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Graffiti: The art of expressing oneself

Graffiti: The art of expressing oneself

Graffiti are writings or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view. It ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings. In modern times, paint (particularly spray paint) and marker pens have become the most commonly used graffiti materials. In most countries, marking or painting property without the property owners’ or governments’ permission is considered defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime. Graffiti also expresses underlying social and political messages and a whole genre of artistic expression is based upon spray paint graffiti styles. Countries like Kenya and Uganda have a relatively rich culture of graffiti and now Ethiopian graffiti artists are slowly emerging with the aim of advancing this urban art, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

The text reads, “Describe your MP Vulture” but MP (Member of Parliament) has been crossed out with red paint. A list of options is given: “Thieves, Warmonger, Leech, Greedy, Arrogant and Vulture”. It is graffiti on a wall in Nairobi which criticizes Kenya’s corrupt politicians.

These words on the wall were sourced from Kenyans who submitted one word online describing Kenyan MPs. This graffiti is a satirical political art that describes Kenyan political figures and elites as vultures.

Land grabbing, political assassinations, tax evasion and post-election violence were also some of the descriptions of the existing Kenyan government. Next to it is an uplifting message of the unified Kenyan voice. “Power to the people! I will be the change I want to see! My voice, my vote our vote! Real change is possible! Ballot revolution!”

Choosing the most visible walls like the ones next to parliament painting graffiti is a deliberate action taken by the artists to make their message visible.

Around midnight, the artists wear a black hoodie ant-vulture jacket and paint their messages contesting the government and the political elites. The visual culture of the hybridity of pictures, words, and creativity graffiti gave them tool to amplify their voice.

The graffiti does not stop in shaming politicians with mural paintings. It also passes messages of what kind of leaders Kenyans want to see. Descriptions such as visionary, patriotic, honest and competent are listed as some of the attributes.

This project was brought to the fore by a daring photojournalist and activist, Boniface Mwangi.

 The graffiti murals were painted overnight and that attracted the attention of international media outlets including ViceCNN and Al Jazeera.

Their action was not taken lightly and after the crew finished painting city council workers turned up and covered the mural with blue print. One of the graffiti artists, Swift 9, says that the painting was a huge mural painted overnight on a wall in downtown Nairobi depicting politicians as vultures that prey on the weak. “Politicians are corrupt, ineffective and divisive during elections and we depicted these characters to the public,” Swift says.

Swift, who is from the vibrant urban culture of Nairobi, came to Addis Ababa two weeks ago to collaborate with graffiti artists here. They took their spray cans and caps and painted in various spaces in collaboration with two Ethiopian graffiti artists, Behulum Mengistu and Lij Yared (one of Addis Ababa’s renowned standup comedian, who is also engaged in making recycled art and skateboarding among different activities).

These artists came to know one another through Facebook, which eventually transformed itself into a fruitful collaboration. Swift developed some sketches when he arrived at the airport without considering the Addis’s graffiti scene. After a while, he did not stick with the idea of planning and rather wanted to see the space.

Their collaboration resulted in three graffiti pieces. Based on free styling, they each included Ethiopian and Kenyan elements in an urban artistic form. The first spot was around Shiro Meda area at Megabi Skate Park. Swift 9 and Behulum collaborated in this specific project. Behulum wrote Amharic calligraphic graffiti while Swifit drew a young boy who is holding an Ethiopian flag in one hand and a key on the other. In the second graffiti Lij Yared, Behulum, Swift 9 and Mikias Wagaw collaborated in creating a freestyle graffiti on the side of a bridge around Alem Bank area. The third graffiti was done in a private entity inside German House Bar. According to Behulum, German House supplied them with spraying cans and other equipment while the other projects were covered with their own expenses.

Swift, who travelled to Europe through his graffiti, says that the Addis collaboration was an experience he would not forget. “The collaboration offered me a rare opportunity to learn a lot directly from fellow graffiti artists from Africa. We both face similar challenges when it comes to art supplies and in this case acquiring spray paints in Addis Ababa was a challenge but we managed to get some,” Swift9 says adding that he has also learned a few Amharic words.

For Behulum and Lij Yared this collaboration was an interesting experience. “This collaboration is not only an artistic exchange but also a celebration of brotherhood and the spirit of community,” Lij Yared says.

Graffiti has been negatively portrayed and highly associated with gangs, criminals, and the vandalizing of property value. Rachel D’cruze from hackwriters says that rather than looking at graffiti as a form of urban expression it has generally been seen as a sign of urban decay and the decomposition of middle class values. “The media morphs our mind to believe that graffiti artists are linked with theses predators whose actions completely violate the law,” D’cruze says.

Despite the negative attitude towards it in Europe, the Americas and Africa graffiti is everywhere and is considered by some as a social movement. Nicaraguans, during the July 1979 revolution, used graffiti to advance politically-driven slogans. A group of people known as the FSLN would create their art overnight in order to keep it a secret from police forces. In South Africa the youth used graffiti in their fight against apartheid. “As press censorship increase, the writings on the walls became required reading,” South African artist, Sue Williamson, wrote. In that regard, street art and graffiti became tools of empowerment.

In the contemporary urban space graffiti became a voice for the youth. For instance, in the United States, the youth, who are frustrated with student debt crisis, health care and poverty, did stencil graffiti to express their frustration. The graffiti says “Freedom and Democracy the Joke of the 21st Century,”

Bradley Bartolomeo states that graffiti writing is one of the easiest and most efficient ways for individuals and opposing groups to register political dissent, express social alienation, propagate anti-system ideas and establish an alternative collective memory. “Given by the circumstances of doctoral regimes, graffiti communications can be, if recognized by groups and if organized sufficiently, an important medium for breaking the dominant control and censorship which authoritarian governments exercise,”

Bartolomeo says.

The Ethiopian urban experience is different from that of the rest of the world. The abundant public writing in taxis and public toilets can be taken as an expression of some sort. The graffiti scene of the urban space is still at its initial stage.

Only some struggling graffiti artists are trying to make it and Behulum is one of them. His introduction to graffiti came with his involvement in the Hawassa Youth Sports Campus when he was 13. A woman who did her PhD in hip-hop culture introduced him to the world of graffiti and street art.

His practice also came through reading online articles and watching You Tube videos. Behulum is a self-taught graffiti artist. In doing graffiti he disassociates himself from what is referred to as “vandalism” graffiti and the “violent, disobedient character of the art”.

Many do not agree with the idea of associating graffiti with vandalism. Some ask, “If painting without the permission of the government or society is described as vandalism then where is the public space where the voice of citizen can be heard if it is not in a shared space like walls, buildings and concrete?”

Behulum does not like the idea of prohibiting public spaces but does not want to take the risk of associating graffiti with negative portrayals since it is at its inception stage. “In places such as New York City graffiti artists are associated with vandalism and they occupy spaces illegally. I do not want to follow that path since I want Ethiopians to embrace the art,” Behulum says.

Though modern artists in various cities are embracing graffiti as a legitimate art form, it is still seen by many as vandalism.

Regarding the journey of legitimizing the art, the social media has played a pivotal role in many countries. Street art festivals such as the Urban Arts Festival in Puerto Rico are worth mentioning. This festival aims at promoting free expression.

Most of the projects he has done are ones with other graffiti artists from various countries, including German and the US. In addition to that, most of his projects are commissioned for various institutions and venues, including Jams Addis, Megabi Skate Park. In many of the instances the works are done for free but he also gets money from time to time. If he does graffiti mural, which is two meters high and 10 meters wide, he charges from 6,000-10,000 birr.

Though he does not want to paint in public spaces that are not allowed by the responsible government officials, Behulum and Lij Yared look for dirty discarded places where they clean it, plant vegetables and paint graffiti.

When he started, he was more focused on copying the renowned graffiti styles in North America and Europe such as the Double Style and Wild Style. Later on he developed his own style including elements of Ge’ez alphabet and created what he calls “Amagraffi” (Amharic graffiti). In addition to Ge’ez alphabets he also included elements such as ancient Ethiopian painting style, iconography, to create an Ethiopian graffiti.

Through his art, Behulum conveys political and social messages. Behulum is very careful when it comes to challenging the government. He rather focuses on portraying the vibrant diversified Ethiopia and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Even though his art is safe in some ways, Behulum becomes critical especially when it comes to the Ethiopian media that he believes did not give space for the Ethiopian youth. Swift, on the other hand, believes in the rebellious side of the art. “It was made in the streets for the streets. It is meant to be seen by everyone whether one likes it or not. It cannot be contained. The system is afraid of something it cannot control and understand. If one takes graffiti out of the streets, it ceases to be graffiti,” Swift 9 says.

It has been five years since he started doing graffiti but the spread of graffiti is still minimal. Comparing the two cities—Hawassa and Addis Ababa—Behulum says that the youth in Hawassa’s are catching up with graffiti. “It might be because of the smallness of the city but our works are visible. You see more graffiti murals in Hawassa than you do in Addis Ababa. In Addis Ababa a lot of people know about graffiti but it is not growing as fast as we want it,” Behulum says.

To make graffiti a voice for the youth, Lij Yared started a collective called “Ende Mude” (In my own mood). This collective consists of skating, hip-hop, graffiti, hiking and other types of expressions and sports. Lij Yared he chose graffiti since it can easily reach the masses and is inclusive of all types of people. “Graffiti is flexible and is not limited to canvas. Apart from this collaboration, Lij Yared also was part of Bole Medhanialem’s graffiti project, which was undertaken in partnership with the cleaning project of Gash Abera Molla. He started painting when he was young but learning about graffiti changed his practice. It is been five years since he has been doing graffiti and he was able to travel to America and take part in some graffiti works.

One of the limitations Lij Yared and Behulum raise is the deficiency of color sprays. According to Lij Yared, the sprays only have one liquid form that is watery. The choice of colors is also limited to red, black and blue. Other types of colors such as yellow could not be found in the market and that, according to Behulum and ij Yared, compromises their art. In addition to that, the sprays are expensive (80 birr per spray can). This challenge is not only for Ethiopian graffiti artists. Swift also raises the same issue of shortage of spray cans, caps and other equipment. 

In addition to that, finding a space has been a challenging issue for Lij Yared and the collective. When they go to various government officials, they are faced with bureaucrats who do not understand graffiti or other forms of urban art.

 “These are the people who are responsible for the youth but do not understand the youth’s diction,” Lij Yared says.

Since their claim of space is not fruitful their focus shifted into cleaning dirty spaces of Addis and beautifying the place with greenery and graffiti. Usually, they cover their own expenses and, according to Lij Yared, they never made any money out of their graffiti art. Getting space by itself is an opportunity for them. Now their next project is  theTikur Anbassa hospital pediatrics center where they are ready to decorate the place with graffiti. “The art can be a therapy for the children. We want the children to heal through this,” Lij Yared says.

Whether they pay him or not, Lij Yared is persistent in painting, doing his graffiti and spreading art. Following that path, he painted in places such as ‘Circle of Life Hotel in Hawassa. 

Swift had a chance to witness the East African graffiti scene. According to Swift, in Tanzania there is the Wachata Crew who offer graffiti workshops and classes. In Uganda there are several graffiti artists such as Jobray, Monk 256 and Sparrow. In his home country, Kenya, there are groups of Graffiti artists such as Spray Uzi, BSQ, and Graffiti Girls. In Ethiopia, graffiti is taking its first steps and meeting various graffiti artists has been a good experience for Behulum and Lij Yared. One thing the two Ethiopian graffiti artists and Swift agree on is the graffiti can be used as a voice for the urban youth.