It’s fair to say that most Jakartans have a love-hate relationship with the city. Try logging in to one of your social media accounts on any given day and you will find at least one friend airing a complaint about one or more of these things: the traffic jam, the heat, the floods, the demonstrations, the list goes on.
While many resort to venting on their Facebook walls, one man goes all out to express his frustration on the walls. Literally.
Meet Darbotz. Or perhaps, don’t. Most clued-in Jakartans have heard his name at one point or another. His reputation as a famed graffiti artist has not only resonated around the city, but has also spread to countries outside Indonesia as well.
Thanks to his resolve to stay anonymous—much like his English counterpart, Banksy’s—only a privileged few are lucky enough to know Darbotz’s real identity or what he actually looks like. When appearing at public events or in photographs, Darbotz usually covers part of his face, making it almost impossible for anyone to recognize him.
He’s a little bit like a masked superhero in that way. You could even say he has an alter ego; by day, he works a normal job as a mild-mannered graphic designer.
And yet, the artist chooses to identify himself as a monster instead.
Graffiti-laden walls may not be an uncommon sight in Jakarta, but it’s easy to spot whic ones have been tagged by Darbotz. Just keep on the lookout for his signature symbol, which can be found in all of his artwork. Taking on the form of a round character bearing a row of sinisterly sharp teeth, this signature is referred to as “the squid monster.” Darbotz has stated that the squid, or cumi in Indonesian, represents both himself and the way he views the beautiful mess and the terrifying, chaotic metropolitan that is Jakarta.
Jakarta has always inspired Darbotz in one way or another. His drawings, like the squid monster, are a visualization of the good, the bad and the ugly sides of Jakarta that he sees every single day. Although Darbotz has moved beyond just graffiti, to create different art in a wider range of mediums, the same theme still recurs throughout his works.
It’s especially evident in “The King of Jakarta” (pictured above). Shown at last May’s Hong Kong Art Basel, the resin sculpture depicts the infamous, menacingly driven MetroMini public bus as the ruler of the road, with arms like a gorialla and, in place of wheels, furry legs wearing Nike sneakers. To complete the sculpture, the squid monster makes an appearance on the windshield.
“It’s a love and hate relationship,” Darbotz says, when asked what Jakarta means to him. “And I know most Jakartans can relate to that. You hate it, but you grew up here, you work here, your family’s here, etc.”
For Darbotz, that’s exactly the reason he can’t seem to leave Jakarta behind. “I grew up here,” he says. “It’s more like the atmosphere of the city. You can almost do anything here; it’s ‘easy.’”
Even now that Ahok has become governor and construction has finally started on the MRT, Darbotz seems unenthused about the future of the city. When asked about which developments he looks forward to the most, he merely replies that, above all, he wishes to see “the mentality of the people” change.
It’s not that Darbotz is pessimistic about the state of the city. “It’s more like, ‘it is what it is,’” he says.
“Jakarta is bad, Jakarta is good. I think it’s the same subject that you will find in any other big city. Jakarta is diverse, Jakarta is chaotic. You can find limited edition and really expensive cars but at the same time, you see a kid begging for money in the street.”
Still, Darbotz holds out some hope for the future. “I’m hoping things will become better without the city losing its identity,” he says.
The same goes for the graffiti community in the city. “Nowadays, kids are more into vandalizing, but that’s part of the graffiti culture,” he says. “So I’m hoping we will see more ‘serious’ stuff rather than pure vandalism.”
“Jakarta’s Monster,” a collaboration between Darbotz and Tutu for Google Chrome’s Openspaces project
To accomplish that, Darbotz is determined to set an example and show the wider community what graffiti art is all about. Although he wouldn’t mind getting some help from the government as well.
“[They could make it] legal for us to paint on all the walls,” he quips. “But, ultimately, I think the responsibility is in our hands too. It’s up to us to prove that we can do beautiful things, not just vandalism.”
Darbotz certainly has been busy doing beautiful things. Earlier this year, he was commissioned to paint the facade of one of Jakarta’s latest boutique hotels, the eight-story ArtOtel.
“It’s gotta be the biggest artwork I’ve ever done,” he says. He describes the experience as “three weeks full of pain and fun.”
For now, though, Darbotz is, as he puts it, “just chillin’ and painting.”
From city to hotel walls, it seems that Darbotz has made his mark on every surface in the city. But he still has more ambitions to achieve.
“[I want to] travel around Indonesia just to paint. Or do graffiti on an airplane,” he says. “Never stop, can’t stop!”
Story by: M. Berlian Wangge