In Kenya’s capital city, street art is as prominent as it is vibrant, optimistic, challenging and beautiful. And it’s giving a voice to residents from all walks of life.
For decades, graffiti has been a visual force in urban centres the world over. It gives voice to people with a spray can, a blank wall, and a willingness to break some rules. Historically a symbol of rebellion or resistance, street art hasn’t always been welcome or appreciated. But in some places, such as Nairobi, that sentiment is changing.
In Nairobi — an urban centre with all of the benefits and pitfalls of the world’s busiest cities — street art is as prominent as it is vibrant, optimistic, challenging, and beautiful. With a growing body of dynamic artists (some internationally recognized), an active social media community to track and comment on the latest art, and commercial and societal initiatives that recognize the power of public expression, the Nairobi street art scene is making an impact in more ways than one.
The impact of street art
It’s no secret that Nairobi has had some reputational challenges over the years. It’s sometimes perceived as a dangerous place that’s only worth a brief stop before setting out on safari elsewhere in Kenya. But Nairobi has a lot going for it, with engaged, active citizens, a thriving cultural scene, world-class restaurants, and talented, determined street artists bent on bringing people together and spreading beauty and optimism.
Throughout Nairobi’s neighbourhoods, graffiti artists illuminate walls with messages of hope for the future, working to promote change, knowledge, and respect. Out in the public domain, this vibrant artwork is being used to foster peace, tolerance, and social cohesion.
More than that, street art is revamping once-neglected sites into spaces that are starting to see greater public use. Now, people come from all over the city to visit neighbourhoods in Nairobi from which they previously would have shied away, just to see the artwork, while African musicians will film music videos in front of their favourite murals, bringing exposure and traffic to streets rarely visited.
Street artists involve residents in the murals they create, so communities embrace the artwork while collaborating on ideas, messages and style. Youth in particular are often involved in planning and decision making regarding the visual transformation of their communities’ spaces, giving them an avenue where they can be involved in creating change through peaceful, high-impact self-expression.
Spreading the message on a bigger scale
The work isn’t just making an impact — it’s also good. So good, in fact, that local artists are getting recognized on the international stage, showcased at global festivals and commissioned by local organizations, international agencies, commercial businesses and NGOs for original murals.
Take the Kibera Peace Train. In 2007, rioters in the neighbourhood of Kibera tore up train tracks after that year’s presidential election. So, in 2013, as the next presidential elections drew near, a group of Kenyan artists, with the permission of the Rift Valley Railway, painted a 10-car commuter train that ran through the area. Called the Kibera Peace Train, the artwork featured messages of peace and hope. While official billboards throughout the neighbourhood promoted peace messages as well, graffiti artists recognized that billboards just couldn’t speak to Kibera youth like street art.
Also in 2013, the manufacturer of DuraCoat paint worked with top Kenyan graffiti artists to create images of a “new Kenya” in the Spray for Change initiative. Their canvas? The Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. The project showcased messages of progress and optimism, promoting opportunity, diversity, and creativity — while providing income for artists — at a time when leaders were cluttering walls with campaign advertisements that didn’t resonate with locals.
Sauti Ya Mtaa and Hope Raisers Initiative are two other current programs directed at helping residents of some of Nairobi’s poorest communities become better informed on current issues, promoting hope and peace, and encouraging locals to express themselves.
Street art is sometimes used globally as a form of protest and resistance. In Nairobi, it’s also helping to incite positive change, bringing communities together, providing information and resources to all corners of the city, and encouraging creativity and self-expression. And, it’s bringing world-class artwork to public spaces, so that anyone walking through the city gets the chance to view and appreciate the talent that’s emerging here.
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