His signature squid-monster designs have graced Jakarta street tunnels, overpasses and walls of empty lots and vacant buildings — that is, until they are washed off or painted over by authorities.
But this month, after six years of painting on the sly in the dark of night, dodging the cops and paying them off to let him work, graffiti artist Darbotz celebrates his first solo exhibition at dGallerie in South Jakarta.
“Monster Goes Out at Night” showcases Darbotz’s graffiti work on canvas, wood, video, fiberglass installations and various merchandise, including T-shirts, sketchbooks and a pair of Nike sneakers. The lively exhibit introduces the artist’s previously elusive Cumi character, an intricately designed monster squid in black and white, who is featured in all Darbotz’s works.
Known to friends and fellow artists by his street name Darbotz, the 28-year-old Jakarta native is a graphic designer for an advertising agency by day. He won’t reveal his real name, saying it is through his art that he presents himself to the public.
“My work is my alter ego. This is the other me,” he said.
Accustomed to keeping this other identity under wraps, Darbotz said he was honored to have his work displayed openly on gallery walls. “This is the next level for me — to have my work appreciated and recognized by the fine-art community.”
Until now, Darbotz has worked under much different conditions. Armed with cans of spray paint, he would head for the streets around midnight, usually with friends and other graffiti artists. “You have to go out at night to avoid trouble with the police,” he said. “You have to finish quickly before someone catches you, and you have to be careful where you paint.”
Some of his friends who were caught painting near government buildings were jailed for a day. For his part, Darbotz said he has endured only minor harassment from police and paying them a few thousand rupiah usually sends them away.
“They yell at us like we’re criminals. But we’re not criminals, we’re just doing art,” he said. “I like to paint on a dirty wall to make it beautiful, to make it more interesting than just a dirty wall.”
Alia Swastika, the curator of Darbotz’s exhibit, said she first saw the artist’s work three years ago under an overpass in front of Cilandak Town Square (CITOS) in South Jakarta. She had already heard of Darbotz from other artists, but was instantly struck by the boldness of his black-and-white designs that set his paintings apart from the multicolored work typical of other graffiti artists.
“It’s a very distinctive pattern, and the way he plays with the limitations of black and white is very interesting,” Alia said.
At the gallery, Darbotz explained that the gnarled giant tentacles characteristic of his Cumi monster are representative of the chaos of Jakarta. One untitled painting that takes up an entire gallery wall betrays an edge to the usually playful Cumi.
“He’s always smiling, but he’s also angry,” Darbotz said. “He’s angry at the traffic, the government, the pollution, the corruption. As a regular citizen I can’t do anything about these things. But I can express my feelings through this work.”
Another painting, “I Come in Peace,” depicts the monster squid with hands stretched wide in a gesture of embrace.
“This is for the art community,” Darbotz said, noting the significance of his first exhibit in light of “the gap between street art and fine art.”
Esti Nurjadin, owner of dGallerie, said this gap was partly due to public misconceptions about street art. “Street art is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Many people don’t think that street art can also be a fine art.”
Alia said she wanted to showcase graffiti art to offer a new perspective. In London, New York and Japan, the graffiti movement has grown markedly in recent years “as the market has begun to accept the work of graffiti artists.”
“But collectors in Indonesia still don’t think of graffiti as fine art,” she said. “Just starting a dialogue about this could mark a new step in Indonesian contemporary art.”