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.]
This is the process of producing the final ‘piece’ that will feature as a video insert in the FLATFOOT DANCE COMPANY 10 Year Anniversary Season performance of the new work entitled “LAST THOUGHTS”.
The piece starts off by saying/reading LAST THOUGHTS in some funky lettering, before I completely oblitirate the literary function of letters with a full-on WILDSTYLE graffiti attack.
This style of Graffiti is the one that most people respond to by saying “I can’t read what it says!”. Google search “Wildstyle Graffiti” images if you are looking for some serious inspiration and awe inspiring artistic flair. I feel I need to explain that the point of this type of style, as with most Hip Hop ideas of ‘style’ or ‘styling’, is that it isn’t meant to be read as much as it is meant to be felt. Therein lies it’s perfect purpose within this work, “Last Thoughts”, which is about the language of the body, of feeling and expressing.
I have never been as comfortable painting letters (or ‘style writing’ as we call it) as I have painting characters. In my career as an artist I have painted pictures more then I have painted my name. Plenty of heads would use this as an indication of my lack of authenticity as a Graffiti Writer, but that’s their beef. I have written my name enough to know where I stand when it comes to having a can in hand.
This piece was produced under some interesting constraints. I had to move in and out of the frame every minute or two in order for us (my wife Karen is the ‘videographer’ producing this installation) to capture a suitable ‘timelapse’ effect, where the piece will seemingly paint itself on the back wall of the stage while the dancers perform in front of it. I also had to complete the work in a shorter time frame then usual, but thanks to some excellent babysitting efforts from Grandma “ShoSho” Robinson, some wonderful support and encouragement from Gary Nell and the customers of his salon “The G-Spot” across the road (not to mention the coffee and power source!) and some generally well-meaning spectators (except for that lady who wants to start a petition to have it removed) I ended up pulling off a satisfying ‘style’.
I am looking forward to seeing the full two-story version in performance. Every Writer wants to go large, I just had some visual assistance with this one! Next I’m gonna go CGI…
There isn’t a Graffiti Writer I know who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to paint up a whole building. That is the kind of commission we dream about. Hell, some of us might even pray for this type of wall: large, very public, high-profile, owned by the type of free spirited free thinking free-ky people who are ultimately going to save the planet, “one cappuccino at a time”. They would have to be that type of human, to turn to an artist like me and say “The cafe needs a new coat of paint. Go nuts.”
CORNER CAFE, 197 Brand Road, Glenwood, Durban. Owned and run and sweated over and loved in and grown and nurtured and built and created by Judd and Jeannie Cambell, and directly tied into the type of forward momentum that has this neighborhood cutting edges in the cityscape. CORNER CAFE, legendary new-school coffee shop and playground of both the culturally inclined and contemporary kind of customer, all mixed up and sipping from the same simple cup of award winning coffee. This place is so “the shit” that it doesn’t even have a sign or a name outside advertising it’s existence. It just exists. If you want to find it, you will look for it, and it will be there, every time.
From the day they opened doors, going on six years now, Judd has given me free reign to paint what I please when I please and where I please, as long as he doesn’t have to explain it in too much detail to anyone. He doesn’t do art or music. He does coffee and ideas.
So, I feel it necessary, my responsibility in fact, to weigh in on some subtle abuse he has been receiving through his kiff blog owing to my latest aerosol incarnation of his beloved joint. It goes like this:
Judd get’s an email saying “what\’s with those gross \”paintings\” on the walls? nothing fresh and lovely about those – just dark and sinister”
Judd replies saying “U are going to have a super new year I can tell.”
The response “i certainly am – who would want to walk through a skull to go and have a cut of coffee? obviously people not thinking”
And this is where I come in, as it is obviously in reference to the collaboration between myself and Dutch Street Artist GIJS VAN HEE (www.gijsvanhee.be) that manifested in the way the walls are looking right now:
I’m not going to get too deep into this here. The project was as organic as Judd’s coffee, with no set theme or concept, just and evolving mix of two different styles, resulting in a highly stylized graphic mural that combines elements of comic book fantasy and futuristic sci-fi planet loving design. Gijs has a signature style that I thought would sit sweetly on the walls of one of the most progressive cultural watering holes in the city. I was super stoked when he contacted me saying he would be in town and was looking to paint. I immediately pitched him to Judd who thought about it for about the time it takes to froth milk and then said “Go nuts”. Nuts we went:
So now, the dude who spotted something sinister in our style sees a skull. Some people see an octopus. It might even be a lightbulb. Whatever. The wall is completely based on a street art aesthetic which means the concept and interpretation of the content is entirely dependent on the mood and mind-set of the member of the public who is playing the part of viewer. You might be able to see the Corner Coffee colored clouds. You might see the stump of the tree that almost got Judd crucified coz people thought he had killed it (until it grew back). You could even see the digital tentacles and cables that connect all of us who exist in the cafe culture world of new age ideas and old school pleasures. The point is, you will never see it all, and you will always see what you want to see.
My question then is: What kind of person a) sees a skull; b) sees a skull as negative or in this case sinister; c) translates colors like lime & camo green and images of clouds and trees and leaves as “dark” and “gross”; and d) spells “cup” “cut” and then ends by saying other people aren’t thinking?
Now, before we all jump to answers like a) someone who isn’t happy being stuck in their own skull; b) a grumpy close minded soul who is jealous that other people might be having more fun then them or c) just a grumpy victim of societies anxieties in general, let’s first remind ourselves that sometimes people are just not having a good day, and remember that when we are not having a good day, we get negative and start to see the sinister and dark side of things as well.
On those days we also might see more skulls then lightbulbs.
p.s. coffee will always get you through.