malay spicy curries to Portuguese egg tarts. It is truly a melting pot of cultures and people, and among the three official capitals of South Africa, Cape Town is undoubtedly the capital of the country’s street art.
The story of South African urban art starts with Falko One, one of the earliest and most prominent street artists of the continent. His first works date back to 1988, when the country was still under apartheid rule. Falko’s hometown Mitchells Plain, a large township right outside of Cape Town, became a center of hip-hop in the country in the late 1980s, according to Falko’s interview with InsideHook. The artist was strongly inspired by the emerging genre that has affected his style ever since – Falko’s elephants, his favorite subjects to paint, are always wrapped in a psychedelic mix of bold colors. The artist travels all around South Africa, painting his kaleidoscopic elephants in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and distant villages, giving back to the community even after his brilliance earned him huge brand sponsorships and commissions from all over the world.
The artist travels all around South Africa, painting his kaleidoscopic elephants in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and distant villages, giving back to the community even after his brilliance earned him huge brand sponsorships and commissions from all over the world.
You can see a couple of Falko’s elephants playing on the side of a building in Woodstock, formerly an industrial English neighborhood of textile factories, now the heart of Cape Town’s street art. The factories closed when South Africa started importing textiles from China in the 90s – the area became deserted, and the crime rates soared. However, in 2010s the artists made use of the empty buildings, and the district became known for its street art. Now, the neighborhood faces a new problem: gentrification.
During your first time in this neighborhood, probably on your way to The Old Biscuit Mill, a trendy market with fancy souvenirs and delicious food, you may barely catch a glimpse of the art. From the car window, you will see a mixture of abandoned industrial buildings and modern hipster cafes with commissioned murals. You will probably receive advice from the locals to not wander away from the main Albert Road.
However, if you come early Sunday morning and venture into the narrow streets behind the warehouses, there is a whole new side of the neighborhood to discover. Here, you can clearly see the difference between the art that was made by the community, for the community, and the murals commissioned by upstart businesses.
In a quiet street, on the side of a small, single-story building sits another elephant, the work of an artist and a street art guide, Juma. The purple elephant jumps out of the ‘hole’ in the wall, right under the window where lives an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why? Well, Juma asked him what he missed the most about his country, and first thing he said was elephants. Next to it, the words ‘We are _ Nation’ on the left, with a rainbow painted in-between, refer to South Africa’s popular nickname – Rainbow Nation, given by the South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa, with its incredible diversity of the people that was finally celebrated.
Next to it, the words ‘We are _ Nation’ on the left, with a rainbow painted in-between, refer to South Africa’s popular nickname – Rainbow Nation, given by the South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa, with its incredible diversity of the people that was finally celebrated.
The variety of paintings in Woodstock range from meaningful – you will often see depictions of endangered South African animals – to humorous, such as small sketches of raccoons spray-painting themselves all over the neighborhood. It’s impossible to confuse the distinct styles of Conform, Bushy Woop, and Johnny Allison – sometimes the artists here don’t even sign their pieces, perhaps because they believe they should be recognized by their technique. That would definitely work for DALeast, a famous Chinese artist with a unique style – his giant animals look like they’re made of thousands of metal shards. DALeast now lives in Cape Town with his wife, another popular South African muralist and activist Faith47. You can see the work of her son, Jack Fox right across the courtyard from DALeast’s pack of wolves – his incredible comic book-like characters are also very recognizable. This one depicts a man that looks like he’s behind bars every time the gates to the courtyard are open.
On your way to Salt River and Observatory, the two adjacent neighborhoods famous for their street art, it is impossible to miss another curious artistic statement. A commissioned mural on the wall of a retail leather store proudly says, in large bold letters: “All Of Us.” However, a recent addition – the sloppy black spray-painted words saying, ‘but the poor…” right under the original message, adds a new meaning. The barbed wire and electric fences surrounding the building (a trait of many businesses and hotels in the city) seal the impression. According to the locals, someone has been spreading similar messages all over the neighborhood, most often repeating the words “We Are Hungry” on the walls. The disdain for the neighborhood’s wealth gap has intensified since COVID-19 lockdown, which hit Woodstock and Salt River especially hard, with local communities receiving little to no help from the government.
Back in the city center, you can wander through Cape Town Central Business District and District Six for a few occasional murals, although sometimes it will turn out they were painted over months ago. That’s when you head to the colorful graffiti wall in Tamboerskloof, one of the oldest residential suburbs in Cape Town. Commissioned by the budget hostels of the building, the extended wall features the works of various talented but perhaps underrated artists of Cape Town. Just look at the mysterious and whimsical fantasy world of @Braveartbuffy, with its flying whales and the Avatar-like landscape, or the psychedelic-like melting portrait of a woman with a purple cat by @Sailortinkerbell. I have a soft spot for the artwork by @Sanelisiwe_singaphi of a black mermaid. This is Nina Manzi, a daughter of the water spirit from the legend of the village Bulungula in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. This mural was commissioned by Viva con Agua, a non-profit organization providing water, clean showers, and haircuts for homeless people, with another painting of Nina Manzi by Sanelisiwe featured on their Wash Bus.
There is something special about how South African artists treat their community. Given the country’s recent switch to democratic regime (only 29 years ago!), South Africa is still navigating the challenges left over from the apartheid, such as the apparent wealth disparity in Cape Town. The local artists are often the most outspoken critics of such issues.
Simultaneously, they are also the proudest representatives of their culture and history. Even when moving abroad for work, South African artists stay true to their distinct styles, showing the world what their country really is. However, (in my opinion), it’s still better to see their art on the walls in the streets where it was first born.
I was told that Cape Town was not a walkable city from the very beginning. Only in my last few days, I started wandering the streets, finding small alleyways, and looking into the most distant corners for murals and graffiti. That is when I got to discover a new side of Cape Town – a vibrant, authentic, and personal side, one of the many things I now look forward to coming back to.