Eggman (Miles Toland)
Eggman (Miles Toland)
Miles painting Eggman (Miles Toland)
Mile Painting Eggman (Miles Toland)
Blackbird (Miles Toland)
Dhanyavad (Miles Toland)
Miles standing by Dhanyavad (Miles Toland)
(Miles Toland)
Miles painting Holy Cow (Miles Toland)
Manjira (Miles Toland)
Nirguna (Miles Toland)
Nirguna (Miles Toland)
Blessing (Miles Toland)
Wanderlust (Miles Toland)
Morning Chai (Miles Toland)
Ek Ong Kar (Miles Toland)
Miles' paint briefcase (Miles Toland)

How Graffiti Artists Used iPhones and Paint to Transform the Beatles’ Ashram

Miles Toland describes how he captured Indian street scenes on his phone and recreated them as giant murals that same day

The street artist Miles Toland has dedicated his career to “finding the beauty in the decay,” as he puts it on his website. In 2016, he got an irresistible invitation: Would he like to come to Rishikesh, India, and cover the walls of the Beatles’ ashram with giant paintings? 

The facility where the Fab Four composed The White Album had been abandoned for decades. Its buildings were overrun with creeping plants and covered with amateur graffiti. In 2012, the California-based street artist Pan Trinity Das and his wife, Kyrie Maezumi, started painting a series of large, colorful murals there, but the local forest department asked them to leave. Four years later, the couple received official permission to finish their project, and they asked Toland to help.

“The ashram is one of the most mystical places I’ve ever been,” Toland says. “It’s this intersection between civilization and nature. The metropolis and the jungle. You can see the city from the rooftops, but you don’t hear too much hustle and bustle. If anything, you hear monkeys and peacocks.”

Other artists at the ashram had painted tributes to the Beatles—portraits of the four young Englishmen and lyrics to their songs. But Toland was more interested in celebrating Indian spirituality. “It’s really Maharishi-ji’s ashram,” he says, referring to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Transcendental Meditation founder who led the 1968 course. Maharishi died in 2008, but the city of Rishikesh still bustles with yoga centers and sadhus, or holy men. That’s where Toland gathered his ideas.  “It was a pretty immediate feedback loop,” he says. “I’d go out for breakfast and take my camera phone, and I’d record whatever inspired me. Then I’d come back and paint it.”

One of Toland’s murals, which he calls “The Eggman,” features a local Rishikesh character with a turban and white beard. “I came across him in the streets and asked if I could take a photo to paint him. Later that week, I stumbled across him again and showed him a picture of the finished mural. He jumped with wide eyes and flashed a quick smile. I don’t think he’d realized what I was going to do with his photo.”

What Toland had done with his photo was paint it on an enormous egg-shaped structure. The man’s face now peers out at visitors with intense, wise eyes against a backdrop of mountains. Elsewhere in the ashram, Toland painted a pair of cymbals clicking in the fingers of a blind musician, a woman’s hands folded in prayer, a wandering cow with spare, bony limbs. The video below, which Toland shot on his iPhone, shows his process of turning street scenes into vibrant larger-than-life works of art. 

About Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine. She was previously a senior editor at the Atlantic.

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