It’s one of the few things on offer free, decidedly not for sale. It is so much art for art’s sake that the artist Invader of Paris, France — who creates his work using mosaic tile — switched to tile that breaks apart if you try and prise it out of the wall, because he didn’t want his work owned or sold.
Street art — the subversive, anonymous kind — is meant to make you stop, think, re-evaluate. In Bogotá, Colombia, the artist who goes by Stinkfish has become known for taking photographs of strangers, blowing them up, stencilling them onto walls and splashing vivid colours on them to make them stand out. He’s drawing your attention away not from other street art but from the vapidness of billboards and hoardings, the faces famous for being pretty or blown up to giant size because they’re pretty famous.
Guarding anonymity is hard when every passerby is armed with a camera. So Rebel Bear paints in a pink bear suit. Invader wears playful Halloween masks. In India, as around the world, many anonymous street artists work by night. And the next morning, your local Stop sign says “STOP Promising” or “STOP Posing”. (Recent works by Daku in Delhi).
The pandemic made it easier for these artists to work anonymously, with the streets deserted and the nights quieter than usual. For Zake in Mumbai, the macabre daily death tolls prompted some of his darkest work. It pushed AnonyMouse to create, through the pandemic months, four elaborate installations: a tiny, pavement-level record store for mice, pharmacy for mice, student dorm for mice, and an entire harbour, whittled down to mouse-scale.
“It creates a little mystery, a bit of everyday magic,” AnonyMouse said, speaking to Wknd via email.
The one good thing about the camera in the hands of every passerby is that you don’t have to walk by the art to see it.
In the pandemic, with travel curtailed, social media allowed artists and fans to take the newest artworks — by nature, transitory; meant to be replaced, plastered over, painted on top of by another artist — to the world before they were gone forever. And so we can still marvel at the giant whale’s tail created by Australian sand artist Edward, before it was washed away in a few hours by the tide. Muse on his message of all that’s out there, at risk, because of our treatment of the earth.
“Energetic, politically organic graffiti is a society arguing with itself,” says art critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote. In the larger cities, he adds, it can take the form of privileged artists working with corporate backing. It is the anonymous artists who challenge the established line, make statements that can make people and the establishment uncomfortable.
“Anonymity gives you the sense of being a guerilla activist,” Hoskote says. “It offers you some protection from government persecution and stops your message from being neutralised by a corporate agenda.”
Here, then, is a look at what some of India and the world’s most renowned anonymous street artists have been up to in the pandemic.
Paintings on the wall by The Rebel Bear
The Rebel Bear has been busy in the lockdown, with at least one new piece of their street art appearing in Glasgow every month. Fear & Love, a stencilled couple with masks pulled down to steal a kiss (above), showed up in early March. Then came Lockdown, a man weighed down by a virus-shaped ball and chain.
As videos of animals reclaiming space were shared on social media, they also showed up on a wall in Glasgow, in a celebratory procession. “Long live the lockdown,” one placard read. The paintings are all in black and white, garnished by a single item in one colour. Blue facemasks, a green virus.
The main challenge, Bear says, speaking to Wknd via email, “was to make pieces that would provide hope, comfort and humour during a time of uncertainty and fear.”
A masked medical professional curling her hands into a heart; Jason from the Friday the 13th movies wearing a surgical mask over his hockey one — the Rebel Bear is prolific and mysterious, recognised for their art, but with only urban legends about their identity and whereabouts. Coordinates to each new work are posted on their Instagram account, where they have nearly 40,000 followers.
They first appeared on the scene three years ago, and have been spotted several times and photographed, in a pink bear costume. Bear describes their mission as otherworldly. “I was sent here as the most bizarre character imaginable to mirror the bizarre nature of your societies,” they say. “My goals are to make you think and hopefully raise a smile.”
The works tend to be thought-provoking critiques of capitalism, consumerism and religion, as well as our addiction to the internet and the desire for fame. Bear has taken over billboards, road signs and bus stops with messages of truth (“You are not going to be famous”) and hope (“No need to consume more. You are all good as you are.”).
A Free Palestine / Free Wi-Fi piece appeared near the Glasgow University Library, while Donald Trump’s slogan was altered to read “Make America Great Hate Again” (with the Great crossed out).
The art is an attempt to make us think differently, question society’s expectations, pause in our chase for careers, technology, status — all of which, Bear says, distracts us from what we should be doing.
Which is? They once wrote the answer on a wall in Glasgow, they say: “Your heart is free. Have the courage to follow it.”
Bear has also created work in France and the UK, and sells prints and canvases on grrrrr-inc.com, at prices ranging from £90 (about Rs 9,000) to £495 (about Rs 49,000).
Tiny mouse houses via AnonyMouse
Over four years, a fabulous mouse-sized world has been taking shape at pavement level, all over the Scandinavian city of Malmö. More than 25 nibble-sized constructions are wedged into the sides of buildings, furnished with things familiar and forgotten.
Bottle caps are table-tops, half opened fish tins are repurposed as cosy beds and earphones double as speakers; a champagne cork is used as a chair, a matchbox, a desk, a seashell becomes a lampshade and stamps become paintings.
Behind this charming, eclectic art is AnonyMouse (@anonymouse_mmx), a collective of anonymous artists made of “mice and men” (the men [and women] too work best at night, quiet as mice). Staying anonymous is key to world they are creating.
They’ve created a restaurant with a cured meats display window, an “amousement” park with tiny giant wheels, a jazz club, a travel agency, a hotel with little rooms, a tiny clothing store next to a tiny Indian restaurant called Paneer (above), a gas station in a jerry can, complete with working pumps. Each comes furnished and lights up.
“For children, the idea is that it could be made by mice,” they say, via email. “Kids like to imagine that there is a world parallel to ours where small animals live quite like we do; recycle things that we have lost.”
And for adults? “It creates a little mystery to the extent that anybody could have created these – your neighbour, a group of retired women, a family with their children. Your fantasy decides!”
They never reveal where or when they are putting up an installation. You can find clues in the photos posted on Instagram, but it’s best to come upon an anonymouse house by chance.
“Our objective is to bring a little bit of everyday magic to children and pedestrians passing by,” they say.
Rarely have pieces been vandalised or removed. “People tend to put additional objects at the houses, like Christmas trees or cars or dolls of various sizes,” AnonyMouse say.
They have also created installations in Bayonne in France, and hidden miniature fairytale buildings across the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea.
Three new constructions have come up in the pandemic — a student dorm, a record store, and a pharmacy. And just last week, they placed their largest construction yet — a complete harbour.
They could show up in India. They already have ideas. “A little market in Cochin, or a printing shop in Mumbai!” Don’t forget to look down.
Faces you’ll never know, by Stinkfish
If Stinkfish (@stinkfishstink) has been to your city, you’ll know. Photographic portraits of random people are blown up into huge stencils, transferred onto walls and doused in decorative patterns and splashes of bright pinks, yellows, oranges and greens.
Stinkfish has been at it for a while, having made his first stencils in 2003. Wandering the streets of Bogotá and other great cities of the world is part of his process. His camera is as essential a tool as the spray can. He never leaves home without it. He loves walking and watching, studying and capturing the faces of people around him, often without their knowledge.
“I take photographs of anonymous people, which I use in my work,” he told Wknd. “They are moments of real life, photographs without pose.” He also uses photographs he finds, or buys at flea markets.
“One of the reasons I fell in love with graffiti was the mysticism of not knowing who did it,” he says. “I love the idea of placing images on the street without permission, without putting your name to it. Because what does the real identity of the person matter.”
For him the anonymous portraits are a way of subverting the idea of fame. “This makes space for common people, those who are not trying to sell you something,” he says.
For the first time in almost a decade of constant travel and work on the street, the pandemic has allowed him to rest, organise his photographic archive of 17 years and shape new ideas to bring to the street.
“At some point I began to go out again near my house and paint a couple of walls,” he says. “They are portrait works from photographs that I found in my archive during these months at home.”
His murals have also appeared across England, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Austria, Russia, Mexico, Argentina and the US. In 2013, he walked the streets of Delhi and left his mark at Majnu Ka Tilla, a Tibetan Colony, near the Red Fort, at Chandni Chowk and at the Jor Bagh metro station.
Circles in the sand via Edward
Barwon Heads, Australia
They’re like crop circles in the sand, sprawling homages to the natural world, etched onto beaches until the tide comes back in.
In January 2020, a 120-metre-long image of a koala clinging to a treetop as a fire blazed below, appeared on a beach near Barwon Heads, about 100 km from Melbourne, where Edward’s works most often appear. The sandy etching was a tribute to the animals that had died in the intense Australian bushfires that started in June. By March 2020, they were estimated to have killed over 3 billion terrestrial creatures.
When the koala appeared, Australians were simultaneously captivated and heartbroken by its massive size and ephemeral nature — a metaphor for the destruction that was still occurring.
Edward (@breatheablueocean) has been taking over the beaches of Barwon Heads for five years and is sometimes called the Banksy of Barwon Heads, though their styles are nothing alike. His large-scale images transform the complexities of nature into fluid and breathtaking patterns, using squiggly lines and concentric circles.
Known locally as Night Walker, he uses a stick or rake to draw the lines. “The drawing requires intense concentration. I use my imagination to construct a mental picture that I draw on for accuracy and symmetry,” he says. At dawn, photographer Adam Stan, a long-time collaborator, sends up a drone to photograph the work.
Stan and he recently collaborated with Tourism Australia to send a message in the sand to Australians stuck in the UK due to Covid-19. “Around 110,000 people from the UK come to Australia to be with family during Christmas,” he says. “I have family living internationally and I can’t visit them. I felt this was something I could share with them too, although they don’t live in the UK.” The message “We will meet again” was scratched on a beach in Victoria (above), flanked between a Christmas tree and two koalas.
Edward is not formally trained and revels in not being a professional artist. “I love being free to do my own thing,” he says. “Commissions have other agendas attached to them.” He has a day job, in fact, and no one there knows of his other life as a sand artist.
But it is in his art, he says, that he gets glimpses of his soul.
Edward constructs his images better at night, he adds, unhindered by optical and other distractions. He typically starts work a few hours before dawn, waiting for the tide to recede so he can draw in the wet compacted sand it leaves behind.
8-bit gaming-inspired art by Invader
He calls his work a form of “urban acupuncture”. His street art — tiled mosaics of aliens and spiders, landscapes and cartoon characters — have surfaced on building facades in 79 cities around the world, each indicating: “Invader was here”.
The pixelated style is inspired by early 8-bit computer graphics. His name and his recurring motif, the alien, come from popular ’80s video game Space Invaders. He keeps a record of each work created, and his oeuvre of almost 4,000 “invaders” (as his pieces are called) is also part of a worldwide game.
A map on his website (space-invaders.com) tracks the cities he’s invaded. Fans and followers chase down his work accordingly and, using an app called Flash Invaders, photograph the street art to collect points.
Invader (@invaderwashere) calls himself a UFA or Unidentified Free Artist and has been at work for over three decades. Most of his works are inspired by videogames or characters from film and cartoon series such as Star Wars, Popeye and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (above).
“When I’m doing my street invasions, I most definitely feel like an outlaw, and… I’m not always welcomed!” he told the art and culture Juxtapoz magazine in 2017.
Invasions typically occur in waves. Over a few weeks, he installs up to 50 pieces in an area, usually working at night.
In the day, he works in playful Halloween masks. He has been photographed, but his face is always shown pixelated. Over the years his work has become valuable too. The ceramic tiles he uses have been jimmied off walls and sold on eBay and at auction. One of his ceramic invaders sold for almost $350,000 at a Christie’s auction in 2015.
He has responded by using tiles that break when you try to extract them.
The invasions are said to have begun in Paris in 1998, where his work is welcome and abundant. In India, Varanasi was invaded in 2008, where he deviated from his use of ceramic tiles and used paint, influenced by the painted advertisements on walls along the Ganga.
In 2015, one of his pieces travelled to the International Space Station, with astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.
It’s tricky balancing fame and anonymity, but he’s made it work. The world knows only a couple of things about Invader’s true identity — he attended the influential École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and is likely in his early 50s. There’s a legend that his real name is Franck Slama. Whatever his name, his game is far from over.
Politically incorrect with Lushsux
He calls himself the world’s first and therefore only meme artist. Lushsux (@lushsux) takes memes off the internet and paints them on walls, extending their shelf life. In the process, he both amuses and annoys his audience.
He’s painted, for instance, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in a skimpy stars and stripes bikini and US President Donald Trump kissing Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the streets of Melbourne.
Lushsux also loves mashups. Will Smith and Mike Tyson’s faces melded together, titled Freth Printh; Donye West as a tribute to the odd friendship of Trump and the Black rapper Kanye West (above).
Lushsux is inspired by viral moments and evolving pop culture. His work is evolving pop culture too. In response to outrage over the Hilary-in-a-bikini image, he painted a burkha over her, leaving only the eyes visible.
“It’s a love or hate kind of thing with my work, no middle ground,” the artist told Wknd over email. Still, with almost 900,000 followers on Instagram, Lushsux is among Australia’s most prominent street artists. As the start of the lockdown, he stepped out to paint Chinese president Xi Jinping with protein spikes all over his face. And he continued to go out onto the streets, to bring to the offline world the things that internet users were laughing about and sharing.
He’s always worn a mask when he paints, to protect his anonymity (“I would rather be known for my work than my curves and pretty face”) and keep from inhaling spray can fumes.
Lushsux had his first gallery show in 2010 and has since shown internationally, including at Banksy’s Dismaland show in the UK in 2015.
He considers his work important, to the extent that he and the world at least get a laugh out of it. “Because he who controls the memes controls the universe.”
PANDEMIC-ERA ART FROM ACROSS INDIA
From Himachal Pradesh to Visakhapatnam, Zero (@zero_india) has painted at least 100 walls over the past decade. In the lockdown, he we went around the Capital, creating works that are satirical, funny and many that just urge people to wear masks.
His most important work in these months is spread across 200 sq ft and three storeys floors of a building in Lodhi Colony(above). “The pandemic has been a stark reminder of our flawed relationship with nature,” says Zero, 30.
The wall represents that complex relationship. The building’s entrance arch sits at the centre, acting as an entry point and divide between the two parts of the narrative.
On one side is a concrete jungle and a man caught in an urbanised sprawl that seems to stretch forever behind him. His face is that of a fox, representing all the species trapped in our urbania. On the other side, a woman stands amid lush greenery, monkeys, sparrows and butterflies — species that were disappearing from the city, and are now out to play.
“The work portrays the possibilities of the Garden of Eden, as Nature reclaims its lost space and teaches us a lesson in healing,” Zero says. “It’s a reminder that we must lose something to rebuild better.”
As lockdown norms eased in August, Zake (@zake_india), desperate to paint on a wall for the first time since March, created a skull (above), measuring 6 ft x 5 ft, on an exterior wall of a Bandra building. “I was in a very dark space,” says the event manager. “I was hearing about so many coronavirus deaths. I found a form of expression in this work, which I completed in a day.”
A graffiti artist for eight years, he says his aim is to reclaim neighbourhoods, add character to walls near vacant spaces and perhaps even keep them from becoming dumping grounds. “I’ve seen people take ownership of a wall that has beautifully art on it. They stop littering and stop others from doing so too. That’s one of the reasons I paint,” he says.
The pandemic has been his darkest phase. But by October, as the Covid-19 curve was somewhat flattened in the city, he found himself returning to his usual style – colourful, inspiring works.
“Like all graffiti artists I want my work to be seen, on a large canvas,” says Zake, 27, “but recognised by my artist name. That’s the essence of graffiti.”
A-Kill (@ad57akill_t3k) photographs strangers on the street and recreates those faces on walls, with splashes of vibrant colour or sometimes just silvers and greys.
“I love to draw old people. Their wrinkles and their eyes are testimony to all that they have gone through and life as they have experienced it,” he says.
In lockdown, unable to paint on walls, he created works on canvas and honed his skill. “The lockdown gave me time to slow down, to reflect and re-examine my work,” he says.
He’s now ready to head back out, and has the digital drawing ready for his next solo piece — an old man with silver hair and spectacles (above), for which he’s now selecting a spot.
He’s also currently painting part of a St+art work on a wall at the Amadi railway station. The work will feature 10 faces. Three are HIV+ but you can’t tell which ones. “It’s meant to show that, affected or not, we are all human,” says A-Kill, 29.
Rems’s (@rems_vandal) graffiti style is Funk Wild. It distorts the basic structure of the alphabet until it looks, at first, almost unrecognisable.
In the lockdown, the Nepali artist tried to incorporate letters from an ancient Nepali script, Newari, into his digital prints. “The attempt is to revive the old script, which can only be seen in a few parts of Darjeeling and in Nepal, on signboards,” says Rems, 25. “In the lockdown, I felt this urge to connect to my roots and these works are an expression of that.”
Last week, he painted a wall near a vacant lot in Silliguri, West Bengal, where he currently is. “People come here to pass the time. I thought why not give them something to look at, think about and be inspired by,” he says. “I made this with the hope that, maybe, the kids of the village will like my work and want to take up the art form as well.”
Srek began painting on public walls a decade ago. He is essentially a graffiti writer who plays with colours and the shapes and forms of letters to create huge, attention-grabbing renditions of his name. In August, he chose a wall on the railway tracks en route Jadavpur (above), a busy line, and created a 3D rendering in blue, orange and black.
“Graffiti art has many different techniques and as an artist I want to learn and master all of them. All my pieces on walls are written in different styles and techniques. That’s how I experiment and track my progress as an artist,” says Srek, 29. “I hope that suddenly seeing this bright work of art will also make people happy.”
(Report on art across India by Riddhi Doshi)