The Gift-Crime Controversy of Graffiti-Art in Kenya
Despite numerous, government-supported projects that promote the positive implementation of street art worldwide, there still seems to be an undying debate about this controversial art form’s place in contemporary society.
To some, it is far from any kind of art form. It is instead perceived as an exquisite crime. One that is not only unlawful because of its defacement of public property, but one also declared unthinkably dangerous as a gateway crime – that supposedly communicates to its community an unspoken message advocating harmful illegal acts. Furthermore, it is no secret that police have often strategized crack downs on street artists worldwide as an example to all neighborhood “criminals.” Law enforcers claim that if graffiti artists are punished severely, other crimes generally lessen. So their tactic has often been to use street artists as a lesson for others. Apparently, harsh punishment on these artists communicates to local neighborhoods that worse crimes will be met with even worse consequences.
But while this thinking has its obvious justifications, anyone with a basic knowledge of street art will tell you that this is a ridiculously one sided story.
For example, where in this “gateway crime” rational do we fit all the uplifting & inspirational pieces of street art that encourage community members to love, to hope, to dream & to share art despite socioeconomic limitations? What do we make of the slum community members who have testified that to have colorful works of art in their otherwise dilapidated neighborhoods are life saving gifts of self worth and community value? How can we so casually criminalize the masterpieces of artists like Banksy, whose artworks on bombed out walls between warring territories reinstate the importance of honoring the power of our children & our own childlike imaginations?
Moreover, whether we realize it or not, the danger of this heated discussion is evident in our daily disregard for art that lives outside the narrow confines of mainstream approval. Just as many of us judge the music played on major radio stations as differently from the music we find on Soundcloud, the battles between gallery artists & graffiti inspired non-conformists has also influenced our personal opinions of what art is and isn’t –
And this is a crucial issue.
Even if respective tastes differ in terms of aesthetic style, it is dangerous to determine the significance of art, based solely on its placement inside a fancy building or outside a crumbling tenement. Let us ask ourselves. When it has ever been a good idea for humanity to base it’s evaluation of art on what The Establishment determines as valuable? Have we not yet learned that it is suicide to let agenda-prone governments & institutions declare what is and is not art worthy of sharing?
Alas, this is where we stand. At the crux of an ancient artform’s growth into a cultural rennaisance. And so what do we do?
For those of us who appreciate art in all forms, we find a way to make it happen anyway.
And in (NU)Nairobi, Kenya – that means finding private residential & business owners who support the process irregardless of political opinion. One such oasis is Westland’s community haven, known as The Alchemist Bar, where many artists have been given opportunity to express themselves whether or not they have completed expensive fine art degrees…
While you contemplate your own perspective on this infamous gift-curse graffiti-art controversy check out the latest additions to this on-going social experiment from California native artist James Shields (AKA Creative Shields), who brought new flavor to a once baron wall outside a music studio located on The Alchemist Bar premises in Nairobi. And if you’re in town, be sure to stop by & see for yourself more works by notorious Kenyan artist Bankslave & others.
A word from James Shields:
Hey whats up. I’m James Shields and I am a street artist based out of Oakland, CA. Earlier this year I planned a Spraycation (spray paint vacation) to Africa. Over the course of 10 weeks I’ll have visited Morocco, Ghana, Kenya, & South Africa. I’m currently on week 6 and have just landed in Joburg. My goal on this journey is to meet and collaborate with local creatives- especially street artists. Its been a huge success thus far. I painted in the 6th annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival that takes place every August in Accra, GH. Being in Ghana was huge for me because I felt a direct connection to my history as an African(American). As an African of the Diaspora being able to identify cultural similarities in Ghana was huge. Long story short- I instantly fit in. Sure its culture shock and awkward moments being American in Africa, but I instantly felt welcomed and a since of belonging. It’s a feeling that has never left as I’ve been on this journey. Each country is unique in its culture, economic development, and street art scene. Nairobi is poppin and the energy is electric. The local artistic talent is strong, especially the street artists. My goal is collaborating with artists from each city is to simply be myself and see how my work connects. I’ve developed my personal style of abstract art called ‘Petal Blocks’. This decorative style is my commentary on the evolution of nature. My views on nature are interpreted through the graffiti form (3-d blocks shadows, etc.) which has always been a passion of mine (way before I started practicing it myself). Nature always wins. It is forever evolving. I have mad love for the movement that’s taking place within the Walls of the Alchemist. Artist from all walks are contributing to an emerging scene from all mediums. In many ways I think its similar to the movements that took place in the New York and LA during the 90s. Its raw and people from all over the world are attracted to the city. I definitely plan on coming back to Nairobi. I feel like I can contribute to the growth of the culture. My primary mission would be to equip the local artist with quality spray paint and other supplies. Their talent deserves proper representation! There’s a power that takes place in Africans from across the world uniting & Nairobi’s creative scene is the perfect platform to watch it take place.