It was Picasso who said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
Five decades later, when Mumbai’s streets witnessed the first graffiti stencils, they softened the impact of the city’s fumes.
The art on Tulsi Pipe Road gave us much needed visual distraction – a lively one at that – from never-ending traffic jams.
Street art is not new to India, of course. Religious and cultural motifs have been painted on walls since centuries; many tribes still draw on their house doorways and advertising and Bollywood have always reserved their space on walls.
But graffiti is different. When it was born as a subculture in the ’60s New York, at its heart was the spirit of rebellion. The act was secretive and carried a message.
It arrived in India a bit differently. Unlike the longstanding phenomenon in the West, it emerged about a decade ago in Mumbai with the support of local authorities.
Like many other cool subcultures – be it drum ‘n’ bass or stand-up comedy – it was the neighborhood of Bandra that got the first murals. Delhi got its artists and patrons soon after, Bangalore had its walls painted (with images of aircraft, but let’s not go there) and since then it has only gained momentum.
Beautification was the obvious first reason behind this phenomena, and it did wonders in so many places. Beautiful art can be seen reclaiming the walls of a sewage plant in Fort Kochi, and a new Delhi-based street art festival includes completely redefining the urbanscape of Okhla area. Imagine massive containers in a 55-acre parking lot, covered in artworks. In Thiruvananthapuram, artists have recreated famous poems and plays into street art.
Graffiti in India climbed up several notches in its gravity when employed by the enraged students of FTII Pune. They protested through hard-hitting quotes by master filmmakers who remind the world that art and politics are not the same. Guerrilla graffiti artists on the other end of the country are reclaiming Kolkata’s walls, replacing political slogans with art.
But even more interesting are the initiatives in smaller towns. These artworks – always in the least expected parts! – hold meaning too. Recently, several walls in Coimbatore were painted by volunteers as part of clean-up drives. A Hyderabad school was splashed with social awareness messages by kids from 16 government schools supported by an NGO.
A similar act at a smaller scale encouraged cleanliness on a Mussoorie wall. Kids (future millennials sure are doing well!) collaborated with railway officials and did the same in Ludhiana railway station. In another part of the city, children and artists got together following the Paris attacks to paint messages of peace in a busy market on Children’s Day.
In Rajasthan, murals urging conservation, painted by artists from the Ranthambore School of Art Society, have transformed the walls of Sawai Madhopur railway station. Creepers climb on to the station’s ceiling and tigers’ gazes follows you – and this is what graffiti is doing – creating visual wonderlands and showing us the right path too.
Ready to go graffiti-spotting?