Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Let Me Doodle !

The word graffiti excites me!

On one hand, graffiti suggests an act of being naughty and on the other, an element of creativity. The line can be really thin.

Graffiti comes from the italian word graffiato which means 'inscription'. Since the time of the cavemen, our predecessors left graffiti on cave walls and stones. At that time, it was their only way to communicate 'in writing'. Graffiti in the form of inscriptions were found in ancient wall paintings, such as those in the catacombs and were prevalent during the Ancient Rome and Egypt.

Since then, graffiti never dies and it never really thrives either. Not until the 1960s, thanks to the Hip Hop culture.

Graffiti is one of the 4 main elements to Hip Hop, the other three being rapping, DJing and breakdancing. As hip hop evolved as an art form, graffiti went along too. By the mid-80s, graffiti was no longer reserved for the streets as it was gradually elevated to the art world.

Today, when one is doing graffiti on a wall, he may be seen as a graffiti artist or a vandal, depends on the place, the rules and the culture.

Take a look at the trains in London or New York, there is hardly any carriage that is spared from graffiti. The graffiti art communities there are usually not apologetic in displaying their expression on the trains and some proudly leave their signatures behind as if it had been on art canvases.

Is train graffiti art or vandalism?

I believe there are local rules governing the act of graffiti on public properties and it is probably more of an enforcement issue. In the UK, they have the Anti Social Behavior Orders which are going after the act of illegal graffiti. Whatever it is, the art community there does not look like they are letting any legal barriers come in between them and their graffiti art.

Some businessmen have obviously taken the tension between the law enforcers and graffiti artists to be business opportunities. One advertised that their 'Graffit Your Own Train' kit serves as a bridge between the need to let go via graffiti and observing the law and order. I don't see how such products can quench the thirst of graffiti artists.

Graffiti in Singapore is beyond just being frown upon. The act of graffiti, if found guilty, may be punishable by canning (ouch!)

1994, the infamous Michael Fay case put Singapore on major newspapers in the world, particularly in the US. Fay was caned, among other things, for vandalising some cars with spray paint. He was sentenced to a 4-month jail term, a fine and most of all, 6 strokes of the cane.

The people in the US reacted and most were appalled by the out of proportion punishment in relation to the severity of the crime. Even the then US President Bill Clinton had to intervene.

Eventually, Fay received a reduced sentence of 4 strokes and Singapore preserved its stand that vandalism is not funny at all.

Last week, a man was caught scribbling 'Hi Harry Lee. I love you.' on a wall outside the Singapore Parliament House. To him, he was leaving a message for reasons best known to him. To the authorities, defacing any wall in Singapore (other than your own, I suppose) is not tolerable, more so on one outside the Parliament House. If he is found guilty, he could be fined up to $2,000 or jailed for up to three years, and be given at least three strokes of the cane. (Ouch, again!)

Graffiti art continues to permeate throughout the world and Singapore is not immune to that. Although rarely seen, some illegal graffiti can be found in isolated parts of Singapore. By and large, 'legal graffiti' in Singapore is an oxymoron or in some sense, a big sarcasm.

The Singapore government is probably beginning to recognize the need to let graffiti artists purge their bursting artistic energy. After all, the relevant authorities have been doing much more lately to promote the arts. I am sure they are now more aware of the angst in the traditionally side-stepped local art scene.

So far, other than the Somerset Skater Park, I am not aware of any other places where you are allowed to do graffiti art without risking the cane. The same kind of '
legal walls' can be found in different parts of the world but thus far, most graffiti drawings here or else where are done illegally.

If you have a sudden urge to spray on the wall and do not want to run foul of the law, go and do it at the designated graffiti walls at the Somerset Skater Park (*Scape). Well, it sounds good until you are told to observe a list of rules, fill in some forms and wait for a week or so while it is being processed and when you finally run out of creative juice by the time the approval comes, you are told not to transfer your application to another...

Oh! Bother ! Where is the spontaneity?

I am not into graffiti art and it is not as if I know how. However, if I am allowed to do so, I would think it can be really fun. I am empathetic towards the graffiti artists in Singapore. They have so little space to unleash their creativity if they choose to do it right. If they cross the line, which is thin, they might get themselves into big troubles.

I think most people know the difference between mere wall-defacing and artistic display of graffiti art and the latter is usually welcome. I hope more space can be given to graffiti art and brighten up this prim and proper rule-based city state.

Meanwhile, be careful with your spray paints.

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