Secret Sacred Street Art in London`s East End

By Madhusudana Das for Creation on 20 Jan 2011
After recently discovering on Facebook a photo of a beautiful bas-relief sculpture of Jagannatha, I just had to find out more. It wasn’t just the artistry that drew me in, but more than anything, the location of the piece – by a railway bridge on Brick Lane. Who is this mysterious street artist, Cityzenkane?

Sacred Street ArtAfter recently discovering on Facebook a photo of a beautiful bas-relief sculpture of Jagannatha, I just had to find out more. It wasn’t just the artistry that drew me in, but more than anything, the location of the piece – by a railway bridge on Brick Lane. Who is this mysterious street artist, Cityzenkane?
Tracing the photo to a YouTube video posted by Cityzenkane, I could immediately understand that a seasoned street artist was at work.
Occasionally, street artists will find inspiration in the mystical East, and their work may feature imagery and references from that culture. Then, after stumbling across something else, their curiosity will switch to something new. This time however, I suspected Cityzenkane had motives beyond those of self-expression and that his chosen subject was more than a passing phase.
A YouTube comment from the artist himself confirmed this: “He [Jagannatha] is on the street so that everyone can take darshan, they take his photo and show their friends and their friends go and see him. In this way people who have never seen him before receive his mercy without even realising it, such is his causeless mercy.” It was time to trace the work back to its source and hear the street art tattvas for myself.
I found him, but – for obvious reasons – he did not want to come out of his anonymity. However, he was eager to answer my questions.
Congratulations on such an exciting piece of work. When exactly was Jagannatha installed and do you know if He’s still there?
He was installed in the summer and he is still there in great condition. It’s amazing, most of my work disappears in weeks but because this piece is so big I think people see it and think it is meant to be there, so they leave it alone. The Council have tried to remove it, slightly damaging His dhoti. They clearly gave up!
It could be seen as risking time and materials on a piece that may be vandalised within days of going up. Does this thought ever worry you?
My art has always been about attachment. “How attached am I to my creations. It’s about the impermanence of things and letting go of my attachments. If someone steals my work I consider it a compliment. However this philosophy makes my wife very cross.
There are serious amounts of intricacy and detail within the piece – it’s even decorated Swarovski crystals! What were your reasons for the ‘no expense spared’ approach?
I’m fascinated by light-interactive material, the drawback of this is its cost. But seeing my sculptures sparkling in the sunlight gives them an extra dimension which is worth it.
You’ve captured some great footage of people passing by and grabbing photos. Is this common practice among street artists – to return to the scene and gauge public reaction?
I’m not sure. Being a street artist is a solitary pastime so I can’t speak for other artists. I wanted to return to get shots of Him with people to get a sense of scale and I love seeing people’s reaction to Him.
The way you’ve portrayed Jagannatha is very classical and true to Orissan depictions, ie: displaying hands and feet, plus the style of his ornaments and so on. How differently do you feel about your personal free-form street art and the Jagannatha piece, which is a strict reproduction of a particular deity?
Previously my work has been a free expression of my subconscious, I don’t know where it comes from, I plan the work and it just happens in the moment. With the Jagannath piece however, I wanted to stay true to Vaishnava tradition whilst maintaining my own style.
To devotees of a certain disposition, the Jagannatha piece could prove provocative. How would you answer claims that an image of Krishna is purely spiritual and should be honoured as such? One devotee even suggested that it become someones responsibility to clean the piece daily!
I completely understand the controversial nature of this piece, particularly as He is installed in a predominantly Islamic area of London. It’s also a Bohemian and hedonistic area too. To my mind that is a good reason to put Him where He is. One devotee suggested He should only be in temples or gardens of devotees. Others have said he should only be seen with Lord Balaram and Lady Subhadra. My feelings however are that in this age of Kali if people can see an image of Krishna, even if they don’t know what it is, in a place that is outside of the confines of a temple, then even if it’s at a minuscule level, the soul will identify with it. As a result a degree of spiritual progress will be achieved somewhere down the line. I’ve obtained approval from sources from high up within the Vaishnava community and the overwhelming response has been positive. I will honour the request to clean him and if at the end of the day it’s offensive I must take the karma for it as mercy.
Have the positive responses encouraged you to do more work in this spirit?
Yes indeed. I have finally found my service, for what it’s worth.
Would you mind telling readers something about yourself and your profession.
I work in broadcast television as a freelance cameraman. I am also passionate about photography, drawing and I also DJ. I play ambient, chill-out music mixed with film samples. I want my next mix to incorporate quotes from Michael Cremo’s work ‘Forbidden Archaeology’ which is in my opinion the most important scientific work of this and the last century. I’m also working on a proposal with him for a film based on his work.
I hope this conversation will be the first of many as I think readers will appreciate your perspectives. Are you open to the idea of chatting some more in future issues?
Yes, of course. I very much admire the work Vaishnava Art Council (VAC) are doing. Can I also take this opportunity to give a big shout to Vince Lane of Mayapur TV for his dedication in bringing Vaishnava culture to the mainstream? Param-dhamananda Prabhu for cinematic artistry in his sublime film ‘Rasa Yatra’ and of course your other featured artist Jagannatha Suta Prabhu for his exquisite music and of course Jayadev Prabhu for his divine music and tireless support.
About the author: Madhusudana Das, himself an artist, lives in the UK and married to Keli-cancala Dasi. He is the founder of the Vaishnava Art Council (VAC), which is a new project aiming to promote and support Vaishnava artists in the UK. To learn more about the VAC, clik here: http://news.iskcon.org/node/3344/2010-12-24/vaishnava_a…
To watch the video by Cityzenkane, follow this link: http://news.iskcon.org/node/3383/2011-01-21/secret_sacr…

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