Mo Hassan

Phone rings… and rings…

Mo: Yo! (expecting our call from an earlier conversation. He was driving to the studio.)

Khanya: Yo bro. So where’s your studio?

Mo: A friend of mine went to France for an artist residency, so I’m taking over the space for a few months.

Khanya: Oh, ok cool. So what does he do?

Mo: Uhm …she’s a graffitti artist. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Nardstar? I’ll send you a link or her instagram handle and you can check out her stuff.

Khanya: Yeah that’s cool. So you said earlier that you came from work, what do you do?

Mo: Nah, at the moment I’m freelancing. I’ve been freelancing since February. I worked for about a year after I got my degree, and have been doing freelancing since Feb.

Khanya: And how’s freelancing in Cape Town bro?

Mo: Yoh, it’s a flooded market. Everybody’s doing something. But when you can kinda separate yourself from everyone else creatively, you end up getting work quicker. But it’s a dog-eat-dog world out here. -laughs

Khanya: I mean, that should give you a bit of an angle right? with your graffitti background…? I guess it gives you a unique way of looking at things.

Mo: Yeah it does set me apart slightly because… I don’t know, my work has a mix of the street feel, with the corporate kind of design and all that technical stuff. So yeah it does kind of set me apart. People look for me for specific kind of work.

Khanya: Oh yeah, dope.

Mo: And at the same time, I’m able to offer mural work as well as corporate ID’s and so on.

Khanya: Mad. Sorry bro, I forgot to introduce Shannon. She’s here too.

Mo: Ok, Ok. Uhm, hi Shannon.

Shannon: hey 🙂

Mo: Shannon is who I got the email from right?

Khanya: Yeah exactly. That was her.

Mo: Ok sweet!

Khanya: Yeah, so you mentioned that you do murals. In our 1st issue we had an interview with a friend of mine, Dav Andrew…

Mo: Oh yes yes yes. I studied with him for a bit. He was ahead of me.

Khanya: Yeah I was studying with him too. We were at CPUT together.

Mo: Oh ok nice. Awe, I was there too.

Khanya: Damn, ok cool -laughs.

Mo: Yeah I did my 4 years there, and Dav’s been killing me with his political cartoons. -laughs

Khanya: Man, he’s dope. So in the interview we had with him, he mentioned like… because we were there together in Cape Town, he kinda tried getting me into the graffiti scene, right. I don’t know if you remember 2010, Adidas had the whole three stripes thing in Woodstock…?

Mo: Oh, uhm…

Khanya: We used to hang there. Faith (47) and them were there, Freddy, Sam… but in the interview when we caught up with him, he was telling us how the graffiti was kinda dying, the culture was dying and like, people…

Mo: Yeah they hit us with the by-laws in a major way. They were getting rough. People were getting fined and busted. It was getting hectic. Police were rocking up at people’s houses to get them to paint over things and handing out fines. But recently, over the past two… years and half its been quieting down a bit. Especially in Woodstock.

A couple of weeks ago we did some work with no permits. We had no pressure and the work is still up. But definitely, the by-laws killed things a bit. People started moving away from the streets, none of the illegal stuff and started doing more commissions, just legitimising the scene a bit more. So, a lot of the major cats in CPT right now do commissioned work.

Khanya: Is that something that’s sustainable to you? I mean are enough brands/companies coming out and saying “We acknowledge graffiti as an art, and we’d like a piece…?”

Mo: Well, there’s definitely a lot more opportunity than there is cash in it. yoh, there are so many people still offering exposure as payment. I’ve even adapted to a system where I have to choose four jobs where I get paid, and I’d have to choose one job where I don’t get paid, just so I can stock up on paint and can keep working. So I gauge, month-on-month, which jobs I can do for free or get paid from.

Shannon: Can I ask you a question? I don’t know anything about graffiti so this might be very random. 

Mo: Ok, go ahead.

Shannon: When you’re a graffiti artist, isn’t the point to do it illegally and not commissioned, and just go fuck-out on a wall? So if it’s commissioned art, is it not just murals on a wall?

Mo: Yeah thats correct. I mean under definition, graffiti is meant to be illegal. that’s why most people prefer to do it illegally, because they consider any work that’s being paid for or known about to be selling out. But I mean, yoh… I personally don’t consider myself a graffiti artist. Paint is just a medium, and a wall is a huge canvas, with art, and my name next to it. That’s marketing. I’ve kind of figured out a way of merging the two, but I’d feel very anxious and nervous if I were to ever call myself a graffiti artist around people who do trains, bombings and quite a lot of risky stuff.

Khanya: -laughs. I know that feeling of having to

respect craft very well.

Mo: Yeah, you have to have that certain amount of respect for them, because that’s a, uhm, a very hardcore scene. I mean people getting into fights, getting robbed… it’s a hardcore scene. So I had to find some sort of balance with that. Like still running around with the underground kings, and then doing cool collabs and commissioned jobs with the kids that are above ground.

Khanya: But I understand the transition of graffiti shifting from the underground and spreading into more commercial spheres, because at the end of the day, it’s an artform that needs to start sustaining itself, and we’d all love to have graffiti seen and appreciated as an official expressive form of art. So yeah I understand that transition, but it wont happen overnight though.

Mo: Definitely not dude. There are people that strictly decide on remaining illegal, hard core, and then you get the guys that sort of try to… I don’t know, cross over like this chick who’s studio I’m occupying now, she studied at CPUT as well, got a degree in graphic

design but ended up not liking it. so she’s been working four to five years, full time, as a mural artist.

Mo: I need her to tell me her secret because, shit man, these are difficult times -laughs. It’s really hard to do that. Especially in this scene. Most of my pro-bono work is for schools…

Khanya: Oh yeah, sure.

Mo: …You know, things that make a bit more of an impact. Also, showing the kids that it’s not all about running around at night and tagging walls. I mean yeah, I might get someone to do some crazy lettering, but it’s at the school, and it’s a positive message. So that’s one of the ways I’m worming my way into the main scene, and still sort of trying to stay underground, if that makes any sense at all -laughs.

Khanya: Uhm, yeah… I don’t think it makes sense, but I think that’s why it works because it shouldn’t make sense.

Mo: Yeah, it’s the chaos theory – type thing.

Khanya: So, I wanted to ask you, like you mentioned earlier, things are getting more quieter, the restrictive boundaries and by-laws are getting a bit looser, are there still youngins trying to get into the scene, becoming graffiti artists? Is it still as attractive a scene as it was six years ago when I was still there?

Mo: Yoh… yes yes, very much so because like, flip, I’ve seen new names pop up everywhere. But the funny thing is that it’ll be an older guy that’s been around for years. From my experience, the younger guys are more into… uhm, damn, like the homies that I know do some… because we’re in a space where some people do commissioned work and some are still underground, they play in the middle. So they’ll come up with a name and tag it everywhere, but then they’ll create some t-shirts and sell those.

Shannon: Aah, so they make it into a business?

Mo: Yeah something like that. It’s more of a brand identity than an alias. So I’m trying to think of an example… there’s this guy who does graffiti on skateboard grip tape, and he has an official account on Instagram where he publishes his merchandise and brand name. So its something like that.

Khanya: Yeah man, it makes sense. It has to be


Mo: Exactly! So they take all the tips and tricks that they’d apply in graffiti, and create and sell merch that will actually pay the bills at the end of the month.

Shannon: That’s clever.

Khanya: So I look at you like more of an illustrator who uses a multitude of platforms as canvases, right, and various mediums as well. But when it comes to collabs, how does that work? Do you get together and conceptualise? because at the end of the day, you have your own technique and your collab partner has his/hers too…

Mo: Sometimes it’s spur of the moment. So someone will be like, “Yo, there’s a wall over here” and we’ll just get together, assess the wall and see what we can do together. Then we’ll assess our sketches, arrange them so they sit in sequence, and the piece just looks and feels good. But then the other times I’ll actually meet up with an artist and we’ll conceptualise and plan ahead. We’ll come up with a piece that will show our individual skills, where one doesn’t out-shine the other or anything like that.

Khanya: Ok that’s cool. that’s cool.

Mo: My collaborations happen in the most random of ways. Like meeting somebody and being like “Hey, I know your work”. And they say the same, then we end up trying to come up with something together.

Khanya: That’s cool. It’s organic.

Mo: Yeah. I appreciate that a lot more.

Khanya: But yo, your characters are the most attractive points of your work for me. The emotion, the gestures, the fabric… Whats the story behind those?

Mo: Flip man, so I grew up always watching cartoons. I mean, I still spend hours on Cartoon Network today. So being inspired by that, I kind of started working on my own style, playing around with different characters and techniques. So when I came up with a look that I could identify with, one that belonged to me, I started

playing around with it, perfecting it and started giving context instead of just random illustrations. Because from there man, flip, that’s when I started taking it a bit more seriously. I started doing small exhibitions, and a lot of people say my characters look a lot like me, but that’s because they are referenced a lot from what I go through and things that I’ve come to know. So I’m telling a personal story and kind of leaving it open to interpretation. It’s a very therapeutic process for me, because these illustrations will either say something I can’t say, or feel something that I want to feel but am not allowed to.

Khanya: That’s a lot of emotional risk that goes into doing public art man…

Mo: Yeah! it is. You feel flippen raw after putting work out. Just the thought that people are going to have their own perceptions and comments on the work… sometimes I do stuff and feel like, nah I can’t put that out, that’s too dark or twisted, people might start looking at me as some emo kid or something.

Khanya: -laughs. Cool but how about the other emotional side of putting your work out in a public space? I mean the thought of other graffiti artists coming out and damaging your work…

Mo: Weirdly enough, I do like leaving little bits of myself around everywhere. Little reminders when I walk by. It’s weird, but cool.

Khanya: Cool, so, I don’t want to ask you about the future of graffiti in Cape Town, but rather where would you like to see graffiti go to from here?

Mo: Ok. Yoh. Flip. Ok, I want there to be a balance between the opportunity and sustainability. It has to start paying more. There needs to be as much space to paint as there is money to pay. I mean everybody enjoys it, but right now, its still very much of gimmick. It needs to be taken a lot more seriously. when that happens, the artists will take it a lot more seriously too, and not just use it to look or feel cool, but rather showcase their work and talents. So I’d like to see a more legit scene, where you get as much respect and recognition from doing commissioned work as you do when doing underground work. 

Shannon: Where it’s seen and recognised as an art, officially.

Mo: Yeah.

Khanya: But I feel like a lot of the perception of graffiti

is just that – perception. If I did characters in a storybook, it’s just that right? A story book. But if I took those very same characters to a wall, then it’s graffiti. But dude, anyway, listen, next year we wana do something, a project called Posterboy. We want to start with story books and pyjamas for the kids in Hillbrow. maybe we can commission you to work on that with us.

Mo: That would be insane! Mad! That would be nuts! That’s actually one of the things on my bucket list. 

Khanya: Done bro! done! It’s going to be awesome. Pyjamas and fucking cartoons. 

Shannon: Wait, before you go, is your friend the one who did the piece at the aquarium?

Mo: Yeah that was her. Nadia.

Shannon: Yeah I have heard about her, through Carey. 

Mo: Yes yes yes, I studied with her. that’s crazy.

Khanya: It’s a mad world. One more question. Do you guys still use terms like ‘toy’ for a beginner and ‘king’ for the O.G.’s?

Mo: Yeah, that’s still there.

Khanya: At least the culture’s somewhat intact right?

Mo: Yeah man, like if you… I don’t know if you know the park just before you get to Walmer Estates? Just up the road from CPUT…

Khanya: Yeah, right by old District Six? The L-shaped wall?

Mo: Yeah. That’s one of the most iconic graffiti places in Cape Town. Like, a lot of the cats… if your name isn’t up there then… like if you a random cat and you go there and mess with someone’s work then your head’s on the block dude.

Khanya: Man, at least they still respect the craft. It keeps the culture alive. But yeah, thanks bro. We’ve really enjoyed this one. Love homie.