The writing on the wall
Next time you’re driving down Delhi’s Nelson Mandela road or taking a U-turn at the South Extension subway, slow down and observe the walls: plastered among the crude 2-D scribbles proclaiming undying love and expletives, there’s a flicker of colourful 3-D words and signs writ large — ‘Happy Dy’, ‘Dezer’, ‘True’, ‘Love Bug’... They have one thing in common: they are by ‘Zine’, an expat who comes on a scooter and within minutes unleashes his expressions on these public spaces.
The art of graffiti is both an outlet for boredom and expression, with the most important aspect being the artist’s signature. Architect Tarun Jayaram, 29, enjoys spraying images onto farmhouse walls in Chattarpur or painting inside his friends’ houses – with permission. Girish Arora, a 30-something art designer, armed with stencils in the dead of the night, paints faces with a cross on the mouth under flyovers. Jonas, a German national who has pitched his tent in India for various reasons — NGO work, sightseeing or researching for his thesis — paints heart-shaped odes on the “smooth long walls among Delhi’s ditches” to former loves.
While urban graffiti is relatively new in India, institutions like JNU have them all over their notice boards as slogans:
‘Naxalbari Ki Chingari Ko Har Gaon Aur Shehr Mein Faila Do’ (Spread the flame of Naxalbari in every village and city), ‘Uphold People’s Power In Nepal’. Jayaram says he’s even encountered political messages made from cow-dung in Dibrugarh but says he would rather “keep it pretty and not turn activist about it.” The ‘Indian scene’ is inspired by the established traditions of the West. ‘Banksy’ is an English street artist whose satirical pieces comments on politics and culture. He is famous but his identity, in true graphic artist tradition, is shadowy.Arora says the graphic art is actually about having a relationship with one’s space. "Unlike rural areas or the outdoors, where there’s a relationship with the outside, when you live in a city like Delhi there is no sense of personal space. It’s defensive and confining. That makes you ‘react’ through expressions like these. Since you can’t change the way the city is evolving, you find your nooks and crannies under flyovers."
Mumbai-based 30-year-old ‘R3flux’ (pronounced Re-flux), a graphic designer by profession, recounts an instance in Frazer Town in Bangalore when he was painting on a home-office wall. “They threatened to take me to the cops. So, for the next few hours, I was slogging it out with turpentine instead of doing graffiti.” He, however, feels the Indian version would probably veer more towards being ‘reverse graffiti’ — creating graffiti by removing dirt on the surfaces.
The movement is indeed largely on the fringes. Indian youth sometimes make it a mission to beautify their spaces. ‘The Wall Project’, for instance, headed by Mumbai’s Dhanya Pilo, filmmaker-visual jockey, has become stand-ins for municipal bodies – cleaning gardens and walls. “Municipal bodies are responsible for public spaces but they don’t have time to work on ideas like building ownership. We are open to it.”
Jonas is not about to give up though. “Stuff is definitely happening here. With acts like Snoop Dogg featured in the soundtrack of Singh is King, crossover mixes of American style rap with Hindi pop, it’s just a matter of time when more people will be involved,” R3flux agrees, “It’s a fall-out of the hip hop scene, wearing jeans that are nearly falling off, rap music, the gangster culture etc.” For a graphic artist, all this is part of the charm.