The Wall Is Your Canvas – rights, status and questions

by Koka Tarini Siddhartha

We often come across brightly coloured and decorated walls, sides of buildings and sometimes even trees; we might look at them with awe, take a picture or two, and walk away without thinking much further about it. In this post, we answer the questions of those who muse about such art, and maybe even pique the interest of those who haven’t yet bothered giving it a second thought.

Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?

As much as we would like to believe that graffiti is a product of the twenty-first century, it has been in existence since ancient times, dating back to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Graffiti refers to writings, drawings or paintings made predominantly on walls in public view.

There is a difference of opinion as to the classification of graffiti as art. One group strongly advocates that it is, in fact, art, as it requires skill and creativity to design a piece and translate it onto a wall. Another group strikes down the notion of graffiti as art, and instead views it as a form of vandalism.

The reason for this tug-of-war is that public property is generally used as a medium, with graffiti artists having varying underlying reasons for the need to publicly portray their work, including socio-political concerns, the re-decoration of a stained wall, and the use of the medium itself as a message. Now, governing bodies across the world are gradually moving towards recognising graffiti as an art and a dialogue, as opposed to vandalism.

So, how popular is graffiti in India?

Graffiti originated in the West, and in its true sense, signifies ‘possession of a wall’. In India, however, the motivating factor for graffiti artists is rarely owning a wall. As aforementioned, it is sometimes used as a method to clean walls and make walking down streets more aesthetically appealing.

Taken by Tarini from Connaught Place, Haus Khaz and Khan Market

There are numerous artists in the Indian graffiti scene, and quite a significant number of these artists use pseudonyms or sign with just their initials in order to protect their identity. The rising popularity of this culture can be attributed to social networking, which has even led to international artists collaborating with Indian graffiti artists.

It would be unfair not to mention the work of these Indian artists at this juncture. Artists like Ranjit Dahiya and Anpu engage in graffiti not to convey any particular message to the masses, but simply to get passers-by to see the art, get inspired and engage in conversations about it. Daku, a Delhi based artist, uses Devanagari scripture to combine art with a message.

Taken by Tarini from Connaught Place, Haus Khaz and Khan Market

The graffiti artist Guesswho makes a unique mashup of Western pop culture with Indian icons. For example, he painted Mr. Bean in a dhoti on a wall in Cochin, to poke fun at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Other artists like Tyler (pseudonym inspired by Fight Club’s Tyler Durden) and Baadal Nanjundaswamy highlight civic issues in their art. Kajal Singh, one of India’s first female graffiti artists, was impacted by the ‘no rules’ factor in graffiti, similar to hip-hop culture, and incorporates it into her work.

Interestingly, even Indian municipal corporations and police stations are increasingly funding graffiti projects. The Ludhiana Municipal Corporation launched a graffiti project last year in order to keep public spaces clean. At present, there are nine artists, five NGOs and thirty sponsors signed up with this project to cover over 1,32,750 square feet within the city, the ultimate goal being to convert Ludhiana into the graffiti capital of the country.

All this sounds impressive, but is graffiti even legal?

In a majority of countries, graffiti is considered illegal. Even the United States, the forerunner in propagating free speech and expression, punishes such offenders. It spends billions of dollars each year to clean up its graffiti-laden walls and buildings. At the same time, there are places like Warsaw, Taipei, Zurich and Paris , where graffiti is legal.

The primary reason for graffiti’s status as an illegal art form is the unauthorized use of public property. Most countries, including India, consider marking or painting another’s property without consent to be defacement, distortion and vandalism of the property — a punishable crime.

The graffiti artists of today are more responsible in the sense that they increasingly obtain permission from government organisations or building owners before spraying paint all over their walls. They would rather see their work up on a wall than see their efforts (literally) whitewashed away, or even worse, be fined.

Taken by Tarini from Connaught Place, Haus Khaz and Khan Market

It has been suggested that graffiti be divided into two categories — if permission is obtained, it is legal and can be called ‘street art’, while illegal paintings/writings can continue to be referred to as graffiti. By this classification, artists who have lawfully decorated walls will be protected. In India, more people are receptive to the idea of their walls being used for graffiti for two main reasons — it is better than having their walls covered in filth, and because they are curious.

There are two legislations which make graffiti punishable in India. First, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property, 1984, wherein vandalism is punishable. Second, under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, defacement of another’s property amounts to mischief under Section 425 and is punishable with an arrest, a fine, or both.

In conclusion, graffiti is still not wholly legal in India, and there are disputes over whether it should even be considered as art, owing to its medium (public property). Therefore, even graffiti’s copyrightability cannot be ascertained, and the questions surrounding it remain unanswered. Simply put, the issue is fundamentally a battle between the protection of one’s intellectual property rights and the protection of another’s proprietary rights.

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