We are The Graffiti Joint, a group of students pursuing Master’s in English at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. Our Braille graffiti initiative was part of our class presentation on ‘graffiti and disability’, itself a part of a module on literature and disability. This important module figures under the larger subject of Literature and Marginality in our Master’s course. The module is coordinated by Professor Ishan Chakraborty.
The first of our Braille graffiti near a staircase of the UG Arts Building at Jadavpur University reads “Subaltern”. It was made with halves of table tennis balls stuck on the wall using cement. The main inspiration behind this project was a series of Braille graffiti made in Vienna, Paris, Nantes, Budapest and other places in Europe by the artist known as The Blind. The Braille graffiti at Jadavpur University is likely the first of its kind in educational institutions in India.
Why Braille graffiti?
Graffiti as a medium of expression and communication facilitates the inclusion of people by not only displaying messages but also by enabling them to participate in making graffiti and adding their own perspectives. Braille graffiti, as a subculture of graffiti, encourages precisely that by inspiring people to install such pieces in diverse places over time.
When we asked Professor Ishan Chakraborty to comment on our work, he said, “In a socio-cultural situation where respect for difference or diversity is increasingly becoming a contested idea, I daresay this is a bold step towards not mere tokenistic integration but inclusion in the truest sense of the term. This, we can say, is one of the many small, albeit significant, steps towards cripping the Department of English and making it culturally accessible, which is as important as making it physically accessible to (visually) disabled persons.”
Indeed, the primary goal of our project was to ensure cultural accessibility. By ‘cripping’ the department and the university space, the Braille graffiti can reach out to the university stakeholders and visitors and make cultural elements accessible to the visually disabled.
Earlier, Subhradeep Chatterjee, one of the group members and authors of this article, commented on Braille graffiti in his research paper Art and Disability: Introjections and Underlying Politics in Subcultures and Genres, which was published in the International Research Journal – Persons with Special Needs and Rehabilitation Management, a publication of the Centre for Disability Studies, Jadavpur University. He wrote that Braille graffiti “inverts the ‘normal’ scenario where it is the visually disabled who do not get access to the graffiti.” Braille graffiti promotes communication between the visually abled and the visually disabled as the presence of the said graffiti is usually informed to the visually disabled who then reads it and deciphers the meaning. This paper paved the way for collaborative work in our group to make such graffiti more accessible to today’s youth.
In the West, Braille graffiti has assumed great significance and serves its purpose in a more effective way. Many of the visually disabled people in these countries know Braille because of better levels of access to education and opportunities. In a country like India, where many visually disabled people may not know how to read Braille, the purpose of Braille graffiti on the streets is likely to face several barriers. But in a campus space like that of Jadavpur University, where many of the visually disabled students know Braille, such graffiti could better serve the purpose of inclusion.
In his essay To ‘the Other Senses’: A Dialogue between Visual Arts and Visual Disability, Professor Ishan Chakraborty emphasizes on the issue of reasonable accommodation and accessibility in the field of art and culture. In this essay, also published in the International Research Journal – Persons with Special Needs and Rehabilitation Management, he argues that discrimination on the grounds of disability is rampant in India. He points out that the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 calls for ensuring accessibility to art and culture for the disabled – for recreational, educational and professional purposes [see clauses (c) and (f) of Chapter 5, Section 29 of the Act].
Unfortunately, ensuring accessibility usually remains confined to the removal of some physical barriers, which is more often than not tokenistic in nature. Such measures lack the true spirit of inclusion as they are more of an after-thought rather than a holistic and humane effort to ensure inclusion right from the start of any undertaking.
The making of the graffiti
Like most forms of art, our graffiti began on paper. Aided by the images of Braille letters on the web and some online Braille translators, the word ‘subaltern’ was first converted into Braille letters. Halves of table tennis balls were used to trace the outlines of the Braille letters on paper. Four A4 sized sheets of paper were put together to accommodate the length of the graffiti. Once the markings were complete, holes were made on the paper so as to correspond to the Braille lettering. This transformed the paper into a stencil.
The stencil was temporarily stuck on the wall using tape and the Braille dots were marked on the wall using crayons. The stencil was taken off afterwards. Screws with coconut fibre rope wound around them were then hammered onto the walls as anchor points. Finally, the halves of table tennis balls were filled with cement mix and stuck on the anchor points. The halves were covered with masking tape to support the weight of the balls – the tape was removed after the cement had dried. The screws with rope helped improve the grip of the fixtures.
Initially, the halves had been stuck on the wall using a glue gun. Unfortunately, some unknown persons took down the fixtures. This led to a change of plan and we decided to create more long-lasting graffiti.
Advocating for art with greater accessibility
The first Braille graffiti was made without any permission from the university authorities, thereby pertaining to the essence of graffiti. Later, a second one that says “Look” was made and was approved by the Department of English. This was made inside the department in the UG Arts Building. Being a sanctioned piece of work, it is more a form of Braille art rather than graffiti.
The Graffiti Joint began with the aim of using installations for cripping spaces and ensuring cultural accessibility. We hope that the second installation will inspire more people to make similarly accessible forms of art in the future.
The Graffiti Joint includes Anik Mandal, Chandrima Mukhopadhyay, Emon Bhattacharya, Manikankana Sengupta, Subhradeep Chatterjee and Utsa Ghosh. Anik Mandal is pursuing MA in English Literature at Jadavpur University, and is interested in aquascaping. Emon Bhattacharya is also pursuing MA in English Literature at Jadavpur University and wants to take up cartography and mountaineering. Manikankana Sengupta is pursuing MA in English from Jadavpur University and still trying to figure out life. She is always curious about new words and the worlds they open up. The profiles of Chandrima Mukhopadhyay, Subhradeep Chatterjee and Utsa Ghosh, the authors of this article, can be read below.
Also read Conversations in Disabilities, Diversities in Conversations by Shampa Sengupta in the January 2019 issue of Varta – Editor.
About the main photo: The Graffiti Joint’s first Braille graffiti creation, which says “Subaltern”, on display at the English departmental building at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall