Kenyan Graffiti Artists Spray for Political, Social Change
Nine years ago, Kevin Esendi aka Bankslave dropped out of art school and embraced his first love – graffiti.
Most of his fans and fellow artists now know him by his street name – “Bankslave.”
“Bankslave” has risen to become one of Nairobi’s foremost graffiti artists. He says the art form – which some consider a public nuisance – has evolved in Kenya to become an outlet for political opinion.
“Graffiti is a powerful tool. So we use it anonymously in the streets of Nairobi just to bring social change,” says Esendi, 31. “We get to go out and just paint what we think the society is going to be enlightened on. You know we address the issues that are affecting the community.”
One common theme is corruption, a chronic problem among Kenyan police and government officials.
Three years ago, Kenyan graffiti artists joined together to make a statement about the country’s elected leaders.
Under cover of darkness, they converged on the capital and spray-painted murals, portraying public officials as vultures, to express their views of the officials as corrupt and unjust.
Robert Munuku is from “Pawa254,” a social organization that brings together creative people from diverse artistic fields.
Munuku says graffiti is an excellent medium to foster ideas about how to hold officials accountable.
“Usually what happens is when someone sees a visual representation of the social issues they go through, they are forced to ask questions about these issues,” Munuku says. “And the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘What is my vote doing for me?’ And that can be tied into the leaders and when they see a vulture in the streets they ask, ‘What is my leader doing for me?’ ”
Style, technique lessons
For 29-year-old Lawrence William, who goes by the pseudonym “Uhuru B,” his graffiti talent led him to begin a class where he shares his expertise on style and technique.
Taking a group of artists through a skill-refining session, ‘Uhuru B’ says he thinks graffiti has the power to change society.
“Graffiti does address social issues, looking back from the past to now. We have really grown and we’ve tackled taboo issues such as corruption, injustice,” Lawrence says. “Graffiti has been able to communicate with the society civically. And, to me, we are unstoppable. We are leading with our creativity. I see we are the future and the future is now.”
Graffiti artists agree the key to this art form is anonymity so that both the artist and viewer can communicate without fear of criticism or reprisal.
But time will tell whether their artwork will translate into social action or change.