It is a thin line that demarcates vandalism from graffiti art: Ownership and consent. That issue settled, graffiti — art on public walls — holds an irresistible charm for us urban animals. Rebellion? Passion? Irreverence? Disregard of authority? Graffiti is one art form which happily embraces all of it.
Public walls have long served as a platform for impulsive and revolutionary art. No wonder that anti-authority movements — be it political rebels or social rebels like those serenading the hiphop movement took to graffiti art like ducks to water. Though graffiti is not really a new age phenomenon, as one might think. Graffiti have been discovered in Mayan sites, on ancient Scandinavian church walls, and in the ancient catacombs of Rome and at Pompeii, which incidentally includes a graffito caricature of a politician. And if you count prehistoric cave paintings, then the earliest graffiti dates back to 30,000 BC!
From coal to aerosol spray paint, graffiti has seen technology evolve. Graffiti now comes in digital tones, as in ‘Lining the Wall’, a collection of works that explores graffiti and the element of line in digital terms. Artists Harsha Biswajit, K Vinay Kumar and S Kalaiselvan have come together for this. The three of them have brought graffiti indoors — framed and mounted. But then, the idea was not to create graffiti as such, but to take inspiration from graffiti, stretching the boundaries of line and colour in the process. Aided by technology, this assumes a new dimension. Here you see elements of graffiti like lettering and stenciling, bold use of colour and stylisation, more than painstaking technique. “Absence or presence of any other form of ‘graffiti’ is purely incidental,” says Shalini Biswajit who has curated this show.
So now, these artists dip their fingers into Raster, Vector, Bitmap, Photoshop and Pixel Image Editor, along with oils, pastels and other traditional media. Some, like S Kalaiselvan have brought in one more novelty by way of printing these digital images on silver film, the effect of which is quite dashing. Obviously, there are as many media for art as there is technology.
Kaliaselvan’s works are about experiences — his, and of those whom he interacts with. He is one of those who now use digital technology as a preferred tool to express thoughts, though he does work with mixed media to enhance or fine-tune his works. Silver film thrills him.
“My search for the right medium to print the output ended with my discovery of silver film,” he says. “The transparency and versatility of the film is best suited to express the overlapping layers of thought process,” explains S Kalaiselvan.
Meanwhile, Harsha Biswajit revels in the use of colour and line to project his thoughts into space. Digital extrapolations of the human form does convey a sense of perspective much more succinctly than what is achieved by use of traditional brush strokes. The fact that he has set his works on a black background makes the works that much more dashing and non-conformist. His works are best experienced as a series, though individually too, they give strong messages on meditation, nirvana, etc.
“My current series is based on a personal quest for enlightenment. Tooling with the mind’s eye, unveiling and peeling the various layers of my inner self, the journey I wish to travel from transformation to rebirth to nirvana is an inspirational one,” Harsha states. He says he explores the world as a traveller who traverses along a well-laid path, leaving tags along the way as markers to personalise the landmarks and hurdles that he has overcome.
In startling contrast are soft-spoken K Vinay Kumar’s works. So subtle are the colours he has chosen that the lines in his works seem to become invisible at some point, even while graffiti type islands of collages stand out from these subtle backdrops. His works are virtual mindscapes. “At present I am preoccupied by the dominance of money, and the power it wields in this fast paced life. I perceive the world through this ‘lens’ that allows me to see everything in terms of currency, the value it brings along and its effect on people’s lives and situations,” he says.
Twentyfirst century urban life is electronic — gadgets, ATM cards and the like becoming more ubiquitous than thoughts or words. This, and the fact that everything is weighed in terms of money puts him off.
All these three artists have cleverly taken graffiti to the current genre of favourite media — digital. When ancient potters scratched their pots’s surfaces to reveal the layer of pigment beneath, they didn’t realise that they were creating the forerunner of an art form that would be as colourful as it is controversial, and as reviled as it is revered. The potters’ scratches moved to walls and took shape as graffiti, and now, online social networking sites have adopted ‘the wall’ as a platform for bold expression, if not quite graffiti art.
Some regard graffiti as the single most powerful art movement of all times. The Brooklyn museum exhibition in 2006 at New York displaying the work of graffiti artists of New York like Crash, Lee, Daze, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat was perhaps a turning point in bringing graffiti into the realm of serious art.
Now, many cities have walls exclusively for use by graffiti artists like the Graffiti Tunnel at the University of Sydney. ‘Lining the Wall’ is a collection of works that takes inspiration from the boldness and dashing compositions inherent to graffiti art.
More than their fine arts, historic graffiti has helped us understand the lifestyles and attitudes of past cultures, because graffiti happens to be more honest and spontaneous. These young artists, by taking graffiti along the digital route seem to be saying that more things change, the more they remain the same.