Restaurants get edgy street art for their walls

Cafes and restaurants are taking street art and murals indoors

Restaurants and cafes hoping to create a cool urban vibe have turned to street artists to give their eateries a facelift.

The Sunday Times found at least four places that have commissioned street art or large-scale murals in the last year.

They are Cicheti, an Italian restaurant in Kandahar Street; Salted & Hung, an Australian restaurant in Purvis Street specialising in in-house curing and grilling; Alter Ego, a restaurant-bar at Esplanade Mall; and Full Of Luck Club, a modern Cantonese restaurant in Holland Avenue.

Artists Liquan Liew, 30, and Estella Ng, 25, who go by the moniker Ripple Root, have noticed a high demand for murals from cafe and restaurant owners. In the past year alone, they have worked on five projects in food and beverage (F&B) establishments.

While prices may vary according to the artist and the mural's size, these commissions can cost between $1,000 and $8,000, and usually take three to seven days to complete.

Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon, 55, who specialises in consumer behaviour at the National University of Singapore's Business School, tells The Sunday Times: "It is possible that cafe owners are inspired by European restaurants and want to bring some of the European flair to their cafe, with a local ambience.

"Engaging street artists has a social-giving undertone as these cafes and restaurants are supporting the local art market," Prof Ang adds.

Having the murals in these F&B spaces can also help to elevate a customer's dining experience.

"The murals are there to create a visual memory of the space," says Mr Rafiq Mohamad, 32, of Feral, the creative and branding agency behind Salted & Hung. "We want the murals to be conversation pieces for diners and be part of their holistic visual and spatial experience."

Other cafes and restaurants that have murals include Plain Vanilla Bakery in Tiong Bahru, Potato Head Folk in Keong Saik Road and Camp Kilo Charcoal Club in Kampong Bugis.

Industry insiders say that though the murals may generate buzz and people may patronise these establishments out of curiosity, it is unlikely that the murals will be the draw for returning customers.

"For the social-media hungry? Sure," says Mr Justin Long, 42, creative director of local creative consultancy Hjgher, who has worked with many F&B outlets. "But crowds for a mural? It would have to be really special, like Mona Lisa special."

Aside from trying to pull in customers, Ms Liling Ong, 30, owner of Cicheti, says she commissioned a mural because she wanted to share her love of the arts. With parents who are avid collectors, she was exposed to art at a young age, she says.

In addition to the mural, paintings and sculptures adorn her Italian restaurant and diners get to view the artworks up-close.

Ultimately, the key to a successful mural project is a healthy collaborative process between artists and restaurant owners. Liew, 30, who worked on the mural at Cicheti, says: "There was mutual trust and Liling's confidence in us made it very smooth and a joy to work on."

Ms Alexys Tjhia, 25, co-founder of Full Of Luck Club, agrees: "It all boils down to communication and understanding the artist's style."

Alter Ego

Dark and psychedelic

When Alter Ego opened at Esplanade Mall last November, co-founder Vannessa Lee thought it would only be fitting to showcase a Singaporean artist, in the spirit of the restaurant-bar's location at the premier arts venue.

"We wanted an art piece done by a local artist to take centre stage in the restaurant, but that could also express the brand identity of Alter Ego as a restaurant," the 25-year-old restaurateur says.

The founders - Ms Lee and her brother, Joey, 23 - wanted the restaurant to have a "split-personality"; it serves healthful poke bowls by day and is a sinful grub bar by night.

So when a friend showed them the works of artist Gigi Chong, they knew she was the right fit. They were sold by the dark, ethereal quality of her works, "sinister in a psychedelic way", says Ms Lee.

However, as this was Chong's first mural project, they were also apprehensive.

"The wall was too big for the projector to project the entire artwork, so we had to split the image into four to transfer it onto the wall," the 21-year-old tattoo apprentice says, describing the process of transferring her digital illustration to the wall.

But it was a risk worth taking. So far, the mural has been a hit with customers.

It incorporates dark elements, such as a skeleton splitting from a body as well as white scrawls, which glow red under ultraviolet light.

It took Chong seven days to complete the mural, which is about 15 sq m in size.

Undergraduate Ysabel Tan, 19, who has dined there, says: "The mural accentuates the name of the place, it gives the space a character of its own."

Full Of Luck Club

Mythical creatures meet talking bao

To put a modern twist on the traditional Cantonese restaurant, Full Of Luck Club's co-founder Alexys Tjhia sought the help of street artists Teo Chongwah, 25, and Carmen Chen, 24.

"We wanted something fresh that could appeal to the young and the young at heart," Ms Tjhia, 25, says. "To create a casual atmosphere without the stuffiness of a traditional restaurant."

The two artists worked on the mural together, with Teo creating the more street-art touches.

Initially afraid that Teo's style would be "too street" and not have the Asian elements she was seeking, Ms Tjhia put together a mood board of murals she thought would suit the restaurant. From there, Teo selected what resonated with his style and incorporated the Asian elements into his final sketches.

The mural, located on the second floor of the restaurant at 243 Holland Avenue, features mythical Chinese creatures, such as dragons and cranes, and has an East-meets- West quality to it.

The panoramic mural took three days to complete and also includes tongue-in-cheek characters, such as a talking bao and a wrestling rooster.

"I think incorporating street art in cafes is a step forward for Singapore," says Chen.

"Having limited legal walls to paint on, these cafes do not just provide an avenue for street artists to release our creativity, but also make it possible for people to enjoy big murals."


Mixing Italian with Malay-Peranakan

Looking to refresh her three- year-old Italian restaurant, Cicheti's owner, Ms Liling Ong, approached Ripple Root, the moniker of artists Liquan Liew and Estella Ng, after discovering them on Instagram.

"The first thing that struck me was how playful, innocent and childlike their work was. It reminded me of the carefree childhood I had and that was the main factor that drew me to their visual art," says Ms Ong, 30.

But keeping a sense of familiarity was also important to her.

"It was very important to retain the existing character and charm that our regulars had grown so accustomed to and just elevate our space into one that was more polished and refined," she adds.

Her brief to the artists was to include classic Italian iconography - such as Venetian chairs and Sicilian lemons - with a Malay-Peranakan slant, to reflect the restaurant's location in the Malay heritage neighbourhood. The eatery is at 52 Kandahar Street.

While the artists did a rough sketch, the eventual painting came about organically. "We approached the wall as we would a large canvas. Weaving elements, we worked the paint into the restaurant's architecture," says Ng, 25 .

Working around the windows and brick walls, their signature freestyle and tag-team process brought the space to life. It took them two weeks to complete the 5m-long mural.

"The wall breathes, we never just 'slap on' the painted images," adds Liew, 30.

Salted & Hung

Animal Farm-inspired murals

When Salted & Hung opened at 12 Purvis Street last June, head chef Drew Nocente wanted the look and feel of the restaurant to reflect his personality.

"We wanted the restaurant to be casual and fun, but serious and intense at the same time," says the 36-year-old chef, who worked closely with brand and design studio Feral and local illustrator John Fan to create the murals.

They referenced themes and characters in George Orwell's novel, Animal Farm, whose dark humour resonated with the chef's subversive but cheeky persona.

The four murals scattered around the restaurant include phrases from the book, such as "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others", a not-so-subtle hint at the restaurant's menu: cured and grilled meats.

The murals' casual, broad strokes also reflect the chef's informal and energetic personality.

The murals took three weeks to create, from conception to final execution. The challenge was to achieve the right expression and gesture for the different animals, so that each would have its own personality, says illustrator John Fan, 31.

His effort has paid off and customers are responding well to the murals, one of which is on the wall opposite the open kitchen. Says Nocente: "The chefs are getting really good at taking pictures."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline Restaurants get edgy street art for their walls. Subscribe