South African graffiti artist Falko One wandered through Dharavi and Bandra painting elephants on homes and walls, as part of his mission to gift art to people across the globe
Cape Town-based graffiti artist Falko One (44; he doesn’t reveal his real name) is posing next to his mural of three elephants on Hill Road. It’s a sweltering day, and Falko, in a black T-shirt and shorts, is sweating profusely. He has been under the weather (the heat doesn’t suit him, he says), but he obliges photographers by striking all kinds of poses, including sitting and lying atop the wall he’s just painted.
Falko is known for spray-painting murals of elephants on walls and on exteriors of humble homes. He started at the age of 16, painting on walls in his neighbourhood in Cape Town, South Africa. But in 2011, he started a project — Once Upon a Town — which has him travelling and painting murals across other regions of Africa. “The plan was to go to African countries and plant the seed of graffiti,” he says.
In Mumbai, Falko painted murals in Dharavi, NIFT in Kharghar and Hill Road (near Mount Mary steps) over the span of a week. Curious onlookers kept asking him whether he’s familiar with the elephant god Ganesha, much to his exasperation. “They call me the ‘elephant whisperer’ in Africa. I wonder whether here they will call me the ‘Ganesha whisperer’.”
Why the obsession with elephants, though? He gives a suitably elusive answer: “The elephant is the king of the jungle. In Africa, elephants break trees, create expanses of land that make it possible for animals to hunt,” he says. He later admits that he never reveals the true reason: “I have different stories for different people. It is too personal, and I don’t share it....”
Back in time
Falko grew up in a poor family in Cape Town. His grandfather was a janitor, and his mother worked as a bookkeeper. “I’m the first one in my family to finish high school and do something different,” he says.
In 1986, he saw graffiti in a German magazine and started experimenting with it. “I wanted to get girls, and be popular. After doing graffiti, I got a lot of girls,” he laughs. He took the name ‘Falko’ from the 1985 song, Rock Me Amadeus, by Austrian musician Falco. “I really loved that song and pretended to sing it. The children in my class nicknamed me Falco. In graffiti, I am the first artist by this name, hence, I called myself Falko One,” he says.
During the apartheid years (1948-1994), Falko witnessed segregation at close quarters. “The art of graffiti was restricted to a small area of Cape Town, and there was no mixing between races. Art was our entertainment and something constructive for us to do and stay out of trouble. Post 1994, we could mix with the white kids, and graffiti developed rapidly as we pooled our collective knowledge of art,” he says.
His early brush with poverty and inequality helped him realise how art could bring some beauty into people’s lives. Falko sees his murals as a gift to people who cannot afford art. “A lot of people who are rich don’t think that other people’s houses are as important. But adding art to a wall changes how people see a place,” says Falko.
Once a mural is made, he uploads a photo on his Instagram handle (13.4k followers) making sure that it incorporates the surroundings — a dangling wire resembles a leash on an elephant, or a strategically placed machine turns into the body of the elephant. Falko also paints gorillas and chickens. “Gorillas are beautiful, while chickens are entertaining, much like human beings,” he says.
A trip to Dharavi was on Falko’s bucket list after he saw Slumdog Millionaire (2009). “I watch a lot of TV. And when I see a place, I find out more about it. I saw visuals of Dharavi and thought that I have to go there,” he says.
This isn’t Falko’s first visit to India. After watching Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), he visited Delhi and Agra in 2012. While he did paint some walls, he says he found Delhi “too clean”, and didn’t get vantage points that overlooked the Taj in Agra (in his Instagram photographs, the neighbourhood is integral to the shots). “I am all about the photograph,” he says.
Unlike the popular image of graffiti artists as rebels who paint wherever they want, Falko asks for permission: “As you grow older, you realise that it is better to paint one pretty picture on a wall. Then you can show it to others and ask permission for more murals.”
Falko’s aim, he says, is to take his Once Upon a Town project across the world. “I get in a car, drive and paint wherever I go. My dream is to take my project across the world, all the way to Alaska,” he says.
View Falko One’s works on Instagram: @falko1graffiti and Facebook: facebook.com/ FalkoOneGraffiti