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Graffiti gangs give new meaning to Kolkata’s walls

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Kolkata:  Armed with spray cans and creativity, a group of youngsters are steadily turning Kolkata’s walls – for long splattered with political slogans and quack cures – into graffiti artscapes, painting the city red, blue and a variety of hues.

Representational image
Representational image

A motley crew of young men and women, with pseudonyms as fanciful as their creations, is etching its artistic and social imagination and giving a new definition to the walls, predominantly considered a domain of the political parties in West Bengal.

The otherwise mundane walls in the eastern metropolis have always been a crucial component of the animated political jargon in the state, with parties reaching out to the masses with slogans that are at times witty, satirical, assertive and even thought provoking, but also at times aggressive, contemptuous and full of hatred.

But, basking in anonymous glory, the SREKs, SHAFs and the SNIKs sneak out in the middle of the night to “reclaim” their canvas – city walls covered with slogans – braving attacks from political parties and even police action.

“Politics is a nuisance – be it political graffiti or the politicians themselves. Our ‘street art’ is an attempt to give colour to this otherwise mundane grey world,” SNIK, ‘revered’ as the ‘godfather’ of Kolkata graffiti, told IANS.

Credited with pioneering the ‘guerrilla art’ in the city, SNIK’s love affair with graffiti began while studying in Sydney.

“I mostly started off doing black books and canvases, then moved on to doing basic tags on walls. Returning to Kolkata, I met a few guys at a hip-hop jam and communicating through Facebook and jamming, we began our bid to reclaim the city walls splattered with political hatred and laughable quack cures,” said SNIK, who runs a restaurant in the city.

While its origin can be traced to the cave art of the Paleolithic Age, modern graffiti is perceived as a defiance of

For representational purpose
For representational purpose

authority and vandalism. Most street artists traditionally prefer to stay anonymous, adopting pseudonyms, fearing a backlash and police action.

World famous for his satirical street art and subversive epigrams, the real identity of British graffiti artist Banksy’ still remains unknown.

But for the graffiti artists, it’s a colourful medium of expression, an art and an addiction for which they are ready to risk police action – or even getting on the wrong side of activists of political parties.

“Graffiti is my addiction; it takes me to a world of my own where I express myself through my colours, my scribbles…The feeling is beyond words… where you scream out your thoughts to the world and yet remain anonymous,” said SHAF, who, with his ‘partner in crime’ SREK, is one of leading ‘graffiti cru’ in the city.

“While we mostly seek permission when doing graffiti on private properties, political party activists perceive our art as an invasion and there have been instances when we had to run for our lives on being chased by them,” SREK said.

SNIK’s ‘cru’ partner SHOCK was caught by the police while spraying on a Metro train and tracks, but was let off with a warning.

The graffiti gangs are not a bunch of aimless artists blindly aping the hip-hop culture. For them, graffiti is as much an art as a means to defy disapproving social norms.

The vibrant colours symbolise their exuberance and the graffiti – the declaration of their existence to the world.

“How many people can walk through a city and prove they were there? It’s a sign I was here. My hand made this mark…My existence counts…,” said SNIK, whose graffiti is not ‘mere scribbles’ but is also an “expression of the youth’s spirit of rebellion’.

The advent of digital printing and the use of flexes and hoardings may have reduced the significance of political graffiti, but with the 2016 assembly polls on the horizon, the battle for the walls is all set to intensify.

“As the saying goes, where there is a will there is a way. Our spray cans too will find the canvasses. Far from days when people considered us vandals and even had contempt for our art, graffiti steadily is gaining in popularity.

“People now willingly allow us to etch our dreams on their walls. Polls or not, our crusade will continue,” SHAF asserted.

Famed painter Samir Aich has lent his support to the graffiti gang in their crusade.

“But for these young men and women, calligraphy would be dead. All their creations are a mural to be appreciated. The colours, the intricate designs, they are all a piece of art,” Aich said.

“It’s time our walls get rid of political graffiti – all their colours, and each and every letter reeks of hatred and deceit,” Aich added.

(Anurag Dey, IANS)

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Graffiti Villages in Taiwan Festoons with Artwork in a Bid to Inject Some Life into Rural Places

Nestled in the mist-covered foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range, Ruan Chiao village is virtually devoid

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Graffiti, Viilages, Taiwan
Hakka graffiti artist Wu Tsun-hsien paints a wall in the Taiwanese village of Ruan Chiao, May 21, 2019. VOA

Nestled in the mist-covered foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range, Ruan Chiao village is virtually devoid of young people, but artist Wu Tsun-hsien is coaxing the Instagram generation back by transforming local homes into a canvas of color.

Dipping his brush into a tin of beige emulsion, he carefully applies new layers of paint to his latest production, a vibrant rural scene depicting farmers in traditional weave hats tending to a flock of animals.

Behind him, an elderly villager with a walking stick shuffles his way down the main street, which is plastered with Wu’s colorful paintings.

“This village is full of old people,” the 55-year-old laments, explaining how the vast majority of youngsters, including his own children, have moved to the city, leaving elderly residents listless and lonely.

Graffiti, Viilages, Taiwan
A local resident walks past a house painted by Hakka graffiti artist Wu Tsun-hsien in the Taiwanese village of Ruan Chiao, March 30, 2019. Pixabay

But paintings have started to bring young visitors — always keen for a selfie in a photo-friendly location — back.

“These drawings attracted many tourists to come and visit. The old people who were left here are no longer so bored. This was my biggest gain,” he beams.

Wu is not alone in this adopting this strategy.

There are now some half a dozen so-called “graffiti villages” in Taiwan that have been festooned with artwork in a bid to inject some life into rural places that have been emptied of their young.

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Empty villages

Like many industrialized places, Taiwan’s remarkable economic transformation over the past few decades has upended rural communities and unleashed huge demographic changes.

“It’s perhaps a more recent phenomenon than it would have been in some other places,” explains Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwan at Davidson College in North Carolina, who said much of Taiwan’s industrial manufacturing stayed in the villages.

“People sewed Barbie doll clothing in their houses and then carried it down to a packaging plant in the middle of a village,” she tells AFP, as an example.

Graffiti, Viilages, Taiwan
Hakka graffiti painter Wu Tsun-hsien poses in an empty old house near his home in the Taiwanese village of Ruan Chiao, March 30, 2019. VOA

Ruan Chiao village, for example, used to churn out paper temple offerings.

But once much of the manufacturing shifted to mainland China in the late 1990s and Taiwan moved up the value chain, many of those jobs left.

“That’s when you see rural areas kind of emptying out,” Rigger adds.

Aging country

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Taiwan’s population of 23 million is also rapidly aging. The birth rate has plummeted — only 180,000 children were born last year, an eight-year low.

The Wu family have experienced this flight first hand.

The ancestral home is occupied by his wife’s father, 81, and mother, 72, who still work a few plots of land in the hills above the village growing organic vegetables. But Wu’s own children both went to university and have left, one to Australia, the other to a nearby city.

Wu’s wife Fan Ai-hsiu explains their bid to draw Instagram-happy crowds of youngsters was less about economics and more about giving her parents something to look forward to.

“They want to have conversations with people, that’s what they miss, it’s not about money,” Fan says.

But it was not initially an easy task to persuade fellow villagers to use their houses as a canvas.

“People here are fairly conservative,” she recalls, adding: “But once the first few paintings went up, they could see it brought people in.”

Political themes

Most of Wu’s paintings in the village stick to rural pastiches or traditional symbols of good fortune.

It is the family home where he really gets to express himself, and which has quickly drawn a mass following on social media.

Perched on a slope overlooking the village, the whole house is covered in images, many of which detail Wu’s politics.

He’s an avid believer that not enough is being done to tackle climate change, so some of the scenes show apocalyptic scenes of environmental devastation.

Others are commentaries on social issues like gay marriage — which he opposes — or how the elderly are treated in an increasingly consumerist society.

“This mural depicts the present Taiwanese corrupt society,” Wu remarks as he walks along a huge painted wall featuring hundreds of images.

“This one is society’s mayhem due to mobile phones, computers and television … and this one is our cultural loss where many of our Hakka young generations don’t know the culture,” he adds.

Distinct group

The Hakka are a linguistically distinct group of people who trace their origins back to southern China. They have lived in Taiwan for some four centuries and make up 15-20% of the population.

Evelyn Sun puts on art and food events in Taipei and found out about Wu’s paintings via social media.

She visited with friends who all soon found themselves sitting around a table with the Wu family, eating traditional Hakka vegetable dishes and tucking into eggs boiled in a secret recipe of local herbs.

The 25-year-old enthuses: “Taiwan has many ‘graffiti villages’ that are beautiful scenic spots where people will just leave after taking pictures.”

“But I realized when I came here that every mural here is depicting a social problem faced by society.”

She hopes other young Taiwanese will explore the nation’s rural villages more often.

She explains: “These people are our culture, they are our history, we have to get to know them.” (VOA)