If you have to pick someone up from Delhi airport, and you start from Lajpat Nagar or Malviya Nagar, you will get to see nearly one-sixth of the city’s graffiti as you drive. And if you haven’t seen it already, it’s high time you did.
Graffiti artists started spamming our city walls more than five years ago, and today, you can’t miss their creative outbursts. Although provocative graffiti is often removed, it always seems to come back. One never knows when a morning drive to work could spring a surprise along the way – you may see fresh graffiti, sprayed just the night before. By now, our underground ‘public’ artists have already evolved into two separate sects – the graffiti artist and the street artist.
Not quite the same
Graffiti is a form of lettering. A graffiti artist spray paints his name or a symbol on a wall in the form of a stylised signature (which is often very colourful). In true graffiti spirit, especially in the Western sense of the term, this signifies ‘possession’ of the particular wall. However, in Indian cities, most artists are doing it to rid dirty walls of the eyesore that are paan stains! As Sun1, a popular artist from Mumbai, puts it, “India is full of colour, and what better way to showcase it than on the walls?” He uses a variety of fonts, characters and colours to beautify walls. “Now people even stand and watch me do it. They are always curious as to what colour I will use next and how.”
Street art, on the other hand, is any type of visual art created outdoors – whether it’s a spray-painted mural, stencil art, sticker art or even street poster art. It’s more than lettering. It represents an idea – a picture or a set of words.
Whether it is the ‘There goes Mumbai nightlife’ stencil job in Versova by an artist who goes by the name of Tyler, or the signature ‘Daku’ emblazoned in Devnagari on a colourful wall in Okhla, in south Delhi, the impact is unmistakable. “Most graffiti artists want their name etched in the popular psyche. The charm of street art is when it is discovered in the morning – when bystanders wonder who’s done it,” says Daku, who first began doing graffiti in the Devnagari script.
These days Daku, who prefers to use this assumed name, displays his wacky street art on the roadside too: stickers are stuck over ‘Stop’ road signs saying ‘Stop Pretending’, ‘Stop Promising’ and ‘Stop Shopping’. And then there is his celebrated LPG price hike piece showing an LPG cylinder shooting upwards in the form of a rocket.
However, both these guilds – the graffiti and street artists – could be working with or without legal sanction. They might take permission from owners or authorities to paint walls (although most graffiti artists seldom do), or they might go out hooded in the night with spray cans, wait for an opportune moment, do the deed and silently walk away. But both create art that reaches out to people, and in most cases has an underlying message.
Let us spray
The heyday of graffiti was in the early 1980s, coinciding with the popularity of New York’s hip-hop culture, when gangs marked their territory with the spray can. That was also when it became a tool of protest in London and Berlin, around the time of the aerosol boom. Today, graffiti has become almost beautiful (even though it’s still illegal in most parts of the world). It has become a medium for artistic expression without restriction.
Most practitioners view graffiti and street art as a vibrant art form that livens up the landscape of our concrete jungles. But there are many others for whom it is a way to speak out. Mumbai’s Tyler, for instance, has made some of the most popular and revolutionary street art in the city, and believes that the spray can is the biggest weapon available to the common man. “People have stopped caring for each other. There is garbage on the streets and ugly political hoardings and advertisements everywhere. We need to wake up society with art or with words,” he says. “When I go out at night and spray what I think about the system, for those moments, I have beaten the system. With graffiti, there is no message. The medium itself is the message.”
Tyler’s ‘Never forget the world is yours’ work (with the postscript ‘*Terms and Conditions apply’) in Mumbai won him worldwide acclaim. In the two years since he began working, he has clocked almost three artworks a month.
Hue and cry
For Delhi-based street artist Harsh Raman, painting on the city’s walls is a ticket to showcasing his art to the masses, who don’t have time to visit an art gallery. “The beauty of street art is that once I’ve finished my painting, it’s out there and does not belong to me. You can’t buy it either. But you can check it out anytime,” says Raman, whose stunning artwork of a Bharatanatyam dancer cosmetically transforming into a samba dancer on the outside walls of Hauz Khas Apartments, done in tandem with Brazilian street artist Sergio Cordeiro, is one of the city’s highlights.
“Before I started painting on the Hauz Khas Apartments wall, all I could see around me were banners and advertisements – people selling things. But all I wanted to see was something interesting that could bring a smile to my face. The only purpose of drawing art on the streets is this engagement with the public,” says Raman, who was also the assistant art director in Prakash Jha’s films, Aarakshan and Chakravyuh.
The majority of graffiti artists start young. Delhi’s Zine, while still in school, was inspired by the graffiti on the walls outside his school in Vasant Vihar. “Those walls spoke to me. While going to school, we’d suddenly find new artwork on the walls, and that felt amazing. And once I had done it myself, I had to do it again and again,” he says. Delhi-based teenager Slik, too, began by spray painting his alias at the Khan Market parking lot late at night. But he always made sure he was back at home in time for school. “My city is full of spit stains on the walls and I want to cover them with colourful artwork, without hurting other people’s sentiments. Of course, I do this on a student’s pocket money,” he says.
With the growing popularity of street art in our metros, acceptance is also growing. So artists such as Zine are abandoning their secret identities to produce even more elaborate and intricate designs. Zine recently sought permission from the Panchsheel Park taxi stand to paint their wall with his name – after showing them his earlier work. Shedding their apprehensions, the cabbies gave their assent and he painted the mural in front of them. It is now one of the coolest-looking cab stands in Delhi. “Painting at night gives you an adrenaline high. It’s for the kicks. But apart from the artists, everybody else now also seems to like street art and graffiti,” says Zine.
From HT Brunch, May 12
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