Rediscovering identity in a swirl of spray paint


Prestigious galleries don’t have graffiti on their walls. So when the creations of Mars – a street artist – are displayed alongside fine art, it’s tempting to try and interpret a deeper meaning behind the swirls of spray paint. Don’t. While his graffiti has transitioned from public to private spaces, his only message is that this too, is art. For over a decade Mars has been marking walls, bridges, and train carriages with cans of spray paint, bringing fresh colour to concrete jungles. As the world catches on to trending urban art, his skill has been recognised by galleries and art enthusiasts alike. But Mars’ work remains grounded in the streets, where graffiti is an authentic expression of counterculture.

Mars’ foray into the world of spray cans and stencils was spurred on by skateboarding culture in his early teens. At the time, it was about being adventurous and traversing the edge of danger rather than making art. At the age of 15, he started creating under the alias Mars – the first word that came to mind after spraying a figure of an alien on a wall. The more time he spent on the streets, learning from other graffiti artists while braving the danger of getting arrested, the better he got. He was named Best Graffiti Artist at the South African Hip Hop Awards in 2013 and again in 2015. Mars has since worked as a graphic designer while also creating commissioned pieces.

While street art has become popular commercially, everyday spraying and tagging remains illegal and is considered defacement. Despite his success, Mars hasn’t forgotten this. In 2013, his debut solo show, From The Ground Up, brought the nitty-gritty of South African graffiti – its humble beginnings, associated culture and evolution – to a more high-brow audience. While presenting paint on canvas may have been more palatable to an audience invested in fine art, Mars’ work asserted that graffiti isn’t vandalism, and is more than just a way to bring colour and beautification to a place. It’s a matter of identity – of asserting yourself and claiming your belonging in a space. Mars’ commitment to the authenticity of street art is driving him to new heights within art circles and in the streets of South Africa.