Karachi’s walls are as loud as the city itself. Replete with commercial messages, political party slogans, graffiti and artworks, these walls are constantly competing for residents’ attention. What are the stories hidden in plain sight on them? And what is the context in which wall chalking has existed for years? Two researchers attempt to find out.
Dr Noman Ahmed and Suneela Ahmed
‘Deewaaron ke bhi kaan hotay hain [The walls also have ears],’ goes the Urdu proverb. But here we argue that walls can talk as well. And in a city like Karachi, they talk loudly — often interrupting one another with messages plastered on top of other messages. From solutions to mardaana kamzorian [male infertility/ erectile issues] to political sloganeering, the walls of the city tell a story of their own.
On the one hand, the wall has been associated with discrimination — a way of keeping the unwanted out — but on the other hand, it has also a means of protection. These same walls can also be taken over by the awaam [public] to reflect upon and voice opinions related to politics, religion, ethnicity and culture, and have also been used for putting across commercial messages and showcase artwork.
The various ways in which walls in a city are used for communication can be grouped within the larger head of graffiti. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines graffiti as “unauthorised writing or drawing on a public surface.” While the Cambridge English Dictionary defines the term as “words or drawings, especially humorous, rude, or political [ones], on walls, doors, etc, in public places.” The notion of ‘public-ness’ becomes important in both these definitions, as something put within a private domain may not qualify as graffiti.
The graffiti on the walls of Karachi has long fascinated us. This fascination led to research in 2019 looking at graffiti in Karachi’s context, its history and continued existence, and the reasons behind the practice. We classified the various types of graffiti into different typologies, and categorised the messages being put across by each typology and the reason for its continued practice.
The research focused mainly on wall chalking, which is a particular type of graffiti and an alternate means of communication that is patronised by various local agencies. This type of graffiti reflects upon local social, political and economic processes, and is the dominant form of graffiti existent in the city.
The data for the research was obtained through in depth appraisal of wall chalking in six public locations of Karachi (the area around Quaid-i-Azam’s Mazaar, Saddar, Liaquatabad, Orangi Town, Malir District and Shah Faisal Colony), which corresponded with the six districts of the city. Here, we present some of our findings.
PUBLIC NOTICE BOARDS
Historically, the walls of Karachi within the public realm have continued to showcase political slogans and messages. They have been used to communicate views against the ruling elite or the despised actions of military establishments.
The walls in Karachi also serve as public notice boards for various purposes. In the late 1970s, when political activities were banned in the country, these walls were relied upon to disseminate political agendas and related information. Because all print and non-print media was under strict censorship by the military rule, wall chalking was used as a mainstream medium of communication. Surprisingly, although these messages were out in the open, they went largely unobserved or ignored by the establishment of the time.
Similarly, wall chalking in the 1980s supported the pro-democracy movement that was secretly initiated. Wall chalking helped organise the struggle for the revival of democracy and mobilised the masses. Thus, these walls played a vital communication role in the pre-digital age.
The walls of Karachi have had messages, appeals and slogans written on them related to the exoneration of a former prime minister, support for jailed nationalist leaders and expressions of solidarity with Marxist leaders. Welcome addresses for self-exiled leaders, support for jihad in Afghanistan and messages supporting the release of various arrested local leaders have also found their way on these walls.
These instances lead one to question the extent to which political leaders and those in office benefit from such messages. And if these messages truly go unnoticed or are they simply ignored for larger political gains involved.
Recently, wall chalking has become an even more powerful tool for political activists, despite the dominance of digital media. According to political workers we interviewed, during election times, the walls of Karachi become important announcement boards and a means for communicating different political agendas. The top leadership of political parties also gets involved in the process and walls are carefully chosen to paint different political messages.
There is no question about the effectiveness of this methodology for communicating to the masses. All important political issues are addressed via this method, through carefully thought out phrases, slogans and messages.
The walls are not only used for one-way communication; they are also used for counter messages and political responses. Furthermore, the walls also project messages related to the rights of minority groups, ethical, social and cultural issues, and laudatory remarks for the Pakistan Army and certain political parties.
Broadly speaking, the typology of messages, as documented and analysed by us across the six districts of Karachi, is summarised in Table 1. It is also worth looking into the reasons behind the walls being such prime spots for different sorts of messages.
WHY DIFFERENT MESSAGES APPEAR ON KARACHI’S WALLS
Mannpasand shaadi [A wedding of your choice]/ Shantosh Kumar
Shauhar ko raah-i-raast pe laana [Bring your husband on the right track]/ Shakir Bangali
Kamzor jism ko mota banaayein [Make your weak body strong]/ Home delivery
The kind of commercial messages written out above are a big part of Karachi’s public spaces. Many of the services and enterprises advertised in this manner have limited marketing avenues in the city, making advertising on walls one of the most desirable options. These services include faith healers and other enterprises legally and administratively prohibited from operating due to their dubious and unrecognised credentials.
The vast majority of ads observed on walls are for products and services which are not accepted by the formal print or electronic media. Besides, the target audience for such messaging is also not all digitally literate, and so, digital advertising does not have the kind of mass appeal desired by the advertisers. Thus, the walls have remained the primary source of messaging.
Their messaging is often short and to the point — just a brief mention of the service, followed by a telephone number in large digits. The call for action is to get potential clients to dial the number; the rest can be managed by those answering the telephone.
Similarly, the self-styled providers of medical services for various diseases, notably sexual disorders in men and women, use the walls to connect with their clientele. As the clinics that claim to offer treatments to such problems operate in a confidential manner, they succeed in attracting the right kind of clients.
Many such examples were observed in the Quaid-i-Azam’s Mazaar area and in Saddar. This is presumably because these two locations are frequented by a sizable population belonging to the cross section of society who may be interested in such solutions. The wall ads are painted along the main roads and streets where public transport routes are abundant, and where large segments of working class individuals move on a regular basis.
Karachi hamara hai, tumhara nahin — Karachi Bachao Committee
[Karachi is ours, not yours — Save Karachi Committee]
The use of wall chalking and graffiti for political and protest-related purposes is one of the most dominant options. This type of wall chalking is found all across the city, including the six case locations, with reasonable presence year round.
Many purposes are served by wall chalking in this respect. In situations of political repressions against specific parties, wall chalking becomes an active medium for communication. At present, for example, a faction of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — the party which used to dominate Karachi’s politics until the recent past — is prohibited to carry out political activities. Thus, wall chalkings for and against the party are visible, especially in Shah Faisal Colony, Orangi Town and Liaquatabad.
Usually wall chalking is done to inform people about party activities, for hate promotion against a specific faction or leaders, and to recognise the leaders of the parties. In the practice of power politics, slogans are posted on the walls to mark the territory of influence in certain neighbourhoods.
We observed that locations away from the city centre display such messages in a greater number. Active political debates and conflicts are often discussed in conversations on the walls. And policy matters, such as demands for creating a new province in southern Sindh with Karachi as its centre, are also actively voiced in this way.
[Happy celebration of the Prophet’s (pbuh) birth]
The study area shows distinct moods of the promoters and practitioners of wall chalking and graffiti. Religious festivals and sombre occasions of both Shia and Sunni Muslims are amply reflected along the walls.
Muharram processions, for example, are welcomed with messages of a religious nature. In this time period, different service providers also tag messages of various services, such as transport shuttles, supply of ritual accessories and sacred food. Announcements of timings of holy gatherings are sometimes also displayed on the walls of surrounding buildings. In many cases, printed posters are pasted on walls surfaces in high and repetitive frequencies.
Similarly, when Muslims celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him), the walls are ornamented with welcome messages for the processions, sacred inscriptions and posters of various kinds. Informative messages for different groups of visitors about the dates and timings are also inscribed around the walls.
The same walls are swarmed with messages and inscriptions related to political rallies, marching orders to political activists by respective leaders and provocations leading to agitation and protests. Event-based and reactionary responses to regional and global happenings are also manifested on the walls.
Hate messages for American imperialism, anger against release of blasphemy-accused Aasia Bibi, scathing criticism of the regime for its ‘pro-Western’ policies and messages targeting religious minorities are a common sight on Karachi’s walls. The lack of checks and balances is a major reason for this. Hate speech can be found on walls of most major cities around the world.
Many random messages can also be seen across the public walls, reflecting a particular social and cultural set-up of the city.
These random messages range from welfare messages, to private announcements, to nationalistic messages such as ‘salutes’ for ‘our martyrs’. Many of these messages also advertise emergency numbers to call ambulances from different welfare organisations.
This typology of wall chalking shows the reliance of formal sectors (for instance, the police and different welfare organisations) on this informal means of dissemination of information and promotion. While these messages may be considered advertisements, they are non-commercial in nature.
Wall chalking and graffiti art, as practised in Karachi, is usually not of the aesthetic quality graffiti art in other major cities around the world is. There are several reasons behind this. Some of the constraints graffiti artists describe in Karachi are observed around the world. Like in other cities, the activity is carried out after midnight in a surreptitious manner, to hide from the eyes of law enforcing agencies. Wall chalking is legally prohibited, therefore, its practitioners normally perform it through a clandestine approach in a most hurried fashion.
But while graffiti art around the world has evolved, with artists developing skills over the years, the same is not observed in Karachi as yet. As learned from the interviews of the wall chalking artists, the artists are either self-trained or have received some rudimentary tips from other practitioners in the field. Mostly they learn on the job. However, this trial and error method seldom generates high quality output.
The artists behind the wall chalking and graffiti are interested in the most prominent and overpowering appearance of slogans or messages. This is reflected in their choice of colour palettes and lettering sizing. And as figurative art is religiously denounced, the chalking and graffiti is usually also reduced to text messages only.
The few walls where commissioned art work of some quality is done under permission are exceptions. These include street art murals commissioned during campaigns such as the ‘Walls of Peace’ campaign by I am Karachi (IAK).
Wall chalking and graffiti is described as a criminal activity. In Karachi, the Prevention of Defacement of Property Act 2014 regulates the wall chalking activity. With the exception of artwork sanctioned and approved for designated boundary walls of public properties, the other types of wall chalking can lead to prosecution.
The content of the wall chalking can also cause legal action if any ‘anti-state’ or objectionable messaging is found on the walls. However, very seldom are those legal clauses invoked, as it is very difficult to apprehend those who conduct it. Besides, the political parties, especially those in power, manage to protect their supporters and activists from possible prosecution.
But the manner and process through which wall chalking is conducted on the city walls can cause an intrusion, material harm and visual damage to the respective property owners. The contents, especially unchecked hate speech, can contribute to causing disharmony and unrest. Threatening messages are also completely undesirable and require greater vigilance. The legal and statutory structure can be revamped through a consultative process. This may include the political parties at the starting stage and gradually expand to other stakeholders.
Nonetheless, conversations regarding standardising what appears on the walls must take into consideration the context in which they exist. There are no designated spaces for free speech and expression in the city, though the Karachi Press Club and its surroundings act as a de facto equivalent. In the absence of such spaces, the walls of Karachi take on this role. The stance of the administration is generally to turn a blind eye towards this act, with occasional interference.
According to the government officials interviewed for this research, turning a blind eye is a better policy rather than heavily policing the activity, as the latter can lead to larger unrest and agitation and can become difficult to control. Only in cases where the messages escalate religious or political strains, do the local authorities intervene.
In such scenarios, the local municipality wipes out all wall chalking by getting the walls painted over. These freshly painted walls then become ideal grounds for fresh new messages. Surely, no one can silence the walls of a city as vibrant and chaotic as Karachi.
TYPES OF WALL CHALKING IN KARACHI
Advertisements on walls about faith healers, medicines, clinics for sexually transmitted diseases, matchmaking enterprises
- Low budget
- Promotes false and unbranded products and facilities
- The preferred option of advertising for services and products which may not be accepted by formal media
Protest and political content
Inter-party political messages, call for strikes, demand statements for developments in certain areas
- Display of political power
- Ease in posting dissent
- Settling political conflicts
- Reactionary slogans
- Advertising political rallies and processions
- Praise and criticism for leaders and parties
Promotion of sect-specific events as per the religious calendar, announcements of events, critical and reactionary statements, promotion of certain religious values
- Extensive promotion of religious events
- Marking territory of influence
- Show of strength and power
- Veiled threats to opponents
- Reaction campaigns
- Demands for conflict/issue resolution
Hate messages and material
Messages targeting political, ethnic and sectarian groups
- Direct and indirect messages, often aiming to get a reaction
- Extensive use of foul language
- Sudden overnight emergence
Support to state-sponsored campaigns, welfare messages, private announcements
- May be one-off or part of a non-commercial campaign
- Often functional and related to specific institutions
- Benign in content
Attempts to improve city authorities, celebrating and remembering important personalities
- Efforts to reclaim verified spaces along the city wall
- Thematic in content
- Varying quality of skill and output
Based on the paper Examining the Usage of City Walls for Wall Chalking: Cases from Karachi, Pakistan by Noman Ahmed and Suneela Ahmed