by Shah Rizzal.
Graffiti art or street art has always had notorious connotations, due to the often-illegal nature of its practice, as well as its aggressive political stance. It is an art form that has its roots in conveying a message of defiance through damaging state property, and thus promoting an anti-establishment theory in its original form.
You may recall a recent and high-profile case, when a Swiss graffiti artist took his freeform expression to the steel trains in our own backyard, and question: is there not enough control over this volatile art form here in Singapore?
Where to draw the line between art and an act of mischief, and how far would this line stretch, especially when this art form is more popular to the younger art aficionado for its ease of visual consumption?
I’m an art practitioner myself who recently graduated with a Bachelor (Hons) of Fine Arts from Lasalle College of the Arts, and have been involved in the aerosol art scene for a decade.
I am glad to see how this art form has matured significantly- from an art form that thrived on rage, spontaneity and thrills, to one that raises questions in a diplomatic and intellectual manner. Graffiti art laid the foundation for my present artistic endeavors. Artists like Zero, SlacSatu and TraseOne, among others, have also taken street art to a perceptible playing field much like the platforms for other types of mainstream art.
Some ardent graffiti enthusiasts consider that a form of commercializing what they regard as an art form that belongs to the street, and reserved exclusively to the practitioners.
Yet I have to disagree- graffiti art, to me, is a form of antithesis; either a physical action or a dialogue that can fit into whichever mode of depiction. Graffiti art could be considered on a similar wavelength as performance art in terms of its provocative ideals and the subjectivity of the viewer’s appreciation and interaction with the artists.
Street art, as I foresaw, is a communal forum made up of a group of spontaneous, strong-willed young artists that believes in using alternative channels to express. Even with the intense commercialization of this art form as being cool and hip in the media, its core idea is about being a quirk in the dense art market. It could be entertaining, serious, or both at the same time. There are no circumscribed rules as to how one should execute the final artworks.
Due to this flexibility and development in the scope of graffiti art today, I think it is time to stop associating street art/graffiti art to just a mischief-making or political tool. The more restrained and subdued this art form is forced to be, the more repulsive and ineffective it would be to the viewers. Graffiti art has the potential to make an impact- even without being illegal.
It is sensible now for the public to forget about incidents such as the ‘infiltration’ of graffiti onto our steel trains or MRT pillars. Instead, open your hearts to what the local street artists have to showcase, in venues that also house established and accepted art forms and artists.
1The Birth of a Revolution
Graffiti art started to gain fame in Singapore when a group of youths were caught painting graffiti art in public spaces nationwide. They call themselves Zincnite Crew and are still practicing their artistries till today but on a different platform. Although they are not the first to appear into the scene, but it is a worthy mention considering their notoriety.
Before the news feature the criminalization of graffiti art through the ‘ZNC incident’, graffiti was formally introduced to the public by SkopeOne (Phyreman) and Xero, who both formed the backbone of Operation Art Core (OAC) in the mid 1990s. OAC sets the standards in the earlier phase of the street art/graffiti culture in Singapore. Graffiti art in the late nineties takes on the traditional styles of the earlier New York Wild style with big influence of Cope2, Ces, Yes and Can2.
Graffiti art has supplemented the growing interest in sub-cultural activities since the mid-nineties in Singapore and in this context, to the Hip Hop Culture. This art form formed the setting of then ‘four elements of hip hop’ alongside breakdancing, rapping and turn-tabling. Graffiti art has always been the backdrop to such Hip Hop affairs predominantly featuring Operation Art Core and Project Burnerz in the earlier period.
Aside from its more glamorous juncture, graffiti art was also the enemy of the authorities with its blatant disregard of the law by some. The problem initially arises from the lack of painting space in Singapore especially when this art form, unlike traditional paintings, needs a bigger space to paint on. But to some hardcore graffiti aficionados, graffiti art should remain in the streets illegally and having them in museums or galleries is a form of treachery as to them, graffiti is more than an art form and it is a religion by itself.
With disparity in visions of this rapidly growing art form, many graffiti art practitioners have gone into the institutional passage when some remain underground or are still constantly under the radar of the authorities.
I write therefore I am.
To further understand the complex structure of graffiti art and its community, I would need to highlight the people involved in this reclusive artistic movement. Other than having a stealthy presence in the arts community, graffiti artists would generally associate themselves with groups or ‘crews’ rather than representing themselves. In such manner, these graffiti artists attempt to support one another thus multiplying in numerical strength, as the graffiti community is quite small and socially remote as compared to other art forms. So here are some notable ones[i] that are still practicing their crafts:
Operation Art Core (OAC) started in 1994 by SkopeOne and Xero that also saw artists like TraseOne, RGB, Syco and Ash-D. OAC is the pioneer graffiti crew that brought graffiti to the masses through their painting showcases. The present active members of OAC are SkopeOne, Esok, Jesta, JabaOne, Mimer and Deaz. OAC has sectioned themselves to form the Artcore Collective featuring Local photographer Mark Teo, Johor Graffiti artist Nuke, graphic designer Sputnikyurl and Musician Oby Juan. OAC also has made a collaboration of crews with Kings Destroy from New York, Phiberwryte from Malaysia and PSP from Philippines as they venture out of this Island state.
Zincnite Crew (ZNC) was formed formally in 1998 that saw writers like Slacsatu, Monk, Mesh and Tyro being the most notorious graffiti gang of four in Singapore. ZNC was also the topic that hogged the print headlines from their illegal works in the monsoon drains in Bedok to their arrest in year 2000 and the rectification followed was inevitable in the form of new recruitments such as Asno, Cart, Myow, Nozz, S13, ClogTwo, Syco03 and Ash-D. The recent surge for international recognition also saw the recruitment of artists from all over the world such as Phobia and PhobiaKlik from Malaysia, CrazeOne from Vietnam, SwazeOne from Bolivia, Bond from Germany, Zids from Thailand and Fab Family from Indonesia to mention a few.
Titan Aerosol Creation (TAC) was formed in 1999 by Syco, Ebat, Gizzmo, One, Zod and Slow and TAC is still active now with a revamped line-up in the form of Dism, Jefka, Bony and Dem. TAC has partnered ZNC since the earlier famed period and are still working together to present.
Project Burnerz (PB) was established in 2001 by Dism, Syco and Xero and RGB that molded the core foundation of an all-star graffiti team that included Asno, Ash-D, S13, Sen, Bony and TrackTwo. PB were known for their fresh inputs of long themed ‘burners[ii]’ during that phase when graffiti was commonly depicted as panel fonts on colorful backgrounds. The member have worked closely with ZNC and has ventured into spray-paint production.[iii]
Spray Two George (STG) was founded by siblings Locase and Tech in 2002. The two brothers have stayed through together up till now. Together ventured into photography and graphic design and have set up a studio under the name of ‘Hands Free Studio’. They have also experimented on technological inventions and modifications along with their graffiti practise.
ARTVSTS on the other hand, started in the most unorthodox manner when they first appeared into the scene. Started in 2003 by The Killer Gerbil, Phuek, Orkibal, Maes2ro, Lil Pink Devil, Zero and OneTwo Delta, they stormed the scene with a unique approach of graffiti art that emphasizes the whimsical usage of characters more that the traditional fonts. The varieties of visual execution gave an even broader dimension of consuming and comprehending art in the streets.
There are many more writers and crews where some of their identities remained a mystery. These writers had also contributed to what graffiti are now, in the positive or negative manner. Some examples are Air, Antz, Rel, Scola, Case, Mozart, Kaze, Miz-e, ScriptOne, Guerila Bombers, Arrow Soul Warriors (ASW), Aerosol Mechanic Counterparts (AMC), Loo Lay Pac (LLP) and East Coast Bombers (ECB).
With the brief description of the writers or crews involved, graffiti art has never fail to entertain or annoy the public with its fundamental association with the streets.
2 2005 and beyond.
2005 is just a number to indicate the communalization of Graffiti art within its discipline. It is hard to ignore the hostility on the other side of the world between graffiti practitioners like King Robbo and Banksy[iv] whence it was almost a folly confrontation of ‘Street Art’ versus ‘Graffiti’ in London. But given the disparity in treatments between them over there, the conflict is fathomable.
What is Street Art? What is Graffiti Art then? There are no differences in between them theoretically and in its epistemological manner. But to the ardent graffiti artists or commercial opportunists, there are minor differences in principles between them. What might probably cause the confusion, mistreatment and biasness are when the authorities or the institutions plastered terminologies, similar to racial classifications, to recognize one over the other based on its commercial capabilities, its social gains and intellectual artistic merit. Graffiti art was recognized as an act of vandalism that are at most times territorial and deals with fonts and derogatory remarks and on the other end, street art was the more credible art form that has commercial prospect and consumable by the public as something more intellectual, political and full of wit. And I question, “Both forms involved themselves in street paintings, illegally, so why the need to distinguish one over the other?” Graffiti art is street art and street art is graffiti art.
I choose 2005 again because; the practitioners have blurred the differences primarily due the matured intellectuality of percepts and deliverances. When I mentioned institutions in the previous chapter, I was referring to the adaptation of this art form to galleries, councils and schools thus opening the doors towards a different dimension and possibilities to other traditional art or design influences.
Most graffiti artists have had shows in Fine Art exhibitions and Design Festivals and have gone to make a name for themselves in their secondary media. Artists like SlacSatu, SkopeOne, Xero, TraseOne, Asno, ClogTwo, Zero, LilPinkDevil and a few others have gone on to have shows in venues that commonly houses prominent artist namely Singapore Arts Museum, Esplanade, Institute of Contemporary Arts (Singapore) Gallery and Taksu Gallery. Having said so, it would be presumptuous that such involvement in the finer side of arts would elevate an art form or the practitioner to a level of acceptance amongst the elites.
I was questioned once during my academic presentation in an art Institution by a lady of academia, “Graffiti has lost all meanings and it has become a joke when graffiti have been working with the establishment or corporate’s commercials. So what is graffiti that you are presenting?” First and foremost, if the debate is about the physical act of spray-painting on public property, politically charged messages or elaborated scrawls on toilet doors and posters, then the question would be a waste of time to ponder on when assumptions, ignorance and arrogance have crept in. On another occasion, I was told that graffiti artists disrespect the art industry so much by defacing public property anonymously thus being irresponsible. I would go on to explain if the question warrants a more philosophical or theoretical response. I am a graffiti writer myself and I shall translate graffiti art more intimately than its brute physical presence.[v]
Graffiti as defined by all dictionary as scrawls on walls and commonly known to be destructive et cetera. Graffiti art is special to most writers because of its freedom to take on different guise as if having multiple selves to produce something spontaneous out of the ordinary. For example, TraseOne’s stencils and strings on canvas stretchers has this combination of all of his disciplines as both a painter and graffiti artist into a political satire and having them exhibited in prominent galleries. Zero on the other hand does installation art that deals with the popular consumerist culture using duplicity, sensationalism and multiplicities in most of his works. Graffiti art also see the traditional font manipulation of SlacSatu in ICAS gallery that pictured how graffiti art has penetrated the institution in the ‘Berita Harian’ Exhibition in 2010. So what are these?
Through all of the examples quoted, graffiti art has risen from the gutter[vi] (that most are proud being in and around including myself) to the same playing field as other art forms. The act of penetration is an ongoing performance by itself if anyone is keeping tab. This act of penetration to some is the proof that graffiti art is not selling out but it is sapping out the institutional currency. Graffiti art has always been about being in places where it was not desirable to the people on a given radius or being on billboards where it would be allocated to a more commercially viable corporate advertisements that sells an idea that I am fat and I need help. In this context, graffiti art stole some shows that would commonly be allocated to the finer artistes is the ultimate definition of what it is all about.
The role and presence of graffiti artists have taken now could see the reminiscences of the invasion of performance art in the early 1990s here in the Singapore art scene where the ZNC could be The Artists Village. It was almost impossible to derive to a point of acknowledgment and it would also be too early to dismiss the paranoia of the graffiti artists being in the same circuit. Similar to performance art back then, as long as the constant harassing by the authorities on the graffiti community continue to ‘aid their investigations’ regarding street vandals, the more the artists would distant themselves from the limelight and this might provoke them to sway to be pro-left citizens. It might be a job for the authorities involved to keep graffiti artists silent but it is a passion for the graffiti artists to keep writing and propagating their art in a language of their own.
3 Street language.
Street art in Singapore adapted the universal graffiti language into practise in a very strict political environment. As mentioned in the previous chapters, street art practitioners are equipped with knowledge through unorthodox education and the passion to disseminate them liberally to the general population preferably outside the confines of a gallery setting. Why and how does this form of integration help both the artists and the consumers?
Having spoken of the tools of choice used by the street art practitioners, the impact of subliminal school of thoughts being scrawled onto public spaces in the quickest and most of the time spontaneous manner, saw this art form as also the most efficient mode or propagation to the community present the biggest worry to the governing bodies. The spraycan by itself is undoubtedly the most sought after tool amongst artist-turn-activist. We have all seen the power of Obey by Shephard Fairey or Banksy’s insolence of the authority in his works could muster on its spectators. We have all seen the discontent it created and how it turned into an iconic part of a landscape but how does it impact the Singaporeans at large?
Local street art practitioners use a different form of language to suit the political environment here. In the earlier period of its existence here, we could see many graffiti throw-ups, pieces, tags and posters all over the city[vii]. Then in the recent years, graffiti art grew into the consumer market when most notorious writers got reprimanded. This signs for another period of graffiti street language where it is adapted into a different environment, in this case, the institutions. Institutionally speaking, graffiti has matured into an art world that needs a form of recognition before it is fashionable to be displayed. Yes, that may sound like a tongue in cheek statement but taking out the folly in that statement, the obvious power play in the arts doesn’t escape the political nature of organised institutions. Rules has to be adhered and disciplines will be implemented into the commercial graffiti practice.
In regards to matters that benefited the practitioners, the hierarchy in the graffiti lifestyle is inadvertently removed. This was shown through Zero’s work in the Y-fest 2011 installation work at the Esplanade which showcases the allegorical humor that have been plaguing the street art’s culture since its inception. Graffiti is infamously known for its turf wars or Kings vs. Toys as mentioned in the previous paragraph. This would perhaps be the most ruinous in the professionalism aspect of the art form.
Commerciality of graffiti doesn’t just cover the economical gains it would lead to the practitioner, the viewer and its industry but also the integral ideological framework to the artist and aesthetic consumers. I chose the ‘industry’ and avoided the term ‘culture’[viii] here primarily due the sensitivity of ‘cultural study’ in the field of the academia but proceed with this writing with substantial prior knowledge of its epistemology. Singapore has recently seen a rapid progression towards integration of culture to its populace thus the industrialization of ‘culture’ is inevitable. In ‘cultural industry’, identity and its values are adapted, rewired and reintegrated for an easier consumption to the general population. This explains the very nature of the local graffiti art practitioners in comparison to the universal global graffiti/street visual language. Graffiti art would be roped into the universal term ‘art’ that can be encapsulated and comprehended by the general public.
The language the graffiti artist has evolved into a more universal one to coexist within the Singapore’s visual arts landscape following the marriage of intellectualized aesthetics and the institutional podiums. Language has always depicted the cultural knowingness amongst those involved and as a result, these groups create a wider cluster or viewership. Although this art form started with the philosophical knowingness of being considered as a form of an anti-establishment that detached itself from its commercial gains, the commodification of a sub-cultural revolution bore the collective understanding between the repressed graffiti art practitioners and its spectator. Would it then be safe to say that both the practitioners and the spectators would benefit from such marriage of separate ideologies?
In the most democratic manner of speaking, it is unfair to suppress individual groups off it ways of propagation on one hand yet fair for the greater good of the population’s ways of living on the other. There is no definitive ways of taming either the practitioner or the spectator’s percept but maintaining the stability of the common acceptance. The language amongst the graffiti artists are meant for those who understood despite the misapprehensions it provokes. The provocation is thus the pepper in a bowl of alphabetical soup, without it, it is tasteless.
As of present, graffiti art still has differing definitions that varied from one artist to another. Whichever path it has partaken, graffiti art lives on the principles of the ethereal by presence thus disjointed from the common acceptance of a given establishment. Graffiti art is about infiltrating thoughts and percepts when superficial tolerance has stagnated a dialogue and just like the politics, the street is where the words buzz the loudest thus inevitably becomes the common forum boards. Graffiti art is about the resistance to cultural dictators and acceptance is never a priority when tolerance is the virtue.
[i] The accuracy of the tag names these graffiti artists present themselves with are of word of mouths and of different varieties.
[ii] This is a term used to describe a complete graffiti mural that combined fonts, characters and background. This themed mural is also known as ‘production’.
[iii] Zenith Cans. Produced by Myow under Projectburnerz Pte Ltd.
[iv] Jane Preston, Director, Graffiti Wars, Channel 4, 2011.
[v] Graffiti art is universally known as a form of counter culture in that acts against the surge of the advertising corporations on public landscape in theory. Spray-paint, marker and poster are the primary medias and mediums of propagation in the streets.
[vi] Graffiti art used to beautify the wall of the monsoon drains all over Singapore due to the lack of painting space and the freedom to paint then. Aside from imposing a territorial presence there, artist got to paint at places where moss, rust and dirt decayed. In this manner, the public is treated to commissioned-free murals of mostly bright and colorful artworks.
[vii] Throw-ups are the visually simpler form of blown-up letters and tags are the writings of initials, names, crews or just scribbled messages.
[viii] Cultural studies are often regarded as the utmost importance in the English departments throughout the international academia and thus have met contradictory intellectual dogfights amongst the brightest scholars. Amongst many like Barry Faulk, Jonathan Sterne, John Fiske, Lawrence Grossberg and notably Stuart Hall had dissected the epistemology of culture or as I would term as social ‘Knowingness’ in reference to the neopopulist’s injunction for its defition of ‘cultural institution’. Imminent supposed dangers of having a liberal culture of the percepts in terms of propagating and the affluences of ‘knowingness’ in Singapore are having informed viewers over their media consumption dosage and ultimately breeding a population of intelligent oppositions.