“The Moses of Graffiti Art” – Interview with Sanki King by Saima Jawed, pt. 1
He is the most famous, if not the only, graffiti artist of Pakistan – Abdullah Ahmed Khan aka Sanki King. With his contribution to the Karachi Biennale 2017 – “Mind Palace – Freedom of Thought” – the twenty-seven-year-old Sanki has now officially arrived in the art world; a world that doesn’t really know what to do with this over-confident former rapper, beatboxer and DJ who uses his remarkable technical skills to fuse graffiti with ornament, Eastern tradition with Western street culture.
I talked to Sanki when he was about to finish his piece at the Jamshed Memorial School about a week ago. His confidence can be quite stressful sometimes, and maybe it is the reason why some people don’t like him. On the other hand, it can also be inspiring – it is fun to listen to this self-assured graffiti king, and without this confidence, he may not be able to paint like he does – creating those beautifully clear and balanced art works on the spot, in a kind of freestyle manner. You can see his confidence in his brush strokes, that show no sign of hesitation and that only need little after-treatment, if any. And then, he of course has every reason to be proud of his achievements: developing a unique style that is immediately recognizable, that is not an easy thing to do – some artists never get there. Not to forget that he is also very young, so he has all the time in the world to become a little more humble. He is definitely on his way, reading people like Carl Jung, Alan Watts and Ashfaq Ahmed. To him, the word ‘Sanki’ – in Urdu: سنکی – not only means a form of eccentric obsession, a passion gone mad, but also ‘deep thinker’. And maybe it is especially necessary in Pakistan to not show any weaknesses – to be not recognized as ‘soft’; in our macho-oriented culture, others will take advantage of that right away.
Saima: I think it’s great that you’re part of the Karachi Biennale, it would’ve been strange without you. I know there’s some resistance from other established artists towards you; it seems they don’t consider your work ‘real art’.
Sanki: The thing is that, first of all, if you don’t have an art degree – and a lot of people have said this to my face that I am not an artist because I don’t have one – then you are not accepted here. Some have even gone as far as saying a few years ago – now they wouldn’t dare say it – but they have gone as far as saying that if you don’t have an art degree, you are no better than an electrician or a car mechanic.
Congratulations, you’re the first mechanic participating in an art biennale. Tell us a bit about how this all came about, for instance, did you choose this location or was it assigned to you?
All the artists who are working for the Biennale were actually assigned places to work at. All the twelve locations of the Biennale were divided – one location was divided among let’s say twenty artists et cetera. It kind of depends on the scale of that place. This location here is actually one of the biggest locations of the Biennale. The biggest one is NJV school. I actually didn’t know where I would be working, until I came here and then I was told that I would be painting on a rooftop. I did not know how big it was going to be. I had a few pictures of the rooftop sent by the chief curator Amin Gulgee, but I actually did not know the scale of the place, so when I came here initially my plan was to paint the walls of the passageway and those red walls outside. But then I decided, why not? Because I had a very good budget. So I decided, why not go all the way and – apart from these four walls – paint the floor and also create a big piece right at the center of the courtyard. You saw all the swings upstairs and the benches, right?
They were actually in the courtyard, so I had them removed. This is an open space, it not only has walls, but it actually has a big courtyard, and it’s not surrounded by a building except from one side, so it’s very open – you can see the sky and it’s pretty easy to look at the entire space from any angle. The concept is that this space is a part of my mind; I think of it as my ‘mind palace’.
Is that a Sherlock Holmes reference?
I’m a big fan of Sherlock, but this concept is not from Sherlock. It is not about using your mind as a kind of memory machine to solve a specific problem. For instance, did you notice that only a few parts of both of these walls are painted? Usually I paint the whole entire wall with a background and then something on the foreground. This time, I have actually used them as if I’m interpreting my emotions, my feelings and my subconscious mind through these colors and patterns. You’ll notice that even the walls are not completely painted, all the color that you see, you can still see the raw wall from under these layers. All the proper and readable graffiti that you see is from a writing that I composed, especially for this project.
So looking at this project, we know everything about you now. What is it called? “Mind Palace”?
“Mind Palace – Freedom of Thought”. I’m using excerpts from my old notebooks on different topics like philosophy, love, hate et cetera, and they’ll be like very subliminal in the background and throughout the floor and also on the walls in front of the other classes at the end of the passageway – I’ll be using those subliminal writings for that. The writing that I composed for this whole project is actually so long that all the pieces that I’ll be painting – the red one, the white one on the red wall, the piece in the passageway and the one at the center of the courtyard – it’s (the writing) going to be used in all the pieces which are a part of this work. The work at the center of the courtyard would be like a big flower. The floor is made in a honeycomb pattern; I’ll be using the pattern to create a big flower in which you’ll see subliminal calligraphy, in a very unique way and color palette – something that I haven’t done before. My idea is that once the project is completed and you go upstairs on that small rooftop above the courtyard and look towards this roof, you’ll see a kind of story. Although it is not even, and the color palettes are different with each wall and even the floor – but you’d nevertheless see this harmony. It also shows the ups and downs going on inside my mind. So red walls show anger, the purple shows serenity, the green shows peace et cetera.
These walls were painted beforehand, right?
No, they were only painted with a very cheap chemical paint which we call “choona” in Urdu. The paint is so cheap that once the coats have dried and you start rubbing your hand on the wall, it comes off as powder – that was the raw wall. The plaster was very cheap and it had about four layers of that cheap paint. On the first day of the project, I took a broom and it took me four hours to get all that dust and that cheap powder paint off.
Why didn’t you just paint on top of it?
Because then it would have been worse. The wet paint turns the powder into a layer, and once you take your brush or roller off – the layer comes off like a page. It immediately comes off.
So you painted all these walls, but you kind of left them unfinished.
You may have noticed that all the work that I do on the streets or my old commissioned work that I have done in which I was given freedom to do whatever I want, I never fully covered the walls. I never put a base coat that would cover the entire wall, because it gives a kind of an edge to the entire piece. I like the fact that you can see the raw wall, it is visible under the layers of the paint that I used. I have done some projects where I was asked to change the entire base coat, and if you look at this wall next to us, this is like a complete base coat; it’s just grey. You can’t see anything, it could be black, purple, yellow previously, but we don’t know because it’s all covered. But once I was done dusting these walls off, I painted over the raw wall and kept it all slightly visible. This is a really old building, it was built in 1956, the previous structure was wooden, so it had to be taken down. The top floors of any building, they absorb the most of any weather, and because of that a lot of the plaster and the concrete is damaged. In Karachi, a building is constantly, every day, under the sun for like ten, twelve hours.
Let’s not forget, sun is fire! How long will this piece withstand the sun?
It won’t do any harm. The paint that I have used is the kind of paint which is used on buildings to protect them from the weather. This is all weather-resistant paint, that’s the thing.
You said that you used your notebooks, that you even composed a writing for this. But you’re not writing in Arabic, are you? Because it looks like Arabic.
No. No, it’s all English.
Really? But what does it say? For instance that circle that you started to paint today. I mean, the fact that it is broken and that there is this passage through already sends a very strong message; as if you were the Moses of the graffiti world.
Hahaha, I like that! Well, this purple part says, and all the writing, the yellow and green, and also the one on this side, on the purple side says: “Freedom of thought is the greatest gift one can achieve and help others achieve.” This is where the writing ends. And this line says: “A free mind is creative, independent and revolutionary.” I’m going to repeat it on this lavender side which goes up over the classes.
I cannot read anything like that. So these lines are actually letters?
Yes. This is all English. You can actually read it. I’ll show you once we’re done.
Okay. But it’s obviously not essential to understand the piece; it’s more important for you that this message is in there. Do you like the idea that it stands there, that it is encoded, but that it’s also hidden at the same time?
Yeah, that is exactly what it is. When people understand something, it becomes boring for them. But if it’s a mystery, it keeps them interested. I’ll give you a stupid example, it’s the same in relationships: people run after people who are hard to get. The other thing is that I’m really fascinated by Arabic text.
I guess you are the only artist who paints English calligraphy or even graffiti which looks like Arabic.
I’m not sure if I’m the only one, but thank you. A lot of people have told me that I’m a scam, because they can’t make anything out of my work and they are like “You are just bullshitting us, because it says nothing”. So I had to take them to my pieces and make them read, and they were like “Okay okay, now I get it”.
You just said that you don’t want to bore people, but wouldn’t you say that this is some essential aspect of art – you can never fully understand a piece of art? If you fully understand it, it may not be art.
Yeah, absolutely. I agree. But there’s another aspect: you can understand an artist’s perspective and where they are coming from, but obviously you cannot feel how they feel. That’s why we have friends, because friends are people who we connect with, and even a small gesture – they’ll just get the message. But even though we have this union and this connection, they can’t feel what we feel and we can’t feel what they feel. Even if you have an artwork like – imagine I put up this big poster which has an artist’s statement on it, that clearly says what his work is all about – it’s possible that ten people would come and they’d say okay we don’t understand this art as the artist has mentioned it, we think it means this. So this is all subjective. My work is a mixture of so many things, I have done stencil work graffiti, I have done calligraffiti which is calligraphy+graffiti, and then portraits, and then I have been reading about the history of graffiti art, I studied all these master painters, particularly those of the Renaissance, which also influenced me, and then I’m also part of the hip-hop culture – my work is a mixture of all these different things. I cannot look at any of my works and say: “This work is related to this.” Because a lot of times – I’ll give you an example, I’d be doing a piece which was inspired by a song, and people would be like: “Oh my god, this looks as if it has been inspired by religious Arabic text.”
I see. Is there an example of a specific song that inspired you to do a piece of work?
There actually is one, but it’s a graffiti piece. It is a song by one of my favourite DJs, Darius, he does French house, and it’s called Espoir. I also love Hostias from Mozart’s Requiem. That is one of my most favorite pieces.
Do you only work with walls? Would you consider it a kind of betrayal of graffiti art if you started painting on a canvas?
No, no. But the thing is, I really love scale. I work in phases, and there would be a phase where I would love only painting screens or canvases and then there is a phase where I would be painting walls only. And even when I’m painting these canvases; my canvases are like three by four feet, six by eight feet. A small canvas for me is very – I don’t know, confining.
Yeah. It’s this small space, and I’m used to painting like forty feet, sixty feet walls. All these walls, like this whole passageway, it’s literally like a piece of paper for me. It’s exactly like this. That is why you’d never see me creating an initial sketch of an artwork on a wall first and then going over it later. Because I’ve painted so much, so many walls, so many thousands of drawings et cetera., – now I just need to stand in front of a wall and I can see the final work on it. So even the work that I’m painting on the red wall, you have only seen the sketch of these semi-circles on both walls, right?
But the actual artwork that I’m painting there, that is done on the spot. There’s no sketch. I don’t need it. I’ve gotten so used to painting and then visualizing the final pieces that I don’t need to do any initial sketches.
You really are into big scale. I think apart from Sadequain, you’re the only artist Pakistani producing such large-scale calligraphy pieces. By the way, do you consider yourself a Pakistani artist at all?
No. I don’t really believe in these boundaries and these names. I look at myself as an artist and that’s it. Take me to the USA, take me to Germany, take me to the Czech Republic or anywhere – I’d be the same. All the people around the world, they are one. For me, home is not just Karachi, the whole world is my home. Because unless God had specified in the Quran or somewhere that thou shall not call yourself Indian if thou is Pakistani, you know what I mean. I don’t really believe in these social constructs. I wanted to become famous in Pakistan first, okay, in my city – Karachi; the city that I grew up in, but I’m open to work anywhere around the world.
There’s a lot of politics in the art world it seems …
That’s true. A lot of times I did try to apply to residencies and apply for different projects and do these big collaborations with other artists, but I was a nobody for them. It was like I did not even exist, because I didn’t have an art degree; until I had my name in a global street art book with Banksy and all these other big artists in 2015.
Someone even called you the ‘Banksy of Pakistan’. Which I think is nonsense. Apart from the fact that he does street art, too, you don’t have much in common. Anyway, Pakistan is a very class conscious society it seems.
Yeah, very class conscious.
But why is there no graffiti art scene here?
It has to do with what we talked about in the beginning; any kind of art other than the one which you already see in MoMA and all these other places is not being accepted. So we have the worst copies of those original artworks in Pakistan – all these graduates, most of the art in the Pakistani art community, it’s eighty to ninety percent all copied, all stolen concepts.
That’s true. I’ve seen a lot of Modigliani-like pieces lately, or painted in a kind of Picasso style that could have been done thirty, forty years ago. Well, I guess it is no coincidence that Karachi is called the ‘capital of piracy’.
It is because of that popular belief, that the aspiring artist or a beginner artist needs an art degree if they want to make a career. So many of them go to some art school and they are taught some specific things according to that art school’s specific agenda, and teachers want them to draw and paint how they want them to draw and paint, not how the students want to paint or draw – and after they are out of the art schools, a lot of them are literally begging for collaborations, residencies and art exhibitions. Those people who can get them those art exhibitions, they exploit them and then they tell them things like you have to get an art residency if you want your art to be more valuable. „Okay, I have done two residencies,what now?“ – „Do a group show now!“ So it’s like a pattern that they follow and that pattern leads them to big art prizes and big art auctions et cetera. In that process, the students, the art graduates who have not gotten frustrated of the whole system and all the politics, they actually end up creating artwork which they don’t like, but the collectors like. So the art school teaches them to produce work that is admirable by the museums, by the collectors and by all these elite groups, corporate groups like big banks who collect artwork et cetera. Especially in a place like Pakistan, these artists and art graduates are forced to do like lead careers that they don’t like, but they know it has good money. I don’t know, it’s a pretty miserable state to be in. I mean, imagine teaching something which you don’t like teaching but you are doing it just for the money. How how do you go on doing something which your heart just resists all the time? Just because you have to get that teacher’s award or whatever bullshit … So I think the reason why a lot of people are against me and talk shit about me and have not supported me in the past – now they want to be good friends and everything – it’s because I have broken a lot of barriers in Pakistani art scene. Throughout in all stages, even when I was a beginner, I have been internationally known since I was twenty-one and art people are out of art school with a degree by twenty-four. It has kind of created this or sparked this anxiety in the art world and other artists.
But it doesn’t seem to bother you at all. You are very confident it seems, not afraid of anyone. Why is that? Are you just that kind of person?
I guess. It’s true, I’m very, very confident. It may also have to do with the way I was brought up. I had a very learned father. My grandfather used to work in the supreme court, my uncles were criminal lawyers, my father worked for the interior ministry of Saudi Arabia, my father’s colleague next-door was the first prime minister of Malaysia, he was friends with princes of the royal family of Saudi Arabia, so he was very confident himself, and I grew up in this environment. So that’s one thing, and then I met my mentor.
When was that?
Back in 2012. I was already doing art and had all this confidence, but it was kind of suppressed in some way. So I started meditation, and at the same time I also started doing big projects. That also gave me a lot of confidence. I’d say my … I don’t know, my alpha side came out like when I was twenty-three, twenty-four. I also made some friends, some very powerful friends …
I see. So Malik Riaz and Zardari are your friends! That explains a lot.
(laughs) Seriously, I’m the kind of person, if you put a gun to my head and ask me to do something – it has happened a few times – I wouldn’t give a shit.
That is also stupid, Sanki. A gunshot can kill you. Maybe that is why they call you ‘sanki’?
When it comes to art, the thing is that I have read so much philosophy and I have invested so much time in self grooming and learning a new language or polishing my mother tongues English and Urdu …
What are your favorite authors? I know you read Carl Jung.
You like to go to the next level.
Yes, I’m very prolific. Not just in creating art, but also in acquiring knowledge. I still have to learn a lot. But I don’t have any insecurities. If someone asked me to do a work that is on like twelve by twelve inch or three by three feet canvases or on a thirty feet wall, I would go ahead.
When Markus filmed you while you painted, it didn’t seem to bother you at all.
No, it doesn’t, people can record me painting and ask me about my techniques wile I do it, I don’t care. Even five artists or a team of ten artists cannot work on the scales that I work on alone. And so I’m always like two steps, three steps, five steps further than the other artists. Insecurity comes in when artists are not doing as financially as good as they should be doing or if they are not as famous as they hope to be et cetera. I have been my own manager for the last ten years, I have been my own marketeer. Every time I reach a level, I go for the next one. But most of the other artist that I see especially in Pakistan, they aim too low … Sometimes I understand, sometimes I really don’t understand why a lot of curators and big critics and artists are against me. Because if I had been stealing from them, it would be justified. But I haven’t.
I guess it is just professional jealousy. That’s what humans do.
Well, I’m a human too, I don’t do it.
No, you’re definitely an alien! Ok, let’s have a few closing questions. Why did you choose „Sanki King“ as your moniker? We know now why you call yourself king, because you actually think you are one …
That’s one thing (laughs). The other thing is that in the graffiti world, when you reach a very high level of respect in the graffiti world, they have these titles for you. There is queen for female graffiti artist and king for male graffiti artist. If there is an amateur or an okay graffiti artist who calls himself or herself king or queen, they are actually disowned by the graffiti community throughout the world. In this community, everyone knows everyone. You can go anywhere around the world, go to any country, go to Berlin or to New York or to Kiew, the ten top graffiti artists from there, most of them would know me by name. I was actually given the name ‘King’ by some very old well-known and old school graffiti artist from the graffiti community from New York and then I was taken into these world-famous graffiti crews … You are only accepted by invitation, you cannot just join any art graffiti crew.
You are talking about BMK – Beyond Mankind Krew?
Yes, this is one of them. That’s the first one that invited me back in 2011.
They’re one of the most famous graffiti crews in the USA …
In the world. Its leader invited me to be a part of this crew, and by that time a lot of people had started calling me ‚King’, ’King of Graffiti’ and they all let me use that title … It may sound funny, but it’s something very serious in the graffiti world.
It doesn’t sound funny. Just like some kind of ritual. Like being knighted.
Yes, that’s what it is, a ritual. There was one graffiti artist, one of the most well-known artists, who used ‘King’ with his name, he died a couple of years ago … He had a very long, a decade long fight with Banksy, his name was Robbo, Robbo’s full name was King Robbo. He is known as one of the most well-respected and most well-known graffiti legends from England. There is even a documentary on this fight, it’s „Graffiti War – Banksy versus Robbo“. So you see how serious this all is. If you do a graffiti piece, a drawing, and if you are not accepted as a king in the graffiti community, you can draw a thousand crowns above your piece, it doesn’t mean anything. You will be disowned or you’ll have to battle a very big graffiti artist either in person or on paper – and if you beat the graffiti artist, then maybe you’ll be allowed to use that title. Otherwise you’ll have to apologize for using a crown. There is noone in the world right now who can challenge me for calling myself ‚King’.
And why ‚Sanki’?
‘Sanki’ is an alternative word in Urdu for calling someone crazy. Because normally, crazy is ‚pagal’ in Urdu, right? But ‘Sanki’ also means that someone is a little crack. But the real meaning of ‘Sanki’ is deep thinker. I think it’s Hindi. I have seen it in old Indian movies.
And how did you get that name?
I was playing this online game called Counter-Strike, and the team that I used to play for … I used to play with my real name Abdullah, but very quickly, within a few weeks, I became very good at it, so people started telling me: „Your game is so good, you are sanki!“ A year after that I started doing parkour and b-boying, and the friends who saw me doing it, they also suddenly started calling me ‚sanki’.
They did not know the friends who used to play Counter-Strike with you?
No, that’s the thing.
So they all agree that you are ‘crazily good at something’.
Yeah, kind of. I had a group of friends from school, a friend circle from college, and they all … anytime they got to know about what I did, they were like: „Yeah, you are sanki!“
You are definitely sanki, Sanki! So you just combined these two names?
No, it wasn’t me. It was someone on Wikipedia who first called me ‚Sanki King’.
Did your family suppport you? Or did they put up barriers?
The only two barriers that I had was … I had some really shitty experiences with some old friends and some people in the media and the art world who were exploiting me. Giving me projects, but not paying me for it and telling me that they’ll give me exposure and that this it why I should do it for free … The barriers in my personal life were mostly emotional. My mother passed away when I was eight, and my father passed away when I was twenty-one, so all that kind of bottled up things … They came out after my father’s death, so the barriers were kind of … inside of me. A lot of emotional debris. The only issue that my sisters had was that they would ask me very often if I was sure that I wanted to do this for a living. Because it is so hard living in Pakistan as an artist. It was even harder for me, because I was doing something that nobody was doing.
Back to that art degree thing …
Yes, if you have an art degree, you can work in a gallery, you can work for an ad agency, you can work for like an NGO for a media company et cetera.
You should thank God for not having an art degree, Sanki. No art degree can make an artist.
Thank you. I absolutely agree. But honestly, a lot of times I did think about quitting and getting a regular job. But that voice inside me it was always like: „Just a little more time, a little more time.“ And it paid off really well.
Interview: Saima Jawed, photos: Markus Heidingsfelder