Graffiti can be a nasty business. There is so much ego at stake when the main purpose of your expression is to gain anonymous fame by writing your name on everything. It’s understandable that Writers are competitive in a game like that. Whole crews can disintegrate from the days of extreme almost blood loyalty to bitter rivalry and sworn enemy status.
Putting all of that aside for the purpose of this piece, I want to focus on how a ‘scene’ starts and how it sustains itself. Not the whole story, just a part of it (this type of story shifts from scene to scene). I’m going to talk about my city scene, Durban “Poison City”. Specifically, the evolution of a small shop situated on the second floor of the Sandy Centre in the industrial Durban suburb of Pinetown.
The store is called STEP UP, previously CRAK, and before that THE YARD. This was the first Graffiti lifestyle store to open in Durban. Some might even tell you that it was the first store of its kind to open in South Africa. From day one it was all about real underground Graffiti and Hip Hop cutting edge culture. Customized clothing, local labels, vinyls, comics, magazines, toys, and of course, that all important and most highly valued commodity, aerosol paint. You couldn’t get the variety of cut price cans on offer anywhere else. In fact, most hardware stores, the traditional suppliers of a Writers main tool, were comparitively ripping people off with their cheap brands and inflated prices. THE YARD, situated in the heart of Durbans original Graffiti Mecca, Umbilo, was all about the culture, and tried to keep its costs low enough to serve the scene and stay afloat at the same time.
The brains behind the operation in its original manifestation was local Writer and proprietor Phil Botha who, with the support of his immediate crew and the beginnings of a strong following, kept the customers coming and the culture ticking.
Behind the scenes however there was a whole other force that has yet to be fully recognized or celebrated in its entirety: The McReadys.
Mel and her daughter Kirsty are the proprietors, the money and the marketers behind STEP UP. They have been there from the beginning, fronting the capital to bring THE YARD into existence, employing writers when work was scarce and bills abounding, sponsoring events, supplying paint and product on credit, stocking local labels trying to promote their product and get it off the ground, and all of this hustle and grind on behalf of a scene that could prove extremely unforgiving at times.
Without being writers themselves, Mel and Kirsty have been embroiled in the beef, the aggressive rivalry, all of the attitude and immaturity of a scene struggling to sustain itself. Despite all of the pitfalls and financial difficulties, all of the anger and ego, all of the uncertainty that comes from trying to serve a niche market in a small town that has a bad reputation as being “backwoods”, these women have stuck to their guns in fine style, ensuring that the Durban scene has had a steady foundation on which to build.
When the dry spell of below quality paint was finally broken in South Africa, when stock of superior quality international aerosol began to cross our borders, brands like Montana and Belton (brands we had only ever dreamed about handling one day), Mel McReady was there to make sure we got our share. Products that had only ever appeared in our imagination or in the coveted magazines brought back by homies from overseas (black books, markers, caps, masks) suddenly were right there within reach. Through all of it’s manifestations, it’s no surprise that they have finally settled on the name STEP UP. That’s what they have always been about, about taking the scene to the next level, elevating it.
As it was so well conveyed by local writer STOP in an online conversation we were having about support for STEP UP, “They are a business, not a car boot.” Their existence is not only about themselves, it is about a whole scene, it is about the creative existence and space for expression that they help to sustain by keeping us stocked, by keeping the channels open for us to expand as artists.
That goes for any of the outlets in SA that keep stoking the fires of Graffiti and Street Art culture. The difference here is that these ladies aren’t Writers, they are fans of the culture and they have been involved long enough to be educated and informed contributors to the scene. You ever hear someone talk about doing it “for the love”? That’s the foundation of the McReady’s influence on Durban Graffiti and Street Art.
Us heads under the ground like to throw phrases around like “hustle” to talk about the daily grind of trying to make our own way in the world. The McReadys define true hustle, but beyond that, they sustain the hustle of so many others. They don’t get a lot of props, they aren’t (in)famous for their efforts, but they are so tied into the history of our scene that I would even suggest that there might not be any such scene without them.
Respect ladies, I hope you are around for a long time. Even if we don’t always show it, believe that we need you more then you need us, and you have my thanks for sticking by us through it all. From bailing us out to bigging us up, thank you for playing your part.
[This is the tenth anniversary year for STEP UP and the plans include an old school park jam and a print publication of a Durban Graffiti retrospective. Stay tuned if you are around Poison Town at all this year. You just might land at the right time.]