Picture yourself standing at a bus station in Nairobi, Kenya. The unwritten rule is that none of these minibuses (shared taxis, called matatus) will leave until they have enough passengers. That can be around 20 or more people. So every matatu has a tout shouting at top volume — even banging on the side of the bus — to corral more customers.
All of a sudden, what looks like a discotheque on wheels pulls up.
Music blasts from souped-up speakers. Strobe lights flash on the inside walls and seat backs. The exhaust pipe is purposely pinched to rev like a motorcycle. And unlike the drab greens of the average van, this one is painted with airbrushed portraits of Jimi Hendrix and Elvis and Johnny Cash — as well as lyrical fragments from the songs of the Beatles and Maroon 5.
Commuters make a beeline for the magical bus.
Nairobi's famous matatu art is making a comeback.
Kenya's president recently lifted a 10-year ban on matatu art. Bus owners are sending their vehicles to garages and paying artists like Roy Mungai, a.k.a. Great (who designed the Rolling Stone bus above) about $1,000 per vehicle. No surprise — a painted, souped-up matatu can charge double the fare of a plain one.
Which makes one wonder: Why did Kenya's government banish graffiti from its public transportation in the first place? And why would commuters pay twice as much to ride an artsy matatu?
Let's start with the appeal to commuters. A bus with graffiti turns out to be the speediest way to get from point A to point B. If young people prefer a painted bus that plays loud music, and they seem to, then it fills up faster. It leaves sooner. It gets places on time. And thus it's more popular with anyone who can afford the extra fare.
It's a circle: Graffiti triggers enough of a change in commuter behavior that what may look like irreverent art is actually a source of profit for private bus owners. And that's why matatu owners have been flaunting the ban — and pressuring the government to allow artists to work.
As for the ban, the reason was road safety. Back in the day, artists would pretty much cover the windows and the windshield, leaving just a narrow strip for the driver to see through. Visibility was so limited that drivers would have to open the windows just to know where they were.
Understandably, many Kenyans are fearful now that the artists are back in business. They say the government caved to rich and powerful matatu owners.
But the new generation of graffiti artists won't be blocking every inch of glass. Although that doesn't mean they'll be reining in their wilder instincts.
Roy Mungai, 27, is one of the bus decorators. Mungai studied 3D animation in college. Before he picks up a can of spray paint or steps into the garage, he'll map out his ideas on his laptop with CorelDRAW. He goes by the name "Great."
Many matatus in Nairobi are homages to various themes or brands, and Mungai's are no exception. The Rolling Stone matatu plays off Kenya's love of rock music. His newer projects include a riff off the logo of Rockford Fosgate, a maker of car sound systems, as well as an ironic tribute to the NYPD (complete with Keith-Haring-esque silhouettes of police beating civilians).
Despite his boastful name, Great is humble about his work. He grew up in a Nairobi slum admiring what he enviously calls "real matatu graffiti."
And he argues that the distinctive look of a matatu bus is actually a plus when it comes to the welfare of pedestrians. If you're run over by a speeding matatu and lucky enough to still be conscious, his advice: Don't worry about memorizing the license plate. Just focus on the three-foot-tall spray-painted face of the late Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi speeding away from you.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When a city successfully gets rid of graffiti on public transportation, you don't really expect the government there to then bring the street art back. But that is exactly what Kenya's president did recently when he agreed to lift a ban on the art found frequently on shared taxi vans called matatus. NPR's Gregory Warner heads to a bus station in Nairobi to find out how the buses got their color back.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: If you've ever taken the Chinatown bus in an American city, then you know how most African matatus work. There's no schedule. The bus leaves when it's almost full.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING ON A BUS)
WARNER: So what you're listening to is a matatu tout straining to corral more commuters by banging on the bus itself and shouting the low price - just 35 cents. And then another bus pulls up with a totally different look.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUS REVVING)
WARNER: This bus, as you can hear, has music blaring, and its exhaust pipe has been pinched to sound loud like a motorcycle. And it looks different too. Its painted with airbrushed portraits of Jimi Hendrix and Elvis and Johnny Cash and lyrical fragments from songs of The Beatles and Maroon Five. This matatu tout doesn't need to do anything to corral commuters, and he's charging twice the price to go to the same place.
You're showing me all the money you're making from this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, all the money made, yeah.
WARNER: Why are people paying extra for the privilege of commuting in what is essentially a moving discotheque? The answer is an odd lesson about being the most popular bus on the block. If young people prefer this bus, and they seem to, then it fills up faster. It leaves sooner. It gets places on time. And thus, it's more popular with everybody who can afford the extra fare. It's a circle where art meets economics and graffiti triggers enough of a change in commuter behavior that what may look like irreverent street art is actually a source of profit for private bus owners. And so those owners have been steadily flouting the 10-year-old ban long before the Kenyan president gave the formal nod to the city's artist, like this guy.
ROY MUNGAI: I go by the name Great.
WARNER: How do you spell it, G R 8?
MUNGAI: No, G R E A T.
WARNER: His real name is Roy Mungai. He studied 3-D animation in college but says he can make more money painting matatus - about $1,000 per bus. He takes me into his garage where he's decorating buses with spray paint and vinyl decals. One is an homage to speaker system company, another a semi-ironic tribute to the NYPD complete with Keith-Haring-type cutouts of police beating civilians. But Nairobi has a long history of matatu art. And Mungai grew up in a slum here admiring what he now enviously calls real graffiti in the days when artists could paint the windows, paint the windshields, leaving just a narrow strip for the driver to see through.
MUNGAI: OK. It wasn't that good when it comes to the passengers because you don't know where you're going.
WARNER: (Laughter) Which is kind of important for a matatu.
MUNGAI: Yeah, yeah because you had to open the windows to know where you are.
WARNER: Now the reason for the ban on matatu art was road safety. And many Kenyans are afraid now that artists like Great are back in business. They say the government has caved to powerful bus owners.
MUNGAI: I don't necessarily think it's that because, like, now if it causes an accident or something, you'll be sure that's the car.
WARNER: Mungai claims that artists actually make it easier for police because if you've been run over by a taxi, and you're lucky enough to still be conscious, at least you're likely to remember the three-foot spray-painted face of Moammar Gadhafi speeding away from you. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.