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January 16, 2013

Painting Cape Town with author Matthew Olckers

Matthew Olckers will soon release his book, Painting Cape Town: Graffiti from South Africa, which features work from artists like seemsoe and scribl. Photo by Tatyana Silberman

Cape Town’s World Design Capital 2014-winning tag is "Live Design. Transform Life", and one form of design that certainly rings true for this statement is graffiti.

Often thought of with some trepidation, this medium has garnered some negative attention in the past. But it is also the most visual evidence of freedom of expression by formerly oppressed activists.

The Mother City is home to more than 200 local artists, including Faith47 and Mak1one, who’ve made their mark by tagging, spraypainting and drawing on walls in and around the city.

Most of their moving work has been captured in the soon-to-be-released book, Painting Cape Town: Graffiti from South Africa, by Matthew Olckers, an ardent graffiti aficionado. I chatted to Matthew about his passion for graffiti and why he loves Cape Town.

Graffiti is a controversial topic to write about and capture. What drew you to it and why publish a book about it?

My first exposure to graffiti was at school. Some of the guys I knew were doing it, so I tried it out myself. I became obsessed with the subculture, while my friends' interest waned.

In 2007 I launched a blog called Painting The Town. I would capture images of the graffiti pieces around Cape Town and became familiar with the scene. Slowly I learnt about the history of the Cape Town graffiti scene and the major players.

I decided to write a book for a number of reasons: it creates something tangible out of the blog; it is a tribute to the graffiti writers who have painted with dedication year after year; and the timing is also important. Street art (which differs from graffiti) is becoming more and more popular, and yet it does not have a strong history like graffiti does. I want to make sure that the major players in the Cape Town graffiti world have a voice and the history is recorded. Graffiti was here long before street art became popular.

Which artist was the most interesting interview subject?

All of the interviews were interesting for different reasons. I interviewed Dek3 early on and that was significant, as I believe he had never done an interview for any South African publication before. Dek3 was known for painting all over Cape Town and doing a lot of damage. I make no judgement calls on whether this was right or wrong. It was a fascinating interview.

Which mural in the book is your favourite and why?

It is impossible to choose. Buy Painting Cape Town for yourself and you decide.

If you could create a mural to depict Cape Town, what would it be?

It would just be a tag, a single scribble or signature. Everyone always says that they love the pretty murals but not the tags. But the tags are the building blocks of graffiti. Similarly, visitors to Cape Town may enjoy the pristine areas but not appreciate the other areas, where the majority of the inhabitants live, the building blocks of the city.

What are your top artistic spots in Cape Town?

After writing this book I can safely say that graffiti is not art, and the graffiti writers don’t want it to be. For fine art there are a number of important galleries: Stevenson, Goodman, Whatiftheworld in Woodstock, and SMAC in the Cape Town CBD are a must for any art enthusiast. If someone would like to see the graffiti in the city, Woodstock is a good starting point, and then a train trip from Cape Town to Simon’s Town is essential. The walls that run parallel to the train lines have a great selection of graffiti.

Why do you love Cape Town?

For Capetonians, you have to leave the city to understand why it is so amazing. Nowhere in the world is there such quality of life.

Matthew shared some of his favourite murals from Painting Cape Town with us:

Graffiti on the train line

Tags in a rundown area of Cape Town

If you are interested in Painting Cape Town, please visit www.paintingcapetown.co.za or follow the conversation on Twitter at @capegraffiti. The book will be launched at the end of February 2013.

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