It’s a warm autumn day in Cape Town, Woodstock, where I meet Jack Mantis; a local musician described as a gypsy rocker who has the ability to take anyone on a caravan of musical bliss. The title seems apt. A passer-by, may initially equate this ‘gypsy rocker’ label to his appearance: his beard, leather boots, and tattoos. Then, perhaps with a little hindsight, one would learn about his nomadic lifestyle and that he currently resides within a Campervan in Kommetjie. Though, what his ‘gypsy rocker’ title doesn’t infer, is that he is an eminent South African graffiti artist, claiming street art is his “first love.”
My first impression of Jack, compels me to compare him with a Peter Pan type of personality; a garrulous, buoyant and eternally youthful spirit who is now in his forties. He tells me his addiction to graffiti began in 1995 when he was in his twenties . He is now regarded as a forerunner in South Africa’s graffiti Movement.
He explains to me the “defining” moment in his graffiti career, was when he walking down Long Street and spotted a graffiti artist named Falco painting at a café called the Comic Strip. He says he was awed by the possibilities of a spray can and began talking with this artist where one thing led to another and he was later invited to paint some walls at the Cape Town Train Station. It was on one of these walls did he produce his first piece, writing the word ‘Hope’ in an array of Rasta Colours. He chuckles at the recollection: “Ha! It was more hopeless than hopeful.”
Nevertheless, night after night he took to the streets, establishing his own style; a style he describes as free form and “at that stage, illegal.” His husky voice reverberates as he laughs, before continuing to answer my next question on graffiti artist’s pseudonyms. Where – quite simply – Graffiti artists’ create nom de plumes so that they don’t get caught by the authorities. However, Jack’s identity is by no means a secret. He is known as Struan Van Druten by a close circle of friends, but interjects, that after having to repeat his name so many times, he was ready to change it. When I asked him what his pseudonym was he told me: “I wanted my name to be an animal and so I chose ‘Mantis’ from ‘Prey Mantis.’” He continues with a digression, explaining that when his music career began in the early 2000’s he wished to link his household graffiti name to his newfound music name and was inspired by his favourite movie: The Nightmare before Christmas by Tim Burton. Jack stops mid-story, quickly grabbing a tin of paint and a brush before continuing.
“ The main character was Jack Skellington the Pumpkin King and I think I watched that movie three times on LSD. The first time I watched it I believed Tim Burton knew everything, he had worked out the universe and if you watched the movie and you didn’t get it. Well, then, it was too bad for you. So, you know, it was a combination of Jack Skellington’s name and Mantis put together that just worked. I liked JM, everything kind of just fitted together and it stuck.”
At that point – roughly half-way through my interview – Jack begins preparing to paint a mural at Three Feathers Diner on Sixty-eight Bromwell street. A hipster-heaven one might say; with its muscle cars, a pool table, Ping-Pong table, graffiti and cartooned surfaces. While I maintain the interview, Jack maintains to meticulously prime the white wall in a pumpkin orange, cautiously trying not to paint the 1947 Chevrolet deluxe that had been cut up and suspended on the wall. Anyone that was in that vicinity could have palpably seen the childlike excitement on his face for being allowed to paint with this classic vehicle.
When I asked him if there was a message behind this piece he responded with, “There is so much meaning in art nowadays, you know? What I like to do is just paint something straightforward, you can see its car parked next to a wall. Soon there will be some gangsters in it and it reveals the 1940s. That’s it. It’s not like you have to sit there and stare at it for hours and try work to out what the artist was thinking, it’s self-explanatory.” Throughout the interview it was easy to notice that Jack has his own views on art , affirming that the term ‘street art’ doesn’t sit well with him. He elaborates by saying that just because it is a painting on an outside wall, it becomes street art. Whereas, in his opinion, “It’s just a painting on a different medium, to call it graffiti or street art is just ignorant.” Jack believes that there should be no labels when it comes to art and to him, he is just a painter who enjoys to, “paint on everything. A canvas, a roof, a floor or a wall.”