Art

What It’s Like Being a Political Graffiti Artist in India, and Getting Away With It

“How many times in your life have you seen your Prime Minister painted on a wall in a funny, satirical manner? Probably never. Maybe nobody has the courage to do it. Maybe nobody thinks it's important enough. But I think otherwise.”

by Pallavi Pundir
27 August 2019, 10:34am

'Tug of War'. All photos via Tyler

How do you prepare for a chase? As I sit opposite a man named Tyler (not his real name) on a calm Friday evening in Mumbai, I get a series of instructions: You need to dress right, preferably in black, and with a face mask on. You can’t stand out, even if you can’t help it. Have a backstory, always; people in Mumbai are a curious lot. And if none of the above works, you run. “Do you work out to do what you do?” I ask. “I work out only for what’s required for my work. But I need to be in the best shape possible to make it out of a sticky situation,” says Tyler. I ask him if he’s been chased before. “Oh, many times! I’ve also had to leave my bags behind to just run for my life,” he says.

Heads up: Tyler is not describing a possible heist. He is giving me a rundown of everything it takes to not be caught doing what he does: guerilla street art. In a country like India, street art often takes a different cultural context than the one seen in the West. Here, walls are abused constantly—be it from public urination, spitting, or posting bills during canvassing—and defacement laws are all but grey. So while we do have street artists, such as Daku or Shilo Shiv Suleiman, taking on the role of social commentators and community builders, political commentary is not exactly common (except in cases of conflict areas like Kashmir or political spaces like the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where graffiti becomes an act of dissent).

In this space, Tyler—also known as Mumbai’s Banksy for his stencilled works—has maintained his anonymity for almost a decade, and has only recently come under the scanner for what might be too political for some. Because while, as a country, we love to talk politics, not many here see the humour in it (Exhibit A). Which is why I’m amused when I find Tyler in a Mumbai cafe, wearing a black T-shirt that carries a print of a tweet by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “I want this Government to be criticised. Criticism makes democracy strong.”

street artist mumbai political
'Self-Portrait'

You’ll find Tyler’s works strewn across Mumbai—a Bart Simpson writing “I must say Jai Shri Ram to prove my nationality” (many will see the searing commentary on how these three words have become a war cry by Hindu nationalists to lynch Indian Muslims in recent times) or political leaders Rahul Gandhi and Modi tearing apart a map of India (which he made during the 2019 elections).

VICE sits down with the artist as he talks about what being political in today’s day means—from being trolled online, to fears of being arrested and even getting beaten up by Hindu extremists. Edited excerpts from an interview:

VICE: What would you call your work—protest art, political, or simply anarchy on the walls?
Tyler: It's a mix of all. I’ve only become political over the last few months. Earlier, I used to touch upon social issues like capitalism, war, inequality, poverty and greed, but I was never political. However, things changed during this year's elections; this year was a deciding factor where India is headed.

street artist mumbai political
'Jai Shri Ram'

How did the 2019 elections change you?
I realised that a few people around me had opinions about the country that were radical and very different from mine. I felt strange as they were educated folks, some of whom had studied in famous B-schools and are well travelled/exposed, and yet, their opinion on certain pressing issues is heartbreaking. What do I do? Should I just sit and contemplate, or should I do something about it? The purpose of art is to make you a little happy and a little uncomfortable. I also believe that almost everyone has a point of view about what's happening in the country, thanks to the vast information freely available. It’s on TV, in the newspapers, radio, videos, on social media or even spam forwards on WhatsApp groups. This is equivalent to being brainwashed by propaganda. And to beat propaganda, the ideal thing to do is counter it with honest, real street art.

Is being political different from your previous work, where you’ve largely touched upon social issues?
I kept myself away from politics for a very long time, and I always thought I'm here for fun. But then, over the years, I've realised that I love my country so much that I almost feel like a freedom fighter. I could be laughed at for thinking this, but history is meant to inspire us. Like the way we fought the British, everybody did their bit to gain freedom. And now, it's almost a similar sort of oppression in this country. There's no Jallianwala Bagh kind of massacre, but look at issues and protests around us. I don't see it as freedom; there's unrest. How can I not address the issues at hand?

street artist mumbai political
'Monster Politician'
street artist mumbai political
'The Three Musketeers'

Is making political art scary for you, especially in this climate of intolerance?
When I started doing graffiti in the first place, it started as a rebellious thing; I wanted to paint some walls and see where it goes. But over the years, I've become very careful of what I publish. You have to be responsible, otherwise it's just plain vandalism. If I were doing the latter, I would definitely be in trouble and not sitting here right now, talking to you.

What’s the most challenging part of making such outright political statements?
I was drawing the Rahul and Modi tug-of-war, which was my third political work. I could’ve just sat in a nice room and comfortable chair, and done it online. Armchair activism, in a way. But I'm creating a whole new category for myself. How many times in your life have you seen your Prime Minister painted on a wall in a funny, satirical manner? Probably never. Maybe nobody has the courage to do it. Maybe nobody thinks it's important enough. But I think otherwise. If I love my Prime Minister so much, why can't I paint him? Why can't I put a balloon in his hand? With this act, I'm breaking the law of making graffiti without permission, and secondly, we have laws that say that we can't portray the head of country in a particular way, or show his face, or the map of India, or the Indian flag. With 'Disintegration', which I drew a few weeks before the elections, I broke all those laws. But I'd feel bad if somebody else drew this before I did.

street artist mumbai political
'The Bad Times of India'
street artist mumbai political
'Yellow Journalism'

Is that all you worry about?
There’s also the possibility of getting beaten up by bhakts (literally translates to ‘devotees’ but is commonly used to refer to Hindu nationalists)! What if there are dudes going to their party office, and they see some guy painting this kind of stuff? To my luck though, after I painted the tug-of-war, two photojournalists saw my work, took great pictures, and published them in their newspapers. One of my works got published in Time and The Washington Post. This is more satisfying than me getting some likes for simply uploading this work on social media. And to be published free of cost in newspapers today, especially at a time when everything is paid for in news, is amazing.

street artist mumbai political
'Hopes and Dreams'

As this anonymous figure stirring up conversations around politics and society, do you see yourself as a masked vigilante or an everyday man?
It's a very everyday man-kind of job, but I do feel like a superhero. I do as I please and I'm not scared. The lion of the jungle isn't scared of who he's hunting, or where. He just goes for it. Similarly, when you break the law and do your thing, you're beating the authority, the system. It's very difficult to dodge the system and this stint is great only if you don't get caught. It's like the world's finest robbery: If the robber is caught, the story is not that entertaining. A flawless escape is a better story.

Have you ever been trolled online?
I feel celebrities, who have liked my work and shared it, have taken the brunt of the trolls on my behalf. For instance, Anushka Manchanda shared my 'Jai Shri Ram' piece, as did Mahesh Bhat and Rana Ayyub, all of which got an incredible amount of hate. When I saw the comments, I felt lucky to have dodged it.

Do you think you’re ready to face this kind of hate?
One of the problems of becoming a rebel or a street artist is that over a period of time, you stop fearing anything. Life will continue to unfold in its due course, I am only going to try my best dodging the hate and sometimes accepting it as we go.

Are you really without fear, or do you romanticise this form of rebellion?
What's the max they can do? They'll come after me. I'm not the first person to be on their list, nor will I be the last person. But the one thing I've understood from the word 'courage' is that it's contagious.

street artist mumbai political
'Surgical Strike?'

Are you going to get more political from now on?
Politics is like a drug. You just want to keep consuming it because everybody has so much to say about it. And on top of it, it's your ego playing out too: you think that what you believe is right. But the most important thing is to strike a balance. I make this art for myself, but I also self assess and introspect on where the line is so that I don't overdo it.

So you are a little scared then, of pissing off people?
Pissing off is actually number one on my list, but pissing off in the right way. I don't want to get into trouble for something really stupid. Look at the T-shirt I'm wearing. I want to make democracy strong by putting this kind of art out there.

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.