Newtown Graffiti and Heritage Walk
Introduction, and a brief History of Graffiti
Hello and welcome. I am an independent Graffiti artist, Archaeologist and tour guide, and I go by the alias, ‘Bias’. Joburg is my hometown, and I’ve been putting my work on the walls here for the last decade. I would like to share part of my world with you today on this walk around Newtown. Before we start, it’s important to mention that graffiti is very transient, and ever-changing. I’ve made every effort to keep an eye on the area and keep the tour up-to-date. But there’s always a chance that the work I’m talking about has been changed or removed. The story itself is still relevant, so it won’t be too much of a problem, but if you do notice changes, please let me know by commenting on the route, either in tha app or on voicemap.me.
The walk starts from the parking lot of the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre on Miriam Makeba Street. If you are facing the entrance turn to your right and you should notice a large park. Walk down to the park’s edge, towards the row of wooden heads.
Graffiti as we know it started in the late 60’s, and was mainly used by activists bent on making political statements. One of the first people to be identified by the public as what we graffiti artists term a ‘writer’ was Taki 183 from Washington Heights. Taki was simply a nickname and 183 was the street number where he lived. He was a foot messenger and left his name wherever he went.
From the mid 70’s to late 80’s Graffiti artists started to develop uniquely individual and more elaborate wordplay. Artists from the five boroughs of New York started displaying their work on the most unique walls of the city: the New York Subway cars. Many of these early artworks formed the very foundations of graffiti culture today. In South Africa, graffiti only really began after the end of apartheid, so we’re about twenty years behind. But more and more people are starting to explore the potential of eye catching and colourful artworks to bring life to their cities.
The Wooden Heads you see in front of you were commissioned by the city of Johannesburg and five hundred and sixty of them encompass the Newtown Precinct. The Heads are carved from old railway sleepers and represent African diversity. Walk down the steps past the trees until you are standing on a large silver rooftop.
You should now be standing facing a large square structure and if you look above it you should see the M1 Highway in the distance. You will notice you are surrounded by a multitude of smaller blocks that are about waist high. Stop here for a little while.
There are three basic types of graffiti. The first and most basic is called a ‘tag’. Think of it like a celebrity’s autograph. Every individual has their own tag, much like everyone has their own signature and of course each tag is unique. Look closely at one of the small blocks and you should see a tag that says ‘mars’ on it. You may be able to read it easier if you trace the lines with your finger.
Now look to your right. You see the makeshift chipboard wall? Look for the graffiti that is mainly silver and orange. This is the second type: it’s called a throwup, or “throw”. Now, I know what you’re thinking… but the name doesn’t come from throwing up. A throw can usually be done very fast – that’s where the name really comes from. They usually consist of two colours, and they’re a more advanced and larger representation of a writer’s name.
Now look back at the large square structure, and find the blue, brown, white and orange picture in front of you. This is the final and most advanced type of graffiti: the ‘masterpiece’, or piece for short. A masterpiece is usually an extremely colourful and complex demonstration of an artist’s name that can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to complete. The piece you are looking at is done by none other than – you guessed it – me! Bias. I will describe one of my pieces in greater depth later in this tour. But for now notice how I have written ‘Vusi’ and ‘Mars’ in the bottom left and right corners. A common misconception is that these words indicate the artist who is responsible, but they’re actually shout-outs to my friends.
There is a system of etiquette in Graffiti. If somebody wants to go over another person’s work they need to follow the unspoken rule that the new addition has to be a level up from the old one. So, you can go over a tag with a throw, and a throw with a piece, but not the other way around, otherwise it is considered to be disrespectful.
Now walk back to the path where the heads were. Turn left onto the pathway and keep going towards the open square.
Mary Fitzgerald Square
Cross the Square now, towards a large building with a red roof that reads “Museum Africa”.
The square is named after Mary ‘’pickhandle’’ Fitzgerald. She was an Irish-born political activist who was considered one of the first female trade unionists in the country. Her nickname is said to derive from a protest meeting in 1911 where she brandished a pick axe handle. Other sources suggest it is from an incident where a group of female protestors raided a hardware store armed with pick axes.
The square hosts many of Johannesburg’s live events and was used as one of the Fan Parks during the Soccer World Cup hosted by South Africa in 2010. I was there for the opening game when Bafana Bafana played Mexico. I remember South Africa’s Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the first goal of the tournament. The match turned out to be a draw, but I will never forget how packed and alive the square felt with the sound of vuvuzelas and fans cheering.
Cross over Bree Street now. You should be walking towards the steps, looking up at the majestic Museum Africa. You can turn left and walk alongside it while I tell you a bit about it.
Museum Africa was established in 1933. Before it was built, the area was Johannesburg’s fresh produce market. It’s right next to the Market Theatre and the Workers Museum, both of which you will visit later in this tour.
The Museum is truly one of Johannesburg’s greatest historical and cultural gems. It has many themed permanent displays that to preserve and exhibit the city’s vast geological, social, economic and political history. The Bensusan Museum of Photography is also located in the Museum. The Museum is free to the public and open Tuesday to Sunday 9am-5pm and most public holidays.
Going ''Back to the City''
Keep walking until you are standing underneath the highway overpass, and stop there.
As soon as I walk into this area, it always feels like I’ve entered a concrete jungle, surrounded by the Pillars that hold up the overpass. This is the centre-point of one of Johannesburg’s largest annual Hip Hop festivals. The festival happens over the Freedom Day long weekend which is on the 27th of April. The festival includes breakdancing, basketball, skateboarding and live acts.
Every year there is a graffiti competition and artists are provided with scaffolding to paint to the very tops of the pillars and express in a visual sense what freedom day means to them. The first ten or so pillars are reserved for the competition.
Walk on up the road, keeping under the overpass, past the painted traffic circle. Look at the other pillars as you go. This year I painted one of the pillars to look like a neon sign, so see if you can spot it on your way up.
Another festival which is worth checking out if you are interested in Graffiti is the yearly ‘city of gold festival’. The festival is organised by one of the most popular graffiti shops, Grayscale, which is not too far from where you are now. The week-long festival features a combination of local and international graffiti artists who paint walls throughout the city. There are also talks, workshops and film screenings aimed at educating the public about the rejuvenation that graffiti can offer to areas in a state of disrepair.
Pillars of Colour
Turn left here, at the corner of Gwigwi Mrwebi and Henry Nxumalo Streets.
This street reminds me of an old Wild West scene and is particularly beautiful if you can catch it during sunset because of its West facing orientation. Many of the buildings in this area here have been around for as long as 100 years.
When the festival is not running many graffiti artists come to this area to practice their work. Many artists work on pieces for the festival in groups – or what we call “crews”. I must stress that crews are not to be confused with gangs but rather friends who share a common goal when it comes to their artwork. On the weekends this area is always alive with the coming and going of models and photographers and I have even seen one or two Brides!
Two by Two Gallery
As you get about halfway down the street you will come across a large grey building on the right hand side of the road. Stop alongside it.
The building houses Two by Two, one of Johannesburg’s only graffiti galleries. The Gallery is run by Juliet and Tanner who are both artists. If you are looking to have a commission done, buy some art supplies, books, spraypaint or just browse the artwork, this is the place. The gallery also offers Graffiti workshops for people that are interested in learning how to paint but haven’t a clue where to begin. It looks like a lot of fun!
If you turn around, and look across the street, you’ll see a building called D. Kingsburg. It’s a Birdseed Company that has been running since 1915 and on the front of the building various birds have been painted by graffiti artists. Graffiti is a very context-based medium. Every wall, surface and area is different, and the themes of many works stem from the immediate surroundings.
We’re going to keep going to the end of the street now. If you’d like to visit Two by Two, you’re welcome to come back at the end of today’s walk.
Turn right at this corner, and walk down a block.
The Graffiti Corridor
Stop at this corner for a moment. If you look up and to the left you should see a large colourful building made of stacked shipping containers. This is Newtown’s newest student Residence – the Mill Junction.
To your right there is a boom and just in front of that a large white towering piece. This type of work is called a ‘character’ because it features an image, rather than wording.
Now, face down the wide corridor to your right and walk in around the boom. You will see that graffiti lines the entire corridor. Start walking towards the end taking in the graffiti as you go.
Look along the wall on your right hand side for an image of a green and yellow dog about A4 size. This type of work is known as a wheatpaste. Traditionally wheatpaste is used to advertise concerts or religious meetings. Most often, you see the method used for those illegally pasted posters advertising doctors who offer penis enlargement - with 100% success rate “guaranteed”. These days, it’s a popular form of street art. Making a Wheatpaste is as easy as mixing together some flour, sugar and water to make a very cost effective and resilient glue.
This dog is particularly interesting because since it was first stuck to the wall the colours have changed because of the leaking drain water coming from the pipe you can see directly above it. This wheatpaste was done by a Female artist called Fin who has many images of stray dogs throughout the cityscape.
Head further down the corridor now. It’s a good opportunity to take some pictures of anything that strikes your fancy as you go. A lot of the work here was done legally – it’s quite simple to get permission - artists simply ask the property owner for verbal or written consent. It is often hard to tell if graffiti has been done legally or not, but in general the bigger, more colourful graffiti is legal.
You should smell a familiar smell around here … candle wax. Stop and take it in. The back of the building to your left is a candle factory called Price’s Candles that was built in 1910.
These pieces you can see on the wall are a perfect example of a contextual theme. In the middle is a giant match character lighting himself. That was done by Mars. On the far right there’s a candle monster, which I painted. If you look at the pink piece, which is also by Mars, you’ll notice all sorts characters incorporated into the letters of the piece. If you look to the bottom left and right of the pink piece you will see the words to the popular song “light my fire” by The Doors.
The piece on the right coloured orange and green is mine too. This piece it is quite design orientated in comparison to Mars’. I used the complementary colours orange and green and purple for the inside, which is called the ‘fill’. To add a natural feel, I added many overlapping circles and lines in this part. The purple lines which define the letters are called the outline and the lighter purple within this is called the 3D. Notice how the 3D is directed to the right and downwards to add further dimension to the piece. The yellow that borders the entire artwork is called the “secondline” or “keyline”.
This piece has a guitar in it in the place of the letter “I”. Often Graffiti artists will put an object or character in the place of a letter. I find the letter ‘I’ difficult to stylise because visually it is just a line, and the guitar was my way of adding another dimension to the piece. Artists add characters or symbols to get their message across. The reason I added a guitar is because it ties into the music theme of this wall. I initially wanted to write the words ‘Music to my eyes’ next to my piece, but decided the guitar was more striking.
We worked together on these pieces, and the grey and blue background with yellow border around the two helps tie them together. A group of pieces by different artists with the same theme is called a production. The spraypaint used for these pieces is imported from Germany and the cans have different nozzles, which allow artists to either cover large areas quickly or work on small details. The Masterpieces in front of you were done in just two days and are both over 7 feet tall. Opposite this wall is a studio where many developing concept artists hone their skills.
Now continue walking down the corridor. Look for the giant white pig face on the left as you go. It was painted by a fine artist called Isaac who works in the studio just opposite.
Walk past the green gate and turn right and head back down the hill walking under the overpass between the pillars towards Bree Street.
I’ve walked down here a number of times, lugging a backpack full of spraypaint around with me, I often paint down here when it is raining. Because the fumes from spraypaint can be quite harmful, a graffiti artist’s arsenal usually consists of a pair of latex gloves and a gas mask. The gloves protect the cuticles of the fingers because the paint is an irritant and the mask is specially made to protect the lungs from certain chemicals. The paint usually leaves a very fine dust when it is sprayed which is toxic to the human body. The best masks to use are made by a company called 3M who specialise in industrial grade chemical protective gear. It is important to wear this mask indoors and outdoors. If you want to start spray painting I highly recommend you take heed of this.
Look to your left. The building you see is the recently opened Newtown Junction Mall. Construction started in 2012, but also delayed because of strikes. The mall cost an estimated 1.3 billion rand to build and is aimed at reviving economic activity in the inner city. The Junction will house a hotel and gym as well as many shops. The mall was built on top of an area known as the ‘old potato sheds’ where fresh produce was stored for over 60 years.
Turn left at the corner and walk up the ramp next to the Museum all the way to the other side of the Museum.
The Market Theatre
We’re getting close to the Market Theatre, which is part of the building complex to your left.. Keep walking alongside it.
The Market Theatre was opened in 1976. It was named after the fresh produce market that used to be here. The theatre operated during the apartheid years as an independent non-racial platform that presented many anti-apartheid performances. The theatre has hosted plays by many award-winning directors and has won a number of awards itself. Today the theatre is still open to the public makes for a great evening out.
Turn right now, and walk down Margaret Mcingana Street and back across Mary Fitzgerald Square. As you have seen, graffiti artists usually choose an alternative name for themselves, for the sake of anonymity. The names usually have some meaning specific to that artists personality. Sometimes it’s a nickname or the name of a pet, and sometimes it’s just based on letters they find easy to paint.
I’ve always wanted to show the public that graffiti is not vandalism. It takes a lot of time, money and creative thought by intelligent individuals. The crews I’ve worked with have always focused on meaningful contributions to the city, based on community orientated themes. I call myself Bias because it represents the dichotomy of the world in which I live. What I see as art, others see as an eyesore, and I feel like the bias against graffiti as an artform needs to be broken down. I want to educate people about the possibilities that graffiti can offer.
The Workers Museum
Cross the Zebra crossing and continue straight along the path amongst the trees.
To your right just around the corner is the Newtown Workers Museum. This Museum is housed in what was previously an old migrant labour hostel. Inside, you can learn about the history of South Africa’s migrant workforce from arrival to eventual unionisation.
The architecture here helps depict the harsh living conditions of people that were entered into the migrant system. The Museum is small and could be done in about an hour and is definitely worth a visit.
You have now reached the end of this tour I hope that you have enjoyed it and that just for today I was able to add some extra colour to your life. From here you can check out the Workers Museum, Sci-Bono or simply walk along the path to get back to the parking where you began this tour.