Taxi hand signs are an informal gestural system, an evolving form of communication between commuters and taxi drivers. Many have narratives associated with them. Woolf has used the taxi hand signs and simple graphic shapes from the shape system she designed for people who are blind, to create artworks that are ‘puzzle narratives’. The artworks extend the possibilities of an alternative pictorial language. The blind symbols and taxi hand signs talk to each other, creating other narratives and meanings in the context of South Africa’s social and political landscape. Below are some examples of the narrative associated with the signs and symbols related to the silent gestures of taxi hand signs.





THS. Puzzle Narrations

  • Millions of commuters all over South Africa use taxi hand signs as a way of indicating their intended destination to the over 15 000 taxi drivers in the country. South Africa’s public bus services have remained fairly undeveloped, as a result of the implementation of apartheid and a system of racial separation in 1948. The result has been a private but organised taxi transport sector operating many commuter routes within Gauteng.

    For eleven years until 2004, my art studio was in Braamfontein on the top floor of a warehouse. My route home every afternoon was along Louis Botha Avenue. You have to have your wits about you to drive on Louis Botha Avenue, as hundreds of minibus taxis driving north and south weave in and out of traffic at will, hooting in perpetual ‘beeps’ to attract the commuters’ attention. Taxi drivers stop any place at all on the road, double park, ignore no-go areas and yellow lines or block the flow of traffic for as long as it takes to pick up passengers along the way. I became increasingly aware of the many people gesturing to the taxi drivers with different hand signs, not only on Louis Botha Avenue, but all over the city. I was curious that such an obviously successful travel language, an intrinsically South African form of interaction existed. I wondered how many signs there were, when and by whom these signs were learned and communicated. Had the destinations and hand signs been documented? Why had this silent taxi sign language been adopted – yet taken for granted by so many different travelers? Are these taxi hand signs a curiosity for people who have their own means of transport? Do motorists even notice others signaling?


    I wondered if taxi hand signs constitute a language. How does this form of communication compare to other established gestural languages, like sign language? I wondered if blind people took taxis and knew that commuters were using hand signals to alert taxi drivers. I thought it would be a fascinating investigation for a social arts project and I began to record on paper some of the hand signs I was seeing. My art has always had a community aspect to it and as usual I began my research hardly knowing where to begin or where it would lead. My first objective was to determine and document all the taxi hand signs and their associated destinations, while the more interesting aspects of the phenomenon of Taxi hand signs would be gleaned through a broader and deeper research strategy. And so began a process that has taken several years.

    In 2004 our family home was being renovated and I finally acquired my own art studio. I photographed the builders on the property who allowed me to photograph my first taxi hand signs and their corresponding destinations. I also took photographs of the torn, worn shoes and yellow plastic builders’ gloves they left behind every day, strategically placed on steel reinforcement poles, only to be worn again on subsequent workdays. The shoes and gloves spoke volumes about the life of each owner, histories I would never know. However the images of the yellow gloves on a pole had a certain lightness and humor that was to shape my ideas for representing the Taxi hand signs from the very first.


    There appeared to be no other documentation on taxi hand signs when in late 2004 I approached Phillip Jordaan at SABWA (South African Blind Workers Association – then known as the South African Council for the Blind), to see if he felt that my designs of taxi hand signs for blind people was a value worth pursuing. He required graphic renditions of the shapes in a program that the relief printer could interpret. Jordaan’s translation of the graphics to dotted shapes on computer made t