Where do we draw the line? Graffiti in Maboneng, Johannesburg

Graffiti is a controversial subject and fraught with ambiguities and contradictions. However, the recent global success of artists such as Banksy, Melbourne’s booming graffiti tourism, and the rise of the ‘creative city’ discourse, have blurred the lines between what some regard as vandalism and some as public art. As such, graffiti has increasingly become part of mainstream culture and in some countries has been promoted as a contributor to the urban environment. Thus, as practices and perceptions of graffiti shift, so does our need to better understand the role of graffiti in our urban environments. Through a case study of the Maboneng precinct, this GCRO Occasional Paper investigates the contribution made by graffiti to tourism and public and private investment in the inner-city of Johannesburg.

The paper uses visual and spatial analyses of graffiti in Maboneng’s development. The research shows the extent to which the Maboneng precinct is branded through urban aesthetics, including graffiti, and demonstrates that graffiti contributes to placemaking by creating meaningful or identifiable spaces. The analysis reveals graffiti’s aesthetic value in the urban environment: it signifies the redevelopment of Maboneng, distinguishes the area at a local level from surrounding spaces, and also projects a global aesthetic. Using this case study of Maboneng we hope to show how graffiti is leveraged in nurturing urban development, creative economies and tourism in the inner-city.

The Occasional Paper is comprised of two parts. The first half of the paper aims to understand the role of graffiti in its urban context. A first section examines the history of graffiti, considering centuries-old traditions of markings on walls, the intersection of graffiti with the birth of hip hop culture and, in the South African context, the role of graffiti in anti-apartheid protest politics. A further section explores the spectrum of graffiti aesthetics, from text-based expressions to the murals of street art. A third section traces graffiti’s complicated relationship to the urban environment, with changing perceptions of graffiti: as vandalism, or a mode of urban dialogue, or a form of outdoor gallery. The sections in this first half of the paper explore the transitions graffiti has made over time and highlight the fluid nature of graffiti, both in space and in the way that it is conceived. They illustrate how graffiti, once perceived as synonymous with urban blight and decay, vandalism and crime, has over time gained a more legitimate social status, for example through commissioned murals or the work of famed international artists, in the process raising the question of who decides the aesthetic of the urban environment and who has a right to participate in the production of urban space.

In the second half of the paper, we focus on a case study of Maboneng, in the City of Johannesburg. Maboneng is an area of redevelopment in Johannesburg’s inner city, established in 2009. The neighbourhood has transformed through investment in the public environment and the upgrading of dozens of buildings with a focus on the creative economy. Graffiti and street art are prevalent in the area and have contributed to the branding of the area as a creative space. Through a photographic essay and mapping, we analyse the spatial and visual elements of graffiti in Maboneng, exploring its various contradictions, themes, surfaces, and the media used to create it. The detailed mapping examines different types of graffiti, and their locality, density, scale and visibility. The case study shows, in detail, the relationship between graffiti and the local urban environment, but also how graffiti relates to larger processes of urban and economic development in the city.


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