One on one with Kevin Esendi, graffiti artist
It’s been 19 years of street art and graffiti for you. What inspired your love for it?
I grew up in Fort Jesus, Kibera, a place with many great people and where interesting things happen; this inspired and still inspires my creativity. I didn’t have toys, which forced me to hand make my own cars out of old wires and this kind of initiated me into the art world. Also, there were some murals by other older artists that I used to see and tried to emulate them. My mum was fascinated and threw her weight behind me when I drew my first portrait at the age of 10 in 1993. I kept doing a lot of portraits for my friends and my mum would go around telling her friends that her son can draw.
How did you go pro?
I joined Buru Buru Institute of Fine Arts in 2004 and was once employed in a calendar and book-printing firm where I earned peanuts after quitting college because of financial constraints. As a side hustle, I used to do graffiti for artistes, music studios and events. I once went to the first WAPI (a British Council forum for underground visual and verbal artistes to showcase their art) and did my mural. People liked it and I started getting contacted by would be clients. I started earning Sh5,000 per painting, which I would get in two days. Grafitti wasn’t the same as contemporary art that I learnt in school; it was hip and cool. It made me quit my job to fully pursue it.
How has graffiti evolved over the years away from the rebellion and gangster world perceptions?
It has grown from being an art of rebellion to now everyone wanting to have it in their spaces. The thing about graffiti is that it is public; the colours speak to you strongly. Sometimes I would feel inspired just by the texture of a wall or just how it speaks to me. Some I used to paint illegally. Nowadays, if a wall is private, we sometimes have to ask for permission if it inspires you to paint on it.
Are painters and graffiti artists appreciated better in Africa?
I have been to at least 12 countries and the appreciation is vast. In Kenya, I would say the culture is growing; it’s a new form of art that we are using as a medium of social change. What personalities such as Barrack Obama, Wangari Maathai and Lupita Nyong’o have achieved can inspire future generations and this makes the graffiti artistry significantly respectable.
What challenges have you gone through as an artist?
Paint had been an issue because it is expensive, especially when I needed to do a massive piece of work. I would just use whatever paint I had or even charcoal. The end product was all that mattered. Currently, due to my longevity, sometimes clients complain that my quotations are expensive not understanding that it has taken me some painstaking 19 years to be where I am now. Sometimes they get cheeky and they request for a sketch from me only to go to a cheaper artist for execution. Doing sketches is quite involving and takes a lot of time, energy and money. This has made me to start charging Sh10,000 for sketches. Also, I’ve had people using my work and crediting it to themselves. There is a big copyright problem.
What’s the difference between a graffiti artist and a street artist?
There’s that clash even internationally where you find both claiming their spot. Street art ranges from a lot of things such as installations, sculptures and 3D art. Graffiti is any writing on a wall or such spaces trying to pass some message with an intention to elicit emotions. Although graffiti has for a long time been perceived as a rebel form of art, I personally play on both places because I am an all-round artist. I do canvas paintings as well as contemporary art.
What’s the responsibility and the burden of having a title ‘Father of Graffiti’?
It is a heavy title that puts a lot of pressure on me to stand out and be that leader who acts as an umbrella and a helping hand to anyone who’s aspiring. Someone has to deserve it and own it and have that experience to shoulder such a name and I don’t take it lightly. I’ve given 19 years worth of hard work to this art form and when I sell my work, I am selling my expertise and the skills thorough the years.
How do you ensure these skills are passed on to the next generation?
I am mentoring some children in Kenya and Uganda who have the passion for such art. I particularly work with those with a passion for it because it makes mentorship work easier. Practice makes them sharper.