Graffiti in Singapore: art or vandalism? The jury’s still out, although those in the scene say it’s a fine line to toe. Quah Chin Chin reports.
ARMED with spray cans and a sense of boldness, Mazlan Ahmad and a crewmate were all geared up to create some “graffiti pieces” on the walls of a public area.
But fate – in the form of a police car – decided to intervene.
“The police officer told us to clean up the stuff and he would let us go,” he recalls. “So we cleaned it up.”
That was more than a decade ago. Mr Mazlan, also known as ScopeOne or the Phyreman, is now one of Singapore’s most well-respected street artists.
The 31-year-old’s credentials are impressive. In 1994, he founded Operation Art Core, Singapore’s pioneering street art crew who were commissioned to decorate the walls of the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay in front of a live audience when it opened in October 2002. He now gets about 10 projects a month – the latest is to paint an arts museum in Spain next year – and is part of Kings Destroy, a well-known underground graffiti crew based in New York. He also runs Artkore Industry, a company that does exhibitions and murals.
“I like the way people look at a finished graffiti art piece in awe,” says Mr Mazlan, who usually “freestyles” but sometimes follows a theme for his works. “That definitely gives me satisfaction.”
For someone who used to seek out suitable walls, create designs and sign off with his “tag”, scope 01, he has come a long way. Indeed, Mr Mazlan’s switch from vandalism – as the authorities saw it then – to professional street art mirrors how graffiti has evolved as an art form in Singapore.
Back in the 1990s and earlier, graffiti was almost non-existent. In 1994, local authorities gave American teenager Michael Fay four strokes of the cane, a fine and four months’ imprisonment for stealing municipal signs and vandalising cars with spray paint and eggs. This made headlines worldwide and propelled Singapore into the international limelight.
Now, graffiti is gaining popularity in the city-state, although space for legal street art is limited. Schools, organisations and arts centres pay spray artists to paint murals, and some artists even offer workshops to educate the public on street art.
A global movement
Spray can art is a youth subculture that originated from the West (see sidebar), and comes with a list of jargons often familiar only to those in the scene: “writer” (graffiti art practitioner); “bomb” (prolific painting or marking with ink); “tag” (a writer’s signature with marker or spray paint); and “going over” (one writer covering another writer’s name with his own). It is often associated with self-expression and rebellion.
Pieces of the Berlin Wall that line the streets of Germany, for example, bear colourful symbols of peace, alluding to the country’s past. In New York, meanwhile, prolific aerosol artists evade the law to scrawl on subways and buses. The most notorious ones gain respect from their peers by working on hard-to-reach places; sometimes even using etching acid on glass windows.
“We’re not talking about the usual chicken-like scratching in the glass that most riders barely notice anymore because it has been routine for so long,” New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman moans in a 2006 commentary titled “A Stain on Subways and on the City”.
“The problem is large white billows of undecipherable scribbling that cover entire windows, conjuring up memories of darker times when a subway ride sometimes felt like a creepy scene out of ‘Death Wish’.”
It’s a different story altogether in law-driven, squeaky-clean Singapore.
Here, graffiti is only allowed in certain legitimised areas such as the Somerset Skate Park, the Youth Park and the stretch of Sungei Ulu Pandan canal. The National Youth Council, which runs both parks, sanctioned graffiti art there seven years ago after graffiti started appearing on the grounds.
If done elsewhere, graffiti is considered vandalism and is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 or jail term of up to three years, and a maximum of eight strokes of the cane.
In 2007, letters to the press on vandalism in Singapore prompted a joint reply from the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), who said the government “continues to take a serious view of vandalism”.
“It is a serious crime that damages property, lowers the tone of our city and living environment,” the reply read, noting that vandalism “should not be confused with street art that is properly executed with the approval of the property owners”.
Artist and art educator Kamal Dollah, 41, says the graffiti scene in Singapore differs from that in the West.
“We do have illegal graffiti, but it gets cleaned up and addressed,” he notes. “So we don’t have dirty streets, and that’s why we can enjoy graffiti.”
For the powers-that-be, the tight laws have produced desired results. Figures from MHA point to a fall in vandalism over the years. There were 151 cases in 2006 – the most recent year for which data are available – compared with about 200 cases each year from 2002 to 2005.
Still, how expressive can art be when it’s confined to merely a few legal spaces?
Rozaimie Fahbi, 28, also known as slacsatu, finds the graffiti landscape in Singapore stifled. An aerosol artist since 1998, he goes to the Youth Park often to paint – but to him, space is still lacking.
“Even the current walls we have now are quite secluded from the public’s eyes, and we still need to propose our artworks beforehand,” he points out. “That’s how fake the scene here is. We don’t really have freedom of self-expression.”
Student and arts enthusiast Koh Ming Xiu, 21, agrees.
“The graffiti scene is practically non-existent,” says the mass communication student at Nanyang Technological University. “Even in school, there’s no space.”
That was why she jumped at the opportunity when her schoolmate Janice Tan gave her free rein to paint murals at Zsofi, a tapas bar Ms Tan recently set up. Together, the two girls and three other friends grabbed their paintbrushes and worked with fervour to fill up the sprawling walls at the bar in Little India. As there wasn’t a specific theme; only a colour scheme, all of them came up with different designs that nevertheless complemented each other beautifully.
“The scene in Singapore is quite limiting for people interested in graffiti art, as there aren’t many avenues for them to express themselves,” she says. “But I can understand that – people can’t draw everywhere.”
Fellow arts lover Ho Zhen Ming, who has been accepted to study art at University College London’s Slade School of Fine Art and Goldsmiths’ College at the University of London – the scholar hasn’t decided which to go for – sees a “huge potential” in local graffiti, but acknowledges that “it’s never been loud enough”.
“We’re a pragmatic and effective breed, coupled with an arts scene that’s still young and developing,” the 21-year-old notes. “While we’re still trying to build a visual arts culture that we can call our own, the graffiti scene is one that has lost out due to its intrinsic rebellious edge.”
Still, Mr Kamal, who gives art workshops in schools, sees graffiti as a balancing act between expression and responsibility.
“Everyone should respect each other’s belongings. I wouldn’t like it if somebody came and ‘tagged’ my things – what kind of artistic freedom is it when you’re not responsible?” he says. “We have order and morality issues; we cannot just do things on impulse.”
Indeed, most artists accept the limitations and toe the line.
“Graffiti loses its authenticity when artists are given a legal space to paint on, but we still need these spaces to do nicely-executed and quality works,” Mr Mazlan admits. “We still need those legal walls to flaunt our skills.”
Looking ahead, Mr Rozaimie remains optimistic about the future of street art in Singapore. The founder of the ZincNite Crew – who were caught in 2000 for spray-painting an underpass in Pasir Ris but who’ve since gone legit – tries to spread the “potential of graffiti art” every time he paints.
“I just know that the scene will get stronger; it’s been proven all around the world that graffiti can make it,” he says. “It definitely won’t stop in Singapore.”
SIDEBAR: From caves to streets
For graffiti, the writing had been on the wall since the ancient times.
Derived from the Italian word sgraffio which means “scratch”, graffiti has existed since the beginning of human history. Pictures were carved onto cave walls with bones or stones, but early man also introduced the stencil and spray techniques, blowing coloured powder through hollow bones around his hands to make silhouettes. In ancient Greece, carved notes were found on fragments of clay, while excavations in Pompeii discovered a wealth of graffiti, including election slogans, drawings and even obscenities.
Graffiti started becoming a political and social tool in the 20th century. During World War 2, for example, the Nazis used wall messages to stir up hatred towards Jews and dissidents. The public also used it in resistance movements – “The White Rose”, a group of German nonconformists, spoke out against Hitler and his regime in 1942 through leaflets and painted slogans, until their capture in 1943. French students would also use the pochoir (French for stencil graffiti) technique during revolts.
Today’s graffiti arose from the 1970s in New York and Philadelphia, where artists painted their names on walls or in subway stations around Manhattan. Graffiti, along with hip-hop, has since spread to Asia and South America, where it is now thriving.
Adapted from Graffiti world: Street art from five continents by Nicholas Gauz (2004)