Breach Over Troubled Water

While Singapore was still recovering from flash floods, I messaged Jahan – Oliver Fricker was sentenced to 5 months’ jail and 3 strokes of the cane.

The judge had ruled that ‘the offences were planned and carefully executed. These were not impulsive displays of youthful bravado’.

Jahan Loh, also known as Dazed-J has showcased his street art and graffiti works at the Esplanade, KL’s National Arts Academy and The Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His commissioned work for Adidas is even advertised on buses.

Yet as an artist, Jahan has also left his elaborate works of aerosol art on buildings, walkways and vehicles. These places are the roots of his craft. The essence of graffiti, it being seen now as an art form, originates from the streets. This street art is also a rebel art form that is subversive by nature. In its purest incarnation, it is a matter of time it will run foul of the law in the East. Especially in Singapore.

The jury out there is still in muddled water. Was it art of just mindless vandalism? Should Fricker be handled the ‘Michael Fay Way’? The Youtube generation hail his act as heroic, a jab at poor security. Jahan thought, “it is a milestone in Singapore’s graffiti and art history. Although their methods were questionable, they were the first to ‘get up’ on a train here and let it run islandwide”.

A website poll shows 100 percent of respondents think graffiti should be legalised in Singapore! This reflects a lack of real understanding. This art is legal. Until it breaks the law. What happened at the MRT depot was a clear breach of security. Will you call the police if someone breaks into your house? And you will not if he is a graffiti artist?

Many in Singapore don’t understand or care to understand this art form. So the misinformation and confusion are quite understandable. Remember how the Singpost publicity stunt confused the unsuspecting public?

If you separate the form from the act, it is easier to understand. This art form can be on anything. It can even be on a piece of paper, or on a canvas to be framed and hung. The act of drawing graffiti can be illegal. It can be vandalism. In some countries, the price to pay for such an act is higher than others. In countries like North Korea for example, an artist may even be shot if he is caught trespassing a high security area.

It is confusing also because some state-owned or state-run entities try to co-opt this art concept. Which was why even the staff of MRT thought the graffiti on their train was an advertisement, or that it was authorised.

To connect with the young, the need to be hip is imperative. Trendy marketeers and smart civil servants try to be. No one wants to appear unhip. The drawing of Obama with the Hope caption that grounded his landmark presidential campaign was drawn by underground street artist Shepard Fairey. Everyone wants to be a part of such a connection with the ground. So what if it is underground?

Brands like Levi’s and Nike embrace graffiti. Dance clubs commission street artists to decorate their interiors. In 2006, the facade of the Singapore Art Museum was tagged by 11 local artists, some with international reputations. The Skate Park and the new Scape are places where graffiti runs amok. Renowned artists like Delta and Crash One had graffiti exhibitions at the Esplanade.

But the authorities and companies need to know they can commission such art on designated walls but in the true spirit of street art, such works are more ornamental than graffiti in the real sense.

It does seem the authorities want to use graffiti for their own purposes, but want this art form on their own terms. Like everything else, they want to ‘regulate graffiti’. Which is a contradiction in terms. Some Singaporeans even find these artworks ‘offensive’ unless they are in ‘proper places where such art should be’.

And for the graffiti artists who still want the rush of painting under the cover of darkness at night on ‘illegal canvases’, they do so at their own risks. In Singapore or anywhere in the world, there are consequences when people are caught breaking the law. They can test the water, but they should accept the fact that such street art and the streets in a clean garden city, like oil and water, don’t mix. Why bother with this place?

I see Batman and The Dark Knight as the same, yet different. And I am not confused.

Copyright © of images in this post is with the artist Jahan Loh and they are reproduced here from his website http://www.ja-han.com.

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