Graffiti: expression of dissenting youth

Nahid Riyasad | Published: 00:00, Nov 17,2019

Nahid Riyasad, graffiti, Bangladesh youth, youth protests in Bangladesh, students’ protests in Bangladesh, graffiti for dissents, graffiti as expression, expressing through graffiti

A collage of the graffiti on the walls of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology following the murder of Abrar Fahad, a second year student of the university, in an incident of ragging

When surveillance is intensified, dissenting voices used different art forms to express themselves. Graffiti is one among many such art forms. Nahid Riyasad writes about graffiti as a language of different youth led movements in Bangladesh

ENGLAND based artist and political activist Banksy showed the power of strong political messages in the form of graffiti during the 1990s. Likewise, in 2017, Dhaka experienced one likeminded artist who went by the name Subodh. When students, journalist, teachers are legally harassed for the silliest of facebook status, very cleverly and courageously Subodh described the political time of Bangladesh on street walls.

This is the beauty of art. When surveillance capitalism is a real concern as government agencies around the globe are beefing up their surveillance systems with increased efficiency, dissenting voices are being pushed to the corner. Graffiti comes in rescue and presents an opportunity to express opinions on public places without the fear of being targeted.

The history of graffiti is as old as first human cave-painters of Northern parts of Indonesia and Western Europe, over 40,000 years ago. In classical Greek and Roman era, in urban settlements, protesters would write politically charged messages and revolutionary poetry on public walls. However, the modern form of graffiti emerged in the early 1960s in Philadelphia.

Students and youth of Bangladesh have been, historically, playing an important role in knitting the fabric of Bangladesh since the anti-British movements of the late twentieth century. Even during the language movement and mass uprising, liberation war and anti-autocratic movement, students were at the forefront and graffiti has been used as an important tool to deliver messages and demands.

In the recent students’ movements of Bangladesh, graffiti is of same the importance. These artworks are strong in political essence and showcase the contextual political understanding of the protesters indicating that youth are no less observant than those who are running the system from the top.

In February 2013, Bangladesh experienced one of the largest youth movements in recent time when hundreds of thousands of students and youth gathered in Shahbag demanding capital punishments for war criminals of 1971. Many of their demands were depicted in the form of graffiti on walls around Shahbag and the University of Dhaka campus. Graffiti of that movement have strong resemblance with the artworks and graffiti of 1971.

According to media reports, the Sundarbans played a huge role in minimising the effects of the Bulbul, a cyclone that hit Bangladesh in November which claimed 22 lives. For the past several years, different bodies of concerned youth and citizens are holding protests and demonstrations against the establishment of a 1320 MW coal-fired power plant in Rampal, near Passur river, 14km away from the Sundarbans.

Law enforces launched systematic attacks on riot gears on protesters who were trying to save the forest that has been saving the western part of our southern coastal belt. Graffiti of that time were also crucial in pointing that the public opposition to the project.

As mentioned before, Subodh is one of the major series of artworks in recent history of graffiti in Dhaka. The series portrayed the essence of goodness in a young man named Subodh who is cornered and frustrated by the state repression of the ruling quarters and extreme alienation in society. The artist instructs him to run away, so Subodh runs away with a caged sun. The artist asks him when the dawn will come. Subodh is seen surrounded by crime-scene yellow tapes. There is no goodness for him in this rotten structure. Subodh is the ordinary people who are living the life of Subodh every day.

Clockwise from the left: Abu Bakar who died in clashes between Bangladesh Chhatra League factions in the University of Dhaka in 2010; ‘Helmet bahini’ graffiti following the Road Safety Movement 2018; A graffiti demanding the Dhaka University Central Student Union elections in 2017; anti-Rampal protests to save the Sundarbans in 2016.


Maidul Islam, assistant professor of sociology, Chittagong University was sent to jail under section 57 of ICT Act on July 24, 2018 for ‘making defamatory remarks against the prime minister on social media’. His bail was granted on October 9 but was released after 20 more days as the bail order was mistakenly sent to another court! Concerned bodies demanded his release and artworks adorned public university walls.

The Dhaka University Central Students Union polls were due for nearly 30 years before it finally took place on March 11, 2019. This had been the demands for a lot of student organisations and that could be seen in different residential halls and academic buildings through graffiti. One such graffiti showed an address and a son is urging to send his dead body to that address to his mother as he may die in his hunger strike for DUCSU. Walid Ashraf, a student of University of Dhaka staged two hunger strikes in demands of the DUCSU polls in 2017. 

In the recent history of Bangladesh, no other students’ movements have demanded such structural changes as the road safety movement 2018 did. On July 29, a rashly driven bus rammed into waiting pedestrians in a bus-stand on the Airport Road Dhaka killing two school students. A ministers’ remark on the incident sparked a huge movement largely led by school students. Their political understanding, as observed during the movement and on the placards and graffiti, were signs of hope for the future. The movement was tamed after a week by repeated assaults on the protesting students by law enforcers and ruling party student wing Bangladesh Chhatra League.

The later force was seen wearing helmets and launching attacks on the students besides the law enforcers. The helmeted goons even assaulted and seriously injured on-duty journalists. Their appearance gave birth to the term helmet bahini. During and after the movement, graffiti were seen portraying the minister as a ‘murder’ who made insensitive remark and gesture. There were graffiti at different campuses critiquing the role of helmet bahini.

While giving an interview to an international news outlet, Shahidul Alam, an acclaimed photographer of Bangladesh commented on this movement which landed him in jail. He was charged under section 57(2) of the ICT Act. Graffiti were drawn in different public places and concerned youths and citizens demonstrated demanding his release. One such graffiti at Jahangirnagar University campus said, suppressing our voice will only amplify it.

Ragging and guestroom culture is a pervasive practice in public universities of Bangladesh. In many incidents, victims were left with lifetime trauma — both physical and mental. In the most recent incident of ragging, the murder of Abrar Fahad, a second year student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, brought the face of BCL as repressive force on campus to the fore. Graffiti were drawn on the walls of BUET condemning the practice and demanding a complete stop to such form of campus violence.

The incident of Abrar brings back memories of other forms of campus violence and the case of Abu Bakar through a graffiti that says ‘No One Killed Abu Bakar’. Abu Bakar was a student of Islamic studies and culture of DU. During a clash between factions of Bangladesh Chhatra League in Sir F rahman Hall in 2010, Abu Bakar was killed. Post-mortem reports showed blunt-force trauma as reason for his death. However, all the ten BCL activists accused of Abu Bakar’s murder were released by the court in 2017. Legal system may have failed him, but his campus- fellow remembered him through graffiti.

Since August, the students and teachers of JU are in probably the longest movement against corruption in any campus are on the streets demanding a judicious probe into the allegation of embezzlement of university’s development and asking the vice chancellor to resign for the sake of the integrity of the investigation. The vice-chancellor accused of corruption to quell the protest have endorsed BCL attack on protesting students, closed down the university for indefinite period, filed cases against protesting students. Effectively did all that she could to suppress the dissenting voice on campus. However, the protesting students took to different art forms including graffiti to express their concern and raise their demands and graffiti was one of them. In field visits to the campus, New Age Youth have found a number of graffiti depicting the morally corrupt vice-chancellor along with her ‘loyal’ teachers.

When surveillance is rife, dissenting voices will open up spaces to express themselves as evidenced in one of the graffitis on the wall of JU campus — ‘suppressing our voices will only amplify it.’

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email