Uhuru Brown is a graffiti artist. We met him at his workspace at Kuona Trust. He is a member of Spray Uzi crew.
Interviewers: Nadine Lorenz and Michau Kühn
Uhuru, tell us what graffiti is like in Nairobi?
When we were starting graffiti here it was quite on the streets. But we discovered that this was actually an avenue nowhere. Upcoming artists can actually get something, like they can work and can do graffiti pieces and get commissioned. So our approach was that we have the street and can also do business on the other hand. Because it was a new thing. And about ten years ago, many people where like 'Wow, this is so cool!'. But if we trace it back, we have the graffiti on the matatus, the minibuses, which have been there since the nineties.
The art on the matatus was inspired by graffiti?
- What happened was, that some were original art and others were sticker arts and borrowed graffiti pieces from different other arts around the world, mostly Hip Hop influenced. So there was the matatu trend and when we came, there were the walls. We had to put stuff on the walls. So we discovered that instead of getting into trouble, because here it's kind of risky, if you run, you get shot, you know? There's that kind of stigma. And also if you get caught, who knows, you might be locked up definitely or you might have to pay a fine. So what we do is, we sort of came up with a clever way on how to find our way within graffiti. So in case we want to do a street downtown, a street graffiti, we just carry some change. Just in case we come across a police officer we have sort of a bribe. It sounds a lot like cliché but that's the only way you can get out. But it's a very rare situation. That's just emergency. We decided to go into the neighbourhoods, the public neighbourhoods, the government building neighbourhoods. We just approach and we get wall pieces and just paint our graffiti.
How do you get the walls? You just take them?
No, we talk to the owner of the wall. Sometimes they want us to pay for the painting and sometimes they think we want money from them. And we are like 'No, we just want to paint!'. And there's this one neighbourhood we've painted quit a lot. It's called Jericho. It's in the Eastlands area. And there's quite a good number of graffiti pieces from different artists. So, you just meet people and then they are like 'Oh, can you do this?' or you feel like and you just do it. For me, I haven't been very active on the streets because I've been more into giving workshops and trying to bring up more people into the industry, into graffiti. Like training, workshops, showing people that you can actually get paid well with commissions. For me it's not really about the money thing but it's about to give people a bigger idea, a bigger approach about that this is an art form and that if you throw it on canvas something can come out of it. Like if somebody wants a painting in a restaurant. But I know that it's sort of not the way graffiti has always been. Because if you look at Europe, there's the train bombings and you have this random throw-ups in the streets. And if you go to New York it's the same thing. We're a very small community and well known by the government. Even the other day I was asked to design a shirt for our State House. The State House was familiar with my graffiti. So if you are going to do something stupid, it's very easy to be tracked down. And when we were doing the political graffiti last year, we sort of outsmarted them. But we did it in a way all within the law. Only what would have happened was a fine we would receive. But thank god nothing happened. But just because I'm one of the pioneers who has pushed graffiti to the major scene. You have to balance things out. I have also to eat, you know. I think there's nothing wrong with getting paid for graffiti. I look at it as if graffiti is a new renaissance. It's a new wave of art. It's how you're going to do it, if you're going to splat a paint, if you're going to use a can, it's however you feel. But obviously there's a high demand of visual graffiti in the streets. But there's this laid back feel that if I go and graffiti this thing, what will happen? So I do stencils. Now I do more of that and sort of tags and small throw ups here and there. But for doing a master piece you need a good time. The biggest fear is, either you get caught or you get robbed. So you don't know which one.
Do you go on the streets at night?
Yeah, we do. Fortunately for Bankslave, he's been able to paint at least two pieces close to the Central Business District. He has managed to name it. For me, it has been tricky. I'm more Rasta, you know? So I'm always trying to keep it save. I like working with projects. For me it's more an educational element and I have an advertising background. Graffiti falls into so many categories of art and design. You can use this whole resource and approach win-win clients. For me it's part of business but it's still part of the streets. And at the end of the day we'll always reach out to the streets, you know.
You said, it's a really small scene and you know each other. How would you describe the relationship between the artists? Do you do projects together?
We've done couple of projects together. Recently we did a project at the United Nations. We did sort of a demonstration graffiti of a child painting. When we finished, the UN guys liked our job and asked us to do something else. And so we ended up doing another piece. But then we were given the freedom just to do whatever we felt like. I have been painting with Swift and Bankslave for the past ten years now. We have that very close relationship. So when I'm painting with Swift and he's like 'You need a highlight here', I say 'You know what, you said it, do it!' So we're very comfortable: Swift, Bankslave, me and another guy called Smoki aka Hemp. We are sort of the main guys in graffiti. Then you have Slickweasol, 3wg (Third World Graffiti), 3000 bc, Shan and others. Now I've decided to single myself out and push my stuff. Because I need to express myself, too. So whenever there are major projects, we come together. We're very confident in our execution and decide together how much we're asking for, like a couple of thousand shillings. On the streets, we still have our reputation. Because people still know what we do. I used to do a lot of pro-revolutionary graffiti.
What do you mean with pro-revolutionary graffiti? Revolution for a political change?
More of conscious awareness, controversial stuff. Or you'd have a sort of mixed communism, afro communism art which has a lot of motives. And then also the style. Often people are not creating their style. I created my style which is Afro urban. It has got a lot of African elements: the prints, the instruments and the wood carving sort of technique. I'm always thinking 'Wow Brooklyn, wow Europe, that's nice!', but that's their style. How can we get an identification? And for me that was also one of my major challenges. And I've always loved painting masks. So whenever I get the chance to do graffiti, I always try and paint.
Are there any female artists in graffiti here?
No, not really. My Ex. Now she's a mother and she's done with design. But I'm actually campaigning trying to encourage girls for next year. I want to have a couple of girl students because obviously we need that gender balance. My friend Swift did that too. He's got sort of an apprenticeship. She's a university student and she's doing good and she's also breakdancing. But the confidence is not there yet. We used to have another girl. I don't know what happened to her. She was called Posh.
How did you get to love graffiti? When did it start and was there a special occasion that brought graffiti to you?
When I was in high school, about 2000/2001.There was a friend of mine who used to bring different magazines. I came across the Source magazine. It's an American Hip Hop music magazine. They were very active during the early nineties within the period of 2pac and B.I.G.. Back in the days The Source magazine used to have like the main graffitis. I want to get back to streets because in my opinion streets are very important in graffiti.
Is there any experience with police or is it just the fear of police?
Not as such. I have no experience with the police. I always try to avoid coming into trouble. Not that I'm cowered or anything. I just think there's no need to put that energy there. But there are some gaps at night where you can go. The problem is that I live very far, to get into the city and then going back home, has to be properly structured. I was actually thinking of doing something tonight. A surprise graffiti for celebrating the country tomorrow. But it's very hard. Only when we were doing the political stuff that's when the police started getting involved.
Is somebody doing trains?
No, but we have painted a peace train, we were given. That's now the cliché part of things. It's like in Europe guys are painting and it's illegal. Here you've been given a train. We are just trying to get as much recognition as possible that this is a positive thing. That this is something bigger than just vandalism. But runnings with the police - no, not as such. When I go with my bike sometimes, for the stencils, I just spray somewhere and write something and then just go away. But I always wanted to do a masterpiece somewhere in the city. But it's kind of tricky because you have to go there with a Boom, you need to have a crowd and look outs. So it's kind of tricky. That's my personal view. But I would really love to nail the streets at some point. You can use the city council jackets. It's not hiding but using reverse psychology. Put police lines and those kind of stuff. Then people think there's a project going on.
In Germany the own name is a very important element in graffiti. Most pieces are mainly the own letters. As far as I've seen graffiti in Nairobi, message has always been central to a piece. Why is that so?
In our society we have people who are very narrow minded. Until you explain graffiti to them they think it's satanic, not of this world or a crime. So you have to sit down with them and explain what you are doing. When I'm doing masks many people ask me if this is witchcraft what I'm doing. And I say no, this is our culture. This is african culture. So if it's witchcraft or not, it's still culture. But what happened is, that everybody became so Christian and Jesus and if you do something like that, that's satanic. If you don't do something glorifying, it's bad. You have to go back to their level and say them, that you're sending a message. Because sometimes I even have a church calling in, asking for a graffiti for an event and I'm okay with it. If they have the opportunity and they can execute, it's business at the other day. But for me, sometimes my fingers burn and I want to do graffiti. But I always try and make sure I get my crew involved like Swift and Bankslave. Because I know when we are together, it's even a bigger force. I'm coming with my new style. It's called Afro-inked. If a place is inked, it's „I was here", „I inked you“. Ink is now my identity. Because when I use Uhuru - our president is also called Uhuru. He wasn't that popular but now he is popular. If I start doing a lot of Uhuru graffiti, then you have those guys of people who think you are pro-president.
Isn't it also the word for freedom?
Yeah. It's freedom. Like for me Uhuru is broken down. It's like 'Upendo, Halisi, Undugu, Riziki, Utu.' which means - 'The importance of love and the brotherhood of our well-being'. If we work together, that is freedom to me. How we keep ourselves together as a community. Have you ever heard of Ubuntu? Ubuntu is almost the same kind of talk.
Do you do any projects with kids or youth?
Right now there's a program I'm setting up. We're going to have kids from the slum and international students. And we are going to mix them up. Last year I was involved in a program with Somali children. It was asked what Somali is about. For them who are so confined mentally. It was six weekends and we had drama, poetry, graffiti, fine art, painting and we categorized it into self-portraits. Self-portraits of abstracts, of fine arts and we had portraits of stencils. They threw up names and tags and all that stuff. And by the fifth week, the hearts of the kids were just shining. It was really cool. And when we had the presentation, it got a bit of emotional, because even the parents weren't sure how it would be. or me personally it was like "wow". And the portfolio, when you sent it to the guys like the UN, such things matter to them. And sometimes you get sponsored for some projects.
Where else than in Nairobi have you done graffiti?
I've been to a slum in Mombasa. Which is kind of interesting because it's a very small community. And instead of painting forms, I decided to do more of a mirror. I painted a mother and a child and wrote a small message. We should respect the mother and the child because that's the future. In that area you hear stories of battery and stuff like that and I was looking for a way to conquer. I sent a message across. In Malindi we did an anti-drug graffiti. And after we finished it, we went to the pier, where the people go to the view point and stuff. So we went under the bridge and wrote our names and did portraits. Because we'd already talked to the city council, we took the advantage. Sometimes we want to go all out. For me, being in graffiti in Kenya, it's just a positive avenue. Because it pays my bills and on the other hand it's expressing me and keeps me out of crime. If I wouldn't do graffiti, I don't know what else I would be doing. I would probably be a bored graphic designer seated on a desk or a vandal or something. So it's kind of therapeutic. Knowing that you can do graffiti and you can achieve certain goals. I've also been invited once for Sweden to paint art on the streets. I only went there for three days. Bankslave has been in the Netherlands and Germany. He was in Germany I think earlier this year. And then Swift has been to the Netherlands and Sweden. We went to Sweden together. I painted also in Tanzania. My main aim is Africa. I mean I really want to try and get Africa together. We have painters also in Tanzania. We are most related with them and we're always trying to get something done. We want to have an East African Tour which is a problem. Organizing things is kind of hard. Everybody wants to see money. And then the other thing is, unless you involve a bigger international body or you get an NGO or something to sponsor you, then something can happen. Other than that, personally I can't do it myself. I wish I could, I wish I had the resources but it's hard. It's really hard. But South Africa is ahead of us with graffiti. They have big graffiti artists. So I'm mainly focused on Uganda and Tanzania.
And what is special to graffiti in Nairobi?
Nairobi is more aggressive. For us, we're more aggressive in a sense of skills, execution and also content. Like what we're doing. It's a mix and match. Uganda you have probably some events you might find graffiti involved. In Tanzania you have Wachata Crew (WCT). Which is like in Swahili „to paint on a wall“. And these guys are doing similar stuff like the way we do. Workshops and commission jobs and also street art. It's not as much street art in the city, too. I went cycling around Daressalam and it were just a couple of throw ups, tags and stuff. Also in Europe, you have to know your style. You have to know your master, your font. It's so militarized. You see this guys with their backpacks, cutting the fence, going through, sneaking, checking out. Here we're kind of laid back. Probably we might need that military kind of approach, too. Let's go bomb, let's go do masterpieces because we also wanted to bring the spray can producer Montana down. What Montana told us challenged us because they said if we want to have paint, we need to have a thousand graffiti pieces. That's a massive challenge and we need to do that. We're working on it. We're still on the hundreds but we need to get that because if there's an opening for quality paint, that means we have to invite the guys from outside, we can have sponsored events. Someone like Tona, a friend of us from Germany, he doesn't mind painting with our cans, but other people they're like 'You guys, like third world.“ It's fun, we're comfortable with that. We relate. We don't get hard feelings because we know we've been in Europe. We've seen how it works, we know how paint is purchased, we've seen like people even hide their sketchbooks. For us here it's chilled. If a police officer grabs you, you say 'this is what I'm doing man. I'm not a criminal'. He'll be like okay and you just go and he's confused. It's different. For me, I want to do a kind of controversial style art and still revolutionary.
What kind of feedback do you get from the community.
Everybody wants us to come back.
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.