When Graffiti Becomes Fine Art

Paul Gichias airbrush art
Paul Gichia’s airbrush art. PHOTOS | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Kenya art came alive last weekend at the Nairobi’s Railway Museum where the graffiti artists group BSQ (aka ‘Bomb Squad)’ opened their first ‘Fine Art Exhibition’ with an interactive public art invitation.

Based just behind the Museum in and outside one of the train car that they have transformed into a studio cum art gallery, the three BSQ artists, invited members of the public to not just ‘leave their mark’ on the train car but to participate in creating a mural.

“We invited them to try using everything from paint [and brush] to spray paint and airbrush on Saturday morning,” says Brian “Msale” Musasia, one of the BSQ trio.

The other two are Kenneth ‘K-Mist4’ Otieno and Bebetu (‘Thufu B’) Ochieng. “We’ll invite the public again to leave their mark on the BSQ car at the closing of our show on August 3,” adds Msale who is also exhibiting his work inside the train car together with Paul ‘Gicci’ Gichia.

Inviting us to climb up into their car (which has been beautifully spray painted by BSQ and other graffiti artists), Msale and Gicci show us around the studio-gallery which is covered literally from floor to ceiling with amazing graffiti art.


But all that graffiti is separate from the airbrush art that Msale and Gicci have created on canvas.

“We wanted to show how graffiti art can be transformed into fine art,” says Msale whose calligraphic artworks on canvas also cover a big chunk of the studio’s ceiling.

“I used a brush to paint those [calligraphic pieces],” he adds as he shows us how an airbrush works compared to both a simple paint brush and a can of spray paint.

The other two BSQ artists, K-Mist and Bebetu still stick with spray paint as seen on the railway wall that leads from the main gate down to the actual museum. There you will see a wonderfully rich array of graffiti art which has been spray-painted mainly by the BSQ trio, but also by graffiti artists like Swift Elegwa, Kerosh Kiruri, Stickky Muriithi, Chela Chewron and Eljah Mutua.

All of these artists have spent time at the Dust Depo Art Studio with Patrick Mukabi who mentored most of them.

Gicii is still based at Dust Depo, but as both he and Msale like the airbrush, they decided to hang a proper art exhibition. He says he prefers the airbrush because it allows him to exercise more control.

“It’s a technique that allows one to give more clarity of detail to their art,” adds Msale who graduated in fine art from Kenyatta University.

Msale is part of the reason KU art students have started coming to the BSQ studio for internship. “It’s partly for them that we decided to hold this Fine Art exhibition,” says Msale.

“We have their sketches, as well as our own, pinned up for the public to see. That way, if someone likes a sketch, they can either buy it on the spot or ask for a specific artist to do a commission for them,” he said.

Nairobi’s graffiti art scene is growing fast, having been popularised by street artists like Bankslave, Swift and many others. Some say it exploded thanks to a British Council initiative several years back when it invited artists to come create murals on their many walls.

The graffiti art movement was also nurtured at the GoDown Art Centre where everyone from Michael Jackson, Miriam Makeba and Lupita Nyong’o were spray-painted by Bankslave, Uhuru B, Swift and others.

Then a couple of years ago, the Railway Museum agreed to co-operate with Kenyan artists, spurred on by Mukabi who had moved next door to the Museum and started up Dust Depo. “Street Diaries 1 and 2” were the first public exhibitions to elicit an overwhelming response from both aspiring and seasoned artists who covered the quarter-mile of wall with graffiti art. And since then, a myriad of Kenyan youth has taken up graffiti art.