Today, street art is stimulating conversations and has become a powerful tool for change, transforming the way we view cities
Through his art, Bengaluru-based graffiti artist Badal Nanjundaswamy has many times brought to light the callousness of the city’s civic administration in maintaining roads and other amenities. In 2017, he displayed dummy mermaids and crocodiles around potholes to draw the local authorities’ attention to the city’s infrastructure woes. His Twitter timeline has a pinned tweet from 2019 of a ‘moonwalk’ video. What’s fascinating about this video is that it depicts an astronaut walking on the city’s crater-laden roads (resembling craters on the moon), highlighting the disorderly condition of roads. The clip, which has close to 1.7 million views, was an instant hit and went viral on social media, making it to the headlines as it coincided with the Chandrayaan-2 mission in September 2019. Last year, Nanjundaswamy painted the city walls to spread awareness about the pandemic. Though the artist’s love for street art and 3D paintings is mostly reactionary, most of his works are appreciated for the satirical thought and quick execution. When we reached out to him, however, he declined to comment about his creative impact.
Artists like Nanjundaswamy have left an indelible mark on the city’s crumbling infrastructure, with street art that not only breathes life into concrete walls, but also stimulates conversations. By portraying the hard realities of our times through murals, street art has today become a powerful tool for inspiration, leading to a change in actions, thoughts and vision. From being a simple expression of public art to becoming a progressive social campaign, street art is also changing how we view cities.
Coming into its own
Stunning public street art scenes in various cities across the globe have become destinations for art lovers, as well as artists, rendering themes such as dark humour, satire, political commentary, etc. Belleville, an eclectic neighbourhood in Paris, has an artistic vibe that boasts impressive graffiti street art at every corner. Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighbourhood too falls in the same category. One of the best areas in London for street art is Shoreditch, known for its experimental creativity and expressive urban art, and where the works change almost daily.
One of the most well-known street artists, however, is Banksy. The anonymous British graffiti artist is known for his anti-authoritarian work. In 2010, he was included by TIME magazine in its list of the 100 most influential people of that year. Banksy has made conceptual graffiti and sculptures across the world, including cities like Vienna, San Francisco, Barcelona, Paris and Detroit.
Closer home, Mumbai has iconic works like Boy Hugging the Rainbow near Supari Tank Municipal School in Bandra, a popular neighbourhood for street art. There is also a mural portrait of a woman holding a rose on the Shri Markandeya Co-operative Housing Society building in the heart of Dharavi. Painted by Italian artist Luis Gomez and curated by Delhi-based St+art India Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that works on art projects in the public space, it represents the area as a centre for culture.
The national capital too has its share of vibrant street art. Lodhi Colony, Hauz Khas, Connaught Place, Shahpur Jat and Metro stations like Govind Puri and Arjan Garh have a mix of graffiti art. One can see vivid Indian designs in a blend of colours, images of birds and even depictions of tech advancement such as CCTVs and mobiles. In Goa, FN Souza’s grandson and Israel-based artist Solomon Souza had transformed the northern cityscape with local icons like poets and musicians during his visit to India for the 2019 Serendipity Arts Festival, while in Chennai, walls in Kannagi Nagar and near Stella Maris College on Cathedral Road are particularly striking for political graffiti and didactic themes. Besides Nanjundaswamy, Bengaluru also has Shilo Shiv Suleman’s stirring feminist murals.
In a post-graffiti and post-modern era where defining something gets quite difficult considering the proliferation, intensification and hybridity of many cultural phenomena, street art has become more and more popular, especially in the last decade, and is earning a space for itself in the art market as well. Giulia Ambrogi, co-founder and curator of St+art India Foundation, finds street art as a global yet local movement. “While this art form takes place in specific locations and is seen by audiences that comprise passersby, it has an even larger audience online and through social media. It finds its purest expression in the transformation of the seemingly unchangeable spaces we live in,” she says, adding, “Street art is as in-your-face appropriation as it is a democratic action. Thus, public spaces and city walls become a lab for experimentation and discovery. In this sense, it’s able to trigger an extensive dialogue with the social and urban fabric, and is accessible for all, unlike institutionalised art.”
Bengaluru-based organisation Jaaga, a collaborative community space to serve the local arts and technology communities, has also led urban community initiatives that leverage design, technology and artistic processes towards positive change-making. By involving a diverse set of artists, including visual artists, filmmakers, performative artists, sound artists, poets and designers like architects and product designers, Jaaga has helped transform many public spaces with the help of the local neighbourhood. One of its projects was the colourful mural paintings done by the students of Srishti School of Art & Design in Bengaluru, exploring local people, flower sellers, area workers near Wheeler Road flyover in Bengaluru. It was very different from street art as a mode of beautification, says Singapore-based Kamya Ramachandran, who is currently the director of BeFantastic, a tech-art organisation incubated at Jaaga. She was director of Jaaga’s design, arts, networks vertical till last year and under whose leadership these projects took place. She continues to set the vision, strategy, as well as hold the programme design of such projects remotely. “While we infused blighted urban spaces with art and design, making them more welcoming, the main aim was artistic experimentation, exploration and community engagement,” she says, adding, “We have also taken this to schools under our ‘Ourshaala’ programme, wherein students engage in art and design-thinking to look at public spaces within their schools.” Such projects, Ramachandran says, are very compelling to both the artist and the audience.
Mirror to society
When making street art, an artist is usually responding to an urban condition he/she is deeply affected by. And that’s how it becomes provocative and progressive art. “What happens when we get on to the streets is that all of the binaries and boundaries disappear and we find each other. Like in families, sitting around a dinner table, you can’t help but explore differences, jump across chasms and find each other. On the streets, when you are sitting at a chai shop drinking tea or sitting in a metro or train, or waiting at a bus stand… there’s a way that all binaries or notations disappear. The street is really a space where we come closer to a sense of union with ourselves, with culture and the people around us,” says artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, who collaborated with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Noida earlier this year, with the art practice reflecting realism, femininity and a desire for social change.
In 2016, Jaaga’s Ramachandran collaborated with a class IX student for a project on domestic abuse, painting a mural on one of the pillars of KH Double Road at Richmond Circle in Bengaluru. The artwork depicts two hands holding a ribbon rising from the ground, emphasising the issue of domestic abuse. Another one was a performative piece by artist Avril Stormy Unger, under Jaaga’s Investment Zone project, which highlighted the overbearing noise of traffic. “We performed under the KH Double Road flyover in Bengaluru… traffic stopped for traffic lights and we had a curious captive audience that began to ask and converse with the volunteers. When a message is performed rather than said or commanded, it has a more lasting impact,” she says.
Many forms of urban art are rooted in activism and cultural critique as a mirror to society. There are many examples within the Indian context itself, with artists like Daku, Amitabh Kumar and Tyler using the streets as a canvas for reflection. “Any public action in a city is political even when it doesn’t directly imply political commentaries. The very idea of activating prototypes of imagination by changing the skin of the city through art is political, as it opens up the public spaces to democratic dialogue and interpretation,” asserts Ambrogi.
Last year, St+art India Foundation transformed a resettlement site in Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar into a vibrant district. Drab residential housing blocks were turned into a series of huge canvases. One of the largest built resettlement sites in India, Kannagi Nagar houses over 80,000 people. Through St+art India Foundation’s initiative, it was transformed into the city’s first art district.
Jaaga too has carried out public art and public space design projects, especially under certain flyovers in Bengaluru. The work differentiates itself from being pure street art, focusing on the engagement between the artists and the local communities. “We aimed at exploring the claim that when communities care for their built environment through creative practice (art and design), civic ownership and pride increase, introducing positivity into the negative and uncared for public spaces that could become dangerous to its inhabitants,” says Ramachandran. One of the projects was Yellow UFO (Under the Flyover), which depicts a community-involved process—people who were walking by the flyover became integral to the artwork, as it was their shadows that the artists created works upon.
Rightfully then, street art is an expression of things that belong to the street and “the only condition is that it be in a public space. It could be on a lamp post, wall, road, scratch on a wall, paan stain, any kind of markings, signage, hoardings,” says Delhi-based painter and street artist Anpu Varkey, who is part of the ongoing Art Meets Street series by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Hosted virtually in February, the series explored the realm of public art. With a diverse group of street artists, it aimed to recognise the power of rebellion, activism and the simple expression of public art with some of India’s leading street artists such as Suleman, Hanif Qureshi, Do & Khatra and Kiran Mahajan.
Varkey, who has worked all over the country—small and big cities, as well as rural India—considers all walls seen in street art as political writings, with very few expressions of creativity. Largely, the idea is to repurpose cityscapes. “But that doesn’t mean everything should be painted… there should be a restraint to it as well. Reimagining a surrounding and landscape that’s existed for decades, without destroying it, also becomes an important task for the artist. Painting on walls isn’t about beautifying alone or putting across a social message, there are intrinsic values that a site and space occupy and one needs to be cognizant of that as well,” says Varkey, who assisted German artist Hendrik Beikirch on the colossal mural of Mahatma Gandhi at the Delhi Police headquarters.
Street art connects people to their streets, feels Archna Menon, senior associate, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), an organisation, which has offered several integrated interventions in sustainable transport in India, including complete streets, parking management, development of public transport, transit-oriented development, gender-responsive transport measures, etc. “Street art connects people to their streets and public spaces, making them fun, vibrant and memorable. Chennai worked with street artists for the Pondy Bazaar Pedestrian Plaza project and it instantly resonated with many people. Soon there were wedding photos and documentaries shot there. Today, the wall is synonymous with the Plaza. Temporary art plays a crucial role in testing initial street designs too. It helps cities and citizens reimagine their streets and build support for permanent change. One common way is to paint roads to demarcate space for footpaths, cycle tracks or a change at intersections. In these tests, we’ve observed that the use of colours and patterns draws citizens to engage with the interventions and use the space differently,” says Menon.
One of the earliest expressions of modern street art, in the 1960s, was graffiti as a response to the socio-political environment at that time. “It is now an art form in its own right… a cultural phenomenon and a complex interdisciplinary form of artistic expression that allows for engagement at deeper levels. It can transform, invigorate and energise societies and bring vibrancy to otherwise mundane spaces,” says Ambrogi, adding that St+art has spearheaded urban art projects since 2014 across 20 cities by bringing together multiple voices such as regional government bodies, foreign cultural institutions and street artists. “Urban art challenges the functional use of spaces, triggers curiosity, builds local identity and encourages communities to gather.” It activates neglected spaces through art and cultural activities, enabling people to reimagine how public spaces can be utilised.
Within its framework, St+art India Foundation also provides a platform for education and social awareness through a range of curated workshops, tours and community engagement activities, the impact of which can be seen in St+art’s districts in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Goa and Coimbatore.
Street art can have diverse outcomes, believes Varkey. “The outcome could be community building, but it’s not important for the conception of any artwork in the public space. There isn’t any particular role it needs to fulfil. It could exist for retinal gratification too,” the artist says. The artist, however, rues that the art form has become more of a spectacle today with corporate funding. What we see now in the streets are large corporate-funded projects… initially, it was just people drawing on small walls. It’s changed tremendously and has become a spectacle. Not many people paint on walls without any incentive any more… it’s often backed by large corporate funding,” Varkey says.
The art form, however, has the capacity to generate new experiences through a bottoms-up strategy, feel many. Besides adding value, shifting behaviours and enriching the city, public art also works as a resource for change and experimentation. “We have seen recognition of urban art by the Smart Cities Mission, as governments are understanding the value of shaping a city through art and culture, and using it as a tool for growth. Also, companies are understanding that they can be patrons of future cities… Asian Paints has been a crucial partner, supporting our long-term vision… the construction of more human cities for a better future,” says Ambrogi.
Public spaces and city walls become a lab for experimentation and discovery, triggering an extensive dialogue with the social and urban fabric
—Giulia Ambrogi, co-founder & curator, St+art India Foundation, a Delhi-based not-for-profit organisation
The street is a space where we come closer to a sense of union with ourselves, with culture and the people around us
—Shilo Shiv Suleman, Bengaluru-based artist
Painting on walls isn’t about beautifying alone or putting across a social message. There are intrinsic values that a site and space occupy, and one needs to be cognizant of those as well
—Anpu Varkey, Delhi-based painter & street artist
Street art connects people to their streets and public spaces, making them fun, vibrant and memorable
—Archna Menon, senior associate, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy