Johannesburg Graffiti Writer BIAS on Painting Tunnels in the City of Gold

Johannesburg started as a gold mining town, with tunnels deep under ground always playing a big part in the city. So it makes sense that local graffiti artist Bias is drawn to painting tunnels. OK, these ones aren’t for mining (rather for drainage) but either way it’s pretty cool to think that there is graffiti right under our feet, and not just on the walls surrounding us. Proving Joburg really is a head-to-toe graffitied city. We sat down and chatted to Bias about how he got into painting, what inspires him and some of his craziest tunnel adventures!

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How long have you been doing graffiti and how did you get started?

I’ve been doing graffiti for about thirteen years, but really it is more like 11. I started in 2003 doing tags and not really understanding what I was doing, but in 2005 I started doing proper tags, throw ups and pieces.

Have you always been artistic and why graffiti?
No I am terrible at art, seriously. I found an old art book at my mom’s house, from school, the drawings are like a five year old painted them but I was eighteen, and that’s around the time I was starting to do graffiti.  I wouldn’t say I am artistic in terms of drawing, I just find graffiti easy in a way, and I enjoy doing it so much I can’t stop.

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Why did you choose the alias Bias?
When I started graffiti I went through a number of names. I started writing a name Alfonso that a friend had given me. But it was to long so I shortened it to ASO, but there was another writer called ESO and he said our names were too similar so I changed it. I changed it to AZO, but then I figured no one knows what AZO is. I wanted a word that was readable; I wanted a word that was against people’s perceptions of what graffiti is, so I chose Bias. People perceive graffiti as really bad, ugly and messy but I believe those people are biased against graffiti because it has a really artistic side to it.

What is your inspiration?
My inspiration is a lot of things. I have read a lot of interviews about other graffiti artists and how they are inspired. There is a guy called Askew, who looks under microscopes at crystals and things, at the colours. But for me my inspiration has evolved with the styles I have painted over the years.  For a while I painted gridlock style, a very intertwined style that is inspired by traffic, the chaos of traffic and the city inspired that style. We live in a chaotic fast paced place (Johannesburg), and I think my style is influenced by how wild it is and how sharp it is. I’m also influenced in terms of my colour choice by the colours of nature and sunsets.

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How would you define your style?
My style is semi wild style, but when I was painting gridlock, that would have been wild style because it was impossible for anyone other than other graffiti artists to read. But my style now is easyish to read and a classic semi-wild style.

You use very bright colours, can you tell us a little about your colour choice
I really like bright colours, every day when I wake up, I try base the colours I am going to paint on my mood. Some days I will feel happy and will use fruity colours like pinks, greens and oranges or moody and I will use grey and darker blues. I have always been good at colour matching; I just pick colours and keep it in the tones. But yes I love bright colours; no one wants to see grey

How traditional do you think you are as a graffiti artist?
I’m very traditional because I don’t really do portraits and stuff like that. I have always stuck to doing letters and classic fills. I like to keep things simple but not to simple and only recently I have branched out in to doing characters in the place of letters, which is in itself a pretty traditional thing anyway. I like nice pieces with bubbles and good 3D. I don’t like weird new age stuff which is almost like design, total illusion with no outline that no one can read. I like to keep it to a normal piece structure; I always use an outline, fill, second line and background.

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You are part of ABM, a crew from Canada, how did you meet them and become part of the crew?
I didn’t really meet them before I became part of the crew. I paint a lot of tunnels, that is my main thing, under bridges, in sewers, basically forgotten places and ABM seem to do the same. It seems to me that the scene in some parts of Canada is similar to here. Fewer amount of writers; everyone knows each other, which doesn’t happen in places like New York. The people in ABM are into painting tunnels mainly. On Instagram I used to hashtag virgin concrete and someone else in ABM started doing the same, and we started chatting and he said you should join our crew. Plus some of my family is from Canada so I have some roots there. 

You are well known for painting tunnels in Johannesburg. Can you tell us more about the tunnels and why you like painting them?
The tunnels are basically concrete structures underneath roads which I started painting in around 2011/2012. I had been painting a long-time above ground, lots of tagging, bombing and pieces but I was mugged and thought I don’t want to be painting in dangerous areas anymore. So I started exploring with a map book and I really enjoy the exploring part. The tunnels vary; some are small, big, straight or curved. I like painting tunnels because they are quite, there is always water and the walls are super smooth, untouched virgin concrete. A lot of walls above ground need prep, you have to ask someone if you can paint them, prime them with PVA or scrape them. And in the tunnels no one finds them after or touches them. I have painted hundreds of pieces under most people’s feet, and they have no idea that it’s there. If the scene changes and no one could find a wall or if a bylaw was implemented and it wasn’t so easy to paint, then my stuff will shine. It’s like I have created my own unique thing.

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What is the craziest tunnel experience you have had?
I can tell you so many. I was painting in this tunnel and some cows walked through, then horses, then miniature ponies. And I had to run out of the tunnel and was so worried my camera would get damaged and then these bulls with huge horns came through too. Its so bizaar, I mean it’s in Johannesburg, in the city but all these animals are around. I have also seen chickens and crabs and once I was painting near Pretoria and I heard a rustling in the bush, and it was a giant iguana lizard. I thought it was a crocodile at first because it was over a meter long. I freaked the fuck out.

I have had times when I have nearly been washed away by flash floods or once a whole trunk of a tree came down in the tunnel water and I had to run out of its way. In South Africa, in traditional culture, people collect salt water from the sea and drink it, so these guys came down into the tunnel and they started collecting the river water and sand. I asked what they were doing and they said they told their friend they were going to the sea and would get him sea water but they didn’t go so they were collecting him the most disgusting dirty tunnel water instead.

I have also found a gun, people naked and washing in the rivers and lots of baptisms.

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You guide graffiti tours around the Johannesburg City Centre, why do you enjoy this and what is the public’s reaction to the art?
I enjoy it because I like talking to people, meeting new people and explaining what I do, even if not everyone understands it. People’s reactions are mostly positive; I wish we could talk to loads more people about graffiti in Johannesburg, especially local people. It’s great taking foreigners around, but they come and then go, it’s important for the local people to appreciate it too.

There is talk in Johannesburg at the moment on tightening graffiti laws by implementing a new bylaw. What are your thoughts on that?
I have so many thoughts on this and it’s a really loaded question. I don’t think the government here should be focusing on this, we have so many big problems in the city: so much crime, so much litter. I think they are pulling a ploy to try to get people to support them. I am not happy with it even though I know that most of my work will be ok as it is in tunnels, but I know I will always paint no matter what anyway.

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You are currently finishing your PhD in Archaeology; do you think there are any similarities between archaeology and graffiti?
Yes I like to think they are. Graffiti is a layered process and archaeology is a very layered process. Both of them are about time and finding out things about the past and the present. When you are an archaeologist you dig down to find out what came before and in graffiti you apply paint to things to progress what is happening now. Graffiti is layered in that you can see who came before someone else. Graffiti is all about what came before and adding to it and so is archaeology. I also really enjoy archaeology because it is kind of an exploration thing, and so is graffiti for me. In archaeology people love exploring in caves but I love exploring in tunnels.

What are your future creative plans? What is ahead?
I am going to the UK pretty soon; to spread my father’s ashes so will hopefully do some painting. I’d like to carry on guiding. I’d also like to go to Canada and paint there. Basically I would like to travel and paint.

Written by Jo Buitendach (@PastExperiences)
Images courtesy of Bias

One thought on “Johannesburg Graffiti Writer BIAS on Painting Tunnels in the City of Gold

  1. Pingback: The illicit becomes mainstream: graffiti in Joburg | Liz at Lancaster Guest House Blog

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