Street art in India is altering our urban landscapes, but is it all a radical makeover or just cosmetic makeup?
The crime rate was once high in Kannagi Nagar, a once-derelict corner of Chennai.“No auto driver would go there. It just wasn’t safe,” says street artist Joyston Christopher Vaz. Lately, however, the neighbourhood has a newer, somewhat disparate reputation. After a slew of public art projects gave the district an ambitious facelift, Kannagi Nagar has begun to attract many a curious spectator, eager to capture an Instagrammable moment.
Thanish Thomas, co-founder of St+art India Foundation, likes to think of our cities as “grand open-air art museums”. His NGO’s objective,he says, is to make “public art accessible to a wider audience.” He believes that in an urban environment, “street art can serve as a sanctuary. It brings relief from the mundane cityscapes and helps open one’s mind to endless opportunities. It’s a dialogue and an appointment with the city and its residents.” Art, he adds, “is at the heart of human existence and public art is the soul of the cities we live in.”
Jungle Lockdown by ZERO at the Lodhi Art District in New Delhi
While graffiti has been around for centuries—dating back to lewd messages on Pompeii’s public walls in the 18th century—modern graffiti is widely believed to have emerged in New York of the 1970s as an underground culture.Pioneers like Richard ‘Richie’ Mirando(known as Seen UA), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura, Keith Haring, DONDI and Taki 1983 operated mysteriously on New York’s subway system, using their ‘tags’ for an anarchic form of self expression. Later, many women artists, the likes of Lady Pink and Swoon,added a streak of feminism to the largely male legacy of street art. Meanwhile,building on Basquiat and Haring’s legacy, iconic European and British artists such as Bansky, JR and Ben Eine assiduously raised street art’s avant-garde profile to fine art prestige. Daku, who’s a fan of the French JR, says, “Ideally,street art should make people think and question things. At least that’s what I hope with my work.”
Grafitti artist Daku’s Breathe was created as an urgent commentary about the Indian capital’s toxic air quality. PHOTO BY SHIJO GEORGE
A version of this 2018 original graffiti by the artist Tyler was titled Let’s Take This Some Place Private.Photo: Tyler
WHO NEEDS STREET ART?
Thanish Thomas of St+art India Foundation, for one, disagrees with these assertions. He makes mention of the several social causes that street art has championed: “Art helps in reflecting and finding creative solutions to existing issues. More than anything, we understand the value of supporting art and culture and have been using it in the service of the people since our inception.” He says street artists across India are increasingly relying on text and visuals to flag important issues of the day—gender inequality, domestic violence, women’s empowerment,LGBTQ+ rights and climate change to name a few.
Sameer Kulavoor’s artwork on Mumbai’s Max Mueller Bhavan. PHOTO: ANIL RANE – PHOTO COURTESY: GOETHE-INSTITUT/MAX MUELLER BHAVAN MUMBAI