Founded in 2015 by one of Kenya’s pioneer graffiti artists Douglas Kihiko, famously known as Smokillah, Graffiti Girls Kenya is an initiative that involves in more than just spraying colorful designs, drawings and messages onto walls and other surfaces. Together, they confront social issues that affect women in their society; issues such as cervical cancer, mental health and rape culture.
On how Graffiti Girls Kenya came to being, Smokillah who in March 2018 was a TED Talk speaker at a session in Mombasa’s Aga Khan Academy says, “It was in 2015. I used to train a group of young boys in this studio.” He points to a studio in front of us, with walls littered with graffiti, as is a lot of the surrounding wall space on the rooftop of PAWA254 where we are sitting on what looks like re-purposed bus seats under a shed. He continues, “I started noticing a few ladies who would come and peep through that window at what we were doing, then they would walk away probably intimated by the male only classes. That was when the concept of this initiative was born.”
With us is one of the graffiti girls, Dinah, who also happens to be the first ever protégé of Smokillah at Graffiti Girls Kenya. She says that she was inspired into graffiti by “the likes of Smokillah and Bankslave who have done graffiti in Kenya for years.” Among her reasons of being a graffiti artist are to show other girls that they can also work a spray can into a career in the male-dominated graffiti world and even more, to be actively involved in shedding light on injustices against women.
The goal of the initiative is to do communicative murals and as many workshops with young people as they can. In line with this, they have been involved in goodwill projects in Mathare, where the aim is to not only have fun as they beautify walls, to tap talent and spark interest, but also to keep the kids involved. Some of the other projects that they have worked on have been at:
- An art workshop with kids at Korando Education Center in Kisumu.
- Mural and graffiti art at Maryhill Girls High School. Here, they also discussed topics such as child labour with the students, in collaboration with Akili Dada.
- Precious Blood Riruta and Kenya High School.
- Blaze Summit- a youth mentorship program- at Eldoret
The workshops that they have been doing in schools have had very positive reception from the students, since they are a deviation from the norm of the 8-4-4 curriculum. In Smokillah’s words, “It is very exciting and amazing to see the students express their creativity.” They have also had encouraging feedback from across Africa, with the concept being widely applauded.
They also offer classes to those interested in the art. The classes were initially free, but now they charge KES 2,000, to cater for materials used.
The ‘graffiti girls’ are not restricted to only working under their mentor, and have carried out successful graffiti projects on their own. Dinah and other ladies recently worked on a mural at KRA offices, and also worked with Dodi -a bus manufacturer- to beautify some of their buses.
Nothing comes without its challenges and as much as these bold graffiti artists would love to do more school visits and workshops, financial constraints lower the frequency. They would also like to do more murals in Nairobi’s CBD and other public spaces, but there’s still the risk of getting arrested. As such, mural artists in Nairobi have a long way to go before they can freely express their creative freedom.
Their future focus is to continue molding girls artistically and emotionally, and hopefully, to also have all-rounded art training- drawing on paper, painting on canvas, graffiti… They are not just going to train-and-let-go, but rather, build a web of empowered female graffiti artists.
I wouldn’t have left without wanting to know the graffiti artistes’ take on art galleries and where they think graffiti ranks on the contemporary art space, to which they commented that galleries are very therapeutic, but not accessible to everyone. “We do graffiti on the streets where everyone can see it. We do it for the citizens at Muthurwa, OTC, Mathare, Majengo, and other places.” Regarding graffiti’s placement in contemporary art, Smokillah remarked that “graffiti is at the top of the deck. The market is large, local corporates are embracing graffiti, and the possibilities are endless!”
“Always feed your creative, and keep painting.” – Smokillah