Cover Story

Art for me was always more than aesthetics

Volume 12, Issue 2  | 
Published 03/10/2015

‘Art for me was always more than aesthetics, more than just art for the sake of doing art’ By Swift

Swift was born and raised in Nairobi. The first encounter that Swift had with art was growing up where he made and played with his own toys. He made toy cars made out of wires and other objects he could find. They were all creative, unique and functional and he admits that he enjoyed making them more than just playing with them.

In 2002 Swift started collecting images from magazines such as the The Source which predominantly consisted of content on hip-hop artists and pimped out cars. Last two pages of this particular magazine had images of graffiti. The magazine became his most prized possession. Eventually he started to cut out these graffiti images and made stickers which he would then sell to matatu designers and students. He was intrigued and drawn by graffiti as nobody at the time was portraying it. He saw it as unique and complex, not like most art that he was exposed to while growing up and which he thought was too simplistic. Swift, brought up in the city, loved urban art by default. Painting the reality he sees, he is inspired by the city which he grew up in and its surroundings.

Once Swift got access to the internet he was introduced to a world of global urban art, and was inspired by the work of other urban artists such as Mode 2, Can 2, Banksy, Dare and Mad C.

Soon after selling stickers to matatus, Swift decided that instead of sticking things on and in matatus that it might be a good idea to start painting directly on the matatus. Getting into the matatu art industry is very competitive. Every route has to have its unique style, and all the artists behind the artworks are from different areas and have to represent their neighbourhoods. Apart from feeling like this was a good opportunity to sharpen his skill, he also felt ownership over these paintings as he had used matatus all his life. After rising through the ranks of the matatu art industry, he finally managed to design and paint entire matatus. At this point he came in contact with other artists who had urban experience.

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In 2003 the matatu art industry was banned by the transport ministry. Swift asked himself, ‘Why are they banning matatu art? Does it cause accidents? Why not go underground and continue painting?’ He had spent so much time struggling to gain all the skills so he was not about to give it all up, nor was he about to start painting on canvases. Why? Because he wanted his art to be mobile and public, he wanted his art to be seen by the wananchi. This is when Swift shifted his talents from matatus to walls. It was not easy. Firstly, he did not know where to get spray paints from, and of course, could not walk around with the compressors which he used to use on matatus. As an underground graffiti artist he had to shift to something that is easy to carry, and to conceal. As spray paint was not cheap at Kshs250 a spray can he had to figure out ways of getting the spray paint. He started producing airbrushed T-shirts with portraits of celebrities, and designing sneakers. Through this he was able to raise enough money to buy the spray paint.

In 2005, Swift went on a quest to find a wall painting partner. During this period he frequented the city often, and started noticing a few tags in the city. One of the tags had an email address on it so he decided to send an email, and the person replied. It was at this time that he met Smookey and they started painting together. Both artists came across a poster promoting an event which incorporated graffiti called ‘Wapi’, a platform for underground artists, run by the British Council. It was the perfect opportunity. During the event both artists got three cans and painted a piece each. It was here that he met other graffiti artists like Uhuru, Ican, Tak 1, Bankslave and Esen. Feeding off each other’s rebellious energies, they started going out into the city at night were they painted illegal pieces. Apart from just painting, they also exchange different sketches and styles collaboratively. They realized that when working together, they covered more space. Although most of their pieces were illegal and they could have potentially gotten into trouble with the authorities, as a team they painted quickly and left quickly which made it hard for them to get caught. ‘Spray Uzi’, a collective crew of graffiti artists, was formed in 2008. They started painting huge pieces together and this led to commissioned jobs to paint for music videos, product launches and awareness projects.

Swift then began to work on socially political projects in low-income areas, addressing issues through graffiti. While working on one such project, Swift met, through known director Jim Chuchu who was documenting a project that he was working on, photo-activist Boniface Mwangi. Boniface invited Swift and the Spray Uzi crew to his studio in town. He gave Swift a broken down toy car that belonged to his son and asked him to repair it. Swift repaired it, as well as painted a spider man theme onto it. When he brought it back; Boniface shared his next project with him. The project was the ‘Vulture Graffiti’. In 2012, they rolled out the art work. The street graffiti projects’ purpose was to draw Kenyans’ attention to the endemic issues of bad governance, corruption, and abuse of office perpetrated by the political class. They used the image of a vulture to characterise and satirise the Kenyan politician in street graffiti, while calling on Kenyans to stand up and fight for their rights and hold their leaders to account. The graffiti also chronicled political scandals over the last decade.

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Nowadays Swift is based at a studio located at PAWA254. His clients include corporates such as Safaricom, International NGOS, local NGOs, churches and schools. In the recent past he has also attended a number of exchange programmes, and has had the opportunity to get international experience. He has attended 3 large international art festivals, and has worked with international artists. In 2014 he attended the Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin where he was trained on how to visualize data through art. For the last six months, Swift has been working with PAWA254, under a project called ‘Sauti Ya Mtaa’ to visualize data on social issues through graffiti in low-income areas across Nairobi.


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