Breaking the ‘RULES’: Meeting one of Durban’s most prolific graffiti artists
Words by Carmen Gee. Photos by Peter Aitken.
If you live in Durban and have an affinity for graffiti and street art, you would have undoubtedly noticed the name, ‘RULES’ all over the city’s urban landscape. Painted in massive black and white letters on abandoned buildings, scribbled on dustbins, and dripping on garage doors, RULES really gets his name up there.
Part of crews EDK and 1.2! Cru, RULES has been painting for over a decade, and has a lot to say about this unconventional – and often polarising – urban art form.
RULES’s interest in graffiti was sparked at the prime age of 13, when he started noticing graffiti wherever he went, especially on trips to Johannesburg.
At around 15 or so, he began racking paint with some of his buddies and saving up pennies for R5 trendy cans from Chatsworth. (Big ups K’s Tyres.)
Drawing was something he loved from a young age, so the transition from paper to walls was a natural one.
“I really enjoy engaging with the city and not just seeing it as I pass by between point A and point B and that is probably my main motivation to paint.”
While RULES maintains omnipresence in the Durban graffiti scene today, his exploits extend far beyond the borders of KZN. He has travelled extensively and painted in many cities in Europe, South America and Asia.
But KZN has his heart. RULES finds that the less economically powerful suburbs definitely embrace graffiti as an art form more, and are less precious about clinging onto the monotony of plain, grey walls. However, some of these places can get dangerous. So picking spots to paint in KZN can be tricky.
For the most part he chooses spots depending on what he wants to paint. When the risk is low he paints more detailed things on train tracks or abandoned buildings, taking his time. When the risk is higher the art gets simpler and faster. Lately, he has taken a backfoot to painting trains and has focused more on streets.
“I really enjoy engaging with the city and not just seeing it as I pass by between point A and point B and that is probably my main motivation to paint,” says RULES.
Meaningless art as a reflection of society
RULES is an artist that enjoys graffiti in its truest form. He is not really one for intricate, nature-inspired murals or anything of the like. His style can be characterised by bold colours, quirky characters, and classic graffiti lettering, with OPTONE, GMOK, SOMZ, TAX, and TOE being just a few of his many inspirations.
While he draws a lot at home, RULES almost never paints from a reference. He is open to allowing the chosen space to help determine what it is he’s going to paint, with the colour palette and amount of paint available also playing contributing factors.
RULES has spent the weekend in holding cells on more than one occasion, after being caught for doing graffiti. He’s also been in front of a few judges, but has been lucky enough to avoid severe charges.
So do the pieces have meaning? When asked this question, RULES has the following to say, “Some do. Most don’t. The universe is so vast and on a cosmic scale all we are doing is meaningless nonsense, so why shouldn’t art just be meaningless nonsense? It is a reflection of society after all.”
Respecting the Rules
While RULES certainly lives by his own rules, he has found that there are a few unwritten guidelines that writers should respect. He kindly lists these for us.
“Private property like people’s houses should be avoided, but businesses, big buildings, neglected or abandoned spaces and public property are free reign. Respect the effort people have put into painting train yards safely. Respect history and the homies that have left their flesh bags. Be nice.”
It’s not all fat caps and rainbows
Being a dedicated graffiti artist means jumping fences, breaking laws, and running away from security. But it can get a lot gnarlier than even that, especially when you have to be on the lookout for both cops and robbers.
One of the heavier encounters that RULES experienced happened one night while leaving a train yard with SOMZ, another artist. RULES recounts the hair-raising experience for blunt.
“The universe is so vast and on a cosmic scale all we are doing is meaningless nonsense, so why shouldn’t art just be meaningless nonsense? It is a reflection of society after all.”
“We were on a long pedestrian bridge and we had three dudes walk past us to block the exit of the bridge and the only other exit was blocked by another three people. We knew immediately we were going to be robbed. Assuming they had knives, we got lighters and cans ready to make mini flamethrowers and run past them. As we got close and prepared for the interaction we heard guns being cocked and quickly put aside our plans of attack. They searched us tip to toe while keeping their pistols on us.
“They found our emergency money, and they asked SOMZ where his car was parked as they had found his keys. Luckily it was far from where we were. I took my shoes and paint back after they had our money and they started telling us to walk with them to the other side of the bridge where their other homies were. I got irritated and refused. I told them if they were going to shoot us, to do it close to the road and the train security, and that they had everything we had on us of value. I got up and pulled SOMZ around them to the stairs, and we left shaken but unharmed.”
But it seems that experiences with the law can be just as nasty. RULES has spent the weekend in holding cells on more than one occasion, after being caught for doing graffiti. He’s also been in front of a few judges, but has been lucky enough to avoid severe charges.
After asking him about his most interesting experiences with the law, RULES has this to say:
“One time I arrived at the holding cells on 500 ugs of LSD (your standard dose is 100-120ugs). After being beaten up and interrogated by the charming officers I got put in my cell and found it really enjoyable and was enchanted by the art carved into the holding cell walls until the drugs wore off and I realised I would be there till Monday for my court appearance. Then it got fucking boring ha ha.”
Quick Fire Questions for RULES
What do you define as ‘illegal graffiti’?
Anything that people care about enough to charge you. Really I think it is nuts that an artform makes people feel so touched that they want to incarcerate you, but the point of art is to invoke feelings, so is graffiti the purest form of art.
Any advice for anyone wanting to get into graffiti?
It’s a hobby designed for people with daddy issues, but anyone can do it! Just practice drawing a lot and enjoy exploring the city!
How would you describe the KZN graffiti scene?
How important is it to find your signature style?
I think it’s really important to have a style that resonates with you and comes from you. It’s okay to be inspired by artists but don’t try and pass off their work as yours.
Lastly, any shoutouts you want to give?
Love to all the good souls in my life and those who have passed. Rest easy RONSKE, 4GIVN, PASTELHEART, DAD.
Keep up with RULES
Check out Peter Aitken’s photos of RULES and his recent bombing and writing exploits in KZN: