Adventure happens everywhere, even on the streets of the Big Smoke. Here you crank into the manic Jozi traffic snarl in search of legendary street artists painting the town red. And blue. And green. And orange and yellow and purple, and literally hundreds of other hues.
Words & photos Jacques Marais
Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that. And stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.’
Those aren’t my words. They’ve been immortalised by the inimitable Banksy, probably the world’s most famous (graffiti) artist. The parentheses are mine, though, because his fame – or maybe you prefer infamy – has blended street art into mainstream public consciousness through a combination of documentary filmmaking, art installations, music videos and political activism.
Banksy is a legend, despite the fact that his identity has never been confirmed. Rumour has it that he should be nearly 50 now, with industry insiders speculating that he might be the alter ego of either a famous trip-hop musician, comic book artist or television presenter.
What we do know is that his subversive works first surfaced in Bristol in the UK in the 1990s, at around the same time that my personal graffiti career culminated in a seminal and sardonic piece, executed under the cover of darkness on a highway bridge to Woodstock in Cape Town.
“Drank, Draks & Drie-gang Perde” – in an uneven, three-foot high scrawl – certainly does not qualify as high art, but it made my mate Anton and I feel suitably anti-establishment at the time. We gazed upon it in quiet satisfaction before stumbling downhill to our local, Don Pedro’s, for a garlic pita and another bottle of Tassenberg.
My reconnection with graffiti happened in the ‘Year of Lockdown’ (as 2020 shall henceforth be known) and via the most unlikely of gentlemen. Eelco Meyjes is a self-styled ebike evangelist and bicycle activist, and the two of us linked up in some social media back alley while I was researching an article on pedal-assist bicycling.
We stayed in touch and I finally got to meet him in person during the Isuzu ‘Beyond Lockdown’ expedition, a three-week road trip around South Africa to boost local tourism. Our itinerary included a couple of days in Gauteng and, as I was keen on an urban adventure, Eelco said we should join him on a graffiti crank and the rest is… well, this story.
The plan was to meet before dawn at Fournos Bakery in Dunkeld (mainly because no one in their right mind would set off on a dark-zone ride without a solid caffeine hit). Also, this is where Eelco – a Peter Pan-ish septuagenarian masquerading as an amiable, high-spirited teenager – starts off his regular street art outrides.
And what a buzz it was to crank into the resounding roar of rush hour traffic in Johannesburg. We felt like a pedal-powered urban assault force as we sniped in and out of alleyways, along mall thoroughfares and via tree-lined suburban streets, all the while scouting for the vivid and larger-than-life “walls”.
I may not know my “graffers” from my “taggers”, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the vibrant art gracing the city and suburban streets criss-crossing the heart of Jozi. The experience is akin to walking into an olde world sweet shop, with unexpected and exhilarating colours and sensory satisfaction around every corner.
Two things really stood out as we explored the underbelly of the concrete jungle. Firstly, it turned out to be a truly invigorating velo adventure, brimming with pavement hopping and back alley bombing. Every now and then, though, the vibe would do a mental dogleg as we zigzagged through an ever-changing urban environment, with parks and gardens and malls and industrial precincts morphing into a wacky aesthetic experience.
Best of all was Eelco’s magnificent passion for these funky street art rides. ‘Let me put it this way,’ he shouted as we dodged buses and bunny-hopped Picantos*, with the sun colouring Sandton in all shades of amber and gold, ‘if we let a dozen Banksy clones loose in a city like this, nobody would ever be bored in a traffic jam, right?’
But who needs Banksy when you’re in SA? Local graffiti has blossomed as an art form and we were astounded by the diversity and visuality of the ever-changing “Street Gallery” we were passing through. The multi-cultural mashup of artistic styles means that many of our home-grown artists have by now achieved global fame.
Names like Falko One, Sonny, Paige33, Faith47, Nomad and a rag-tagger bunch of creatives are making waves in global graffiti circles, with many regularly commissioned to execute major pieces in London, New York, Hong Kong or other avant garde cities around the world. Together, they’ve made Jozi the “Street Art Capital of Africa”.
Yep, graffiti has certainly become a big tourism business. Banksy has a mind-blowing 11 million followers on Instagram, yet he does not follow a single person in return. Add to this the fact that his work has become the second-most visited tourist attraction in London, creating millions of pounds of revenue every year. Amazing, when a couple of decades ago street art was a complete cultural no-no.
And this whizz-bang-pop of non-conformist colour and design is but a few pedal strokes away; all you need to do is saddle up your bike to get psyched. I’ll bet you’ll be blown away by what you see across the bars. Not to mention that you’ll get a buzzy and zippy – and entirely accessible – bike ride to boot, making this one of the best and quirkiest urban adventures on Earth.
*That was an exaggeration; I could at best bunny-hop a small stick.
Go ride this
Here’s how to connect with a one-of-a-kind tourism gem that should be on every South African’s local travel bucket list … And just so you know, Eelco rides an e-bike, and you’re welcome to plug into some battery-powered backup.
Drive north on the M1 highway and take the Glenhove Road offramp before turning right onto Venus Street. Take the first exit at the second traffic circle onto Victoria Avenue and keep left at the T-junction onto North Street. At the next T-junction, turn left onto Oxford Road and right onto Bompas Road, continuing for 1.3km to Dunkeld West Centre on your right.
GPS – S: 26° 07’ 50.1” / E: O 28° 02’ 04.8”
Graffiti Coffee Ride Options
Graffiti Walls Private Rides
These rides are suited to smaller groups or families keen on a more personalised graffiti tour. Crank from Dunkeld West via the northern suburbs on a tour of 30-plus world-class graffiti walls. You’ll be in the saddle for two to three hours, with both regular MTBs and e-bikes welcome.
People riding normal bikes need to be relatively fit and can book any day of the week. From R120 to 150 per person; groups of three to seven people.
There are three routes: Route A meanders through Rosebank and the northern suburbs of Saxonwold, Forest Town, Parkview and Greenside (22km). Route B passes via Melville and Westdene and is approximately 26km. Route C includes Norwood, Munro Drive, Upper Houghton, Louis Botha S Bend and Sandton City (32km).
Monthly Graffiti Sunday Rides
Again, there are three potential routes, with the addition of a sweep vehicle as backup, plus two motorbike marshals for the two inner city routes. Groups are restricted to 16 riders. The ride starts from Fournos Bakery at the Dunkeld West Centre, on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Bompas Road.
The cost works out to R185 to R265 per person, with rides starting at 7am on the first Sunday of every month. Choose from the Graffiti Art Project Ride (24km), the Graffiti Masterpieces Ride (30km) and the Graffiti Road to Maboneng (40km).
You can also book bespoke graffiti rides for corporate groups, schools, art students, team building or other special occasions. For more information on all of these, get in touch with Eelco Meyjes on 082 457 4936 or check out ebikersa.wordpress.com
The best time of year to explore the fantastic Malls in Johannesburg is year-round, thanks to the city’s peachy weather with warm to hot summer days and the occasional afternoon thunderstorm.
Come winter, the mornings tend to be sub-zero, but most days soon morph into a crisp and sunny affair.
Time to go play!