WESTRIDGE Senior Secondary School in Mitchells Plain seems an unlikely birthplace for South Africa’s graffiti movement, but in the late 1980s, that’s what it became.
The school provided the first canvases for young, frustrated graffiti artists who wanted a space in which to express themselves.
Graffiti artist Falko is one of the pioneers of the art form in Cape Town, and started developing his skill while at Westridge.
He explains that although there already was graffiti being painted in areas in Lentegeur and Westridge, the school was the first place where he worked on a wall.
He says young artists would go to the school on Sunday afternoons to illegally paint the walls, until the principal eventually gave them permission.
It was in this environment that the movement thrived, along with hip-hop groups like Black Noise, DJs like Ready D and many breakdancers.
Although there were others doing graffiti in Mitchells Plain, the school became an important training ground for the artists.
“Back then, no one knew that it could be done for money. I only did it because I wanted to get girls,” he says with a laugh.
Falko says his first paying job was in 1994, when he was commissioned to paint a train that was heading from Cape Town to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. He was paid R1 000 and says it seemed like “the most money in the world” because he did not expect to be paid that much.
In 1995, he attended his first graffiti exhibition in Sweden and realised that he could paint graffiti for a living.
He has worked on television commercials, movies, documentaries and even as part of a UCT sociology programme where students came to look at his work.
During the interview, Falko took the Cape Argus to one of the first legal graffiti walls in Mitchells Plain, around the corner from his childhood home in Westridge. It borders a small park that he and his childhood friends called ”Jurassic Park” because it was unkempt.
He explains that the walls were painted white and one of his friends drew tags with black spray-paint. Falko got into trouble with his neighbour, but “then I asked for his permission to paint over it and he agreed”.
“From 1991 until last year, I was the only one with permission to paint this wall. Now other artists paint here as well.”
In Silversands Road, there is wall covered in graffiti. It was one of the first legal graffiti walls in Mitchells Plain, and is still covered in a mural he did in 2005.
Below the artwork he inscribed: “I do graffiti coz the kids love it.”
These days, most suburbanites in Cape Town flinch at the thought of waking up to find graffiti on walls in their neighbourhoods, but when Falko was starting out, he was invited to paint homes in Newlands, Constantia, Sea Point and Mowbray. He says he painted a home in Mowbray in 2003 and that was the first time he got into trouble with the City of Cape Town. “Roger Lucey (an arts journalist) invited me to paint his outside wall in Mowbray and his neighbours went to the city to complain, but he refused to take the artwork off.”
Falko says that was when the first version of the city’s graffiti by-law came out. It stated that every owner and every occupant of a property must, at all times, make sure it was free of graffiti and people wanting to paint needed to get permission from the property owners as well as the city’s arts and culture department.
Falko says it was later scrapped, only to resurface again in 2010. He says artists are usually reluctant to talk about the by-law in public. “I started the anti-by-law campaign in 2003 and, after six or seven years of fighting, I knew it was gonna become law.” He says the by-law has made it hard for the few artists in Cape Town who paint graffiti murals for a living.
“The kids doing it illegally will continue to do it anyway. But it has become a mission for us (who make a living) because we have to take a picture of the wall we want to paint, submit an application form and get permission from the owner,” he says.
Falko says he is in talks with the city to try and make the application process more accessible to up-and-coming artists. “I have gone through the process of getting permission from the city for over 10 years now,” he says. He explains that the city gets permission from the relevant parties and if the number of people who agree to the artwork outweighs the number of those who don’t, they can begin working. This was the process followed when he, and another local artist, Faith 47, painted the mural of a woman with a television on her head that can be seen along De Waal Drive when leaving the city.
He says graffiti work is scarce. “Before (the by-law), companies would call you up to paint a wall the next day for an event happening at the weekend.”
Now they’re losing out on projects because the process of getting permission from the city takes too long,” he says.
“To make money, you have to do work outside the city. But sponsors are not too keen for out-of-town projects because the work will be seen by less people.”
Falko says he has had to find other ways to make a living. This includes a recent project in Darling where he (along with others) painted “split-pieces” – 31 graffiti murals painted along one road.
Amid all of this, Falko hasn’t forgotten his roots. He recently returned to Westridge Senior Secondary School to do a mural project called Mirror on the Wall.
He painted 16 murals with his graffiti partner, Nard, and hopes they have inspired at least one pupil at the school to become an artist.
Falko says that whenever people criticise some of the graffiti work done by amateurs across the city, he uses the analogy that “you cannot use the foundation to judge how beautiful a house is gonna look… you can’t judge how well a graffiti artist is gonna turn out by the unprofessional stuff you see on the roads.”