Once in a while, everyone goes through one of Those Days. Days when your brain is so overworked its constant buzz keeps you from resting, your heart is so weary its heaviness interferes with your breathing, and your courage is so deflated your composure is rapidly unraveling. Time is a constraint and a luxury during Those Days, but one needs to steal some to refresh to avoid hitting breaking point. On the two hours I could steal on a Saturday morning, I decided to take a hint from Red Hot Chili Peppers and literally went under the bridge for an up close and personal look at some Jakartan street art.
Together with Cosmic Boy, a new friend who uncannily is going through the exact same kind of Those Days, I scoured the underbelly of Gatot Subroto, Sudirman and Dukuh Atas… and it turned out that street art is good for the brain, heart, and courage.
Street art teases the mind. I expected to only see some Technicolor pop art explosion at first, but it turned out that the murals and graffiti all had a story to tell. It was hardly code-cracking for some. The usual mocking of politicians in newspaper comic strips, for instance, took the form of row of animal-headed men in suits with reference to current events in their speech bubbles. Others, like the Berbeda Merdeka 100% tag line seen in many pieces, needed more background to decipher. The tag line was actually a collective call by street artists across the nation to maintain diversity in Indonesia after a series of violent attacks against the Ahmadis last year, which took Twitter by a small storm but never got really picked up by the mainstream mass. A few are less straightforward, like the stencil poster asking ‘Have you checked on yourself and your family today?’ I would like to think that this is a poke at the workaholic automatons Jakarta has a knack to turn people into, but this could also be a discreet call for voluntary HIV testing. The anonymity of the artwork and our lack of knowledge on the street art scene in Jakarta made it challenging to do a proper contextualization of the art pieces, but it was tantalizing to try.
The underbelly tour was also a pilgrimage to labours of love. Street art is not exactly a legal activity, with the few exceptions where the authorities actually invited artists to paint murals in certain parts of the city. In fact, a spray painter once told me that I need to be able to cry on demand in order to come and see him in action, in case the police busted us. Street art is a clandestine night time activity, self-funded, and risky. A poet performer friend of mine said that her art is not hers, it’s for the world to see… and these street artists may take all those risks to convey their message to the world. Who are actually listening, though? Millions of people pass the murals, spray paintings, and stencil posters every day, but even an intrigued person like me needed this walking tour to appreciate them and extract their meaning. Maybe this is exactly what labour of love means: it does not matter what the outcome would be because it’s unbearable not to try and express yourself. That you would rather crash and burn trying than never doing anything for your passion to see the daylight. Under the sun, I could feel that street art is a labour of love. And it warmed my heart a little.
Ultimately though, it takes courage to do street art. Not just because of its questionable legality, but because the streets are a battleground. There is the Government, whose wish is to keep Jakarta’s protocol streets pristine and presentable and make exceptions only for the Corporate, who is willing to expend a huge amount of money for billboards and ad spaces to reap multiplied profits. Street artists are battling these actors, as evidenced by my favorite piece in the trip: a straightforward ‘Public space does not belong to the corporate’ statement spray-painted across an ad-space. The Corporate is fighting back, a huge Magnum billboard covers a mural just a couple of steps away, and so is the Government, who painted over street art every once in a while. The Non Governmentals seem to be a part of this battleground; there are some murals that carry a very NGO-ish message of the power of citizen journalism and look like they were commissioned pieces. But ultimately, street artists battle the public and one another. The underpass in Sudirman is a chaotic place, with murals and posters painted and plastered over older ones as each artist fight each other to reclaim space. ‘Demokrat bangsat’ (Damned Democrats – the ruling party in Indonesia) was scrawled with a marker over several posters marketing citizen journalism. A poster saying ‘Pray for Sukhoi’ got an additional letter and now reads ‘(S)pray for Sukhoi’. I would like to think that this is a hook at the tendency of the Twitterverse to #prayforsomething rather than talking about actually doing something. Not only street art is not immortal, it is also open for debate, critique, and transformation beyond the artists’ control. And it takes courage to face this.
The two stolen hours spent under the bridge was followed with me and Cosmic Boy spending triple the amount of time for a reading and writing mini workshop for our individual projects, accompanied by a never ending flow of rice crackers in an old Dutch house in the Cikini area. It was, after all, still one of Those Days, but it’s my labour of love – a passion that occupies my being beyond a day job. At least now I know I would go through this all over again to give my passion a chance to see the daylight. Because it is more excruciating not to try at all. For the time being, the street art has given my overworked brain a pleasant hum that allows me to work at a more relaxed pace, my weary heart got a little lighter so breathing comes naturally once more, my deflated courage was puffed up… and I am ready to charge ahead.
Jakarta, 16 June 2012