Why the world’s best street artists are flocking to Delhi

I’ve always had a soft spot for Delhi’s painted public service messages. Whether they relate to the importance of handwashing or safe sex, they typically take the form of elaborate artworks painted onto walls by professional sign painters. Similarly, Delhi’s street art scene retains closer ties to government institutions than would ever happen elsewhere, but there’s a silver lining to this approach: namely, the way in which it’s given artists the chance to showcase their talent.

Take Tihar Jail, one of India’s largest jails. St+Art, the Delhi-based not-for-profit street art organisation, joined forces with prison authorities to daub lines from a poem onto its boundary walls, creating India’s longest mural – a 968-metre-long artwork referencing inmates’ feelings of isolation. Several of the street artists involved ran workshops for inmates, many of whom subsequently created their own murals on interior walls.

And then there’s India’s tallest mural – a 45-metre-high image of Mahatma Gandhi which covers one side of New Delhi’s Police Headquarters. Another example of an artwork borne from a collaboration between street artists (in this case ones connected to St+Art) and a government institution, it was painted by German street artist Hendrick ECB and Indian street artist Anpu Varkey in 2014, as part of the St+Art Delhi Street Art Festival. It was unveiled on Martyr’s Day (30 January) by the Lieutenant Governor of New Delhi.

Delhi’s street artists are determined to carve out their own style

While the subject matter – a national hero – was familiar to locals accustomed to seeing campaign slogans painted onto Delhi’s walls, the techniques – such as spray painting – weren’t, and its appearance sparked a change in mindset. Anpu’s supersized, knitting cat, painted onto the side of a building in Delhi’s colourful Shahpur Jat neighbourhood, had a similar effect. “Because it was just a cat, some people still initially thought she was painting an advert, and they’d ask her where the logo was and what company it was advertising,” says Thanish Thomas, one of St+Art’s co-founders. But the curiosity tweaked by these murals worked in the organisation’s favour. The fact that Anpu was painting a cat – not a plea to practice safe sex, or wash hands – meant the area became famous for something other than its historic temple. “Her mural became a landmark,” says Thanish. “In India billi means cat, and people began to refer to the area as billi.”

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The Shahpur Jat neighbourhood is now one Delhi’s top destinations for street artists, and one of the most beautiful pieces I spot during a wander along its narrow lanes depicts a flock of doves surrounding a girl whose body tapers into a spiral of colourful feathers, above the words: “Don’t make me walk when I want to fly.” Dozens of other murals fill the neighbourhood’s streets, and in recent years coming here to paint a mural, or to simply leave a small tag, has become a rite of passage for visiting street artists such as Bond Truluv, a German artist who spends much of his time in India.

Delhi’s artists are increasingly approaching their craft from that point of view – that it’s not simply about paint-bombing a train

Thanish Thomas, St+Art

Thanish says Bond is the foreign artist who’s had the biggest influence on Delhi’s street art scene. “Every piece he does is so different,” he says. “Delhi’s artists are increasingly approaching their craft from that point of view – that it’s not simply about paint-bombing a train. They want to make sure every piece stands out.” People like Bond have made it easier for Delhi’s artists to dedicate more time to their craft, in an era when decent quality spray paints are prohibitively expensive. He’s proof that street art can be more than a hobby, and Delhi’s historical use of wall painting means there’s no shortage of clients for young street artists. “These days, up-and-coming artists are getting lots of commercial work, whether it’s commissions for restaurants or another side hustle,” says Thanish.

The area with the most street art, however, is Lodhi, otherwise known as Delhi’s first street art district. Here, numerous colourful murals – including many by St+Art’s artists – have been daubed over derelict buildings as part of collaborations between St+Art and local authorities. In some areas, the triffid-like greenery which engulfs abandoned buildings contrasts spectacularly with the retina-burningly bright artwork. Lodhi is no longer simply a canvas for Delhi’s artists, but a place where organisations such as St+Art can show the authorities they collaborate with how these murals can transform entire areas.

An old school sign has been transformed into a new piece of street art

“In Lodhi, many of the old buildings used for street art murals have large central arches. Initially the government told us we couldn’t paint above these arches,” says Thanish, who shrugs his shoulders when I ask about the reasoning for this rule. “But we wanted to push the boundaries, so we’d paint the entire wall – including areas above the arches. When we showed the authorities the finished product they loved it, and they changed their minds.”

On my final day I visit my favourite spot in Delhi –the 14th-century Agrasen Ki Baoli stepwell. This time, I notice that the narrow street running alongside it has undergone somewhat of a transformation, courtesy of local street artists. Alongside an image of India’s national flag – painted, I suspect, by government-commissioned sign painters given a strict brief – there are freshly spray-painted murals by Indian street artists. As in other parts of Delhi, the influence of other street art scenes is clear, albeit alongside reminders of locals’ determination to forge their own path.

These peacock wings are one of the city’s most popular pieces of street art

In other countries, it seems almost obligatory that cities known for their street art must have at least one pair of supersized angel wings, ready to double as Insta-friendly backdrops. Here, the street’s most sought after spot appears to be the mural depicting the tail feathers of a peacock (India’s national bird), perfectly positioned to serve as a backdrop for snap-happy tourists. I suspect Mahatma Gandhi, whose smiling face has been painted onto a nearby wall, would approve.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Return flights from London Heathrow to New Delhi with British Airways from £500.

Staying there

Taj Palace New Delhi offers six acres of gardens, an outdoor swimming pool, fitness centre and panoramic city views.

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