Street art is a medium like no other. In some ways it’s the most relatable and accessible kind of art there is, laid out in public for everyone to see, responding to the quirks and eccentricities of its surrounding environment. On the flip side of things, street art traditionally has roots in activism and protest — buildings and city infrastructure were not made to be canvases, and there are often very thin dividing lines between the notion of ‘street art’ and acts of pure vandalism. In a place like Singapore, where crimes of vandalism are punished harshly, the stakes are even higher. And yet, street art abounds all the over the city.
One of the newest projects in town is the Kampong Gelam Hall of Fame. It spans a whopping 131 metres along Bali Lane and 107 metres along Ophir Road, and is made up of five-metre high metal hoardings which were originally erected as noise barriers for ongoing construction works. It’s been billed as one of the most prominent street art experiences in the region, as the hoardings are now covered in art work by some of the best muralists from Singapore and the region.
With a name like the ‘Hall of Fame’ one might expect participating artists to have won some kind of award, or be feted as ‘the best of the best.’ While this isn’t the case, there is something infinitely more valuable in this project – a palpable sense of community, as many participating artists have deep roots in the Kampong Gelam area.
We had a chat with two street artists who participated in the Kampong Gelam Hall of Fame, SPAZ (Laurie Maravilla) and Anacathie (Anastasia Catharina), to get their views on the project, and on their experiences as women practicing in the field of street art.
What made you pursue street art?
Anacathie (A): Prior to pursuing street art, I was a full-time artist working in the mobile games industry. I started to paint on walls as a way to break away from the type of art that I was creating at work and to rediscover myself in another medium. I was drawn by the challenges the medium presented and it gave me a strong sense of purpose to keep getting better at the craft. I soon realised that through street art, I could express my passion for drawing once more.
SPAZ (S): I started out just hanging out with some vandals from KST in the Philippines, some of them had a shop called THE in Cubao and it was right below the space where my friends and I sold preloved and vintage stuff. We were simply neighbours who said ‘hi’ at the front door (now some of them are like brothers to me).
I used to paint with this graffiti writer called Darko, and he brought me to my first few spots in the heart of Manila – the first one being an actual dump site. I had no idea that we were painting illegally and I still remember how he lied through his teeth to a barangay tanod (a public safety officer) about how we had obtained permission to paint from a certain ‘Mr Dela Cruz.’ Mr Dela Cruz didn’t exist but it worked (lol). I loved the experience, the physicality of it and how it was accessible to people on the streets. I suppose it’s these two things that really drew me to street art, it wasn’t about the output as much as it was about the process.
What have been some of the challenges you faced as a female street artist? Do spaces like Kampong Gelam help to alleviate them and if so, how?
A: Even though the scene is made up of mostly male artists, I have to honestly say that I have been met with nothing but kindness from the start. It seemed daunting at first, but everyone in the community was welcoming and supportive. I started this street art journey with my partner (@freakyfir) in our first studio in Sultan Gate, and we definitely owe a lot to the many creatives in the Kampong Gelam area. Having support from Blackbook and RSCLS gave us a much-needed boost as we learnt how to ply our trade.
I initially did have some reservations about presenting my form of art on walls. I’ve been deeply in love with anime and manga from my childhood years, and I was not very sure if my art ‘fit in’, so to speak. That all quickly went away as I learnt to be more confident with myself.
S: Men. Men are the biggest hurdles, even though they can also be catalysts and supporters hahaha. They want to challenge you and then in the same breath also get in your way under the guise of protectiveness or chivalry – which is usually unsolicited, by the way. However, I’ve come to an understanding that this is ingrained deep in all of us, so I guess the right answer is that the patriarchy is the biggest challenge. Given the laws pertaining to vandalism in Singapore, places like Kampong Gelam provide a safe, ‘no-pressure’ kind of space for artists, men and women alike to experiment with their craft, without the risk of getting jailed or caned.
How did you feel to be included in the Hall of Fame?
A: I was excited and also a little bit nervous, mostly due to the fact that the work is in such a high-traffic area and very visible to the public. It’s a stark contrast from the small walls I’ve painted before.
S: I was stoked although I did hope it wouldn’t be the sausage party that it turned out to be. A lot of the excitement came from getting to paint with my brothers. The community is so tiny but we don’t always get this kind of opportunity to paint together, day in and day out, and to do just that. It was great.
Are there any other female street artists’ work you’d like to see in the Hall of Fame, or any artist you’d like to collaborate with?
A: Personally, I would have loved to work with my current studiomate, INKTEN (@inkten). She was initially lined up to participate in the Hall of Fame but unfortunately had to withdraw due to scheduling issues. I would also be keen to work with ROUGE (@rouge_mich) since we’re both originally from Indonesia and we could do something unique to add that flavour to the Hall of Fame.
S: ‘Non-men’ is the more accurate term for me and yes most definitely! I wanna collaborate with my favorite hoomans Skl0_ and Soph O. I think Adeline Tan (of mightyellow) and Allison Low would be interesting to see as well. Would love to see Kookoo (from the Philippines) and Minas (from Indonesia) on these walls too.
Do you have any advice for aspiring female artists, in the street art medium or otherwise?
A: Drawing from my own personal experience, I would advise any aspiring female artists across all mediums to be courageous and not be afraid to try out something that’s totally out of their comfort zones. Also, do not worry about fitting in into any perceived archetype when approaching the medium. Just do you.
S: Just paint and while you’re at it, look around and get out of your bubble. Also, fix each other’s crowns, if you know what I mean.
Are there any places or moments that define you as an artist?
A: It’s tough to name a precise moment. Rather, I would say that the realisation slowly sinks in when you start to make some income from your artworks, which then goes back into sustaining your lifestyle as an artist i.e. paying for studio rent, materials etc. I guess that’s what makes me an artist.
S: The Rail Corridor – I used to drag myself all the way there, on Sundays, lugging heavy bags full of paint back then with Skl0_, and the rest of the Rebel Daughters. It showed me a kind of dedication that I didn’t know I had. And Manila – it’s where I started painting and becoming aware.
In Singapore, vandalism is punished harshly and the impression then is that street art is largely decorative or sanctioned by the authorities, which takes it quite far away from its subversive roots in counterculture and protest. Do you agree? What do you think the role of street art is, in a place like Singapore?
A: This is quite a contentious topic and can hardly be unpacked in a short paragraph. However, I think it’s important to make the distinction between vandalism, graffiti, and street art before grouping them together in discussions. Having said that, I feel that all the artists here work within the boundaries of the law to push the envelope with regards to their respective crafts. I believe we have to adapt and grow accordingly based on where we are and the timeframe we are in, to keep all creative avenues alive in a city that desperately needs them.
S: Where is the lie? Haha. Vandalism and dissent should always be at the core of graffiti. What we have are murals, and hardly graffiti. (That said, I’m not particularly wild about how people are so dogmatic about graffiti-writing. There’s a cognitive dissonance that results from realising that the people who built their identities around being outlaws, are also the most rigid about the rules of graffiti, like dude, kill the cop in your head. It cracks me up.)
Whatever is on the walls of a city is a representation of the system that pervades it. In our case here, our works are highly curated and filtered on so many levels not just by industry people but by government agencies, so what you get in the end is not a distilled version of the work but a shell of what it once was – a lot of these works are decorative and divorced from their original form. A classic case of way too many cooks spoiling the broth (lol). Let’s face it, Singapore’s great and absolutely not the worst (right now the Philippines is the worst and it’s the bane of my existence) but there’s a lot of things here that need some serious unpacking, racially and class-wise. The rug under which the government is pushing stuff, is piling high. The art on our streets is mostly beautiful, nostalgic and smart even. However, it tackles anything but the stuff that needs to get addressed, maybe out of institutionalised censorship, or self-censorship even. There isn’t a lot of freedom to go around.
A lot of purists would diss what we do here ‘cos it looks like we’ve succumbed to the system. To be honest, I stopped caring so much about that, it seems trivial in the grand scheme of things. I don’t think it makes us any less as artists, because real talk, in a capitalistic environment, there’s not much of a choice to be made. We need to pay our bills and this is what we do best. I don’t dream of labour and I want to earn my living in the easiest way possible that does not harm others. [I want to] make sure that most of my lifetime is spent with people that I actually care about, not in a cubicle and definitely without someone breathing down the back of my neck.
In my opinion, every chance to make art is an opportunity to address the public and get them to think and reflect; to elevate their thinking beyond themselves and hopefully, lead them to be more critical of their surroundings and the system. At the very least our work and existence should encourage people to look at art differently, to understand that it can be accessible and that exclusivity is ugh, just so passé. (Haha) That’s ideal. But it’s also passive.
For the record, art alone won’t change the world or even the country. Real, concrete action that contributes to the dismantling of oppressive systems and betterment of the material aspects of living, will. Anyone can make ‘subversive’ work that looks dangerous or dissenting and then still be a zombie bystander in the face of injustice. We don’t need any more performative crap.
Maybe the power of art lies in the act of being an artist, not in the artistic output – ‘cos that is sold at a superficial monetary value? Be subversive in the heart and let your actions affect actual people in your life. But yep, that’s just me.
This interview was conducted via e-mail and lightly edited for clarity. All images are courtesy of the respective artists.