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How Graffiti Artists Are Driving The Matatu Industry In Nairobi

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Matatus (Public transport buses/vans) are iconic on the busy streets of Nairobi. Graffiti artists try to make each matatu louder than the next with custom designs covered in flashy colors, and state of the art entertainment. The more glitzy and effervescent the matatu, the more prominent it becomes to attract passengers.

Esiline Okasida, a Law Student in Nairobi, uses matatus to go to school every day – and for her, the more artistic a matatu is, the better. She says that they display a great sense of art and that is why she loves using them. Matatus are always well kept, clean and have a nice smell, making the journey in them worthwhile. Matatus are also fast as the drivers know how to maneuver through traffic jams during rush hours. The crew knows the quickest and shortest way to get wherever you are going. “Would you prefer getting to town in less than 30 minutes or use the old locomotives and take more than an hour?” she asks, comparing the flashy matatus with graffiti over the regular plain ones.

Matatu Kenya

Besides the artsy exterior, the interiors of the matatus are always artistic and cozy. They are fitted with comfy seats, and some have custom made sound systems fitted under the seats. Others have a plasma screen fixed high enough at the front to allow all passengers to watch music videos. The most common matatus come with a small screen fixed behind each seat to give every passenger a treat of their own. The matatus also have free wi-fi onboard to attract the tech-savvy youth who want to browse the internet or chat with their friends. For Emmanuel Ndekerere, a marketer, the matatus with graffiti are always his first choice. His job demands keep him moving from one side of town to another, making more than five trips a day to different destinations and to him the matatus provide the ease he needs. Internet connectivity allows him to continue working even when he is in transit to meet a client. “I like the fact that I am able to check my email, write and respond to my clients even when I am in transit,” says Ndekerere.

For Emmanuel Ndekerere, a marketer, the matatus with graffiti are always his first choice. His job demands keep him moving from one side of town to another, making more than five trips a day to different destinations. To him, the matatus provide the ease he needs to continue working even when he is in transit to meet a client. “I like the fact that I am able to check my email, write and respond to my clients even when I am in transit,” says Ndekerere.



As for television producer, Sarah Mwangi, the matatus are a unique culture that exhibits a high sense of local creativity.  She notes that the music played in them eases the stress of traffic. “I have been to various capitals in the continent and beyond, but I have yet to see such ingenuity displayed by our public transport vehicles,” says Sarah. She says that the stickers, graffiti, and quotes from various icons show appreciation and also adds value to the passengers’ lives. “I like the fact that inside the matatus they display inspiration quotes and positive sayings from icons like Mandela,” she adds.

For Milkah Kamau, a matatu conductor, working on a matatu that is flamboyant and playing music makes her job easier. Before the matatu leaves to its destination, Milkah must persuade passengers to board. The graffiti covered matatu pulls in passengers by itself. “I like working on this one because I don’t have to call for people so much. They just come on board without much persuasion,” says Milkah



Matatus display graffiti art, photos, and quotes of world icons like Nelson Mandela, Thomas Sankara, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton. You may also find hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur, Eminem, and The Game displayed on a matatu. Don’t be surprised to find athletes David Rudisha, Caster Semenya and Usain Bolt on the side of a matatu, as well as revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Local and African musicians Fela Kuti, Sauti Sol, Oliver Mdukudzi, Eric Wainaina, Nameless, and E-sir also have their place in matatu graffiti.

The graffiti art is almost always accompanied by words like “Negotiator,” “Mediator,” “Saints,” “Cute,” while others go with phrases like “Street King,” “Hot Wheel,” “Total Pain,” and “Awesome God,” among others.



Before a matatu can hit the road it requires months of preparation. The process starts with constructors building up on the stripped chassis of a new truck. Then workers weld the skeletons and attach the panels to create a canvas for the artists to put their creativity to work. The whole process employs a lot of workers and graffiti artists, most of whom are young people.

A custom built matatu can cost over 2 Million Shillings ($20,000). The graffiti art alone can range from 20,000 Shillings ($200) to 250,000 Shillings ($2,500) per matatu, depending on the amount of work and materials used. While the cost is hefty, it is easily earned back once the matatu starts collecting passengers.  People will pay more to ride in a custom matatu covered in graffiti than they will pay to ride in a plain matatu.

Kevin Muchiri has been doing graffiti art for over 17 years, spending most of it working on matatus. The 37-year-old graphic designer says that the industry pays well and he gets his satisfaction from seeing a matatu he worked on being the talk of the town. Kevin’s designs and themes come from his personal experiences, trending topics, movies, musicians and whatever else the clients want. All his themes speak of progressive issues for the sake of propagating positivity, “I never over-do my designs with too many lights or vulgar and obscene graffiti.



A few years ago, the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) banned screens, music, and graffiti on matatus. During the ban, all matatus were required to be white with a yellow stripe. According to NTSA, the ban was meant to promote safety and keep windshields clear of graffiti. It was also meant to control the matatu industry as most of the custom matatus were notorious for breaking traffic rules.

The ban was finally lifted by President Uhuru Kenyatta who termed the graffiti as innovative and a source of livelihood for thousands of youths.  “I applaud the president for lifting the ban. It had affected us so much. Because of it, we went back home. Especially for people who didn’t have any other business to do. It was a challenge.” Says Kevin.



The matatu culture is unique in itself and is a source of pride for Kenyans.

The fascination with Nairobi’s graffiti covered matatus reaches beyond Kenyans. This was recently evident when an international artist, Trey Songz, visited Nairobi and rode in a flamboyant graffiti covered matatu. Social media sites in Kenya were full of elation when a photo of Songz seated in a graffiti covered matatu went viral. In an online video, he said that the ride was a great experience because of the music and the flashy graffiti. “Thus far I’ll say I have discovered a cool piece of Nairobi,” says Trey, referring to the matatus. The experience was his way of interacting with the Kenyan culture.


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