Cruising along streets and highways, matatu are among the most exuberant graphic statements in contemporary Kenya. In larger cities and towns, other public graphic statements, such as billboards, are professionally produced in a generic international marketing style, while smaller, independent shops or franchises, particularly in smaller towns and neighborhoods, employ hand-painted text and images. Matatu, however, utilize a freewheeling graphic language of their own.
Matatu are buses that provide public transportation for the majority of Kenyans who do not own cars. They are often covered in dramatic text and brightly colored images, often freely layered and scattered across their exterior. The most dominant typography bares the name or theme of the bus, for example “The Premier” in vinyl space-age typography across the back window, or “A$SAP” (the name of an American hip hop collective) in a condensed serif along the side. “A$AP” uses a black, white and red punk-rock theme: figures in red hockey masks present the passing car with a raised middle finger, politely blocked by a censor bar, and anarchy symbols float around the matatu’s title.
This rebellious attitude suits what I’ve seen of the matatu industry in Nairobi rather well. They’re often not only the loudest-looking things on the road, but also the rudest. I’ve seen many matatu swing from lane to lane with little warning, stop to pick up passengers in the middle of the road, and, once, block several lanes of traffic and scatter pedestrians in order climb over a traffic island and make a u-turn.
Matatu are independently owned and operated. Each bus is designed express its independent spirit, even when a fleet of them is owned by the same operator. Eschewing generic uniform brand building within a fleet, each bus attempts to make and individualist fashion statement. However, I have noticed some common themes: sports stars (particularly footballers), rap and hip-hop artists, appropriated corporate logos, and a few Christian figures and sayings.
“Cool Gang” has a hip-hop theme: spray-painted on its side are graffiti portraits of Tupac Shakur and Jay Z, surrounded by cool-sounding English statements like “150% dope,” and a dozen Rocawear logos filling one window. Passing by in a bus like this in a car is akin to reading a graphic stream of consciousness text. It posits a theme and then any associated visual or textual statements that come to mind are added one after the other.
The smaller buses that I’ve seen (white minibuses with fewer than 15 seats) tend to have more Swahili text. “Karuri Karuri” has what looks like a Swahili joke on its back bumper: “.C JUI”, which sounds like sijui, meaning “I don’t know.” But why spell the first syllable with a period C? Is that the owner’s initial and part of his last name? Unlike the larger, rebellious-looking buses, the only graphic statements on many of the smaller buses are of what co-op, or sacco, they belong to and the towns at which they make stops. Sometimes, though, this is accompanied by a more demure adoption of corporate logos, like one bearing an Ecko Unlimited logo, and another covered in the names of rap and hip-hop stars. These appropriated graphic statements confuse me: are they advertising for that company or has the operator adopted a graphic statement to represent himself?
Business and city conditions seem to favor the larger, wilder looking buses. They carry more people and relieve the traffic gridlock that plagues city commuters. The look of each bus is designed to appeal to a hip, young urban workforce. At night, you can see them speed by, lit up like space ships or Vegas casinos, ferrying travelers cross-country. On the crowded side streets of Nairobi where I’ve seen matatu gather to pick up passengers, the operators call out to the crowds, advertising their destinations, rates and amenities. The wild look of the buses adds to the cacophony, drawing the eye just as the barkers draw the ears of passing trade.