Written words last longer. Sometimes even until after the next monsoon. I scoured south Mumbai for a couple of days, looking at the walls, searching for new words of wisdom scrawled hurriedly on its walls.
Too much time. Too little to say. Nowhere men, writing all their nowhere plans for the world to see. Tread softly, especially if you retread someone else’s dreams.
Cans of spray paint breed prophets from people. They release their words through hands turned to their purpose. But do the cans have anything new to say?
Words that stay with you, words that arrest your steps, words that make you think, and then think again. Words that lead to conflict, divergence of opinions. Carrot and ginger salad or chicken quiche? Vol au vent or burger? Truly prophetic words. Finally.
Some parts of heaven are dangerous now, dilapidated, ready to fall. Still, the magic draws people from across the world. Many have left elaborate artwork on the walls. Perhaps inspired by them, others have sketched outlines of work elsewhere. We walked through the parts of the abandoned Swarg Ashram which were built after the famous visit by the Beatles.
There are two apartment blocks next to each other. They looked dilapidated. Unlike in the bungalows, there were no signs warning us off. But maybe that only meant that the blocks just haven’t been inspected recently? We peered through doors and windows. They are one-bedroom apartments, of a size which is larger than most one-bedrooms in Mumbai. Some of the walls reminded me of the overused word palimpsest. Perhaps a graffiti wall is as good a descriptor. Some of the sketches were good, perhaps the artists could have developed them into paintings if they had materials.
These blocks date from the seventies, when the Maharishi Mahesh yogi’s business venture was beginning to boom. For the pioneer of the yoga and guru industry, he has little name recognition now. For that matter, even the Beatles are fading. I was in a lift a couple of years ago with a older person, when the door opened and a bunch of kids with phones and earbuds came in chattering. “Have you tried out the Beatles?” one asked. Some of the others looked puzzled. The experimenter said “Ancient group, interesting music.” One of the others explained, “Yes a singing group like Abba, with three members. One was called Paul.” The lift door opened, and they left. We two, grizzled veterans, looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
There were a lot of really interesting paintings inside. I inspected the outer walls. There were no large cracks. There could be a danger of falling blocks of plaster, but perhaps we could risk quick forays into the buildings. We darted through the doorways which gaped open. In and out quickly, a few times. Then I noticed that there are no cracks in the internal plaster either, no bulges. We were not going to risk the stairs, but spending a little longer exploring inside may not be dangerous. We found a large number of very expertly executed pieces inside. Some of them really worth your time.
Even apart from the paintings, the remains of the ashram were beautiful, quiet and peaceful. The silence was broken now and then by the cackling of tree pies, and the deeper calls of hornbills. We were reluctant to leave. The canteen did not have anything other than chai and small snacks. If it had, we would have stayed longer.
Coleridge and Porlock collaborated on a wonderful work of a little more than 50 lines, which goes by the name of Kubla Khan. Knowing about the seminal influence that Porlock has had on the arts and letters, I was not surprised to find his signature (featured) on the door of an utility box.
Neither was it surprising to find an unsigned work by him on the walls of an abandoned building. You think Banksy gets around? Look for Porlock. He’s responsible for some of the best work around, and is also known to send some of the worst to their Graves. Both these canvases come from Bielefeld in Germany, a town that is as famous as Porlock.
Archaelogists seem to use the word graffiti in the same way that all of us do, to mean art that is made in a public place, usually without the sanction of city authorities. You can see quite a bit of graffiti etched into stone in the lower part of Ephesus. I suppose this is one way of figuring out that this part was not where the rich lived or cared too much about. The two main streets in this part are the Marble Way, connecting the library and the circus, and the Arcadian Way, leading to the docks.
The flagstones of the Marble Way show ruts of chariots, so making graffiti in the road here could get you knocked over. The fact that someone bothered to carve a foot and the faint outline of a woman into it (featured photo) means that they deemed it important. The building next to it was a Roman brothel, so this could have been a sign. The cross on the side wall of the road (photo below) seems to have been made over an older sign. There was an Egyptian temple here, so I wonder whether the Christian symbol was made to erase an older Egyptian symbol of an Ankh. This could be a territory marker. The photo of the circle with spokes comes from the Arcadian Way. I found this symbol in other ruins also, so this could possibly signify another cult. I wish I knew what it meant. Surely someone must have compiled a dictionary of Roman symbols. Otherwise there is an opportunity waiting for a historian.
In a city of about twenty to thirty thousand people, with a mass of sailors coming and going, why did we see so little graffiti? After all, the patricians did not seem to care too much about policing little acts of vandalism. Perhaps most graffiti was like today’s: painted or written. This would not have survived the millennia. Only the few etched into stone would not be washed away by half a million days of rain.
Germany is not just shining BMWs and Mercedes screaming down Autobahns. There are broken down, unloved areas. Areas which we would mostly not photograph. These are things which a tourist’s eye would slide over, unseeing. Or there are things which are pushed out to places where people would not have to look at all the time. I love looking at such grunge. What a country does not love sometimes tells us as much as what it does.
Back road near Hannover
Railway station, Duisburg
Urban renewal near the Spree, Berlin
I see lots of photos of sunlight on cracked plaster or weathered wood from southern Europe, but little of these dreary but atmospheric places in Germany. I wonder whether there is a new genre waiting to become a meme. Click on the mosaic above to get to an annotated slide show.
Walking in the back streets of Madrid’s art district, between small galleries and run-down buildings, I was stunned by the graffiti you see in the featured photo. It was painted on a sheet of plastic covering part of construction site. The beautiful skyline, minimally emphasized by the yellow lines, and the lettering were so assured, and at the same time so ephemeral! I was lucky that I walked by the few days of its lifetime.
I did not see more by this artist. In that sense none of the Spanish cities I visited seemed to have the prolific street artists of Porto. But what I saw captured me. Just as I captured some of what I saw. Here’s the gallery below, browse it and see if you like it as much as I did.
The Garbatella metro station (featured image) is definitely not on the tourist circuit. It is fairly deserted at a time when Repubblica, Barberini, Spagna, Cavour and Colosseo are bursting at the seams with tourists. This is the metro station for the interesting Roman district of Ostiense. Via Ostiense, which gives the district its name, is the old Roman road which connected the city to the port of Ostia Antica.
If you look up Ostiense in a tourist guide you will find only the Centrale Montemartini museum listed here. But when I arrived to visit the museum I found the place was full of spectacular splashes of colour: graffiti artists had been hard at work in the noisy area around the metro station. A pedestrian bridge takes you across the tracks from the station. As you descend, the brutal concrete of the stairwell is softened with bright graffiti (photo above). After one flight of stairs there is a little terrace from which one sees a brick building with a colourful mural across it (photo below). I learnt later that the building belongs to ATAC, the company which runs the public transport system in Rome, and the mural has been painted by a Berlin artist called Clemens Behr
The bridge was being used as an impromptu gallery for a group show of photography. On my way to the museum I’d looked quickly at it and told myself that I would come back to look more carefully. As I was strolling back, camera in hand, after photographing the nearby roads, a girl on a phone strode towards me. "Are you the official photographer?" she asked "I’ve been waiting." I’m quite happy to be mistaken for a professional, but I told her that I wasn’t. She smiled and said there was an exhibition of photos I might want to see. I replied that this is where I was headed. The exhibition had some very interesting photos. While I was looking at them, I heard the stuttering sound of a camera set on exposure bracket. The official photographer had arrived, and he looked nothing like me.
If you were to walk down a street and come across works like the ones above, you would certainly stop to admire them. The Family and I walked through the centre of Porto and its Baixa, looking at many things, including these beautiful, and possibly ephemeral, pieces of art.
The redevelopment of Porto seems to have stalled in recent years because of the global economic downturn. Not only has the economy shrunk, but unemployment has been very high. A possible result is that right in the centre of town there are “mixed use” blocks of flats like in the picture above. There are flats where people stay, and water the flowering plants on their balcony, cheek by jowl with flats lying open and unused and painted over by quick-response street artists.
This kind of graffiti also has individual styles: sometimes in the choice of colours, sometimes in the decorations added on to the letters. We walked slowly through Porto for a few days, admiring these differences. The decorative touches in the example above made us happy that we did not run into this work gang, although we liked the colours.
But the most exciting pieces go beyond lettering and gang signs. This fish is incredible. It stands on Rua de Sao Bento da Vitoria, when it emerges behind the Clerigos tower. We stopped to admire it, and found that we were not the only one. It was a lovely complex piece, beautifully executed.
On Rua de Sa da Bandeira, we saw this beautiful minimalistic aesthetics on the wall of an abandoned building. I liked it as it is, although this could be an unfinished piece.
The reason we thought this could be unfinished is that we saw a similar piece as we climbed the steep lanes from the Sao Bento station towards Batalha. On the steeply sloping street two artists had placed their works next to each other. The work on the left is a version of the minimalistic piece that we saw near Bolhao. That on the right is signed by an artist (or consortium?) called Hazul, whose work we began to recognize. A beautiful example of Hazul’s work is in the featured image.
The three pieces below are all by a person (or group) who signs as Costah. The stylistic similarity was such that we began to recognize his work on the road, and would be delighted to identify his signature on a work. The three pieces above are collected from various parts of central Porto.
Even more prolific than Costah is Hazul. Three of the pieces that I like best are collected together below. Hazul seems to range all across the main parts of Porto: the Baixa as well as the Alto. There were beautifully realized pieces, clearly complete, as well as pieces which seemed more sketchy. Could they be works in progress? I wish I could go back in six months to check.
These signed works are so beautiful that I wish the city takes steps to protect them. There are other artists who are beginning to create an individual style. Maybe there is genuinely a movement beginning in Porto.
We’d noticed spectacular graffiti in Lisbon. Portugal has been through a painful period of economic contraction for about 5 years, and has just started recovering in the last year or so. The unemployment rate was about 16% in 2013, and is even now unable to drop to 10%. Could the profusion of street art in Lisbon be related to this?
Could this also be the explanation of the street art we saw in Coimbra? The Family and I talked about this as we walked around the little town. We were entranced by the two lovely pieces of graffiti you can see in the photos above. They were on two walls of a single building in Praça San Tiago in the baixa. These shared many characteristics with the street art of Lisbon. The clean lines and the comic-book colouring make these lovely works leap out at you. At the same time, they bear a clear relationship to the work we saw in the metro in Lisbon.
As we climbed up from the baixa, the density of street art did not change, but its style seemed to transform. The example in the featured image is quite different in style. The lines and the colour scheme are not something that you will come across in a street underpass or near train lines. They are altogether more cerebral.
Then, as we walked around the university, the difference was stark. The style was hurried, and the subject matter was too academic. We had a laugh at the sheep which you can see alongside. I can easily imagine this on the cover of any of the classic rock albums of the late sixties. But the one which was clearly the work of an university student is this. Fado could be one medium which the students of Coimbra use, but this kind of graffiti binds them more clearly to students across the world. This kind of graffiti is no longer a work of visual art, but a very short essay. I can identify with this when I recall my days as a student, but I love the work of the baixa more.
Alfama is a highly atmospheric part of Lisbon. The city rises very sharply from the Tagus river. Our first view of Alfama came as we strolled along the riverside and reached the Terreiro de Paço metro station. The Family recognized the towers of the cathedral from the pictures she had seen. The building to the right in front turned out to be the Jose Saramago Foundation. If we had more time in Lisbon we would definitely have gone for some of their events.
We turned into this district, passed the Jose Saramago Foundation, and climbed up a little. There’s a warren of little streets, passages, and stairs leading up. We quickly lost our way, but decided to keep going upwards. I began to notice the abundance of graffiti. Later we came to love Portuguese graffiti; it will be the subject of a future post. Going up eventually brought us to the cathedral.
As we climbed we stopped to admire some beautiful tiles embedded into buildings. We found that Alfama is slowly being renovated. The picturesque crumbling buildings are interspersed with fully renovated buildings like this one. We had begun to notice tiles: azulejos in Portuguese. We would see much more of this soon. It turns out that Alfama is full of restaurants and Fado clubs.
Later we came back to Alfama for the singular experience of listening to Fado. This musical form apparently has two different styles: the Lisbon style is said to begin with sailors, but now it is common for women to sing Fado of Lisbon. We heard a beautiful performance of this style in Alfama (photo here). Later we would encounter the Coimbra style too.
We explored other parts of the city in the evenings, but Alfama with its very distinct identity was always the most predictably interesting. If you don’t know the secret ways of Lisbon just follow us and gravitate towards Alfama.