Swirling waves of graffiti: From senseless vandalism to vibrant urban art | Sunday Observer

Swirling waves of graffiti: From senseless vandalism to vibrant urban art

8 December, 2019

A trend in swirling waves of graffiti has invaded the country manically for the past few days. Enthusiastic groups of youth are a common sight in almost every town, carrying paint brushes and buckets of paint.Their sketches radically overrun on parapet walls, highway bridges, abandoned buildings and any paintable spaces. These graffiti are mainly based on culture, environment, heritage and history, together with other interesting contemporary themes.

The trend has been set mainly to eliminate the environmental pollution created by posters and polythene which was the core discipline of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election campaign. This political trend was later taken forward by the public, converting it into a social trend, something quite new to Sri Lankan society although it is a common phenomenon in the world.

Graffiti art has a history of thousands of years where ancient cave art is also identified as a form of graffiti. Later on the ancient Romans and Greeks wrote their names and protest poems on buildings. The new art form really took off in the 1970s in New York and in Europe when people began writing their names, or ‘tags’, on buildings all over the city.

Graffiti art is mostly recognised as a vibrant urban art form heavily used by artists to express sociopolitical contradictions. Therefore, in some societies this form of art has been recognised as senseless vandalism.

There have been many instances in the world where art has served as an alternative power to resolve socio-political issues. The best example is the Rainbow Village in Taiwan, where a 93- year-old Huang Young-fu could save his village by adding vibrant murals to decorate the walls and pathways to ensure its survival from the massive development project introduced by the government to knock down the entire village to build something new. As a result of his action in saving the village for its people, the village has become a tourist destination now popular as the ‘Rainbow Village.’ Similar incidents happened in Italy and Indonesia and there are many such examples all around the world.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer Ruwan Sanjaya Thilakeratne from Panadura explained about similar environmental projects he has been involved in with a group of friends for years. The emerging trend of beautification of the environment by freeing it of posters and polythene has made them more energised to continue and broaden their volunteer work. As a result they have been expanding their cleaning project in the Panadura beach and the city with graffiti art.

“Many villagers have helped us by providing paints, brushes and other necessary equipment. The importance of such volunteer work is that it creates a bond among the villagers and helps them to grow as one community,” Ruwan said.

“Before we started sketching we had to remove thick layers of posters and clean the wall. Some posters had been pasted as far back as 2011. We got together with our village youth and it took two days to clean the wall. We will be able to finish the painting within two or three days,” said Chamara Ponnamperuma from Elpitiya.

A member of the group Nimasha Sathsara had got to know about this initiative through social media and the moment she saw the post on Facebook she wanted to be part of the project. “I was idling at home after exams. So I decided to be part of this project and I’m really excited to finish the project and see the final outcome,” she said.

Similarly, in Gampaha, Katunayake, Kandy, Piliyandala, Galle, Ratnapura, Kurunegala and many other main cities as well as in the suburbs the trend has caught on.

While thousands of youth are enthusiastically engaged in this interesting initiative, both positive and negative feedback have been encountered. There was a serious accusation from artist Prasanna Weerakkody claiming that the new trend has become a Tsunami for his original art pieces as people have been copying them without prior permission and most importantly he questioned the skills of these painters.

“The wave initially started by talented teenagers, now seems to be joined by various parties who don’t have the appropriate skill. The tendency to see reproductions of my masterpieces done without prior permission is growing. It’s sickening to observe the copying of other artists’ paintings, undermining the creativity of the original painting.

Some people asked for permission to reproduce my paintings while others continue to do so without any such courtesy. It is disturbing to see the footage of some of them on media where they claim those paintings as theirs,” Weerakkody told the Sunday Observer.

Prasanna Weerakkody is a world renowned artist known for his paintings on the life of the Sinhala people of eras far forgotten by the present generation. He explains, the primary objective of his series of paintings is to question who we were and to explore through images of a couple of millennia ago. His accusation was triggered based on the mural done by a group of youth in Kandy useing one of his world famous paintings.

Although, reproducing other artists’ work is a common practice the world over, it is important to adhere to general norms in the process. Although graffiti is an art form which challenged the old-school formalities of art, it is everybody’s responsibility to refrain from misusing original paintings.

As this trend will grow rapidly in the future, it is important to start the dialogue in society by raising the basic questions of why, what and where we paint. City beautification is not just painting every possible place in the public space. It is important to consider the visual pollution factor when popularising these trends. According to environmental rules and regulations there are unique places for these murals or graffiti and according to some road and traffic laws graffiti art is prohibited in certain places. Also, there are scientifically accepted methods to convert historical places and living heritage into functioning spaces. The involvement of the authorities and professional artists is crucial at this point to streamline this collective movement in the right direction.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, the Director of Traffic, G.A.C.R. Ganepola explained that although it is an interesting attempt by the youth, they have not received instructions to facilitate the recent trend of graffiti art. She stressed the importance of acquainting this volunteer endeavour with the relevant authorities to get the best outcome. “There are certain rules and regulations introduced by the Urban Development Authority, Road Development Authority, Traffic Department and a few other government bodies to ensure the safety of pedestrians and drivers. Therefore, it is important to educate these groups who are involved in the project the parameters of the rules and regulations. For example, certain bright colours are harmful for the vision of drivers. Also, there are certain public places where we cannot accommodate the paintings. The authorities involved with city beautification should take the lead to guide this group of people and encourage their good cause,” Ganepola said.