BANGALORE, India — On Saturday night, I flag an auto-rickshaw home. Midway through the ride, the driver pulls over and leaps out unannounced. After a brief exchange of broken English and sign language, his intent becomes clear. He walks a few feet away and relieves himself on the sidewalk.
"It’s an absurdly common sight on the streets," says Ria Rajan, a local artist. She once rented some studio space near the hockey stadium downtown. It stood across from a swanky apartment complex — one that doubled as a preferred relieving spot. "Everybody just peed on the compound wall," she says. "So that corner used to stink. All of us had walked past that corner practically every day."
Rajan and two* Indian cohorts, along with a quintet of visiting German street artists, sought a way to curtail the stink. And the Pee Project was born. They found a group of older craftsmen that make the lithographic movie posters that can be seen all over Bangalore — products of an intensive, dying technique unique to south India. Then they mounted their toilets to the wall.
'Do not urinate' signs scrawled on the wall have failed to work in the past. By "taking the urinal outside the actual bathroom," as Rajan describes their work, they hoped to provoke men into reconsidering before they unzipped.
Rajan's work is part of a tide of new art here that takes the city as its canvas and its inspiration. Unlike the nation's three established megacities — New Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata — Bangalore is a newly minted metropolis without a deep cultural history binding its inhabitants. Recent street art reflects this morphing city, and its residents' struggle with it while trying to give the city a semblance of identity.
When the posters went up, their creators knew they weren't going to stop street urination citywide, let alone on that corner. By evening, the lithographs were torn down.
Public peeing persists in Bangalore because accessible public toilets are hard to find. A report from February pegged the number of scarce public restrooms in this city at 504, about one for every square mile of the city. Of those, a fifth lacked adequate water. As a white male foreigner, I can easily pop into any nearby restaurant or hotel when nature calls. Most rickshaw drivers don’t have that luxury.
Urine, relatively speaking, is a tame sanitation nuisance. A report from UNICEF estimated that 14 percent of India's urban residents defecate in the open. In the rural regions of Karnataka, Bangalore's state, that number is as high as 72 percent, only slightly above national averages, according to a survey from the NGO Arghyam. Alarmingly, it is often done close to water sources. Rural residents would prefer to take it indoors, but lack the facilities.
Men making impromptu stalls in the city have fewer excuses.
And it's always men: here, as elsewhere in the country, public urination is a gendered act. You never see a woman stooped on the side of the road.
Although it was unique, the Pee Project was not the first of these efforts. Hoping to keep piddlers away, apartment complexes will paint small Hindu gods on the walls. They may add Muslim and Christian symbols too, just to be sure. In a twist on the usual conception of graffiti, enterprising painters covered an entire central city wall. The number of peeing visitors there fell sharply.
These efforts hold a common thread: an attempt to restore some reverence to the city.
Among many Bangalore artists, urban space is turning into a central subject. "It becomes their muse; it becomes their cause," explains Archana Prasad, the founder of Jaaga, the NGO behind the Urban Avant-Garde, another project of Rajan and collaborators. "Everyone is looking at the city," Prasad says, adding, "It is such a mess."
In their approach, street artists here have borrowed ideas from Mumbai. (A prolific graffiti tagger there relies on one particular word to capture the city’s crassness.) But they've also generated their own. Two years ago, city officials hired a wave of muralists to "beautify" its freeway walls. Yet the work was done in only one style, explains Rajan. In response, her team tries to diversify communal art. A program in one neighborhood to spur public transit use deploys a mixture of street art — working with residents to decorate buses and walls — with civic engagement and urban planning.
A new, younger Bangalore art community "is just about being born," Rajan tells me. "There's a whole sort of energy coming out of the city now." It comes, in part, from the city's position as a crossroads: not only do German artists pass through but also Indians born in every other state, roughly two-thirds of the city's population.
But this status as a metropolis of outsiders can be a handicap. It risks removing the city's past or giving the impression that it has none.
Krupa Rajangam, a historical preservationist, wants to shed that impression. "[Bangalore is] a lot older than Bombay (Mumbai) or Kolkata even," she says. Its growth has merely masked the layers beneath. A native, Rajangam spent time away then returned perplexed. "It was like I was seeing it afresh," she recalls. "Whatever memories I associated with the city did not exist."
She launched an oral history project in several communities, an effort to restore hidden memories. Others, like the public artists, are less intent on retrieving the city's character than reinventing one. Theirs is a response to "a city in crisis," as Prasad calls it. It's a mission to ensure that there is at least some identity in a neighborhood or on a block. Or on a sidewalk corner.
"The fear is it becomes a very anonymous space," she says. "No one cares about an anonymous city."
*Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Indian artists involved in this project. There are two of them, not four.
All photos by Fabian Sixtus Körner.