Communication on Walls – Political Graffiti Emerges in New Delhi

Posted by Nikolai Schuchna • Monday, November 8. 2010 • Category: In Depth
While rushing through urban areas of today, you can see millions of attention dragging commercials everywhere you look. If you keep your eyes open more carefully you’ll also find lots of artistic expressions of thoughts and wishes using public walls as communication platforms; expressions created by individuals that are reflecting diverse opinions, which might not necessarily be shared by the whole of society and often not occur in the mass media. In Delhi these days you can see graffiti, stencils and stickers with a clearly political message – on flyovers, bus-stands, street-signs and auto-rickshaws.

Corporate Wealth Games
by nocwg2010

A lot of them emerged during the construction works for the Commonwealth Games that took place in October 2010 – stickers saying "QUIT CWG" or stencils playing with the words, referring to the games as "Corporate Wealth Games", to name only a few. Still it’s not so easy to find them as advertisers are also competing for the public space. So if you search for graffiti, you’ll first have to blind out large scale commercials that seem to have won the territorial war in the cities.

In late-1970s Switzerland there was a man who became known as "Der Sprayer von Zürich" – "The Sprayer from Zurich". At night time he went out to paint simple characters on walls all over the city; walls that were private or public property. Soon the city’s administration offered a 3,000 Swiss Francs bonus for a clue leading to his arrest. He was sued by 192 private and public organs. To the question what the catalyst for his night-time action was, he replied, that it was an enormous aversion to society, motivated by the destructive architecture that was growing in the city.

One of Delhi’s street-art pioneers told me something similar, that graffiti is a way to engage with the symbols of development in the city. Symbols, which are built on perceived exploitation and corruption, such as flyovers, malls, etc. The pace at which the city is changing makes graffiti more relevant because it aims at revealing that very process and challenging it, or so I was told.

It seems that graffiti-writers engage in dialogue with the city itself, out of a motivation to challenge the idea that major companies and social norms dominate and restrict access to public space, to space which maybe offers the opportunity to live democracy in its truest sense. "Their influence on social imagination is disproportionate to their numbers. In this context I also feel that the new cityscape and development models are very exclusionist. They do not reflect the reality of lots of people. Graffiti is a way to rupture this narrative and not let them get away with it. Why should they dominate all public space and put their symbols everywhere? Power to a large degree consists of making other people adopt your vision of their reality. We are rupturing this narrative whenever possible."

Now I ask myself the question if there can be a dialogue between both sides, or if it is a one-sided thing, only the sprayer expressing his thoughts on the wall. I found one or two examples that seem to prove that there indeed is a dialogue taking place. See for yourself:

Women at Work for No Pay
by nocwg2010

The original sign might imply: "Behind me, there’s a construction site for the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Here men are at work. They get a good salary which provides them and their families everything they need to survive." The graffiti-artist denies that, saying something like: "No, at least tell the truth. It is not only men at work here, but also women and you don’t pay them the salary which provides them and their families everything they need to survive."

The graffiti-writer aims at revealing the truth of work conditions, how the stadiums, parking lots and the metro got built. He questions who the games were for and who paid for it. While newspapers and television claim to have an objective view on all topics, graffiti-writers clearly don’t lay claim on objectivity. What gets painted on a wall is only one artist’s way of taking a look at the world and trying to change it. What’s happening afterwards is out of his sphere of influence. He’s leaving the viewer at a spot where he can make up his own mind on topics of common concern.

The writer’s actions are clearly not selfish or profit-orientated; he doesn’t aim at selling what he is offering in the public space. As commercial advertisements dominate this space, graffiti-writers are fighting a territorial war; as one of them told me: “In a sense it is about reclaiming space. Everywhere, we are bombarded by the names of products and companies trying to sell us things we don't really need and manipulating our vision of life and understanding of the world.”

Graffiti-writers in Delhi "bombing" newly built bus-stops sometimes see their paintings last not even a couple of days. It seems like the authorities feel challenged by the writer’s act of giving new perspectives. So to speak, the "buffing" (removal of graffitis) is an answer of the government, leaving individuals only the virtual space of the Internet. Since social platforms like Facebook or Flickr emerged, the paintings aren't just simply gone, because someone posted pictures of them on a wall – a digital one.

Now who "owns" public space? Who is allowed to put up wallpapers, to leave a piece of his mind on the wall? Shouldn’t we all be allowed to do that? If I have something to say, why shouldn’t I be able to leave my message somewhere where people can see it? And don’t we all pay for the walls built in our cities?
(c) by Nikolai Schuchna

I don’t have answers for these questions, but I know that property is held high in our world these days and that people that don’t respect that get punished. In the indictment of Zurich's High Court it says about the Sprayer of Zurich: "Over the years, the accused understood to unsecure Zurich’s inhabitants, with toughness and ruthlessness without example, and how to shake their belief in the inviolability of property, based on our law and order." The way of expressing his opinion through art was obviously not accepted by the judicative. An example got stated on him. He went to jail for 9 months and had to pay a penalty of 101,000 Swiss Francs. Of course, this didn’t change anything. He was Switzerland’s first graffiti-artist and many more were to come.

It seems like the graffiti-artist stands above the law, he claims the streets, without asking, careless, nothing to loose, leaving the viewer free to decide what to think – who’s world is this?


This article is based on a university research project conducted by the author. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Knowledge Must.
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