On a sweltering afternoon this week, young Cambodian street artists Daniel Ou (aka Strange the Rabbit) and the pseudonymous Mike added some flourish to a five-metre winged garuda in an alley just off Street 240.
Alongside them was French veteran Chifumi Tättowiermeister: The three completed a mural together last year in another alley – the one connecting Street 21 to Norodom Boulevard – that was covered up on the orders of Phnom Penh City Hall in December.
At age 20, Daniel Ou is the oldest of the four Cambodian artists participating in this year’s Cambodia Urban Art Festival, set to launch next week, though he’s still relatively new to the scene.
The first edition of the festival, which took place last April, put up nine murals on walls around the city. This year, there will be 14 scattered around the Chaktomuk area, with work by both Cambodian artists and prominent foreigners. The Khmer names on the festival poster reflect a focus on this sort of young talent rather than the street-art masters.
Ou and Mike, aged 19, met last year at a skateboard shop, and quickly began working together. They are undeniable cool kids: the confident Ou spent his childhood in Los Angeles and speaks in perfect American English; Mike sports a sideways cap and a neck tattoo.
The duo primarily paint symbolic lettering. Ou – who spent his early years in the US – has a limited understanding of written Khmer, but has fused it with gothic Latin letters to create a meticulous and artistic take on tagging. The indecipherable writing system contains nonsensical English phrases and serves as aesthetic accompaniment for some of 29-year-old Chifumi’s work.
The French artist – who has spent the past six months organising this year’s festival – recognises the contribution the young painters bring to public art: a bold fusion of cultures and of styles. “It’s not about just Cambodian stuff . . . they are not traditional artists,” he said. “They are new guys. They have YouTube.”
Ou explained that most of the young street artists had indeed honed their techniques with online tutorials, and that social media had been integral to advertising his and Mike’s work to a larger audience – those who hadn’t seen the murals in person.
“Not everyone has access to those walls anyway,” he said. The other Cambodian pair working on a mural for the festival, David Myers (aka Davido) and Kimchean Koy, are both 18 and international-school educated.
They exhibited some of their work alongside other Cambodian artists at Lille3000 in France last October. Their mural – a geometric depiction of a lotus flower wrapped around a tiger – will be surrealist, Koy said.
Koy envisions himself and Davido as part of a shift toward contemporary art in Cambodia. Street art, he added, is “the next big thing”.
The small community breeds a kind of cool exclusivity which, paradoxically, Ou seems to think can only help to enlarge it.
“Once it becomes cool, young artists start knowing one another . . . people will want to be part of the roster,” he said. At the very least, he added, the festival will bring interested young artists together.
The short history of Cambodian street art varies depending on who you ask. A small group of graffiti artists have been working in Phnom Penh since at least the mid-2000s, according to Victor Blanco, a Spanish-British artist who has lived in the city since 2007.
The nascent scene began to take off a few years ago, and the work of pioneers like Cambodian Lisa Mam and Cambodian-New Zealander Peap Tarr is now in high demand for commercial projects.
A jolt of foreign influence came with a street-art project kick-started in Boeung Kak by the French owners of Simone Bistrot and Art two years ago (due to close in the coming weeks), a trend that has continued at the hands of artists like Chifumi.
The Cambodia Urban Art Festival next week brings a bit more of this international exposure to the capital. The event is sponsored by the French Institute, and several of the artists painting murals are French: the resident Theo Vallier; Alias 2.0; Goddog; Mioshe. Others are Malaysian, Brazilian and Guatemalan.
Both Goddog and Mioshe are renowned in France, but met for the first time in Phnom Penh this week. The latter’s mural is going up on a wall at the Lycee Francais Rene Descartes, near Wat Phnom. His surrealist figures and landscapes are heavily influenced by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.
Sketches had to be submitted in advance to the municipality as part of an application for approval, Chifumi said, forcing the artists to study up on Khmer imagery early. In Cambodia, Mioshe adapted Apsara themes to his twisted figures. Likewise, Goddog will incorporate bits of Khmer masks and Angkor Wat into his abstractions.
Another guest artist, Cecê Nobre, paints portraits that he says confront questions of post-colonial culture and hybrid ethnicity. His mural in Phnom Penh will feature a large portrait of a woman wearing a krama.
Nobre lives and works in Bangkok, which has played host to a significant street-art scene in recent years. With the support of arts institutions and – usually – the local authorities, the Bangkok scene is growing rapidly.
“The only other place I’ve personally seen that rivals Bangkok in street-scene freedom is Rio de Janeiro,” he said.
In January, the European Union sponsored the second Bukruk Urban Arts Festival in the city, which featured the work of nearly 20 local and foreign artists. Many Thai street artists have gone on full exhibition, and some receive large commissions for their work.
The recognition of some street art as just that – art – appears to be part of a broader trend taking place in some of Southeast Asia’s creative hubs.
In conjunction with Art Basel’s 2016 Hong Kong edition, Sotheby’s last week opened an exhibition of “street art greats” (Banksy, Basquiat, David Choe) there, an interesting display in a city whose local street-art community has faced persecution over the past decade.
However, Phnom Penh’s street artists are in the very early stages of fighting for their own recognition.
In December, a group of world-famous street artists came to the capital on a mural project funded and organised by Choe.
US artist Miles “El Mac” MacGregor painted the most prominent work – a 10-metre portrait of seamstress Moeun Thary – on the north side of the White Building.
Within days, the portrait had been painted over on orders from City Hall, which claimed the artists had not received the required permission.
Shortly afterward, the alley mural painted by Chifumi, Daniel Ou and Mike was similarly whitewashed.
The initial application submitted by the French Institute for this year’s festival – which included proposed locations that could be viewed from major streets – was ultimately not authorised by the municipality, Chifumi said.
Each of the 14 murals would instead be painted away from the street on private walls, with owners’ permission, and inside schools, with permission from the Ministry of Education.
Most of the nine murals painted during last year’s festival – which had all received the OK from City Hall – had since been covered up, he added.
The small-scale but quite public conflict appears to stem from bureaucratic red tape and some city opposition to street art itself.
Urban art festival expands its repertoire
The second Cambodia Urban Art Festival kicks off next Thursday with an opening night at the French Institute, where a number of murals will be on display. The party will feature a live light-painting set by Alias 2.0 and Skateistan; a concert with Khmer hip-hop group KlapYaHandz and rap group 12Me; and a martial-arts performance by Selapak. Organiser Chifumi expects a large crowd: “We wanted to do it big,” he said. On Saturday, April 2, Guatemalan artist Erick Gonzalez will host a workshop on stencil portraiture. “[The form’s] great quality is the precision of the printed image,” he said. It also carries strong political connotations (think Banksy), he added. Reservations are required. In the afternoon, 50 commissioned tuk-tuks will take participants on a tour of the city’s 14 newest murals. Tickets (first come, first served) will be distributed from 12:30pm and tours will depart at 2pm. Finally, on the weekend of April 1 and 2, the French Institute will screen four films on street art, including The Roots Remain, a 2015 documentary about Cambodian-Canadian artist Fonki’s return to the Kingdom to paint and connect with local young artists.
The 2016 Cambodia Urban Art Festival kicks off on Thursday, March 31, at 6:30pm at the French Institute, #218 Street 184. Click here for a full schedule of events.
There is no law pertaining specifically to street art or graffiti in Phnom Penh. Artists must submit an application with a proposed sketch and location for approval on a case-by-case basis, explained City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche.
Commune or village authorities are often the ones to report graffiti or murals that have not been approved by the city. “When we just hear about these graffiti-art activities, we are more likely to not allow them to do it,” Dimanche said this week. He declined to comment on any specific case.
But some artists think that the city’s whitewashing has less to do with regulation and more with the art itself.
The city viewed graffiti as “an eyesore”, Blanco said. “Only graffiti or street art that promotes traditional Khmer culture and values or promotes a positive social message will be tolerated,” he added.
Each of the young Cambodian artists said they had encountered at least one unhappy local authority in the course of their work. Ou posits that authorities may suspect a political connotation to the street art that often isn’t there.
“I’ve seen stuff that’s political, but I don’t know whose it is. The artists I’m close with, they don’t really care about the politics: they do to a certain extent, but it’s not worth it,” he added. “I wouldn’t do it.”
Chifumi adds that this year’s festival will play by these rules.
“Street art is really political in other countries, but in Cambodia, it is not the time for that,” he said. “We don’t want any problems with the government. We want to work with them.”
Victor Blanco disagrees. On the question on whether Cambodian street art would become politicised, the veteran had a quick answer.
“I hope it does. It would be a lot more interesting,” he said, before adding it would involve significant risk.
But as elsewhere, the first step for street artists to gain any kind of recognition may be breaking into the mainstream art scene.
Mike, the 19-year-old artist, is currently a student at the Royal University of Fine Arts, on Street 178.
He said that if he could choose any blank wall to paint on, he would put a mural up there, but there’s a long way to go.
“Even at a fine arts school, they would probably think we were ruining the wall,” he joked.
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong