THE HISTORY OF GRAFFITI ART IN TANZANIA

Graffiti is considered by many as the last hiphop element in Tanzania. However, graffiti has been around since the late 1970s during the time of Ujamaa (African Socialism) when most Tanzanians had no access to the Western Hemisphere nor Europe, the internet and the computer technology in general. The youth along the coastal towns of Dar es Salaam, Tanga, Mtwara and Zanzibar started to “storeaway” in ships that came in and left the country, and some, riskly made it to Europe and the West. Through photographs and letters sent back home to relatives and friends who still held the dream of becoming seamen or just storing away for the sake of making it to Europe, escaping the hardships in the late 1970s to early 1980s when the Tanzanian economy was in bad shape right after the Tanzania-Uganda war that sent dictator Idi Amin Dada into exile, youth started tagging their real names and nicknames on city walls using charcoal which was available in any homestead and was easy to use in ‘leaving a mark’. This new artform was given the name “chata”, a Swahili slang term for graffiti. Spraycans were not available at that time. Though every nation has its own graffiti backgrounds, at this stage in Tanzania, was similar to that of New York when TAKI 183 was recognized for tagging his name all around his city. The only difference is that here in Tanzania, no one paid attention to this new art trend, and so it passed unnoticed by art critics, the media and government in general. Even as late as when spraycans started flowing into Tanzania, they were only used for spraying on cars or bikes just for the effort of replacing the old similar color. The charcoal tagging style remained dormant until early 2000s when a very first graffiti piece in Dar es Salaam was born in july 2003 by a South African graffiti artist known as Zaki who was an expatriate here in Tanzania. This historical piece stands along the Old Bagamoyo Road in Mikocheni area. It read “CURE”. Unfortunately, it was taken down and later taken up again but in an anti clockwise- upside down way. Then in 2004/2005 came Sela One (Sela-1), a graffiti artist from Germany. He did a lot of pieces in Dar es Salaam, Tanga and Arusha. By naming himself ‘Sela’, he was cherishing the name of the first Tanzanian messengers of graffiti. He was also honoring the past storeaways by taking a name “SELA”, a popular Swahili slang term which was given to any youth with the ambition to ‘storeaway’. To many, he opened eyes in seeing a real westernized graffiti piece. The year 2007 came with its Merry blessings as the ‘Words and Pictures’ (WaPi), a monthly open mic event that celebrated all elements of hiphop was launched in Dar es Salaam, held at and sponsored by the British Council around May/June of the year 2007 right after the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. WaPi built a platform for underground creativity through visual arts and speech. It also enhanced confidence and eager among the youth. In the history of graffiti/hiphop as late as that year 2007, WaPi was the one and only place that at the end of every month offered free material (spraycans, masks and markers) plus free white painted walls. Being an event of its kind not only in a writer’s perspective, but of a Tanzanian hiphop history in general, the famous WCT Crew, a crew engaged in graffiti and creative arts was formed on these same grounds and later given the task of listing all upcoming graffiti artists, teaching and nourishing what was already there. WCT stands for Wachata, a Swahili slang term for graffiti derived from the storeaways who pioneered the charcoal tagging style back then. Many Tanzanians also face the difficulty of pronouncing the word ‘graffiti’, many ending up saying grafit, graft, or even grafix. Having seen this problem, we decided to come up with the name Wachata which is easy to pronounce and has a more crystal clear meaning to graffiti. As graffiti being a new artform to many in Tanzania, it doesnt fill pockets yet. So, out of 25 to 30 regular WaPi graffiti art participants, only 4 made it to form WCT Crew’s inner circle (core), all with different art backgrounds. WCT is legally registered and operating, Mejah being a marketing personnel, Meddy holding the procurement sector, Kalasinga, a distribution officer and Local being the senior designer, doing and setting up designs and sketches when it comes to commissioned work. Since WCT (Wachata) being a movement, it has other independent chapters in Mwanza city led by Edo, another who is mostly engaged in tattooing, Yuzzo, and Mizani 86 in Moshi city who merchandises. In the Tanzanian graffiti history, there is an unforgettable individual who enhanced in its wiring. And that was the role played by Kool Koor, a legendary graffiti artist from the Bronx/NYC during the 1970s and 1980s, who now resides in Brussels, Germany. The coming of Kool Koor in 2007 was a springboard for the graffiti scene in Tanzania. He came as an artist invited by the East African Biennale, which is an art exhibition in East Africa, and luckily enough it happened during the same week of a WaPi event. He was being sponsored by Montana Cans from Germany, and so he decided to do a graffiti workshop and WCT happened to be there. He also introduced us to Montana Spraycans and shared with us different techniques and basics of graffiti which we all had no idea of. From there, everything came into place, and ever since Kool Koor has come to Dar es Salaam twice. WCT Crew is also part of Kool Koor’s worldwide graffiti movement known as “YES WE CAN”. So far, WCT is the only crew that’s engaged in graffiti in Tanzania, the main tool used being a spraycan. WCT and the graffiti scene in general has been lucky. We never get negative feedbacks towards this new artform. People don’t refer it to vandalism, or atleast it does not look like vandalism but rather a piece of art. This success has been achieved by the way WCT principles it work, obliged to conduct workshops and discipline at work. In this way, we have no trouble with the law and citizens. Even the government at the moment. Might be that we haven’t pressed the right button yet. We have done commissioned work with big media companies like the East African TV, British Council and Zantel Epic Marketing campaigns (a mobile telephone company). We have also done a lot of graffiti for most hiphop music videos in Tanzania as well. We are now working on an African identity in style too. The use of vibrant colours is another thing which WCT Crew has been credited for, not because we’re the best than the rest, its because of improvisation and a creative way we are using a limited variety of the only available colors that are very bad in quality (from the U.A.E). Despite the challenges of not having many choices, WCT has still managed to use what it takes to produce good quality work. Apart from doing graffiti, we also design and print T-shirts to meet the huge market. We also have graffiti classes on Saturdays and Mondays at the Makutano Arts & Crafts Centre in Oysterbay. The future of graffiti in Tanzania is big and promising, as so far we don’t have a negative image. Moreover, people are tired of the same type of art when it comes to corporate advertising and advertising campaigns. This is because most of it is done using computers. So for those who want a unique artwork, they see graffiti as a source. Also since graffiti is seen as the latest artform, most advertisers see it as a way to attract a youth audience. Though still struggling, graffiti has a bright future in Tanzania because artists can and are now getting paid for their creative work though it is not as big as it is in the neighbouring countries like Kenya. WCT has also gained more attention in Tanzania because we get much of the media attention, but at the same time, this shouldn’t overshadow the fact that we’ve laid down a solid foundation from which we can carry something positive to the people, taking it beyond just tagging or bombing our names for the sake of attention and fame. Check us on; www.facebook.com/wachatacrew OR www.wachatacrew.blogspot.com

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