Street art in Singapore, government funded stencil art classes for Singaporean high school and junior college students, a skate park with legal graffiti walls, are we talking about the same SE Asian city state with a reputation for law and order? Street art is an international art movement but would it be true to assume that Singapore does not readily embrace it. I was curious and so I started to exchange emails with Kamal Dollah, a Singaporean artist and art educator who writes a teaches graffiti and blogs about it: Kamal Dollah’s Art Journal. Here is a dialogue that I’ve extracted from our emails that we intend to publish on both our blogs.
Kamal: It sounds crazy but I got my government backing to teach kids graffiti. My friends in USA could not belief that I got away with this. When I wrote this graffiti programme for the schools in 2004, I did not expect it to be approved for funding as its never been done before anywhere. My view is, you can bore these kids with Picasso and Rembrandts or you could get their attention and still teach them about colours, shape, form, calligraphy and some soft skills like respect and responsibility. Writers have ethics too and somehow that sinks into their head better than any civic class.
Mark: I know that Singapore is serious about vandalism and I didn’t see any graffiti last time I was there. So I thought if there is legal work going on then Singapore is proof that the extreme anti-graffiti lobby are wrong when they say that legal aerosol work encourages tagging and other illegal graffiti. Is this true?
Kamal: Well the anti-graffiti lobby may be right. The situation is different here because this is a high maintenance place. Graffiti get removed very fast. I believe you are familiar with the ‘broken-window theory’. There will always be un-established writers, punks and anti-establishments that will do illegal work.
Mark: Where is the legal street art mostly seen by the public in Singapore?
Kamal: Legal walls are provided by a government agency that oversees youth activity. You can spray anywhere in the skate park located in Orchard Road.
Mark: Do you mean that the skate park on Orchard Road is open to anyone to spray, go down and add your stencil when you finish it, or is there an application process? Has it ended up a mess or has a code of conduct emerged?
Kamal: The skate park in Orchard Road and the Youth *scape park is open to anyone to tag or bomb. No permit or application necessary. They also hold exhibitions and concerts for youth. Street artist hang out there mostly and learn from each other. Visiting writers from abroad has also done their pieces there.
Believe it, these walls are not messed up with vulgarities but beautiful pieces. This happens when artists are serious enough to own their space.
Mark: In Australia and America, there are little shops selling street style clothing, t-shirts, stickers, skateboards, magazines etc. with poster racks of street artist prints, paintings hanging above the cloths racks or a tiny gallery out the back. Does Singapore does have any of this commercial side of street art?
Kamal: There is a concentration of boutique shops specialising in street wear and that area is bombed pretty bad. Its called Haji Lane. It’s a small lane with small shops with reasonable rent. These businesses come and go. I suppose its the same in every city as we are a connected global village. Yes there are young entrepreneurs here that have tried to commercialise the craft. There is always someone pushing idea for a new magazine, crew, label etc.
Mark: Have any art galleries started to regularly show street art? The only two Singapore galleries that I’ve visited are Plastic Kinetic Worms and the Singapore Art Museum.
Kamal: Plastic Kinetic Worms just closed last year I think. They were pushing the envelopes of contemporary art when they existed but it is not right to say they promoted street art, I doubt they even noticed what happened on the street. Graffiti was not on the radar of high art even though occasional block busters like Keith Haring and Basquiat emerged on the streets in the 80s, recently Banksy and most recently Shepard Fairey (Obey). Art institutions rarely could see the diamond from the rocks. There are occasional exceptions like when the Singapore Art Museum invited eleven writers to bomb their wall in 2006 in conjunction with an exhibition on street art but that wall only lasted two weeks as some conservatives wanted it cleaned prior to the IMF and World bank meeting in town. We also have a supportive National Arts Council. They do recognise that youth like street art and fund some of these artists as long as they prove artistic merit. We do have a healthy exposure to the arts here. I hope that clears any assumption that we are oppressed citizens of a police state. Maybe not you, but that’s what most foreigners (even some locals) like to think.
Mark: In Australia the contradictions between the illegality graffiti and its image of cool urban youth are confusing. It would be good not to have to deal with the confusion and contradiction and just be able to enjoy the images.
Kamal: In Singapore there is no contradiction between graffiti and graffiti graphics as like I said, the city is clean and people generally are not victimised by it. The concept of graffiti is not frowned upon here because it is not so much viewed as vandalism as the public don’t suffer from it and graffiti is associated with youthful trend and art. That makes graffiti appear cool and established artist get engaged for gigs at promotions and public events. Most of the event are organised by government agencies to attract youth. Most writers know of the harsh penalty for vandalism under the Singapore law and how efficient law enforcement is, so it is really pointless to ‘get-real’ when there are legal alternatives. My observation, Singapore is different from other SE Asian countries as we are a small city. The graffiti impact here is very well contained.
Banner at the Skatepark near Sommerset MRT in Orchard Road, Singapore - by the National Youth Council.