AMIDST the broken concrete chunks and rubble of an abandoned building near the Mumbai airport complex, Bart Simpson has a strong message for anyone caring to look that side: “I must say Jai Shri Ram to prove my nationality”. This powerful graffiti has a sign at the bottom saying ‘Tyler Street Art’, a guerrilla artist famous for his quirky takes on contemporary issues.
“Bart is famous for his mischief and is known for his disregard for authority. This painting is about someone being punished to prove one’s love and nationality over three words — Jai Shri Ram,” says the artist from Mumbai, who has become a crusader of sorts for highlighting the rough edges of society.
The graffiti began in 2012 as a mission to use the walls to draw attention away from big corporate giants and political propaganda. With time, it evolved into a sharper narrative. From one-liners, like “Kindness is free. *offer valid while stocks last”, to art with Shiva holding a paintbrush claiming, “God is an artist”, Tyler’s earlier works were mostly aimed at capitalism and religion. Gradually, he channelled his humour to take on global politics and address civic issues. With this year’s general elections, the artist took a plunge into the more serious undercurrents worrying the country.
“I started painting walls as a form of social commentary. My idea was to test if this overnight obsession of painting walls could materialise into something meaningful and long-lasting,” says Tyler, whose pseudonym is inspired by Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club. “After I understood a few things about people’s reactions when they see street art (on a particular subject)… politics, for example, I figured a lot of them have a lot of things to say. It stirred different emotions in each one,” he adds.
“During election, the bigger question wasn’t ‘who will win’ but ‘does your vote even count’. There are endless newspaper articles about allegations of rigging. I printed 3,000 tags of the words ‘YOUR VOTE’ and threw them around garbage collection points across Mumbai to let people know where their vote actually goes. After this campaign, I painted a couple of walls depicting the impact of election on the common man. Somebody asked me if I can paint a picture of India in the last 70 years, so I painted two politicians playing tug of war with the Indian map,” says the young artist.
This particular graffiti broke the internet and was even published in international newspapers. However, it was covered in paint in the real world. “An artist can lead, follow, uplift or provoke with their work. The artist provides society with emotions, colour and texture. After this, he cannot control whether his works are preserved or whitewashed,” he responds.
Often dubbed Mumbai’s Banksy for his distinct stencilling technique, the artist doesn’t deny the inspiration but says the comparison both irks and delights him. “Banksy has inspired many. There is one Banksy in every city in this world. When people compare me with Banksy, I feel honoured and agitated at the same time. I am inspired by logic and common sense,” he says.
And much like Banksy, he argues that his street art is not a beautification project, rather a commentary on the contemporary socio-political situation. “Murals are done after seeking permissions and eventually end up creating a great backdrop for your selfies. A muralist makes money by painting a wall. Graffiti and street art refer to a work of art that is in a public place, often executed without official permission. You undertake the expenses and risks of doing it while exercising absolute freedom at the same time,” he underlines.
On why it is regarded as vandalism, Tyler quotes Banksy: “Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better-looking place.”
With more than 200 works spread across the city, mostly in Versova, Jogeshwari and Andheri — some in deserted streets, others in crowded lanes — Tyler says, “Location plays an important role in street art. The juxtaposition of art and the wall is what creates a good composition eventually.”
“Graffiti is not to achieve but to express,” the artist says, adding when he started painting, his friends and family had said this would bring him no success.
“The problem with most people out there is that they are trying really hard to make sense of things all the time. The best thing in life, however, is to never give up. What lay ahead of me I was unprepared for, but I saw my idea through. Having said that, like I said in one of my pieces, ‘Never forget the world is yours, terms and conditions apply’,” he adds.