(Pic: Akona Kenqu)

Why we painted Jozi pink

(Pic: Akona Kenqu)
(Pic: Lungile Zuma)

I land in Johannesburg for the third time in four years.  I drive into the city guided by faint memory and intuition. I drive carefully but still I end up taking a wrong turn and land in the middle of town, on Main Street. Two things then seem clear: The first – there aren’t any white people on the streets. However, this is inaccurate; I look harder and find a single, tall white man exiting a mechanic’s shop. He has dropped off his Audi and is walking across the street towards a coffee shop. Though the abolishment of apartheid happened 20 years ago, downtown Johannesburg’s colour palette has changed, but not in the way one would have predicted.

The second: There is a plethora of big, fat, abandoned buildings, ten stories and higher, each of them marked by broken windows, barred doors, and bricked up floors. They are beautiful, hallowed objects left behind by time and a history long forgotten. From art deco to modernist and post-modernist architectural treasures, they are spread out sporadically from block to block, colour-less. Witnessing these human structures, one is reminded of post-apocalyptic, dystopian worlds popular in science fiction films and literature.  Yet this is our world today, one in which thousands of people, most of them black citizens from all over Africa, live on the streets surrounded by squalor, in a city famous for its gold and diamond trade. Many of these individuals who migrate south hope to escape the hostility of war torn countries and encounter instead, a different type of war zone in Johannesburg.

Fascinated by how the city seems to have abandoned these buildings just like it has some of its population, I can not imagine that, almost six weeks later, I would find myself transported from the roof of one of these dilapidated buildings to a jail cell in Johannesburg’s central police station. The jail cell – with its many barred, fenced, and frosted glass windows–made me feel helpless. By contrast, the abandoned buildings – where most windows are broken or missing altogether-made my team and I feel an empowerment and awareness that vibrated with possibility.

Consider windowless buildings. Bleeding and gutted buildings. Consider a system in which government and privately owned buildings are left uncared for from block to block throughout the heart of a city. If the broken windows theory prescribes a zero tolerance policy for even minor damage to property, how can entire structures be abandoned, left to rot, without devastating effects on those who can not afford to move to other neighborhoods?

It was back in 1982 that the broken window theory was first introduced by social scientists Wilson & Kelling. They asked their audience to consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows were not repaired, vandals would likely break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and – if it was unoccupied – perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Chapter two, section 26 of the Constitution of South Africa states that “Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing.” With so many evictions happening due to Mayor Park Tau’s “Operation Clean Sweep” and with thousands of people in the inner city with no place to live, how can we go on ignoring all of these buildings that could be renovated as potential homes?  “Demolition by decay” – as it is referred to in the blogosphere – still plagues the city centre today. The wickedness of some owners is only matched by the sheer indifference of the municipality, taking no action, even when owed millions of rand in rates.

The project
As I keep thinking of these still beautiful buildings, I speak to friends of mine, local artists, about turning them into “Living Sculptures” so that the people of Johannesburg are reminded of their presence and the injustice they embody.Maybe we could highlight the buildings? Maybe we could paint them hot-pink? From what I had observed in Jozi’s urban environment, there is not much of that colour anywhere… no South African brands seemed to use this colour and therefore it would be easy to create new associations in Johannesburg’s cultural landscape. The artists, and most people who learned about the project in the following weeks, were excited about the idea and “valued the style, urgency, underground stealth, surprise approach and the overall intention” of the project.

It is not until later, amongst painters, photographers, and print-makers that we decide on the style of painting: we will pour the paint from the top of the chosen dilapidated building first.  Then we will go down floor by floor and collectively decide which windows will “bleed out.” We are excited by the notion that the buildings would appear to be crying, bleeding, leaking colour. The colour and medium of choice will take the form of more than 1000 litres of hot-pink, water-soluble paint.

Once the idea is solidified, we spread the word over a period of three weeks. More than thirty local creative agents of all colours and creeds join our nightly excursions to help paint and document our process. Friends invite friends. All show up after midnight wearing their old clothes, their curiosity, and their courage. We start in the last week of June and finish in the first week of August.

(Pic: Akona Kenqu)
(Pic: Yazmany Arboleda)

We study the buildings during the daytime: we draw up floor plans, circulation patterns, and check the finishes on floors and walls – mostly scattered debris. Then, at the agreed-upon early morning hour, we gather and travel downtown with our buckets of paint and our ladders. The big challenge with most of our buildings is gaining entry to the second floor – once inside, we usually have access to the rest of the building. We walk up to the roof, and prepare our tools, pouring the pink paint slowly and evenly from top to bottom.  As much work as could be done in preparation, we never have control over how the paint will actually adhere to each building.  The speed and texture always varies, and it is always exciting to gaze upon the end result the following morning.

(Pic: Akona Kenqu)
(Pic: Akona Kenqu)
(Pic: Yazmany Alboleda)
(Pic: Yazmany Arboleda)

It is not until we have found a comfortable pattern, meeting and working together while most of the city is asleep, that the head of security of our seventh highlighted building approaches us and calls the police. He wants to know what we are doing and why were doing it. From our pink stained attire, everyone could easily assume that we are responsible for the buildings that have been dressed in pink in the previous weeks.

As the leader of this project, I feel it is my duty to take care of whatever charges may come up and asked my fellow artists and activists to leave the scene. The police ask me to follow them to the station, along with the security guard, to talk to the colonel.  Once there, I realise that I have no phone, no identification, and no way out.

At first, he claims that he could not let me go because I have no way to identify myself.  Sometime after three in the morning they find a case number for a “malicious destruction of property” that had been pressed the previous week for one of our transformed buildings.  With the case in hand, I am booked into Johannesburg’s central police station as a suspect.  Feeling completely isolated and alone, one question comes to my mind:  “what is more unjustto allow buildings to decay and create an atmosphere that permeates of fear, or to use colour to create a conversation about how we can all be a part of bringing said buildings back to life?”  And also, aren’t these buildings, a vital part of the fabric of the city of Johannesburg, all of our responsibility?

There are no white people to be found in the police station either. Again, this is inaccurate, as the colonel who deals with my case, pale and blonde haired, does so in a heavy Afrikaans accent. Everyone else in the prison, from the guards to the captives, range in colour from dark-chocolate to dark-caramel. My own colouring, pale-olive by comparison, is so striking to the rest of the population that, in the morning, one of the janitors come into my cell and inquire about why I am there. He claims that I look “out of place.” Even earlier, when I was being admitted, the constable looked up from her form and asked me if I was Black, Coloured, Indian/Asian or White.  I looked back at her responding that I am not any of those things. “I am Latin American, Hispanic.” Looking back down and speaking sharply she responded, “We can just say you are White.”

Some parts of the prison feel as neglected and dilapidated as the buildings that I have been studying for weeks. Buildings like the CNA, Shakespeare House and New Kempsey – a full city block of historical Art Deco buildings, bricked up and left to crumble as rain pelts through the broken windows – are not that different from this local police station, and its inhabitants are often the very same hopeless people who sit and walk around the city’s Central Business District.

Painting is a way for us to challenge our colour-blindness to these issues. By highlighting these facades in pink, we have generated important dialogue and debate among the denizens of Johannesburg. We hope that these conversations will in turn, be a call to action. The project we started is ongoing and more buildings will be painted soon. Just like some of the legacy of apartheid, these buildings may be abandoned, but they are still standing. Now more than ever we are responsible for being aware of colour – whether it be in the black and white of race, or the pink of social injustice.

Yazmany Arboleda is a New York-based Colombian-American artist who lectures internationally on the power of art in public space. He is the Creative Director of MIT’s ENGAGE program as well as The Brooklyn Cottage. His work has been written about in the New York Times, Washington Post, UK’s Guardian, Fast Company, and Reuters. In 2013, he was named one of Good Magazine’s 100 People Making Our World Better.


  1. Yarrum says:

    Wrong is wrong (it is indeed vandalism), but important that the paint used was water soluble.
    No one has to go around repainting or cleaning the affected buildings.
    Indeed, the absent owners aren’t worried about their permanently broken window panes, permanently stripped floorboards, permanently missing piping, permanently ripped out cabling, etc. Why would some cheerful, temporary pink paint present a problem to them? They’re the only ones who can press charges for vandalism and any magistrate or judge would just laugh at them.
    Banksy permanently defaces walls so why is that art? Because he is famous and his works are valuable?
    If the owners don’t mind or don’t care, then you can’t be prosecuted for vandalism and it isn’t vandalism.
    But they didn’t so let’s call it a prank, not the end of the world as some of the other commentators have done.
    Sure, the money and time could have been more practically spent. There’s not a lot of art that will feed, clothe, warm and shelter anyone.
    As for artistic and societal merit – brilliant.
    Thanks for risking it.

  2. Lee says:

    This was a very stupid thing to do mister America. If one intends to make a statement, do it in your own back yard, where you know the ins and out of everything. You are nothing more than a tourist in Joburg, who thought something and decided to impose your silly thoughts onto our reality.
    Pink is used often as a symbol for tenderness, loving and care. What I think of when ever I see pink is CANCER! Strangely enough in 2013 everywhere from pretoria to postmasburg to Jeffreys bay had trees all along the roads wrapped in pink linen as a symbol of some sort linked to some cancer. My point is that you came to joburg and forced your cancerous ideas onto its fabric.

  3. Scott says:

    Thanks visiting artist – but those of us who live in the inner-city are well aware of the empty buildings and the socio-economic realities of the space. We hardly needed you to bring our attention to them and make them look even worse.
    What conversation have you started exactly. You certainly haven’t piqued any investor’s or government programme interest which is the only thing that will bring change.
    Thanks for going home.

    • Michael says:

      Graceful City falls to Gracelessness
      Well put Scott. Being an ex-resident of Johannesburg myself the place is pathetic and for a so called artist to make things even worse it sticks out like a sore thumb. How long or should i rather say now the city is even in a worse state because those things will never be attended to, only more broken windows and building to fit in with the rest. Never was the city in such bad shape, never again will our buildings be safe other than out own houses.

  4. Luvo says:

    Just shows the paucity of ideas of these so-called “artists”. No real talent, just trying to create a stir, or make a shallow, unworthy “statement” that denigrates the actual issues they purport to highlight. In fact it’s lost on me – and on most inhabitants of that space I would guess.

  5. Themba says:

    So uncritical of your own gaze… and now you’ve inflicted it on others. A little kid probably has more creativity and positive ideas on how to uplift the area. How about cleaning up instead of defacing/vandalism (oops, art)? What about greening the surrounds instead of hot pinking them? Using your analogy, you have broken more windows instead of fixing them… maybe I should whip out my spray paint and continue your mission of “uglification”? People with no talent will tend to make ugly things and try to create an “artistic” narrative around them… and the equally short-sighted aficionados will be agog, never having set foot in the CBD.

  6. sheblessed says:

    I am American & found this rude, brash & immature. Whoever said “why not gather residents & the mayor to clean the city?” Was on point. Also,
    Gentrification only works long enough for the rich to move in & call their favorite drugdealer. You cannot push the poor away & obtain any positive results. You simply make enough space to pretend you gained positive results.

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