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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - There's no substitute for doing it by hand

There's no substitute for doing it by hand


Traditional hand-painted signs live on in the Kingdom as one artist works against time and technology to preserve the beauty of the old ways

Tracey Shelton

Kong Buntheoun is one of the few traditional sign makers in Phnom Penh.

THE tradition once thrived and can still be spotted occasionally in the countryside and in some areas of Phnom Penh, but the humble hand-painted shop sign may soon be a thing of the past as Cambodia becomes increasingly accustomed to Western advertising techniques.

Some may consider hand-painted signs, known in Khmer as chook tip ("perfect painting" or "realistic painting"), unsophisticated, but they certainly do get the message across.

 They still hang in back streets, alleys and lanes advertising a variety of wares and services, from long-lashed brides and freshly shaven young men to motorbike repair shops, photocopy facilities and pool halls.

Others are used to broadcast warnings or educational messages, such as large billboards depicting officious-looking characters binning their cigarettes or villagers disposing of firearms.

The retro-charm of these quintessentially Cambodian hand-painted signs may soon disappear-a victim of the digital age's preference for detailed airbrush techniques and computer-generated graphics.

Kong Buntheoun, 51, is one of the few remaining artists struggling to keep the tradition alive. He learned his craft at the age of 16 by working with sign artists in Phnom Penh.

But his art took a back seat to survival when the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh in 1975. He left the capital for Battambang province.

When Vietnam deposed the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Kong Buntheoun opened his own sign-painting shop in Battambang before relocating it to the capital in 1998.

"I wanted to make my business larger then the businesses in Battambang, and I wanted to compete with other businesses in a big city by being the best at hand-painting pictures," he said.

Some 80 percent of signs in Cambodia used to be hand-painted, but most are now painted with machines (airbrush techniques), Buntheoun said.

I FEEL SAD THAT

HAND-PAINTED SIGNS

WILL DISAPPEAR FROM

CAMBODIA IN THE FUTURE.

"There are many shops that use machines to paint pictures, but I am known in Phnom Penh for making hand-painted signs," he said. "Most shops can't do that and there are only three artists left in Cambodia who can hand-paint signs. People still come to me because I can paint pictures by hand," he said.

"Hand-painted signs are now more expensive than machine-painted signs, but some customers still want me to hand paint even if it takes more time because [they] are beautiful and natural," he said.

A hand-painted sign on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Buntheoun is versatile when it comes to his art and proud to be able to paint all types of pictures, both modern and traditional.

"Most painters today don't know how to paint traditional Cambodian pictures like angels and giants. They only know how to draw modern pictures they copy from somewhere else," he said.

Having painted more than 1,000 pictures in his 35-year career, Buntheoun has a personal favourite that he plans to keep forever.

"I love almost all my paintings because they look attractive, but there is one picture that I love the most. It is a picture of lady who has a soft manner that I drew when I was single."

"A lot of my customers are from overseas. They want me to draw their pictures as farmers or in costumes. My local customers are mostly businesspeople who ask me to draw their shop signs," he said.

"The biggest picture that I ever painted was a picture advertising a film that was put in front of a cinema. I spent about five days working on it," he said.

Buntheoun expressed regret that his children have never learned his art and will not take over the family business in the future.

"I really would like my children to continue my line of work but they are not interested," he said. "I am not sure whether Cambodia will have any hand-painted signs in the future, but I see that there are not many students learning the art," he said.

"I feel sad that hand-painted signs will disappear from Cambodia in the future," he said. "But most young people only think of money and not of quality work. They choose to use machines to make signs because it is easier and faster."

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