A Messi Affair: Diving Into The World Of Street Art
A first look at a well-contrived piece of graffiti or street art may evoke a plethora of emotions ranging from delight and excitement, to even shock or bewilderment – and for good reason. Street art and graffiti (often clubbed together, but more on that later) sends an important message, and more often than not, is even responsible for turning certain areas that may have been dilapidated into spaces with cultural heritage and aesthetic visuals. And it comes as no surprise, that when Budweiser took over 4 pieces of commissioned street art to turn them into pieces of surrogate advertising displaying the achievements of Lionel Messi, (and, of course, routing you back to Budweiser) there was a massive public outcry.
Why the outrage? The murals were created over pre-existing, pretty iconic (to say the least) murals created by artists like Okuda Miguel, Ranjit Dahiya, and Mariusz Waras in 2014, and two out of four were created in tandem with Start India, a name that’s synonymous with street art in the country. And while street art does go hand in hand with impermanence, the issue most people have with it lies in the blatant form of advertising that the murals portray – including a barcode QR scanner, working as a CTA, which takes you to www.budpsace.in (although, the page says the campaign is now over – so make of that what you will). Along with the fact that the ‘ad’ was created over murals that had iconic heritage, this was Okuda and Mariusz’ first Indian murals, and Ranjit’s Anarkali and Madhubala artworks were Bandra staples. The controversy was also fuelled by the fact that one of Budweiser’s murals was on the wall of a primary school.
Start India, and one of its founders, Hanif Kureshi, called out Budweiser for hijacking Mariusz and Okuda’s murals in Hauz Khas Village on the 4th of April, and brought the practices to light, citing that it had taken many years for organisations such as theirs to build the street art scene in India, and one couldn’t simply hijack it overnight, calling Budweiser’s murals billboards in the process.
Start India, via Instagram
And of course, there was more backlash. In true 2021 fashion, the internet got riled up – but more on that later – as Budweiser, and its representative creative agency, Animal, sought to do as much damage control as possible. Budweiser explained over its Instagram account, (which has since been deleted) that its aim was always to offer the insider perspective into the G.O.A.T’s (greatest of all time) iconic journey and inspire fans through creative murals that celebrated his journey.
Budweiser, via Instagram
When Spanish artist Okuda and Polish artist Mariusz had painted those walls in Hauz Khas Village, they were quick to become popular public walls – and the same was true for Ranjit's Anarkali and Madhubala murals, which were created in tandem with Bollywood Art Project. It's a no brainer that these had become pretty popular walls, that some would even go out of their way to visit.
To have iconic pieces of art removed to promote a form of surrogate advertising without a larger consensus isn't fair – and given the fact that Start India's costing hadn't aligned with Budweiser when it had approached the former to create the artworks for them, reeks of almost a turf war-like situation. And at the end of the day, whose work suffers? The artists'. And it's safe to say that the artists had some pretty choice thoughts on it.
Okuda San Miguel
Since, promises have been made to refurbish the murals back to their original glory, and the outcry has faded away to an insignificant murmur – but the entire situation has us wondering; at what point does street art lose its significance? When is it plain advertising, and when is it actually street art? And what is the point of street art, as compared to other, more ‘socially accepted’ forms of art?
First things first; even though it’s easy to conflate the terms and use them interchangeably, graffiti and street art are fundamentally different. While the former predates the latter, it involves the use of words and tags, and is illegal; while the latter is usually commissioned, created by artists with formal training – and at the end of the day, both have their pros and cons. But both have had a rich history that intertwines; instead of throwing it back all the way to the caveman era where walls were tagged, though, we’re going to speed things up a bit and get to the dawn of street-slash-graffiti art in the modern day.
When Cornbread tagged walls all over North Philadelphia in the ‘60s, to proclaim his love for a girl called Cynthia, (with the phrase “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” to be precise) little did he know that he would be considered the world’s first modern graffiti artist. What has ensued is a movement in its own right – his work was followed by graffiti-slash-street art by Keith Haring, whose iconic bold-lined artworks with vivid colours were charged with themes of social messaging, along with art by Jean Michel Basquiat who began by tagging walls with his pseudonym SAMO, and expanded into political-poetical graffiti.
The street art movement also garnered more traction with the rise of hip-hop, and was popularised onto other parts of the world – although back then, in the ‘80s, it was referred to as ‘urban art,’ which has now become a contentious term since it was defined by racial stereotypes more than anything. And while it was earlier associated with vandalism, street art and even graffiti for that matter, have become a longstanding tool for social change, political messaging, and socio-political reflections of general sentiments, which are often revered – just take Banksy for example; the anonymous street artist’s works have become high value pieces of art, with works selling for as much as $12 million.
But who decides what is street art, as opposed to what is vandalism? Keeping legalities of taking permissions and law enforcement rules aside, it’s not only the perceiver who determines it; quite often, it’s also factors the artist can’t control. Factors like race, class, even caste play into categorising a piece of public art as vandalism versus something with value – in the ‘90s, one of the largest debates following street art was the fact that if a black person did it, it was considered vandalism, whereas white people were, essentially, encouraged to speak their truths. In India too, caste, class, even gender plays an important role in who can create *socially acceptable* art – which is why organisations like Aravani Art Project, a collective that aims to embrace and uplift the transgender community by creating consciousness and well-being through art, awareness and social participation, are so important.
And as for where the question of advertising through murals lies? In a perfect, utopian fairytale-like world, it would be nice to imagine that it’s a genuine awareness businesses are spreading over an eye-grabbing marketing ploy, but more often than not, it’s the latter, not the former. And this isn’t to demonise everyone who uses street art for advertising – in India, there are key makers, tire shops, and everything in between using murals as a form of advertising. The crux of the problem becomes larger businesses, that have a plethora of real estate at their disposal and billboards aplenty, that choose to paint over pre-existing street art in an attempt to make headlines.
You’re probably thinking, though, impermanence, lies at the heart of street art – which is definitely valid, considering natural circumstances. The point isn’t to build something that stands the tests of time, but to create something that is a reflection of the current times. And this is evident as murals in India are defaced with paan stains, posters, chipping paint and more; but when a mural is purposefully painted over, it becomes a question of ‘why that particular mural?’ more than anything, especially when it comes to street-advertisements, which was the case with the Budweiser murals in India.
And if you think about it, advertising sort of nullifies the whole point of street art too – older murals with cultural significance being replaced with forms of surrogate advertising don’t exactly align with the point of street art, no matter how well done they may be. Rather than a sacred piece of artwork, framed and hung inside a museum upon completion, street art is ever-evolving, alive and always changing as per the whims and conditions of its surrounding inhabitants. And this doesn’t account for the advertisements on the walls.