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Street art in South Africa

There is much more meaning to the graffiti you find on dilapidated walls around Cape Town, Joburg, and other parts of South Africa. If you're curious about street art in South Africa and it's significance, read on.

Street art in South Africa



The world of street art in South Africa: where did it come from and what does it mean?


History of Apartheid and Townships

It is no secret that the Apartheid regime still plays a pivotal role in the cultural and political landscape of South Africa. The influence of the Apartheid Era, which took place from 1948 to 1994 headed by the Nationalist Party is still deeply felt in various areas of South Africa. The Nationalist Party institutionalized legal segregation and formalized racial categories in the process. The system placed people into four different categories: "native", "coloured", "Asian", or "white".

Thanks to The Group Areas Act of 1950, vibrant multiracial settlements were cleared and demolished, and their residents were separated by race and relocated. Cities were designated for whites only, and in the process, "townships" or "locations" became a mechanism for housing the nonwhite labor force in the outskirts of the city.

Mitchell's Plain is a sprawling, historically coloured township which was initially built as an area to house those who would be considered members of a "middle-income" group. Shortly after, some parts began to deteriorate into major slums because many who wanted to escape the township situation would move there, but not be able to afford it.

Photography by Andrew Tallon

Who is Falko One?


Photography by Luke Daniel

South Africa's graffiti icon, Falko One, affectionately nicknamed the "Graffiti Godfather" grew up in Mitchell's Plain. He got his start in the world of street art in the late 1980s, at just 16 years old, right before South Africa's first democratic elections. He is notorious not only for his style, but also for establishing graffiti as a credible visual art form, and for creating a platform for aspiring artists. He believes graffiti can be a "dynamic social tool", so he dedicates much of his time to community projects around South Africa.

Graffiti was once used to mark territory and was associated with juvenile and gang behavior as delinquents would tag their gang names, defacing property. Graffiti literally means engraving, and Apartheid graffiti gave people a platform to express their outrage over oppressive laws and discrimination. Now it is used as a form of expression where artists get permission to use the walls of homes as a place to create and educate.

For the major part of his early career he was bogged down by commercial work and was unable to find what truly inspired him. Then he made a simple change by only painting what made him happy. In his case, it was elephants. He initially painted them as political commentary. They were meant to be symbols of strength and steadfastness during oppressive times. Now, Falko makes it clear that his love for elephants is his own business, and what they mean to viewers is entirely up to them. At the very least, these whimsical animals beautify nearly every place they touch.

Lucky for us, Falko One stopped by Once in Joburg to create a beautiful rooftop mural during the City of Gold festival. The elephants can be seen throughout the cement landscape to liven up the atmosphere, and creatively and strategically break up the space. The colorful creatures provide visual stimulation as guests overlook the bustling city from the rooftop. We personally spoke with him about his work.

Falko One's work on our Once in Joburg rooftop


Q: What is your work’s role in society?

A: The role at the moment is to use my art to break the natural environment already there. I want it to be organically placed without harming or taking away from the surroundings. I want people to interpret it in their own ways, I don’t want to impose anything on anyone as “this is what you must think about this piece”.

Q: What inspired you to do this type of art form?

A: I was inspired to start graffiti in 1988/89. One day, I was taking a journey into town on the train to see a DJ. On the train there was one piece that everyone liked. I loved the tags. I also noticed the DJ promoting himself with T-shirts and graffiti with this specific type of design, so I decided to give it a go. I was bad at it for a long time before I got good!

Q: What would you say you’re trying to express through your work?

A: I don’t have one single idea that I want to push onto anybody. The beauty of art is that it is open-ended and many times it has more than one message. In short, I want to express that there is a viewpoint out there for everyone to have.

Q: What are the noticeable changes that you have seen as an artist in South Africa since 1989?

A: I’ve noticed different cities in South Africa are becoming dominant with the arts. Graffiti is growing as a legitimate art form and form of expression, especially in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Q: What’s the story behind your elephant drawings?

A: I like the idea of such a large animal being so quiet. I would like to consider myself the same way. I mind my own business, I don’t get involved, in person at least. My graffiti has a big presence and people talk about it, but I am quiet in person. I don’t talk too much. It’s like elephants, their presence is large and they take up space, but you can’t hear them. To me, that’s what makes a real bad boy. I remember the first time I saw a herd of elephants I couldn’t even hear them.

History of Street Art

Falko One is not the only South African street artist that has made an impact, and the townships are certainly not the only place where street art is alive and well. In fact, there are several other places where the street art scene is growing and flourishing. Woodstock and Salt River in Cape Town are some other notable hubs.

These two transitional communities managed to remain integrated during Apartheid and survived the declaration of "whites only" areas and the forced removal of houses and demolitions happening in nearby District Six. They became known as "grey areas", as many coloured and black people started to move into the neighborhoods during the 1970s and 1980s. The lower parts of Woodstock have become run down in the second half of the 20th century due to litter, crime, and drugs becoming a serious issue. However, the community has begun to gentrify as young professionals have taken advantage of the still affordable Victorian homes, trendy restaurants, media companies, and shops taking form from revamped warehouses and abandoned buildings. The two suburbs have become an eclectic fusion of village atmosphere and inner-city living.

Unfortunately, this fusion is not favored by all.

Although these communities were not forced to evacuate during Apartheid, original community members still feel a sense of displacement. On several walls in these districts, one might find images of cockroaches, which symbolize the new community members pushing those that settled the area out.

Regardless, the walls of Woodstock and Salt River are used as canvases which stimulate creativity and dialogue among those that pass by them, not unlike visiting an outdoor art gallery. Street art tours have grown throughout these areas with a mission to shed light on various socioeconomic and political issues within South Africa while helping local artists profit from their work. There are also a few pieces which focus on animals, reminding us to be careful about endangered species.


Photography by Andrew Tallon

It all makes sense and the dots start to connect as viewers understand that graffiti literally paints a picture of the history of the ground it reigns upon. At Once Travel, we believe in the value of art for not just its visual beauty, but its ability to bring people together and bridge cultural gaps. That is why we have created our Artists’ Exchange. Check out the amazing work these talented artists made for our hostel locations, and read all about it on our blog here.

Above mural by:

Street art tours:

Cape Town city tour

Langa Township & street art tour

Langa township cultural tour (2)

Braamfontein, Joburg - Graffiti walking tour

And check out a list of some of our favourite street artists!