Elijah Mutua has had to survive on the occasional commission like many Kenyan graffiti artists who have struggled during these Covid-19 lockdown days. One person wants a mural in their child's bedroom. Another wants the wall next to their swimming pool painted oceanic blue. And another has a garage wall they want to be beautified with an original design leaving it up to the artist to decide.
Some graffiti artists get neighbours' approval to their free wall to paint their designs. "I simply have to paint," says Mutua, also known to friends as Eljay. And like many other graffiti artists, it's sited in Eastlands that Eljay has found a myriad of walls on which to paint.
"I have painted murals all over Eastlands," he says. "In Jericho, Mathare, Umoja, even Eastleigh," he adds. Yet this DN Life and Style reporter marvels. "How do you get your commissions? How do people find out about you and your work?"
Social media is his response. Like many young artists, Mutua has found the best promotional device is the internet. "I put my art on all the platforms, from Instagram and Twitter to Facebook and YouTube," he says.
Social media is how he was 'discovered' by Nike, he recalls. Yes, Nike, the shoe people, were looking specifically for a Kenyan graffiti artist to paint a wall that featured Nike's favourite sportsman of the day, Eliud Kipchoge.
"The Nike connector saw my art on Instagram and also found my email, so he got hold of me that way," he tells DN. "He asked if I could recommend any good graffiti artist since Nike was shooting a [promotional] video featuring Kipchoge and the new Nike kit which they gave him."
The kit included Nike's newest set of running shoes plus Nike-branded t-shirts, shorts, and jacket.
So one of Nike's advertising people suggested including a graffiti portrait of the runner on a public wall in a well-populated neighbourhood in Nairobi. But the portrait needed to have a feeling of being Kenyan and portraying Kipchoge as a super-hero.
Mutua got the drift easily. Having studied fine art at Kenyatta University, he had a knack for portraiture and concern for colour.
"I also wanted to use top quality spray paint and emulsion paints since these don't lose their colour or sheen as easily as cheaper paints invariably do," he says.
But apart from having his sketches and the art materials approved for the project, Mutua says he also had to find the best location for the mural to be painted outdoors.
That was a bigger challenge than one might imagine. That's because so many of the walls of people's homes in Eastlands are rented by companies like Safaricom for advertising purposes.
For instance, whole blocks of one- and two-bedroom flats in Buru Buru are painted Safaricom green and topped with the company's brand name. Other walls are used for advertising everything from milk and washing soap to chewing gum. So the graffiti artist often has to scour the city to find a wall that is free, and one whose owners are good about their homes being beautified with graffiti.
Increasingly, Eastland's walls are being covered with either graffiti art and commercial ads. Schools are asking for it. Commercial premises also are asking for the art. And even churches want it on their bare walls.
"The only unfortunate thing about graffiti art is that it's so temporary," says Mutua, who showed me many photos of his murals which he says no longer exist.
By definition, graffiti art is transient, he says. Artists may come along and just decide to paint over your mural without asking permission. The artist whose work is painted over can really do nothing about it since he created his art in a public space that he ultimately has no control over.
But Mutua expects that local artists will not rush to paint over his Kipchoge. One reason is he has many friends in Jericho, where the mural stands out. They will quickly report to him if anyone comes around with the intent to paint over his art.
More importantly, Mutua says he loves the way the mural looks right now, with its bright colors and geometric patterns that accentuate the man's facial features.
"I think I will often be coming to touch up the mural," he says. It's an intelligent plan, he suspects, since once the Kipchoge video goes viral, those few seconds at the end of the film where his mural of the runner takes centre stage could easily attract an international audience to come to see the mural of the man who's been deemed the fastest man in the world.
Mutua says he'd like his portrait of Kipchoge look its very best.