Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?

The story of evolution of graffiti and wall art in Chennai. By ANANYA SRIVASTAVA

“There is something to find in these pictures, thinks our Aesthetic Investigator, but the question may be whether the Lord is on the side of the artist – The Faith of Graffiti- By Norman Mailer




Chennai: The first thing one would notice about Chennai is large murals of ‘Amma’ smiling benevolently from all major public walls. This is hardly surprising given that Tamil Nadu is known for its cult of identity politics. But an overwhelming presence of politicians at almost all public spaces is not exactly a visual delight.

(Amma, or mother, is how J. Jayalalithaa, politician and incumbent Chief Minister of the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu, is known to its people at large.)

However, a slow, subtle transformation is taking place in the city. The shades of politics which once coloured the cityscape are gradually being reclaimed by street artists as people call them, or ‘graffiti writers’ as they like to call themselves.

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For many, graffiti is ugly, vandalistic and a nuisance. And graffitists accept such crude description of their art with an impish grin. By painting the city in hues they choose, these artists decidedly want to irk us, provoke us– but that’s not their sole purpose.

At its best, graffiti is a narcissistic form of art. It’s a crude expression of freedom and dissent, where the artist often challenges the state by sneaking in tags right under its nose. At its worst, it can be offensive or annoying to someone. Nonetheless, it elicits extreme reactions, positive and negative.

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The word graffiti is a diminutive form of the Italian word ‘graffio’, meaning scratching.  It ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings and has been around since the prehistoric times. However, contemporarily, the roots of this assertive, ‘quasi’-art form can be traced back to the America of late 1960’s.

It’s a byproduct of hip-hop culture and started merely out of the sheer desire to see one’s name across the city and get noticed. Local kids were drawn towards it. However, with so many people writing so much, people soon realised that plainly tagging their name was both ephemeral and vain. So gradually, the desire to stay exclusive forced writers to be creative and graffiti became a tool to showcase witty phrases and compelling visuals. Thus, what started as a self-centred vandalistic exercise soon became an uncensored channel of mass communication.

It spread fast to Europe and the rest of the world post-World War II. However, modern graffiti did not become popular in India until the 2000’s. But we do have a history of using our city walls as a sociopolitical tool.

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Graffiti grabbed Chennai by the throat in January 2015 when Goethe Institute organized the city’s first-ever international street art festival. That became a much-needed outlet for the city’s fledgling artists.

Prasanth Bhaskeran, an engineer-turned-professional graffitist, says he started scribbling on subways and local trains two years ago. “I did it for sheer fun and the thrill of constantly looking over your shoulder. Writing under the fear of getting busted is addictive.” Back then, nobody used to care what graffiti was, and getting away was a lot easier. However, as he honed his skills on city walls, people started recognizing his tag and his murals as something that added socio-communal and aesthetic value to their city. Now Prasanth is a well-known name and has several commissioned projects to his credit. He has also started what’s arguably Chennai’s first graffiti crew, ‘The third kind’.

For Vijay, another local graffitist of 3 years, graffiti carries a rather sacrosanct hue. He idealises hip-hop. “Graffiti is not art, it’s not vandalism. It’s a manifestation of free expression. It’s a voice against the whole idea of ownership, of state-drawn borders and of restraining art in utilitarian capitalist model,” he says.

Another group, The Paintbox, derives a completely new meaning from the rise of graffiti in Chennai. They are not too keen on the art aspect of it but on making it a community exercise. They run a citizen volunteer group that paints walls in dire need of a makeover to promote cleanliness. Hari, one of the founder members of Paintbox, says, “Growing up in a city with dirty walls, I know it takes much more than wielding brooms for a cleanliness drive to clean things up.” So he decided to team up with his best friends and the trio set out painting the dirty city walls in simple patterns to prevent people from urinating or spitting on city walls; gradually more people started joining in.

People may be ignorant about graffiti but such a direct approach towards cleaning their city resonated much more strongly with them.

Photo & Art Credit: The Paint box

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On one hand a Banksy can sell for more than $50,000 while another throw up is considered blight on environment. Why is there such a dichotomy? The answer lies in the intention of the graffitist. Doing a throw up at prominent spaces just to stake ownership is vandalism, however, genuine street art adds to public discourse by putting an idea out in the public; it opens a conversation.

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So what does one do with these vandalistic pieces? Should they be washed over or should they be ignored as part and parcel of our urban fabric? Should graffiti be legalised? But then who will control the impudent kids who tag their names or do ugly pieces just to cause offence?

There is no simple yes or no binary. The problem is that street art starts with kids doing ugly tags. All famous graffitists started off illegally. Now, do we decide to nip them in the bud or can we afford to let everyone run wild in the name of free expression.

Once a politician said, “The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy”; graffiti is like that too. Ugly tags often attract more attention from other graffitists than the public. It’s common to see chiding like “Mate you’ve got a messy hand-writing there” left on an untidy pieces by fellow graffitists. Other writers also challenge badly done murals and contribute in improving them. If we leave an open playground, our public spaces may become a turf for not only graffiti wars but also for an open public discourse — something that too few public spaces are even capable of.

Another line of thought says that graffiti that has no element of art is a selfish act and a conscious attempt to damage property. However, artists agree that prison sentence for “vandalism” is unreasonable. At the most, the offender can be asked to clean up his own mess. Some artists even say that workshops can be run to channel the talent of amateurs (called ‘toys’ in graffiti language) in the right direction. It can help them realise their full potential and nurture their skills to be put to some constructive use.


Nonetheless, amid this entire discourse what’s certain is that as graffiti, legal or not, seeps into the local neighbourhood, it wreathes the social fabric. It’s now part of the urban visual white noise that not many people seem to mind.

The question is not whether graffiti artists are vandals or pioneers of a new kind of a visual art but whether Indian urban centres dying for some cleanliness and a makeover can derive some good out of it. The question is whether we are comfortable with ads invading our public spaces, always telling us that we are not enough, what we have is not enough. Or, do we appreciate a harmless piece of art that adds some colour, even vitality to our lives.

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