Secret stories: Grahamstown’s Graffiti

By Dave Mann

Graffiti culture carries various negative connotations and is often synonymous with ideas of gangsterism, drugs, and wasted youth. However, there is a side to graffiti that not many people know about: a beautiful side that ties together cityscapes and cultures, and uplifts communities. Click through these photos of hidden graffiti gems and get acquainted with the Grahamstown graffiti scene.

You drive past the same bridge or sun-bleached concrete wall every day. Suddenly, overnight, it comes to life. Sprawling, colourful lettering has been slapped onto it; striking beside the bland, run-down, and litter-strewn train tracks. It demands your attention. That’s the nature of graffiti.

It’s more than just flat caps, balaclavas, baggy hoodies and paint splattered backpacks. Forget the connotations of drugs, crime, and gangsterism. Yes, the subculture of graffiti does have a kind of mob mentality, but it’s more of a movement or a unified voice made visible. It’s not a bunch of snotty kids with an anarchistic streak and too much time on their hands. Graffiti is one of the oldest forms of guerrilla politics known to humankind. Each piece carries a story. Each twisted letter pierces through the suburban bubble, grabbing you by the neck and lighting up your perception with electric flashes of colour.

Grahamstown is a grossly divided city, where its students and residents far too easily fall into the great socio-economic divide, sitting in comfortable ignorance. In comparison to larger cities, Grahamstown’s graffiti scene is almost non-existent. But if you take the time to walk its streets, back alleys, and abandoned train tracks, you’ll find a story.

The type of spraypaint that artists use varies. You get cheap hardware store paint that drips and splatters a lot, but the professional paint gives you cleaner lines, less drips, more control, and can paint over most other paints and surfaces. Preferences vary amongst artists. In this photo: A can of 3G black and a can of Spray Mate black.

The type of spraypaint that artists use varies. You get cheap hardware store paint that drips and splatters a lot, but the professional paint gives you cleaner lines, less drips, more control, and can paint over most other paints and surfaces. Preferences vary amongst artists. In this photo: A can of 3G black and a can of Spray Mate black.

Tags are the most common forms of graffiti. A tag is simply a graffiti artist's name, often in a signature form known as a handstyle. As an artist develops their talent, their handstyle will improve. Tags are done extremely quickly. In this photo: 'Yosher' tag.

Tags are the most common forms of graffiti. A tag is simply a graffiti artist’s name, often in a signature form known as a handstyle. As an artist develops their talent, their handstyle will improve. Tags are done extremely quickly. In this photo: ‘Yosher’ tag.

A throwup is a graffiti artists name written in bubble style lettering. Throwups normally consist of only two colours or just outlines such as this one. Throwups are done relatively quickly, usually under two minutes. In this photo: 'Luke' throwup and tag.

A throwup is a graffiti artists name written in bubble style lettering. Throwups normally consist of only two colours or just outlines such as this one. Throwups are done relatively quickly, usually under two minutes. In this photo: ‘Luke’ throwup and tag.

A piece is a graffiti artist's name written in styled lettering in two or more colours often with highlights, outlines, 3D shadowing, or an accompanying character. Pieces will take a while to do and are therefore harder to do in busy public spaces. In this photo: 'Grubz' piece.

A piece is a graffiti artist’s name written in styled lettering in two or more colours often with highlights, outlines, 3D shadowing, or an accompanying character. Pieces will take a while to do and are therefore harder to do in busy public spaces. In this photo: ‘Grubz’ piece.

Bridges and train tracks are popular spots for graffiti. In a quiet city like Grahamstown with an inactive train line, it makes it a lot easier for artists to paint in peace. In this photo: A 'Quik' throwup on an old railway sign.

Bridges and train tracks are popular spots for graffiti. In a quiet city like Grahamstown with an inactive train line, it makes it a lot easier for artists to paint in peace. In this photo: A ‘Quik’ throwup on an old railway sign.

Graffiti involves adapting your work to your environment. Artists often have to climb up hills, over fences, under low lying bridges and tunnels to put up their work. In this photo: 'Drez' piece which was done whilst crouching under a low bridge.

Graffiti involves adapting your work to your environment. Artists often have to climb up hills, over fences, under low lying bridges and tunnels to put up their work. In this photo: ‘Drez’ piece which was done whilst crouching under a low bridge.

Graffiti involves adapting your work to your environment. Artists often have to climb up hills, over fences, under low lying bridges and tunnels to put up their work. In this photo: 'Quik' pieces which were done whilst crouching under a low bridge.

Graffiti involves adapting your work to your environment. Artists often have to climb up hills, over fences, under low lying bridges and tunnels to put up their work. In this photo: ‘Quik’ pieces which were done whilst crouching under a low bridge.

Secret spots are like hidden treasures for graffiti. If you can find a spot where you won't have to worry about people seeing you or getting into any danger, you can just take your time and paint without having to rush your piece. In this photo: Unknown artist's piece under a concealed bridge.

Secret spots are like hidden treasures for graffiti. If you can find a spot where you won’t have to worry about people seeing you or getting into any danger, you can just take your time and paint without having to rush your piece. In this photo: Unknown artist’s piece under a concealed bridge.

The inactive train line leading up to the abandoned Grahamstown train station is another popular spot for Grahamstown graffiti. In this photo: 'Boda' character.

The inactive train line leading up to the abandoned Grahamstown train station is another popular spot for Grahamstown graffiti. In this photo: ‘Boda’ character.

Characters in graffiti are anything other than graffiti lettering. Characters are normally graffiti style faces or cartoons. In this photo: 'Grubz' piece with three accompanying characters.

Characters in graffiti are anything other than graffiti lettering. Characters are normally graffiti style faces or cartoons. In this photo: ‘Grubz’ piece with three accompanying characters.

Characters in graffiti are anything other than graffiti lettering. Characters are normally graffiti style faces or cartoons. In this photo: Character by 'Duck'.

Characters in graffiti are anything other than graffiti lettering. Characters are normally graffiti style faces or cartoons. In this photo: Character by ‘Duck’.

Graffiti artists love getting their names up in as many places as possible. Artists from bigger cities will often put up some of their work whenever they’re in another city. In this photo: Pieces by ‘Loskop’ and ‘Drez’ (Cape Town).

Graffiti artists love getting their names up in as many places as possible. Artists from bigger cities will often put up some of their work whenever they’re in another city. In this photo: Pieces by ‘Loskop’ and ‘Drez’ (Cape Town).

Graffiti artists love getting their names up in as many places as possible. Artists from bigger cities will often put up some of their work whenever they're in another city. In this photo: 'QRA Four' and 'Gift' (Durban).

Graffiti artists love getting their names up in as many places as possible. Artists from bigger cities will often put up some of their work whenever they’re in another city. In this photo: ‘QRA Four’ and ‘Gift’ (Durban).

Graffiti ages with the surface it's on. You can often see how long ago a piece was done by its appearance. Pieces that stay up for longer without getting cleaned off or covered by more graffiti are considered to be pieces of graffiti history. In this photo: 'Dirk' piece and character.

Graffiti ages with the surface it’s on. You can often see how long ago a piece was done by its appearance. Pieces that stay up for longer without getting cleaned off or covered by more graffiti are considered to be pieces of graffiti history. In this photo: ‘Dirk’ piece and character.

Graffiti ages with the surface it's on. You can often see how long ago a piece was done by its appearance. Pieces that stay up for longer without getting cleaned off or covered by more graffiti are considered to be pieces of graffiti history. In this photo: Pieces and characters by various artists.

Graffiti ages with the surface it’s on. You can often see how long ago a piece was done by its appearance. Pieces that stay up for longer without getting cleaned off or covered by more graffiti are considered to be pieces of graffiti history. In this photo: Pieces and characters by various artists.

Walls will often get covered end to end in graffiti, creating an entire wall of different names, colours, styles, and stories. In this photo: Collective graffiti from different artists done at different times near the abondoned Grahamstown train station.

Walls will often get covered end to end in graffiti, creating an entire wall of different names, colours, styles, and stories. In this photo: Collective graffiti from different artists done at different times near the abondoned Grahamstown train station.

Despite being declared a heritage site, the dilapidated Grahamstown train station is an eyesore to residents. Many artists have taken to filling up the station with their work. In this photo: Graffiti character by street art duo ‘Driftr’.

Despite being declared a heritage site, the dilapidated Grahamstown train station is an eyesore to residents. Many artists have taken to filling up the station with their work. In this photo: Graffiti character by street art duo ‘Driftr’.

Despite being declared a heritage site, the dilapidated Grahamstown train station is an eyesore to residents. Many artists have taken to filling up the station with their work. In this photo: 'Luke' piece and throwup.

Despite being declared a heritage site, the dilapidated Grahamstown train station is an eyesore to residents. Many artists have taken to filling up the station with their work. In this photo: ‘Luke’ piece and throwup.

Despite being declared a heritage site, the dilapidated Grahamstown train station is an eyesore to residents. Many artists have taken to filling up the station with their work. In this photo: 'Luke' piece and throwup.

Despite being declared a heritage site, the dilapidated Grahamstown train station is an eyesore to residents. Many artists have taken to filling up the station with their work. In this photo: ‘Luke’ piece and throwup.

Despite being declared a heritage site, the dilapidated Grahamstown train station is an eyesore to residents. Many artists have taken to filling up the station with their work. In this photo: 'Luke' piece and throwup.

Despite being declared a heritage site, the dilapidated Grahamstown train station is an eyesore to residents. Many artists have taken to filling up the station with their work. In this photo: ‘Luke’ piece and throwup.

Graffiti artists often get commissioned to do their work on the walls of local businesses. Walls with commissioned graffiti on them are called legals. In this photo: Graffiti characters by an unknown artist.

Graffiti artists often get commissioned to do their work on the walls of local businesses. Walls with commissioned graffiti on them are called legals. In this photo: Graffiti characters by an unknown artist.

Graffiti artists often get commissioned to do their work on the walls of local businesses. Walls with commissioned graffiti on them are called legals. In this photo: Graffiti characters by unknown artists.

Graffiti artists often get commissioned to do their work on the walls of local businesses. Walls with commissioned graffiti on them are called legals. In this photo: Graffiti characters by unknown artists.

Graffiti isn't all about writing your name everywhere for the fun of it. Most artists aim to say something with their work. Graffiti can often take the form of protest art too. In this photo: Political graffiti that reads 'Remember Marikana' by an unknown artist in response to the Marikana Massacre at the Lonmin Mines in 2012.

Graffiti isn’t all about writing your name everywhere for the fun of it. Most artists aim to say something with their work. Graffiti can often take the form of protest art too. In this photo: Political graffiti that reads ‘Remember Marikana’ by an unknown artist in response to the Marikana Massacre at the Lonmin Mines in 2012.

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