HIS MURAL gradually effaced by posters of Baba Ramdev advertising a rally in Ramlila Maidan, 30-year-old graffiti artist Daku decided he had to ‘reclaim’ his wall. Armed with spray cans, rollers and stencils, he and a few others were restoring his words back on the wall when they were caught by the cops. They were threatened with the Delhi Prevention of Defacement of Property Act, 2007. “They demanded that we pay a 2.5 lakh fine. I offered them 200. It was all I had. They were livid, but we got away,” says Daku, nom de guerre of the graffiti artist whose works can be seen in public spaces across cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Kochi and Kolkata. In the day, he works as a creative head at an advertising firm. By night, he is transformed into an art ‘vandal’.
By tagging city walls, Daku is participating in a global movement, an Esperanto of the street. Pedants will distinguish between ‘street art’ and ‘graffiti’. The former, explains freelance curator Meera Menezes, “is any public art that’s undertaken with due permission. While graffiti is illegal, and often done in the cover of darkness. It’s the guerrilla form of street art.” It’s a guerrilla form that has become almost establishment, with considerable commercial clout. The British artist Banksy’s work, for instance, sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
India is no stranger to street art, at least of the cheerfully kitsch sort. “The only reason no one minds the ‘art’ is that the alternative is paan stains,” says Daku sardonically. There is nothing in the unoffensive street art we are used to that hints at the adrenaline and fear that spur the work of taggers and graffiti artists. It takes a particular sort of determined obsession to break the law in the name of art.
Though a pseudonym can help in the case of close encounters with the law, Daku insists his anonymity is necessary for reasons both less and more romantic. On the one hand, “tagging walls with my real name would look silly,” he says. On the other, “‘Dakus’ are known for robbing villages; I rob cities of their walls and public spaces.” Recently, on seeing the remnants of a footbridge mangled in an accident, he stuck a ‘For Sale’ tag on the pile: 15 crore. “It was to remind everyone that this was the taxpayer’s money.”
Though by no means the first one to tag walls, Daku sets himself apart with his innately Indian typography, his use of the Devanagri script. His other signature is his clever subversion of officiousness. ‘Stop’ signs were some of the most visible Commonwealth Games ‘enhancements’ in Delhi. Daku stuck stencils beneath the signs, so they read ‘Stop Pretending’, ‘Stop Criticising’, ‘Stop Judging’, ‘Stop Bribing’, ‘Stop Promising’ and so forth. He tells me he even stamped a big ‘Stop Shopping’ sign outside a prominent mall in South Delhi, which took the authorities a year to notice. Last year, after ACP Dhoble pulled the rug out from under partygoers in Mumbai, Daku stenciled the F-word in Devanagri script, using the Hindi letters ‘pha’ and ‘ka’ in different locations in Mumbai. “When I landed in Mumbai, I felt this oppressive air about the Dhoble incident. I tried to add an element of fun with this word. ‘Fuck’ means different thi ngs to people, but in Hindi, it co uld mean anything, even gibberish.”