The city of Galle put graffiti art under the spotlight recently when two French tourists were arrested for causing damage to public property. When these artists allowed their drawing skills to surface inside the compartments of a railway carriage they were probably unaware that they were breaching a law that exists to safeguard public property. That’s how the law works; by spelling out what you can’t do. But graffiti artists may find it necessary to do their work in the wrong places to obtain the right kind of attention! If one studies their work, this is the pattern they have set over a very long period of time.

The pictures on these pages are graffiti from the city of Colombo. But, they were found in the most squalid environments, some in the slums of Colombo. Most are evocative and artistic. If they were on canvas, with reputed painters’ names, most, would adorn the walls of the affluent. In beginning, how did homo sapiens begin to draw, much before, painting, was it not on sand, and then, on convenient rocks and caves.  Justice and  Roman-Dutch Law all came much later.  While laws are in the books they are administered by humans who too may have a penchant for the arts. So, where do we accomodatively think about the non formal expressions of art,  after all, they too are manifestations of society.

Leo Pasqual, a Sri Lankan artist who once lived in America, was at a loss to say whether graffiti art was good or bad when the Nation asked for his take on this kind of art. “Some of the work of graffiti artists is amazing and beautiful, but if their work is defacing public property, then we are facing a dilemma,” said Pasqual.

He has seen enough graffiti here and abroad and knows that this type of art often depicts either racism, sexuality, vulgarity or else can be used to promote advertorial and political causes.
He doesn’t fancy graffiti coming up near scenic places like tea estates. He said that art coming up in such locations can be really good, but it can make the place look really ugly. He has seen political advertisements coming up on rocks jutting out of the Mahaweli River. “This is pretty bad, but no one seems to get arrested for this type of graffiti. But somewhere else a graffiti artist can be arrested because his work damages public property. If things get out of hand, then the law must be the controller,” said Pasqual.

President’s Counsel Prashanthalal de Alwis when contacted said that art of this nature can amount to be a punishable offense if the artist in the process of drawing is guilty of trespass or has changed the condition of the private or public property. According to Alwis a special Act was passed some years ago where the penal code now specifies that the punishment for this type of offense is three times what is prescribed for a normal punishable offense. He added that if the damage caused by the accused accede Rs. 250,000 he will not be entitled for bail.

Pasqual agrees that the work of graffiti artists got out of hand in the early 1990s. Those who indulged in graffiti were people from the downtrodden masses who couldn’t afford gallery space. But over the years, this kind of art opened the doors for commissioned work. At present, graffiti artists are hired to exhibit their creativity on 30-foot walls. “This kind of painting is hugely costly and requires large space too. Now the world is seeing the works of artists like Banskey and Jean-Michel Basquiat, so graffit art is not what it was 50 years ago. It’s no longer the work of the poor,” explained Pasqual.

The conventional artist draws for his satisfaction. But when a graffiti artist is at work, he is driven mostly by the thrill factor generated by this kind of art. If one goes down memory lane, vivid childhood memories of kids decorating the walls at home with pastel will surface in our minds. This type of art just goes on to underscore the fact that the ‘need to express is very old’. Some parents encourage this type of art to enhance a child’s skill. But some get angry and would put a stop to it immediately. Is there a psychological aspect to this kind of wall painting done at home?

Dr. Priyanga de Zoysa, who is also an author and coach, when contacted said that he couldn’t see a distinct relationship between children who scribble or paint on walls ending up as graffiti artists when they grow-up as adults. “What I wish to say is that children who scribble or draw on walls at home should be encouraged. If you stop it, it could delay the awakening of the mind to some extent. Parents should upgrade their knowledge on this subject and realize that this phase is not going to go on forever. Actually it’s a healthy thing that you are witnessing,” said Dr. Zoysa.
Dr. Kapila Ranasinghe, a consultant psychiatrist attached to the National Institute of Mental Health Angoda, said that there is a psycho social side to graffiti art. “People can turn to graffiti art when they are suppressed as individuals or as a society.

Individuals who are not given opportunities can show their frustration and anger through this form of art. This type of art comes up when unplanned urbanization is mushrooming and cultures are suppressed. Social culture is important when defining this issue,” said Dr. Ranasinghe.

Graffiti artists have shown the tendency to exhibit their work underground, in places or paths not very well frequented by the public. Some don’t even sign their work. Pasqual recalled seeing graffiti of a sexual act drawn in the underpass of the Colombo-Negombo expressway. Does this kind of act happen in one’s own bedroom? If so is it appropriate to draw it? Is this specific graffiti erotic? “These are debatable points and I say we must leave this to the viewers of such art to finally decide,” said Pasqual.

Graffiti artists are slowly coming out of the closet now. Some of them even leave some mark on their graffiti to show some identification. According to Pasqual there is a reputed artist who leaves the sign of a blue flower in all his graffiti. This is called a tag.

People should focus on serious graffiti and not on creations like a teenager spraying some words on the wall of a girls’ school. Pasqual terms this kind of graffiti as ‘nonsense’.

The time has come to view graffiti as serious art and absorb the beauty and the messages that these creations carry. As Pasqual puts it even the most offensive four letter word will be pleasing to the eye if it’s presented to the public in decent colours using the right application!

Pics by Chamila Karunaratne

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