It started as a belief that art should not be restricted to laws, property and ownership. The main idea is that art should also be accessible and democratic
by AZALEA AZUAR
ONCE upon a time, graffiti artists were considered nothing more than just troublemaking vandals.
Early graffiti art during the 60’s and 70’s was mainly a medium for protests, with “riot-inciting messages” as a representation of the artists’ displeasures with the authorities.
It started as a belief that art should not be restricted to laws, property and ownership. The main idea is that art should also be accessible and democratic.
Graffiti art also challenged the norms of the conventional art world which was confined in smaller spaces like galleries and museums.
In the earlier days, graffiti art was also viewed as an eyesore — an act of vandalism that was damaging other people’s properties.
Such was the case of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic who painted a mural in Johor Baru which became a subject of controversy back in 2013.
The mural depicts a Lego woman walking with a Chanel bag while a Lego robber waits behind the corner with a knife in his hand.
The Lego-themed crime mural became viral as passers-by stopped to take quick photos of it.
It even became popular nationwide that even a reproduction of the artist’s mural was displayed on Ah Quee Street in Penang.
Authorities, on the other hand, were not pleased with Zacharevic’s original artwork.
Yup, it was whitewashed.
The artwork was based on Zacharevic’s interpretation of Johor Baru which boasted the Legoland Malaysia theme park but also the city’s high crime rate.
The Penang-based artist is also known as the mastermind behind the popular mural “Little Children on A Bicycle” and “Boy on A Bike”.
Graffiti artist Muhammad Fahrul Idhan Abd Malek, who is commonly known as Perol, did not have a good start either.
“10 years ago, graffiti is vandalism. When passers-by saw us drawing murals on the side of the road, they felt afraid.
“They feared the names written on the wall and they taught that graffiti artists have something to do with gangsterism,” the 32-year-old artist said.
Dressed in a simple T-shirt and trousers full of paint stains during an interview with The Malaysian Reserve recently, Perol certainly looked like your typical graffiti artist.
When Perol enrolled in Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Shah Alam, Selangor, to pursue a major in Graphic Design, his lecturers even believed that graffiti was not art but vandalism.
“I had an experience when I drew on a wall at a shop near my house. I decided to draw on that wall because I saw that some people had already drawn on it, and it was vulgar,” he spoke in his usual soft-spoken tone.
Perol is not into obscene and vulgar graffiti so he decided to show the world what graffiti should be.
“I drew my name on the wall. One day, my father saw the drawing. He knew those strokes belonged to me. Maybe it was my sibling who told him or he knew about my strokes. At the time, graffiti art was also frowned upon by my parents.”
Perol’s father’s perception towards graffiti had since changed and today he is very supportive of his son’s career.
The general public these days are also more receptive of the graffiti art, while Malaysia’s overall art scene becomes more progressive and dynamic.
Many years ago, one might not be able to find doodles on McDonald’s latte cups.
Locals are beginning to appreciate homegrown products. A good example is the film industry that is pulling more Malaysians back into the cinemas.
Animated films like Upin & Ipin: Keris Siamang Tunggal managed to collect RM25.2 million while BoBoiBoy Movie 2 collected RM27.7 million in 26 days. The films are also receiving great recognition abroad.
The sentiment seems to be rather positive towards Malaysian graffiti artists too.
For instance, Abdul Hafiz Abdul Rahman, or better known as Katun, made the country proud when he collaborated with popular American singer Chris Brown for his single “Undecided”.
Sabahan graffiti artist, Kenji Chai (Chaigo) has left his signature turquoise dog in different cities all over the world.
What was once considered as a form of vandalism is now getting more and more attention.
Even the National Art Gallery (NAG) Kuala Lumpur (KL) got into the picture when it held “The Wall: Dinding Bandar” exhibition from Nov 26, 2018, to Mar 17, 2019.
The exhibition was meant to record and document Malaysia’s past, present and future development of graffiti art from June 2015.
“When the NAG held The Wall exhibition, it officially meant that graffiti is a form of art in Malaysia,” Perol said proudly.
Among all his graffiti art works, Perol said, his favourites would be the one featured at The Wall: Dinding Bandar called “Metamorphosis”.
It featured a monster breaking out of a wooden house and shooting lasers.
“The NAG gave me the freedom to paint whatever I like, but it had to be based on a theme. “You see, we are so used to being commissioned, which is to paint a subject according to the client’s needs,” he said.
For the works that were displayed at the NAG, Perol said he was able to paint his trademark characters.
“I painted at the garage inside the NAG building. Then I touched up the piece inside the exhibit,” he said.
Recognition is slowly growing as the local graffiti arts scene is still considered rather “young”. After all, people might have only looked at it seriously within the last 20 years.
Throughout the formative years, more graffiti artists had come out of the woodwork and positively contributed to the development of this specialised form of art.
“When there is an event organised by government bodies, we will conduct demonstrations there. These days, graffiti artists are invited by government officials themselves. Indirectly, they accept graffiti as an art,” said Perol.
Although graffiti art was initially meant to be provocative and as a form of challenge to the authorities, Perol believed that graffiti artists should also remain on the “safe side” and respect the sensitivity of others.
“Our culture is not the same as other countries. We have unwritten rules…We have to bear in mind the sensitivity of others. In other countries, they can provoke Trump. But for us, we need to paint beautiful murals,” he said.
Perol also cautioned his fellow artists to not mess around with political issues because it’s very sensitive here.
“The truth is, Malaysians do not like it if politics is forced on them. So when Zacharevic painted the Lego mural, there were political issues as it showed how that city wasn’t safe,” Perol added.
There are also graffiti artists who simply don’t care about what others think. They would just write and spray paint on private and public properties.
Even if they are merely exhibiting their artistic flair, their actions are considered wrong.
After all, you can’t just simply paint on other people’s properties without their permission.
“I would rather educate graffiti artists to not perform vandalism. I would teach them positive things. You can draw on the wall but make sure they’re beautiful.
“You can draw on the walls inside your house but make sure you ask your parent’s permission,” Perol said.
Love for Graffiti
Perol’s love for graffiti art began when he was a school student. It was a friend who was writing his own name in block letters on a piece of paper that first caught Perol’s interest.
It had a lasting impression that Perol ended up learning to sketch for graffiti. When he continued his studies in KL, he started interacting with other graffiti artists and enthusiasts.
“When I asked the artists whether they could teach me about graffiti, they were helpful and started showing me the ropes right away,” Perol said.
He added that as he grew older, he felt strongly about making a career out of graffiti art.
Now, Perol has fulfilled his dreams and is currently working as a fulltime graffiti artist.
So far, he has been commissioned by many well-known companies such as Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas), Honda Malaysia Sdn Bhd and Berjaya Corp Bhd.
Perol’s latest project is for Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corp (SWCorp) which assigned him to complete a three-dimensional (3D) mural for its gallery called “The Mural Project”.
The project is meant to depict waste management so he decided to paint a mural of an old and polluted scenery which is torn to reveal a beautiful landscape. The Mural Project took about four days to complete.
As for his signature, Perol seems more interested in painting characters. His work can be distinguished from his non-existent alien characters that drive huge monsters.
To him, it represents a message that one can achieve great things.
“Other graffiti artists would paint their names on the walls but for me, I would paint my name and my character — an alien creature. The big creature in my artworks shows that I love painting big artworks,” Perol said.
Just like his alien characters, Perol admitted that he is rather awkward in social settings.
Well, being awkward is kind of an artist vibe anyway…
If you’re interested to know more about graffiti art, the AP Art Gallery at Taman Melawati in KL will be having a “Kongsi” session on Sept 28, from 10am to 12.30pm. Pakey and Reeze will be sharing their experience as graffiti artists. Admission is free.