Students around the world: Street Art Graffiti Ethiopia

Behulum Mengistu
© Behulum Mengistu
Behulum Mengistu studies in Hawassa and is one of the most important players in the graffiti and street art scene in Ethiopia.

How did you learn this art?

Behulum Mengistu: “When I was thirteen years old I went to a youth centre where we practised art. After three or four years I met American artists who showed me graffiti and that’s where it all started. There are also other street artists in Ethiopia and together we managed to create a street art and graffiti association with which we complete different kinds of projects.”

Do you also tag on public spaces?

“We don’t tag, we’d rather do moral projects. We ask people if we can paint on their wall and we show them what we have already done. Most of the time they are interested, so most of our art is free and legal.”

Is there a message you want to share through graffiti?

“Yes, most of our work expresses what we feel and has a message. We see graffiti as way to get our message to the people, because it is visible on the streets; whether you are rich or poor, wherever you are, you can see it everywhere for free. This is how we can bring a message to the public about our country, society and politics. Most of the people in Ethiopia don’t know about graffiti or street art, so when you do it, do it in a way they are familiar with, in a traditional Ethiopian way. When you put Ethiopian elements in street art the people appreciate the cultural aspects of it, but if you just put the European or USA style of graffiti, they just don’t understand it. So we are trying to do street art with an Ethiopian style.”

“We see graffiti as way to get our message to the people, because it is visible on the streets; whether you are rich or poor.”

Behulum Mengistu

And what is your message?

“Mostly I talk about the country, society and politics and try to sensitise people through art. Ethiopia is a very poor country. We have three or four channels, but most of the time, we all know the news does not tell the truth, and journalists often get arrested. The government controls most of the media. Also, I am one of those people who go out at night and graffiti public spaces, so I could easily get into a situation where I get caught by the police, and I don’t want this to happen to me.”

Aren’t you afraid you will get arrested because of your criticism?

“Sometimes I am afraid, but most of the time people don’t understand it or don’t make time to look into it. Confronting the government doesn’t interest me. I just want to show the broader public; youngsters, adults… I want them to see, not the government. If that happened I could get in trouble, so I don’t really want them to see. Every time I graffiti public places and people see my messages, most think it is right, they see the truth in it so they complement me.”

Where do you get your inspiration? 

“We organise different projects and workshops with international graffiti artists. Every time they come to Ethiopia, they contact me: because I am quite well known you can find me easily on Google. That is how I often receive e-mails from other artists. When they are here, we go out, buy some materials and create big things. I also invite some kids from the neighbourhood to graffiti with us. This is how I get in touch with different kinds of artists and styles from around the world. My inspiration also comes from what I see or what happens in my environment, but also from the African culture.”

“An American showed me the movie about Banksy: ‘Exit through the giftshop’. This movie encouraged me to do more political graffiti, but also to be careful. I think he was smart to hide himself. He was always playing with the devil.”

Where do your means come from to realise your projects?

“I don’t earn money through my art. This year I ‘m working for an NGO: ‘Aikido Ethiopia Association’, what promotes Aikido, a Japanese martial art. I am one of the six people who have the black belt. The association works on peace-building and conflict resolution and we work on projects – amongst others- against AIDS called ‘One Love Theatre’. In this project we do dance, music and theatre to create awareness about AIDs and people’s situations. Twice a year we travel south and have a circus with dance and lots more, and people can teach each other for free. At the moment I’m managing this project.”

At the university you study computer science- something completely different.

“It is, but I love it because technology is very important these days. We learn graphic design, software engineering, web design and all that is like an art to me. You just need to practice more and study at university. I like both.”

Not every student can choose what he or she wants to study in Ethiopia. Were you able to choose?

“Yes I could make my own choice because I got good grades in high school. If you have worse grades you can chose as well, but you won’t be accepted. The government will chose in your place because they want to protect the classes. Some universities are high-class universities, such as is the university of Hawassa. These kinds of universities are old and have good teachers, so a lot of students want to study there. This makes it hard to get in, so they prefer students with high grades.”

Is it expensive to study in Ethiopia?

“We don’t pay up-front at universities. The government covers the dormitory, the food and everything. But the moment you graduate they give you a copy of your diploma, because you have to work at least three or five years for the government. If you don’t, and you still want the original document, you will have to pay back the amount that you own the government for your studies. Still, you can find a job without the original diploma, but it won’t necessarily be relevant to your studies.”

“The moment you graduate they give you a copy of your diploma, because you have to work at least three or five years for the government.”

Behulum Mengistu

Will you need the original document?

“I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll be able to buy the document in the future when I need it. But for now I can start with a copy.”

If the university is for free, does that mean there are a lot of students?

“Yes, when I started university there were many students, but after the first trimester a lot of them goes back home because their subject is to hard. Students come from all over Ethiopia and they are far from home. Sometimes it is hard for them to live in a city they don’t know with no money nor support of their families. Besides if you don’t measure up to academic standards, the universities can throw you out. This year many students from my course have already left the university. We started with seventy-two students and around twenty of them have now left. I grew up in Hawassa and the university is close to where I live, so I’m lucky. Sometimes I sleep on campus and sometimes I stay home, depending on examinations or assignments.”

This is now your first year, do you have any idea which path you want to take later on? Art or computers?

“Now I am working as the founder and director for ‘Street Art Graffiti Association’. We haven’t got many funds, and we are trying to fund ourselves by creating private artwork for companies, restaurants and hotels. This is just for fun, to promote art and to help other artists. When I graduate I am planning to open my own company that works on t-shirts and advertising. So first I will finish my studies and save some money and when I graduate I will have my own company; that’s the current plan.”

Does the university also finance you when you choose a second subject?

“Now I am in regular class which the government provides, but if you want to study at weekends or at night time, that is also possible. I am considering starting ‘Leadership’ in my second year, because when I finish school, I want to have two degrees right away. Both would be good for managing my business in the future. So it is possible but you will be very busy. Normal class is already very busy!”

You are involved in a lot of projects; do you have enough time to study?

Yes, I am involved in many different projects. With ‘One Love Theatre’, first I want to help the kids, so I thought it is a good thing and at the same time I earn some money to buy different materials, like paint and stuff for the Street Art Graffiti Ethiopia Association. But it is part time and when I have an exam or when I am busy with school, I always concentrate on school, and cut back on my other projects, but when I am free I concentrate on work.

Do your parents appreciate your artwork?

“Yes, but when I first started they were not happy with it because it was taking so much time away from school and they thought I was going to quit or fail. When I was a kid, I used to play a lot of football and did not study much so I’m now three years behind. But now I’m glad it happened because if it weren’t for that I wouldn’t be a street artist or aekido; I would not be me now. Now I manage to do both good and they love it. They see me on television, they hear me on the radio, so they see how I was creating something new and people talk to them about it a lot and that makes them happy. When I was a teenager, they were less happy about it.”

“A couple of days ago I received an email. They asked me to represent Ethiopia in an international book about sticker art which will probably be released in Paris next year. I think it’s a good thing and I am honoured.”

Is there something else you want to share to the Belgian students?

“I manage to have different kind of projects; sports, art, photography… When I was a teenager I spent most of my time at the youth centre, so I developed different skills. Today they are helping me to create my own things and to have hope. At the university students spend most of the time in the dorm, they don’t go out and there is nothing to do at school. They just go to class, come back and learn, without any sport or other activities. I think those kids need something new and university needs to provide different projects outside school, to create opportunities for these young people to develop a new talent. Otherwise the only hope they have is the subject they are learning, and when they drop out, they have no school, no job, no hope and they end up spending most of their lives doing nothing.”

Behulum Mengistu
© Behulum Mengistu
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