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Some Cambodians prefer not to have diabolic images on their walls.
Some Cambodians prefer not to have diabolic images on their walls. Kimberley McCosker

Street art critics

Street art is being hailed as a potential tourist drawcard and economic saviour for the beleaguered former Lakeside community. But not everyone is happy about having bloody hearts and demons painted on their homes

Chum Than, a 48-year-old vendor in Boeung Kak, was less than pleased when a foreign graffiti artist painted a bloody human heart on her house on Street 93.

“They made a mess on my wall late last year,” Than said, adding that she had initially given permission to the artwork without knowing what it would depict.

“People would see the blood and might think the owner is related to crime.”

Urban art, or graffiti, has exploded around the old Boueng Kak lake area in the past year as a small group comprised mostly of expats has tried to rejuvenate the once vibrant backpacker hub.

Later this month, the French Institute is set to hold an urban art festival with live painting and hip hop music to celebrate the burgeoning scene.

Locals, however, have mixed feelings about the merits of foreigner’s graffiti on the old Lakeside.

Frenchwoman Marj Arnaud, who kick-started the movement last year when she opened Simone Bistrot and Art on Street 93, said urban art was breathing life into a community blighted by poverty and forced evictions.

“We are talking a lot about creativity with the people, and we can develop the Khmer art with both the Khmer and foreign artists,” Arnaud said, adding that graffiti had the potential to spark local creativity.

The former Lakeside, which was the capital’s premier destination for budget tourists throughout the 1990s and 2000s, was once home to dozens of cheap guesthouses, bars and restaurants catering to the constant flow of backpackers.

With cannabis sold by the spliff at pubs and drug dealers openly peddling meth and heroin from tuk-tuks, it was also notorious for its libertine atmosphere.

The lake was erased from the backpacker circuit in 2010 after the entirety of its 90 hectares was filled in with sand following a deal between the government and property developer Shukaku, owned by the wife of Cambodian People’s Party senator Lao Meng Khin.

Thousands of residents were evicted from their homes, while the remaining businesses found that the tourists had moved on. Save for a couple guesthouses, the Lost and Found Bar and the drug dealers, the tourist trade ceased until Simone entered the scene late last year.

Many locals noted that the influx of graffiti coincided with an economic bump to the area, which had been rendered a rubbish-strewn ghost town.

“I want to have more of this kind of drawing because it could attract more tourists to come and make the community busy,” said Tim Vuthy, who operates an outdoor restaurant on Street 93.

Ada, a money changer who declined to use her full name, said she liked much of the art, such as a stylised depiction of the Latin alphabet that utilised contorted animals, as well as a picture of a mother and child. “If they asked me to draw, I’d let them draw it,” Ada said.

Ra Small is one of Cambodia’s few local graffiti artists.
Ra Small is one of a Cambodia’s few local graffiti artists. Kimberley McCosker

Touch Sarom, deputy village chief of Boeung Kak’s Village 6, which contains the majority of the graffiti, said she granted approval for the artwork as a means to bring back the foreign tourists.

“The paintings are great because artists can show their achievements to people who want to find them – I think those paintings make people enjoy themselves and smile,” she said, adding that the artists respected property owners’ wishes.

While some are amenable to many of the drawings, diabolical images – such as devils, skeletons, or other malevolent beings – have drawn the ire of local sensibilities and the authorities alike.

Ada, who said she liked many of the paintings, said she was afraid children would be spooked by some of the more intimidating images.

“They should draw good pictures without violence, because I don’t want to see violence and I want them to make peace and happy drawings,” she said.

Men Sokha, chief of Boeung Kak’s Village 22, which contains several prominent graffiti murals by both Cambodians and expats, compared the artists to “foreign spies”.

“I don’t see those paintings giving benefit in the community. If we think of Khmer culture, it could be affected if there are more paintings like this, because some paintings’ appearances are not appreciated, and it is strange to me because we had no kind of paintings like these before in Cambodia,” he said, adding that he hadn’t been asked for permission for the drawings.

“However, if there are more Khmer styles or words, it could be good,” he said.

Phnom Penh municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said that, while no law specifically addressed graffiti, any urban art would need to be approved by the city.

“I can say if they draw on that area, it will affect our people who live there because some paintings might give a bad look and meaning and some might be good,” he said.

Ludi Labille, co-owner of Simone Bistrot and Art, said any art movement is bound to have its detractors.

“I understand that some [local residents] don’t understand it a lot, and they think: Why do they see this new painting? But it is life: when you do something, some people like, some people don’t like,” she said.

Arnaud said she was in regular contact with the community and tries to impart their wishes onto the visiting artists.

“What we ask all the time is for the artists to make something happy – it is art that will look good with the colours,” she said.

Chum Than was upset when a street artist painted a bleeding heart on her wall.
Chum Than was upset when a street artist painted a bleeding heart on her wall. Kimberley McCosker

While she understood a few images had caused problems, she said they would likely be painted over in time. “We have a few things we don’t really like, but every wall changes a lot.”

Local graffiti artists, however, welcome the foreign participation if it helps spark a local renaissance – currently, only about half a dozen Cambodians practise urban art.

Pong Kevin, who specialises in “throw-ups” – stylistic renderings of his handle, said graffiti provided a much needed outlet for creative expression.

“When I have a bad time, or stress, I can get some friends [and paint] – it’s cool,” Kevin said, adding that he always asked permission from the walls’ owners.

Theo Vallier, who is co-organising Cambodia’s first graffiti festival which starts after Khmer New Year, said he hopes to jump start that creativity.

“We are working with the Khmer patrons and that kind of thing to really show them how to use their own culture, and do something more contemporary,” said Vallier, who has avoided the problem of offending cultural norms by seeking approval for each design for the festival from the municipality.

Victor Blanco, a Spanish-British artist and university professor who has lived in the Kingdom since 2007, said graffiti painters ought to combine their artistic ambitions with serious intent to enhance the communities.

“It’s this egotistical mindset where people are in their own world and promoting themselves and what they do, as opposed to something the community would like,” said Blanco, whose work is prominently featured around Boeung Kak.

With local customs in mind, Blanco’s work includes a portrait of dolphins, a tuk-tuk driver and a smiling elderly lady with the caption “crazy barang!”

While Blanco criticises the “egotism” that leads foreign artists to neglect cultural sensitivities, he also admitted that subversion is the bedrock of graffiti art.

He himself is no stranger to going around the law, and will occasionally tag his name illegally around Phnom Penh.

Positive graffiti that engages the community, he added, starts with kids armed with spray cans who enjoy breaking the rules.

“Without the tagging and street bombing, you aren’t able to nurture a graffiti scene, which is grimy – it’s a dirty little egotistical scene,” he said.

But it is within those petty acts of vandalism, he said, where true art can emerge from youth who may not have otherwise realised their talents.

“It’s kind of counterproductive for creating fertile ground for urban street art, but without that kind of hardcore element, you won’t attract the kids that graffiti ultimately appeals to.”

However, Ra Small, a 19-year-old university student who discovered urban art via YouTube, said he wouldn’t want graffiti to proliferate if the artists disturbed other people’s property.

“I want more people to do it, but I want it legal as well – you should ask permission from the owner,” he said.

The former Lakeside area at Boeung Kak has become a colourfully painted haven for street artists.
The former Lakeside area of Boeung Kak village has become a colourfully painted haven for street artists. Kimberley McCosker

While his letterings and pictures of animals have yet to induce the wrath of the local communities, he did have one drawing erased that crossed into political territory.

The picture, which featured a headless man holding a bag of bloody money accompanied by the words “stop exploitation”, was painted over after a few weeks.

“I felt bad when it was destroyed, but I had to think of the people who live there – it might affect them as well,” he said, adding that he suspects local residents defaced the artwork.

A real Cambodian graffiti culture, said Peap Tarr, a Cambodian-New Zealand artist, was not too far off. Khmer creativity and gumption, he said, was fundamental to the nation’s identity.

“Being a dreamer, you want to be a poet, an artist, a movie director … in the past, that was such a culturally rich part of Cambodians,” he said.

But it is up to Cambodians, he added, to reach that destiny.

“It’s really our culture. I want Cambodia to have a scene where our stuff is original – not just graffiti from New York, LA or Europe.”

Additional reporting by Vann Sreynoch.


Street artist Theo Vallier is co-curating an urban art festival.
Street artist Theo Vallier is co-curating an urban art festival. Kimberley McCosker

Phnom Penh’s burgeoning graffiti culture will get its first burst of limelight this month at the Cambodia Urban Art Festival.

Organised by the French Institute and endorsed by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, the festival will feature nine artists from six countries painting walls scattered around the city. While most of the art will be on the streets, pieces will also be painted at the French Embassy and Le Moon bar.

“We want to create more creativity for Cambodian people to reappropriate their own culture,” said Theo Vallier, who is co-organising the event with fellow graffiti artist Chifumi.

Veteran graffiti artist Victor Blanco, who will be painting on the walls of Le Moon, said he was excited that the Kingdom is getting its first proper street art event. “Hopefully, by giving this event more attention, we can hopefully grow younger Khmer artists – not just street artists – with the festivities,” Blanco said, who will be painting an asymmetrical “smorgasbord” of Phnom Penh life onto Le Moon’s walls.

In keeping with the festival’s urban theme, its April 23 opening at 6:30pm will feature a hip-hop show from the rappers at KlapYaHandz Productions and an exhibition of decorated skateboards from Skateistan.

On April 25, a tuk-tuk tour will leave the French Institute at 2pm to take participants to each of the nine sites to watch the artists in action. The tour will conclude with free cocktails at Le Moon.

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