World Street Art: Bold, Inspiring And Grabbing Headlines

World | Arts and Cinema | Public Space | Freedoms

Street Art has origins from a time we are yet to fathom and, in time, discover, writes Gajanan Khergamker

Limited as we are by man-made language, nomenclature, and terminology besides the means so simplistic and apparent like paper and other media, like say walls, Art, and in particular, Street Art, is an extension of that what can be generated on traditional medium but extends to public spaces.

On the European front, skewedly propagated as a world platform, it was in the French Revolution’s iconoclasm era, when rebels defaced high-end art to protest French society’s toxic hierarchy creating a niche called graffiti that became synonymous with vandalism. It was the waves of political and economic turbulence that triggered the rise of street art around the world: The Berlin Wall's ‘one-sided’ graffiti being projected as a fight of colourful expression on one side versus the stark totalitarianism of bland emptiness on the other being a rather simplistic definition.

So, French Street Artist James Colomina's installation of Vladimir Putin in Central Park in early August 2022, five months after the Ukraine war started, was predictably bold in both its content and process. The artist who does not reveal himself because most of his installations "are unauthorised," is "already facing problems with the authorities." 

Ironically the installation, bold as it was, appeared in New York City of the United States of America where, according to a recent Data USA study, 85.4 per cent of archivists, curators, and museum technicians were White and the next most common ethnicity (Hispanic White) clocked in at a mere five per cent. 

The statistics conveniently exclude those who do not “fit in” with them. Technically, and those valued, artists are predominantly White men, with 85.4 per cent of works in all major US museums belonging to White artists, 87.4 per cent by men. 

The diversity is not much greater for museums that specialise in modern art. At The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for example, only 11 per cent of the artists in the collection are female, 10 per cent are Asian, and two per cent are black or African-American. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 18 per cent of the artists are female, seven per cent Asian, and two per cent black or African-American.

Wealthy Patrons Decide Merit Of Art

It is the acute dearth of public funding owing to which museums and galleries are forced to rely on the wealthy patrons sitting on their executive boards to influence what art is “worthy” for public display. In October 2019, a New York Times analysis revealed that 40 per cent of museum trustees are Wall Street tycoons revealing that control on high-end art world isn't merely determined by if a trustee is wealthy, but also where they derive their wealth from.

Street Art is different. And what makes Street Art this way is its ability to steer clear, well mostly, of political influence and economic compulsions. What binds Street Art and its proponents across the world is the 'unauthorised' nature of its existence and populist accolades derived from swimming against the current.

James Colomina's installations are a case in point. And, James, on his part, is clear with his modus operandi. "I'm not really afraid of the authorities. It's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. You must not get caught otherwise the installation is ruined," he says gleefully.

French Artist James Colomina's installation of a child climbing over Berlin Wall (Pic: James Colomina)

James' last installation in Berlin where he installed a sculpture of a little girl going over the wall and another above the railway tracks caused quite a flurry. The authorities had to close the tracks for two hours to remove the sculpture.

"Why, even train-drivers slowed down as they approached the sculpture. They thought it was a real child," he recalls with relish. Another facet of Street Art is that it must not, ordinarily, always be liked or be popular. "A lot of people don't like me, but that's okay. It's even so much the better. It would bother me to please everyone. I try to tell the truth with my sculptures and sometimes it hurts," he says.

Art Can Be Politically Incorrect, Hurt Too

Much on the lines of James’ installation in New York City's Central Park, a thousand odd miles away in South Minneapolis, atop the Cup Foods convenience store, where a 911 call led to George Floyd's police killing, today stands a hoarding complete with memorial art. This one, as opposed to Putin’s, for sure, is not as popular. 

Local illustrator, muralist and teacher Melodee Strong created 'Mama' after George Floyd's dying plea, depicting grieving black mothers, against a backdrop of the US flag.

"I am a mother, and when George cried out for his 'mama' as he was taking his last breaths, I also cried," revealed Strong.

"That's what we do when we are in trouble or scared, we cry out for God or our mothers. My son has been harassed and mistreated by the police. I have witnessed numerous times how the people I love have been abused by police.

"The anguish we feel from the fear and the experiences of those too many incidences is what I feel in the faces I painted… Even though this piece is about George Floyd, it's more a dedication to all the mothers who have lost their child to police violence." Melodee’s cry resonates with those of mothers across the world and how.

American Muralist Melodee Strong against her 'Mama' hoarding in memory of George Floyd (Pic: Melodee Strong)

Predictably, following Black Lives Matter protests erupting in cities, large corporations all around the country responded by nailing plywood across their doors and massive windows, to deter the possibilities of violent interludes. 

Street Art, however, finds its own way to meander in and register protest across public walls…peacefully. Political graffiti, as critical intervention in urban space, is faced with legislative opposition as municipalities and police attempt to shut down the streets and the protests therein. 

Yet, even after protests end, it's the Street Art in the form of graffiti that stands tall as a testament to the protestors' collective voice. It is, today through social media that belongs to the masses instead of selective and controlled fora, that protests get documented and become a part of history.

Calling Macron’s Bluff, Through Art

Like the time when French President Emmanuel Macron was elected, he made loud proclamations that there would be no more homeless people but, as usual, it was far from being true. "It was even worse, so I put him in a tent with homeless people," says Colomina. 

"Why, the homeless were delighted with the move. The site stands on the edge of the Saint-Martin canal in Paris. At first, I asked some homeless people if they would welcome President Macron with them in a tent. They told me they were delighted; So, for his birthday, I put him in a tent to shed some light on the homeless," he added. 

"My intention was also to put the one who is at the very top of the pyramid, at the very bottom."

A James Colomina installation of French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris (Pic: James Colomina)

It was in the 1970s, that graffiti artists in America successfully unionised for the first time. Between 1974 and 1980, over 20,000 artists and arts support staff secured full-time employment through Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) – making it the largest federally-funded arts project since the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created during the Great Depression, putting more than 8.5 million people to work. 

In New York City, the Cultural Council Foundation (CCF) launched the CETA Artists Project in 1978, with a budget of USD 4.5 million a year to fund the work of 300 artists, paying them USD 10,000 year plus benefits (nearly USD 46,000 today) to work directly with community organisations, on project teams, with performing companies, or on a wide array of public works.

Showcasing Only A Few For High-End World

Then, the wealthy responded by carefully choosing only certain graffiti artists to amplify and opened up the high-end art world selectively, incentivising street art for the sole purpose of earning money within the curated spaces set up by the elite. As a result, and inevitably, there was infighting and resentment that led to the unions eroding. 

Today, the present-day continuation of excluding non-male and non-White artists from museums and the wealth associated with high-end art is no coincidence. The statistics highlight the high-brow art world as another example of the White and Wealthy very conveniently excluding those who do not “fit in” with them.

Activists like California-based Nancypili Hernandez use Street Art as a crucial tool in telling suppressed stories. Creating and directing many different murals, working in San Francisco’s Latinx community to “document people’s history that isn’t told in the history books,” it's her work in the Mission District that highlights the struggles of the Latinx residents, amplifying the stories of a native community passed over by San Francisco’s tour guides.

Polish Street Artist Agata Oleksiak has crocheted her way to global fame making headlines (Pic: Agata Oleksiak)

In 2015, Polish street artist based in New York City, Agata Oleksiak aka Olek arrived in New Delhi in 2015 to work on a massive project and use the technique of crocheting to give expression to everyday occurrences and inspirations; her artwork often examines sexuality, feminist ideas and the evolution of communication.

She visually transformed one of the 184 homeless shelters in New Delhi, to raise awareness about the lives of the desperate people who live in them. Covering the entire 40 feet long and 8 feet high structure with crocheted yarn with a team of local volunteers, she worked for seven days to put together the entire installation that was part of the ‘Rain Basera’ project. 

Dressing Up A Charging Bull, At Night

Why, on Christmas Eve in 2010, she even cloaked the iconic "Charging Bull" statue on Wall Street - from horn to hoof - with a pink, camouflage-patterned cover that she crocheted herself at 3 am! It took her miles of yarn to create the fabric over ‘Six seasons of Lost' as she puts it. 

While she kept waiting for the police to stop her, they didn't. "They were human and understood that I didn't want to harm the statue," but the installation lasted for merely two hours as 'a grumpy city worker tore it down'. 

Ironically, the Charging Bull itself had ‘appeared’ as a Christmas gift to New York City from Arturo Di Modica, an Italian sculptor. Di Modica, who moved to New York in the 1970s, sensing the concern and uncertainty in the United States after the crash in 1987, wanted to create a powerful symbol of the strength of the American economy. 

He made plans to create a three-and-a-half ton, 18-foot-long bronze bull to reference a “bull market,” a robust stock market where share prices are rising, encouraging investors to buy more.

And, in the morning of 15 December 1989, Di Modica and a few friends parked a truck outside of the New York Stock Exchange. Within moments, they placed the bull under a Christmas tree and left. 

The Charging Bull in New York City was 'dressed up' in the Christmas eve night (File pic)


Di Modica hadn’t expected for the bull to stay there in the long term as he thought of it as a temporary gift. And, the New York Stock Exchange, predictably, didn’t like the idea and had it removed. However, in time, it returned and went on to become one of the most visited spots of Manhattan and a hot favourite tourist destination of New York.

Opponents Say Stay Legal, Display In Private

Generally, Street Art is quickly dismissed as 'vandalism' and an illegal activity when ‘not in private galleries’ or ‘sponsored by non-profits’. Those opposing Street Art keep insisting artists must resort only to “legal” methods of art in the privacy of their homes, while conveniently ignoring the glaring fact that the high-end art world is discriminatory, much to a selective convenience. 

Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a large non-profit with corporate sponsors like H&M, PepsiCo, and McDonalds, began a program in 2007 called Graffiti Hurts. They even offer grants upwards of USD 2,000 to local governments and police departments for fighting Street Art. Their slogan? “We keep America beautiful so Americans can do beautiful things.” Now, the non-profit is conveniently silent on which Americans are given the right to create those “beautiful things?” And, at whose expense?

KAB maintains that while graffiti vandals known as guerrilla artists believe their actions harm no one, “graffiti hurts everyone—homeowners, communities, businesses, schools, and you.” They maintain, those who practice it risk personal injury, violence, and arrest. The prime difference between Graffiti and Art remains…Permission! 

Over the summer of 2020, a portrait recurred on city walls across the world: an image of the black American George Floyd, who was brutally suffocated to death by police officer David Chauvin on 25 May 2020. Most of these portraits were based on Floyd's 2016 selfie, taken from his own Facebook account; many referred to the torment of his killing, and his final words. 

Support To Floyd From Pakistan, India

Thousands of miles from the US protests, numerous graffiti tributes to Floyd appeared in European cities and in Asia, Africa and Australia. In what transcended borders, even bridged differences between two sworn enemies was Karachi-based truck artist Haider Ali's portrait of Floyd inscribed with English tags '#blacklivesmatter' and song lyrics 'Goron Ki Na Kalon Ki, Duniya Hai Dilwalon Ki' meaning ‘The World does not belong to the Whites or Blacks but to those with hearts’ and ‘Hum Kale Hain Toh Kya Hua Dilwale Hain’ meaning ‘So what if we are Black, we have hearts’.

Pakistani Truck Artist Haider Ali standing against one of his works (Pic: Haider Ali) 

Interestingly, the Pakistani artist has used lyrics from a 1982 Indian Hindi film ‘Disco Dancer’ song penned by Indian lyricist Anjaan and sung by Suresh Wadkar and Usha Mangeshkar. The second song has lyrics from a 1964 Indian Hindi movie ‘Gumnaam’ song penned by Indian lyricist Shailendra and sung by Mohammad Rafi and Mehmood. 

The truck artist's brilliant blending of George Floyd's portrait tackling the issue of colour and hate in the USA with neighbouring India's legendary love-hate relationship with Pakistan, was an exquisite work of art in itself, to say the least.

The very public horror of Floyd's killing (captured on videocam) lingers in recent memory but his isn't a case in isolation. Memorials also say the names of generations of innocent black US victims: among them, Breonna Taylor (killed by the police in her own home, 13 March 2020); 12-year-old Tamir Rice (fatally shot by the police, 22 November 2014); 14-year-old Emmett Till (lynched by racists, 28 August 1955) and more.

Testament To Protestors’ Collective Voice

In graffiti, evidently unauthorised, illegal and without permission, international artists find resonance who then bring to focus ‘their’ issues like accusations of police brutality in Kenya and others. 

That the Black Lives Matter movement has transgressed beyond borders is evident in the works of contemporary artists who continue to embody its energy. The works of London-based Ghanian Street Artist and educator Dreph (aka Neequaye Dsane) appearing around the world, including residencies in Brazil and Cape Verde, says, "We are bombarded with negative imagery all day long; what do we do with that energy? It's got to be moulded into something positive… I want to constantly make authentic, inspiring, meaningful, thought-provoking work, regardless of the context."

A self-portrait of London-based Ghanian Street Artist and educator Dreph (Pic: Dreph)

In Britain, his street-portrait series includes Migrations, a celebration of multi-cultural local heroes – especially resonant around the Windrush scandal, where hundreds of Britons of Caribbean descent were wrongly threatened with deportation and refused vital services through the UK government's "hostile environment" policy. 

Dreph sums it up when he says, he can “go pretty much to any country in the world and meet a local within minutes because of the graffiti movement. It’s a network.” 

Born in 1961 in Larache, a harbour town in northern Morocco, Dreph’s father emigrated to England in the 60s, so he spent his formative years with his mother, auntie, grandma and sisters. 

He moved to North London in 1973 when he was 12 to join his father. He recalls it as being a tough time, where he was unable to speak English and was immersed in a new culture, in a time where London wasn’t as cosmopolitan as it is today.

Free Art Elbows Compulsions Of Commerce

In London’s multicultural Brixton, a sizeable chunk of the 30-foot-tall Michelle Obama mural remains painted over as Dorrell Place becomes the place for graffiti artists/taggers/scrawlers to showcase their works of art. The homage to the former First Lady of the United States that first appeared on the side of the Marks & Spencer store in October 2018 was the creation of Dreph who made the advert in collaboration with Penguin Random House to promote the publication of Obama’s autobiography ‘Becoming,’ released on 13 November 2018.

Yet, by February 2021 the bottom half was painted over, and in the last couple of years the rest of the mural has dwindled to naught, almost symbolising the triumph of free art over the compulsions of commerce.

One of Dreph’s latest murals depicts Hassan Hajjaj who joined the burgeoning west London immigrant community. He felt very much a foreigner and many of the people he befriended were people who had had a similar journey and shared experiences of being the outsider. In this period, he made a lot of friends, many from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan, and says that they stuck together and looked after one another.

That said, strife is perhaps the most significant commonality in Street Art; and, it’s this strife that is symbolical of the processes even the resistance to populist trends and capitalist markets.

In India, the Street Art scenario in financial capital Mumbai, in the absence of creative spunk even controlled by political entities and ‘permitted’ more often than growing organically as in the rest of the world, has failed to impress in comparison.

A glimpse of the St+art Urban Art Festival at South Mumbai's Sassoon Docks (Pic: Manu Shrivastava / DraftCraft)

The two-month long St+art Urban Art Festival for Mumbai’s Sassoon Dock Art Project kickstarted on 11 November 2017 and ran until 30 December 2017 featuring an exhibition of structures and images of workers at India’s first wet dock and the oldest in Mumbai, situated in Colaba. 

Pitched as having remained “a forgotten space of Mumbai, only home to the native Kolis living in a world of their own making,” the paintings depicted Kolis, a community that has grown organically even before the formation of Mumbai and live and work in the sea on the ‘other side’ of Colaba at Machchimar Nagar, having poor little to do with the trade at Sassoon Docks.

Glossing Over Details To Fact, Flavour

Sassoon Docks instead, is a commercial venture with docks where fish are cleaned, packed and exported to markets across the world. The Sassoon Docks provides livelihood for a range of communities from across India, apart from Kolis, who, at best, buy the fish locally for sale in markets in suburban Mumbai. The depiction in the Street Art seemed way off the mark and the local flavour and details to facts, sadly amiss.

The Mahatma Gandhi mural created by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra at Mumbai's Churchgate Railway Station (Pic: Nandini / DraftCraft)

In the same year, under an initiative of St+art Foundation, Asian Paints and Western Railways, a mural depicting Mahatma Gandhi exiting a train was created by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra at South Mumbai’s Churchgate Railway Station. A structural audit of the façade, even declared it fit during an inspection in 2018. 

However, a part of the cladding of the 81 ft x 54 ft mural broke loose during a cyclone in 2019 and fell on a 62-year-old pedestrian, killing him. The entire façade including the painting was ultimately brought down by the Western Railways.

“I have been painting nature, architecture, and local heritage on walls and in public spaces across the city,” says self-taught artist Sapna Patil who has been involved with painting real-life thematic images in and around Mumbai. 

Artist Sapna Patil poses against her artwork at Colaba's Badhwar Park in Mumbai (Pic: Manu Shrivastava / DraftCraft)

Sapna is known for her painting of a seemingly-real 'train' across a wall at Badhwar Park, in what was earlier a rather drab-looking passage, connecting South Mumbai’s Fourth Pasta Lane to Machchimar Nagar on the other side of the zone and passing through a Railway Colony. 

Her detailed depiction of the 'train', complete with windows, bars, steps even handles is exquisite. “I wish I get more opportunities to paint about issues that affect people too,” she says. 

Sapna Patil’s works are symbolic of the Changing Colours of Colaba and transformations in Mumbai's oldest precinct where, among other changes, public walls are given colourful make-overs through strategic paintings depicting the zone’s architecture and life.

The Badhwar Park ‘unsafe as ever’ passage that would lie in darkness, for over decades, even during the day, strewn with beggars, drug addicts and lumpen elements, has been transformed with ‘train’ and a surge of passers-by cannot help but stop by to take in the glory of the real-as-life painting. With scores stopping and shooting selfies in the zone against the backdrop of the ‘train’, the transformation of the stretch has been nothing short of magical.

On similar lines is the work of Chandigarh’s Sachita Aditi Sharma now based out of Himachal Pradesh in North India. After having painted “an entire village in Punjab to inspire villagers and show them a life that goes beyond drugs, walls in Goa even at venues in Hyderabad," Sachita now works across India.

Chandigarh artist Sachita Sharma strives to inspire people through her works (File pic)

“I’ve cleaned little corners and walls in cities strewn with garbage and excreta and created works of art,” says Sachita who feels the entire ordeal of ‘getting permissions’ from local administration which is either inaccessible or simply not keen to comply, defeats the purpose of beautifying public zones.

Delhi-based artist and President Awardee Roop Chand feels the potential of artists being able to tap on public sentiment and educate masses has not been utilised to its fullest potential. "There is so much that artists can do to contribute. It's just that their potential has not been realised," maintains Roop Chand.

Delhi-based artist and President Awardee Roop Chand painting a waste-bin at Lodhi Garden (File pic)

Why, he feels that something as simple as propping up a social message on a brightly-painted waste-bin in a public place may make all the difference. “I have done it personally and seen it work. People actually stop, read and take in the message,” he says.

A Film Industry Splashed On Public Walls

The walls adjoining the streets of Mumbai's Western suburb Bandra are strewn with art works depicting old Hindi films, graffiti and the works, converting the zone into a virtual art-lovers paradise. The wall-paintings are impressively colossal in size, strategically placed and sure to leave an indelible mark in public memory.

The Street Art that has begun making pleasant appearances across Mumbai’s streets has been facilitated by the civic authorities and overseen by local politicians. With all permissions in place and authorisations, even financial support provided through non-profits involved in the venture, Mumbai’s Street Art completely overlooks issues of strife and sensitivity that feature on public walls in most other foreign cities.

Mumbai's Western suburb Bandra is home to myriad wall paintings, murals and street art (Pic: Manu Shrivastava / DraftCraft)

Unlike French Street Artist James Colomina, who literally lives underground and refuses to even identify himself or his family for fear of reprise, the artists working across Mumbai’s streets feature, without fear, across media. Why, most of them are art teachers, commercial artists, some even out-of-work poster artists who have been provided livelihood by the surge in Street Art across India’s financial capital. 

There is simply no element of conflict in the Street Art across the public spaces of Mumbai. There’s a slim chance of an artwork being politically incorrect or harming populist sentiments when all of it has to go through the fine comb of a local politician before being vetted thoroughly by the authorities before seeing the light of the day.

And, that, is the difference in Street Art in India. Not that it isn’t good or lacks punch. It’s just that it’s different. Positively different, colourful yet bordering on inane and socially irrelevant. “I wish I can use art to highlight the issues faced by my community, in time,” sums up Sapna Patil who belongs to the Agri community.

Figures On Walls To Lead The Way

Look at Swaero Artist’s For Empowerment of Society (SAFE), an alumna of artists who studied in state-run social welfare schools and colleges who feel, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”; "Swaero Bano-Hero Bano"; "If not now, when? If not we, then who?" 

A tiny Dalit colony in Kollapadakal village of Maheshwaram that lies an hour away from Hyderabad registers the inspirational lines on a colourful mural that has become all-too-familiar to locals.

In different colours on the walls of homes, over 30 murals, featuring prominent world leaders, are popular selfie points in the area. The Street Art walls were inaugurated by senior IPS officer RS Praveen Kumar Swaero, the secretary of the Telangana Social & Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society in 2020.

Interestingly, several murals of contemporary student achievers that include mountaineer Malavat Poorna, Kamatam Madhuri, Nemali Siddharth, Darshanala Sushma, Praveen Kumar IPS and Dalit billionaire Pagidipati Devaiah were also painted on the walls. And because, as the SAFE president feels "painting local figures will make students think to become one of them.”

Empowering Marginalised With Art To Start Anew

Literally transforming the face of Mumbai’s slums has been ‘Misaal Mumbai’ a slum painting and repairing initiative by artist, muralist and social worker Rouble Nagi started after ‘Paint Dharavi’ in 2016 in Mumbai where she, with her team, painted and water-proofed houses. The aim being not just to beautify the walls of the slums but to connect to people through Art and bring a positive change in their mindset. 

Artist and social worker Rouble Nagi has colourfully transformed slums and villages across India (Pic: Rouble Nagi)

Plugged as the first slum painting initiative in India, the Rouble Nagi Art Foundation painted and repaired 1,50,000 plus homes to date and are currently working in over 163 slums and villages across India. 

Educating through art about the importance of children education, empowering women, creating job opportunities for youth, cleanliness, hygiene, sanitation, waste management, and children health in slums and villages, Rouble Nagi reaches out key messages through Street Art. 

“Besides being a quick way to create visual impact, our projects employ people and give them a sense of ownership over the artworks they create in their own community while improving the condition of their houses,” says Rouble.

And now, with ‘Misaal Kashmir’ underway, the Mumbai-based artist with 800 murals to her credit and having organised over 150 exhibitions, is focusing on the youth of Kashmir. She believes that they need to navigate their lives with the vision of growth and positivity, stop following peers and politicians "if you feel they are leading you towards a negative path".

Rouble's efforts have borne fruit in Mumbai's Worli Koliwada and brighten up the skyline (Pic: Manu Shrivastava / DraftCraft)

Along with her team, Rouble has been travelling through Watlab, Sangrama, Handwara, Langate and the rural belt of Pulwama armed with nothing but art and paints to empower women to generate a livelihood for themselves. 

The village reformation project, 'Misaal Kashmir' helps artists transform the community by tapping the local creative energy. It’s part of the 'Misaal India' initiative launched in 2018. Rouble Nagi’s attempts are bearing fruit, slowly yet surely, heralding a new beginning for those for whom all seemed lost.

Art Provides Healing Balm, Soothes The Hurt

Probably the most peaceful yet powerful influence of Street Art can be gauged by Japanese garden designer Itaru Sasaki who initiated the Wind Phone project in 2010 to help cope with his cousin's death. 

After Itaru lost his cousin to terminal cancer, he set up an old telephone booth in his garden in December 2010, to continue to feel connected to him by "talking" to him on the phone. The wind phone was not designed with any specific religious connotation but as a way to reflect on his loss.

Japanese garden designer Itaru Sasaki's Wind Phone has helped thousands deal with grief (File pic)
However, in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed over 15,000 people in the Tohoku region, including over 1,200 people in Ōtsuchi (about 10 percent of the town's population), he threw access to the structure open to the public. The wind phone since, received more than 30,000 visitors. 

On 7 January 2017, strong winds blew off the roof of the wind phone and broke the glass doors. On hearing about it, local carpenters, including ones who had previously visited the wind phone, swiftly volunteered to repair it on 10 January 2017 and the wind phone was reopened by the very next day.

In April 2018, when Itaru announced the wooden and metal parts of the booth were deteriorating due to wear and tear of time, even after a new coat of paint, and that he hoped to replace the old booth with a corrosion-resistant aluminium booth, he received donations totalling about one million yen. Sasaki installed a sturdier aluminium booth in August 2018.

Over the years, a number of replicas have been constructed around the world, and it has served as the inspiration for several novels and films.

The American version of Itaru's Wind Phone has helped 9/11 victim families (Pic: NPR)

Poignantly, voicemails are entrenched in public memories of US citizens of 9/11. On that fateful day in 2001, cell-phone networks were overloaded as people all across New York City tried to get hold of their friends and family. 

For a few of the victims inside the planes and towers, leaving a voicemail was their last way of communicating with their loved ones, their final goodbye.

In 2021, in the weeks leading up to the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, an independent non-profit media, NPR set up an old phone booth, on the lines of Itaru’s Wind Phone, in Brooklyn Bridge Park — across the river from the new World Trade Center — inviting people to leave a voicemail for someone they lost that day.

Among hundreds who shared their stories and visited the phone booth were Trish Straine, whose husband died in the north tower just six days after their second son was born; and Matthew Bocchi, who was only nine years old when he lost his father in the attacks.

India Holds Distinction Of Housing Oldest Art

In any informed study of the history of Street Art, it would be pedestrian to trace the roots of Street Art to 1st Century BCE when Roman citizens scribbled messages to each other on dry brick walls, as is suggested in public domain. 

India’s approach to Street Art has been legendarily descriptive and narrative rather than confrontational as is the wont of the nation itself, known for its non-violent, non-aligned, non-expansionist nature across the world.

For the record, cave paintings dating back to approximately 30,000 years in rock shelters, home to humans, millennia ago, make Bhimbetka, the oldest existing public art available. And, well in reach barely 28 miles (45 km) south of Bhopal, in west-central Madhya Pradesh state in India. 

Discovered only recently in 1957, the complex is one of the largest repositories of prehistoric art in India. The Bhimbetka rock shelters form a canvas for some of the oldest paintings in India. 

Most of these are done in red and white on cave walls depicting themes and scenes like singing, dancing, hunting and other common activities of the people staying there. The oldest of the cave paintings in Bhimbetka is believed to be about 12,000 years ago i.e., 8,000 BCE.

Ancient rock carvings at Bhimbetka in India's Madhya Pradesh stand testimony to the oldest form of 'street art' (File pic)


The paintings have been divided into various periods like Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early History and Medieval history and are present in 500 caves out of the total of 750. Bhimbetka is named after Bhim, among the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata. 

Legend says that he used to sit outside these caves and on top of the hills to interact with the people in the area. The caves derive their name from this legend and translate literally into ‘Bhim’s Resting Place’.

Cave paintings show themes such as animals, early evidence of dance and hunting from the Stone Age as well as of warriors on horseback from a later time (perhaps the Bronze Age). The Bhimbetka site is one of the largest prehistoric complexes and has the oldest-known rock art in India. 

The term ‘street’ itself is derived from ‘strata’, a short form of the Latin 'via strata', a road spread with paving stones. Why, the birth of Latin, as language itself, took place around 700 BC. In Bhimbetka, Street Art existed in 8,000 BCE, way before it came to be defined and known as such.


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Author: Gajanan Khergamker
Inputs: Manu Shrivastava, Nandini Rao, Sagarika, Anushka Singh and Ritika Seth
Special Thanks: James Colomina, Melodee Strong, Agata Oleksiak, Haider Ali and Rouble Nagi

This report is part of The Art Of Cause Project - a DraftCraft International initiative that documents Art Projects and Street Art campaigns that reach out, rectify and resolve strife, across the world

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