Budweiser vs St+art India row urges reconsideration of vital aspects of street art, including its ownership and erasure

Last month, as part of their #PathToGreatness campaign targeted at Lionel Messi fans, Budweiser covered two murals in Hauz Khas Village, Delhi, with prints of artworks. In Bandra, Mumbai, the brand painted over iconic murals of Sridevi and Mughal-e-Azam by Bollywood Art Project’s Ranjit Dahiya.

Tanishka DLyma April 13, 2021 17:12:03 IST
Budweiser vs St+art India row urges reconsideration of vital aspects of street art, including its ownership and erasure

A mural at Kannagi Nagar, part of St+art Chennai 2020. Image via Facebook/ @startindiafoundation

Who does street art belong to? What does it mean to engage with or create street art — what even, for that matter, is ‘street art’?

These questions are at the heart of a recent row involving Budweiser, the St+art India Foundation (an NGO known for its public art projects), and the community of creators and consumers of street art.

Last month, as part of their #PathToGreatness campaign targeted at Lionel Messi fans, Budweiser covered two murals in Hauz Khas Village, Delhi, with new artworks. The original murals had been painted by international street artists Okuda and M-City for the 2014 St+art Delhi Festival, and parts of them were still visible at the bottom of the newly overlaid designs. In Bandra, Mumbai, the brand painted over iconic murals of Sridevi and Mughal-e-Azam by Bollywood Art Project’s Ranjit Dahiya.

Several social media influencers worked with Budweiser to promote the campaign, including (on 25 and 26 March) two news platforms. Comments on these posts echoed the tributes to Messi; others urged Budweiser to put up artworks in their localities too.

Two weeks later, St+art India Foundation called out the Messi murals as “advertisements in the name of street art”, leading to a slew of “I stand with St+art” declarations on social media as well as comments shaming Budweiser for erasing iconic street art as part of their marketing move.

As positions have been taken on both sides of the row, what’s undeniable is that the art impacted people enough that they had strong opinions on the matter. Which is where the question of who street art belongs to comes in.

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Before commenting on the debate, one must clarify what street art is: Street art is not graffiti. In simple terms, the latter is word-based, while street art includes the use of images. The lines blur when the terms are used interchangeably and when artists level from tags to images to larger murals.

Street art reflects the culture and lives of people or a location. Moreover, it is woven into the very fabric of the space it reflects. People consciously or unconsciously engage with it, even merely as a landmark. Though ephemeral, when it comes to large-scale murals, the sheer size alone makes for a hard-to-forget sight.

Since its inception, street art has had undertones of rebellion. Today, graffiti, street art and murals express counter-culture, dissent, critique, and a refusal to be complacent or complicit.

At the same time, it would be naïve to believe that street art isn’t commercialised, which is why the concept of “ownership” too becomes complicated. Anpu Varkey, the artist behind Mahim East’s mural titled 'Dizzy', observes that street art, more often than not, cannot be undertaken without funds. “It’s the big institutions that are supporting the majority of the street art work in India,” Varkey says. “Without support from established corporations and branding, large walls can’t be painted.”

This makes those who fund a project — be it a brand, the municipality, private institutions, the media or even a boom lift company — its stakeholders. “In a sense, all big street art is blatant advertisement,” Varkey concludes.

On the other hand, radio host Rohini Ramnathan, who initiated the #ThankYouSridevi project in Bandra, emphasises what street art means to the people who interact with it. #ThankYouSridevi wasn’t funded by a band or company and “before drawing the Sridevi mural, Ranjit [Dahiya] had to get permission from the owner of that particular wall as it was on the side of his house…A mural requires cooperation from the owners of the wall/building.”

Further, “it is not about the 'paperwork' as much as it is about understanding what an artwork means to the community who interface with it,” Ramnathan says.

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Apart from questions of ownership, a discordant note in the Budweiser vs St+art row arose from what many in the community felt was a disrespectful erasure of the original artists’ work, particularly since their consent had not been sought for the same.

A Budweiser representative declined from sharing a statement with Firstpost on the issue. However, a source close to the matter asserted that the intention with the Messi murals was never to hurt sentiments. “Otherwise [If that were the case], why would [the brand] do what was done?”

Online platforms discussing the art form — whether graffiti, street art, or larger murals — unanimously agree that the unwritten code is respect. But this comes with its own interpretations. While some opine that seeking legal permission and/or consent makes painting over another work fine, others say it’s an intentional sign of one artist directly indicating that they disrespect the other, especially if they don’t whitewash and cover only part of the preexisting art. In the case of a lack of walls, painting over is fair game as long as you know you’ve got the skill to match or one-up the previous. Still others say, pick another wall.

Budweiser vs Start India row urges reconsideration of vital aspects of street art including its ownership and erasure

Statements from Budweiser and St+art India, via Instagram

Anpu Varkey notes that in graffiti culture, “people do paint over another person’s work. It has been done before many times, but that culture isn’t here in India yet. That’s when there is a scarcity of wall spaces.” She feels that in the case of the Budweiser murals, “the person who did this didn’t think it through.”

For Mumbai-based artist Tyler, however, street art is meant to be impermanent. “You're supposed to paint a wall and forget about it,” he told this correspondent.

Undeniably, street art is impermanent. It does not have guardians or caretakers like art in museums or galleries, and is susceptible to natural wear and tear. It isn’t immune to repainting either.

And in the Budweiser vs St+art row, perhaps the lines between art and advertisement aren’t very clearly defined anyway. For instance, Tyler noted that despite being a not-for-profit, St+art is “a mural company, they are an agency”. From the screenshot of an email shared by creative agency Animal, he speculated St+art India didn’t get the Budweiser project, and was therefore trying to publicly shame the brand.

When Firstpost reached out to St+art India for comment, co-founder Arjun Bahl reiterated that "St+art India is an urban art organisation and an NGO. Our experiences, such as the Sassoon Dock Art Project and WIP Show, are free for all." Bahl added that while the moral rights to any work of street art are retained by the artists and the intellectual property is shared between the artist and the organisation, "in general, we do public art with the vision that the final owners and keepers are the residents and citizens at large".

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For Bandra resident Aurelia Fernandes, the Messi murals are on her regular route for errands. When she first saw it, her response was “why?”. “It didn’t strike me as branded, but it did strike me as off,” Fernandes says, explaining that new art pops up on the walls in Bandra often. Since she goes down these roads every day and has been exposed to street art, Fernandes has noticed that there’s always a thought to these works. Unfortunately, she didn’t find Budweiser’s ad appealing. Fernandes says, “It seemed disorganised.”

As graffiti has made its way from an underground movement to mainstream culture, street art and murals too have gained popularity. “Some street artists have become brands, while others are hired by large corporate companies to endorse a new and avant-garde form of advertising,” states ‘The power of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences’, a 2016 paper.

While the debate over what is art and what is advertisement continues, Budweiser seems to be working hard to contain the backlash. In an Instagram story, the brand stated that they plan to work directly with artists to restore the walls. Whether sincere, temporary, or influenced, the online pushback seems to have compelled Budweiser to amend the Messi blunder but what remains unanswered is: For a moment, did we lose an iconic piece of art, misunderstand street art as an artistic form, or as Varkey puts it, was it simply about “one brand disapproving of another”?

 

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