Over the past few months, pedestrians in Singapore may have stumbled upon one or more curious round stickers pasted above buttons at traffic lights, featuring captions that include instructions to “PRESS TO TIME TRAVEL” and cheeky admonishments of “PRESS ONCE CAN ALREADY”. Most have responded in delight to the stickers, variously calling them “witty” and “thought-provoking”. The artist behind these interventions, who goes by the tag of SKL0, is apparently also responsible for spray-painting the words “MY GRANDFATHER ROAD” on several streets in Singapore. On 4 June 2012, the said artist was arrested on suspicions of vandalism. As reports of the arrest poured in, the reaction online was almost immediate, with netizens both within and outside the arts community responding with outrage at what was perceived as a draconian measure crushing a seemingly harmless act of creativity. A petition was launched within hours of the news and digital stickers in the style of SKL0’s creations were springing up by the dozens across social media, sporting messages that expressed solidarity with the young artist. Such a vehement reaction can be seen as just one of the many expressions of resentment against a technocratic state perceived to be governed by automaton-bureaucrats with no appreciation for humour or creativity. In the words of one netizen, “CREATIVITY SHOULDN’T BE PUNISHED!” Indeed, creativity is important for society, and so is wit, but amidst the clarion calls for “creativity”, “freedom”, “spontaneity” and “humour”, rearing its bloated, cumbersome head is another word that has not received an audience of such size for quite some time now: “art”.
“But is it art?” was the question raised almost over a decade ago in light of the controversial 1993 performance by artist Josef Ng, in which the artist snipped off his pubic hair in protest of the police entrapment of gay men in Singapore. The question, asked then with raised eyebrows and looks of incredulity, at times disgust, has most fascinatingly resurfaced today in the paraphrased form of the indignant proclamation, “THIS IS ART”, uttered in a near-unequivocal chorus, no less. But while it would be most desirable to be able to read this as a sign of progress, of the public’s increased enlightenment towards the arts, the reality is far from the case, showing instead that artistic discourse in Singapore still builds itself upon an outmoded and essentialist rubric that draws arbitrary lines between art and non-art, or in this instance, between art and vandalism. Indeed as the debate rages on, the untenability of the argument reveals itself, with the slippages between the terms becoming too obvious to ignore.
For instance, a number of supporters point to how SKL0’s works are “aesthetically pleasing” and “not unsightly”, referring plausibly to their clean-cut aesthetics. But this argument ignores the fact that both historically and in contemporary times, much of street art has never aspired towards aesthetic appeal. Street art, having emerged from the sixties to seventies counterculture movements in New York, has for most part of history served as an instrument for political resistance, with imagery meant to provoke rather than “to bring a smile to one’s face”. The works produced in protest of the 2003 Iraq War and the wider War on Terror by street artists worldwide is an exemplar of this, and it bears mention that Singapore was in a small but significant way a part of this movement, with the garden wall of the Substation, an independent arts centre by Armenian Street, used as an “approved” graffiti wall. The messy scrawls of angst-ridden messages accompanied by strident anti-war motifs often seen in such instances of street art are a far cry from SKL0’s crisp aesthetics, thus rendering the criterion of visual appeal used to justify SKL0’s works as art spurious. In one notable instance, one particular netizen posted on Facebook a photograph of “MY GRANDFATHER BUILDING” sprayed in a noticeably hasty fashion across a wall, claiming that the police should be catching the person who did this instead, unbeknownst to the fact that the very same artist he was supporting, SKL0, is also behind this very work. Herein lies the absurdity: the method for discerning between art and vandalism rests solely upon the choice of font.
But why do all these slippages concerning the definition of art matter, some may ask, as long as the intention is to exonerate SKL0? But the fact is that such careless pitting of art against non-art serves not only to rouse the chagrin of art theory pedants, for it does ultimately exert a real-world impact upon the kind of art we are sanctioning as a society. The safeguarding and propagation of carefully defined notions of art would eventually serve only to protect some works under the privileged cover of “art” at the expense of others that fall outside the circumscribed boundaries. Already we are beginning to see such acts of exclusion happening. On 6 June 2012, publichouse.sg posted on its Facebook page a photograph of “legalized graffiti” in Singapore, featuring a large and elaborately rendered male human figure spray-painted onto the walls of the former premises of cultural and social space, Post-Museum. The response by those who commented was lukewarm, with one netizen dismissing it as “nice but [lacking] the local connection”. He was rightly rebuked by another netizen: “if it doesn’t connect with you, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t connect with others”. One naturally wonders if the same statement cannot also be applied to SKL0’s creations. Granted, one can contend that SKL0’s works are widely popular, but surely mass appeal cannot be a definitive criterion for aesthetic judgement? Clearly, using an aesthetic argument to defend the works of SKL0’s is deeply problematic.
The last high-profile case of vandalism or, as some may say, street art, to happen in Singapore was the case of Swiss national Oliver Fricker in 2010, but as the incident involves the contentious issue of a foreign national acting on Singapore soil and the far more serious offence of trespass, it will be difficult to compare it to the case at hand. But slightly over a year before Fricker’s incident was the case of an unemployed, middle-aged Singaporean man by the name of Koh Chan Meng, who was caught red-handed scribbling “Hi Harry Lee. I love you.” on the wall of the Parliament House. On another occasion, Koh had also wrote “Go sue me Lee Kuan Yew Go Gavin Son” and “Shammugan can you play your own orgams” at the same site. From the outset, the acts committed by SKL0 and Koh cannot be more different. The former was a planned project with a thoughtfully designed aesthetic and identifiable by an icon equivalent to that of an artist’s signature and the latter, a putatively spontaneous act, performed by a man either out of vexation or lunacy.
As it seems, SKL0 is an artist and Koh, a vandal; one should be in a gallery, the other, a prison or an asylum. But are the distinctions really as stark as they appear? Sure, while Koh can hardly be called an artist and I suspect neither did he harbour any intention of being one, his “offence”, like that of SKL0, is in a way also an individual act of expression that has left its marks upon a public site. One of the arguments that has been tossed around lately defends SKL0’s works by claiming that they reflect our culture and society; can the same then not also be said about the scribbles of Koh, which however unthinkingly inscribed, reflect a prevailing sentiment of a certain underclass of Singaporeans saddled with financial and social woes? Can one go even further and claim that as a spontaneous act, Koh’s scribbles, as compared to the works of SKL0’s, bear even greater authenticity as expressions of a current social climate and as such, are more legitimate acts of intervention upon a public space? Granted, given that Koh was later ruled to be mentally unsound, one cannot take his acts so seriously, but scribbles like those of Koh are not uncommon. For instance, a friend once recounted to me how he found scrawled beneath the screen of a TVMobile television the words, “Stop Chinese Shows!!”. Acts like these cannot be written off simply as instances of mischief, but are instead, in their own small but pointed ways, forms of civil resistance that can only find expression through clandestine channels in an authoritarian society, away from the surveying gaze of the state.
Of the many proposals raised online in response to the episode of the “Sticker Lady”, some have called for “less restriction” to be imposed on street art, which in effect is calling for existing laws on vandalism to make an exceptional case for street art. However, if implemented, such a move would run against the very ethos of the medium itself. Street art, at least that particular strand that we are concerned with here, exists at the margins of society. Through their interventions upon a public space, street artists seek precisely to transgress established orders, either for the purposes of critique, or simply for the sheer kick of doing so. Should laws change and margins shift, street artists will too shift their location of operations, following wherever the margin goes. Street art like those by SKL0 can never exist within the law. To do so is to be simply absorbed into the kitschy fare that dominates much of legalised street art in Singapore, seen in the most cheesy manifestations in state-organised youth festivals and as marketing gimmicks undertaken by opportunistic corporations. As a matter of fact, most street artists around the world recognise the “barely legal” (to use to the title of the 2006 show by British graffiti artist, Banksy) nature of their practice and understand that the onus is upon them to cover their tracks to evade arrest or to work in legal grey areas, as artists who practise “reverse graffiti” do.
As such, if the law on vandalism really ought to be amended, it should be done to protect “vandals” like Koh instead who require such immunity more so than street artists who seek precisely to test the limits of the law. Street art claims the street as a site for art-making, but prior to the legitimisation of street art as a serious form of artistic practice, the street has always been, more generally speaking, a public platform for all forms of personal and cultural expression. In principle, the streets belong not just to artists, but to us all. Whether a piece of graffiti is “creative”, “witty” or “aesthetically pleasing” is besides the point, for the value of the streets as a shared public space is its ability to give visibility to any idea, opinion, sentiment and memory that is being suppressed by the powers that be, especially precious and necessary in a tightly controlled society like ours where most channels of public expression for the everyman – from print to televisual media – are blocked by the hand of the state, and the dominant socio-political climate is one of fear and self-censorship. Hence, street art like SKL0’s are important not because they are art, and certainly not because they “bring a smile to one’s face”, but because they reclaim the street as a site for everyday forms of civil resistance.
But ultimately, tinkering with legal apparatus is inadequate, serving only to draw even more arbitrary parameters, as if we don’t already have enough of that to deal with in existing statutes. How can one definitively distinguish between acts of civil resistance from those that are plainly a social menace – the familiar “O$P$” sprayed by loan sharks, for instance? Can the law possibly draw a clear line between acts of creativity or resistance and those of plain destruction?
Indeed, any attempt at “regulating” graffiti through legal means is bound to be tricky, for graffiti, or any created object or rendered mark, art or otherwise, can be said to possess a life of its own beyond its maker’s, thus rendering the central legal concept of intentionality inapplicable. For one, consider the example of Hong Kong’s Tsang Tsou-choi, otherwise known as the King of Kowloon, a garbageman-turned-vandal-turned-artist whose works have over time grown from being perceived as obnoxious acts of vandalism to being inducted into the canons of “outsider art”. It is important to note that Tsang’s works arose from what can only be described as megalomania; his graffiti, identifiable by their distinctive calligraphic style, are filled with messages that proclaim himself to be the “King of Kowloon”. Yet, over time, his obsessive markings have gained such a ubiquitous presence that they have become part of physical landscape and cultural imaginary of the city, and in 2003, the inclusion of Tsang in the Venice Biennale cemented his status as an art world legend. Evidently, when dealing with a figure like Tsang, any attempt at establishing a satisfactory legal definition of “creative” graffiti against “destructive” ones is completely frustrated.
Every society has its laws, but as restrictive as they must necessarily be, spaces for manoeuvre within the law do still exist. In other words, one does not need to change the law for society to recognise the value graffiti can hold for a city. Just like how some street artists circumvent existing laws by seeking alternative tactics of intervention that work not with the law but through it, the public should also find ways to support and embrace street art (and more generally, graffiti) beyond that of seeking legal recourse. In fact, such is the case for most cities with a thriving graffiti scene. In Melbourne, for instance, despite the fact that graffiti continues to be illegal, the city’s graffiti-filled laneways have been heavily promoted as tourist attractions, with calls also having been made to consider them for heritage protection. The current “micro-movement” of sorts of producing and disseminating stickers across social media calling to “FREE STICKER LADY” can also be considered a positive instance of this.
To end, perhaps it is important for me to state clearly my stand on the arrest of SKL0, should any misunderstandings arise. If all the information circulating presently is accurate, then yes, I believe that in the eyes of the law, SKL0 has committed a crime. But of course, as most will know either from experience or history, the law is not always an authority on matters of right and wrong, or in this case, on how we use and share our public space. I concur with the general opinion that leniency should be exercised in her sentencing and chances are that it probably would. (Claims that she faces the maximum three years imprisonment are, it must be said, wildly exaggerated. In fact, as of yesterday at least, SKL0 has not even been formally charged.)
But what is more important in the current debate is not how we need to “set art free”, but the more critical issue of how we need to set our streets free. The street is in way the physical counterpart to the Internet, and if the Internet in Singapore has been so hailed as the bastion of democratic expression, the same can be said also of our streets, for they are not just spaces for the traffic of branded cars and Chingay floats, but also nexuses where ideas, opinions, sentiments and memories of the everyday Singaporean converge and are exchanged.
This essay has been revised from an earlier version that was first published on 8 June 2012, the main revision being the addition of a new segment on Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi. The essay has also been published on New Asia Republic.