For 10 days in April, graffiti artists from around the world gathered in Dakar, Senegal for the fifth annual Festigraff, the Festival international de Graffiti en Afrique/Senegal.
While the term “graffiti” can carry a negative connotation, spray can art is Dakar’s most ubiquitous urban art expression, ranging from vandalism to approved and encouraged art. As in many West African urban areas, in Dakar, walls are everywhere, but what’s different here is how people use them: Each wall is an opportunity, a potential canvas. One can hardly walk, stroll or drive through nearly any district or community without catching some form of graffiti or wall art, on buildings, along highways, even commissioned on personal homes. Graffiti is an essential aspect of Dakar’s colorful landscape. Examples abound, and just one is the neighborhood of Médina.
The festival taps into this established art culture of using spray paint to create vertical wall art and drills down deep in this mode: Through the creation of new art murals and graffiti works, street parades, training young artists, conferences, roundtables and community concerts, the festival networks artists and builds off of community acceptance and appreciation. This year at the Biscuiterie de Médina, the festival created a graffiti village, where artists painted walls, vendors set up shops and music blared, creating a creative community of artists, art lovers and art in a tightly knit space.
Ati Diallo, born and raised in Dakar, co-managed this year’s festival, from seeking sponsorship opportunities to inviting and securing international artists’ participation. Off the bat, he links graffiti scene to youth and development. “Why Festigraff? Because graffiti plays a role in developing Senegal,” Ati says in a conversation translated from French. At its heart, graffiti is a medium of expression that forever attracts Dakar’s youth: “There are so many young people who have thrown themselves into graffiti, who have abandoned their studies for the graffiti; there are also many who continue their studies and do the graffiti at the same time.”
Ati estimates that Dakar has around 50 major graffiti artists, with 30 who are well known. More and more, young people are aspiring to join the likes of famed artists like Docta and Big Key and Deep. “Unfortunately, there’s not a good structure or academy [in which they can professionalize their calling],” he explains. “We created Festigraff to create a framework for exchange for conceptualizing, sharing and the experimentation, to permit these young people engaged in graffiti to become professionals.”
Sixty-seven professional artists — including local 20 Senegalese artists and artists from South Africa, Togo, Benin, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — participated in the Festigraff initiative of exchange, knowledge sharing and co-creating murals and wall art to sensitize and inform the public on the role of graffiti.
Video: Festigraff 2014
What’s the role of graffiti in Dakar?
“We must be precise in differentiating between graffiti as its done abroad and its role here in Senegal,” Ati explains. “Here, it’s a message to speak with the people: Speaking against violence, speaking for good education, speaking for good citizenry, speaking so that we know our history, speaking to listen less to politicians and seeking more to address the real problems in Senegalese life…We use our spray to speak for those who can’t.”
He continues: “The aesthetic is our strategy. Imagine a wide wall. If it’s empty, it doesn’t interest anyone. When we add colors to the wall, it forces people to look. If you look, you see our message… If we put a message against violence and at one side and the face of a beautiful girl on the other, when someone passes by, they’ll first notice the beautiful girl, then automatically, they’ll read what’s there. That’s how we speak our message.”
In her article “These Walls Belong to Everybody”: The Graffiti Art Movement in Dakar,” academic and researcher Leslie Rabine points out that in Dakar, graffiti emerged out of political support and local, bottom-up energies to use art to clean up the city:
“Graffiti has never had an illegal status in Dakar…Officials, businessmen, and neighborhood people support the graffeurs. They all see graffiti art as a force to cleanse and beautify the disintegrating spaces of their culturally rich but economically impoverished city. Expressing a vision of graffiti that might seem strange in the U.S., graffeur Triga (Youssoufa Touré, b. 1985) says: ‘There is nothing more noble, noting that a public place is unsanitary and coming to make it healthy.’”
There’s also a highly visual religious-themed graffiti as well in Dakar, like the works of Pape Diop’s three-dimensional imagery of Chiekh Amadou Bamba, a Senegalese holy man with an immense following.
Graffiti and hip hop, connecting cultures
The link between the emergence of graffiti and expanding hip hop culture, globally and likewise in Dakar is strong. “Today, if rap or hip hop is the spoken element, graffiti would be the written journal,” Ati says. “It’s like the daily newspaper that people go out to buy…It’s graffiti that’s written so that people know what’s happening.”
Refa One, a California-based artist who’s been participating in spray can art and writing culture for three decades, echoes similarly.
“I think African people generally are just more creative naturally – it’s in our nature, it’s in our culture to be that way… When I come here, it’s real hip hop. I don’t really see it as ‘oh, that’s African hip hop over there,’ it’s the essence of hip hop. So I’m excited to be a part of that.”
From the other side of the Atlantic, Refa and like-minded artists are connecting to likewise create a movement, and connecting with Africa-based artists. The movement, Aerosole, is a play on the word “aerosol” (the spray cans used to create the art) with soul. “It’s not just the art form,” Refa says. His vision: For artists in the Pan-African diaspora to connect with their roots in the continent: “Peace, unity and having fun.”
And that’s happening. From organizing African-American muralists to linking up with with Docta, Ati and the 66 other artists here in Senegal, Refa says, these once disparate worlds — the African, the Pan-African/Diaspora — are coming together: “We connect to everybody,” he says. “That’s a tremendous achievement, but it’s only the start. We’re planting the seeds.”