Delhi, Mumbai, Hampi, Puducherry, Chandigarh, Visakhapatnam, Vashisht, Varanasi, Rishikesh, Kochi, Varkala. These are just some of the places where you can spot stencilled graffiti of happy children peeking out from street corners, doing handstands on walls and generally being playful.
The street art is the doing of TONA, an anonymous artist from Hamburg who started with graffiti in 1999, began using stencils in 2002, and has been experimenting with silkscreen and linocut since 2008. TONA has travelled widely in India, participating in art festivals like Kochi-Muziris Biennale, St+Art Festival and Rishikesh Street Art Festival. Abroad, his street art can be found in Bristol, London, Valencia, Athens, Amsterdam, Paris, Tel Aviv.
As his Facebook page explains, his motivation is to create a “dreamy, sensual and emotional perspective” to counter the cynical perception that “people are blinkered” and that the world is “unfair, mean and brutal”.
TONA spoke to Rohini Kejriwal about his Indian experiences, tryst with street art, and where his life is heading after a nearly two-decade career. Edited excerpts from the interview:
You’ve left your mark all over India. How was your experience being here? How have you managed to cover so much ground?
I have travelled a lot through India, actually thrice already. So there’s more than one experience in the 14 months of painting and travelling. There were lots of really good ones, funny ones, strange ones, beautiful ones, some stressful ones, but mostly happy ones.
Of course, the first trip (over four months) was super exciting because it was my first time in India. But I really loved it so much that I came back twice more. (The second trip was for four and a half months in India and a month and a half in Nepal, the third trip was for four months).
I was there because I was part of four different festivals. But I also did a solo show, some group shows, a really nice artist-in-residency, was part of Kochi Biennale (on the street, of course), and a lot more things related to art with other fellow artists and friends.
Were the three experiences very different?
Yes and no at the same time.
Have many of your stencils been painted over?
One or two were gone, but mostly they were still there. A few of them had been given the “red dot” (bindi) on the forehead.
Do you think Indian cityscapes have changed with the emergence of street art?
I can’t really tell, but I think there are still plenty of walls to paint.
How do you know a particular wall is right for your work?
I love cracked surfaces and walls that can tell some story. India and Nepal both have really nice walls, so I can put my artworks into context within the street and the surroundings.
Take me through your process. Do you carry the stencils with you wherever you go or do you find subjects in each place and make them?
I carry a lot of stuff, actually something like 40 kg. But I don’t paint like this. I have a portfolio with five to six different foldable multilayer stencils with me in street size as well as some small ones for the gallery, which are constantly changing with every trip. Also, I carry lots of high quality spraypaint because it’s not available in most areas. In terms of the art supplies, there’s a whole lot of markers, good paintrollers and many, many stickers. But yes, I also cut some new stencils while I’m down.
What was the experience interacting with the children here? I hear they became instant fans of yours thanks to free TONA stickers.
Kids are cool and fun and always the first at the scene. They like stickers and love paint, like everybody should…
A lot of your artworks are about children – curious, playful and blissful. They’re hugging rainbows, playing hide and seek, doing handstands. Is art your way of feeling young?
Again, yes and no at the same time.
So much mystery! Can you explain what this recurrent theme means to you?
As a human being, I am inspired by almost everything around me. This is especially more so when I am touched by emotional vibes. The idea is to capture essential emotions and give them back to the people on the streets. Right now, I’m doing a series of works that are centred around kids whom I photographed on the streets. I am transforming those photos into stencils and painting them on the streets so that everybody can have any kind of possible interaction.
How stringent are the legalities and permissions around street art in India and how do they compare to Germany and around the world?
Sooooooooooo many rules…but then “Everything is possible in India!”
Do you ever face the problem of stencil art being ‘a copy of a copy of a copy’? Does the uniqueness of it get diluted by the same imagery everywhere or is that how an artist leaves his mark?
No, I don’t see that as a problem with what I’m doing. I do my own photography and do handcut stencils so that I have my own image and not images off the internet.
The other thing is that stencil is a technique where you have to put lots of work into the cutting to be able to repeat the image at many spots while getting around. Most people can’t travel that much – they are bound to a place and maybe in the online world, it seems like repetition. But for the people on the street, it’s still one painting that they always see on the way to work or something like that. So leaving your mark is the fun part of it. If I come to a new surrounding, I need to leave something in the street.
Regarding the uniqueness factor... First: I can’t paint the stencils forever because they break at some point. Second: every time I paint, it’s a different spot and a different setting and so, in some ways, every painting is unique and has its own story to tell.
You’ve been doing street art since 1999. Have you techniques evolved?
I began doing graffiti in 1999. In 2002, I started doing stencils, and linocut and silkscreen printing in 2008. Why should I stop? New techniques are interesting to me if they involve something with painting and the handmade process.
You’ve chosen to stay anonymous. Is it a very different identity in your art from the guy you are without the hoodie?
I think art should be about the art and not the person behind it.
From Puducherry to Athens to Berlin to Paris to Mumbai to Hamburg, you are everywhere. As an artist and human being, what is that like?
I love to travel and I love to paint. It’s a hustle sometimes but it’s still worth it.
Which country are you in these days? When is India Trip #4?
I just came back from Poland and France. I am now in Germany for sometime. India Trip #4? Let’s see.
Follow TONA’s work here.