Earlier this month, some of the most respected street artists in the world came to Cambodia and painted a series of murals around Phnom Penh and Kep – including a huge mural on the White Building. City Hall’s decision to paint over the mural on Wednesday evening – due to a problem with paperwork – has co-organiser of the Cambodian Urban Art Festival Theo Vallier concerned the controversy may have ongoing repercussions for the local street art scene. He spoke to Will Jackson yesterday
What do you think about City Hall’s decision to paint over the mural?
I’m still trying to understand what really happened. But from what I saw, the [Igloo Hong] project a few weeks ago, they came to Cambodia with these huge artists and everything but they didn’t get the authorisation to do what they did. So, on one hand, I don’t approve of what City Hall did because it’s art and everything, but on the other hand, they didn’t have the authorisations. I’ve been in Cambodia long enough to understand the rules here, and we are really trying to play by the rules here. My role is to promote street art in Cambodia, and it’s not going to be a good thing for street art in Cambodia to paint over the walls just like this without any authorisation. We’re going to work on the new edition 2016 of the Cambodian Urban Art Festival; we just hope it’s not going to be a problem because of what just happened. But anyway, we will do it by the rules. We will ask permission for everything, send the designs to the governor like we did in 2015.
What are the benefits of public art?
It’s a good thing for the young generation to be inspired to see free art in the street that is accessible, easier to access than a gallery or a museum, especially for poor people in Cambodia who don’t have access to those places.
What about benefits for the city?
Street art is very famous now in all the world. Some cities that have really decided to promote street art have become tourist attractions. It can bring people to the city only for the street art. Just for the people in the city, it’s a great thing to see more art. For my part, art is part of my life, I can’t live without it, so I hope it can be the same for others.
What are some examples of cities that have cultivated public art?
In all the cities where I’ve done big projects, like in Berlin, even in Brazil, there are a lot of places where street art is very easy. I was in Lisbon last year and it has a lot of huge murals everywhere. When you can go to a high point of view and see all those murals, it’s really something great for the city, I think.
How significant in the street art scene are the guys who did those murals?
They are kind of the biggest. Aryz, El Mac and David Choe … they are huge, huge, huge artists, really. It’s a bit hard that we didn’t hear about the project before and maybe we could have arranged something properly with the government.
A few other street art pieces nearby have also been painted over.
If we could do it, we would love to come and paint all the dirty walls with nice things on it, but we are really afraid the government will mistake graffiti writing [for] street art. I understand this is not what they want, they know what happens in Western cities where they spend a lot of money cleaning off graffiti, so they don’t want this to happen in Cambodia. But we really have to separate what is street art and what is graffiti in their mind.
What are your plans for the Urban Art Festival this year?
It might be in the end of March. We’re still working on it. We just hope we can make it bigger and better than last year. We’re still looking for money for the event and sponsors. [Fellow street artist] Chifumi and I just really want to promote street art. When I arrived eight years ago, the street art scene was nearly zero. It’s growing. It’s better. Artists are coming now. And when I saw the reaction on social media, I’m thinking that now the Cambodian new generation know about street art and maybe they will be more involved in this thing now.