Photography by:
  • GCRO

Graffiti in the city

Graffiti is present in nearly every city globally. Although it is often considered a form of vandalism, it can also be regarded as a form of urban art with various benefits. For example, urban art in the alleyways of Melbourne promotes tourism, improves the quality of the environment, contributes to feelings of safety and creates neighbourhood pride and identity.

Graffiti can be seen as a platform of expression and communication in the city. Graffiti, as youthful rebellion, is a form of activism and urban commentary and is often a response to hostile urban environments or expression that has no other channels. Graffiti is frequently used during conflict and can generate conversations around political and economic protest and decolonisation. For this reason, it has deep and pertinent roots in the anti-apartheid history of the Gauteng City-Region (GCR).

Graffiti is temporary, whether through its active removal or erasure, the nature of the medium or the act of repainting. An archive of graffiti can therefore be invaluable in providing a record of these urban conversations and the investment of time and money.

This research project mapped photos and locations of graffiti and urban art in the GCR using a web-based application developed for this purpose. Initially, this application was populated by commissioning urban artists to record urban art in certain areas to create a record and tool for residents and visitors to the city-region. The app was envisioned as a model for participatory mapping and an archive of graffiti as it changes over time. To develop the technology, GCRO collaborated with Open Cities Lab (OCL) (formerly Open Data Durban), which ran a parallel project in Durban.

Preliminary research for the graffiti application was published as a GCRO occasional paper, Where do we draw the line? Graffiti in Maboneng, Johannesburg, in March 2019. The paper explored the various facets of graffiti and urban art, including the historical dimension of protest art in the GCR; the way that urban art is being used to create neighbourhood identities in very different contexts, how ‘legitimate’ urban art spaces are being managed; and ultimately an understanding of the conversations being conducted through urban art in the GCR. The occasional paper explored these facets through the case study of Maboneng, a redeveloped Johannesburg’s inner city precinct with extensive graffiti and urban art. The findings from the occasional paper have also been published as a story map, Graffiti and urban art in Maboneng – a virtual tour, which takes readers on a virtual tour of the Maboneng graffiti scene. A journal paper was also published based on the findings from this project entitled, Creative writing: Urban renewal, the creative city and graffiti in Johannesburg. This journal paper uses visual and spatial analyses to show the variety and concentration of creative visual inscriptions in Maboneng. The analysis demonstrates how artists have responded to the opportunities for increased visibility through the redevelopment process. Mapping graffiti and street art reveals a hybrid space combining sanctioned and unsanctioned visual inscriptions and shows how urban redevelopment can enable an audience for creative endeavours.


Academic publications

Parker, A. and Khanyile, S. (2022) Creative writing: Urban renewal, the creative city and graffiti in Johannesburg, Social and Cultural Geography.

GCRO Occasional paper

Parker, A., Khanyile, S., and Joseph, K. (2019) Where do we draw the line?: Graffiti in Maboneng. GCRO Occasional Paper no.13, Johannesburg, March 2019.

Map of the month

Khanyile, S. and Parker, A. (2019) ‘Graffiti and urban art in Maboneng – a virtual tour', GCRO Map of the Month, August 2019.

Interactive visualisation

Parker, A. and Khanyile, S. and with Open Cities Lab (2022) ‘Mapping graffiti', Interactive visualisation, March 2022.


Alexandra Parker and Samkelisiwe Khanyile (September 2019) 'The value of archiving and mapping graffiti', GCRO/OCL graffiti application workshop, 2 September 2019.

Alexandra Parker and Samkelisiwe Khanyile (May 2019) 'Visible and legible landscapes: Graffiti in the redevelopment of Maboneng, Johannesburg', GCRO Brown bag seminar, 22 May 2019.

Khanyile, S. and Parker, A. (August 2018) ‘Where do we draw the line?: Graffiti in Maboneng, Johannesburg’. International Royal Geographical Society Conference, Cardiff, Wales, 31 August 2018.

Parker, A. and Khanyile, S. (August 2018) 'Where do we draw the line?: Graffiti in Maboneng, Johannesburg'. Faces of the City Seminar Series. Wits University, 14 August 2018.


On 2 September 2019, GCRO and OCL hosted a workshop in Johannesburg with various Gauteng-based graffiti artists. The workshop presented the draft application for discussion and input from the key users of the application.

OCL hosted a workshop on Friday, 3 August 2018. Samkelisiwe Khanyile and local graffiti artists in Durban attended the workshop. The event presented an opportunity for ODD to get feedback from the project members and members of the graffiti subculture on the wireframes of the proposed mobile application.

Last updated: 30 March 2023.


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