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Heed the writing on the wall

Like their brethren around the world, the graffiti artists of Spain have joined the mainstream. They are no longer the rebellious artists risking life and limb for a subversive art. Amitava Sanyal examines...
None | By Amitava Sanyal
UPDATED ON MAR 15, 2008 12:21 AM IST

Right next to a modest board announcing the Union of Indians in Catalunya is a large white cloth sprayed with a message in black: ‘Thanks for not stealing’. The de-pilastered façade is on Robador Street, the middle of the redlight district in Barcelona. Most of the faces sulking near the lampposts here belong to South Asians. The nearby streets are lined with shops owned by people from both sides of Punjab. Amarinder from the Indian side, owner of an “all-purpose” store, informs: “The number of Indians here has more than doubled in the past year... We have set up here because it’s cheap.” Like in many other parts of the world, Amarinder’s generation of Indian expatriates in Spain earns the envy of the local shopkeepers by keeping their shutters up till late.

But it is not this cohort that is giving Indians a bad name in Barcelona. Blame that on a bunch of ever-enterprising Sindhis who got here decades before. Their shops line the touristy streets. Rajesh, a Nepali shopkeeper near the Sagrada Familia church, complains: “They do not put price tags, and undercut or overprice according to the customer. They are ruining the market and the other shopkeepers hate them for that. Some say they would never buy from an Indian.”

That evening, I walk into a souvenir shop near the Ramblas boulevard. Can I have three pieces for the price of two? “Zaroor”. A sturdy German woman next to me points to a small statuette. Without missing a beat, the Sindhi shopkeeper turns to her and says, “100 euros, specially for you.”

I make my way out of the all-too-familiar scene as fast as possible.

Not-so-straight and narrow

There are only two people I know of who died after being hit by a tram. Both were true-blue modernists in their crafts and both obsessed about their cities. That’s where the similarities end. While Jibanananda Das wrote passionately about the changing face of Calcutta in the second half of the 20th century, Antoni Gaudí worked at changing the very face of his beloved Barcelona in the first half.

Gaudí’s obsession flowered at the height of utopian city planning in Europe. Everything — from churches, residences and parks, to lampposts, litterbins and footpath tiles — had to be designed. One thought within the Catalan art nouveau movement was to avoid the drudgery of the straight and the parallel. Nowhere is this more overwhelming than in Casa Battló, ‘the house of bones’. As you recover from the giddiness of the asymmetric arches and sloping roofs to come out on the terrace, you face La Pedrera, another Gaudí creation across the street whose foreboding chimneys inspired George Lucas’s vision for the Stormtroopers in Star Wars.

How could he miss a tram coming at him? After a life dedicated to the expansive not-so-straight, the old master was possibly befuddled by the straight and the narrow of the tramlines.

Fitting graffiti

Like their brethren around the world, the graffiti artists of Spain have joined the mainstream. They are no longer the rebellious artists risking life and limb for a subversive art. Their patronage comes mostly from local businessmen, who would rather pay for getting their shutters painted than be covered with tagging, the brutal plays on text. Expectedly, any message — political or social — is masked by commercial considerations.

In Granada, where the artform is at its ubiquitous best, the most memorable works are on the ‘signature walls’, stretches where the city’s brightest serially leave their best works. The one on the southern portion of the town’s Ring Road has artists using spraycans, brushes and rollers in protest against violence and censorship.

The deeply subversive works are to be found among the narrow alleys of the old Moorish quarters in Albaicín. Just below the church of San Nicolás is one horned head of a bishop. The stencil reads: ‘Opus Dei. Ave mafia’.

Midnight flamenco

Marcel rolls his eyes, puckers his mouth and mwahs the air. The hostelkeeper’s recommendation for a cheap and invigorating evening of flamenco in Sevilla is La Carboneria. He writes down the address: 18, Levies. But there is not a single shop sign on the small street in the small Andalucían town. After a few walks up and down, one kind soul suggests, ‘Go straight to the address, don’t look for signage.’

It’s close to ten when I knock on the old door of number 18. An old man pokes out his head and asks me to come back in half an hour. After a mumbled plea for use of the toilet, he lets me in. As I move around the cavernous old coalhouse (which lends the name), the old man moves ritualistically from corner to corner, playing soft riffs on his clarinet — as if imbuing the place with music ahead of the night. His magic works. By midnight the place is packed to the rafters, buzzing with noise and hazy with smoke.

It’s the same around town. La Anselma, a joint most frequently recommended by the guides, opens at midnight, as does the more niche Nuestra. The siesta-loving Andalucíans would rather start the strumming and stomping at midnight.

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