Photographed by Poulomi Dey
Mumbai’s vertical facades have sported a range of colourful splashes: some beckon an intrigued craning of necks and some provoke a scornful clicking of tongues. Some don’t even make sense, inciting the rolling of eyes. In any case, they invoke some form of reaction from us – as intended. You wonder about the profiles of these artists. Are they a stereotypical bunch or are they reminiscent of the cool, mysterious and imaginative Banksy (British graffiti/street art demi-God)?
Turns out, spraying their names on walls is a way for graffiti artists to announce their presence to this underground art world. It may mean zilch to us, but to them, it’s a way of introduction. And these aren’t even their real names; they adopt an assumed one. The trend goes way back to when this was more prevalent in the deep alleys in the ghettos. Men in hoods snuck out on dark nights and tagged backstreet walls, abandoned fences, beat-up trucks, anything that apportioned a surface flat enough for their spray cans to make legible sense. At first this lacked swank. They came, they jet-painted their names, and three seconds later they left. (This still happens – justifying the unattractive, squiggly streaks we see – terming it as ‘tagging’.) When it’s time to reveal their creative side, their names in ornate typography evolve from doodles – known as graffiti in the real sense. In all likelihood this can further evolve into just a signature below images created with spray-paint cans, stencils or stickers. And that is how graffiti and street art fuse into cohesive creativity, perhaps with a message.
Connecting street art to vandalism is not entirely an incorrect prejudice. It did start out this way and still occurs in the West – aggressive resurgence being one layer, exaggerated wrath being another. However, today, defacing walls with offensive, bigoted scribbling even in this clandestine realm isn’t looked upon kindly. This world may seem dark, but really, it isn’t; at least not in Mumbai city where street art is gaining distinguished appreciation as a niche. Here, it is the unbiased wit and imaginative creations that are really lauded.
Most of these Indian graffiti/street artists aren’t shy of coming out in the open. Some of them even got together in 2007 to start something known as The Wall Project (TWP). One could safely suppose this was when street art really took to Mumbai’s avenues. Many are aware of their work – all done with permissions in place: if you walk down Chapel Road and its adjacent Bazaar Road in Bandra, you will spot walls sprayed on with lines of sharp colours.
There was once an unspoken code in this area that is pretty much obsolete today. Whitewashed walls were a sign of invitation to these artists. It gave them a chance to show off their talent. It worked beautifully. Anybody and everybody were invited to join the colour-induced brigade. A little world of its own came into being in these byroads, even if for a short celebration of time. In due course, artists saw their creations being worked on by other artists. It kicked up a war of sorts amongst them. Artists got possessive about their handiwork, and some of them still are. They want to maintain ‘their’ walls so their creation shines in all its ingenious glory. If somebody defaces it, most times the artists return for restoration – until they form an attachment with their next inspired design.
While they have found a medium to channel their passion for street art, they figure holding a full-time job is more practical for survival. One such artist, Sun1, is a certain Ravi Naidu, an IT trainer, who holds spray-painting workshops. An abandoned school in Grant Road stands as the practice arena. As a teacher he ensures permissions are in place before taking over surfaces. If his students choose to function otherwise, that choice is theirs to make. From this inner circle, it is the sincerely impassioned who steer clear of obscenities and employ constructive wit instead.
Street artist Daku comes to mind here. He is known to brazenly spray Devanagari phonetics of ‘F’ and ‘K’ in the city. He worked through the night to get his message across. His work was simple, cleverly bordering on obscenity and humour. Mumbai noticed the advent of this word on its walls during ACP Dhoble’s controversial rule. Daku’s excuse? Everybody has an understanding of the verb-form usage of this word. The city is a mount of chaos, and his artwork only hoped to break that stress into a smile.
Street art is not considered as serious an offence in India as it is in the West. Organisations, political parties and spiritual leaders don’t hesitate before illegally sticking bills. So a simple imaginative drawing on public walls isn’t really condemned even though the law pronounces it illegal with an INR 1,000 fine slapped with six months in jail. A friend once said to me, “If you can stick and spit on it, you can draw on it.” With this attitude, a group of artists got together one late night to beautify a certain area in Bandra where actress Zeenat Aman’s abandoned house stood as an eye-sore with its dilapidated walls. They sprayed on attractive imagery under beams from their cars’ headlights. The next day, people accepted it like it was always part of the wall. Not unlike the way Tyler’s art in the city’s suburbs has drawn glorification.
Tyler is a denizen of the city who uses jocular subtlety to draw attention to everything obvious that shackles us into a zombie-like pattern. He works well into the night to pour his philosophies through a stencil in Bandra, Andheri and Seven Bungalows. With ready outlines, the action of spraying doesn’t take more than 10 seconds, giving him ample time to hear the police and run away from it. The artist’s graffiti name is inspired by Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club – and much like the book, he hopes to show people a reflection of their realities, like the reminder that the world is your’s, which he has posted on a Pali Hill wall.
Coming across illegally splattered walls in the city is uncommon. If a mammoth-sized project is underway, authorisation will be sought after for their noble intentions. You just need to take a walk under the Bandra Reclamation bridge near the sea link for a peep into determined artists’ struggle to add splendour to an otherwise concrete jungle.
Perhaps this is why the BMC invited TWP in 2009 to beautify a slum-ridden Tulsi Pipe Road. Sure enough, the thoroughfare adorned a vibrant persona over the weekend. Weeks later, publicists for superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s movie, Aladin slapped posters across the toiled-over artwork. Naturally the artists were outraged. Their angry voices demanded an apology, which they received in writing. People were made to understand that street art, like any other art, is worthy of admiration and respect.
And such admiration was also warmly awarded to the street children who covered Hill Road’s walls with environment-friendly messages. Bombay Underground orchestrated this feat and their efforts have been alive in other parts of the city, like in Dharavi.
Street art has recently sprouted another tentacle that demonstrates creativity through murals. Bollywood Art Project’s (BAP) murals are most frequently spotted in Mumbai. Walk around Bandra and larger-than-life-sized murals of Anarkali, Mogambo and Rajesh Khanna will wink, smile and frown at you. Occupants of these structures are more than delighted to have such glamorous colours merge into their abode’s exteriors.
Recognised artists have even made an attempt to blur the line between street art and commercial art. Drawing more attention to its scope, one such artist, Amitabh Kumar, recently created abstract murals for an indoor exhibition. His intentions were to tell the audience that this genre of art could give any congested area a personality. (In this instance, you would climb a high platform to view them at eye level, allowing you to imagine them on roadside walls and public structures.)
This world has evolved from simple graffiti to rousing street art to colossal murals; spray paints to stencils. Bandra had spotted an advent of uninviting common men ruling A3-sized posters. Across them was the word ‘Bandradesh’ in Devanagari script. Nobody knew its designer, up until an art studio took ownership for this advertisement. They had employed advertisement in the form of tagging through posters. Clever, since this trend is easier and quicker to slap on to walls.