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Street to suits


DEFYING STEREOTYPES: Falko has painted for a host of corporates, from music channels to sportswear companies

As far as graffiti artists go, Falko is leagues away from the pop culture-peddled notion of the underground graffiti artist wielding a spray can under cover of darkness. A known face in his home country of South Africa, he holds exhibitions of his work and has even gone commercial with his art, painting for a host of corporates ranging from music channels to manufacturers of sports equipment and sportswear.

In India to judge a graffiti competition at IIT-Delhi, the 40-year-old Cape Townbased artist isn't fazed by the mainstream commercial recognition of the underground niche art movement. "If something doesn't become commercial, there is something wrong with its growth. This is only a mark of popular interest. You don't have to be underground to be cool, " says the artist who has been painting since the age of 16. But there is one thing that he does preserve from the old order. He doesn't give out his real name. "Nobody asks Madonna what her real name is, " says the affable conversationist with a penchant for throwing in film and music references as he talks.

When he started out, Falko wasn't chasing glory or seeking to make a political point. "I got into it for the girls, " he says, explaining that as a teenager, he would feel left out at parties because his friends had a higher success rate with girls than him. A "punk girlfriend" and hip hop music is what really got him into the groove. "She took me to punk hangouts all the time. I started listening to hip hop and rap. That music was talking about oppression, which is how I started reading about it too, " he says. Falko even wrote a school paper on an NWA song and its real-life relevance. His alias too is a hat tip to Austrian rapper and musician Falco - a name that his friends called him by because of his love for the song Rock Me Amadeus. "I just substituted the C with a K, " says Falko, who counts bands like Ghetto Boys among his early influences.

Falko, who introduced "splitpieces" - portions of a larger picture painted in different locations - in the South African graffiti landscape, has a story there too which involves a girlfriend and an unfinished journalistic assignment. "My girlfriend worked for the National Geographic magazine and she wanted to do a photo assignment around South Africa, " he says. "I said I'd go along with her and do a little piece wherever we went, all of which would complete one whole picture. It was something that had never been done before. " The tour never happened but a dispirited Falko - who took a year off and did nothing but watch TV - realised that he needed sponsorship for such a project. A pitch with the British Council fell flat on its face. He then went to a sports company. "I told them they would get nothing out of it, that it was just for me. But they gave me the sponsorship, " says Falko, who managed to procure another splitpiece project out of the company later. He later went on to do splitpieces for Adidas besides murals for the UN.

Commercialisation of graffiti is not an entirely new phenomenon and certainly not limited to South Africa. In San Francisco, brands like Sony and Coke have been employing graffiti artists to paint walls for them. It has made inroads into Europe, while in India the scene is burgeoning with graffiti being used to promote and attract audiences to indie gigs. What does this do to the anti-establishment street-cred of graffiti? Falko says it is impossible to "fight for everything" and it's all about choosing your battles. One of the corporates that he works for has a less-than-flattering track record with employees in its China sweatshops. But Falco has a ready answer to that. "Even in South Africa, Rastafarians are anti-establishment, " he says. "But they have cellphones and bank accounts. If you really want to be anti-corporation, shut yourself in a room. It's like in The Matrix, you are asked to choose between the red and the blue pill. I took a bit of both. "

The first piece Falko did in a Cape Town neighbourhood came after much walletscratching and deliberation. He remembers the date even today. "It was December 22, 1988, " he says. "I grew up poor. We had just about enough money to buy food. So I got together with a couple of friends, collected money and bought spray cans in three colours - black, green and orange. We painted 'Hip Hop' on one wall. In hindsight, it wasn't so cool. "

In a country as diverse as South Africa, the painting experience differs from city to city. Mitchell's Plain, a largely coloured township near Cape Town, is supposed to be the "Mecca of hip hop" and a lot more conducive to graffiti. Painting in what Falko hesitantly calls "white areas" comes with its own risks. "They ask you a lot of questions and sometimes even call the police, " says the artist who has been caught thrice when he was young. "I can't run anymore, " he says gesturing at his ample paunch, "So I paint on walls with permission. " In "black" areas, he says, people come and offer help.

In the over two decades that he has been painting, Falko has seen little change in the quality of graffiti. But political graffiti, he says, is harder to come by now. "From 1990-94, there was a lot of political graffiti around, a lot of 'Free Mandela' all over the place. But all that has been cemented and painted over now. " As for corporate interest in the art, Falko says it is not uncommon for artists now to wear formal suits to business meetings.

In other countries, graffiti seems to have moved from the dark, underground rebellion of the disempowered to corporate support. In India, the movement is more top-down, the realm of the affluent thanks to the high cost of the equipment. And corporate sponsorship has begun to come in even before it could develop the strong defiant vibe often associated with the art. Daku says the movement here could very well be the other way round. "Graffiti is beginning to gain mileage here. But once it does, it will ultimately come back against consumerism. The scene here is taking baby steps towards the bigger thing, " he says.

The fact that Falko was here to judge a very public graffiti competition is perhaps a happy sign for those looking for the form to enter the mainstream. A wall on a wall at an exhibition? Bring it on!

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