On Christmas in 2018, Tyler – the moniker of the artist responsible for the popular Tyler Street Art wall graffiti in Mumbai – painted a mural depicting child labour through the story of Santa Claus and his reindeer. It was a pointed message to society, like most clever street art all over the world is.
For Christmas 2019, the artists’ message on the wall is a lot more direct: it is Home Minister Amit Shah laughing menacingly under a red Santa hat with red drops on his face. “Merry CAA and a Happy NRC,” says the caption, in case its meaning wasn’t clear. It is just one more of his many paintings in protest of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens enacted and proposed by the government that have led to protests around the country. Many believe both the Citizenship Act and the NRC will be used as tools to harass Indian Muslims.
In the past few weeks, Tyler has shone a light on the problems about the CAA, NRC and the nationwide protests against it through his clever, eye-catching graffiti. His artworks are being widely circulated on social media, primarily Instagram, making him one of the most relevant voices for the generation that spreads resistance through smartphones and social media.
“Street art is nothing but protest art,” Tyler told Scroll.in. “You can add some humour to it but primarily street art is meant to ask questions through art.”
Started in 2012 when he stumbled upon graffiti by artists in other countries while doing some research, Tyler Street Art has grown into an Instagram community of over 24,000 followers.
It was only in 2019 that Tyler began to spread political messages through his art – political cartoons on walls, he calls them.
A mural showing Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi in a tug of war over an India map during the elections garnered the international news media spotlight when it was used as the image for editorials.
“My topics were usually greed or poverty or inequality,” he said. “But in this year I just jumped into political art. Politics and world problems basically go hand in hand, I think politics is the root cause of all our problems. This year I really wanted to push the boundaries of how people look at politics in our country… the power of one image that can inspire people who take a bolder step into creating more and stronger imagery.”
The timing could not have been better, because it is only in the second half of 2019 that an awakening of sorts has been happened all over India. With the student-led protests against the CAA and NRC gaining momentum across the country, Tyler’s works have become a symbol of the resistance. From Narendra Modi as famous Mr India villain Mogambo to biting takes on police brutality, Tyler has upped the ante when it comes to resistance art.
The artist himself attended several of the protests in Mumbai and put up one of the bigger banners at one, borrowing the title by US singer Gil Scott-Heron. “This Revolution will not be televised,” it said. he aim was simple: to create a message even distant cameras could see. The idea behind his wall art is similar.
“The protests had many posters which had messages,” he said. “We have worked very hard to reach this this point. It didn’t happen overnight, the frustration and anger was building in people for so many months and years and bam, that was the day when everybody jumped the fence and they dared to do something which they were really scared of… They are not professional rioters on protesters, I mean, these are all students coming in for the first time or second time.”
A “one-man army” is how Tyler describes the entire operation. “I started looking at other artists from other countries and how they do it and what’s the reason why anybody would risk themselves and go out and paint a wall without permission,” he said.
He added: “The first couple of works, I asked for permission but I was rejected a million times so I figured that nobody wants to have a funny or strong message painted on their wall but they want to see it on someone else’s wall.
“This meant that I have to do it without permission, which meant less time to spend at a wall. That meant that every time I have to make a statement or come up with a drawing, it should really make sense. That’s where you separate graffiti and street art. Graffiti is more about tagging your name over and over a million times. Street art is a little selfless where you come up with an image which makes people understand what we are in to.”
But why paint walls? The bigger and bolder the canvas, the stronger the message.
“You post something online, it gets lost in the in the archive,” he explained. “On a wall you have a much higher advantage, [it is] in public domain and if somebody is bothered by it and they take initiative to go and whitewash it. Till that time you are forced to watch it.”
Tyler has been stopped several times while at work and has gotten into trouble with police and municipal officials as well as people who have complained to the authorities about his murals. But so far he has manage to work his way around it.
“It’s tricky to get away with it but I was lucky to not have been caught painting any political,” he said. “If I was caught painting Modi on a wall, I would be in jail by now.”
Tyler says the danger can sometimes feel like he’s committing a bigger crime, but doing it alone. “Street art is very similar to robbing a bank, I kid you not,” he said. “I probably won’t be shot dong it but it is the same amount of pressure. The number of people who can catch you, from the watchman, residents, BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation], traffic police...I have to evade a lot of people to put my art out there.”
But in the end, Tyler admits that his work is enjoyable and meaningful. “It’s the fun, the kick you get out of it,” he said. “It’s the message.”
Even if the revolution won’t be televised, one thing’s for sure: it will be painted.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.