Taking Art to the Street: Interview with the “Indian Banksy”
May 8, 2019
Tyler is a street artist based in Mumbai. As a young resident of an overpopulated city, his art hopes for change. Combining humour with satire, and a distinctive stencilling technique, his work mostly critiques the media dynamics. Starting out in 2012, Tyler has executed more than 200 pieces of art in various cities across India, including Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Goa as well as the streets of Amsterdam. Though his work has made quite an impression on the streets, Tyler’s approach is one of intrigue–he prefers to remain anonymous. Recently he posted a series of “Your Vote” campaigns on his Instagram handle.
Kanika Katyal of the Indian Writers Forum spoke to Tyler about the campaign, his Banksy inspiration, and the dangers of making art on the street.
Kanika Katyal: When did you start making art on the street? What prompted you?
Tyler: It happened by accident. In late December of 2011, one afternoon I was browsing art pages on the internet and came across some random street images that got me intrigued. I didn't know what street art was. I had not seen an equivalent in our culture. I found it interesting— the way in which art was conversing with the street and a very large group of people the locals. So, I decided to try it.
KK: Your work has reflections of Banksy. Is he your inspiration?
T: The same day that I was telling you about, I found a quote on the internet, which I later learnt was a Banksy quote which said, “Sorry the lifestyle you have ordered is currently out of stock.”
I actually didn't know who Banksy was back then. I took that line, created a quick flimsy paper stencil and found a crossing in the vicinity. There was a huge “no entry” board and I thought, why not put the quote there? I went there at night and since it was a big metal board that was super heavy, I had to call a friend for help. I couldn’t paint it right there because all eyes were on me, so I took it to a corner and spray-painted on it. I put a name on it.
I couldn't believe the power of what I did in one night and now it was right there for everyone to see. It was unusual for me to do something like that. It was new for the people around to see something of art-sy apart from hoarding or Billboards.”
It’s only when I started doing more than I realised my first work was a rip-off. Back then, I thought it was cool to take something from the internet and do it.
KK: Why Tyler and the Fight Club reference?
T: Fight Club is this cult movie which a lot of people like, but I find it quite a silly movie. Brad Pitt is this mischievous character, a sort of anti-hero, anti-authority figure. He destroys banks and corporations and art sculptures, as a way to equalise economics. I just related to the character’s craziness. I had also watched the Banksy documentary. It's basically a Bible for aspiring street artists. It shows you that you can become an artist overnight; the only thing that you need is courage because when you talk about doing anything illegal, there will be implications. So, it was this morphing of the characters of Banksy and Tyler.
There’s another reason, I wanted to think of a name that doesn’t relate to only a specific group of people. At the same time, I did not want to make it sound like an average Indian name because I knew that in the future when I start putting up more sarcastic kind of art, I might get into trouble for putting names. I didn’t want to represent a particular religion with the name because people develop this image for you like hey, his name is Varun, he must be Hindu and look this way.
KK: And what about anonymity?
T: I did not want to put my real name for obvious reasons. I knew what I was doing was certainly illegal and I was scared. When I had already painted two or three pieces, I began reading up laws against defacing and vandalism and became more careful.
This is my way of doing anything in life. It's like first I dive into the water and then I figure out how to swim.
KK: What is your process like? Do you contemplate for a long time before drawing?
T: As I said, I don’t have an art education, so I started with quotes and stencils. You might think that a stencil is for people who are not good at drawing and want to get something done quickly. But that’s not how it works. 90% of your back-end work takes place in the studio. It’s a long process. It usually takes around four hours to cut a stencil, but really it varies from piece to piece and there have been times when I have cut stencils for two days straight. Spraying on the wall barely takes 10 minutes, it is the printing and cutting that takes the maximum amount of time.
KK: I see that your work draws from both local and global phenomenon, yet you choose to not please yourself in a specific artistic tradition and see yourself more as an individual responding to events around you. Is that right?
T: I set myself some ground rules when I started. I accepted that I was not an artist. I did not come from an art background, this meant that everything I do, may or may not qualify as art. Even while growing up, I had not seen anybody paint the streets this way. All we see on the streets are religious icons. Even if there are drawings on the wall, they are whitewashed. I only started reflecting on these things after I began making art. I do not chase perfection. Art is constantly evolving with the things around us so I respond to changing trends. I listen to international news, and what's happening in the US with Trump, or issues like justice as a global phenomenon.
My philosophy is very simple. I tell myself, here is a wall and I have something going on in my head about a particular situation. How can I make use of this wall and express myself? I look for inspiration in everything around me, right from current affairs to situations of the society to Poverty to Injustice and everything else. I believe there are these hidden art messages in everything around us and all we need to do is just look through them and you get an idea.
And since I didn’t have people to teach me or train me, I learn from my own experiments. So I do what satisfies me. The only people who still believe that skills are needed to be an artist are college professors who teach art and people stupid enough to believe they need college to be an artist. You’ll need to suffer to make any real art. All we need is a good internet connection.
KK: One of your works said, “Anti Everything”, would you like to elaborate on the “everything” part? Is it establishment in general, or is it a particular kind of establishment?
T: For me, art should be a reflection of society. My approach is that of a realist. I can’t be painting a pretty butterfly on the wall because a pretty butterfly doesn’t even belong in the city, as a matter of fact. So the right thing to do is to show a mirror to people. Showing a mirror to someone can have two reactions, either they will love it or hate it. I'll recall a Banksy quote, “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”.
KK: How do you navigate everyday authorities like the police?
T: I don’t think anybody likes to put themselves in danger of making art. But street art is far more challenging as compared to other forms of art. A street artist is not only thinking about how colourful or perfect his work should be but also about the number of minutes left before the next patrolling cop car shows up. It might sound silly of me to say that I put my blood and sweat into it, but I do. Even when I go out in the night, I have to be careful about not being seen or heard or caught. Now there are cameras everywhere or somebody could take a photograph. There are other kinds of dangers as well. Sometimes I have to jump fences, Hide under a car or even disguise as a construction worker. I run five kilometres thrice a week to build up the stamina to outrun the cops someday when the time comes
KK: So why do it?
T: I cannot begin to tell you the amount of nervousness that I go through before painting every piece. But that is what I live for. That is also what I want to die for. It's this adrenaline that I love and I want to live on the edge. One always comes across these quotes about “Live each day as if it's your last one”. None of that made sense to me until I actually started painting. Sure, there are all kinds of dangers, yet I do it for the thrill.
KK: I want to specifically talk about your recent work on elections, the ones featuring Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the “Your Vote” posts. Is that a series? Would you like to elaborate on that?
T: My last four pieces were political art, more or less a political cartoon. I have never played with the subject of Indian politics before this, but I wanted to try new things. I also felt that there was a lot inside me to say.
But dabbing with politics comes with its own sets of dangers. You can imagine the risks involved in painting a political cartoon on the street. I know that political cartoons appear in newspapers but I don’t have a newspaper to protect me if I get caught. Even while I’m doing it, I could get robbed or attacked by supporters of the political parties who may get offended by my work. There is also a punishment for portraying the Indian map, a national symbol, in a negative way. (Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971).
KK: Would you like to take me through each one?
T: I just wanted to let people know where exactly their vote was headed. So I printed three thousand notes of the “Your Vote” pamphlets) and threw them around six to eight places of garbage across town. People want to have a good leader, but it's actually not in their hands. You cannot select your own leader, they are pre-selected for us and we are we supposed to vote the lesser devil into power.
T: If you notice, the figure is without eyes. I wanted to portray a quintessential (corrupt) Indian politician. One could argue it has features of Narendra Modi, Lalu Yadav, Amit Shah or the signature AAP cap, you can give it the combination you want.
KK: But what if the colour was saffron?
T: I wanted to change the colour to orange. But I was cautious. I also have to look at the risk involved with it. Should I be hitting people under the belt? Should I be very direct with them? These were the questions running through my mind.
KK: What about these?
T: It's very self-explanatory, they are both tearing India apart. Each one is simply there to gain more power, a bigger share. They have no other agenda.
Image Courtesy tylerstreetart.Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.