At the tender age of five, Sammy Esen had a passion for art. Starting off with doodling characters on sketch pads, the graffiti artist now has a portfolio of murals across the city to showcase. His latest work, Reborn, can be seen zooming around Nairobi on a Spray for Change truck.
He and nine others are part of the artists that have been taken on board by Basco Products Limited in the Spray for Change Campaign.
Driving into the JKIA in Nairobi, it is difficult to ignore the graffiti. The usual drab iron sheets painted in a single colour and bearing company logos have been given a facelift. The splashes of different colours and the Kenyan flag stand out. On closer inspection, these are works of different artists including Esen, each expressing their view on a united Kenya.
Depicting what they call the new Kenya and the old, different artists have come together to create the murals. The series is the first of its kind in Africa.
The idea of using graffiti came from Basco’s original idea of a pre-election peace campaign. The mural at JKIA was the first phase and the trucks, part of the second phase, are on-going. “We wanted to create an avenue where graffiti artists can express their works legally,” says head of marketing at Basco Products Limited, Altaf Jiwa.
It is no small feat for the artists to showcase across the city on a legal medium and explore a topic that has taken the social media and other discussion forums by storm.
Strategically placed between the departure and arrival bay at the airport, those checking into the airport and those flying out get to see the works.
Graffiti has always been considered street art, an illegal means to send out a message on walls, bridges and other public spaces.
In Kenya, it came to the fore during what was dubbed the ‘Mavulture Campaign’ by Pawa254 who used the walls and streets, the most popular being the one on the intersection of Tubman and Muindi Mbingu street. There was furore and anger in equal measure.
The paint firm has created a legal avenue for the artists, awarding the top artist Sh250,000. “We already have licences for painting the iron sheets found at construction sites,” explains Jiwa on the legality of the project.
“We see this as a means to add to beautification,” he says. The winner, Swift 9’s Rudisha piece was voted the favourite by fans during the Spray for Change Campaign. His inspiration, he says, is based on the fact that sports, especially athletics, brings together all Kenyans.
“I just used the elements that bring out the best of it,” he adds.
Swift 9 whose real name is Wycliffe Elegwa, was joined by the first and second runners up Esen and Bupi Jethwa whose alias is Wise2.
“Graffiti was a means to express and differentiate myself in the art scene,” says Wise2.
For his piece at the airport, he used a traditional mask with the city scape on one side and trees with their roots on the other.
This, he explains, was to show the transition into modernity and growth while keeping true to the roots of our heritage. His depiction of a new age of digital Kenya is also on one of the trucks that has been doing rounds across the city.
“We were originally looking for an innovative and unique way to promote peace but the response was more than we had hoped. Now, we have made it an on-going campaign to provide a medium for the young talent,” says Mr Jiwa.
Graffiti serves as a medium of expression for the young artistic minds, who have been in running battles with the city council, being accused of defacing city walls.
“Graffiti is about me and the public,” says Esen.
Swift 9, who began as a graffiti artist for the public sector, the implementation of the so-called Michuki laws on regulation of the public transport business, hurt his business when the late minister, who was in charge of Transport, directed that all matatus be painted plain white and a yellow line.
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Nairobi, before the tough laws, was a picture of colourful public service vehicles, which meant more business in the arts.
The 10 artists on Basco peace campaigns have brought on board others to train them in the art.