India's 'Banksy' behind provocative graffiti

  • 12 December 2014
Mona Lisa

An artist who's been compared to Banksy is gripping audiences on the streets of an Indian city - and online.

Pictures of Guesswho's graffiti on walls and buildings in Kochi (Cochin), in Kerala state on India's southwest coast, are catching attention on the photo-sharing sites, Facebook and Reddit.

Kochi is in the midst of a huge art biennale, and Guesswho's graffiti seems to be a poke at the organised festival. The stencils are a clever mash-up of Western pop culture with Indian icons, and the artist's (or artists') style is certainly influenced by that anonymous yet famous British street artist, Banksy.

Guesswho spoke to BBC Tamil and BBC Trending: he or she wouldn't reveal their identity to us, but they did agree to answer some questions via email.

What can you tell us about yourself? Are you one artist or several? Male or female?

Somebody who likes graffiti.

Do you have a political point? What's your message?

I don't believe it is art's purpose to send any message. It was mainly an alternative way to use a visual language that people are unfamiliar with here. But at the same time they can connect and communicate with the image and subject while being subtly political. It is also about using public spaces and subversive tactics as potent means of speaking about social realities.

The superheroes and Shikari Shambu with Appi Hippi (a character from a cartoon strip) pieces were done in response to the Kiss of Love campaign that has been going on here. [BBC Trending previously covered the debate over 'immoral acts' in public] People who were coming on to the streets to kiss and protest are being arrested. But what if fictional characters do the same? Do they arrest them too?

What are you hoping to achieve?

Unfortunately we don't have a culture of graffiti here [in India] and there aren't many artists who choose to depart from the hierarchies and definitions imposed by the traditional art institutions. It's an effort as a visual artist to start looking for new and meaningful ways to engage a wider audience and inspire more people to take up this as a powerful medium of free expression.

What reaction have you got?

Absolutely amazing so far. Totally unexpected to be honest. Never thought people who don't otherwise care about art and stuff would start talking about it. It certainly seems to have created an interest and opened up doors.

What kind of risks are you taking - what would happen if you get caught?

As long as the images and subjects aren't very provocative and explicit in nature, which is the case now, it should be ok. But the day it becomes otherwise, it could be a problem and one could land in serious trouble.

Graffiti's against the law. What do you say to people who argue it's just vandalism?

Why just point your fingers at graffiti? We live in a visually polluted place. The streets and walls are flooded with movie posters, advertisements, election campaign signs and notices. Are those against the law? Can those also be called vandalism?

Image caption Guesswho says: 'On the day India successfully sent a spacecraft into orbit around Mars, a tweet with a picture of female scientists celebrating was an inspiration.'

Do you really think you can keep your identity secret? The Times of India reported that they guessed who you were and rang you.

It is not a question about if one wants to keep the identity a secret, but whether others would understand the reasons behind that and respect it.

What are your future plans - do you plan to post artwork beyond Kochi? Tackle different subjects? Hang your work in art galleries?

I would certainly love to expand, explore new cultures and do works that are relevant to the cultural characteristics and landscapes of each place. Yes, there are a few things in the pipeline. An alternate medium like graffiti finding a place in a mainstream gallery space would be a very interesting thing to see, but that isn't something new in the West though.

You made a route map of your graffiti in Kochi. Have any of the works been whitewashed yet?

Yes, some of them have been. But isn't it the characteristics of this medium and taken as part of the process?

Finally, do you mind being compared to Banksy?

That would be too much of a compliment ... He has been in the business for decades and has very high standards that not many can catch up to. But of course, as a new kid in the block, would certainly love to know about his thoughts on these works and hope to meet him one day.

Image caption Guesswho says: 'Re-imagining popular and iconic images is not really a new tradition in street art. But to use it with reference to the cultural characteristics of the location was the key. The public need to see more unconventional portrayals of women. '
Image caption A modern retake of a famous painting by Ravi Varma. Guesswho says the picture was quickly removed by the authorities, citing obscenity as the main reason.

Interview by Samiha Nettikkara and Samanthi Dissanayake

Edited by Mike Wendling

You can follow BBC Trending on Twitter @BBCtrending

All our stories are at bbc.com/trending