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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Singapore Street Art: The Legal Rebels (Part 2)

Artist Sam Lo gained notoriety in 2012 after getting arrested for stencilling the phrase ‘My Grandfather Road’ on a public road. The incident was highly publicised, leading to debates about the line between vandalism and creative expression. Now, eight years later, Sam is featured in a micro-documentary, produced by online visual magazine Not Safe For TV, which has racked up over 600,000 views online to date. Today, Sam is a well-respected visual artist with a diverse practice, and in this video is seen with their collaborators and friends from RSCLS.

ArtsEquator asks artist Zul Othman from RSCLS some questions about the street art scene in Singapore, then and now. Part 1 of this feature, an interview with Sam Lo, can be found here.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

ArtsEquator: Hi! Can you introduce yourself and your collective? 

ZERO: I am Zul, commonly known as ZERO. I am also co-founder of the RSCLS collective along with Antz. As a collective we are focused on graffiti and street art. I can’t really put an exact time as to when Antz and myself decided to form the collective, but we have always worked and done stuff together since 2005. We are now made up of 15 members coming from all over Asia.

ArtsEquator: In the video, you were saying that what happened to Sam changed the landscape for street art. Can you elaborate on that? 

ZERO: What happened to both Sam and Antz and that period of time ignited a huge debate amongst members of society. What is art and what constitutes vandalism. By law, whatever the two of them did was vandalism, but if we look into the intentions of the Sam’s action, there was a lot of thought process to it. For the second time in Singapore’s contemporary art history, a townhall meeting was organised by the arts community to address it.

Street art had always been around in Singapore – the graffiti movement started here in the late ’90s by Operation Artkore (OAC), ProjectBurnerz (PB) and ZincNiteCrew (ZNC), the street art movement followed suit, pioneered by ARTVSTS, my former collective – but it was always in the fringe, it never truly created any sort of real critical public discourse. The “urban art scene”, a term I use to represent both graffiti and street art together, has always had different peaks. The first peak came in the early 2000s when OAC pushed it into the forefront, it then plateaued till ARTVSTS came in mid 2003. ARTVSTS not only did works on the streets but managed to push their works into the Singapore Art Museum, and other exhibitions and events. After the initial hype, the scene plateaued again till RSCLS came along.

What happened to Sam and Antz pushed us more into the forefront. While Antz took a step back from the prying eyes of the media, Sam had to deal extensively with them, which we all know now had a detrimental effect on her being. Everyone wanted a piece of her. It gave the public a great interest in the scene here and she represented it. 

The “Sticker Lady” fiasco also happened during an interesting period of time. Sam was still part of RSCLS back then. At about the same time Sam and Antz got arrested, RSCLS became the first street art collective to receive a major grant from the National Arts Council (NAC). I received the NAC Young Artist Award the same year. Prior to the arrests, RSCLS had started discussions with NAC to procure various public spaces all around Singapore to be earmarked as public graffiti mural walls. The incident accelerated this process between RSCLS, NAC and other authorities.

 

Courtesy of Not Safe for TV.

 

ArtsEquator: How would you describe the state of street art now? 

ZERO: The street art scene in Singapore has always gone through various peaks and plateaus. A plateau is not a bad thing, it allows everyone to reflect on their practice, strategise and plan their careers better. Trying to catch up to things during its peak  will most times than not burn you out. You start producing like an assembly line, rushing for shows, commissions. Once the peak is gone you will be forgotten and left behind. 

We are now seeing the global street art scene reach a new height of popularity. There are street art festivals all around the world, exhibitions everywhere from Paris to Jakarta. The past 10 years has seen a boom in street art. Collectors are snapping up works by street artists at an unprecedented rate. While it is good for the careers of the artists, it has also gentrified the scene.

Now everyone just slaps the label street art on their exhibitions, events and bios to project a sense of “street cred” or make things seem edgier. New artists, many whom have never ever painted anything illegal on the streets, are now calling themselves street artists, just because they painted a couple of murals on legal walls. A lot of people jump on its bandwagon without understanding the history and the culture behind it. Doodlers, illustrators, muralists now brand themselves as street artists. Social media has definitely changed the scene. The spirit of it is dead, if you ask me.

To be honest, it gets me jaded. I have been in this scene for about 18 years now, I have seen so many pretenders come and go. I believe that my peers in the scene are in this for the long run. Art for most of us is essential to our lives. Street art is where we started from, it will alway be something that anchors our practice.

ArtsEquator: In the video, there is a mention of the word “mischief” and in fact, the name RSCLS itself has a cheeky, troublemaker connotation. How do you see yourselves as artists in Singapore, in relation to this identity? 

ZERO: Taking a quote from Pablo Picasso, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Children are inquisitive, curious and explorative by nature, they are always questioning their environment and RSCLS believe that we should always try our best to hold on to these traits. As adults, we lose touch with this part of ourselves and I personally believe that as artist, I need to question continuously, constantly push boundaries and challenge systems and ideas. An artist should never be comfortable in his or her own place as that comfort in itself would be detrimental to art-making.

ArtsEquator: What happened to Sam has happened to a number of artists since then, and historically, it’s not exactly a new thing. What do you think of the notion that there is a fundamentally uneasy relationship between artists and authority?

ZERO: Artists have always been at the forefront of de-constructing, critiquing and documenting life that is contemporary to their times. We use art as a conduit to articulate and present our views and ideas. The subjectivity of art creates a space for deeper thinking and various opinions. It does not exist in black and white. A healthy society is one that can be open to criticism, dissent, discussion and discourse. Art serves this function. Art that solely serves the needs of a particular authoritative entity is propaganda.

ArtsEquator: It seems that there are usually two ways to go after a major incident like this: either you stay in the fringes and continue to work in a subversive space, or you gain institutional validation and work with established, legitimate commissioners. Can you comment on this?

ZERO: Can’t we do both? I think it is important for us to be able to choose the right projects that allow us to express what we need to. Certain commissioned works that we make serves the purpose of allowing us to earn and make a living. These projects in turn fund and allow us to create our own personal works. It is up to the artists themselves to discern various opportunities presented to them. We should be able to evaluate the value of the opportunity to our own values and needs as artists. A good artist will still be able to be subversive even within institutionalised, controlled spaces.

ArtsEquator: In terms of working on commissioned murals, in the video it is positioned as one of the main ways to earn a living as a street artist. What do you think of the perception of “selling out”? Do you think there is more or less room to rebel in Singapore now?

ZERO: “Selling out”, that is a term I used to hear a lot. Especially during the 2000s, RSCLS were accused a couple of times of that by other artists, who themselves eventually made artworks for big brands and such. The irony.

My community and myself, the individuals and crews who pioneered and moved the Singapore scene, we have paid our dues. We are now in a different place in our lives where we have families, living expenses and such. A full-time practicing artist as myself depends on projects and commissions to make a living. Exhibitions, projects and such are great but it does not allow me to have a sustainable income. At the end of the day, it is up to me to choose and look into potential projects, evaluate for myself whether these potential projects align with my personal ideals and ethics.


You can watch the interview with Sam Lo, and other videos by Not Safe For TV here.

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