Wall chalking is a common phenomenon in Pakistan, used mostly by various political and medical quacks to advertise their political slogans and aphrodisiac medicines respectively. Recently an edgy difference has been seen on the walls of Karachi and Lahore in the form of colourful paintings with funky designs and interesting messages. Reminiscent of Pakistani truck art, this modern form of visual art is known as graffiti – a popular medium that has arrived relatively late in Pakistan.
If we define graffiti as any work of art chalked on wall, we can easily see its history dating from the prehistoric cave paintings and pictographs made with animal bones and pigments. The ancient Romans engraved graffiti on their walls and famous monuments which expressed poetic phrases, thoughtful lines and messages for the public. But graffiti as we see it today dates back to the politically charged 1960s. During the revolutionary protests of May ’68 in Paris, graffiti slogans such as ‘Boredom is counter-revolutionary’ and ‘Read less, live more’ gave an interesting picture of the situation. Later on, activists from anti-war, feminist, anarchist and anti-consumerist groups developed extensive graffiti content and style. In the 1970s, Taki 183, one of the foremost graffiti artists of the time, almost evolved into a cult among youth.
A graffiti artist called Phase 2 defined graffiti as "Youth’s subtle yet loud, clear and energetic response towards a society which showed no love for them, the so-called underdog”. Like any other form of art, graffiti is an individual’s expression; an artist’s flight into an imaginative world of colours where he dreams and strives for a world of his own. What graffiti means for an artist cannot be put down in words better than those of the artist Coda, who said: "To pour your soul onto a wall and be able to step back and see your fears, your hopes, your dreams, your weaknesses, really gives you a deeper understanding of yourself and your own mental state”.
For potential damage to properties, graffiti is usually declared a crime across the world but still takes place very frequently. Lee, a member of Fabulous Five graffiti artists’ group defends it by saying: "If art like this is a crime, let god forgive me!”. In fact there is a fine difference between vandalism and graffiti. Though incidents of vandalism taking place in the name of graffiti cannot be denied, pressing social sensitivities and increased commercial demand have consistently developed the artistic element against vandalistic expressions.
Graffiti has often been seen as part of a subculture that usually does not find expression in mainstream media and art forms. Hence it inherently tends to be anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment. It has found its expression in Banksy’s anti-capitalism campaign in the UK to anti-dictatorship protests in the Arab world. It is typically an expression of youth living in urban metropolises. Jeff Ferrell, author of the ‘Crimes of Style: urban graffiti and the politics of criminality’ describes it like this: "Graffiti writing breaks the hegemonic hold of corporate/governmental style over the urban environment and the situations of daily life. As a form of aesthetic sabotage, it interrupts the pleasant, efficient uniformity of "planned” urban space and predictable urban living.” Graffiti can also be used as a measure to determine the position of a society on the scale of social liberation. A case in point would be a comparison of East and West Berlin. While the West side of the Berlin Wall was soaked with a variety of beautiful array of colours and designs, the blank walls of the East side symbolized a subdued society.
In cities like New York, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, ‘bombing’ has an entirely different meaning. It refers to paint graffiti at many surfaces in an area. This term among many others which have been specifically used in graffiti art shows how graffiti has diverted the otherwise violent tendencies of youth into a meaningful form of art. Graffiti art provides a very effective and creative platform to the youth to express their thoughts and establish their identity as a distinct part of the society. This would be truer in societies like Pakistan where such opportunities are acutely needed. Mudassar Zia and his team of student volunteers at The Message Welfare Trust have taken such a start by painting graffiti art on the walls of Lahore. One can see their pieces without any cost on various walls of Gulberg and suburbs of Lahore disseminating patriotic messages with a message of social change.
Mudassar is inspired by a project initiated by Mustafa Kamal at the Indus Valley School of Architecture. The project is called ‘I Own Karachi’ – a competition held among students for the purpose of beautifying the city. But Mudassar’s take on this project is quite interesting as it has borrowed from the modern form of western graffiti art and moulded it according to the indigenous traditional pride of Pakistan. We see beautiful images of buildings like Minar-e-Pakistan, Mizar-e-Quaid and rural and urban culture, which includes veiled women, rickshaws, trucks and common Pakistanis striving hard just to earn their daily living.
More such initiatives are required to beautify our cities, engage youth to develop their artistic expression and to spread badly needed optimistic messages.