My Life as a Juvenile Graffiti Vandal

First Person

My Life as a Juvenile Graffiti Vandal

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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aba Siddiqui, the Congress MLA from Bandra, regarded my two friends and me with an unreadable expression from the couch of his lavish living room in a sprawling apartment. The year was 2007, and teenaged stupidity had brought Jonathan, Shrey, and me to the house of an influential local politician to face the music. We used to be called “the J-Boyz”, and vandalising private property was to us what routinely redefining the definition of bad taste is to Rakhi Sawant.

That is, until we were recorded tagging Siddiqui’s ministerial Ambassador with our spray-paint cans by his own security cameras. The J-Boyz’ days of merry – and fairly high-profile – mischief were numbered.

I’ll make a leap here, but prior to 2007, vigilante vandalism and graffiti gangs were… let’s say, not a fad in India yet. But things changed for the worse one late night in August 2006, when Shrey decided to carry along a spray can and excitedly tagged his name on the footpath. And instead of scolding our friend for desecrating Juhu’s pristine footpaths with his vile aerosol can, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of finally getting to live out my childhood fantasy of being a graffiti vandal, like the ones I’d read about operating in Europe. I felt a surge of excitement at the mere thought – also, I was 15.

The next thing I knew, it was 3 am, and the three of us were standing outside the apartment building of a tuition teacher with a reputation for getting a little too friendly with our female pals. In our minds, ol’ Prof CJ McToucherson deserved a dose of vigilante justice. This, to us, involved tagging his beige Innova with the choicest Hindi gaalis, a couple of “CJ Suxs”, and a huge “J-Boyz” tag on the hood before speeding away into the night.

It was official, we were vandals. And I loved it. We spent the next few months fervently tagging school buses, private walls, and even some empty billboards with “J-Boyz”. We even graffiti’d an entire gate outside one of our college’s popular eateries. Word had begun to spread around campus about us, and honestly, the adulation was somewhat flattering. More people joined us on graffiti runs, turning our once-clandestine cabal into a full-fledged vandal menace, with over 20 guys involved. Tagging CJ’s car had made us campus rockstars overnight.

J_BOYZ

The first wake-up call should have been the late night phone call from Juhu police station. The cops had picked up 38 boys from Jamnabai Circle, a favourite tagging spot for the growing tribe of J-Boyz. The detained boys sang like canaries once they were in the holding cell, and our identities as the ringleaders were revealed. On account of us being college students at the time, the cops were willing to let us off with a warning. “Abhi se aisa kaand kiya toh andar kar denge. Tum log bache ho, padhaai pe dhyaan do,” said a cop as he walked us out of the station.

A sane person – or really, anyone who was friggin’ 15 – would have stopped at this point. But it’s easier to divide by zero than find a rational teenager. We wanted to have ourselves one last hurrah. A vigilante coup de grâce, if you will. Our final big fish? The then-Minister of State for Food and Civil Supplies, Baba Siddiqui.

Big, big mistake. On that night, as we gleefully vandalised Mr Siddiqui’s official government-issued Ambassador, his CCTV camera caught us red handed.

An article in The New Yorker titled “Why Teen-Agers are the Worst” quotes neurologist and author Frances Jensen, who tells us that “teens are not quite firing on all cylinders when it comes to the frontal lobes. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised by the daily stories we hear and read about tragic mistakes.” Hear that, mom? Don’t blame your son for becoming a graffiti vandal, blame his underdeveloped brain. Mine was unable to comprehend the message the police tried to convey the first time I was called to the station.

The complainants against us included everyone from Priya Dutt to our tuition teacher, and the bill for damages ran into crores.

Now that Siddiqui had video proof of our delinquency, the kid-gloves were coming off. A constable arrived at each of our houses to take us down to the station, where we were interrogated for hours by a conveyor belt of inspectors. They showed us the “Satya Bol Patta” or “Belt of Truth”, made famous by Katekar in Sacred Games. Thankfully, the cops spared us the Katekar treatment. Instead, they slapped us with the projected cost of property damages we had racked up in our exploits as the J-Boyz. The complainants against us included everyone from Priya Dutt to our tuition teacher, and the bill for damages ran into crores.

While we thought that the police station was the worst of it, the worst of our arduous tryst with the law came when the press found out. Equipped with sensational headlines like “The Notorious J-Boyz Finally Apprehended!”, the media, in many ways, was less sensitive with us than the police. For their part, the police were sensitive to the fact that we were minors, and in the end they managed to convince the complainants to retract their charges, while our parents were made to sign a bond of ₹50 stating that if we ever did something like this again, Mumbai Police would make sure we were tried as adults.

But we weren’t out of the woods yet. A couple of weeks after the incident, we received the summons we had been dreading. Baba Siddiqui wanted to talk to us in person. In the elevator up to his apartment, my head was spinning with rumours of politicians with underworld links, and I was afraid that there was a real possibility I might “disappear” that night. That’s how we ended up standing sheepishly across the room from a state minister, while he expertly stretched the silence so that our minds would leap to the worst case scenario.

Mend

And then, relief. He sat us down and told us stories of how he used to be the naughtiest boy in Bandra at one point and that in a weird way, he was proud of the gusto we’d shown. “Beta log,” he said, “rebellion is good. But only if channeled in the right direction.”

Thanks, Mr Siddiqui, but my stint as one of the J-Boyz gave me my fill of rebellion. I think a more accurate assessment of my character came from one of the senior inspectors who interrogated us after we tagged Siddiqui’s car. He argued that getting a taste of the wrong side of the law early on leads to most juvenile delinquents becoming model citizens in the future. “Abhi ya toh tum log aadarsh nagrik banega ya toh Don,” he laughed. He was right. I haven’t picked up a spray can since.

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