When is unauthorized street art actually art, and when is it vandalism?
It’s a question the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, has wrestled with since last summer, when a group of mostly anonymous artists going by the moniker Beware of Colour poured Pepto-Bismol-pink paint over a number of the city’s historic buildings, City Lab reported.
Led by the Colombian-American artist Yazmany Arboleda, the group wanted to draw attention to the neglect of the city’s downtown buildings. A good number of them sit empty, even while many South Africans live in shacks. Arboleda told the Guardian that the abandoned buildings “embody the injustices in the city.” Which is why he and roughly 30 other artists marked them with about 264 gallons of hot-pink, water-soluble paint.
Arboleda explained in a blog post for Voices of Africa:
We study the buildings during the daytime: we draw up floor plans, circulation patterns, and check the finishes on floors and walls — mostly scattered debris. Then, at the agreed-upon early morning hour, we gather and travel downtown with our buckets of paint and our ladders. The big challenge with most of our buildings is gaining entry to the second floor — once inside, we usually have access to the rest of the building. We walk up to the roof, and prepare our tools, pouring the pink paint slowly and evenly from top to bottom. As much work as could be done in preparation, we never have control over how the paint will actually adhere to each building. The speed and texture always varies, and it is always exciting to gaze upon the end result the following morning.
The preservationist Herbert Prins, acting chairman of the Egoli Heritage Foundation, decried the acts as “immature” and “anti-social” in a long-winded statement. “We are saddened that the state of our democracy has led to such frustration and this in turn, to the destruction of a part of the nation’s heritage,” he wrote. “[This] is vandalism hiding behind a façade of poetry in order to influence others.”
In early August, Arboleda was arrested, and after a night in prison he decided to call it quits and return to the US. “In a way, the project was quite selfish, because … [Arboleda] wasn’t from Johannesburg, so he could always walk away from the consequences,” Thomas Coggin, a professor of property law at the University of the Witwatersrand, told City Lab.
While the project drew plenty of attention, months later, its still unclear whether it actually changed anything. Arboleda is just happy that it stirred up conversation. “If my work generates a debate, then I feel that shows that it is having an impact,” he told Artnet News. “Engaging the community and prompting reactions is a part of the process.”