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.
[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.
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.