The elephant is on, not in, the room

After 30 years on the scene, graffiti artist Falko’s signature paintings – many of them elephants – adorn walls in cities around the world.

On Miriam Makeba Street in Johannesburg, there is a herd of elephants on the wall directly beneath the Rasik Green mural. On the other side of the country, a lone elephant decorates a white rondavel atop the hill in Coffee Bay. In India, the distinctive elephants adorn walls and structures in the populous city of Mumbai. Possessing an inimitable capacity to make work in both accessible and hard-to-reach locations, there’s no disputing that Cape Town-based graffiti artist Falko is one of the finest artists to emerge from Mzansi – with a 30-year presence on the art scene, Falko has spearheaded street-based styles. The organisers of the 2019 South African Hip Hop Awards agree, presenting him with an Honorary Award this year for his body of work and contribution not only to graffiti, but also to the greater hip hop community.

In person, Falko cuts an approachable figure. His Afro, which is spiked and suspended in space, is his most striking feature. When working, he’s kitted out in a shirt decorated with paint splodges, shorts and a pair of Adidas sneakers or Grasshopper shoes – a flexible uniform. And when he talks, his words can stretch from minutes into hours on topics that interest him. His knowledge of the art world, both commercial and indie, grants him a level of prestige that one doesn’t expect from people who support Kaizer Chiefs. His words can feel like they contain the whole world.

Considering recognition

“I’m not really a fan of awards per se, unless it comes with money,” jokes the formidable Falko. “On the one side, [getting the award is] the beginning of the legacy in black and white. In general, the whole respect thing that we have, especially towards me, is just verbal … Which I don’t mind, because it has to start somewhere. Usually, the streets is what gives something clout before it become corporate or mainstream. [Street validation] is always important.

“The award shines a light to those that aren’t directed towards graffiti per se. Ultimately, the South African Hip Hop Awards are rap-directed. Nothing wrong with it, that is the industry, and that is what attracts the most attention.”

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In the video that played during the awards ceremony, Falko says he is a “typical cliche” and wary of the rags-to-riches, “started from the bottom” kind of story. The artist was born in District Six in 1976 and grew up in Mitchell’s Plain. He started painting while in Westridge High School around 1989, and has been figuring it all out along the way. “As most middle- and low-income areas go, [that] comes with its own social problems,” he says. “Growing up [in Mitchell’s Plain] was definitely what was needed to make me the person I am today.”

He was an associate of the formidable hip hop fraternity Black Noise at one point, which seems odd considering he didn’t initially like rap music. He also deejays under the name Falko Starr and is a third of the Chief Rockers crew (alongside deejays Eazy and Azuhl) which organised the legendary, now-defunct Classics parties.

“My foundation for music is new wave punk and synth pop. I eventually got into hip hop and started breakdancing. [Afrika Bambaataa’s] Planet Rock was one of the anthems that you had to learn to dance to.”

A style in conversation with time 

During apartheid, access to what was happening on the international creative scene was near impossible, affected by cultural boycotts. The bubble South African artists lived in during those days resulted in an insular style of painting. 

“We were basically just figuring it out from what we saw on TV and what we saw in [Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff’s Spraycan Art]. We were assuming and making our own deductions, and being naive about what we saw. In trying to be a good artist, I didn’t know that these kids in America and Europe had a hundred colours and different nozzles and all these things. We had Plascon and Dulux, and only five good colours out of 16 available. We didn’t know the approach to it, the outline, the technique – there was no education on it. Because of that, our art was always shit,” he says. 

The tenacity with which he pursued his art, in spite of his financial circumstances, quickly distinguished him from his peers. He was painting around three artworks a month. “Considering that I didn’t have money, and my mom didn’t have money, it was a lot,” he says.

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His character-centric style developed over time. In a Senegalese village, the locals did not approve of a chicken he had painted, owing to its association with witchcraft. Then elephants shifted to the front and centre of his murals. 

Falko has either initiated or got commissioned to undertake many exciting projects, including on select taxis in Cape Town, which he did with acclaimed icon Mak1one; the Split Pieces project, which he collaborated on with the Joburg-based Rasty, who also organises the sporadic City of Gold Urban Art festival; and, Once Upon A Town, whereby he went to small South African dorpies to paint.

Falko paints many of his pictures on the sides of houses. “If you go to a foreign community, and the very first house you have an issue with, it could mean that you’ll end up having an issue with everybody else,” he says about getting permission to spray paint on dwellings. A positive response could lead to others requesting a paint job.

In Mamelodi, he adorned a house with one of his trademark gorillas. He spent no more than 20 minutes on the piece, a testament to how sharp he is with his line work and overall technique. He completed about four other murals that day. 

Being original

When asked if he has considered signing with a gallery, Falko responds: “Being the way I am, and having dealt with galleries on an entry level, I am really struggling with handing over 50% of my earnings. But if you become an established gallery artist, they do bring a lot to the table that you pay your 50% for.”

The artist Breeze Yoko, who originates from Gugulethu in the Cape Flats, and has cited Falko as an influential figure in his graffiti career, raised a point about South African galleries’ conservative approach to what gets shown on their walls. “People are scared to be leaders here. The cost of taking a risk is high,” he said.

Falko says that he is happy to operate outside of the confines of traditional galleries, but also noted: “It fucks with my worth a little because you can’t say you want a million bucks, but you are selling it out of your lounge. Most importantly, I don’t wanna put that pressure on myself, or have the expectation that I belong in a gallery. I’ve basically survived without it for 30 years.”

Three decades and going, it’s not a gamble to say that Falko’s position in the street artists’ wall of fame, worldwide, won’t ever fade. He ends with a word for future generations of graffiti artists: “You’ve got to find yourself as an artist as soon as you can, because you don’t chase the end of the rainbow trying to copy your inspirations. [That is] okay in the beginning, because you’re just learning the craft. But then a lot of people stay in that lane, and they just become imitators their whole lives. That is my advice now, but argh, fuck it, it’s gonna be something else in a year’s time.”

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