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Beautification and Mural Making are Two Different Things: Trespassers and Their Public Art

by Johny ML

Artist Vishnupriyan spearheading the Trespassers Project

They are ten and call themselves ‘Trespassers’. The logo is impressive: a black cat carrying a white space between its body and a flourishing tail. They remind one of the famous graffiti artists in the US, ‘Space-catcher’. Space-catcher’ grabs space: it could be an inconspicuous space under a bridge or a ledge; it could be a wall or a building façade; or even a moving bus. This incognito artist, like Banksy, does only one thing: he grabs space and people’s eyeballs. He does not do much other than sticking a logo, a small android image. But he seems to say, look I am here, I am an artist and I make art, and in spaces unimaginable my works will confront you at the most unexpected moments. ‘Trespassers’ differs fundamentally from ‘Space-catcher’, but they evoke something similar.

Trespassers’ mural projects

It all started in 2018. Vishnupriyan, an artist who is currently pursuing a PhD from the Kalamandalam deemed university in a north Kerala performance art form, after finishing his postgraduate course in painting from the Kaladi Sri Sankaracharya University, decided to launch a graffiti program with the help of his friends, namely Arjun Gopi, Ambadi Kannan, Bashar, Jinil Manikandan, Amith, Sreeeag, Pranav Prabhakaran, Vishnukumar and Sijoy Poulose, all graduates or postgraduates from the same university. These artists had a manifesto; they wanted to take art to the people as they realized a majority of them do not go to the art galleries and have a lot of scepticism towards art. They also thought that they could eke out a living from doing public art. Sooner than later they found out that graffiti art does not pay, but their passion for the public art was so much that they embarked on a difficult journey by making visuals in public spaces.

Trespassers’ mural projects

Trespassing is all about encroaching a place or space without permission, often inviting persecution. These artists trespass with permission and the visual they create in the walls and building facades and any available spaces literally trespass into the mindscape and visualscape of the people around. Their initial work was in their alma mater itself. They painted huge murals in the campus and they were offered Rs 100 per square feet. They could make some money and they decided to keep aside ten per cent of the amount for furthering the activities of the group and divided the rest equally between them. Most of them are doing their higher studies while engaging with the Trespassers’ activities. So far they have created around thirty murals in the villages and towns; a couple of them were funded by the local bodies and all the other works were self-funded, deriving artistic satisfaction from the works and the public response they get.

Trespassers’ mural projects

No funds but how do they manage? Vishnupriyan has the answer. “We choose spaces for doing murals near friends’ homes. That makes the food and accommodation free. We go to the local hardware shops that sell plastic emulsion and enamel paints and explain our case. They give us paints and a lot of encouragement.” Armed with supplies they go around the village and collect stories from the elders and local enthusiasts. “We ask them what kind of images they would like to see in a public mural. Lot of them tell us about the images they want to see again and again. So we have an archive of local lore, human stories and their visual imaginations. Then we start working on the mural.” Interestingly, while working some people give them company and even give creative inputs, making the mural a real public art project.

Trespassers’ mural projects

If there is a will there is a way; this ongoing mural project of the Trespassers proves the adage again. As ten people collaborate in a single visual project there could be differences of opinion emerging at any moment. “We do not have any issues in developing the project visually. We work in tandem and each ensemble of image gives rise to another set of images and as all the artists are aware of the local stories they go by them and keep the colour strains more or less the same.” However, only when they work on very large scale projects, do they visit the site in advance, see the possibilities and make an initial sketch before starting the actual work,” says Vishnupriyan and adds, “It is all about incorporating a window, a flight of steps or an air-conditioner duct or something.”

Trespassers’ mural projects

Vishnupriyan has also done a huge mural project in his own village, Pang. One of the images is of an old woman with no upper garment. She is seen sitting in the middle of some men and playing cards. “People immediately notice a half-naked woman amidst men playing cards. She is also playing cards and smoking beedis.” This image comes from a woman in real life in Pang village. She used to roam around without a blouse and did all what men did, including playing cards and smoking beedis. Vishnupriyan says that people are growing fond of the work as days pass by. Nobody has made any objection to the works of the Trespassers. But there are incidents when certain images in their murals have offended public sentiments.

Trespassers’ mural projects

“We did a mural in a market. The central image was a pig. The Muslim shop owner thought that the presence of a swine in our mural was deliberate and he said that it hurt his sentiments. Finally we had to do some adjustments,” says Vishnupriyan. These artists are still struggling to make money and they are sure that by doing murals alone they cannot survive. But they do have hope as they believe in the power of art in creating a visual sensibility. “What we lack is the training of the public eye. We intend to create one,” Vishnupriyan beams with confidence when he says this.

“What about the idea of beautifying the public places through art?” I ask. Vishnupriyan says that while that is possible this thought has never crossed his mind. “Beautification is not the idea behind our projects. None of us thought about making ‘beautiful’ paintings on public walls. We create paintings that resonate with the surroundings and we hope people would see their own local histories in it and feel proud of it,” he says.

Trespassers’ mural projects

The Government of Kerala has decided to spend lakhs of rupees for beautifying cities, including the city of Trivandrum. It is urgent that the government and the Minister of Tourism recognize the efforts of these young artists to create visual sensibility among the public, without seeking any financial aid from the government. Of the thirty murals that they have done so far, only two of them received financial aid: one from Kalady University and the other from the Koilandi Municipal Corporation. These artists work as daily wage earners. It is a shame that our authorities make these educated artists toil like migrant labourers. It is high time that they are honoured and funded for doing more works all over Kerala. I would like to even suggest that for the third phase of the Trivandrum beautification project, these artists should be invited as special guests and funded them adequately to make wonderful murals that ‘beautify’ the city with some pre-selected artists.

(Reproduced from “By All Means Necessary” with permission of Johny ML.)


Johny ML is a writer, translator, art historian, art critic, art curator, poet and a prolific blogger. His writings related to the arts, culture and politics have been published in several print magazines, newspapers and weeklies in English and Malayalam. He has also founded and edited many popular online art journals. One of the pioneering curators in India, he has curated high-profile group shows and camps throughout India. His blog is a platform for his continuous response to various issues he addresses within the art world, literature and a variety of other realms.

Johny ML lives and works between Trivandrum and Delhi.


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