street art South Africa

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg
Photo (above): FREDDY SAM

The power of street art lies in its ability to subvert the status quo and inspire new possibilities in those who view it. Four of South Africa’s finest artists explore their work with The Red Bulletin - Part 2

FREDDY SAM - The New Muralist

Huge works create an impact with their size alone, but when serving a purpose that goes beyond mere aesthetics, big art grows bigger still.

And heights don’t come much headier than Freddy Sam’s 10-storey-high painting of a young Nelson Mandela sparring. Sam suffered for his art – he’s terrified of heights. 

“Don’t look down,” is the artist’s advice for conquering your fears and getting the job done. “That’s also a metaphor,” he says. “Focus on the art. Know yourself. It’s about complete focus, and it’s exhilarating being able to do it.”

FREDDY SAM - The New Muralist


Sam’s murals put a spotlight on various social issues and have been commissioned by international organisations including WWF, Google and Doctors Without Borders. 

“Focus on the art. Know yourself”
FREDDY SAM - The New Muralist

“It’s important for me to create work that the community I’m painting for is proud of,” he says. “Through interviews, I try to make murals that are relevant and that the community feels a sense of ownership of.”

Freddy Sam - The New Muralist

Freddy Sam, I Am Because We Are, Joburg 2014

© Freddy Sam

By the time you read this, Sam will have been in New Orleans working on a project with Amnesty International, then the Dominican Republic for a residency, followed by Los Angeles for a mural commission, Hawaii for a street art festival and then right back to LA to work on more murals.

“What I’m grateful for are the experiences my art has provided,” he says. “I realise the meaning of my work is the very action of it, and therefore I must just keep on practising, exploring and experimenting, and the work will evolve naturally. As soon as you apply your mind to something, the world starts to provide for that.” 

TOE - The Trainspotter

The act of painting a train is done in the belief that art should be integrated into the life of a city. And there’s no better way of getting your work seen than by having it transported around the metropolis. “I’d catch the train to school every day,” says Toe, who now runs his own business, “and seeing things on the track line was a big inspiration for me.”

Toe progressed from painting trains to taking commissions for walls and sneakers at event activations, but, unlike many of his peers, he still gets a rush from bombing trains. “If you want to do a proper piece, especially a train, you need to find a space, recce it, create the piece as quickly as possible, then get out of there,” he says. “Witnessing people’s reactions and seeing it running in full colour for the first time – when you paint it at night, it’s too dark to see – makes everything worthwhile.”

TOE - The Trainspotter

The production that Toe painted with Blak, Wer, Sure, Ink, Slate, Name and Raze in 2013 was not only a personal pinnacle, but a benchmark for South African street art in general – it was the country’s first graffiti-ed ‘whole train’. “To paint something like that was really hard because a train is, like, 100m long and can be seen from so many different positions.

“To paint something like that was really hard because a train can be seen from so many different positions”
TOE - The Trainspotter

After seeing an opportunity with some new trains being introduced, we checked every week for months and when we finally found a break in the routine, we painted the whole thing in 35 minutes. Eight guys, eight carriages – it was amazing!”

The next day, there was another train parked in front of the one they’d painted, and as the crew arrived to photograph their efforts, it started pulling away slowly, like a huge curtain being drawn back.

TOE - The Trainspotter

Above and top: Toe’s canvas is 100m long and motorised

“Nobody paints like they were painting five or six years ago,” says Toe. “The streets are dead. That’s why I want to keep on painting trains. I’d rather make a living in a different way than doing commissioned jobs.

It’s good money, but if you have this subversive form of art and are using it for what’s essentially marketing or advertising – well, that doesn’t work for me.”

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02 2016 The Red Bulletin

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