The Life of Moha A Muslim graffiti artist in Kenya who paints a cross as quickly as a mosque on the sides of Matatu buses.

– by Paul Glader –

NAIROBI, KENYA – Rolling through the dusty roads of this capital city, you see wild, fanciful vehicles zipping by, their sides daubed with vibrant messages like “Superstar!” in red starburst; “God’s Gift;” “Octopizza” or “Calgrave Jokers.”

Wait a second. Why did that bus say “Coach Sacca” and feature painted camels? Others depict the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. Other praise Jesus and share Bible verses. “The Lord is my shepherd” say the mud flaps on a motorcycle zooming past. One bus touts “NYPD.” OK?

This is “Matatu” culture in Kenya, the practice of pimped-out, color-exploding, happy-tatted local transit buses. Are we talking LSD-tripping bus culture like those Tom Wolfe chronicled in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of the 1960s? Um, no. It’s more akin to the 1960s custom car culture Wolfe documented in Southern California in the Esquire magazine piece, “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.”

Strangely, there is a “California” neighborhood in Nairobi, a largely Muslim neighborhood and a hub for matatu graffiti and hip-hop. But Matatu is very different from L.A. car culture. These Nairobi buses charge super-low fares (50 cents or so) for Kenyans to move around their city. “Matatu” stands for “three cents” (what a ride cost when they started). Matatu are still THE way locals travel fixed routes cheaper than Uber or taxis.

A search for the heart of Matatu culture led us to the man behind the “Straight Outa Moha Grafix” trademark, a leading Matatu graffiti artist. That would be Mohamed Kartarchand Bagatiram Rala Ram, whom the local press has identified as “Mohammed Ali.” He goes by the moniker “Moha.” Photographer Wesley Parnell and I had asked friends to help us find a matatu graffiti artist. They brought us to Moha.

Mohamed "Moha," is a graffiti artist in Nairobi, who paints designs on "Matatu" buses that transport Kenyans at super-low prices. Some matatu owners pay as much as $15,000 to outfit their transit buses and vans with graffiti designs, speakers and fancy seats with LCD displays.

We pull up to an auto yard in the Eastleigh section of Nairobi and wander through a maze of vehicles in various states of overhaul: a car gets a new hood as young men mold clay, seats receive fresh upholstery on one side of the lot; a van is doused with bright orange paint on another. Another van bearing green and yellow colors of Brazil’s national soccer team features airbrushed pictures of stars like David Luiz and Neymar.

Then we meet Moha, who pops out between the cars, greets us with a handshake-backslap-dude hug and invites us into his office, a wooden shack full of notebooks, drawing tools and cans of spray paint. He is 40 years old and sports a bushy black beard and a set of silver-plated teeth.

photo by Wesley Parnell

“Where are you from?” Moha asked

“New York,” we say.

“Oh. Nice,” Moha says. “Soon I am coming there.”

“What brings you to New York then? “

“I just come there and look for you guys,” he says. “Now I can tell my guys, ‘I know guys in New York. I have guys there.’ “

Mohamed "Moha," is a graffiti artist in Nairobi, who paints designs on "Matatu" buses that transport Kenyans at super-low prices. His work carries the “Straight Outa Moha Grafix” trademark

We tell him to come to Brooklyn for a tour of graffiti. Moha pledges to do so and says, he “can do something even crazier than what they do” [in Brooklyn]. Moha, it turns out, collects motorcycles, Nike basketball shoes and is a big fan of Hip-Hop and the NBA. He told us more about Matatu. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for brevity.

photos by Wesley Parnell

Paul Glader: Tell us about your life, your story?

Moha: I’m from a very humble beginning. My parents died when I was very young. I was left with my two sisters. After that, we struggled to make ends meet. Because I was still in school. My sister too. One sister is a year older and one sister is 10 years younger than me. I got good grades but… I could not afford college. So I went straight to work. I was employed in a company where they deal with these corrugated sheets. I worked there for one year. Then I went to another company dealing with paints. I was a salesman. But I was poor at selling. I was given a diary to record sales. But each day when he looked at it, it was full of drawings and graffiti… When he saw my diary, it was full of drawings. He asked, “What are you doing here?” He said, “Go and look for what you can do with this talent.” The next day (in April of 1999), I left work. I went to a garage to learn how to draw on Matatu buses. I used to draw and make paintings to sell. It didn’t give me pleasure anymore. I wanted people to see what I am doing. Those who draw on walls want people to see what they are doing. People become bored in galleries… I didn’t want something like that. I needed something everyone can see. When I was small, I wanted people to know me…I really wanted fame and all that.

I told the garage that I wanted to start doing art [on buses]. They asked what I have done before. I said, “Yes. I have done many cars.” I hadn’t done even one. My art was all on paper. I started watching how people do this work. I used to go there every day and see what other designers are doing. I got some ideas. I did my own. The owner didn’t like it. So they scraped it off without paying me. Failing is the first attempt in life. So I didn’t give up.

Slowly, I started doing some small jobs. No one recognized me. I did one Matatu. It was called “Ganja farm.” The body was brown. I did some marijuana leaves in green. Then I wrote “ganja” and then down was “farm.” On the rear I wrote, “The guilty shall be punished.” Then I wrote my name, “Moha.” That came out really nice. People were asking, “Who is that Moha?” At that time, I didn’t have work or a garage. Slowly, someone asked me to do their car. I took it to someone else’s garage (to paint).

photo by Wesley Parnell

[A mentor showed] me how to be a strong man. I was 13 when I lost my parents. In that time, I was very weak. People used to abuse me. People used to take me for granted. People didn’t respect me at that time. I walked around in slippers or with no shoes. People looked at me funny. I called this guy “Uncle” out of respect. He told me to never give up. Even if you make a mistake, try to do better next time. Life is about learning from your mistakes and other people’s mistakes.

Slowly, I [received clients by word of mouth]… I did one car every two months. I decided to do the cars on my own at my home. I called someone to scrub the car. I did the painting. I did one car, two cars, three cars. Then I had 10 cars at once. Then the problem became neighbors complaining because of the paint. I started looking for a garage. I got a garage there for a year. Then I moved here [to a current garage site] in 2005.

Workers sewing in the upholstery, and interior design section of Mohamed’s auto body and graffiti shop in Nairobi, Kenya.

Glader: So can you tell us about your operations and your team here and how you lead them?

Moha: Normally I have 20-30 guys. I have 20 now. I have a small academy where I teach young boys and girls about graffiti. I am always looking for new talents. I am not growing any younger. The way God gave me talent for free, I want to give it out to other people. I want them to feel what I feel. Anytime I do some graffiti and some portraits, someone comes and sees it and says, “Wow. I really get some pleasure from that…” If you are paid for something that is really good, it gives you satisfaction.

A worker at Moha's auto body shop molds clay, which serves as an adhesive in body remodification.

photo by Wesley Parnell

Glader: Kenya is a religious society with Christians and Muslims being the two largest religious groups. So did your first “Ganja Farm” bus cause any problems in a more religious society?

Moha: I’m a Muslim. Whatever I believe, it’s something I have learned through many years. For me, I don’t paint naked women and vulgar things. That’s my principle. Even that picture of Ganja, it was a long time ago. I was young and never knew about it. Now, because people know me and know my name. People respect me. I can do [murals on vehicles of] anything Muslim. I can do [murals on vehicles of] anything Christian. But I cannot do anything which will affect the society.

Matatu is a vehicle in which everyone goes in. Pastors, kids, elderly people. A church called “Rivers of God.” That is all about Christian [themes]. They have many cars – 50 -60 cars. What I do on them – even though I am a Muslim – is I draw the cross and whatever they want. I respect everyone’s beliefs. If you come to me and say, “I want you to draw for me Jesus, his hand or the cross or to write something from the Holy Bible,” I will still do it. Because it’s your religion and I respect it. Provided we all believe in one God, there is no problem.

What I do on them – even though I am a Muslim – is I draw the cross and whatever they want. I respect everyone’s beliefs. If you come to me and say, “I want you to draw for me Jesus, his hand or the cross or to write something from the Holy Bible,” I will still do it.

Nairobi graffiti artist Mohamed "Moha" is a man of faith. He keeps a Quran on his desk and is an elder at a local Mosque.

Some things I can’t do. People will come and ask me [for that, but I refuse]. I have a wife and kids. I have sisters. People respect me. I am on a committee of a certain mosque. You can imagine if I draw a picture of a naked woman or people with guns and all that and you come and ask any [spiritual] advice from me, it will be funny. So I always have my boundaries. Even if you give me a lot of money, there are things I cannot do. If it is going to affect society [negatively], it is out of the question.

Glader: What drives people to spend money to put these designs on their vehicles? Why do people do it?

Moha: One thing with Kenya is people like competition… Matatu is an industry where competition is at its highest peak. Everybody always has their own designs and things. Whatever drives people to do this thing is competition. Some do it because they want to show off. Some want people to know they have money. At the end of the day, it’s been part of the culture of Kenya for a long time… This thing is growing because of fashion. You can see in the West, everything moves in a trend. It’s the same in matatu. A new singer comes. A new rapper comes, his name will be on the matatu. When Germany won the World Cup, one car will come very soon with a graffiti design of Germany. When Obama won, it was Obama all the time. In Kogelo, where Obama’s family was from, many of the matatus are of Obama and Michelle. I did those enough. Doing portraits of Obama was… in my head. I didn’t even have to look at [a picture] him. I just do airbrush and I’m done.

Workers at the Moha Grafix graffiti shop in Nairobi – photos by Wesley Parnell

Whatever you see on matatu is like a newspaper. It’s something trending at that moment. If you look at recent matatus, things you see in the West – Lil Wayne, Future etc. They are all here. Four days ago, I did a one car, full portrait of Lil Wayne. It’s a competition and then it is people portraying what they love… What drives people to do this thing? It’s the most common means of transport, the cheapest and the fastest. It’s been a part of Kenyan culture for a long time. It’s the easiest, fastest way to move around. And because at the moment now, there are very many matatus: 300,000 matatus in Nairobi alone.

Nairobi graffiti artist Mohamed "Moha" and a Brazilian national soccer team design he painted on the side of a "matatu" van.

Glader: If someone wants to paint up a matatu with you, how much does it cost?

Moha: This small matatu here – from the body work, they are doing the paint and design: 70,000 Kenyan shillings ($677.90). Others cost 100,000 shillings ($968) for roof / sides / dash board etc. doing rims – another 100,000 ($968). For a small matatu, [the total cost can be] 300,000 shillings ($3,000) or 400,000 shillings $4,000. Those big matatus cost as much as 1.5 million ($14,500) – lighting, music. Sometimes it is like a show off. If you buy that car, small mathematics say it costs almost 1.3 million shillings. Every day you get 4,000 shillings from customers. You can imagine how long it will take to pay off your loan. Guys who spend this amount of money are not in it for business. They are in it for showing off.

Glader: So the matatu companies compete with each other and against Uber and other services. Meanwhile, are the graffiti artists who paint matatus also competing? How stiff is the competition?

Moha: There are a lot of graffiti artists. I have mentored men and taught them. In any kind of business, competition is very healthy. For me, I’ve been in this business since 1999. I wouldn’t say I’m the only artist in the world. Every day, a new artist is born. They find me in the world. If you were born in 1999, by now you would be a grown up. So there are many competitors. But I really try to become the best and more creative. I try to become more inspired with whatever people are doing and I do it better. I have been in the industry long enough to have experience. Whatever you do, I make sure I do it better. And that keeps me always on top. Being number one is very hard. Maintaining that number is hard. Now I am turning 40 years. Me growing old does not mean I’m not growing wiser. I’m growing wiser. Whatever I did 10 years ago, I think I can do much, much better… If we do [paint] 300 matatus in one town, I cannot be selfish or jealous of anyone else out there. We have a Facebook group and What’sApp group [for matatu artists]. If someone does [a design] well, we post it. If we do something not nice, people comment. It’s always healthy to have competition. I always teach the young people never to be jealous of someone.

The outside of a custom design Matatu by Moha. On the inside, this Matatu features multiple LCD screens and speakers throughout the cabin and the bus.

I always try and sit down with the young designers. I’m always happy meeting them. I tell them “Try and improve on this.” One day I will die. I want all the people who knew me to have one thing to say: “Moha was a very humble person. He was very truthful. And he was never jealous of anybody or anything.” I don’t want you to think bad if I do something good. Praise me. I will praise you if you do something good. Matatus? I cannot do all of them. We need to be very many [graffiti artists] so this industry will be there. When they are 40 and I’m 80 I can feel like, “Hey. I started this.”

Glader: How do you maintain this status you have with a humble perspective? It runs counter to the notion of a man trying to be “a chief” or boss man in Africa.

You can see I have my Quran there. I pray five times a day. The only thing I have learned through my religion is I will have to die one day. I’m going to be put in the grave with no money, no status, no name. I will rest in peace.

Moha: I’m a very strong Muslim. You can see I have my Quran there. I pray five times a day. The only thing I have learned through my religion is I will have to die one day. I’m going to be put in the grave with no money, no status, no name. I will rest in peace. I want people to say, “He used to be a nice guy.” I’m very humble. Even if I become the boss, I will not get anything more from God. The Quran says anyone who possesses pride the size of a mosquito wing, he will never smell paradise. I want to smell the paradise, so I will never be proud. I have a very nice bike and car. But you will never see me using them. I walk. Sometimes I walk home with my bag and my dirty overalls. I feel very good because I’m a guy who is very famous and very free. Some guys who are very famous roll their windows up and don’t want to see anyone. Me? I walk everywhere and smile and talk to people. I’m never scared because I believe that being humble is one way of success.

Mohamed "Moha," is a graffiti artist in Nairobi, who paints designs on "Matatu" buses under the“Straight Outa Moha Grafix” trademark. He also runs a graffiti training academy for young people in Nairobi.

Glader: Where did you get your cool teeth?

Moha: I like to do things out of the normal because I like people to notice. I had a small motorbike accident. I removed them with a root canal and replaced them with silver. Once I had a silver tooth. I saw some guys doing the same with a couple of teeth. So I decided that I might just put silver on all of them. I have had these silver teeth for about 10 years. They are permanent. You see my identity is bald, beard and silver teeth. This is me.

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Paul Glader is a journalism professor at The King's College in New York City, a media scholar with the Berlin School of Creative Leadership and executive director of The Media Project.

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This story originally appeared on Forbes.com

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