Gaining a peak momentum through Maoist stencils and political messages – during the decade long insurgency, the culture of graffiti often proved an alien feature to Kathmandu eyes. Veteran contemporary artist and art academic Madan Chitrakar however, wasn’t surprised then, rather described as a natural development. Human habit of painting walls, as a whole, as he thinks has a hoary past. According to him, it goes back to as early as human civilization and the very beginning of making creative expressions.
Even in modern times, painting the walls of our homes holds close ties with religion: and is directly associated with our culture. Chitrakar goes on to elaborate that wall art, in fact, remains the second stage of Nepali art development. But regardless of these historic and social contexts behind it, Chitrakar is of opinion that contemporary style of graffiti however, is a recent phenomenon in Nepal. According to him, graffiti appeared in Nepal, essentially because of foreign – especially European and the American influences. This has to do more with the trend of using walls as an easy platform for spreading political propaganda during the late 90’s and early 00’s. An ultimately, it led to a rampant ‘Uglification’ of the city – with political slogans and mediocre imageries. The first street art contemporaries artists then, decided to use walls as a space for art and to displace those ugly messages” says Chitrakar.
While making a quick survey on today’s situation of street art, a queer picture emerges. A common wisdom always has that for expression of any forms to exist, it requires freedom and liberty. But civil liberty seems to be in a steady decline in Nepal, in the recent past. The existing administration in Nepal has on numerous instances, seen taking steps which constrict freedom of opinion and expressions. An objective analysis of this asphyxiation of civil rights by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative gave Nepal a low score of 3.9 on a scale of 10. So what kind of administrative scrutiny does street artists and their work face?
When asked this question, Chitrakar, who has been an artist for over four decades, states that this censorship of expression is more visible now than in the earlier times. “Even during the Panchayat era, no one ever questioned about the limits of creative freedom and was never felt – being threatened.” adds Chitrakar. He adds, “While electronic contents or press content may have had been filtered then, but street art was never restrained. Presently but, such tendencies are seen subtly growing.
Helena Asha Knox, who runs Kaalo.101 – a transcultural art space, also shares almost similar views as of Chitrakar. Strongly defending street art as a voice of people, she asks “If we don’t raise questions who would?” And when asked if it is necessary street artists to be put in check by the government, Knox believes the government should have nothing to do with it. The fact remains that Nepal hasn’t yet de-legalized graffiti or street art. So it makes graffiti very convenient and attractive space for artists all around the globe. Knox believes thus, in view with the present situation, this is the right time to transform Kathmandu as a global capital of street art.
But at the same time, Knox opines that the artist themselves also need to reflect on what they deliver in the streets. Artists need to understand the mindset of the people and should be responsible for what message is being sent by their. If artists went on unchecked and undisciplined, it is more than likely, in future other new coming artists would be denied the freedom one has now.
Rupak Raj Sunuwar, a visual artist with Sattya Media Arts Collective, is of opinion that presently there is no legal framework for graffiti art. It doesn’t really exist as of now. A few years back Sattya came out with a massive mural project that went by the title of “Kolor Kathmandu.” The main message it sought was goal to beautify the dusty and busy city. To achieve it, Kolor Kathmandu placed 75 murals spread over the city.
According to Sunwar, whenever they make a mural they usually reach out to private houses where they can ask the owner of the wall for permission. Most artists avoid public places and governmental buildings because it’s entails lots of hassles, to get approved. But whenever they needed to work on public walls, they’re being done by the artists who are willing at odd times and willing to face the ire of concerned authorities.
While describing Graffiti in a modern sense, it has always been a volatile – as a style of art. It is something that is out there for everyone to see and with a message to convey. Knox believes that this is a medium which allows people to question the unquestionable. She states that there will always be some people who may not agree with the artwork or the message. Someone is bound to be of art different opinion. But incidentally, that is the beauty and a very essence of graffiti art.
Sunwar recounts an example where a mural in Ratnapark with an indirect political satire that read “Blind Sarkar” or (a blind government). Soon after, the graffiti vanished was painted all over. The artwork was made by an art group “KHOJ” and was supposed to be an abstract – conveying a message – a visible ignorance of Nepali policy makers. Aditya, another artist, is known for frequent graffiti in the Kathmandu walls. Aditya who works under the pseudonym “Sadhu-X” has often been criticized for being too profane when it comes to street art. One of the works he was noticed was that of a nude Kumari (living virgin goddess). It was with the words “Rape Me” – boldly drawn over it. While the art piece did stay up at Jamal for a couple of months, it soon vanished after being featured in one of the leading English language news-daily.
These are only two of the numerous examples of graffiti works that have been covered up. But there have been many more throughout the city over time: and the trend has only escalated in the recent days. While it isindeed discouraging to have such pieces of art erased from the streets, Knox optimistically adds on, “This wiping out of graffiti should be regarded as a reaction or a dialogue is being started”. So it means there are people taking note of those works or there’s something happening behind us. Aditya remains happy on these and says the whole idea was to convey a message to a certain group of people and they did respond.’
It is known to all that an Art remains an integral part of a civilized society: but not everyone will be able to visit a gallery or enjoy a work of art. In such a situation, this kind of open-for-all graffiti works continue to thrive. This is regardless of how hard efforts an administration may try tries to restrain or control it. This is like ‘you tell a child not to have a lollipop and more they’ll ask for’. If graffiti were to be criminalized, more likely, more artists would to work clandestinely and may bring out with more radical imageries and slogans. It means that while a single piece of graffiti work may not last long and would vanish soon, but for sure, one must note that it is a kind of movement – made for the masses and by the masses.