In 2010, during the buildup to the Commonwealth Games, something strange happened to the ‘Stop’ traffic signs on roads. Overnight, messages were added to many of them, altering their meaning: Stop Thinking, said one. Stop Pretending, Stop Bribing, said the others.
The signs were quickly painted over, but this was Delhi’s first brush with its most famous graffiti artist, a shadowy figure called Daku, often called India’s Banksy. In the next few years, you could spot a cheeky ‘Daku’, often written in Devnagiri script, staring down at you from a wall. Stories, part-reality, part-apocryphal sprung up about the graphic designer by the day and graffiti ninja by night, who worked in the dark, dodging cops.
Daku’s work is now so mainstream that he is rumoured to have designed a room in actor Hrithik Roshan’s house. Last year’s India Art Fair featured a work from the artist, a stretch of wall with the same words stenciled ad infinitum: ‘This is commissioned vandalism’.
Graffiti, which comes from the Italian word, graffio, (to scratch), is no longer seen as defacement. The Delhi government approved #MyDilliStory has artists stenciling couplets in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi while Northern Railways has commissioned public art on its properties, including the Narela station.
As the work of other artists started getting noticed, it has been recognised as street or public art, one that went far beyond the Amit loves Ankita or political graffiti scrawled on walls.
“A large part of the street art in Delhi and other metros is permission or invitation driven - which means it becomes more legitimate, has a possibly longer shelf life (as against being whitewashed or erased rapidly) and gets full support of the city and local agencies,” says Yogesh Saini, founder of Delhi Street Art, an organisation that promotes public art by young artists.
When the shopkeepers’ association of Shankar Market approached the NDMC in 2012 to give it a facelift, the municipal authority in turn roped in DSA to transform the space.
Earlier, street artists concealed their identity because of a 1976 West Bengal legislation which barred graffiti on walls and applied to Delhi as well. Now, entire projects are undertaken with the blessings of authorities and in the full glare of public eye.
Government patronage has meant that while Delhi’s street art makes a statement, it is hardly politically subversive or controversial, sticking to failsafe issues such as women’s rights or abstract ideas. Case in point: when an anonymous stencil of Gandhi cropped on a public urinal in Hauz Khas in 2012, it sparked outrage and an immediate cover up job.