Writing On The Wall

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August 2007 saw a group of graffiti writers get together at the Kelang River for a meeting of style. Organised by veteren Tha-B, 22 writers bombed 200 meters of the wall that night with little more than light from the passing LRTs to guide them. The result is the masterpiece that is shown here which used to be visible aboard the LRT from Central Market. To dig deeper into the often misunderstood world of Graffiti, JUICE straps on a backpack and shakes up some aerosol.

Not since the Renaissance period has the world seen an art movement as huge as Graffiti. From its roots in the streets of Philadelphia to Europe, Asia, South American and even Malaysia, graffiti has managed to reach every corner of the world wherever restless young men and women have access to spray paint and open spaces.

Graffiti, which comes under the umbrella of street art, is viewed by some as the de-commercialisation of art – bringing art out of the gallery and into the streets where it belongs, free for all to see. However, others consider it vandalism and to a certain extent, misuse of the freedom of speech. During the 80s, New York City had a crack down on graffiti artists sentencing some writers to 5 years in prison.

Tagging is also illegal in Malaysia, although graffiti artists on our shores are much less an army of vandals as they are a close knit community of restless creative youths. “Currently, there are somewhere around 30 to 40 writers in the country, excluding East Malaysia,” estimates Bone, a graffiti writer from Wangsa Maju. Bone was among the 22 writers that bombed the Kelang River that night. “You have to understand that even before we bombed it that night, many other people were already spraying that spot. It’s not like we owned it and surely enough, it was erased by the DBKL because someone did a political message beside our piece.”

Bone, who does graffiti for Echo Park – a streetwear chain – has his own line of clothing named after himself, and is also a part-time hip hop dancer. A far cry from the boy who started tagging his name at playgrounds around the late 90s. “We’re not becoming New York City. Malaysian graffiti artists have respect,” he assures us of the intentions of his kin. “Part of the duty of a graffiti artist is to beautify the city,” he adds.

Perhaps half the fight for graffiti is about what is considered ‘art’. If a person sprays out a foul or crude message, many would not consider that art. But on the flipside, there are some who think there is more art in sincerely expressing how you feel no matter the tone, compared to someone ‘copying’ a foreign piece.

The most primitive form of graffiti is tagging, which is basically writing your own name. Most graffiti artists start out with tagging and develop their styles and identities from there. The name of the writer will sometimes be accompanied by his or her house or street number.

This form of expression dates back to the dawn of man, when cavemen used to scribble on cave walls. “It is a way to let people and the universe know that you were here and that you’re still alive and kicking,” says prominent graffiti artist They.

Like many young writers, They started scribbling his name in school restrooms. But he is quick to point out that more serious writers will eventually be driven by their passion to move on to bigger things. And They has certainly moved on from writing on bog walls. Sitting in his gallery at the Annexe in Central Market amongst his work and that of fellow artists, They is a man who knows graffiti as well as he does his old neighbourhood in JB. Like many writers, it was an addiction he could not shake. “Have you ever got caught?” we ask. “No, I run fast.”

They enlightens us on the empowering effect graffiti has on its writers, “Walls are our canvases, we just paint. To me, a work of art is not complete without an audience. And the thing with graffiti is that you get an audience 5 minutes after you’re done.”

Who can forget the infamous 18? stencil pieces found all over town, particularly in Bangsar. While They’s work does not carry any political messages, he believes that the wall is an unbiased medium for expression.
“Politicians have the Parliament while the activists and artists have the wall. In a way, to me, it is fair. Every artist has a message whether it’s political or social,” explains They, whose work revolves around the theme of love. “I respect the activist for speaking his or her mind but I don’t always agree with the message.”

They will be the first to admit that he doesn’t give a hoot about politics in general but he does have strong views about the influence of advertisements. “What’s not fair to me are the ugly billboards that promise you a better life with their products. It’s such a waste of space and energy to look at those things. Those companies that put them there didn’t ask for our permission when they did that, so what’s the difference from a graffiti writer? Indirectly, they are creating a brand-obsessed generation.”

In many ways, activism and graffiti go hand in hand because both are an adverse reaction to our surroundings. Bone sums it up, “The city is flooded with advertisements to the point it is controlling our lives. It’s always easier to appreciate a message from the heart, rather than one from somebody trying to sell you things.”

Legendary graffiti artist Nasty, notorious for bombing the subways in Paris, was in KL a few years back. According to a reliable source, Nasty’s visit coincided with the birthday of a local writer from the SWS crew. To celebrate, they got together for an impromptu bombing at a KL Sentral parking lot.

Halfway through, a police car was sighted. Immediately, Nasty pulled out his yamakasi moves and dashed off like the wind. The local writers tried to keep up but ended up looking like Sesame Street puppets, running and panting.

As a result, half of the crew was picked up and brought to the police station where they were detained until 5am. Later, Nasty made a call to one of the writers to find out what had happened. Apparently, the Frenchman was so fast, he had run all the way back to his hotel.

In Malaysia, laws against vandalism are strictly enforced. However, once arrested, graffiti writers are seldom prosecuted. Most of the time, they will be fined a minimal amount and in some cases jailed for a day. This does not apply to those who are caught writing political or “sensitive” messages, where punishment could be tougher.

So where does one draw the line on public space? On what’s okay and what’s not okay to write on? A few years back, a political message was sprayed on a LRT train. Although an isolated incident, this has led many to believe that graffiti artists are nothing more than celebrated vandals.

“Basically any place that is paid for by taxes is considered public property. And as the public, we should be allowed space to express ourselves,” says They. “There is no Law of the Wall. The government has the right to erase what I do and other graffiti artists have the right to spray over my work. But it just makes me sad when this is done for the wrong reasons.”

Access to proper space to bomb has always been an issue. Before the Kelang River mural, Tha-B with two other writers actually met up with Datuk Salleh Yusuf, the General Director of DBKL to negotiate for the Kelang River wall to be turned into a graffiti-spot. After being led around the bush for some time, they decided to do it without permission. And since the spot was technically a giant drain, the authorities didn’t really bother. “There are certain places where it’s common sense not to bomb. Like religious buildings or residential areas,” states They. “There is no international code of conduct for graffiti writers, so this might vary from country to country according to their own cultures.”

As mentioned earlier, according to Bone, graffiti artists have a duty to improve the visual state of the city. Bone’s favourite places to bomb are moldy or dirty walls. Ironically, he combats vandalism by filling these spaces with his art. “When someone sees these walls with nice murals on them, they would think twice before vandalising it,” says Bone, who classifies vandalism as a willful act of malice that goes beyond the freedom of speech or simply just hoodlums marking territory. “A garden without a flower is not a garden. A city without graffiti is not a city,” They adds.

During the late 90s and early 2000s, local graffiti was on the rise. Writers got together, formed crews and were organised. “There were a lot of architectural and design students. For me, it all started with the Internet,” says Shieko a sought-after freelance graphic designer and graffiti artist who was in the Sembuh With Style (SWS) crew. Comprising of Shieko, Drew, Sona and VDS – SWS crew were one of the first organised bombers.

Shieko was influenced by the works of 123 KLAN and MODE2 (check out our interview with MODE2 here) who captured the movement of dance in disco and hip hop culture during the 80s. After 5 years of working in an advertising agency, Shieko like Bone and They made a conscious decision to try to make a living out of street art.

“Only the serious writers go full time. There are some misguided urban kids who glamourise the American Wildstyle where the more complicated you are, the better. It’s very territorial,” explains Shieko. “Over in Europe, the writers care more about the design and colours so it’s two conflicting attitudes.”

Going under the nick of Suga52, Shieko with SWS honed her spray can skills at “The Hall of Fame” – a basketball court cum graffiti spot in Melawati. She posted her pieces on the internet and got job offers from there.

But isn’t commissioned graffiti just another form of advertising? Not quite, as Shieko points out that she still bombs public spots. “Public bombings are for the thrills, while commissioned bombings are to pay the bills,” she puts it aptly.

Veteran graffiti artist Tha-B has a more military approach towards commissioned bombing. “Although most of us do both commercial and street graffiti, a writer that solely does commissioned work is not a real writer. It’s like indoor rock climbing; it’s not the real thing. Graffiti belongs on the streets,” says the respected writer.

The life of an artist is usually filled with struggles and graffiti artists are no different. “There was once where I ate Maggi Mee and roti canai everyday!” reminisces Shieko. “When you first start out, there will be a lot of attention from the media. They’ll promise to make you famous and in exchange you’ll do a piece for them, sometimes for free, and an interview,” says the spirited writer who thinks that the scene needs more female artists for diversity.

Through events and exhibitions, writers got to meet each other and slowly, a network started. However, writers sometimes meet purely through their art. Case in point was how They and Bibi Chun – who worked on the Kelang River mural – met and became friends by leaving sprayed messages around their neighbourhood.

Whatever it is, graffiti artists maintain a tight bond. One which They refers to as “Members of Blood”. This brotherhood stretches across borders with foreign artists visiting Malaysia regularly, hooking up with locals through blogs and flickr.

Territorial disputes seldom happen in Malaysia. Most writers bomb around the proximity of their neighbourhood; Super Sunday Crew is based in Sungai Wang, They’s art gallery is at the Annexe in Central Market while SWS would go for Bangsar and Hartamas. Turf wars amongst writers are limited to posting “you suck” comments on blogs and most of the time that is done in a humourous and light-hearted manner. “Although there is no gang-related violence from graffiti here, the government should still provide a space for kids to practice like the Youth Park in Singapore,” says Shieko.

Of lately, the National Art Gallery has been supporting graffiti artists by commissioning them to do murals on its walls. But will graffiti be accepted by the masses? Could we see a massive graffiti mural at KLIA soon? Former SWS crew member Drew has already made waves in Melbourne, Australia as a graffiti artist and the rest of the original crews have achieve a fair amount of success as well.

The public will always have a fear of art for art is something that is confrontational. And to add to that, graffiti is definitely not passive art. We questioned Jerome Kugan, media manager of the Annexe Gallery about the relevance of graffiti and here’s what he said:

“Graffiti at its heart is a protest against having to ask for permission to express oneself. Because there are graffiti artists who are very talented and their work just mind blowing, it would be stupid for contemporary art establishments to ignore it as a significant art movement.”

Risking their safety to bring colour to the streets, we can only dream of a day when all writers will be able to bomb freely. What remains for now is the tight bond of these Members of Blood. The next wave of writers are already emerging and with a little help from the old guard, we’re sure that the city walls will continue to be canvases.

“It’s a good thing that most of us have our own businesses, like Bone and They. This form of art is pretty new to Malaysia. We need more graffiti artists for diversity. It’s beautiful to have more variations. Everybody is doing their own thing but graffiti brings us together,” says Shieko. “I don’t want to encourage kids but they’ll find their way eventually.”

Tha-B hit us back with some new pieces recently… check it out here.