The Ancient art that has moved from caves to human flesh

Updated 3rd August 2016
The Ancient art that has moved from caves to human flesh
Written by Michelle CohanThomas Page, CNN
We've got a lot to thank our ancestors for -- and if you're a fan of tattoos and graffiti, that includes rock art.
Designs from 5,000 years ago have echoed down the ages, moving from caves and concrete walls to human flesh. Johannesburg's thriving street art scene is a fine example of the transition, where enigmatic shapes, human figures and fantastical supernatural creatures are finding a new lease of life.
At a simplistic level street artists like Love and Rexo have beautified what were once drab inner city walls in South African's largest city. But archaeologist-turned-tour guide Jo Buitendach suggests there is more to it. She compares graffiti to hieroglyphics, a language that must be learned to understand its discourse.
"Once you start to crack the hieroglyphics, then you can read all the hieroglyphics," she argues.
The San are among the oldest ethnic groups in the world and Buitendach finds traces of ancient San art in today's urban graffiti.
How ancient rock artists mixed paints
"There's without doubt similarities in the subject matter," she says. "I think one of the best examples is elephants. You find elephants in rock art. Falko One, one of South Africa's leading graffiti artists, is doing elephants all over the country."
Rock art researcher Lara Mallen says "in many ways these kinds of symbols seem to fit into a broader sort of human consciousness, and this probably does date back to our hunter-gatherer past."
Dr Siyakha Mguni of the Rock Art Research Institute says that only privileged individuals would be able to create rock paintings -- a key difference with their modern day counterparts, some of whom do not seek permission. There are many similarities however.
"People came back to sites and painted on top of the imagery for thousands of years," says Mallen. "They did this deliberately making comment upon the images that had gone before... we see a similar thing in street art, where painters will return to a particular site and use the imagery of their predecessors and draw on it in order to make their points."
Rasty Knayles is one artist utilizing Johannesburg's copious wall space and willing human canvases.
"I think there's a lot of similarities that run through San art, graffiti and tattoos," he says. "The common thread is the need to make a mark in some way or another, either on your surroundings or on your body."
Instagram and other social media is extending the lifespan of his graffiti, otherwise thought of as an ephemeral form of art. Knayles is also busy snapping a more permanent type of art: tattoos.
How tattoos and graffiti echo ancient rock art
"You can trace [tattoos] back to tribes around the world," he argues, "all doing it for different reasons. But the general kind of idea and the general reasoning would be some sort of right of passage... Once you get to the other side, you're a new person in some way."
San art is some of the first art ever produced, says Knayles, and describes his work as "borrowing from that heritage." Animals feature heavily in his work and the cow -- a symbol of African values and a Xhaosa way of life -- has become a frequent motif.
His works sits within a distinctively African mode of street art and tattoo culture, both contemporary and a homage to the region's rich heritage. It's encouraging, says Knayles.
"It's very important that we develop our own African voice and style," he says. "Otherwise who are we representing? Who [are] we talking to?"