Painting the Town Positive – Fighting extremism with Inspirational Art

KARACHI, PAKISTAN Inflammatory sectarian messaging and provocative political propaganda have long been a common sight on the walls of Pakistan’s most populous city of Karachi but now three college friends are working to change that with their positive graffiti initiative.
Humble Tariq, Umer Asim and Wahaj Ali Khan want to cover up hate-speech and negativity on Pakistan’s walls, one colorful positivity-packed mural at a time.

The three young men set up have set up Abdoz Arts to salvage their city’s walls from the layers of hate, bigotry and misinformation that often accumulates unchecked in Pakistan’s cities in the form of ‘wall chalkings’.

Wall chalking

‘Wall chalking’, which refers to painting messages on walls, has long been a way to communicate in the public forum in South Asia. While this medium has traditionally been used to advertise the local hakeem or to promote election candidates, in the past decade ‘wall chalking’ messages have taken on a more sinister tone with sectarian, extremist and political groups using them to promote violent agendas.

“Wall chalking has emerged as a destructive form of propaganda. These chalkings range from derogatory comments of one political party to another, to sectarian abuses, to cheap advertisements. Public wall space is national resource as it is a communication medium of the masses. If we replace the negative, sectarian and useless messages with something positive, we can hope to develop a positive attitude among the people as well,” Tariq said.

How it started

The idea for Abdoz Arts’ positivity graffiti came from an unpleasant discovery one morning, nearly a year ago, when the young men found that a nearby school’s walls had been covered in hate speech. Simply covering the vitriol with fresh paint would only provide the next propagandist with a clean canvas upon which to print their negative message. The solution, Tariq, Asim and Khan decided, was to fill the walls with messages, images and colors that were uplifting and inspiring, and Abdoz Arts was born shortly after. They have since found a number of local artists and students to help them in their effort to make Karachi’s walls a medium to motivate, with the collaborators and participants reaching nearly 70.

“Our goal is to make art available to everyone. We reclaim our public spaces marred with sectarian and political ‘wall chalking’ with thematic artworks. These artworks are intended to bring out the lost positive side of our society and give a break to the citizens,” Tariq explained.
Abdoz Arts’ messages have universal themes like unity, health, happiness, and patriotism, rather than the sectarian and political wall chalkings that have divided and provoked for so long.

“We select spaces that have maximum visibility. Most of the places we select are also in proximity of educational institutes. Since it is street art, we make sure that the masses can relate to it. A pictorial representation of social norms or of our culture and heritage is what people love the most,” Tariq added.

Their art has since appeared at a number of locations across Karachi: from University Road to North Nazimabad, to Korangi, to Sultanabad, providing a colorful backdrop for lives of many of Karachi’s estimated 23 million residents.

What do others think?

“The reactions have been amazing. People here have never seen a public wall with colorful and aesthetically pleasing graffiti. When we’re doing it, people come up, offer their help and get involved in the painting. This is what motivates us the most. Also, it helps in community building, which is one of our aims,” Tariq shared.

Abdoz Arts is now taking this vision out across the city by partnering with the Indus Valley School’s (IVS) ‘I Am Karachi’ initiative for the ‘Reimagining the Walls of Karachi’ project. The collaborative undertaking, which involves a number of other institutions, has three tiers.
The first is the Stencil Art Project, supervised by artist and teacher Munawar Ali Syed. It covers Karachi’s propaganda scarred walls with beautiful, evocative and colorful stenciled art.

Art by Sunil

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The second tier is called ‘Wall Project with Children — Bachon Se Tabdili (Progress Through Children)’, with artist Rabeya Jalil and art critic Shahana Rajani. They use images made by children from disaffected communities and impoverished areas to share the ideas and creativity of children while showing the children their potential to make a positive impact.

The third tier is titled ‘Individual-Led Artist Project’ and is similar to Abdoz Arts’ original efforts, with individual artists using paint to counter negativity on public walls.

“We want to carry forward with this activity to every street of the city,” Tariq said. “It would be great if we could take it to the whole nation. But we can’t do it alone. We need the support of different organizations: companies that want to do CSR. Or anyone! Just buy us the paint!”

Written by Zarina Khan

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Zarina Khan is an MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow acting as the head of editorial at a research institute in the UAE. She has a background in print journalism, and has worked as a reporter, editor, stringer and columnist in South Asia and the Middle East.