ISSN 2330-717X

Street Art Opponents Say Stay Legal, Display In Private – OpEd

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Generally, Street Art is quickly dismissed as ‘vandalism’ and an illegal activity when ‘not in private galleries’ or ‘sponsored by non-profits’. Those opposing Street Art keep insisting artists must resort only to “legal” methods of art in the privacy of their homes, while conveniently ignoring the glaring fact that the high-end art world is discriminatory, much to a selective convenience. 

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Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a large non-profit with corporate sponsors like H&M, PepsiCo, and McDonalds, began a program in 2007 called Graffiti Hurts. They even offer grants upwards of USD 2,000 to local governments and police departments for fighting Street Art. Their slogan? “We keep America beautiful so Americans can do beautiful things.” Now, the non-profit is conveniently silent on which Americans are given the right to create those “beautiful things?” And, at whose expense?

KAB maintains that while graffiti vandals known as guerrilla artists believe their actions harm no one, “graffiti hurts everyone—homeowners, communities, businesses, schools, and you.” They maintain, those who practice it risk personal injury, violence, and arrest. The prime difference between Graffiti and Art remains…Permission! 

Over the summer of 2020, a portrait recurred on city walls across the world: an image of the black American George Floyd, who was brutally suffocated to death by police officer David Chauvin on 25 May 2020. Most of these portraits were based on Floyd’s 2016 selfie, taken from his own Facebook account; many referred to the torment of his killing, and his final words. 

Support To Floyd From Pakistan, India

Thousands of miles from the US protests, numerous graffiti tributes to Floyd appeared in European cities and in Asia, Africa and Australia. In what transcended borders, even bridged differences between two sworn enemies was Karachi-based truck artist Haider Ali’s portrait of Floyd inscribed with English tags ‘#blacklivesmatter’ and song lyrics ‘Goron Ki Na Kalon Ki, Duniya Hai Dilwalon Ki‘ meaning ‘The World does not belong to the Whites or Blacks but to those with hearts’ and ‘Hum Kale Hain Toh Kya Hua Dilwale Hain’ meaning ‘So what if we are Black, we have hearts’.

Interestingly, the Pakistani artist has used lyrics from a 1982 Indian Hindi film ‘Disco Dancer’ song penned by Indian lyricist Anjaan and sung by Suresh Wadkar and Usha Mangeshkar. The second song has lyrics from a 1964 Indian Hindi movie ‘Gumnaam’ song penned by Indian lyricist Shailendra and sung by Mohammad Rafi and Mehmood. The truck artist’s brilliant blending of George Floyd’s portrait tackling the issue of colour and hate in the USA with neighbouring India’s legendary love-hate relationship with Pakistan, was an exquisite work of art in itself, to say the least.

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The very public horror of Floyd’s killing (captured on videocam) lingers in recent memory but his isn’t a case in isolation. Memorials also say the names of generations of innocent black US victims: among them, Breonna Taylor (killed by the police in her own home, 13 March 2020); 12-year-old Tamir Rice (fatally shot by the police, 22 November 2014); 14-year-old Emmett Till (lynched by racists, 28 August 1955) and more.

Testament To Protestors’ Collective Voice

In graffiti, evidently unauthorised, illegal and without permission, international artists find resonance who then bring to focus ‘their’ issues like accusations of police brutality in Kenya and others. 

That the Black Lives Matter movement has transgressed beyond borders is evident in the works of contemporary artists who continue to embody its energy. The works of London-based Ghanian Street Artist and educator Dreph (aka Neequaye Dsane) appearing around the world, including residencies in Brazil and Cape Verde, says, “We are bombarded with negative imagery all day long; what do we do with that energy? It’s got to be moulded into something positive… I want to constantly make authentic, inspiring, meaningful, thought-provoking work, regardless of the context.”

In Britain, his street-portrait series includes Migrations, a celebration of multi-cultural local heroes – especially resonant around the Windrush scandal, where hundreds of Britons of Caribbean descent were wrongly threatened with deportation and refused vital services through the UK government’s “hostile environment” policy. 

Dreph sums it up when he says, he can “go pretty much to any country in the world and meet a local within minutes because of the graffiti movement. It’s a network.” 

Born in 1961 in Larache, a harbour town in northern Morocco, Dreph’s father emigrated to England in the 60s, so he spent his formative years with his mother, auntie, grandma and sisters. 

He moved to North London in 1973 when he was 12 to join his father. He recalls it as being a tough time, where he was unable to speak English and was immersed in a new culture, in a time where London wasn’t as cosmopolitan as it is today.

(This report is part of The Art Of Cause Project – a DraftCraft International initiative that documents Art Projectsand Street Art campaigns that reach out, rectify and resolve strife, across the world)

Part 3 of 6 | To Be Continued

Gajanan Khergamker

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent editor, legal counsel and documentary film-maker with over three decades of media-legal experience across India. He is the founder of DraftCraft – an India-based think-tank. Through strategic writings and columns across global media; niche workshops held for the benefit of police personnel, lawyers and media students as well as key lectures held at corporate venues and in Law and Mass Media colleges and universities across India, he analyses and initiates 'live' processes that help deliver social justice through the media and legal channels. He trains students, journalists, lawyers and corporate personnel to ideate, integrate and initiate the process of social justice which “isn't the sole responsibility of the State”. He holds legal aid workshops and creates permanent legal aid cells for the deprived across India through positive activism and intervention. He furthers the reach of social responsibility by initiating strategic process by offering consultancy services to corporates in the rapidly-growing CSR scenario. To further the reach of social responsibility, Gajanan Khergamker works closely with state entities, law universities, educational institutes, research think-tanks, publications and media houses, corporates and public-spirited individuals. His areas of interest include public affairs, inclusion, conflict of interest, law and policy, foreign affairs and diversity.

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