More than 100 years ago, the Royal Palace needed a painter. The man chosen had a deep passion for art, which has passed down three generations of women in his family.
First to his daughter, a royal doctor in the 1960s, then his granddaughter, who survived the Khmer Rouge regime, artistic inclination intact and, finally, his great granddaughter: the country’s first street artist.
Speaking in a hotel covered in her own murals, the royal painter’s youngest descendent politely declines to reveal her great grandfather’s name because he was a “controversial political figure” but says her family inspires her work.
She’s at the forefront of a nascent street art movement which encompasses international artists working in Cambodia who have attracted attention on the other side of the globe, as well as a growing number of locals.
The 24-year-old, who is known for her hypnotising kaleidoscopic patterns, many featuring female figures reminiscent of Apsara dancers, often collaborates with Peap Tarr, 36, whose mother is Cambodian and father from New Zealand. The twosome could be called the rock stars of the Cambodian street art scene.
The city teems with their imagery: they’ve been hired to create pieces for bars, restaurants and hotels around the city, as well as advertisements.
The pair also play a key role in The Roots Remain, an upcoming documentary by Montreal-based French Cambodian street artist ‘Fonki’, who sought them out as evidence of the burgeoning urban scene in the country while on a trip last year.
“I wanted to show the energy of what is happening in Cambodia right now, especially in the communities that I’ve met through graffiti,” the 23-year-old says in a Skype interview from Montreal, fingers blackened from an earlier painting session.
His interest in graffiti was piqued in childhood (“as a kid I love to take markers and write on the bus”) but matured into a fuller appreciation of the art form.
“Graffiti is a tool to meet people, and also a tool to reconnect with our culture. We really want to show [though the documentary] something different from what usually you see from Cambodia – Khmer Rouge and Angkor Wat.”
Like Peap and Mam, his work incorporates Cambodian visual tropes.
While in the country he returned to Angkor Wat with the intention of learning about Khmer ornaments to weave into his own work. When he painted on walls around town – including a mural at the entrance to Boeung Kak Lake, Cambodian people recognised symbols in his designs.
“I really wanted to incorporate that style, it’s so rich.”
Both Peap and Mam use Cambodian patterns in their work, but the former’s are “a bit more fierce,” according to the artist.
Much of Mam’s style, she says, is derived from motifs on the walls of Angkor temples, blended “with the modern imagination”.
They pair have just finished painting the interior of a new bar, Slur, which opens next week on Street 172.
They both stress the importance of doing work that is, in Mam’s words, both “legal and nice”.
Not everyone agrees. A handful of, mostly expat, graffiti writers based in the city paint walls where permission has been given but also private property: fences, walls and the temporary structures around construction sites – places where the boundaries blur.
“Painting legal walls is OK, but it doesn’t really give you any kind of buzz,” Daniel* says one afternoon in a Western restaurant, fingers wrapped around a cold Anchor.
His routine is rather different from the other two. “Getting up at 2am, creeping the streets, getting up and going out the next day and checking it all out.”
“I’ve done rooftops at 3am when I’ve been drunk off my face, hanging off the side of a roof, it’s f***ing stupid really.”
He completes three or four pieces a month, from simple tags to complex murals involving 20 or more colours, spending upwards of $60 a month on paint.
A good deal of the most recent graffiti, he said, has been done by ‘graffiti tourists’ who come to the city specifically to leave behind tags and throw-ups.
He cites a UK-based group called World Domination who “paint literally every country they can get into.”
He and a friend also based in Phnom Penh will go to Ho Chih Minh soon, “just for painting.”
“We’ll paint during the day on some legal walls where you’ve got permission to paint, and at night-time go out bombing and painting the streets.”
Some of the art on Phnom Penh walls has garnered international attention.
Lee Bo, who runs the website Global Street Art, which has a goal to build a global photographic archive of street art online, said he’s posted content from Cambodia.
“It has been artists who have visited and painted in Cambodia,” he writes in an email from London.
“I suspect it’s a combination of our brand not being so known in Cambodia, but also the scene being quite young there.”
Street art is spreading internationally, and “getting good”, very quickly, he adds.
“With increasing internet use, everyone has access to art from all over the world. If you subscribe to good blogs or Facebook pages you can see amazing international art no matter where you are based.”
Aside from trailblazers Peap and Mam, other Cambodians have started to take an interest and experiment with paint.
During his time on the street, Daniel has spotted a number of what he thinks are the hallmarks of locals.
“There are a couple of kids running around, I can tell they’re locals – I can just tell by what they’re doing, and what they’re writing.”
If you’re an inexperienced writer, he says, “you don’t go to other countries writing graffiti, you start off in your own back yard until you get better.”
Mam and Peap, meanwhile, have a large Cambodian following online.
They are probably from the city’s wealthier families, Peap said. “I just judge by the younger kids that follow us, a lot of them go to international schools, they have access to the web.
“I know some of them are trying it out, but there’s no real scene.”
In Thailand, he says, the graffiti scene started with “richer kids doing it, they could afford the equipment.”
“If was different to the West, where it was poor kids who got into it, because you could paint any way you wanted and anyone could see it…
“Asian culture, it’s different. It’s not like, let’s go and steal some paint – in terms of Buddhism that’s really bad, they don’t steal.”
It’s not just wealthier children who are taking an interest. Peap has done classes with children taking part in Friends International-sponsored programmes and says “it’s hard to know who it could touch.”
The skateboarding NGO Skateistan, whose facility near the Russian Market is covered in paintings – have also had graffiti artists come to talk to children.
At first, they didn’t understand the concept said Bejamin Pecquer, Cambodia Country Manager for the NGO.
“We as foreigners have special feelings about street art and graffiti, and here they have nothing – they don’t really understand why we do that.
“Now, when they come in they all say, ‘Wow, that’s super beautiful’ and ‘we want to do the same’. They’re really excited about painting a wall, or doing something nice in the landscape, but they don’t have a special idea first, so they just stand in front of the design.”
“One place that’s really nice on Norodom Boulevard, many international people come in. Old buildings. People live there, I know that they allow the people who do graffiti to come, they pay a little money.”
“I’m sure that in a few years you will see it [a big scene]. You go to Bangkok, Vietnam, you see graffiti everywhere, and skate parks and the urban culture is bringing people together.”
Tin, 20, a young Cambodian student instructor at the centre, painted a cartoon dog on one of the skate park ramps.
“As a first step for me, I want to draw many ramps in Skateistan and, if I’m free, I want to draw outside, on the wall,” she said.
There’s no doubt that graffiti - like the other hallmarks of ‘urban’ culture such as hip hop and breakdancing –has been heavily influenced by scenery foreign to Cambodia.
Naturally, international artists transfer their own “techniques and stylistic influences”, says Bofkin.
“If you’re taught by someone who has a certain style then you’re more likely to take that style.”
“How else is it going to come in?” says Peap.
“ With hip hop it was definitely Cambodian Americans. Also some of the French Cambodians. But no one was bringing in street art. I started doing a bit and linking up with Lisa and then it really started to happen.”
The pair are cautious about the development of the street art scene they helped foster.
“It’s developing now. Right now me and Lisa do it serious, we take it serious,” says Peap.
“People have to understand that we’re not just going out there tagging and doing illegal stuff, we also do it just to spread our culture and make a movement in the art scene,” Lisa says.
“To also let the Cambodian young people join in this art scene and make it become bigger and bigger.”
A glance at Cambodia-specific forums reveals threads lambasting the increase in graffiti – and, mostly tongue-in-cheek, threats.
“Taggers should be castrated on sight,” says one post on Khmer 440.
“My fear would be a bunch of Khmer kids seeing it done and off they go spraying everything in sight. Then Cambodia would look like a damn train yard,” reads another.
Some have threatened to turn vigilante on graffiti artists, according to Daniel.
No doubt, lines have been crossed in the past.
In 2010 an Italian graffiti artist spray-painted walls at Tuol Sleng genocide museum. One of the spray-painted images was a portrait of a boy executed at S-21 holding a sign with the man’s tag, ‘‘codefc’’.
So where does graffiti cross the line into vandalism?
“Certain things are completely out of bounds,” says Daniel. “I’d never paint a school or a place or worship or someone’s private property.”
For Peap and Lisa, all tagging is out, as is all painting without permission.
“When you start going all out in Cambodia, the government will just come and shut it down, they shut everything down they don’t like,” says Peap, adding that in Thailand the scene had turned sour after an expat couple started drawing over other artists’ work and ‘bombing’ the city.
“They really created such a bad scene over there, where the government is actually cracking down on stuff and it’s a lot harder to do things”
“I just don’t want it to die too early,” Lisa adds.
In Cambodia, the legal repercussions are not nearly so clear-cut as in the West.
None of the artists know of anyone who has been arrested, or even fined, for painting on a wall, though several have had run-ins with the law, or private security guards. All have been tame.
When asked whether street art, or painting on walls, was a crime in Cambodia, the spokesman for the Phnom Penh police department said he couldn’t answer.
“Last time we did it, the police stopped and were taking some video of us doing it – but so was Joe public,” Daniel says.
“They didn’t come up and ask us what we were doing, or if we had permission – they thought it was pretty cool.”
When Fonki had the Phnom Penh police chief on the phone after his project gathered a crowd, it came down to the question: What is art?
His own, it seems, has been given the city’s stamp of approval.
“He said, ‘OK, if you say it’s art, you tell me and send your sketch. If it’s art, I’ll let you do your thing.’
And so then, he decided that it was art, and he let me do my thing.”
*Names have been changed