Early this year, Ashwin Karupaiah from Vadapalani and a handful of other young artists went to New Delhi to paint the streets of the national capital with their art work during the first ever street art festival in the city. For this 20-year-old CA intern who pursues art as a passion, the street art scene in Chennai is still at its infancy when compared to Delhi.
But, a casual gaze at the abandoned walls, street corners and even the beaches in the city, reveal a colourful blend of political portraits, vibrant graffiti and an even modern art created by those who are mostly called perpetrators of vandalism a.k.a. the street artists of Chennai.
While the poorer neighbourhoods in the city mostly contain political portraits and graffiti, as one moves down south towards the more affluent part of the city, the politicians and their various moods captured on enamel are replaced with spray paintings that are mostly an expression of angst by the angry, young city artist.
“It is our way of leaving an imprint in the city,” says bespectacled Ashwin, who hardly looks likes a vandal. He says that artists like him almost always encounter resistance from property owners when they approach them for using their walls to create street art. “The irony is that you don’t stop anyone from pissing on your wall but you will not allow us to create art there,” he says.
As is the case with most cities across the world, these street artists too always work at nights. “We just go and paint the walls at strategic points where a lot of people gather. We don’t seek anyone’s permission,” says another street artist from Adyar who prefers anonymity.
Since its origin decades ago, street art has always been associated across the world with the poor who find it as a means of expressing their dissent. But in Chennai, only the affluent can afford the kind of art that Ashwin and his tribe pursues. “A can of decent spray paint costs atleast Rs. 400 to Rs. 500 here while it is just a dollar or a Euro in the West. To create a decent work of art on a wall, we need atleast a dozen cans of spray paint besides rollers and other tools and it costs anywhere between Rs. 8000/- to Rs. 10,000/-. It is difficult for the poor in Chennai to pursue street art as in New York, Berlin or other cities known for its vibrant streets,” he says.
Boominathan from Kolathur has been painting on the walls of Paper Mills Road in Perambur and surrounding areas for the last 18 years. Unlike Ashwin and his tribe, Boominathan is a professional who paints portraits of political leaders for a living.
“I have no political agenda and have painted portraits of almost all political leaders across the state,” he says.
The 38-year-old Visual Communications graduate began his career as a teenager when business was booming for artists like him. “During those days when flex boards had not yet arrived, we used to be busy through the year and there was a lot of demand for artists like me. Now, we are rarely able to make ends meet,” he says.
He is a part of the 1000-odd artists in the city who paint purely political portraits and statements to make a living. These artists typically use enamel paint and sketch figures on walls before painting them.
“It is a difficult job and there have been a lot of violent clashes over claiming wall space in the past. With the new guidelines by the Election Commission being more stringent, such clashes have reduced largely,” says Elaya Kumar (31) from Otteri who runs Elaya Art Studio.
Like Boominathan, Elaya Kumar too joined the profession in his early teens. “I have had no formal training in art and just learnt by watching others. When I began painting, I could make atleast Rs. 1000/- every day. Today, we are struggling to make ends meet but this is the only job we know,” he says.
While Elaya Kumar and Boominathan might not be painting their streets to express themselves, their work stands tall in a city where politics is as indispensable as idli and sambar for breakfast. His 50-feet tall painting of DMK leader Karunanidhi and his son Stalin at Choolai is arguably the most expressive sketch art in Chennai, despite its political intentions.
And then, there are those like DUD and AKEEM who remain true to the spirit of graffiti art. None among the miniscule street artist community know them except through their work. “If you are a keen observer of street art, you would find their names spray-painted in many areas.. But, nobody really knows who these guys are,” says Ashwin.
Be it on city subways or toilets of express trains, or school walls, thousands of anonymous graffiti artists leave an imprint of their visit to these places by carving their lovers’ names and even phone numbers of their ex-girlfriends on some occasions if only one were to take a closer look.