Terrorising the powers that be

Words: Dave Mann
Photographs: Supplied
A Q&A with Tokolos Stencils

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For decades, graffiti has been used as a tool for socio-political protest. It creeps into the public eye, occupying streets, walls, trains, and billboards. Today we can see it in Brazil protesting the recent world cup, or in Gaza, speaking out about the ongoing violence. In South Africa, it can be seen more and more as The Tokolos Stencil Collective takes to the streets.

An anonymous group of stencil and graffiti artists, activists and other concerned citizens, The Tokolos Stencil Collective state on their Facebook page, “Like the tokoloshe which, though invisible, finds a way to scare the shit out of children throughout the country, our noble aim is to terrorise the South African elite: those who screw us with forced removals, privatisation, gentrification and of course, the many Marikanas that plague our society each and every day. Freedom remains elusive unless we are willing to fight for it.”

Archetype spoke with the collective to find out more about how Tokolos is revolutionising the streets with their stencils.

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A: How many members did Tokolos have when it began and roughly, how many members strong is it now?
TSC: Can’t really say. We are a loose collective. We don’t really have members, just participants. The only criteria for participating is that you do progressive and radical political street art and that it’s not in service of any political party.

A: They say art is a weapon. Do you consider your stencils to be art?
TSC: Of course it’s art. Art is no longer pure, the moment people start paying for it. It’s the power to go beyond our own self-interest and use it to mediate and communicate with the rest of the world. Real art is about resistance. It’s about intervening in culture to challenge the status quo.
As Tolstoy once said: “Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”
We believe our art is about bringing people together against those that oppress us.

A: Do you think other forms of art can be as effective in acting as tools for political change?
TSC: Yes, there is no one way to resist and art comes in many forms. But it’s not resistance in a capitalist society if it takes on capitalist forms of buying and selling and exclusion. The Grahamstown National Arts Festival is a perfect example of the perversion of art by capitalism.

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A: Your primary stencil and the one you’re most known for is the ‘Remember Marikana’ stencil. Why did you choose to use this incident in history to represent your movement?
TSC: In 16 August 2013, we wanted to remember Marikana. No one else seemed to be doing anything for the year anniversary of the biggest massacre in post-1994 SA. We therefore wanted to remind people that Marikana happened and it’s a representation of everything that is wrong with South Africa post 1994. Marikana is an example of the violence and oppression that happens each and every day. It’s not special per se, it’s just a more extreme example of everyday life for poor black people in this country.
We think our art has had an impact. People are remembering Marikana now. For the 2nd Anniversary of the massacre, there are so many more people involved in remembering and fighting for change than last year. We obviously won’t take all or most of the credit for that change, but we’d like to think we did have an impact. 16th of August should be our new national holiday of resistance.

A: Will you continue to use Marikana as your primary stencil and representative message or would you ever use other events such as police brutality in Cato Crest or Andries Tatane?
TSC: We are busy people but we’re trying to design more stencils that are as effective. We’ve got a really nice new one called “Dehumanisation Zone” which is a take-off of some designs the XCollektiv did to critique the City of Cape Town’s new logo. But if you’d like to design a stencil for us around Tatane or Cato Crest, please send it to tokolos@riseup.net and we’ll be sure to use it!

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A: What emotions do you hope to evoke or message do you hope to get across with your stencils? Do you think the everyday person will understand what you’re getting at when they see it?
TSC: We try to do stencils whose message everyone will understand – even if each person understands it in a different way. We don’t do airy fairy art or the kind of stuff only an art critic will be able to interpret.
We want to use our art to make people angry, to arouse their indignation, to get them to think critically about everyday living politics and most of all to inspire them to act. Progressive politics is useless without action.

A: Has anyone from Tokolos had any run ins with the police or been arrested?
TSC: Not that we know of. We haven’t met all our participants so we don’t always know if some of us have run-ins with the 5-0. But as far as we know we haven’t. We’re pretty careful not to get caught because we know we’ll not only be persecuted because of the graffiti, but also because of the political message we send out.
A few private security guards have approached us though. We’ve always been able to talk our way out of it by saying things like “our boss told us to do it” and “our boss got permission from the City”. Funny how we can sometimes turn authority on its head to undermine authority!

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A: Cities such as Cape Town will spend large amounts of their government budget on buffing graffiti and keeping their walls and streets clean. Do you find it ironic that they are spending money on cleaning up graffiti and not spending it on the people?
TSC: We don’t find it ironic. Governments don’t exist to help people, they exist as a means of social control. The City of Cape Town has its own anti-graffiti unit as part of Law Enforcement. Each City Improvement District also funds its own ant-graffiti unit. But they’re never able to get rid of all of our art. We find our way through the cracks.

A: Do you think the powers that be have seen your work? What would you say to them if you could show your faces to them?
TSC: We’re sure they have. If we could speak directly to them, we’d tell them to fuck off.

A: What lies ahead for Tokolos Stencils?
TSC: More action.

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You can read more about The Tokolos Stencils Collective here,
Give them a like here,
See their work here,
And follow them here.

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