One moment it was there, and the next, it wasn’t. One morning, students streamed in and out with coffee in hasty hands, walking past the painted figure of The Scream that witnessed them running to make their classes on time, and some other time, they were taking a staircase opposite a blank wall.
On the 22nd of November, debates flared as soon as white paint began covering up the graffiti-covered wall in the New Academic block. For the next few days, every conversation seemed to return to the question of graffiti. What did the act of whitewashing the painted walls signify? Was it correct? Was it an infringement on free expression, or was it simply a restoration of campus aesthetic? Is this a matter of private property or of a shared space? Who gets to decide what a University wall should look like? Opinions about the graffiti and its subsequent whitewashing were diverse, with every individual reading the situation in a different way. Here’s a look at some of perspectives from which we can look at the phenomenon.
Freedom of Expression
Universities are spaces for speaking out and speaking up. Some of us choose verbal conversation, some opt for online discourse, and, perhaps for the first time at Ashoka, some chose graffiti. It is the visual equivalent of standing on a table and shouting into a megaphone in the middle of the mess. It is visible, and cannot be looked away from—it’s right there. Graffiti allows for expression that is loud, that catches the eye of every passer-by and so it’s not hard to see its appeal for those wishing to be heard. When the painted walls were painted back to their original eggshell colour, was the act the equivalent of switching off the megaphone and yanking the tables from underneath the feet of the individuals who turned to graffiti as a form of expression?
Freedom for Whom?
Graffiti allows certain people to speak up in their own way, but does isn’t it claim space that restricts other people from having the room to speak? While graffiti can enable the broadcast of a message, the fact that it claims a large part of a common space can, in a way, shrink the freedom of expression of alternate opinions. The issue then redirects itself into the matter of who can use the wall in the loudest way rather than retaining focus on the message itself; if we’re all yelling, is anyone ever going to be heard?
At What Expense?
Then arises the question of whose responsibility the maintenance of campus infrastructure is. At the end of the day, the University works to maintain the aesthetic of the campus as they see fit. What may be graffiti to one might be vandalism to another. If those who manage the infrastructure view the graffiti as vandalism, is it not their right to remove what they consider an infringement on the infrastructural ethos of the university? When the admin works so hard to create this space for us to be ourselves in, is it right to alter it in a permanent manner based on of our own volition? The room for expression on campus is vast–you can put up posters, scrawl with multi-coloured markers across whiteboards and conduct open-houses. Is how your message is depicted as important as keeping the spaces free of obstruction for all kinds of conversation?
Perhaps most importantly, the conversations can be boiled down to this: whose campus is this? Do these walls belong to the students or to the administration? By claiming one part of the wall, you take that part away from another student. If graffiti is a medium if expression, it can also be used as a tool for shutting down other opinions- what of the painting over of messages one doesn’t agree with? Who decides what happens to the graffiti once it is made? There is also the possibility of hateful messages- the infiltration of free spaces with polarizing opinions and hateful words. Who determines what is acceptable and what is not?
These questions and many more, remain unanswered. While everyone has their opinions, no one knows what side of this issue holds the tag of being “right”. But whether or not the removal of graffiti was right or wrong, or a little bit of both, it did function as a spark for a conversation.
But of all the responses to the discussions on graffiti, the response that brought the conversation full-circle was pasted over the same wall which set off a chain reaction of painting and then of painting over. If on the day after the graffiti was removed, you’d happened to walk past that staircase in the New Academic Block, you’d have found the freshly recoated white walls lined with a series of A4 sheets, spelling out the words: THANK YOU FOR THE GOOD REVIEW.
Edited by Devashree Somani
All images are the courtesy of Viraj Malani