On May 26, a group of 25 employees from the creative team of an advertising agency in the city came out on the streets to paint the walls that line the Senapati Bapat Marg in Parel.
They didn’t paint anything objectionable as a mark of protest against the system. Neither did they paint something that could be perceived as art. The team, in fact, painted the wall black, to make it look like a blank slateboard, and drew English alphabets on it. Then, they drew four lines below them to replicate the stencil books used by kindergarten students to practise the alphabet.
The activity was part of the company’s corporate social responsibility initiative. “We wanted to work with street children and make it interactive. There are several wall paintings in the city that qualify as street art, but how many of them actually interact with the public? Ten minutes after we finished the project, we saw kids coming and writing the alphabets,” says a team member, on condition of anonymity.
The initiative is one of the many that are being undertaken by various companies in the city. On May 20, for instance, the Tata Housing Development Corporation initiated Mumbai Wallbook, wherein 200 artists from across the city came together to paint their vision of their dream city, Mumbai, on a five-km stretch along Tulsi Pipe Road.
The idea was to bring professional and amateur artists on the same platform and create Mumbai’s longest wall painting. That project, unlike the previous one, touched upon issues afflicting the comman man in the city. The winning entry brought out the co-relation between industrialisation and the environment with a cement grey hand reaching out to a green leaf.
Hemant Sonawane, a participating artist, painted a flying rickshaw. Sonawane says, “The autorickshaw is a very important means of transport for the common man. But with increasing fuel prices and fare hikes, a day might come when a ride in the rickshaw will be a luxury.”
Mumbai is no newbie to street art. The Wall Project, which started off in 2007 and spread from Tulsi Pipe Road to Mohammed Ali Road, introduced the city to the concept of street art. Most people, however, were quick to label the art as graffiti — which it is so not, say graffiti artists. Comparisons between street art and graffiti are inevitable, given that they appear similar.
The two art forms have interacted, complemented and competed with each other, but street art seems to have won in terms of popularity, at least in India. The word ‘graffiti’ is derived from the Italian word ‘graffio’ which means gang-related tagging of a territory and voicing protest against the system.
Ravi Naidu, who goes by the pseudonym Sun1 and has been associated with the Mumbai WallBook, says recent projects like the Bollywood Art Project and The Wall Project are a combination of street art and graffiti art. He says, “Graffiti art involves writing your own name in different styles, fonts and colours on a blank wall in the middle of the night and, in a way, proclaiming to the world that you own the space without revealing your true identity.
That is not the case with street art. Here, you voice your emotions about a certain issue in a socially acceptable way — on a wall in broad daylight after gaining the requisite permissions from the the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and so on.”
A 29 year-old Delhi resident, who goes by the psuedoynym DAKU, has painted many walls in New Delhi as part of a group of graffiti artists. He says what is happening in India can’t be described as graffiti. Where’s the idea of painting your name on walls in darkness with the fear that you can be nabbed by the police any moment, he demands.
“Graffiti art gives you an adrenaline rush. Also, here, if you paint in broad daylight, people actually stand and watch you at work, whereas in Europe, for instance, it is all illegal.” According to Sonawane, too, contrary to what people believe, initiatives undertaken in Mumbai are not graffiti — it is all street art that can be defined as art pieces in public spaces and feature sticker, wall painting, installations and freehand art.
DAKU, who works in an ad agency, explains that, abroad, graffiti artistes earmark territories that can’t be impinged upon by others. He says, “I recently went to Berlin where other artistes and I painted a wall from 10 am to 12 pm, but at 4 pm, when we went there, someone had painted over it. The graffiti culture is strong there, whereas, in India, street art has a positive connotation, so you cannot call it graffiti art.”
Artists feel it will take some time before graffiti flourishes in India. Sonawane says, “In India, people don’t have time to stop and look at your work. Everyone leads a fast life. So street art is useful because you can communicate your message through a painting and it leaves a lasting impression on their minds. Also, with corporate support and that of the local authorities, it is an easier process.
Graffiti is new in India so it’s not easy. Graffiti may take off in India if people are disgruntled enough.” Naidu, quit his call centre job three months ago to pursue his passion — street art and graffiti. While he has been a part of corporate projects like The Mumbai Wallbook, he admits he hasn’t been able to indulge in graffiti, as a passion or profession.
He hasn’t got too many assignments where he can draw graffiti and get paid well. He says, “Graffiti is new in India so we don’t get paid that well. People like to play it safe. Here, if people see paan stains on a wall, they will ignore it or paint over it. Abroad, they voice their discontent by writing something offensive.”
Money keeps artists away, too. DAKU says graffiti is an expensive passion. A can of aerosol or spray paint costs Rs 1,200 and is not freely available. “You need to be really passionate about graffiti to be willing to shell out so much money and venture into the darkness of the night to do graffiti.”
However, DAKU, who chose his pseudonym to claim affinity withdacoits who rob villages and leave their mark on them, says, “It’s like I’m leaving my mark on the walls of the capital by painting my name in Hindi typography. Street art is popular in India but graffiti will emerge, too. That, however will take time.”