The Writing’s on the Wall: Street Art Tours

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Move over London, New York and Berlin, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the new urban trend of street art tours at cool quarters around the globe

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In India, a man standing near a wall means only two things. He’s either sticking a poster (despite the ‘Stick No Bills’ sign) or perhaps creating ‘public nuisance’, ignoring messages like ‘Jo peshab kar raha hai wo gadha hai’ (The one urinating is an ass). Even printed tiles of gods are not enough to dissuade non-believers, who often gouge out their divine eyes before going about their business without the guilt of ‘being seen’. But elsewhere, the idea of spraying on a gritty urban wall is a lot more beautiful and aesthetic.

For the longest time, graffiti was a form of social protest and expression, done on the sly, cocking a snoot at authorities. The aerosol can became the new weapon of choice as street gangs emanating from the hip hop culture marked their territories. Street art became synonymous with dissent, as staid subways and derelict public spaces were reclaimed as hipster haunts. Today, street art has transcended into a powerful form of cultural expression that mixes socio-political commentary, folklore and mythology, vitriol and humour, personalities and quirky art. Yet, there’s a fine line of illegality between graffiti and street art as the latter is often commissioned.

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At 18, legendary British graffiti artist Banksy had a life-changing moment. While spray-painting a train with his Bristol gang, the British Transport Police landed up and everyone ran helter-skelter. His mates made it to the car but Banksy had to hide under a dumper truck. As he lay there, engine oil leaking all over him, he figured he had to shorten his painting time to beat the law or give it up completely. The stenciled plate under the fuel tank was the inspiration behind his signature style! He says, “All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars. This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people.”

Banksy’s first prominent wall mural was The Mild Mild West in 1997 depicting a teddy bear lobbing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police. He turned the idea on its head when he showed a masked street protestor lobbing a bouquet instead of a bomb. Today, his art sells for millions and can be found everywhere from Paris, Barcelona, Vienna to the Gaza Strip. Street Art Tours are the latest city trend, a showcase of cutting edge art and the seamy urban underbelly of offbeat and parallel sub-cultures. Beyond the usual haunts like Brick Lane in London, New York and Berlin, there are other exciting destinations for your graffiti tour.

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Israel has a buzzing local street art scene, which got a shot in the arm in the early 2000s thanks to Banksy’s visit to Israel and Palestine. While graffiti is illegal in Israel, it’s everywhere in Tel Aviv. The local municipality turns a blind eye to it, especially in Florentin in the south of town. We trawled the street art hotspots of Elifelet Street, HaMehoga Street, 3361 Street and Hanagarim Street. Much of the graffiti is painted on doors and gates of various establishments, better explored in the afternoon, when the shutters are down and artworks can be seen fully. Local graffiti artist Doiz offers 3hr street art tours in Florentin on Tuesdays.

While most graffiti artists remain anonymous, their signatures or themes are recognizable. Tel Aviv artist Sened is known for kufsonim (mini-boxes) or abstract cube characters developed from ready-made stencils. Know Hope’s works have a little pigeon as a visual cue, ID (Imaginary Duck) has tiny duck figures while DEDE’s art features black and white squirrels, cats and Band-Aids, symbolizing both wounds and healing. Michal Rubin who signs her works as MR does colourful animal figures that look like stained glass paintings.

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Broken Fingaz Crew, Israel’s best-known graffiti collective have taken their pop-art murals beyond the clubs of Haifa to Europe, North America and Asia. Since 2013, the walls of the 7th floor of Tel Aviv’s central bus station have been spray-painted by more than 160 street artists from Israel and across the globe. All over the city, you can find ‘035’ sprayed on walls and garage doors by former soldiers of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) emblazoning their army unit number!

In Singapore, the local street art scene first emerged in the old Arab quarter of Kampong Glam in the hipster Haji Lane, Victoria Street and Aliwal Street. Tourists flock to the colourful bylanes for selfies. At the Art Precinct of Bugis-Bras Basah, a low wall next to Peranakan Museum on Armenian Street is emblazoned with art commissioned by the National Heritage Board to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

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Nearby, an independent arts enclave The Substation has funky graffiti all over. Bras Basah Complex features ‘Rainbows’, part of a larger street art initiative called ‘50 Bridges’ by the Australian Commission of Singapore. It celebrated Singapore’s 50th year of independence with 50 pieces of street art across the island. Wherever you go – sidewalks, subways or pedestrian pathways at Clarke Quay – there’s art at every footstep.

Though graffiti is banned in Dubai, the modern Arab nation is a little more indulgent when it comes to street art. As part of ‘Dubai Walls’, the first outdoor urban art show in the United Arab Emirates, world famous street artists were invited in 2016 to create street art at the posh retail promenade City Walk. There’s Nick Walker’s iconic ‘I love DXB’, Belgian artist ROA known for his animal depictions, ICY and Sot, Iranian refugee stencil artists currently based in Brooklyn and Japanese artist AIKO. The spectacular wall etching of a bedouin by Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto or ‘Vhils’ is part of his series ‘Scratching the Surface’!

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UK-based artist Stuart Pantoll aka Slinkachu, infamous for ‘abandoning miniatures since 2006’ had set up scenes across City Walk using toy figurines as part of his ‘Little People Project’. In ‘Under the Stars’ burnt matchsticks doubled up as firewood while a spilt glass of milkshake created ‘Oasis.’ On closer inspection, ‘Shifting Sands’, a pile of sand near a mop features a caravan of camels while a lady in a hijab carries shopping bags with a trail of actual designer tags!

Down Under, Melbourne teems with graffiti. After someone put up a framed artwork and stuck it to the wall in 2007 at Presgrave Street off Howery Place, the alley became a bit of an artists’ shrine. Walkers are bemused by the strange arrangements, curious collections of plastic dolls, installations of rats with parachutes, 3D graffiti to a miniature Mona Lisa with three plastic soldiers pointing guns at her. Melbourne has its own Banksy – except he’s called Kranky! In 2008, Union Lane, a tiny alley between David Jones and the Book Building was given to local street artists as a graffiti mentoring project. Every alley in Melbourne’s CBD (Central Business District) is suffused with art.

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A small bylane running off Flinders Lane between Exhibition Street and Russell Street holds another gem. The stuffy sounding Corporation Lane was officially renamed after Australian rock band AC/DC on 1 October 2004 by a unanimous vote of the Melbourne City Council. Melbourne’s Lord Mayor John So launched ACDC Lane with the words, “As the song says, there is a highway to hell, but this is a laneway to heaven. Let us rock.”

Bagpipers played ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)’ whose video was filmed one lane away at Swanston Street. The trademark lightning bolt or slash between ‘AC’ and ‘DC’ in the band’s name went against the naming policy of the Office of the Registrar of Geographic Names, so the punctuation was omitted. A month later, local artist Knifeyard painted the lightning bolt above and below the street sign!

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Even in rainy and windy Copenhagen where the sky and mood may scream grey, you will find explosions of colour on street walls and homes. They even have a legal wall for graffiti artists! Districts like Nørrebro, once gloomy and gritty haunts are now hipster areas with an eclectic multi-national air besides the bohemian art-infused district of Christiania.

Celebrating Nørrebro’s cultural diversty is Superkillen, an award-winning urban design park. The Red Square swoops up into a skateboarding ramp while the Black Square incorporates unusual objects – an octopus shaped slide from Japan, benches from Brazil, litterbins from the UK and random advertising signs of Chinese beauty salons and Russian hotels. The red mural of Chilean president Salvador Allende, by famous street artist Shepard Fairey stands out.

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They say if the walls of a city could talk, Belfast would narrate the most colourful stories. Tracing the Belfast Murals could turn your visit into a guided tour of the most significant moments in Northern Ireland’s history and culture – the Potato Famine, the Industrial Revolution and sinking of the Titanic. During the Troubles, thousands of landless Irish who were mainly Catholic flocked in who were building the mills and factory workers houses, settled here in what is called The Falls Road today and the area around The Diamond. Political paintings bore faces and flags representing the Irish Republican tradition. This area of Belfast became quite polarized with one side being nearly all-Catholic and pro-Irish, while the other more Protestant and pro-British.

Crossing over to the other side, we saw pro-British depictions on Shankill Road with the Peace Lines separating the two. An International Wall depicted uprisings across the world. At the Peace Wall hundreds of messages on love and peace were splattered and scrawled – ‘Together we are better’, ‘And she whispered words of wisdom’ from the Beatles song “Let it Be” and ‘I hope to come back when there are no walls to write on.’ One German visitor wrote “Where I come from in Berlin, peace walls mean division”.

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Another fabulous area in Belfast for street art is the Cathedral Quarter. We walked down ‘radical streets’ towards The Muddlers Club, a pub and restaurant that’s virtually an institution, named after the Belfast members of society who met here in secrecy to conspire against British rule 200 years ago! Interestingly, this part of Belfast also provides a perfect contrast to the Troubles Murals and presents an alternative narrative.

All along we came across stunning artworks, contemporary styles and genres, personalities ranging from musicians to sport stars and literary geniuses to cartoons and optical illusions. Take a guided 2-hour Street Art Tour around this area and you will not be disappointed. However, a grand redevelopment plan of the Cathedral Quarter threatens these artworks, which has the local community up in arms.

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In Lima, Peru, the streets of bohemian Barranco, an art district is a treasure trove of urban art. Birdman, a riveting piece by Jonathan Rivera ‘Jade’ was the winning entry for Las Paredes Hablan or ‘The Walls Speak’ contest organized by the municipality on the theme ‘Barranco: History, Culture, Tradition’. It’s home to Lima’s best artists, writers, photographers and musicians.

Imagine their shock when in 2015, the Mayor of Lima, Castaneda Lossio decided to cover all of Lima’s street art with yellow paint as it was his political colour. Sixty murals were destroyed and the angry artistic community decided to revolt. They formed a collective and organized ‘muraliza el barrio’ a street art festival claiming ‘They erased one, we will paint a thousand’. The rebellion has just begun…

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story on 4 Feb, 2018 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

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