Street artist and Kulture Shop co-founder Jas Charanjiva believes that art is not necessarily meant to be inside, or on a wall. Her journey as an artist spans the UK, Canada, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Hyderabad and finally makes a stop in Mumbai, where she makes the relaxed, hybrid suburb Bandra her home. Her work can be seen in it’s winding lanes, like a sudden spot of exciting in an otherwise quiet, sleepy bylane, reminding people to live better in a warm and fuzzy way. We catch her at the KS studio and ask her about her multi-national childhood, her outspoken feminist street art, and her favourite thing to talk about: David Bowie.
KS: You’ve lived and grown up in a series of countries, all a little bit different from each other. What was that experience like?
Jas: I was born in the UK, in Chatham Kent, 15 mins from where Mick Jagger grew up (he’s always been one of my rock heroes), lived in Toronto for 7 years (from 2 to 9), getting influenced by my older cousins’ taste in music, moved to San Francisco where I started experimenting with Street Art properly, and then to NYC, where I gained some good marketing experience before my husband Arjun (Charanjiva, also co-founder Kulture Shop) and I moved to Hyderabad, for his work, and then eventually we ended up in Mumbai, where Arjun grew up.
Growing up in Canada, I heard The Who, The Stones, David Bowie and Queen – at a fairly early age. Bowie ended up becoming my life long muse from that point onwards. Eventually we moved to San Francisco, and I found myself discovering music on my own, and I started getting into Punk and skateboarding. I discovered not just skateboarders but also underground artists through artwork found on skateboard decks and Thrasher magazine. There was also a lot of graffiti where we lived. I’d walk around a lot, and find alleys with murals, and other stuff put up by individual artists which I thought was such a cool thing – almost like an outdoor gallery, where you never knew when things would be moved or taken down or painted over.. and anyone could attend it of course, and take pictures. At 16, I thought that was a really cool thing, compared to something in galleries. I also liked that rebellious, punk DIY subculture of graffiti artists, that I felt was an arts version of a really cool punk musician.
I lived in NYC for a while with Arjun when we got married. I worked with Isaac Mizrahi on his T.V. show, followed by a job at an entertainment marketing firm which worked with all kinds of bands from Franz Ferdinand to the Rolling Stones and major events like the US Open and Sundance Film Festival. I can see now how all of those things were leading up to Kulture Shop.
KS: You’re a self-taught artist, and you’ve mentioned how you became interested in art as a teen, more or less. Did you ever consider going to art school?
Jas: I was always interested since I was a little, little kid really. I was always drawing on notebook covers.. it gave me an individualistic attitude, that became part of my identity, so in that sense art has always been important to me. My mom saw that and told me I should go to art school, but I really had it in my mind to go to film school. I loved the art of storytelling; and cinematic storytelling. And maybe I was taken by the glamorous side of film.. I kinda wish I had gone to art school but in a different way I wonder if I’d just have been discouraged by the competition or criticism, and I might’ve abandoned it.
KS: Do you think however, that it might’ve made a difference in your work, as street art is considered a less formal, more open to all kind of a medium?
Jas: Yeah there are some artists that studied fine art and then they apply it to street art. With some of them it’s such a beautiful combination. Such as Os Gemeos.. If I had the time right now, or if I could go back to my twenties, I would still do whatever I had done work-wise, without going to art school; but I would also concentrate on doing art formally with somebody in a studio environment or a collective, more than a school environment. I did do some formal training in my 30s – I took two classes at the School of Visual Arts, NY, for typography and graphic design. I was already working at the time so I didn’t apply myself a 100% to it, which, looking back, I wish I had done.
KS: When did you first tag a wall? And when did it occur to you that you wanted to be a street artist?
Jas: I was probably 10 or 11, and I was walking to the mall with my granddad. I’d carried a bunch of chalk with me, and I just decorated the sidewalk panels on the way, starting from our driveway all the way to the mall. Of course I got punished for it later when my mom noticed the trail leading up to the doorstep… She automatically knew it was me! I’d written names of bands I liked and so on. It was fun, it was rebellious, and I always wondered who else would get to see it, all of which was the thrill of street art for me anyway.
Then fast forward to my 20s, and I got to paint for this DJ called DJ Logic in an indie record store. And across the street was The Church of Coltrane, dedicated to John Coltrane, and on Sundays that little place was filled with hundreds of people till there were people standing on the streets to listen to the sermons. And I began thinking, if I could write/draw something here, like a message for those people that were standing on the street every Sunday, that could be impactful and could change someone’s thinking or enter a dialogue with them. The record store didn’t let me quite do it, but that’s when I consciously started getting attracted to street art. I began to write small little messages on the walls, that people could stumble upon, and things took off from there… I still prefer to do street art in nooks and crannies of busy streets – like Chapel road in Bandra is great for people to stumble upon stuff. I should ideally mix it up a little bit more, get some visibility, but I do like little unexpected surprises.
KS: What is the one thing about street art that makes it a medium you prefer as opposed to say a mural indoors or a painting show?
Jas: It’s about change. Street Art can absolutely make an impact, and I think it’s a great driver for change, especially for kids. So a lot of my characters are funny looking, they’re cute in a way, they always look angry. Why’re they angry? Because change doesn’t happen fast enough. But it is something that children notice, and then read what’s written along with it, it resonates with them a little more than reading some text in a book or on a flyer. It’s also very reactive to the environment it’s in. For instance I was being filmed making a mural. My plan was to go with a mural that said Bandra is the Village of Cool and have a guy smoking in it. Typically when I’m creating art outside, depending on the area people stop, ask questions, give me a job (laughs). But in a residential neighbourhood, there’s also a whole lot of kids who stand around and watch and often interact. So here there were a bunch of kids watching, and as soon as I drew the cigarette in his mouth, I heard one kid say to another: Oh he’s smoking! And I realised I had to change it a bit so I ended up outlining “Smoking is for Villains”. Only when I stepped back did I realise I’d misspelled villains – which also became a marker for the piece.
KS: What about Don’t Mess With Me? Were you thinking about the situation here with women, and the conversations around it when you made that piece?
Jas: I created that piece for Kulture Shop, under the theme The Times which was about the differences between the traditional and the modern. So when I thought of tradition I automatically thought of a traditional garb with this sari and covered head, and traditional jewellery, and I decided to toughen her up with brass knuckles. And I really wanted her to say something in that image, which you didn’t have to work to get at – so I wrote BOOM. I think it was timely, with all the conversations going on in India. It was around the time that my friend Poorna Jagannathan was producing the play Nirbhaya with Yael Farber. And because of all the things going on around it I figured this piece could represent what they were doing and the changing attitudes of and towards women in India. Now, we shouldn’t be “oh no I’m a woman, I need to be protected.” The women who worked with Poorna, and many of the women who were on the news, during the protests, they had this incredible no bullshit attitude, which really impressed me, and I wanted my work to reflect that attitude. And I think it’s working because I get a lot of feedback from a women about that piece, and it’s exciting to know I’ve captured their imagination in an inspirational way.
KS: On a lighter note, you had a show in Mumbai after you moved to India, about your one true love, David Bowie. How did that come about?
Jas: I’ve always loved Bowie. I’m really proud that at a very young age I chose someone who is so sophisticated. Of course I only realised when I grew up, just how sophisticated he was. I created my Bowie inspired collection for GQ India to go with an article they reproduced which was originally featured in British GQ. I had about a month to put it all together. So I kinda fucked around for two weeks, trying stuff to see what worked, and eventually decided to go with collage work. I created each collage piece myself, working with resin and pencil. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do since I chose to work with a very intricate method in the shortest time possible, but I didn’t have a day job so it was pretty okay. Each piece had a concept, and of course had to do with Bowie, reflecting his work and process, since I was listening to Bowie – his music, his interviews, all the time. I realised he works with collages musically – and of course everything he would do was always conceptual, in a complete overarching way. And since Bowie was not as popular in India I decided instead of using his face, to use elements from his songs and albums, to draw people in and of course once you were at the show you would know a lot more about his life and his work.
KS: You mentioned you like street art partly because it’s such a democratic way to reach people, and for people to get involved in. Do you think Kulture Shop, or outfits like this one, are helping democratize art?
Jas: I feel like KS is making art available at affordable prices, on multiple canvases, such as tees or notebooks as well, which gives people an opportunity to make art part of their life, and speak to their personality. Our artists aren’t given a directive as much as inspiration and suggestion but the final design is entirely their own. That way the audience also gets an insight into individual artists’ works and the kind of work they’re concerned with. It’s a way of looking at art that we are introducing here.
KS: And do you feel that there’s a difference in how people are looking at art now, than how they reacted to it earlier?
Jas: Well of course. There’s the internet and various apps that let you now look through art and even create your own work so that’s there. I feel like there’s a large number of people who’re starting to like art because they realise art is not something that can only be seen in a gallery but is something we can resonate with and appreciate now, something that’s more approachable and done with humour for instance. And being on various social media we’re sometimes passively exposed to art, with stuff showing up on newsfeeds. But yeah it’s changed. There was a time the answer to “who’s your favourite artist” would lead to Picasso or some such really well known answer. Now, people have choices, because they’re seeing a lot more, and knowing more gives them bragging rights like you do with new music. People aren’t afraid to engage with art anymore.