Long before graffiti art made a big splash in Nairobi’s city centre, when anonymous artists worked clandestinely to create powerful political statements attacking corrupt Members of Parliament, Swift Elegwa was beautifying Nairobi estates with his own brand of graffiti art.
Making his graffiti art ‘debut’ in 2002 in the city’s Jericho estate where he had spotted countless blank walls that he felt were just waiting to be touched by spray paint and his original graffiti designs, Swift has since extended his open air Eastlands ‘art gallery’ to include other spaces.
Often working together with other graffiti artists, Swift has covered walls in different city estates.
But he has also been prolific in the city’s Upper Hill where he first met a slew of young graffiti artists through WAPI, the British Council’s initiative to give wall space and regular Saturdays for several years to so-called ‘underground artists’ to create their graffiti art.
Between 2003 and 2006, Swift went every month to spray paint and meet up with artists known only as Bank Slave, Smokey and Uhuru with whom he has often worked on communal art projects ever since.
One such project was a set of graffiti murals commissioned by the GoDown, which is how the graffiti portraits of everyone from Miriam Makeba and Michael Jackson to Barack Obama went up on GoDown walls.
In fact, Swift had been painting portraits of ‘prominent’ people long before he arrived to work at the GoDown arts Centre. His mentors in portraiture had been the master matatu artists with whom he had worked when he was still a novice in the field, apprenticing at the Double M bus workshop on Outer Ring Road.
“Only the most skilful matatu artists did the portraits, which is what i had hoped to become, but then when the government banned matatu art, I had to decide what to do next.
That was when I began seriously spray-painting on walls,” Swift said, just shortly before he was heading off to Sweden to attend an international graffiti art conference.
In fact, Swift had already begun painting portraits of rap musicians on T-shirts, which is how he got his first ‘15 minutes of fame.’
“The rappers would appear in music videos wearing my T-shirts, and suddenly, everyone wanted a T-shirt like theirs,” he recalled.
Not long after that, he got called by NTV station to appear on their program, Art Beat. Since then, he has been doing graffiti art for everything from product promotions to private home beautification.
But even as Swift has successfully commercialised his skills as a graffiti artist, his first calling is still to fill all the empty wall space he can find with enlightening graffiti art irrespective of the price tag his work might fetch.
That sense of calling is what compelled Swift to ask Elimo and Phillda Njau of Paa ya Paa Art Center if he could cover their blank mabati (corrugated iron) walls with graffiti. He had visited PYP for the first time in 2011 and instantly felt an affinity for the art centre.
The Njaus agreed and soon after that, Swift was spray painting bright elegant images all the way down Paa ya Paa Lane.
“I did it for free,” said Swift when asked how much he’d charged. It was his gift to a place he felt represented the beauty his mabati wall also reflects.
Today, Swift divides his time between portrait painting (still on T-shirts) and wall art. He particularly loves working with fellow graffiti artists on projects, such as the two he organised with assistance from the Kenya Community Development Project and the Changamoto fund.
The funding enabled him to go to Eastlands estates with fellow artists and start training promising young spray painters in the skills of creating graffiti art.
The funding for those projects wasn’t nearly enough for Swift to get around to all the ‘slum’ estates as he had wished, especially as cans of spray paint are not cheap, and if one wants to also use air brushes (which Swift is especially fond of) those can be quite costly.
Nonetheless, once the funding dried, Swift and his crew didn’t stop heading regularly to the ‘slums’ to scout out the diminishing numbers of blank walls.
The impulse to create graffiti statements is something Swift now has in his blood!
He’s not yet 30 years old, but Swift is making waves with a media that makes a lot of sense to a multitude of young Kenyans.
This story first appeared in Africareview.com