To the readers:
This is the culmination of the works, exploration and journey of two design students learning the field that is — “Graffiti” as part of our semester design project on visual design that was done spanning over the better half of the year 2019.
We have explored the street art and graffiti scene in Delhi, and have closely interacted and worked with artists from the NCT region. In the process we have a few murals and pieces to our name done across the city.
IPSHITA SINGH & AKASH K. SETH
Delhi’s Graffiti Culture
During the initial phase of our exploration we came across many names who have been considered renowned in the field of graffiti and street art. Talking about Delhi, the graffiti scene here started almost a decade ago with the onset of works from one called “Daku”, probably India’s first graffiti artist. Today he has moved on away and done international and national projects while maintaining his anonymity. There are very few pieces done by him that have survived and are in shambles.
Following in his footsteps, the numbers increased and eventually a movement was born in the form of The St+art India foundation, a non-profit that works on art projects in public spaces.
With the ideology of making art truly democratic they have created India’s first open air art gallery — Lodhi art district, Lodhi Colony. From the walls of Tihar jail, the largest complex of prisons in South Asia, that have been inked with lines that talk about the state of mind of an inmate to the variety of murals at the residential urban village of Shahpur Jat to tracing the roots of night life of the capital at Hauz Khas Village, they have done it all with the help of native and international artists.
They have also held the 2014 WIP: The street art show at Tughlakabad inland container depot where murals were made on stacked containers, which has since then been moved. However a few decommissioned containers with paints still on them have been relocated to Okhla Container Depot. These have been stacked irrespective of the pieces and have fusioned into a cross hybrid of different pieces.
After visiting these sites as part of field explorations, we realized most of this is history, since there are very few surviving pieces today except the Lodhi art district which gets a new mural very often. The actual street art culture has slowly died down in the capital with very few active taggers while most of the foundation’s work has moved into the commercial sector towards government buildings, metro stations and festivals.
Today there are a few actively open spaces for street art in the capital — the university walls of north campus with works by the students, the middle circle of Connaught place and the South Delhi areas around Hauz Khas with works by artists and taggers alike.
Graffiti writers v/s Street artists
Along with doing a lot of field explorations we also kept on doing a lot of desk research on the initial origin of graffiti writing and street art. From tagging the initials as a rebel to expressing your thoughts through visuals on the walls there are long documented stories with nothing very absolute.
Graffiti writing predates the hip hop culture where it has taken a more hybridized approach called street art. The tiff between graffiti writers and street artists is ever longing. While one is a ‘self-taught word art’ done illegally, the other is ‘image based’ commissioned or planned art that might require formal training.
A similar rivalry was spotted in the Bushwick battlegrounds, a neighborhood in New York city famous for its street art. Smiley faces started to appear on murals which were viewed as a challenge by Graffiti Writers against Street artists towards gentrification of art. This retaliation eventually died down and has led to the conversion of Graffiti Writers to Street Artists due to the major reason of the work being commissioned. This has uncanny similarity to the scenario in New Delhi, although there hasn’t been any rivalry, retaliation or comeback.
Graffiti as a field of art and design isn’t absolute. Anything and everything that expresses one’s thoughts, feelings or emotions to the masses is considered Graffiti. Or sometimes it’s just pure vandalism craving recognition.
A message is put out there for anyone who would look, and interpret it in their own way. That’s where the magic happens, when you realize how your message through your piece has transcended over and taken a different meaning in another person’s mind.
The Game Begins
With the domain decided, our brief required us to approach cafes and restaurants for live projects, study the philosophies and specialties of their brand and execute accordingly.
A new and challenging field for us, we had been studying, watching documentaries, referring to case studies, going on field explorations, making sketches etc. It was almost the end of the month when we realized we need to throw ourselves and get our hands dirty with paint if we really want to get into the field. Phoenix was our first piece that was done a little over 14 hours on the weekend.
The Spanking Phoenix
In a field unknown to us we stepped on with the first step of getting an experience of using a brush on a wall. At first it was very daunting, looking at a mammoth of a wall in the living space of a sedentary lifestyle home. We had the option to do the corners of the space, which we finalized based on a visual analysis.
For our first piece, since we were focusing on the physical aspects of the tool and material usage we decided to borrow the art. The illustration of a phoenix was discovered on the visual library website. Phoenix was chosen keeping in perspective the elements around the space. It was complementary to the living space and blended into the area as an element of décor.
Initially the phoenix illustration was sketched to an approximate scale on a newsprint sheet, but when it came to execution we were anxious. With trembling hands and unconfident spirits we finally started sketching on the wall.
The sketch was completed within the next two hours. Using stainers for the first time was a unique experience. We used the medium in its concentrated form and water was used to blend it to a lighter shade. We started with the twirls and the gradation was coming along well. A layer of blue was put on the body and feathers and we called it a day.
The next seven hours were a grueling yet effective time. Reaching the top portion was particularly challenging owing to the extensive detailing it required. The piece was satisfactorily completed with our initials and date at the bottom.
We realized working on a vertical surface is not a cakewalk. It requires a lot of effort and concentration. Until one holds the brushes in their hand and starts painting one will never find the courage to do so.
A Turning Point — Client or Competition?
Next we approached a café near our university, asking if they would be willing to let us paint on a wall they had on the outside. We thought having achieved some progress has added credibility to our portfolio so this might not be that hard after all. But the major challenge with the client was they didn’t like anything we presented to them and somewhere they already knew what they wanted on their wall but weren’t willing to tell.
In the meantime to not get caught up in the ever longing exchange between a designer and a client, we were approaching artists and studios alike in Delhi for guidance, collaboration or at least an interview.
An opportunity to participate in a wall art competition- ‘Deewar’ came along our way. One of our friends who was participating in the competition suggested we should do too, since it will be a bonus for our project. The competition was held as part of the cultural festival Rendezvous by IIT-D.
It started off as a joke, how cool would it be if we did a competition instead of a client. We would have the creative liberty without any hindrance. So why not? We weren’t even hoping to clear the preliminary round after our fellow team didn’t make it through.
From not wanting to participate in the competition, to winning it. Who knew we would? The journey from an A5 sketch to a 10ft wall was no less than a roller coaster ride. From selection of ideas to execution the stories just interweaved and created itself.
The theme for the graffiti competition was Delusional Dilemma. In a discussion with the team, comprising of us and a few of our juniors each one had their own interpretation of the term. There was a multitude of input where we were ranging from wanting to induce a social commentary factor to fighting contemporary issues. There was Stitch on a smile commenting on Women’s Oppression, “Partitioned” skull showing a man’s shattered reality, and a magician’s gruesome, bloodthirsty rabbit which was a quick metro sketch. We wanted to cause an abruptive visual discomfort yet pleasing enough that would cause the viewer to stop and think for a while.
In the background of all of these thoughtful sketches there was a song playing that we were truly inspired by — Cross Me by Ed Sheeran. The visuals were just perfectly vibing with our theme. Unanimously the team came to a decision where everyone was thrilled about not going mainstream and choosing a more mystical idea — The Magician’s Rabbit. We then immediately moved to making iterations by adding aspects and elements from the ideas we had discarded. The final sketch was rendered digitally with two iterations. Rendering it digitally was a process of patience. The task of selecting the right amount of vibrant colours was really difficult. After trying out hundreds of colours the final palette was ready. Adding the colour stroke by stroke for every part was a tedious task but the outcome was very satisfactory.
We sent out our entries knowing the fact that there were only 8 spots open for selection and one of our peer teams already got rejected, we weren’t particularly positive anymore. But later that evening we received an email saying that they liked the psychedelic feel but lacked some elements and asked us to rework on adding a few more details. We worked on it and added some extensions to the face, ornamented it, added furry texture and sent it again with our fingers crossed. We got the reply that we had been selected. The team was relieved and had a little discussion on the finale and wished ourselves for what was to come.
After reaching the location on the competition day we realised we were the 9th team to be selected out of the initial 8 spots. This provided us with a sense of confidence that our design is something worth putting on the wall.
Our canvas was ready but we weren’t. We looked at the illustration and at the blank white space and did this for a while. After looking around we realised it was high time and we should get started. A 3 by 3 grid was made and we began sketching at the center using charcoal sticks. We faced a lot of problems while sketching — initially the ears were mismatched, the face seemed bigger, and there was no space left for the hand. After a lot of improvisations we completed the sketch by lunch time.
Soon we started applying the base colour and the charcoal sticks started to blend with the base coat which we used to our advantage and created a blend and adding a darker shade on pink to the palate. The blending of charcoal with paint was adding more depth to the piece than it would have had in the illustration. This taught us how to improvise and overcome the barriers that are hindering your path. We finished the base coat and took a step back to analyze what we have done and called it a day. We had done most of the pink and what remained were parts of the detailing. The idea was to have “Ceci n’est pas un rat” at the top while there would be “ bbi ” dropped at the bottom. However the space was constrained, while the hand had too much white space. We improvised and added a military dog tag with our text on it.
The next day the detailing was worked upon, simultaneously filling the background with black. The uneven surfaces and the gaps in between the stone bricks were quite challenging with a brush but once done right they had that edgy raw feel to the piece. The earrings were darkened towards the inside that made it pop. There was a tear added on the larger eye quite transparent and a drip of saliva near the crooked teeth. The highlights and the mirror were added in the end and voila! Our piece was complete.
We had completed the piece way before time and were getting anxious so as to what more can we add to it. But we came to an understanding that we need to know when to stop. We set a timer for 4:30 PM and stopped after adding final touches and stepped away. We went to a nearby food joint and had an early celebration of this piece which we had completed and were extremely proud of.
The results were announced later that evening, and turns out the decision was in our favor and we won the competition.
After the competition we asked ourselves — “What next?”. In the meantime we had been in contact with a street artist — Harsh Raman Paul, who was one of the two who had replied to us, the other being Aaquib Wani. Just the next day after the competition we furthered our conversation with Harsh, who had been occupied with his ventures. However due to the holiday season of Diwali we got to talking with him for real around two weeks after the competition.
While we were still basking in the glory of winning, we were intrigued by the idea of going beyond walls to express art. We discovered one such exhibition was held in 2014 by St+art India foundation titled WIP: The Street Art Show at Tughlakabad container depot where murals were created on stacked containers. We approached them if we could have a look at them as part of our field exploration. We were informed that most of the containers were shipped out but a few have been relocated to another depot in Okhla.
We contacted this inland container depot, and they were unaware of the fact that art pieces worth so much value were lying in their backyard. After enquiring the existence of the same they were willing to let us view them on strict terms. On reaching the site, the security personnel didn’t let us in at first, but after contacting his superiors, allowed us after we had deposited our mobile phone and bag. The only thing they let in was a sketchbook.
After talking to the officer-in-charge and explaining to him our purpose of visit we requested him if we could get our phones, since pictures would be essential for documentation. He forwarded our request to his superior who seemed more clueless about the existence of these containers. Just to get us out of his hair, he allowed us to get pictures. We were then accompanied by a guard who would take us to the site. Interestingly he was more excited and engaging about these art pieces than us. He would give us his piece of mind of what he thought these meant.
These pieces which were once part of a larger mural were now miss ordered and placed with other pieces at random. They have fusioned into a hybridized form which gives it a new meaning or not. The transition is truly breathtaking to look at. One can view these without the hassle of going through what we did, if they are travelling via train from Nizamuddin railway station and are southward bound.
Baba at Dhaba
We finally had a meeting with Harsh Raman Paul after he came back from his ventures out of town. We were very elated to meet the infamous “Mr. Singh” himself. He is a very humble person with works spread across far and wide in terms of geography and domain. He invited us to his studio, a cozy and comfortable working space decorated with the true essence of an artist.
We had a quick discussion with him where we explained our briefs, deadlines and requirements. Immediately he had a lineup of a vast variety of projects for us. Unfortunately, not all these projects could be done in the time we had left.
The project that we successfully executed was a commercial one which was done in a span of 4 days. The client was Dhaba, a restaurant in Ambience Mall, Gurgaon. They wanted one of Harsh’s trademark designs — the Baba on their wall, which was located behind the operation counter.
In this project we primarily assisted Harsh, while learning the process of engaging with a client, agreeing to the terms, making compromises, all the while delivering the output.
Ceci n’est pa unn rabbit
By this point we realised we had done murals in very comfortable environments and we wanted to experience the severe, raw and challenging yet illegal conditions of Graffiti that is Vandalism. The challenge was what do we do?
We had run out of ideas, our jury was just 3 weeks away and the fear of being imprisoned for destroying public property brought us to our dead end. We were exhausted from the work we finished at Dhaba but weren’t satisfied yet.
Throughout this project we had met a bunch of people who called themselves “Graffiti artists”, however there were very few who actually were worthy of the title. The true essence of an artist comes from their style, and their ability to recreate their symbol or icon over and over again with new iterations while maintaining the coherency. That is how they are recognized.
With this thought in mind we looked back and saw we already had our symbol — the rabbit.
It was time to vandalise the streets with our symbol. On our way back from Dhaba we took a detour and bought acrylic sheets and other necessary supplies. We took a print of our illustration from before and made markings for a rough idea of how the stencil could be made.
Since this was vandalism, it required speed and the medium we had not worked with yet was spray paints. We ordered a very expensive set of spray paints — Montana MTN 94 Cans from our prize money. We gave it our all because we knew it was either happening now or never.
In the next couple of days the illustration was perfected over, forms to be stenciled were identified, color scheme was iterated upon. We had looked in and around the National Capital Region scouting for walls in the hotspots of the city. The middle circle of Connaught place was one huge artist’s lane which had some really massive walls. There was also the Moolchand flyover and the area around it which was closer to home.
All was set. The illustration was ready, spray cans were calling to us and the walls were awaiting a new piece.
It was already the 1st of December and our stencils were still processing. It was an excruciating task due to the massive scale of it. The stencils were ready by the end of day but we had missed our first light. The stencil was tested and it was more than we could ask for.
The next morning when the neighborhood was sleeping, rabbits would be popping up. It was 7 AM on 2nd December, in the Moolchand area. The streets and roads had gone live and it wasn’t possible to do the flyover walls we had decided upon. We moved underground to the subway. There were school kids passing by and the occupants in the rooms were waking up. Strangely there were a number of rooms in the subway and these rooms had huge doors which was unusual of any subway I had ever seen. We saw an opening and with our hoods on and bags strapped, we put out the stencil on one of these doors which was now our canvas. The spray can rattled and a blast of colors spread as fast as one could see. There was the basecoat of a bright vermillion neon on the door.
After aligning the second stencil the first one was taken off. The outline of the hand was beginning to be prominent when we were stopped by a person who walked up to us from one of the rooms. Instead of running for our lives we stopped by the man and tried convincing him that we were spreading awareness for a social cause.
However it didn’t matter to him. It was heartbreaking to have failed at our first attempt but we walked away leaving our work incomplete.
With our stained coats and art supplies in hand we were walking around the neighborhood scouting for new walls. We even got suspicious looks from a police van. Walking around we reached our next location. There were very few people around who were bringing in supplies for the shops. In between these shops is an alleyway- dark and dusty. We waited for a while looking around and once clear began the process again. This time we were able to complete the rabbit with minimal hindrances from passing by school children.
Next we walked up to the park on the next block. There was a structure probably for a foundation stone which was particularly intriguing to us. We went in and analyzed it. This structure which stood at a height of about 4 feet was directly in front of the gate.
There were all the early risers in the park mostly uncles going through their morning workout. We knew we couldn’t be dressed so suspiciously and not attract attention. We settled down our bags, pulled out our college IDs and pretended to talk on the phone with a ‘badesahab’. There were onlookers who were just standing and trying to comprehend what was going on. We took our time with this piece since it was daylight vandalism. We finished off with the tag. And this turned out better than the last one. Now we were running short on black paint. We only had enough for one more piece.
We came to a bargain that we need a new location now to finish with a grand. It was an instant decision to head to Lodhi art district, which was a few kilometers’ away. We hopped on an auto and off we went. Roaming around seeing all these pieces by the St+art foundation we realised how much this liberal art movement of graffiti has been commercialised.
We stopped at one of the most photogenic hotspots of the place — “WE LOVE DELHI”. We were looking around at any smaller surfaces nearby where we could drop our piece. Just a few metres ahead was the installation by DAKU, which was in shambles. This installation called Time changes everything, uses sunlight to cast the shadow of the metal structures with text that falls on the wall perpendicular to the stencils.
Seeing the installation in such a bad shape we felt the irony of how it had run it’s time. It was old, rusted and dingy with many pieces fallen off.
It was time we revived this installation with our piece. Since no one was there to hinder this piece owing to it being an art district, we took our time. We played our music and filmed the piece in making. We chose to do the original color scheme for this coming full circle — the fuchsia and neon blue with hints of yellow, white and black.
And there we had vandalized the wall of one of the country’s most infamous street artist and were ready to boast about it.
For our final jury, we put up a live performance where we did the rabbit again, on a frame we had got custom made. Also we compiled all of our journey into a book which will serve as our memoir.
Few months later when we were documenting this journey, we realized what we had done unintentionally. Recalling the accounts of the Bushwick battlegrounds, we could draw similarity from the case. Unaware of the consequence of our actions, here we were the Graffiti writers who had vandalized the piece of a Street artist challenging the idea of gentrification of commercialized art.
In the end, no matter who inspires you, the only thing that can make you motivated to do something is your inspiration from yourself.