It is that time again. After a five-year hiatus, people in the second most populous country in the world are deciding the fate of contenders who promise to represent them in Parliament. To woo the voters, those in the fray resort to every means possible; even wall-writing or graffiti. With the Election Commission’s code of conduct in force, walls are being spruced up, graffiti still pops up here and there in Kolkata. Deyal-likhon — writings on the wall literally and metaphorically — is one of the most popular tools to attract the voter. In West Bengal, graffiti displays eclectic humour and satire through limericks and poetry. Their affinity for poetry moves from the esoteric to the grassroots level at these times.
Graffiti, however, is not confined to party-slogans; evocative and fiery lyrics and statements make their way to the walls. Take this slogan opposing ‘American imperialism’, and in support of Vietnam: amar naam, tomar naam, Vietnam, Vietnam (‘ my name, your name, Vietnam, Vietnam’).
In the current polls, with the paucity of wall-space and the rise of social media, some of the wittiest limericks are found in the digital format. Those familiar with the graffiti-wars of yore, however, lament that they miss the limericks on the streets that evoked a smile and even a secret admiration for the creators.
The word graffiti (singular graffito) is said to have originated in the Italian word graffiato (meaning ‘scratched’). Graffiti can be written words as in political slogans, protest message or elaborate wall paintings with spray paints which has developed in the West with the rise of hip-hop culture which again, is a dance and lyrics routine reflecting street-culture and protests against the establishment.
As a way of making a political statement, expressing rebellion or protest, graffiti is not a modern-day invention, Even during the Roman civilisation, walls displayed opinions and lampooned politicians, as is evident from Pompeii’s ruins.
Talking about graffiti, the Peace Wall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has become a must-visit spot for visitors for its graffiti. Belfast has seen many bloody conflicts between the two factions even until the recent past; peace negotiations have seen calmer times today though locals say tension between the two groups lies just below the surface. The Peace Wall symbolises the desire to put behind a past that saw unbridled violence. Of late, there has been concerted effort to remove the wall in order make the communities intermingle. The ‘unionist’ Shankill Road murals have also become famous and visitors go to these places to get an idea of the sectarian violence that tore apart the community in the past.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, graffiti on the walls at the Shaheed Minar ground keep alive the memory of the students and teachers of Dhaka University who were shot down by the Pakistani army in 1952 in erstwhile East Pakistan. Thus Bhasha Divas (Language Day on February 21) both mourns those who died protesting against the imposition of Urdu as the national language; celebrates the protest that sowed the seeds of nationalism leading to the creation of Bangladesh. The wall at Shaheed Minar shows that one’s language can be a tool for political assertiveness.
Graffiti as artistic expression, however, has a longer life as it is not dependent on political vagaries. Though admittedly graffiti art can be a way of venting anger, it also gives scope to make one’s own political statement through colourful templates. Whatever it is, it definitely makes neighbourhoods interesting.
In Melbourne’s coffee district, huge graffiti at unexpected corners brighten up the place but also makes you stop and try to unravel what the artist is trying to say.
From scratch-origin to a high art, from expressing anger, humour and making a political statement, graffiti’s hold and popularity has never been on the wane. In a way it also shows the inner urge of the common man to make his own statement.