Lauren Opia – taking to the streets of Johannesburg one eye at a time

The streets of Newtown, Braam, Maboneng and Troyeville carry the mark of Opia and her haunting eye illustrations. Lauren Opia is the 19-year-old graffiti artist coming from a private school background. Practicing art in a scene commonly thought of as a boys club she contributes to giving girl culture new meaning.

Opia was born in Johannesburg and has lived in the city her entire life. Expressing that she has always leaned more towards the creative side, she has enjoyed making art ever since she can remember.  Opia tells me that when she started with art, she never had a distinct point that she was hoping to convey. From a young age Opia was continuously expressing herself with art because of the gratification she got from it, despite the fact that there aren’t creative people in her family.

Stating that she is unsure of how her passion for graffiti was ignited, she believes that it was a mixture of influences. Opia has been exposed to a large amount of graffiti art from living in Jo’burg, a city that has an abundance of murals and graffiti art that regularly shape shifts into newer displays. Going through a hip hop culture phase, she desired most of all to do art that was different from what the rest of the kids sharing her background were doing.

“I definitely didn’t think that I would take this route.  If someone were to tell me three years ago that I would be a graffiti artist, I would have just laughed and shrugged it off.”

Opia expresses that it took time to develop her style, and that she is persistently working on improving and perfecting it.  “When I started painting, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my own work.  I focused too much on being like other artists and thinking about what other people would like to see.  It was only when I started using the colours that I like and started painting what I would like to see painted in the city that my style began to develop.  Ironically, people then started to like my work more anyway.”

The word ‘Opia’ is a fabricated word created by a psychologist signifying the abstruse intensity of looking into someone’s eyes. A feeling that can be experienced as invasive and vulnerable in chorus.  Opia explains that she chose this pseudonym, as it is how she feels when creating her work for the public to see, as well as the fact that it ties in with the use of eyes in her graffiti pieces that are her signature. “Just like most artists, I put a lot of myself into my art so sharing it with others is quite terrifying. However, I hope that there are some people that feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable when viewing my graffiti instead of it just being a background for a teenager’s selfie.”

Opia has a tendency to make use of blues and purples with traces of yellows and pinks in her work. In our interview Opia communicated to me that her process is particularly intuitive and that she does not have a meaning in mind when she initially starts transforming the canvases that she works on; the walls of the city she sees around her. Her work is comprised of surreal worlds, worlds that are an escape for her, and are an expression of what is going on in her mind.

Identifying as a tomboy and growing up with boys has contributed to Opia’s comfort in the graffiti scene commonly thought of as a men’s world. “Obviously, being a girl, it’s a lot more dangerous for me to go out and paint somewhere, especially in town.  So unfortunately I don’t paint in public places as frequently as I would like to.  That is the only negative side to it.  Being a female in a mostly male-dominated subculture has made me an anomaly that has provided a wave of opportunities which I’m really grateful for.”

Opia expresses that despite her introverted nature she finds a significant deal of inspiration from people. Other facets that inspire her work are cinematography and interesting set designs in films. She tells me that Mars (a Johannesburg based graffiti artist) has been an inspiration and motivation for her. Opia believes that his colour palettes, fades,compositions and line work are perfect and what all artists strive for.

The young graffiti artist’s message for other young women wanting to pursue the art is to, “Practice, practice, practice.” Opia has met a number of people that told her that they had tried to spray paint but couldn’t get it right. “Just like all other media, spray paint is something that is not perfected after a couple of hours.  I still have a long way to go but each time I paint it gets easier and I learn more. Don’t feel pressured to do what other artists are doing.  Just paint something that you are passionate about. It will give you more fulfillment and it will show in your work.”

At the moment Opia is taking a gap year and has taken on design internships, practicing art, looking for inspiration and doing short courses.

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