Staying buoyant: Swift Graffiti

The origin of his artist name is a story involving a trip to shaggz, a bottle of soda, a young light-skinned African boy and his grandma. Now in his 10th year doing graffiti professionally, Swift is one of the pioneering graffiti personalities in Kenya. He however did not start his artistic journey with a spray can; he started by drawing on paper, until he realized that there were too many people doing the same and decided to broaden his scope. In his words, he was “chosen by graffiti.”

His crossover into graffiti started with painting matatus (public service vehicles), shortly after graduating from high school. He narrates how working in the colorfully chaotic and fast-moving matatu industry made him the competitive artist he is now. “There would be new a new matatu to paint every other day, and the need to paint the most attractive visuals.” This had him chasing quality and quantity.

The satisfaction of working in the fast-paced matatu graffiti world did not last long however. With the introduction of ‘Michuki rules’, graffiti on matatus was declared illegal. Business went down and even worse, his artistic expression was muffled. He had settled in the joy of his art moving around different neighborhoods on wheels, and so the effects of the ban led him to seek artistic excitement elsewhere.

“Graffiti is very exciting. It hooks you like a drug. Without your fix you can barely function.” – Swift

By the time this ban was effected, Swift- among others- had been involved in a number of events that had propelled him as a graffiti artist. The ones most memorable to him were WAPI (Words and Pictures) and Amani Lazima, a workshop that was organized and run by Sarakasi Trust. These two events allowed him to practice his art and through them, he would even get access to paint in neighborhoods other than his own. Unfortunately, both events started going under but by then, he’d already gained momentum and started painting independently.

Commissioned work

With the newly adopted niche came commissioned work. Initially, it was performing artists who wanted video shoots with graffiti backgrounds, then came schools, churches, organizations and individuals seeking to push specific notions and discussions. Most of those campaigns and were and still are targeted at young audiences: teenagers and those in their twenties. “Graffiti is eye-candy to young people,” Swift says.

As much as he gets commissioned work, he tries hard to do weekly personal projects. These grant him happiness, center his inner self and also keep his skills sharp. He says, “… it doesn’t matter to me if people acknowledge these personal projects or not. I’m happy to just share them with the birds and the trees.”

He started by working purely in Nairobi and has since worked outside Nairobi, including overseas in places like Adelaide, Australia. “I have painted in low and high places. I have painted inside dumpsites at Dandora and Korogocho as well as in surburbs.”

Swift has trained and mentored about 300 people both locally and internationally, through workshops. He trains them on how to use their art for advocacy, pricing their art and keeping their own financial records.

Technique and style

From his observation, there aren’t a lot of techniques in the country. A lot of artists’ go-to tool is a paint brush. He describes his technique as being aerosol-based, particularly by using an airbrush (a tool that he learnt how to use back when he used to paint matatus) and spray paints.

His style currently features a lot of human figures with futuristic aspects. Regarding this, he quips: “there’s nothing stopping me from imagining what we will look like in the future. Rings worn on our ears today might be worn on other body parts differently in the future, you know…”

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@originalkoffee coffee sessions

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Onto that #afrofuturistic #glitch

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Challenges

It has not been all rosy however. Among other things is being stereotyped by corporates especially, in the category of dropouts, drug junkies, latecomers, people with short attention spans, etc. just because he is an artist, more so a graffiti artist. As a result, he and others end up working with agencies as their middlemen. Although social media has made reaching out to corporates easier and faster for him, working with agencies that take a cut of their earnings remains a challenge to him.

There has also always been the risk of getting shot or arrested, if not both. He has been arrested before and has learnt that with the shady justice system, if you aren’t well connected or with a lot of money, you’d rather stay out of painting at night. “You’ll be arrested in the night and the charges in court will not be for painting walls illegally. They will be for a totally different offence that you did not commit.”

Another issue that he and his ilk have had to deal with  is being regarded as ‘not proper artists’ by some artists who exhibit in galleries. Such double standards. “Some don’t even like being in the same meetings with us (graffiti artists),” he says. Continuing, he explains that “graffiti is obviously different in its form and expression from the kind that hangs in galleries. It also gets very political and unapologetic about it.”

Rewards

He says he gets a lot of expected and unexpected rewards from his career. Top of the list is the pleasure and satisfaction of doing individual and sometimes illegal artwork. “Some of the people who engage me when I’m doing my artwork are those considered lowly by our society -street kids and homeless people. I end up learning new things and even more, they give me new thinking perspectives.”

Next comes the money; “I live entirely off my art.”

“I share my artwork with anyone and everyone out here. This is what motivates me to keep doing graffiti.” – Swift

Best and worst experiences

“The best experiences in my career have been travelling, diversifying my painting scopes and worldviews, and of course the money! The worst experiences have been the frequent struggles that come with pursuing art as a career; losing friends and relationships and fighting society’s standards of respectable jobs being only the white collar ones.” Regardless of these bad experiences and challenges, Swift says that he wouldn’t trade his career for any other.

To upcoming artists, he advices them that “art needs a lot of patience. Lose the urge to be instantly gratified. Patience helps to cultivate your style as an artist.”

Fun facts about Swift

  • Locally, cartoonist Gaddo, the late comic strip artist Frank Odoi of the Akokhan comic fame, afro futuristic artist Fruit Junkie and artist Patrick Mukabi inspire him. Internationally, he is inspired by the works of Sen 2, Monk E and Mad C.
  • The color purple features a lot in his works.
  • He listens to 90s rap, reggae, afrobeat and dubstep. He usually paints with the tempo of the music playing.
  • He has only held an office job once, from which he got fired two weeks in.

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Making portraits

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