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6 street artists reclaiming Karachi with dazzling graffiti

6 street artists reclaiming Karachi with dazzling graffiti

Editorial Desk
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Author: Maham Asif

Karachi, the metropolitan capital of Pakistan, boasts countless streets marked with graffiti. The art of graffiti started as public dialogue and came to represent the mindset of the people; it is an interaction of the artist with the city. 

Marvi Mazhar, a Karachi based architect and heritage consultant, offers insight into street art: “We have seen graffiti in a very superficial way; we have not understood the real depth of graffiti art. The kind of graffiti art we are used to seeing is in the form of script on walls such as ‘yahan peshab karna mana hai’ and ‘mota se kumzoor hona ka tareeqa’. This kind of graffiti is part of how the city is thinking. Graffiti is more than beautification; it’s a parallel world to your mainstream art.”

“In Karachi street art is considered intrusive, but it’s not. In actuality it’s a matter of freedom of speech. People write what they are thinking. Graffiti is more than murals that adorn the streets; several platforms are using beautication to sanitize and clean the streets. As an architect I’m looking at the city from a social perspective: how much dialogue is there between the city and the people. Graffiti is not always vandalism, it is also reflection of mindsets and a representation of ongoing intellectual conversations.” 

To investigate graffiti and street art in Karachi, Team ProperGaanda reached out to six artists who are making their mark in public spaces. 

 

Abdullah Ahmed Khan aka Sanki King 

Abdullah Ahmed Khan, popularly known as Sanki King, is an interdisciplinary artist; first and foremost a graffiti artist, he is also interested and proficient in hip-hop, rap, beat-boxing, parkour, b-boying, DJing and much more. 

How and when did you become involved in graffiti?

I was 10 when I got introduced to break dancing and rap music; in their videos I would frequently see graffiti. I got fascinated by big beautiful graffiti walls, especially once I found out that it was all created by just using the spray can – a medium which was alien to me as a kid. So, along with the practice of dance and rap, I started drawing graffiti letters and characters. I was already fascinated by my father’s Arabic handwriting as he was obsessed with writing the Quran; the love for letters and writing was already there, thanks to my father.

What inspired you to opt for graffiti as a medium of expression?

At the beginning it was just something very cool and fun for me. I was one of the best art students in my school so I was used to being frequently praised by people around me which further encouraged me to try new things. So when I started doing graffiti it was just another interesting new thing for me to explore and see how far I could take it. Surfing on the internet and looking at graffiti from all over the world, and then practicing it in my own little sketchbooks, also opened another dimension for me. On the one hand, looking at giant graffiti murals led to some feelings of insecurity as an artist but making progress in graffiti in my own unique ways made the dream of producing giant murals someday in the distant future seem possible. The feeling of limitless freedom of expression made me fall in love with the world of graffiti and I pursued it with all my heart. 

Does your graffiti usually have a subtle message or a background story?

My message is my journey and my own unique style. I have never ever wanted to label myself or have myself labelled as an artist with *this or that* message. My work is what I call a conversation with myself in front of everyone. My work does have background stories: usually extreme mood swings or maybe a poem, a quote or an excerpt from a book that inspired me. Sometimes my own diary entries also inspire me to create particular works. Art is very personal to me; it comes from a very private, painful & emotional place inside of me. 

What is your favourite graffiti project that you have done?

Mind Palace for Karachi Biennale 2017. My new favorite is a project that is yet to be revealed; it will be by the end of the year.

What’s the story behind your street name?

As a kid I got introduced to the online game Counter Strike and my game name was Sanki which I then started using in my art as well. Sanki is commonly translated as a crazy person but the real meaning of the word is deep thinker; both are relatable. I am a crazy deep thinker and/or a deep-thinking crazy.

How much has your graffiti changed since you started? And how much has graffiti collectively changed in Pakistan since you started?

My art is a reflection of what goes inside my heart and mind, so as I have changed drastically over the years, so has my art. Something that first started as a fun and “cool” activity, over the years became my bread and butter, and now my lifeline: I live and breathe my work. My experimental nature has taken my work to so many different directions and that is something that will continue to happen.

My work has had a major impact throughout the country especially after the boom of Facebook in 2010; because of this platform, my work reached far and wide to all corners of the globe, not just Pakistan. As something that people only expected to see abroad or in foreign videos, it experienced a major boom throughout the country when people saw it being done by one of their own – though rather slowly, but I’m happy (and surprised) that it happened so quickly. There still isn’t a “hardcore graffiti” scene; it is mostly murals painted for beautification and decoration etc but I am positive that in the next 5-10 years we will see an increase in serious graffiti writers. I too am expanding my practice very rapidly and you will see many new street pieces from me in the coming months. 

How has the public responded to your graffiti? Has your graffiti ever been painted over? Has the police or any other figure of authority taken action against you?

As far as I can recall I have never had a negative comment about my work from anyone and I have always received love from people wherever I have painted. We live in a society where creative self-expression is looked down upon because it seems to be the “time killing activity of the rich” or a “hobby without any real scope/money” but the fact remains we have countless people around us with beautiful artistic ideas buried inside of them. So, when they see me painting on a big scale by creating tangible works of art on the street, they feel connected to my work and to me – naturally and instantly. I have dozens of beautiful stories about this. Plus people very frequently send me pictures of my work and my stickers that they acquired, which I think is beautiful. As a teenager I could have never even dreamt that my work would have such an impact on people over the years; I was just a kid trying to express himself as honestly as possible, and I have always loved painting more than anything because it feels like my art best expresses thoughts and emotions which language cannot. 

A lot of my works have been painted over and vandalised but that is part of the “game” I’m playing. When I create a public work, my only interest is to document it as well as possible during and after the completion, because I know sooner or later it will be gone.

I have been caught by Rangers twice and once by the police but nothing happened; when I told them I’m an artist making a painting, they just nodded and left. People commonly have a lot of respect for artists. I have painted all over Karachi and this is true everywhere. 

 

Neil Uchong aka Mr. Shade

Neil Uchong is a multiethnic graffiti artist who has done numerous commercial and street art projects as well as represented Pakistan in international graffiti competitions.  

How and when did you become involved in graffiti?

Graffiti is a form of raw expressionism. Coming from a Chinese-Anglo family, it was hard to get a grasp of the local language, relate to the local culture, and express myself in the local language. It was over 20 years ago that I took to graffiti to express the feelings bottled up inside and portrayed them as a positive release of those feelings. It was a liberating experience and I have continued to grow and evolve as a graffiti artist to this date. So much so that I have broken the norms of Pakistani society by being a full time graffiti artist, who funds his entire life and household entirely off the art form. 

Does your graffiti usually have a subtle message or a background story?

Every graffiti piece or production has some significant value and message in it. All pieces have been created for a positive impact: be it a piece depicting love or unity or freedom for those who have suffered over the years. Other than that, I have also done a lot of graffiti to enhance and add value to various facades all over the country, by giving drab monochromatic walls a burst of lively colors. 

What is your favourite graffiti project that you have done?

Every graffiti piece has some significant personal value to me. But in relevance to this interview I shall mention two projects. One being the International Meeting of Styles (the biggest graffiti event in the world) and the other a local project I did with Pasbaan where I traveled to a remote village in the middle of arid Balochistan to transform all the facades using intense graffiti to bring awareness to the forgotten and underprivileged people of our nation. This resulted in the collection of heavy funding which is now being used to cover all necessities for the village people who once did not have any access to water, gas, electricity, medicines and other basic amenities. 

What is the story behind your street name if any?

As kids my brother and I would go by the names Shade and Shadow. After all the hard work, dedication, and contributions to the graffiti world, I received international recognition along with highly respectable titles of King and One. King being the top graffiti writer of the region and One being the original. Instead of rocking these titles, I prefer to stay humble and let my work speak for itself. Hence Mr. Shade.

How much has your graffiti changed since you started? And how much has graffiti collectively changed in Pakistan since you started?

In the 20 plus years of being a graffiti artist, my art-form has been on a non stop path to constant evolution. Regardless of hitting my personal goals, I always believe that there is room to grow and improve. By respecting the art, the art has respected and blessed me back and I hope my journey inspires other creatives to follow their hearts to find success in what they love doing. 

When it comes to graffiti in Pakistan I believe that there is a lot more awareness now as compared to before. People can clearly distinguish the difference between contemporary wall chalking and graffiti art, to the point that it has opened many commissioned opportunities for graffiti writers and street artists. 

How has the public responded to your graffiti? Has your graffiti ever been painted over? Has the police or any other figure of authority taken action against you?

Because I try to add value to the facades of the country, the public has always responded in a positive manner. They embrace the positive colors and enjoy the impact every graffiti production makes in their vicinity.

 

Faizan Ahmed Sheikh aka Rebel 

Faizan Ahmed Sheikh is one of the first ever graffiti artists to emerge in Karachi. He has painted over a 100 walls during his long winded career. 

How and when did you become involved in graffiti?

Inspired by the radical styles, vibrant color palette, and bold notorious exhibits of graffiti art, I have been glamorizing the urban landscape of Pakistan since 2006. Initially starting off with my own neighborhood, I have painted in places ranging from Shogran valley to the sandy beaches of Balochistan and everywhere in between. 

The unanimous presence of graffiti in pop culture and media such as video games, music videos, films, and comics contrasted by its absence in local culture is what inspired me to pick up a can. It was the complicated structure of letters yet the aesthetic composition of words and images amalgamating the phenomenon of “Desirable Difficulty” that enticed me. Once you start forming letters which can depict emotions through subtle variations in strokes, it becomes an addiction.

Initially, I used to write names of my friends or random words as a backbencher trying to balance the intricacies. After a couple of years of such practice and choosing a street name, I set out into my neighborhood to bomb it with colors, never knowing that one day I would be representing Pakistan on the Graffiti map of the world.

What inspired you to opt for graffiti as a medium of expression?

Canvases are small as compared to walls. Graffiti is a method to communicate your message to the masses. Art is an expression, and every form of expression requires an audience. The size of the audience has become a metric for success today, but this criterion has been followed for decades by graffiti artists around the world. Graffiti is freedom. Graffiti sets no rules and has no boundaries. It reveals the blatant truths of society. It gains attention in such a pleasing way that the message goes straight to viewers’ hearts. Graffiti is the visual representation of the phenomenon called “Organized Chaos”. 

Does your graffiti usually have a subtle message or a background story?

I usually hide multiple layers of messages in my graffiti. From the color scheme to the motifs used, everything stands for something: philosophies, theories, ideas and laws. Sometimes I hide a few names in the details; in others I employ visual cues to be picked up by vigilant eyes. I never do an art piece without a backstory. Graffiti is expression and expression is a derivative of experience, emotions, and ideas. When I am sketching any artwork, I hide such cues in plain sight. What always intrigues me is the viewers’ perspective. A lot of people connect the dots and create a story, each slightly different from the other.

What is your favourite graffiti project that you have done?

Interestingly, each project I have done has had a very different story and very different characters. There are countless memories ranging from literally doing graffiti inside a police station, to spending 12 nights away from home and trying to balance my job and passion side by side. Graffiti has been a journey through which I have met numerous people I can call friends and numerous places I can call home.

Choosing one would be like trying to locate a needle in a haystack, but if I really have to choose, I would pick the time I painted a 2500 square feet area glow-in-the-dark which I love the most to date. The place was called “Ground Zero” and I was entrusted to do all of its interior design. Every inch was coated with black paint, and 3D Glow in the dark graffiti was used to make the place look like the surface of an alien planet. There were floating cities, flying UFOs, plants of alien species, terrain of Mars, waterfalls blending into seas, buildings with the craziest architecture, cosmic radiations, comets, stars, planets, galaxies, and black holes. It is a project I am very proud of.

What is the story behind your street name if any?

I chose the street name “Rebel” for the very reason I started doing graffiti in the first place, an expression of the untold truth of society. More than just my street name, I consider “Rebel” as my alter ego. From the political scenario to the fabric of social engagements, our society is rigged with injustice at every level. And at every point in time while facing such adversities, we can choose to either stay silent and pray for a messiah to come one day or loudly point it out so that something can be done to change it now. This is the crux of why graffiti is practiced all over the world and thus the idea behind my name.

How much has your graffiti changed since you started? And how much has graffiti collectively changed in Pakistan since you started?

During the course of 15 years, graffiti in Pakistan has evolved magnanimously. Once a rare form of art practiced by a few artists, now it has become a popular hobby being practiced by many newcomers. Back then, the idea of graffiti itself was so alienated that people didn’t even know how to pronounce the word. Through consistent effort and public displays, graffiti is now well recognized and used for decorative purposes. It hasn’t yet reached its peak potential, however. During this period of a decade and a half, I personally have improved a lot in terms of style and detailing that caters to individual needs. Through awareness, it is now comparatively easier to communicate the concepts behind the artwork. Now there is a greater audience and demand for artists is higher than ever before.

How has the public responded to your graffiti? Has your graffiti ever been painted over? Has the police or any other figure taken action against you?

There has always been an overwhelming response from the public and from peers which has a snowballing effect. My work has been appreciated locally and internationally by various reputable organizations and individuals. I have the honor of being featured live in news channels as well as in videos that have been uploaded on local and international streaming platforms. There are numerous newspaper articles, blogs, and vlogs based on my artwork. It’s humbling how people appreciate my artwork and want to see more and more from me.

Has my graffiti been painted over? Yes! On multiple occasions, at multiple places. But it only adds to the notoriety and motivation to keep painting. It actually makes me glad that there are more artists coming up that know how to gain my attention and officially announce rivalry. Such competition is healthy in the long run and challenges all of us to improve our skills.

And yes I have been caught by police a couple of times while painting a piece. I am usually quite vigilant to paint only on legal spots, but what policeman here knows of that. Mostly, I paint commissioned artwork but for other pieces I take permissions beforehand in case of any such occurrences. Once when I was caught, I had to explain to the policemen what I was doing and why I was doing it. They were sensible enough to understand the nature of the artwork and let me continue only if I painted a wall inside their police station. I gladly took the opportunity and later continued to finish one of my most beloved pieces.

 

Annie Ajaz aka. Mirch 

Annie Ajaz is one of the most prominent female graffiti artists of Pakistan. She has mastered different forms of art over the years including graffiti, pencil sketching, and tattoo art. 

How and when did you become involved in graffiti?

I started in 2015. My first graffiti wall was at the annual carnival in Karachi University. I quickly gained fame for being the first female graffiti artist of Pakistan, but this is actually not true; many girls came before me, however, usually girls do graffiti for only a short duration and fail to remain in the limelight. 

What inspired you to opt for graffiti as a medium of expression?

I have had artistic pursuits since I was a child. I used to make pencil sketches and tattoo art with permanent markers. I had an art page and eventually a Karachi based graffiti artist Rebel contacted me and invited me to start pursuing graffiti. 

Does your graffiti usually have a subtle message or a background story?

Right now my graffiti doesn’t contain a message but I do like to associate my graffiti to current events. I did graffiti for the world cup in Karachi at Biryani of the Seas restaurant. I don’t usually convey particular messages with my graffiti; the background to my pieces is simply that graffiti is a form of self expression.

What is your favourite graffiti project that you have done?

My favourite graffiti project was in Defence for Rabia Anum Salon, last year. It was 25 feet long and 15 feet wide. I did it alone and my parents supported me. It was really adventurous; this was one of my largest projects. It was a great experience. I have a list of favourites; this one is followed by the graffiti project at Biryani of the Seas, which is followed by CBM Street Clean up project. I love doing my work. 

What’s the story behind your street name (if any)?

My street name is Mirch. This is relevant because spice is a big part of our culture and everyone loves spicy food. Traditionally we have some very nice, unique spices. Mirch is a very common yet catchy name. I love to be called Mirch or Mirchi. When I was really involved in graffiti I used to say that mein logon kou mirchi laga kai bhaag jaati hou.

How much has your graffiti changed since you started? And how much has graffiti collectively changed in Pakistan since you started?

I don’t do graffiti often now, once every 3-4 months after I got married. Collectively, graffiti has changed a lot since I started but I barely see any new faces; there isn’t a major comeback and most people leave. The most inspiring, consistent, and hard working artist is Neil Uchong. 

How has the public responded to your graffiti? Has your graffiti ever been painted over? Has the police or any other figure of authority taken action against you?

Public response is very good but the public does not support us financially. They will allow it everywhere but will not be willing to offer commissions. Some of my graffiti has been painted over in universities but my commissioned works are still there. 

 

Affan Tariq 

Affan Tariq is a graffiti artist new to the scene whose work mostly revolves around current situations and targets present issues. 

How and when did you become involved in graffiti?

Ever since I was a kid, I was a huge fan of hip hop and rap culture: from Eminem and Snoop Dog to early Young Stunners. Watching all the music videos, I noticed graffiti and tags in the background which inspired me to get involved in the graffiti culture. I started way back in 2013, when I was just 12 years old. I used to write my classmates’ names in my style and sell it for some quick bucks. Back then this was just something I would do to be creative; now it’s a passion for me. 

What inspired you to opt for graffiti as a medium of expression?

As an artist I always try to experiment with and incorporate new mediums into my art style. Working with a spray can on a public wall for the world to see makes me feel empowered and happy like nothing else. When I’m not doing graffiti I paint canvases, sketch portraits, do digital illustrations, but nothing compares to getting my hands dirty under the scorching sun with a spray can in my hand.

Does your graffiti usually have a subtle message or a background story?

This depends on whether it is a personal project or work for a client. In my project “Streets of Karachi” most of my work has a message behind it. It is to raise awareness through my creative expression, which is easy for people to understand. I try to paint most of my work in public places so more eyes get to see it and hopefully understand the message behind it. I have done pieces about cleanliness, coronavirus, cities of Pakistan etc and intend to do more. 

What is your favourite graffiti project that you have done?

My personal favorite would of course be The Coronavirus piece that I painted just a day before the lockdown. I found a great spot at the famous Gola Ganda street in Dhoraji ironically opposite to Agha Khan Hospital. With this piece I really tried to up my game and incorporate characters and objects instead of just letters. The post blew up on Instagram and is still one of my most liked posts.

How much has your graffiti changed since you started? And how much has graffiti collectively changed in Pakistan since you started?

When I complete a graffiti piece I analyze what I could have done better and the mistakes I made. Comparing my work now to when I first started, the improvement is huge. The reason for that is practice, consistency, and taking inspiration from international artists. The graffiti culture in Pakistan is almost nonexistent, but it’s improving day by day. What makes me the happiest is kids sending me pictures of their graffiti sketches telling me I was the one who inspired them; it really portrays how talented the people of Pakistan are. I recently arranged the first ever graffiti exchange in Pakistan with an amazing graffiti artist Neil Uchong and documented the whole day on my Youtube channel.

How has the public responded to your graffiti? Has your graffiti ever been painted over? Has the police or any other figure of authority taken action against you?

The public loves it. They’re intrigued, it’s fascinating to them. They come up and ask questions, stare from a distance, roll down their window to get a better look. All because it’s something they’ve never seen before in Pakistan. As far as social media goes the response has been amazing: so many loving and supportive people that I cannot be thankful enough to. About getting painted over, that has never happened because of the small amount of graffiti artists and abundance of spots available. 

Whenever I’m painting in public there’s always either a police mobile, rangers or security guards watching, but they’re mostly nice and don’t bother me much. On one occasion I was on a street painting and was threatened by a group of security guards to stop and leave. A crowd gathered, everyone against me, so I couldn’t do much other than say goodbye to that unfinished piece.

 

Obaid ur Rahman

Obaid ur Rahman is a self-taught 3D/anamorphic chalk artist and muralist who has participated in international graffiti contests and is one of the few artists in the world who have painted animated murals.

How and when did you become involved in Street Art? What inspired you to opt for graffiti as a medium of expression?

It started as an accident during my time off from university. I started drawing large

compositions on my walls and when there was no space left there I went out looking for other places to continue; in that search I stumbled upon 3D / Anamorphic Art. In the beginning I studied anamorphism by reading books and articles online on the topic and later I had help from a renowned 3D Street artist, Tracy Lee Stum. Tracy since then has served as a mentor and helped me nearly through all the stages of my journey into 3D / anamorphic art so far: for which I am ever grateful. It started as a hobby and soon it became a passion as I kept on improving by following my curiosity. I began to challenge myself to try and experiment with different kinds of compositions ranging from simple cartoon characters to pool drawings to complex compositions, and by the grace of Allah I have been successful to some extent.

Does your art usually have a subtle message or a background story?

I mostly try to create art compositions that would make the viewer smile and forget about their worries for the moment being; for this purpose I generally use a lot of colours, toys, and similar elements to create “Happy Art”. Generally I do not focus on giving any message through my art but there is definitely always a story behind every artwork that makes it unique.

What is your favourite street art project that you have done?

To be honest I do not have a particular favourite, but there are a few which are very close to my heart: one of them is my first 3D / Anamorphic artwork that I did in public back in 2014 at a mall in Karachi. Another would be the artwork that I created for StreetArt Festival in Wilhelmshaven, Germany in 2016; the reason I am proud of it is because of that piece I became the first Pakistani street artist to take their work to an international audience.

How much has your art changed since you started? And how much has graffiti collectively changed in Pakistan since you started?

My art is more refined and conceptual now, and it keeps on evolving as most of my work is very experimental because I am constantly in pursuit of a style that I can call my own. Street Art in Pakistan in general has also improved a lot as we have more exposure now because of social media. New artists are also trying different styles and techniques.

How has the public responded to your graffiti? Has your graffiti ever been painted over? Has the police or any other figure of authority taken action against you?

The public has always shown great support and respect whenever I have painted in public, be it the local audience or international audience. Since most of my work is temporary in nature, I don’t mind it being painted over as once you put your work out in public it is theirs and they can treat it in whichever way they want. Fortunately I have never been involved in any illegal street art activity, so no police actions against me.


Maham Asif is an intern at ProperGaanda, and is interested in journalism, writing, and digital media.