Of maps, mazes and manholes | art and culture | Hindustan Times
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Of maps, mazes and manholes

How do you make money from art when the street is your canvas and subversion your motif? L’Atlas paints the city in white stripes, writes Amitava Sanyal.

art and culture Updated: Jan 22, 2010 22:18 IST
Amitava Sanyal

How do you make money from art when the street is your canvas and subversion your motif? “I sell manholes,” says L’Atlas, the Paris-based graffiti artist who is in Delhi for the Bonjour India festival. The 31-year-old paints manhole covers in silver and makes prints on paper. He claims to have more than 200 such prints made in different cities over the last decade.

L’Atlas’s world is full of paradoxes. For an artist who, when not taking manhole prints, is likely to be painting his hypnotic white-striped compasses on streets, claims not to have a sense of orientation. “Leave me five minutes away and I’ll probably take 50 minutes to get back,” he says, pointing out the gate of Alliance Française, where is showcasing his work. What is a street artist, who has been arrested “dozens of times” by the French police for ‘public vandalism’, doing in a fine building built by the long arm of French institutional art? “I use the system as much as I walk through it,” L’Atlas says, then shrugs and adds in mock whisper: “I am going to blow it all up.”

There have been more effective ways he has subverted the establishment. Over the last decade, he has often stolen utility workers’ overalls and worn them while painting his white-striped style on streets. The police have mistaken him for a street worker and let him be. In 2005, under a similar guise, he put up a giant sign in front of the European Parliament in Brussels that read ‘Under control’ (the Buster Keaton-ish video of the installation is up on latlas.net). “They kept it up for two weeks. They were probably having a laugh at me while I was laughing at them,” he says.

L’Atlas’s style emerged from his training in Kufic calligraphy, learnt from masters in Morocco, Egypt and Syria. The rectangular shapes of the Arabic script have morphed into “cryptograms... puzzles, mazes” in the Latin alphabet. And the artist’s favourite stage for it all has remained the street, the reservoir of electricity for all graffiti artists.

Sure enough, L’Atlas has been slipping out from his institutional schedule in Delhi and leaving his mark along the streets of the old city. So if you spot a sudden compass in an alley near the Jama Masjid, you’ll know how it came about. Ditto for painted manholes.