Lure of the scrawl

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 14, 2013

The spotlight has been trained on Singapore's low-profile street art scene over the past year, with two cases of illegal graffiti hitting the headlines.

In May last year, "Sticker Lady" Samantha Lo sparked off a debate about the role of street art with her proclamations of "My Grandfather Road" stencilled on public roads and her tongue-in-cheek stickers on traffic-light buttons.

Last month, Mohamad Khalid Mohamad Yusop, 32, attracted universal condemnation when he scrawled "Democracy" in red paint across the Cenotaph war memorial in Esplanade Park.

Both Khalid and Lo, 26, broke the law but the reactions to both cases have been markedly different.

The actions of Khalid, a security officer, were seen as disrespectful of local heritage and wartime heroes, and street artists were keen to distance themselves from his actions. But Lo's actions were seen by netizens and members of the arts community as witty social commentary.

An active member of the street art community and part of an urban art collective RSCLS that recently received funding from the National Arts Council, Lo received an outpouring of support online and from two Members of Parliament, Ms Indranee Rajah and Nominated MP for the arts Janice Koh.

The difference in reactions, while showing how much art is about context, also illustrates that the line between vandalism and street art is thin and ever-shifting. As a result, it takes nerve and a genuine passion for the genre to be a practising street artist in Singapore.

Most of the street artists here say they started writing graffiti on the sly, before moving on to legitimate walls and wooden panels that gave them the space and the time to hone their craft.

There are about six places here where spraypainting is legal: the first-ever permanent graffiti walls in Singapore which opened at Somerset skate park in 2006, the graffiti walls at the youth- oriented mall *Scape and the National Youth Council in Toa Payoh, a curated wall at The Substation, Bukit Batok skate park and a wall at Labrador Park.

Spraypaint other walls or public property without permission of its owners and it becomes vandalism, which is punishable with a fine of up to $2,000, a jail term of up to three years and not more than eight strokes of the cane.

Compared to the freewheeling graffiti often seen in other countries, graffiti artist Adam Wang or Dem - like many street artists, he goes by a funky nickname - says what Singapore has is "controlled street art".

It is no wonder that the scene here is small - there are fewer than 50 active artists - and not many young artists take up the artform. As a visual comment on the urban landscape, street art is, by nature, difficult to define.

Graffiti artist Shah Rizzal Wan Hussain, or Asno, says: "It is anything which is spontaneous, that is painted on or inspired by the street. It is supposed to have a raw, edgy quality.

"There's no definite form. It can be painted on, it can be posters, stickers or a toy sculpture stuck to the floor," says the 28-year-old freelance art educator.

The anything-goes, all-encompassing nature of street art could be a reason some practitioners feel that the genre does not get the respect it deserves.

Mohammed Zulkarnaen Othman, also known as Zero, says graffiti art "has always been thought of as a stepson or stepbrother of 'real' art". The 34-year-old founded the 10-member collective RSCLS, pronounced Rascals, in 2007.

Despite the small size of the scene here, street art has been steadily garnering support from institutions, commercial enterprises and the public.

This year, the National Arts Council gave a seed grant to an urban art collective for the first time, with RSCLS receiving $80,000.

Mr Kok Tse Wei, deputy director of youth arts at the council, noted the collective's clear and focused vision, and that, in particular, "its plans to document the artform locally and regionally will become a useful resource to help stimulate discussion about urban arts and its larger connection to the society".

Graffiti will also feature prominently at upcoming youth cultural festivals, such as the Esplanade's annual youth- oriented YFest and the independently organised Singapore Street Festival.

Both to be held next month, YFest will have a graffiti workshop conducted by street art practitioners, while the street festival will present a graffiti showcase.

Street art is also gaining traction commercially, with Zero's first solo painting exhibition, Anthology Of The Abysmal, opening last Thursday at Chan Hampe Galleries.

Mr Benjamin Hampe, 33, owner of the gallery, says: "When I decided to invite Zul, it was less about him being a graffiti artist and more about the quality of his artwork. The graffiti element is just his background. His work is always of the highest quality and he's an artist who is committed to his career... which is exactly the type of artist we like to support."

Graffiti is also being documented in print. Machine Mouth, a collection of works by prominent street artist Eman Raharno Jeman, was launched earlier this month. The self-published anthology has a print run of 300.

Public support for street artists has also grown. When Lo was arrested, more than 15,000 people signed an online petition for leniency.

With the growing visibility of street art, it would be natural to assume that the scene is thriving, with plenty of new artists stepping forward to take up the spray cans. But it is not the case.

For video designer Eman, also known as Clogtwo, the lack of new blood is a worry. "Now, a lot of kids who are interested in graffiti do it for a few months, then most stop. They don't evolve, they don't grow," says the 27-year-old.

One reason, he says, is the little interaction between the older and younger artists, making it difficult for newcomers to enter the closely knit community.

There is also still a stigma surrounding graffiti artists, driven by what practitioners say is a misconception that they are vandals who destroy public property.

Dem wants to change this image. "Graffiti art and street art are not about vandalism. Yes, it started from there but it's not all negative. From street art and graffiti, I've learnt a lot of things about art... which help me in my work," adds the 29-year-old graphic designer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the lack of physical space.

Muhammad Khairy Ishak, or Myow, hopes that there will be more legal areas where graffiti artists can paint.

"My dream is to have the whole Arab Street area as a place for us to paint since it has a different feel from the rest of Singapore and a unique identity," says the full-time artist, 27, who has developed a line of spraypaint, Zenithcans. "Then Singapore would have a place that understands and appreciates street art."

While there is a commissioned piece of graffiti art along Haji Lane in the Arab Street area, which is part of the Malay heritage area of Kampong Glam, the authorities are not about to have street art proliferating the whole of Arab Street.

An Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) spokesman says the mural art along Haji Lane, home to several hip boutiques, is in keeping with the area's character. "However, we need to strike a balance between conserving the character of the larger Kampong Glam and promoting mural art. That balance is not decided by URA alone, but also by local stakeholders... The collective desire is to keep the rest of Kampong Glam the way it is."

This tension between artist and public space is one which will always exist, says Noor Effendy Ibrahim, 40, artistic director of The Substation, an independent arts centre which has commissioned and exhibited street art.

"The artist wants to decorate, to give life and vibrancy to a place. But from the perspective of the public, it might not necessarily agree that it's good or bad art. So it's always a contentious discipline, and one of the core identities of graffiti is that it's about the negotiation of spaces."

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This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 14, 2013

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