A quick Google search for the Chattogram University shuttle (CU shuttle) train opens a Pandora's box to horror stories, it seems. There's news of pickpocketing, physical assault over seats and even cases of attempted rape. Not your usual university transport – rather a cursed train journey marred with risks.
However, recently, a German graffiti artist, Lukas Zeilinger, decided to brighten up the Chattogram University shuttle train with his art. Perhaps to give it a saving grace.
Lukas is accompanied by Livia, his wife, and Arup Barua, a teacher of the Department of Dramatics of Chattogram University. Arup majored in sculpture from the same university and Livia is documenting Lukas' work here and helping him finish his project. Meanwhile, Arup helped him to get through to the university and railway administration.
Lukas reached Dhaka earlier this month, but they had to wait for the university administration's permission as well as that of the railway administration. After all the gruelling paperwork was complete, he finally started his graffiti work on 21 July this year.
Starting on Thursday, they (Lukas along with Livia and Arup) have managed to graffiti paint the outside of seven CU shuttle carriages (there are nine in total) and successfully finished yesterday (26 July), just in time to catch their (Lukas and Livia) flight to Germany later on the same day.
The shuttle train project is sponsored by Lukas himself. He is using spray paint to illustrate graffiti on the steel body of the train carriages.
"Here in Bangladesh you will only find some basic colours in the spray paint section: red, yellow, black, white and as such. But Lukas comes from a place where graffiti art is an established art form and they have [and use] a range of colours," Arup explained.
For this project, Lukas has brought with him 24 boxes of spray paint cans, each containing 48 colour cans. That means more than 1,000 cans of colours!
Majoring in sculpture in Germany, Lukas chose graffiti as his medium of work. When asked about his choices, Lukas said, "I love both [sculpture and graffiti] actually. I started graffiti at the age of 14, so it's more than a hobby, it's part of my life."
And for Arup, painting the shuttle was already something he used to do since when he was a student of the fine arts department of the university.
"Back in 2001, when I was doing my graduation in fine arts, we used to paint the train compartments, especially the last one, which was labelled as the 'charukola bogi' or the compartment of the fine arts department," Arup reminisced.
But in 2010, a decision to shift the Fine Arts Department to Chattogram city, away from the university campus, slowly obliterated this practice. The university student shuttle train reached a point in time when no one came to paint its body.
What the CU shuttle train saw, instead, were messages and names of different student wings of political parties painted onto them. In 2015, the university administration ordered concerned authorities to put a stop to the compartment-based politics (for instance designating one particular compartment to one particular student political party), and so the shuttle train was completely stripped of any kind of paintings.
There was a plan to draw graffiti on the shuttle for the Mujib Borsho, however, the plan failed because of the pandemic.
"This is one of the reasons I was excited for the [Lukas'] project," said Arup, "to show the current students a way to retrieve this legacy [of graffiti art]. The idea is to take the art to the people, not the other way around."
And why did Lukas choose a shuttle train and that too in Bangladesh? The idea was generated in 2019 with a project named "painting Dhaka."
In 2019, Lukas Zeilinger first visited Bangladesh for a project named 'painting Dhaka.' For three months, in cooperation with a German-based non-profit organisation German Doctors eV, he taught graffiti at two slum schools in the city.
He wrote in his project details, "Graffiti and art classes are a luxury in the slums of Dhaka. A cultural luxury that would normally never find its way to a slum school, I wanted to change that. I wanted to try to give children, who have little chance of ever leaving the microcosm of their corrugated iron settlement, the opportunity to take their name to the city and be seen."
His plan was to recreate the children's art on the local trains, "their names and messages were to travel through the city on the Bangladesh Railway's suburban trains."
Lukas explains, "The idea of the train only developed over time. In Dhaka, it was more about giving the children in the slums more self-confidence. I taught this art form at several schools in poor neighbourhoods.
I wanted them to know that if you choose an alter ego [like an avatar] for yourself, as is common in graffiti, it doesn't matter where you come from. The art decides how you are seen, not where you come from or how wealthy you are. Everyone has the same chances."
But then the pandemic came and Lukas could not execute the train part of the project.
Then in 2022, he came to Bangladesh for another art project. This is when he met Arup and found out about the shuttle train. This inspired him to resume the idea that he had to abandon once in 2019.
But he could have chosen any place for graffiti art, why a train?
To this, Lukas replied, "Graffiti originated at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, on the local subway of New York. The idea was to transport your art through the whole city, like a moving canvas, even if you live in poorer suburbs and can hardly leave them.
You paint a train in the Bronx and it travels through the whole of Manhattan to Brooklyn, for example. So, even 60 years later, the train is the perfect medium for this kind of art."
"And besides", he continued, "Graffiti on trains is what art is supposed to be: free for everyone. You don't have to pay fees to museums or galleries, the art comes to your doorstep [instead].
For that the university shuttle is perfect, because I want to reach young people like me. Youth is the future, as we know, and it's [the graffiti art] supposed to inspire and make them want to do more."
The colours of Bangladesh on the shuttle
Lukas used a lot of bright and natural colours for this project, especially a range of greens to replicate the hill tracts of Chittagong. "I tried to bring out the colours of Bangladesh in the abstract way," Lukas said in an interview.
He has incorporated the ocean, the parliament building of Bangladesh, a lot of green and the abstract forms of mountains.
Are the students excited about this? "There is a group who are saying that it's a luxury to paint on the body of the train while the inside of the shuttle remains dirty, broken. But most of the students are supporting us," replied Arup Barua.