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Graffiti artists teach children the value of self-expression

THE Mith Samlanh Centre in Phnom Penh last week hosted a three-day graffiti art workshop for children, led by two artists from Malaysia and one from New Zealand.

The workshop, held from April 21 to 23, was attended by about 40 children aged seven to nine years, about half of whom were from the centre and half from the International School of Phnom Penh (ISPP).

On the last day of the workshop, the participating children gathered around a series of large white canvases, using brushes and brightly coloured paint to create images of people, flowers, houses, nature and other designs.

Amirtha Martin – corporate relations manager of Friends-International, a nongovernmental organisation that founded Mith Samlanh to work toward building better futures for marginalised street children – said the workshop was aimed at exploring the children’s rights, including the right to get an education and the right to play.

“Painting can help children to show what they want to say,” she said. “Art is very important for everyone, and I think it really helps children express their ideas and what they want to say.”

Martin observed that the Cambodian and foreign children from ISPP spoke English, while those from Mith Samlanh Centre communicated in Khmer.

“But when they are put together in the workshop, painting is a something they can use to communicate with each other. I realise that art activities like this can be a language. They paint to express themselves,” she said.

The three artists who led the workshop taught the participating children about street art, helped them come up with ideas for subjects and assisted them in creating their paintings. While the children painted, Malaysian artist They Mahathir, 28, walked around the room observing and lending a hand to any of the kids who needed help.

“Art is so wild. There are no borders, just the chance to explore by yourself,” he said. “The kids can just explore whatever they want because there are no rules.”

They Mahathir said his own art was influenced by seeing the work of graffiti artists on the internet when he was young, and he later developed his own style by spray painting walls in Malaysia.

“I played around with styles based on traditional batik designs, and used my name as the main element in my art. I played around with various fonts, flower images and colours,” he said, adding that he now owns a graphic design company called They Are Studio in Kaula Lumpur and also teaches art to young students.

Another artist at the workshop, 34-year-old Samapeap Tarr, is of Cambodian descent but was born in New Zealand, where he attended university to learn graphic design.

Unlike most other street artists, Samapeap Tarr uses brushes rather than spray cans to apply paint to walls, canvas or paper. Working with black and white paints, he always inserts a snake (to represent Cambodia) and a dragon (to represent his mother’s native China) into his art.

“When I was growing up in New Zealand, my mother used to tell me Cambodian legends about Hanuman the monkey god and other characters, but I didn’t have any idea what they looked like,” he said. “I just imagined them. But when I was a teenager, I had a chance to come to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat.”

He said that as he developed as an artist, his work became more complicated as he began inserting more elements into his paintings. “I guess my paintings look chaotic, like many different things are happening. When you first look you see something, and as you keep looking you see more and more,” Samapeap Tarr said.

He said he admires the paintings of children like those attending the workshop because they are more straightforward than older artists like himself.

“Kids are very honest,” he said. “They don’t look at something and say, ‘I want to paint like that.’ They just do what they know how to do. They also think about what they’re doing, but they think about it in an honest way.”

Samapeap Tarr said his purpose in working with the children was to inspire them creatively to help improve their futures, but he added that he didn’t necessarily wish them to become artists like him.

“I think that introducing children to a new art form will help teach them to come up with new ideas, which is an ability that will help them when they get jobs in the future,” he said.

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