Nairobi’s Famed Matatu Graffiti Is Back

06 February, 2015

For the last 10 years, the Kenyan government banned any painting on "matatus" --- large public taxis in the capital, Nairobi. The vehicles could only have an identical single, yellow line, or stripe. Recently, however, the President of Kenya ended the ban on matatu art.

Now, taxi drivers have begun the battle for the finest paintings on their vehicles.

Peter Kanyallu, also known as Nyash, grew up in a poor area of Nairobi. When he was young he started making the urban art known as graffiti – painted pictures and words on public surfaces, like walls and bridges.

Nairobi’s Famed Matatu Graffiti Is Back
A recent creation from Peter Kanyallu, also known as Nyash, is a matatu dedicated to the movie "Titanic." January 26, 2015. (Hilary Heuler/VOA News)

The 29-year-old says he never outgrew his passion for the work. However, these days he gets paid for it. And now his art reaches even more people.

Nyash paints matatus. His most recent work includes a bright pink bus painted with images and words from the American movie "Titanic." Another work is all about the shoe company Puma.

Nyash says his themes represent Kenyan pop culture.

"What we look for, it's the trending things, like movies, musicians and so on. Sometimes we draw pictures of 50 Cent, because guys out there like 50 Cent. A customer may come and say, ‘I want mine to have a logo of Puma, Facebook, Adidas, and so on, because it's what he likes."

Nairobi's matatus were once famous -- or infamous -- for wild driving, loud music and equally loud artwork. Many were also run by organized crime groups, or cartels.

In 2004, matatu art was banned as part of a government attempt to restrain the industry. The driving skills of operators did not improve much, and the cartels were not disappearing. But the art was gone from the vehicles.

Now it is coming back. There are more than 10,000 matatus in Nairobi alone. A growing number are painted with pictures of movie stars. There are also words painted on many of the vehicles like, "nuclear," "hurricane" and "repent." One matutu displays the mysterious phrase: "appetizer undecided."

Nyash says owners pay up to $1,000 for his art. He says the colorful matatus get more customers.

"Owners really enjoy those matatus. It's like a competition. The most decorated, you always find them on top."

Kanoru Wambugu is the chief officer of the Matatu Owners Association. He says whatever appeals to the youth is good for business.

"Young people want to get associated with matatus. The students, the young people and the people in the lower classes do not own cars, and therefore they are going to use them. That's our target."

He also says matatus give young artists like Nyash the rare chance to make some money for their skills.

"That's what we want, those young people to draw. The moment they design those vehicles they are getting their upkeep, and you are going to reduce crime."

Mr. Wambugu says the matatu industry is better supervised than it used to be. He says there are graffiti rules to make sure that the painting on matatus does not offend people.

"We want something that is not insulting, that is not inciting. It does not have any beer-related issues or alcohol promotion. We do not want to have pornography. We do not want to have things like promotion of war and violence."

Nyash says he is doing his best to honor the new rules and urges other matatu artists to do the same. But, he says there will be violations, like illegally colored windows and flashing lights.

After all, he says, they just look nice. And with over 10,000 moving artworks in Nairobi, who can resist?

I'm Marsha James.

Hilary Heuler reported this story. Marsha James wrote it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in this Story

graffitin. pictures or words painted or drawn on a wall, building

passionn. a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something

carteln. a group of businesses that agree to fix prices so they all will make more money

upkeepn. the process of keeping something in good condition: the care or maintenance of buildings, equipment, etc.

pornography n. pictures, magazines that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way in order to cause sexual excitement

flashingv. to shine or give off bright light suddenly or in repeated bursts

Have you ever made graffiti art? Does it color city life in a good way or does it violate public space? Tell us what you think in the comments section.