Graffiti artists swop city streets for gallery walls

STREET and graffiti art in Cape Town has made the transition from bridge columns and railway underpasses to gallery walls.

An exhibition titled Worse Than Heroin is on show in the city centre, celebrating the craft of the artists whose usual canvas is concrete, and the risks they face being caught by authorities.

“With its history of forced removals and social inequality, Cape Town has produced legendary artists who have inspired generations of street and graffiti artists who are active today,” said gallery director Charl Bezuidenhout.

“The exhibition title refers to the ironic fact that graffiti artists, when caught by the city authorities, could face punishment harsher than that given to a person caught on the street using heroin.”

For featured artist iL Caso, the craft of graffiti writing is inseparable from it being against the law and declared a public nuisance in the City of Cape Town’s by-laws.

“There wouldn’t really be a point to it if it was legal. It’s part of the game. Otherwise you might as well be a street artist,” he said. “There’s something about going out at night – you’re trying to paint under such pressure, your hand’s shaking and you’re trying to pull the cleanest, straightest line. That’s how you gain respect, because other writers will see that.”

But iL Caso is no stranger to the legal consequences of his craft. He was arrested at age 17 and spent the weekend in holding cells. He was let out on parole with 100 hours of community service.

“The way things are in Cape Town, the cops are scared of gangsters and actual criminals,” he said. “In order for them to make out like they’re actually doing work, they target people like us. To be a writer in Cape Town takes serious dedication.”

The iL Caso artworks featured in the exhibition hark back to when he was a kid driving down the highway, catching glimpses of tags and letterings through the cityscape of bridges, columns and walls. But creating art for a canvas is a very different challenge to spraying it secretively out on the street under fear of being caught.

“The work that I do in the gallery is very meticulous and tedious compared to what I do on the street,” he said.

Even while creating works for the exhibition, he needed to break free from the studio and revert back to street writing.

“I need to take a break from that, go on an illegal mission, get that adrenaline rush and paint full size,” he said. “That’s the only way you learn to get better.”

At its heart, the art of graffiti is about conveying meaning through the design of lettering, and about developing a distinctive personal style.

“My main goal was to bridge the gap between graffiti and art – to break it down so that it’s not so wild and people can see it for its true form. I would love for people to learn something new; to see it the way we see it.”

While graffiti writers like iL Caso run from the authorities, street artists such as Wayne BKS – known as Conform – are often commissioned by government and corporates to adorn public spaces with their art. Like iL Caso, Wayne BKS’s graffiti skills are self-taught.

“The oldest schooling of graffiti was that you have to go out and tag, doing bridges and trains – that was a way to prove yourself, your right of passage,” Conform said. “I know that path but I chose a different path.”

Social media made it easier for artists to market themselves without tagging illegally in public places.

While working in advertising, Conform saw the market for his skills and has made a career out of freelance street art, with clients including national government, the City of Cape Town and MyCiTi.

He still maintains the ethos instilled in him by a graffiti background.

“With graffiti art there’s always been this ethos that style is the message. The main thing is to have a style that’s your own,” he said.

“I’ve got a specific style of character drawing – lately I’ve been focused on characters, plants and geometric cities. A lot of these ideas are just pouring straight out of my imagination.”

Artworks by iL Caso, Conform and many other established Cape Town street artists and writers will be on exhibit at the WorldArt Gallery in Church Street until October 10.