Graffiti Watchmen

Graffiti Watchmen

by Nolan Stevens                              Posted: 2015/07/12

We asked the men who photograph and interact with Jozi's graf artists a few questions.

There's no denying that we down here at JHBLive dig our local street art. We've had tons of articles on the subject and have profiled more artists than you can chuck a bucket of paint at, but for this interview session Nolan checks out a different side of the painted wall and has a chat with two guys who are a part of the urban street art scene in an unexpected way. Introducing Cale Waddacor and Derek "Mr Baggins" Smith; aka: The Graffiti Watchmen.

How did you guys get into the graffiti scene?

Derek Smith: By default - I've always been interested in old buildings. When I moved to Jozi from Pretoria in the mid-90's I started exploring the CBD, making images of Johannesburg's rich architectural heritage. In the process I noticed graffiti pieces and started photographing them as it is an integral part of an urban landscape.

Cale Waddacor: I got into the graffiti scene in my early high school years. I started to notice it more and more - on my route to school, on school desks, on skateboarding missions. Some of my friends soon started to paint and I would tag along.

Why and how did you end up documenting, instead of being a street artist yourself? 

DS: I am a better photographer than an artist and was way too old to take up cans when I got interested in the scene.

CW: I actually picked up both, kind of at the same time - I fell into the scene when friends took me bombing so I could watch their backs. From then on I started documenting the missions and sketching my own graffiti pieces. I've become more of a documenter lately as there wasn't anybody else really capturing the scene in its entirety, and I was always finding myself deeply rooted within the Johannesburg scene.

How has the reaction from graf cats been to you taking pics and following them?

DS: At the beginning and also because I am of an older generation a lot of them thought I was a cop or something trying to catch them out for illegal defacement.  Over the years I have built up a good relationship with most writers - They know that all my images are in the public domain and freely available for use which they appreciate. 

I don't really follow writers but because of my relationship with them they will often let me know where they'll be painting. Certain writers have certain preferences - not to put work in progress up or showing their faces in photographs - I try to respect these unwritten rules as much as I can.

CW: Most were my friends already, or became my friends. I am always careful when photographing people, even with street photography - one should always ask first, or at least not shoot the artists face. A lot of graffiti artists are self-conscious, or they don't want to be identified for legality sake. Many like the fact that I have photographs for keep sake and I will happily share my images with them.

Would you say forging relationships with the artists is important doing what you do or is it better to be completely objective?

DS: Photographing street art can only work if one is subjective putting your own look and feel to images. One has to be passionate to the art-form recognizing the time, effort, money and talent involved in creating a piece. 
I hate it when credit is not given where credit is due - to the artist.  I try to establish who painted a specific piece and tag their names of the photographs I upload. 

It has to be remembered that all pieces don't belong to the photographer but to the writers and this needs to be top of mind when taking images. 

CW: Yes, it's very important. Graffiti is an underground subculture and it's better to tread carefully. I think the artists are more welcoming if you get to know them better. I'd rather keep my posts on my website more objective, so as to not hurt anybody's feelings and create an equal playing field, so to speak.

What elements come into play when choosing which pieces to document?

CW: I pretty much try and document everything - from tags and throw-ups, to pieces and productions. I think all the buff and the 'it's not thaaat good' has got to me and I've realised how ephemeral the works are. Even if it's not the greatest piece on earth, I'll still shoot it so it can last forever on a hard-drive. I'm more selective when it comes to posting pics on my site and social media pages, because I curate those to showcase SA talent on the world map.

DS: I shoot for colour and prefer characters to letters. I do (however) understand and appreciate that tags and hand-style is at the root of graffiti. Hand-style is a very abstract art-form. I collect and appreciate art but never could get into any abstract/cubist artists - I have no feel for Picasso for example. Abstract and monochrome doesn't touch my soul, therefore I prefer to take images of characters.

When all the photos are taken; the hot spots are hunted down and you are happy with the day's work; what do you take away from the experience?

DS: Street art hunting is a lot of fun. I don't as a rule photograph with others because I am a solitary soul who goes where the spirit takes me and stumbling over pieces by accident still gives me a major rush. With the number of photographers getting involved in street art last year finding unknown work is becoming increasingly rare.

CW: It's weird how much I like driving up and down the city, often to the doggiest of places just to photograph some paint on the wall! But, it just feels so damn rewarding when I can check it off my list. When I hunt graffiti I just feel the burning desire to capture the artwork before it disappears forever. I guess I take away some kind of satisfaction in having documented this underground art form because so few people actually stop to do this. I also learn a lot about my city and about graffiti. 

Having seen so much of what we have to offer locally, how would you say the Mzansi graf scene compares to the international scene?

CW: I think the scene here is booming and is really on par with the international scene. We have a lot of international visitors and more and more interest from the general public in urban art. I'm really hoping that more of our local artists will get invited to graffiti festivals in other countries.

DS: I follow a load of international sites and writers and would hate to compare the relatively small local community to the international scene. South African artists do have their own sense of identity, writing style and technique - let's rather celebrate this uniqueness than trying to compare and copy.

Where can people see your work?

CW: I run the website, and have recently launched a book with the same name - Graffiti South Africa (Schiffer Publishing, Inc., 2014). The book is a visual feast and a great introduction to the South African graffiti and street art movement. One can purchase the book at Exclusive Books and select independent book stores across the country, as well as online, or from me.

DS: Mr Baggins on Flickr - and Countfrodo on Instagram.

I am known as Mr Baggins in the graffiti community. The Flickr site was named after my bulldog that passed beyond the stars and my Instagram after Frodo, my Boston Terrier.

Lastly, what's the best way to end an interview?

DS: Colour the world!

CW: Shout-out to all the graffiti artists who are putting time and effort into beautifying our streets. Lots of love to my girlfriend, Tilana.

And on that very hardcore note, here's hoping that seeing their work and hearing what these cats have to say about our local street art scene ignites interest in our urban art forms. 

Thanks to Cale Waddacor and Derek Smith for photographic contributions

We asked the men who photograph and interact with Jozi's graf artists a few questions.


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