My first encounter with graffiti was at the age of 14. I wrote a crude word on a vibracrete wall in the park near my house using a can of hardware store ‚ÄòBrilliant Black‚Äô spraypaint. It‚Äôs still there, I think. I must have lingered around that park for about half an hour, chain smoking loose LD Menthol cigarettes and waiting for dogwalkers and the ADT guard to disappear up the road on his bicycle before I made my move. I don‚Äôt know why I did it or why I chose that particular word, but I remember how the rush of it grabbed me so strongly.
A few years, and a few crudely scrawled words later, I met a man known as ‚ÄòToe‚Äô. At the time, Toe was one of Cape Town‚Äôs most well-known graffiti writers. You couldn‚Äôt move through the city for more than five minutes without seeing his three-lettered moniker on a wall, train, or street sign. There were other well-known writers in Cape Town such as Cros, Disk, Sure, Unik, and reaching all the way back to the original South African writers like Falko, Mak1One and Gogga. Toe was one of the first names I remember seeing though. To me, Toe was a hero and now, after seeing his name plastered across every inch of the city, I had bumped into the artist purely by chance. It was late afternoon in Cape Town‚Äôs Observatory, and Toe was busying himself with a large-scale commissioned piece.
I remember it was made up of big, purple block letters with old school hip hop effects ‚Äì bubbles, 3D drop-shadow, and more. Toe was a lanky guy and he had watery blue eyes that darted around nervously whenever he took a step back to map out the progress of his piece. We got to talking about graffiti. I admitted it was a hobby for me, and that really, I was no good at it (it‚Äôs perhaps of interest to note that I never became any better). He told me that he had spoken to many graffiti writers ‚Äì amateur and pro, local and international ‚Äì and they all agreed on one thing: The rush you get from putting up your first tag stays with you forever. He then explained that ‚Äòthe rush‚Äô gets mixed up with all the other senses you experienced at that particular time, almost as if they carve out a small bit of your brain and make a home there together.
Maybe there‚Äôs truth in what the beady-eyed graffiti writer told me that day. Maybe he was just whacked out on paint fumes though, and I‚Äôm just experiencing prolonged withdrawal symptoms. Still, my short-lived foray into the world of graffiti will always be characterised by smell.
There are varying types of spraypaint which carry with them varying scents. The colours are the most interesting ones. The pistachio green is weak, but nauseatingly dry and gassy when used for anything more than highlights and outlines.
The sky blue ‚Äì a personal favourite ‚Äì has a synthetic bubblegum scent to it. If it dries on your skin, your fingers smell like the cheap, colourful plastic they use to make the kids toys in Happy Meals.
The chrome sprays from a wide-nozzled, fat cap and covers vast areas at once, overpowering whatever space you‚Äôre painting. It‚Äôs a thick, choking smell that shocks the nostrils and coats the lungs, allowing only short, sharp bursts of breath.
Then there‚Äôs the Molotow Matt Black. It has a strong scent of liquorice to it and when painted in thick lines with a fat cap, resembles the sweet itself.
Montana Nitro 2G smells the best. That one I can‚Äôt quite describe, but if you could capture the smell of hastily executed vandalism, youthful rebellion, sweat inducing paranoia, and cold, untouched concrete, you‚Äôd get a can of 2G.
It‚Äôs not all about the paint though. Graffiti took me into many different spaces ‚Äì beautiful spaces, disgusting spaces, terrifying spaces ‚Äì all with their unique odours and aromas. My favourite spaces were the canals.
Myself and a few other graffiti writers used to go out on Sunday afternoons, hunting for secret spots ‚Äì the spots where you could put on some headphones, open a beer and paint without the fear of getting arrested or chased. The various open top sewers and canals that ran throughout Cape Town, splitting up into suburbia and then coming back together to morph into a large concrete tunnel or bridge were our playgrounds. Some of the others would tie Checkers packets around their shoes so they wouldn‚Äôt get shit all over their Nikes. Most of us went barefoot, risking broken bottles, dead animals, and whatever else populated the waste we‚Äôd wade through.
These spaces carry distinctive scents for me. The stagnant rainwater in the canals, the hot, sour whiff of dead, bloated moles that scurry blindly into the sewers to drown, and the sickeningly sweet waft of waste that‚Äôs been left to bake in the sun. Like all smells, you get used to them after a while and they begin to characterise the space for you. Dry, cracking concrete and sharp, wispy aerosol fumes then, will always remind me of the Sundays spent traipsing through the city‚Äôs hardened arteries.
I haven‚Äôt painted for a number of years now and I still miss graffiti every day. In fact, traces of graffiti writing are so deeply imbedded in my everyday life, I don‚Äôt think I‚Äôll ever shake them. Like the way I must stop and think of street names when giving directions instead of going to my automatic locators and saying, ‚ÄúJa you just take a left there at the blue tag and carry on towards the road that the old Falko piece used to be in.‚Äù Or the way I become childishly excited at the appearance of black koki pens and felt-tip markers. I prefer the train to cars or taxis, because the trackside routes always bring new graffiti. Every notepad I own is covered in graffiti scribblings. I still hold onto my tattered, tagged-up, high school backpack, and hell, do I still love the smell of fresh paint.
People have specific places in their minds that they go to when they need to centre themselves, I think. For me, it‚Äôs standing ankle deep in the cool water of a lonely canal on an exceedingly hot day, with my shirt hanging from the back of my shorts, sneakers tied together and hanging around my shoulders, and a spraycan in either hand. It‚Äôs completely silent, except for the slow hiss of spraypaint and the occasional roar of a train rattling by overhead. I can‚Äôt access that place whenever I want to unfortunately. It‚Äôs trapped inside a memory that‚Äôs triggered only by a smell. But perhaps that what makes it so special.