Conform or be whitewashed

Posted on 25 January 2011

Graffiti artists in Singapore still face censorship even though the government is attempting to loosen up.

By Syafiqah Omar, for New Nation’s writing contest.

A wall painted in *SCAPE park by Singaporean graffiti group ‘Zinc Nite Crew’ in July 2006 was whitewashed by the authorities within a day. Photo: ZINC NITE CREW

ON A warm Saturday afternoon in the middle of January 2009, a group of graffiti artists gathered in a park located in downtown Singapore, buckets of paint at hand ready to paint across a 15m by 2m wall – the only place they can do it legally here.

Following the steps of world-famous British graffiti artist Banksy who did a series of images capturing the Palestine-Israel war on the strip of wall separating the two nations in Gaza, these local artists wanted to portray the plight of the Palestinian children.

“I was moved after receiving a picture of a Palestinian kid whose head was sticking out of debris so I decided to paint a mural for the real victims of the war,” said Madzlan Endut, 32, also known by his street name ‘SketchOne’.

Madzlan, along with a few other local artists then set out to organise ‘Our paint for your pain’, a one-day event aimed at bringing artists together for a social cause.

Before they could even don their masks, however, the wall had already been cordoned off with a red tape.

Confused, these artists then approached the park’s administrator, the National Youth Council, who told them that “the authorities have shut down the graffiti walls to prevent it from being used for political agendas.”

All the while, policemen in plainclothes watched them from afar.

“The guys from Internal Security Department continued to track me closely after that,” added Madzlan.

In January 2009, local artists like SketchOne organised a one-day event called Our Paint for Your Pain, aimed at portraying the plight of Palestinian children. The event however, was thwarted by the police. Photo: SKETCH ONE

In January 2009, local artists like SketchOne organised a one-day event called ‘Our Paint for Your Pain’ aimed at portraying the plight of Palestinian children. The event however, was thwarted by the police. Picture: SKETCH ONE

In 2006, a similar incident had also occurred.

The words “For Palestine with love” was painted below an image of a boy whose head was wrapped in a shawl and fists clenched on this very same wall.

Less than 24 hours later, it was whitewashed.

“We were really dismayed. There was nothing political about our intention, ” said an artist who goes by the name of ‘ClogTwo’, who was part of a group called ‘Zinc Nite Crew’ who painted the wall.

Indeed, these cases highlight the Singapore government’s ever-growing discomfort with graffiti, often described as “images painted on public walls to convey messages.”

Graffiti artists in Singapore say the relationship they have with the authorities is a “precarious” one and they constantly find themselves having to thread on a thin line.

“There is no clear rule as to what the government deems as being politically sensitive,” said Zaki Razak, 31, a one-time graffiti practitioner who has devoted his time exploring the issues concerning graffiti art in Singapore.

This hardly comes as a surprise. After all, the city-state is notoriously known for its strict vandalism laws which saw the1994 arrest and eventual caning of then-18-year-old American Michael Fay for vandalizing state property.

The incident attracted much media frenzy and former President Bill Clinton even pleaded on his behalf – to no avail.

Even more recently, a Swiss artist was sentenced here to three strokes of the cane and seven months in jail in July this year for spray painting graffiti on the side of a train, an act that cost the state about 11, 000 SGD to remove it.

According to the judge’s statement, “(vandalism) is a conduct which is entirely unacceptable in Singapore, regardless of the artistic merit (or lack thereof) of the graffiti.”

As such, the government has taken pre-emptive measures to prevent state property from being vandalized.

One way it has done so is by erecting legal walls for artists in *SCAPE, a park located in the middle of Singapore’s busiest shopping district.

The idea of the park itself came six years ago after some artists here lamented on the lack of walls for them to practise their art without risking getting caught.

Indeed, the graffiti scene in Singapore has come a long way since first emerging some 30 years ago.

Once viewed as ‘wayward kids’, public perception of graffiti artists has also changed, perhaps reflected in a headline carried by a local newspaper here back in 2000 saying “Graffiti artists no longer on the fringe”.

Since then, the graffiti scene here has evolved into a small,  tight community of enthusiasts made up of graffiti crews and individual artists most of whom started out “tagging” walls in abandoned buildings island-wide.

Many of them have also moved on to exhibiting their work in galleries and designing for big street wear companies like Nike.

The flourishing talent has even prompted Americans Howard Rutkowski and his partner Mary Dinaburg to set up an organisation here in 2009 called ‘Ministry of Graffiti’ (MOG) – a name itself that denotes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the pervasive government activities.

“The government bodies have finally realised that the visual arts has been the orphan child and now there is a more concerted effort to promote it rather than the performing arts.” – Howard Rutkowski

According to him, graffiti has been thoroughly embraced around the world with major museums and commercial galleries exhibiting graffiti work.

He adds that the MOG is geared towards bringing together local and international artists by providing a platform for them to showcase their work to the public.

As to why it is based in Singapore, the 55-year-old who hails from New York feels that “it was really an attempt to demonstrate how graffiti has been absorbed and how influential it is to the visual arts here.”

Last year, both the MOG and Zaki collaborated to have an exhibition titled ‘Is this home, truly?’ showcasing the works of leading artists in the local scene.

It was met with much support both from the arts community as well as members of the public.

Still, Howard admits that using Singapore as his base does appear to be “perversely ironic” seeing as “there is no streets for artists to paint on, and there is more self-censorship than actual censorship.”

At the same time, he also understands that “there are cultural sensitivities that have to be observed, same as with other countries.”

And when it comes to the government here regularly engaging artists to do commissioned works, Howard sees no problem with that.

“Artists have always been under the service of governments, ever since the Renaissance. But a good artist can use commissions like that to demonstrate his style,” he explained.

“We have to be practical. It all comes down to making money in the end,” said Madzlan, who is also a design consultant for a company called ‘Cindykate’.

Howard believes it will still be some time before Singapore’s graffiti scene reaches the ranks of cities like New York – considered the mecca for graffiti practitioners – as he feels the arts scene here is still very much nascent.

“The government bodies have finally realised that the visual arts has been the orphan child and now there is a more concerted effort to promote it rather than the performing arts.”

After all, he feels that the visual arts “identify the city as a cultural capital.”

Even Shanghai, he says, has a more vibrant arts community as international graffiti events are staged regularly despite the strict Chinese government.

And as for the setting up of *SCAPE park, Howard thinks that it is nothing more than a “self-contained environment” where “kids get to decorate a wall with their pre-approved designs.”

Nevertheless, graffiti art practitioners here say they will continue to push the boundaries.

Sufyan, or better known as ‘Trase One’, is one such artist.

Sufyan or better known as ‘Trase One’ recently showcased his work titled ‘Stringapura’ at the ‘Affordable Art Fair’. He says he will continue to push the boundaries here. Picture: TRASE ONE

The 26-year-old who had received a scholarship from the government to pursue a degree in fine art rigorously explores the idea of freedom of expression in his work – all of which were sold out in the ‘Affordable Art Fair’ held recently in the city.

“I always try to inject humour in my work to bring down the tone. That way, I can still get my message across without offending anybody.”

Author’s afterthoughts: The local media did not cover these two events (choosing instead to always thread on a safe line when it comes to reporting on graffiti art), prompting me to delve further into this.

This feature story was first written as an assignment for the Specialised Journalism (International Affairs) class at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. Edited and republished with permission.

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