Nairobi — Matatus, or privately owned minibuses, are known for their reckless, often-dangerous drivers plying their designated route, all while causing traffic jams. Matatus are also known for decorative artwork on the outside, with some of the fancier, newer buses having disco lights, TV screens and even fish aquariums on the inside. After all, matatus with the flashiest artwork and best music blasting are the ones attracting the most customers, mainly young people who want to ride in the most decked out bus.
It’s a huge shift from those plain matatus with a standard yellow stripe, which is what used to be allowed before President Uhuru Kenyatta lifted a ban on artwork in November 2014. President Kenyatta offered his support for matatu graffiti, getting rid of the 10-year ban because of the economic benefits and opportunities it would provide young artists in Nairobi and elsewhere.
Nearly two years later and matatu culture has really taken off, whereby talented artists are making a livelihood from their work and matatu art is contributing to Kenya’s economy. But, because matatu graffiti art is a male-dominated sector, the artists benefitting most are men—those working in the Industrial Area, where most matatu manufacturers have their workshops.
Dodi Autotech, which also has its workshop in the Industrial Area, is one of the leading matatu manufacturers doing fabrication of buses from scratch, including structure, paneling, glass fitting, seats, and most importantly, paint work. The company has been around since 2004 and seen the matatu industry change drastically, going from standard buses to fancy buses (manyangas). Dodi’s founder and current Managing Director, James Kimani, has a message for women interested in matatu art.
Dodi Autotech is a top matatu manufacturer located in the Industrial Area
“I would like to encourage as many women into this business. What a man can do a woman can do,” said Kimani. “Men are earning a lot of money, girls can earn a lot of money from graffiti work.”
At Dodi, a graffiti artist makes roughly $500 for decorating a 33-seater bus.
As a prominent businessman, Kimani wants to see more women in the field, including at his own business. Since the ban was lifted, he has hired 30 artists, of which three are women. He recognizes the gender gap, which is why he has partnered up with "Graffiti Girls" on a project aimed at raising awareness and opening doors for women.
Graffiti Girls, a group of three women in their 20s, started doing graffiti together in 2015. Nancy "Chela" Chelagat (known as Chelwek), Dinah Simbauni (known as QueenD), and Victoria Joyce (known as Blaine 29) paint murals in town and slums such as Korogocho and Kariobangi.
“Graffiti, for me, is the ultimate form of expression,” said Chelwek, who has been doing graffiti since 2013 and art since 2008.
Graffiti Girls painted a mural for the Malala Fund to promote girls' education [Alamin Mutunga/PAWA254]
Kimani wanted to give them a chance to paint a matatu—a first for the group—to show support for women breaking stereotypes in the graffiti art scene.
The Graffiti Girls normally use spray and emulsion paints, so using a spray gun on the matatu was another first for them. It was a challenge the group gladly accepted.
Their task was to paint a 33-seater matatu, and not just any matatu, Kimani's own matatu, which just happened to be in the shop for refurbishment. The Graffiti Girls had the matatu brought from the Industrial Area to the Railway Museum Art Gallery, where they work out of the "Dust Depo" art studio.
As they painted, children gathered around the matatu and other artists stopped their work inside Dust Depo to watch the action outside.
Graffiti Girls QueenD, left, and Blaine 29, right, mix paints to create colors for the spray gun
One onlooker was Solomon Luvai, a tattoo and graffiti artist, who has been at Dust Depo for the last two years.
“I think it’s a good thing for them. They get a lot of exposure,” Luvai said. “Since this is Kenya, matatus are everywhere.”
Another onlooker and artist, Keith Agwanda, offered his support as well for the Graffiti Girls and their matatu project.
“Chicks rarely get a chance to do it or they feel it’s a masculine thing to do,” said Agwanda. “I think it’s really cool what they are doing. We would like to see more girls do graffiti.”
Blaine 29 using the spray gun for the first time on a 33-seater matatu
And, for artists like Luvai and Agwanda, having the backing of Dodi on this project is impressive.
“I think it’s awesome. Art in Kenya is a hard path to take so to find a big company like Dodi do this for the love of art, it’s a really, really good thing,” said Agwanda. “It’s encouraging to the artists.”
The Graffiti Girls want to stand out in a mainly male graffiti world. As newcomers on the scene, they remain humble and acknowledge the talent of their male counterparts, artists who have been in the industry much longer then them.
“We may not do it better than them, but we will do it our way,” QueenD said. “We don’t want to compete with them. They have established themselves so well.”
Graffiti Girl Chelwek has been doing graffiti, mainly murals, since 2013
In fact, it was a well-known graffiti artist named Smoki who came up with the idea of Graffiti Girls. He trained and mentored them, all while encouraging them to express their personal struggles or issues women face through their art. Over time, the Graffiti Girls gained more male mentors including top artists like Swift, Bantu and Kerosh to name a few.
But, it was Smoki who gave them a platform to do communicative murals, to paint on issues like female genital mutilation (FGM), rape, discrimination, education and caring for the girl child. He trained the group to do really detailed murals, not just words or lettering, but figures and portraits of women. Their graffiti expresses social issues, but also embraces female beauty and identity.
“Using graffiti on its own is very powerful,” Smoki said. “Addressing these issues using graffiti goes a long way because it will stay there and people will get to understand and interpret what the issue is.”
The “We Equal!” concept for this specific matatu, designed by Blaine 29, reflects the theme of gender equality. Due to time constraints of having to paint in one day, there is no portrait of an African woman, which is what Chelwek is known for. However, the group is pleased that their message of empowerment came across.
The Graffiti Girls send messages about women's empowerment through their art
“I think it came out well,” said Chelwek. “As far as our styles, we did patterns and fonts, and we nailed our message of girl power.”
They certainly left their mark, a feminine touch on the matatu—by using bright colors and curls for example. It is a stark contrast to the look that matatus generally have with American rappers, sports stars or popular shoe brands painted on them.
Matatu culture is big in Kenya so the possibilities are endless for the Graffiti Girls. With this being their first matatu, the hope is that with more practice, they will get better and possibly employed by one of the matatu manufacturers.
"We hyping up equality. What a man can do, a woman can do," said Chelwek
“I would love to venture into matatu graffiti and work for companies like Dodi or Choda to create something that people will love,” said QueenD. “People will appreciate it even more than graffiti on the walls and the money is bigger there.”
For Chelwek, her ultimate goal is to teach graffiti and art to other women and young girls.
Blaine 29, the youngest member, wants to do a mixture of both—inspiring more women into the graffiti world, including mentoring and holding exhibitions, and getting into matatu art.
This matatu, decorated by the group for Dodi, will run along route 111
Smoki believes in their success. “These girls are very passionate,” he said. “I am very proud of them.”
“They can be really big, even better than boys at some point,” he added.
Look out for this matatu on the 111, between Ngong Road and town, which is one of the busiest routes in the city.
“What is going to carry Graffiti Girls is passion,” said Chelwek. “Graffiti girls come and go, but me, Dinah and Blaine have the passion to make it big.”