Angel in a gas mask.
Mural at the Expo centre flyover.
Custom mobile phone covers.
You may have been awe-struck by his graffiti mural at the Karachi University annual carnival, or seen him do live graffiti of humongous proportions at the Beach View Club park, or spraying ‘Peace’ on the Expo centre flyover in the provocative, bold and uncompromising colours, so expressive of Sanki’s personality. You may have seen customised tees, guitars, phone cases, caps, sneakers or you might have stared at his doodles and characters in Smoke it up Café in Zamzama. Give him a wall, a basement, just space; leave him alone clambering down the side of a bridge with spray guns, gas mask, markers, paint brushes, cans of paint; throw in some politics, social issues, conflict and let him communicate a message that wouldn’t be heard otherwise.
“I hate myself,” he texted in reply to my dozen texts and two frantic phone calls on the day of our interview. He had missed our appointment.
I called him back, only to hear his groggy voice at the other end. He reluctantly agreed to set another meeting the following week. Minutes later, I got another text. “I was all set for today, can we still meet up?” We rescheduled.
When you first look at Abdullah Ahmed Khan’s slight frame and soft demeanour, it would be easy to tease him as a young man with many dreams. But Abdullah also goes by the name “Sanki” — perhaps to wear his eccentricities on his sleeve. A self-made young man, Sanki is an iconic graffiti and street artist: Pakistan’s first and only pro-sneaker artist, he pioneered sticker art, mastered b-boying, hip hop and is a parkour expert.
As we walked up to his apartment, I asked him how he missed our appointment despite being particular about time. “Oh, just KESC issues; I slept at 7am.” He looked aloof, somewhat preoccupied. I wondered how I would ever get any information out of him if he continued to speak in short sentences. Little did I know that once you are on the right side of Sanki, he just won’t stop talking.
We entered his small studio cum bedroom. Two gorgeous Persian cats lay luxuriantly on the rug and the couch. The wrought iron bed was spray painted-pretty. The room was tidy but filled with all kinds of painter’s paraphernalia. Brushes, jars of paint, cans of spray paint, pottery, guitars with beautiful spray painted patterns on them. “One day I just got up and painted that meteor,” he said, pointing to a wall where he had created a falling meteor, in black, gold and hues of fire. The room, like the man, oozed eccentricity.
How did ‘Sanki’ happen to Abdullah Ahmed Khan?
“I used to play counter-strike (a popular combat video game) and was the sniper in my team. One night when I was doing incredibly well for my team, this bully who had heard from others that I was a bit of an eccentric at the game, walked in and said, “Kaun hai ye Abdullah sanki?” Well, that was when I decided that ‘Sanki’ (eccentric) sort of describes me rather well.”
Sanki is a member of graffiti crew Beyond Mankind Krew (BMK), founded in 1991, in Queens, New York City and a b-boying crew, Unknown Crew (UC), founded in 2010 in Karachi. In touch with legendary graffiti artists like T-kid from NYC, Blek Le Rat from Paris (known as the father of stencil graffiti, who inspired Banksy to do stencil art and paint rats), legendary B-boying crew Rocksteady Crew, legendary graffiti crew TATS CRU. Artists in UK and the US have done tribute murals for Sanki and recently he was interviewed by one of the biggest sneaker conventions in the world called Sneakerness; and published on their website.
But art has meant more to Sanki than acclaim.
“As a child, I couldn’t stop doodling. When I was eight, my sister was studying zoology and I loved the pictures in her books. When I was nine, there were erasers that you could get with pictures of dinosaurs on them. I would make them in my art book and other books, which we really weren’t allowed to do. We were only allowed to draw what they wanted us to draw.
“One day my art teacher must have spotted something about my drawings so I was the only one in class allowed to draw whatever I liked in my art book. Later, I drew for everyone; like motifs on the walls for my friend’s mehndi or tattoo designs for friends,” he narrated.
Sanki’s mother passed away when he was just nine, leaving his father with the sole responsibility of imparting moral values to his children. “My father prepared all of us for life, not a career or a job. He had amazing knowledge and vision and brought us up in the most wonderful, liberal and unconventional way. It was all about learning.
“The artist in me emerged after my father passed away. Papa was my ‘bestest’ friend, I had no secrets from him, and vice versa. He seemed to have so much trust in what he taught us. He was proud of my art. I set up my studio a couple of months after he passed away.”
“What I did learn was that pareshani kuchh sikhanay ke liye aati hai. The bad times sieved my values for me. I learnt what is superficial and fake, and what really matters in life. Money may give you options but it doesn’t give you happiness, or the love and affection that your family gives you. Relationships and human connections really matter. And this for me is the ideal state of mind to work in,” he said.
“I cannot deliver in a controlled environment and I don’t agree with formal, conventional methods of education. Kya zindagi ka maqsad yehi hai ke sirf degree lelo? I mean the concept of a degree is what, 500 years old? Kya degree se pehle taalim nahin thi? Knowledge and education should be free to all. I love reading and can’t understand people who don’t. Jab kuch andar he nahin jaata to bahir kya niklay ga! People have become bonded slaves of corporate culture. Is that all there is to life?”
He paused, looked into empty space, and vented some more. “A lot of my friends are way better sketchers than me, but their personalities are wasted. They are rebellious but unhappy, lost in the corporate world, and sadly, even they know that.”
As is the case with eccentric people, Sanki, too, is very particular about certain habits. “Usually what I want to draw or paint builds inside me for days. I know exactly how I want it to be and I let it percolate for a few days until the moment arrives when I know that I can express myself. When I work I don’t like to be disturbed, spoken to, called for food; in fact, not even looked at.”
In the last two years, Sanki has been occupied with customised, order-oriented art to paint commissioned murals, tees, sneakers, caps, you name it. He is planning an exhibition which will be more ‘personal art’ that he wants to showcase. “What you experience when you see art is exactly what it is meant to convey and that is what matters. Just like God is what you perceive Him to be. Everything I create is not art just because I am an artist. I can draw four lines. But would these ignite a thought in you?”
Sanki uses fabric and acrylic paints, and makes his own stencils. “It could take me anything from 10 minutes or four months to paint a tee or shoes. When I paint an item for a client, I love and respect it probably even more than the client. People don’t tell business secrets but I usually tell the client the cost of material upfront. What I charge for is my work and the exclusivity.”
A lot angers him, even being compared to Banksy, whom he admires. “When people saw my work and its scope, they started comparing me to Banksy. Yes, he is a great artist,” his face glowed as he talked about the sensational graffiti artist from England. “But I don’t want to be a second Banksy, I want to be the first Sanki!”
KESC played its favourite trick and we sat talking in the dim twilight coming in from the open windows. “I want to defy elitist art lobbies and people who think that one needs ‘contacts’ to get anywhere on the art scene. I don’t take favours, I am not selfish and I am not insecure. I owe nothing to anyone and nobody owes me anything. I want the right people to know me, not everyone. Life is not about how many ‘likes’ there are on my FB page. Who likes me is what matters. Can I compete with Shakira or Beyonce for ‘likes’? In my short career I have met all kinds of people, some incredibly insecure and others unbelievably supportive. I am anti-art lobbies because they teach you art like a cooking show recipe. Art is finished and limited to a canvas. For the fake, artificial art aficionado, only the price tag or the name of the artist it matters. People are so moved by the Oscars, the Nobels; kya hum khud apni pehchan nahin samajhte?
But art on canvas is portable, people can carry a painting home, I quipped. “My art is not just for one person,” pat came the reply. He pauses and thinks as he speaks eloquently, moving into colloquial ‘Karachi’ Urdu and then back into English. His conversation is as rich as his art. Does he want to come back in another life as a corporate king? “An artist,” he smiled. “Mein aur bhi bohat kuch kar sakta hun, mei ne hamesha ajeeb ajeeb cheezen ki hain. You should make a movie on me,” his eyes twinkle.