Graffiti during Times of Protest: Case Studies of a Sentient Medium
The city has a reciprocal relationship with the space and the content in it- the content defines as much of the space as the space defines content, and the external factor of temporality dictates the space as much as it does the content. The city as a “free space”, “free” to the eyes of the observer, just as “free” to be hegemonised by capitalism, nationalism, and patriarchy as it is “free” to reclaimed by socialism, feminism and egalitarianism.
Kolkata (Calcutta) stands out as such a city, with the horizon line mostly obscured not by skyscrapers, but by gigantic hoardings and flexes, bearing advertisements for all sorts of merchandise, ready to be “consumed” and enjoyed by the middle-class liberal bourgeoisie, or carrying larger-than-life portraits of politicians, replete with slogans befitting the ideology of the corresponding political party, asking for votes and continuous support from the voting citizen. There is a definite process of codification of the content, and a definite goal of “selling” it to the consumer, in such cases of externally attached devices.
Graffiti exists as content on the walls of the city, as an internalized device of dissemination of content, that is attached or imprinted onto the space of the city that was already defined, not taking up extra space in and of itself but transforming a blank space into a meaningful one. There is no single process of codification in this area- the graffiti can be simply for partisan purposes, drawn during elections, carrying the basic motifs of the party symbol as seen on the ballot, the candidate’s name and a plea to cast one’s vote towards the said candidate, and a one-line justification for doing so. The process of the delivery of content is pretty simple here, as a one-to-one relationship between the party and the voter is established.
Or, as in the case of the graffiti signifying dissent, which I am going to illustrate, the codification becomes complex, albeit the relationship being between the anonymous graffiti artist and the faceless beholder- the “common man”, so to speak, is horizontal, insofar as there is no hierarchy in the terms of socio-economic power structures that either side belongs to, precisely because there is no proclamation of the intended audience or that of the progenitor of the content. The graffiti, in this case, becomes more imagistic, relying more on the more primeval and primal signifier of the letter, that is, the image itself, rather than the letter in a specific language and all the constraining connotations that language bears.
My first case study of such graffiti is based during the time period of the Hokkolorob movement in Jadavpur University, on 2014 and ’15. A movement that started off demanding redressal for violence against women (VAW), it was met with violence from the State, and as a reaction, turned against the University Authority and State Power, hence resulting in an intersection between these issues. A student’s movement that gained massive amounts of reaction, momentum, solidarity and participation within the city as well as outside it, Hokkolorob was and continues to be a reference point for dissent against the nation-state, corruption and patriarchy, at least in educational institutes in the city and the state of West Bengal. Graffiti in the university campus around that time resonated with the movemental spirit and served as continuously speaking constructs imprinted on the walls of the bureaucratic institution, their very presence, let alone their content, threatened the locus of power of the authority, and to this day, act as constant reminders of the severely adverse condition the student body of the university went through at that time.
The second case study is that of the graffiti in the institution of Presidency University. The student body of the university in question has and is going through tumultuous times, with the current State Government attempting to transform the signified of the institution from a landmark for higher studies to a “Center of Excellence”, which has resulted in repeated protests and standoffs from the students, as their autonomy is slowly but systematically taken away, and their freedom of expression and movement curtailed. The graffiti in that spatial latitude is re-affirming the freedom of speech, an attempt against forgetfulness, an attempt to remind the student body that issues both inside and outside of the walls of the educational institute need to be discussed, and more importantly, seen.
The letter in the graffiti is an open letter; freely accessible to most because of its imagistic nature, a doubly open letter, insofar as the sender and the recipient remain both obvious and not-so-obvious, as the recipient, just like literature, can have multiple interpretations of and reaction to the same image. Graffiti, in this context, speaks on its own, having a language of its own, unlike the ones we know, and also has a life of its own, existing in a Foucauldian heterotopia, across time and the different recontextualizations its passage entails.
Our dear friend and comrade, Subhajit Das, passed away recently. We’d chanced upon him at Hokkolorob, and later during Hysteria, when we’d run into a minor administrational crisis and he volunteered to help. After that day, he was one of us: a presence to look forward to at our meetings and workshops, a constant source of solidarity, a committed activist for queer politics, a familiar face at protests, and an empathetic friend. This was the last article he’d written for Eyezine,we are publishing it posthumously.
Eye Art Collective remembers Subhajit Das as the best of us. He will not be forgotten.