The art of vandalism

This magazine has had its fair commentary on Samantha Lo, better known as Sticker Lady when the news broke.

The initial stunt, subsequent arrest, and sentencing generated endless debates in both social and traditional media: “what is art?”, “how does one know when it’s art and when it’s vandalism?”, “who’s accountable for public property?”, etc.

Regardless of your personal stance on some of these questions, one thing is certain; the concept of street art is now much more in the open and less of a mystery to the general public.

But how much of an impact has Lo’s very public work had on Singapore’s arts scene? Is Singapore likely to become a hotbed of creative street art like London, Berlin, New York, or Melbourne? If so, does that mean all aspiring street artists will find a way to make their art and their message a part of the mainstream art world? Or will they all have to take the risk of being treated like vandals?

Lo’s saga has certainly taken street art from an act close to major acts of vandalism to a more approachable status; she has participated in numerous interviews with Today, MSN, Yahoo and Channel News Asia while, in the wake of her work, there has been coverage on the Electric Youth CoNNecTs, a graffiti art training programme launching in September, as well as other graffiti-related events offered by youth cultural festivals.

There have also been some high-profile commissions of artwork from Lo and other popular urban artists like Sufian Hamri and Lufthi Mustafa . Lo created a giant mural for the Substation, was involved in work on a mural project for Singapore River One, and is currently working with Night Safari and Sentosa. Sufian Hamri, meanwhile, has created murals for the OCBC branch building at Sixth Avenue and the Facebook Singapore office under his art moniker TraseOne, and Lufthi Mustafa (The Killer Gerbil), has produced artwork for many clients around the world.

Urban art seems to be taken more and more seriously in our city-state, and with and more government organisations commissioning such works, it seems like the medium is gaining increasing institutional recognition.

But just how far will such artists be able to go in Singapore? By definition, street art takes form and sense in the street, as a re-appropriation of urban spaces that are constantly polluted with advertisements, not as a commissioned piece for interior spaces.

In various interviews, Lo has described her street art as “the act of taking back spaces, the medium where the public is mostly involved in, the medium where your voice is loud and far”. This type of art is very often a form of social and political commentary designed to generate a reaction. One only needs to look at the work of Banksy (probably the world’s best known street artist) to see how often anti-establishment messages are woven into the work.




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Temporary installations and exhibitions don’t really fit this bill. It doesn’t need much insight to note that work commissioned by private art collectors, government organisations, or big corporations, is unlikely to deliver the sort of social commentary that comes from free and spontaneous expression.

While street art is certainly getting more attention, it’s not necessarily the purest form that is being exposed. It almost seems like the medium has been granted a certain level of freedom so better keep it in check; by giving urban artists the opportunity to work in a controlled environment, the risk of vandalism and ‘mischief’ are significantly reduced.

Reactions from other cosmopolitan cities such as Berlin, Barcelona, or New-York to Sticker Lady’s work were pretty much the same; the measures taken against her were over-the-top and heavy-handed, even if for some people the penalty was too lenient.

Ultimately, there are a lot of people in Singapore, outside officialdom, who don’t want to see urban art popping up on a street corner near them. Look at what happened to SingPost in 2010 – they graffitied their own post boxes as part of a Youth Olympic Games-related promotion and had to cancel the guerrilla campaign after many negative reactions, police reports, and an official investigation. The Singaporean public just wasn’t ready or willing to accept such form of unwarranted urban art.

So has Sticker Lady launched the basis for a true local street art scene? Will her and some of her peers’ work ever be allowed to flourish outside officially-vetted avenues? Will Singaporeans  come to appreciate their surroundings being decorated with something other than ads and kindness campaigns?

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