Graffiti, Street Art and the Nationalist Discourse
-By Naveen Zehra Zaidi
If the purpose of graffiti is to bring to fore the voice of a marginalized community, the purpose of street art is to provide a narrative that embraces mainstream values. If the purpose of graffiti is to question the physical environment by undermining value of urban aesthetics, the purpose of street art is to contribute to the surroundings with what it considers is a positive, beautiful landscape.
It is very difficult to distinguish empirically between the recently popularized genre of street art and what is ge
nerally considered its illegitimate form, graffiti. The difficulty essentially arises out of differing opinions on the legitimacy of art; is graffiti— the form of names, texts, images, political and religious slogans or obscenities—a mode of artistic communication? Every paint mark, even if it is literally just a paint mark, is conveying some sort of message and thus should be considered legitimate, no matter how sophisticated or crude, as it is nevertheless a form of expression unless hijacked by overt political and commercial interests.
In Pakistan, graffiti is not a recent phenomenon. Attributed to masculine working class culture and deviant youth subculture, it has constantly been plaguing city authorities as an urban parasite. Graffiti has also been associated as a form of protest against the established political and social system. It thrives in a frame wherein individuals are not provided any legitimate channel through which they can voice their opinions, anxieties and fears. Through graffiti, individuals get a chance to engage with the physical environment and voice their concerns in anonymity. Since their identity is not revealed, this form of expression is candid and honest.
For example, in 2007 Asim Butt protested against the declaration of emergency through clever use of graffiti. By painting eject symbols around Karachi, Asim symbolized the need to eject the influence of the Pakistan military in society. One could spot these symbols painted on police containers around the popular Sea View area of Karachi. Asim’s actions clearly spoke loudly of his frustration against the political situation. The fact that his actions were illegal gained him even more publicity. Graffiti has also been linked to the growth of urbanization. Urbanization brings with it a change in environmental surroundings, and an individual may feel alienated in the new environment. As a silent form of protest, he aims to leave his mark on public space so that he may enter into some sort of relationship with that space. The graffiti is his mark on the environment, and gives him a sense of ownership.
Recently, however, a new form of ‘legitimate’ graffiti has emerged: that of street art. This is distinguished from graffiti because it is not only government-approved but also considered aesthetically appealing by both local authorities and the wider public. While illegitimate graffiti—including wall-chalking of advertisements and political slogans and other illegal messages—is undesirable and destroys the beauty of the landscape, street art, with its use of colorful images, is viewed as positively contributing towards the environment.
It is important to understand graffiti as a form of resistance because it helps us understand the function of street art. While graffiti provides us with narratives that run against the established social and political order, street art provides us with counter-narratives that serve to preserve the values that graffiti threatens. If the purpose of graffiti is to bring to fore the voice of a marg
inalized community, the purpose of street art is to provide a narrative that embraces mainstream values. If the purpose of graffiti is to question the physical environment by undermining value of urban aesthetics, the purpose of street art is to contribute to the surroundings with what it considers is a positive, beautiful landscape.
Given the pacifist nature and the aesthetic appeal of street art, it is no surprise then that this is the newest venture taken up by the Punjab Government and the City District Government of Lahore. Starting off with a few students in 2010, the Street Art Competition has grown into a massive organized campaign spanning over not only Lahore, but also Faislabad, Multan, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala and Gujrat. The campaign started off with the purpose of eliminating illegal wall-chalking that consisted of advertisements and political marketing. Participants were told to paint over these with positive images that portrayed Pakistan in a favorable light.
The municipal authorities,which oversaw the entire campaign, provided organizers with certain themes to use in their work. These themes included prominent symbols of Pakistani culture such as famous Pakistani landmarks and the promotion of social messages, such as the condoning of blood donation and the importance of maintaining a clean environment.
A look at roadsides in Lahore’s Johar Town and Gulberg reveals street art that features creative depictions of the Pakistani flag, map and other prominent symbols. Images of doves are juxtaposed with images of basant celebration.
The themes are largely patriotic and it is interesting to see how street art on public walls reinforces a particular version of a nationalist discourse. We learn about our country’s uniqueness and magnificence through the media, educational and cultural system, and now this point-of-view is reinforced by the mere act of looking at a wall. The fact that street art is dominated by images means that it is accessible to all segments of the society.
It can be said that through the endorsement of street art, the municipal government has effectively killed two birds with one stone. The growing problem of illegal wall-chalking is eradicated and instead replaced by a visual public sphere narrative that is meant to reinforce values of patriotism and nationalism. Moreover, although the campaign does not officially aim at a specific age group, it is quite obviously geared towards students and the youth in general. By participating in the creation of street art, students are actively thinking about what makes them proud to be Pakistani and what aspects of the society need to be portrayed in a positive light. In doing so, they are self-reflecting on what it means to be a young Pakistani today and the responsibility they have to bring about positive change in society.
The use of street art to foster nationalist sentiments is something we have seen before – the West Bank Wall which serves as a physical manifestation of the control of Israel on Palestinian land is full of symbols of Palestinian nationalism. Artists have chosen to depict, amongst other things, images of the Palestinian flag, refugees, and the intifada that are purposely meant to arouse patriotic sentiments. Though the Street Art Competition has not yet expanded to Karachi, a drive through the metropolis proves that there are indeed similar pro-Pakistan street art projects being undertaken by locals. One such project is Shehryar Sumar’s ‘’I LOVE KHI’’ slogans painted across town. Another such eye-catcher is a portrait of Jinnah in the conventional Uncle Sam pose with the words ‘’Pakistan needs you’’ accompanying it.
The Street Art Competition only seems to be gathering pace, and we can expect more street art entering our public sphere. It engages the youth in a project of self-satisfying responsibility to society while also aligning it with the local government’s goal of eradicating illegal and aesthetically repulsive wall-chalking as well as insidiously working in the State’s interest by pre-emptively marginalizing the possibility of anti-State graffiti and overwhelming the streets with the ‘right’ visual images.