Graffiti is writings or drawings made on a wall or any large scale surface within public view. Graffiti is a broad category art form, which ranges from simple words to elaborated wall paintings. In recent times, graffiti is a major form of expression of cultural & political concerns like racism and income inequality.
The practice of making graffiti dates back to the ancient Roman, Egyptian and Greek empires. The earliest form of graffiti was created before the idea of an organised language. The Cave of Hands in Santa Cruz, Argentina offers the oldest and most fascinating ancient graffiti. This graffiti art dates back from 13000 to 9000 BCE.
(The Cave of Hands in Argentina was first discovered in 1941. It has been declared as the UN World Heritage Site)
(Graffiti art on stone from the Roman empire)
Graffiti was popularised as an act of resistance during the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 60s & 70s. It was also this time in history that it began to be considered as vandalism. In some societies, it is still taken as a form of antisocial behaviour.
(A graffiti from the Civil Rights Movement in the US)
(A massive graffiti in the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial site in Atlanta, US)
In Pakistan, graffiti is not a novel concept. Wall chalking & political sloganeering is an unconventional form of graffiti which has been seen in the country for many years but modern graffiti art began in 2003 when General Musharraf was ruling the country. Political activists across the country were demonstrating for the restoration of democracy.
(Ads painted on walls similar to these could be found across the country)
(Majority of the wall chalking in Pakistan portray political slogans)
Asim Butt is a mural artist and painter from Karachi. His work revolves around political and cultural activism. During General Musharraf’s rule, he travelled to various cities in Pakistan and painted the ‘eject’ symbol on city walls to portray that Musharraf should “eject himself from the government”. The eject symbol soon became the symbol of resistance against the military ruler. It could be seen on placards, banners and on walls across the country. It was at this time that graffiti art was embraced as a political means to resist against the status quo.
(Asim Butt’s eject symbol against General Musharraf’s coup and handling of power)
(Asim Butt’s graffiti art on the refugee crisis in Pakistan)
(Asim Butt presenting his view on the Shariat Bill through his graffiti art)
By 2014, graffiti art in Pakistan had incorporated pop culture elements, use of vibrant colours to make it more appealing. Major reason behind the shift was that students as young as 18 years were drawn to the art form. After 2014, Majority of graffiti art projected elements of nationalism, music and movies. There is little to no focus on social reform. Abdullah Ahmed Khan aka Sanki King & Neil Uchong are some of the most known contemporary graffiti artists of Pakistan.
(Neil Uchong’s Mahira Khan graffiti in Karachi)
(Abdullah Ahmed aka Sanki King’s graffiti on a rooftop)
(Abdullah Ahmed Khan with his calligraphic graffiti in Karachi)
From 2014-16, the Punjab government itself initiated a campaign by the name of “Street Art Pakistan”. Students from public and private universities were called upon to paint and do graffiti across the major cities of Punjab. The idea was to beautify the urban centers of Punjab. Students were provided with free paints and equipment. In Sindh, the government came up with a novel idea of removing political wall chalking when they allowed artists to paint city walls.
(A student in Lahore participating in the Street Art Pakistan graffiti competition)
(Graffiti art in Lahore portraying different colours of Pakistan)
On the contrary, by 2015 the government presented a bill called the prohibition of expressing matters on walls (amendment) against wall chalking. This bill criminalised all sorts of political graffiti across the country. Many artists remarked that this bill failed to draw a line between political sloganeering and graffiti art. Many believed that this was against the very notion of freedom of expression.
(Wall chalking being cleared off after government orders)
All in all, graffiti art is thriving. Artists are discovering new media and means to express themselves through this art form. The internet has also played an important role in popularising the idea of graffiti in Pakistan. From Gilgit to Karachi, graffiti is a common idea in urban Pakistan now.
(Graffiti art in Gilgit, North Pakistan)
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