High on graffiti

High on graffiti

Graffiti being spontaneous, it displays the collective soul of a city like no other art, learns Hema Vijay, after an interaction with graffiti artist Joyston Christopher Vaz.

Spray cans of car paint, a loud and whirring motor that seems appropriate for a factory, air guns and air brushes that look alien and metallic, masks to shield from vaporising paints... hardly the paraphernalia for an artist’s studio.

But then, young Joyston Christopher Vaz is one of a rare breed of artists: he is into graffiti art. In fact, Joyston is one of the very few graffiti artists in all of Asia, for that matter. This young man’s graffiti work on buildings in India and countries like Singapore and Malaysia are simply difficult to ignore.

“That book set me off on my way. Some day, I would like to be mentioned in it,” muses Joyston. The book this young man refers to is Graffiti World – Street Art from Five Continents. Currently, this annually updated book has no entry from Asia. But of course, graffiti art has largely been a typically western phenomenon, as has all urban street art in general.

Not that graffiti is a new phenomenon. Images of hunts and kills and fertility symbols scratched on cave walls by pre-historic man probably being the first ever graffiti. In fact, the word graffiti is traced to the Italian ‘sgraffio’, meaning scratch.

Medieval graffiti was much like our modern times, as seen from excavations in Pompeii and other places, which reveal election slogans and obscenities scratched on to walls. Much later, there came the obnoxious forms of graffiti like toilet graffiti, tourist spot graffiti and even propaganda graffiti like the ones by the Nazis. No surprise then that graffiti is seen linked with vandalising and defacing of walls. But graffiti displays the collective soul of a city like no other art.

Partly because graffiti is spontaneous, and partly because graffiti artists like to be cryptic, even while apparently speaking out to the world at large. And then of course, graffiti has also evolved over time, to be much more than a loaded message board.

Live art

With his pierced eyebrow, unpaired anklet and tied up hair, the young man looks every bit the outlandish artist that he is. And his art is exactly that — outlandish to common understanding, as is futuristic science fiction.

Joyston looks at graffiti much like an artist does. Strangely enough, he had been using paint on paper or canvas initially, but found it too slow to suit his pace of thoughts. Besides, the traditional painting media format cannot deliver the kind of visual effects that Joyston revels in, such as paradoxical images, hints of the three dimensional realm, trick imagery, or even hazy impressions. Joyston also uses fluorescent and metallic car paints, the effects of which are non-replicable with regular pigments on canvas. “Spray painting gives a multi-layered effect and the blurredness allows you to look beyond the form and see into its inner reality,” he says.

Working with fluorescent paints also gives him the power to get his images to transform at different times of the day and with different lighting, which makes the graffiti on the wall a live and throbbing visual. His colour palette includes an awesome 40 colours of car paints, which he mixes up to create even more shades. Joyston does incorporate into his work the trademark New York graffiti element — the distortion of his signature. But to Joyston, the distorted signature is just the end point, not the central story. It is just a way of signing off subtly.

Graffiti art is an expensive proposition, working to about Rs 270 for a 300 ml can. “That may be why it has not been taken up by as many artists,” he analyses. There is another worrisome factor. Considering that his works call for several layers of paint application — as many as 18 layers at times, and since Joyston has to be in the vicinity of vaporising paints every day of his working life, inhaling these vapours is an occupational health hazard; “I should try yogic breathing techniques, I guess,” he concedes.

The tools and the end

Leonardo Da Vinci, by the way, is this young man’s icon. Like the ancient genius, Joyston amuses himself by writing in mirror-reverse handwriting. In a sense, Joyston is treading the same path of science-art oneness: He fashioned his own machinery to spray paint, when he found that such machinery was unavailable in India, and importing it would cost a fortune. He is also toying with the idea of creating tools for making movable sculpture. To this young man, inventing tools is as engaging as using the tool to create art.

Outlandish sculptures interest him too, and now, Joyston has also become famous for his assemblage, ‘The future of man’, which shows a futuristic man shaped from break wires, pedals, handles, car wiper blades, helmets and the like, assembling his body by foraging from the junk he has created.

Meanwhile, his fascination with retro-art like Steam Punk continues. In common parlance, the Steam Punk genre is just a way of saying simple things in a complex obscure way, teasing the audience to arrive at an understanding. Lately, Joyston is toying with the idea of movable graffiti. Graffiti on canvas? “No, because canvas is not very receptive to graffiti paint,” he says. So it is that he got down to inventing a new graffiti surface: A layer of building patti pasted on to a plywood sheet, and painted white finally. “With this, one can even cut up the graffiti and rearrange them as fancied,” he says. But wouldn’t cutting it up and reassembling the pieces deface the original artistic conception? No, says Joyston. “Graffiti has a life of its own.”

He also likes to work in large scale, which becomes possible quite often, as many of his commissions happen to be building facades that sometimes tower to 35 by 45 feet or more. The graffiti that he did for the Magic Hour building (for a technology giant in Malaysia) spanned 25 by 10 feet and had robot heads with 3D square boxes in the corner that seem to move as you walk up the spiral staircase by it. “When I work on this scale, I work propped up on a ladder, and the paint has to be sprayed on at levels, like how a scanner-printer machine does, rather than an artist,” he says with  a laugh. “I love my art to adorn public spaces, which is where graffiti really belongs,” mentions Joyston.

Working with slum kids in Delhi in creating graffiti to spraying out outlandish graffiti for corporate houses and art galleries, and camouflaging planes with paint for the Hindustan Aeronautics College might seem a far cry. But to Joyston, it is all about one thing — speaking out subtly. His dreams also include starting a new kind of art institute. “Everyone has a set idea about art. That has to change.”

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