‘Blank walls are a shared canvas and we’re all artists,’ says author Carla H Krueger. When graffiti artists unleash their imagination, these blank walls come alive with strokes of colour and socio-political messages. These artists are rebels and social outcasts who choose to express their thoughts loud and clear on brick walls.
However, graffiti art across the country is witnessing a mutation in form, temperament and messaging. The rebellious expressions are making way for amicable street art. Shillong too is seeing a rising trend of a more genial form of graffiti art and a group of young artists, under the banner Mixed Media Art Crew (MMAC), is leaving the mark of its creativity in city localities and beyond.
“We are the only organisation in the state that promotes and practises graffiti and street art. We are not only giving young artists a platform to showcase their talent but also training graffiti enthusiasts so that they can earn a living,” said OWL, a 35-year-old muralist whose brainchild is MMAC.
The muralist preferred to give his canvas name during this interview. All the artists whom Meghalaya Monitor spoke to said they would want their canvas names to be mentioned instead of the real names.
“This is a practice among graffiti artists anywhere in the world. This is because graffiti art was considered an illegal act and the artists were social outcasts. So, they would always remain anonymous,” explained OWL.
MMAC’s journey started in 2021 when OWL connected with a few like-minded graffiti artists and decided to change the face of the city.
“Usually, graffiti is seen as defacing public property. But we decided to change the way it is looked at. We decided to transform it into an art that would add beauty to the public spaces in the city. Graffiti is changing worldwide. It is transforming into street art that is adding a new dimension to the character of every city, big or small, around the globe,” explained OWL.
OWL was working on a project for Pine Mount School when he got the idea to take it to another level. He met Rems, another graffiti artist from Shillong, who introduced street art in the hill city.
Now, street art has turned into a trend among young artists in the city and many trained art students are coming forward to showcase their talents in public spaces. For instance, Faster, a 21-year-old alumnus of Riti Art Academy, is among the members of MMAC who are working with OWL and other team members to beautify the city.
Besides street art, MMAC also works on other art forms as “ours is a multi-media art group”. The team members do commissioned work on canvas and graphic designing. Their humble den near Shillong Law College has several paintings on canvas.
The team has attracted people from all age groups. Chill, who is 44, has been with MMAC since its inception. Though not an artist himself, Chill was intrigued by the works of MMAC and chose to volunteer for them.
“One day I was passing by the MMAC office and the work interested me. So, I stopped by to observe the artists at
work. Since then, I have been with them. I help them with the administrative work,” said Chill, the oldest member of the team.
Talking about MMAC’s works, Chill said it is a platform for “raw talents” in the state so that they find their identity as artists. “Many are showing interest in joining MMAC. Even parents bring their teenage children to us. MMAC allows them to focus on creative work so that they deviate from bad habits such as substance abuse. These youths can earn their livelihood from street art,” he added.
Code of secrecy
Anonymity in graffiti art is a tradition. This helped artists to elude arrests or penalties for “defacing” public properties and making strong statements against establishments.
Graffiti artists worldwide follow a code of secrecy, said OWL. “They never use their real names and all have a canvas name. This is why they are called rabbits who live in their burrows. It is the same in Shillong. So, please do not mention our real names,” he said when asked about his real name.
Most of the artworks in the city have MMAC undersigned. In some cases, the canvas name of the artist is mentioned. The anonymity protocol is still followed although graffiti has changed form and character.
Painting the town red
A wall art on the way to Lumparing from Madan Laban shows a crying toddler going for a smartphone instead of a toy. Another wall painting in Bishnupur is a tribute to an old Khasi man who grows bonsai plants and plays flutes made from leaves. The boundary wall of Shillong Law College with vivid patterns and hues of colours is the artists’ ‘wall of fame’. Almost every locality in the town has murals and wall paintings by members of MMAC.
“While most of the works are done on contract to beautify Shillong city, there are some spaces which bear the colours of our passion for painting,” said OWL.
MMAC has six regular members and several young talents who are trained under its umbrella. Tridz, who is 19 years old, joined the group three months back and is still undergoing training. While most of the artists are male, OWL said MMAC had two female members.
MMAC chooses contemporary and traditional themes for their paintings. From indigenous ways of life, tribesmen, local flora and fauna, to funky visuals, the artists explore a wide range of subjects, styles and presentations. Its presence on social media has helped the artists get connected with potential clients, including government departments.
Speaking on how the voices of graffiti artists’ are getting tepid, OWL clarified that while MMAC members abstain from strong political statements, they do take up social issues and topics which need awareness.
“There was a time when graffiti would not be accepted in Shillong but things are changing. It is not just the work but the message we give out through our paintings,” said OWL.
The MMAC artists also frequently collaborate with street artists from other cities. Such collaborations help them expand the work sphere and establish a bigger platform for local artists.
MMAC’s street art is not only changing the face of the city and keeping it clean (people usually abstain from spitting or dumping garbage on or near the painted walls) but also providing talented youths with the opportunity to be a part of this street art movement in the state.
“I expect more youths to join MMAC as I can see a curiosity among them about street art. In the long run, MMAC wants to create an art house that would be a conglomeration of talents and ideas,” said OWL.
~ Team Meghalaya Monitor