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Sunday November 17, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday November 17, 2013 MYT 7:31:01 AM
by andrew sia
Street art with a purpose: This reader’s reinterpretation of street art makes it seem like we are living in Gotham City, where our only hope of rescue from crime is a superhero like Batman ... or Bruce Lee.
How did a so-called piece of ‘graffiti’ become a national drama? And will the authorities tackle the root causes of crime rather than its artistic symptoms?
HOW do you transform an ordinary local painting into an absorbing stage play that gains nationwide attention? Simple. Suppress it.
This past week, some graffiti (or street art, depending on whether you are pro- or anti-establishment) in Johor Baru has been
transformed from the mere confines of visual art into a full-blown piece of performance art.
The drama began innocuously enough, when Lithuanian-born artist Ernest Zacharevic painted a man holding a knife, apparently waiting for a female victim around the corner, on a shop wall in Taman Molek, JB.
In my humble opinion, the very reason that this piece of art “works”, or has impact, is because people in JB still have the perception that crime is prevalent despite what official statistics may declare.
In other words, it is socially relevant. For instance, on Sept 22, Johor police chief Datuk Mohd Mokhtar Mohd Shariff himself admitted there were rampant cases of robbers dragging out ATMs with four-wheel drives in Johor.
Now, imagine the same thing being painted in neighbouring Singapore, where they feel compelled to hang banners – “Low crime doesn’t mean no crime” – to remind people not to become too complacent. Just 20km southwards, and the mural would have become a misfit, merely a whimsical artistic exercise with minimal “kick”.
Given the artwork’s salient role in highlighting public safety issues in JB, a more mature democracy, skilled in the art of
public persuasion rather than preaching, may have chosen to respond with facts.
Indeed, the authorities were holding an ace in the pack as Johor police had just “solved more than 50 per cent of the cases
in the state” after “screening” 238,000
people and arresting 5,040 suspected criminals under Ops Cantas in the past three months, as Datuk Mokhtar announced on Nov 6.
I am really puzzled why the state authorities didn’t trumpet this feat, after all, busting half of all crime within three months is a spectacular achievement by any standard! Were they not entirely convinced by their own statistics?
In fact, since news of the mural broke on Nov 9, just three days after the police chief’s announcement, the timing was perfect to rebutt the artist as being “outdated” and “poorly informed”.
Whatever the reason, we now know that instead of addressing the crime issue directly, they chose instead to fall back on the tired old 20th century method of shooting the messenger, or rather, in this case, the message.
The usual denunciations were heard that the mural projected an unsuitable “image” of JB and would “drive away tourists”. But if we accept this logic, then all signboards seen in JB and Kuala Lumpur warning people of snatch thieves are also jeopardising our glorious “image”, yes?
And nevermind that the artwork was attracting flocks of curious people (including Singaporeans). Even Malaysia Tourist Guides Council president Jimmy Leong said it was good for the state’s tourism.
And thus began Act 2 of the drama. In the 21st century environment where people live virtually on Facebook and Twitter, condemning the mural turned it into a piece of national theatre. Social media was abuzz with discussion of it. The Star Online invited readers to use computer software to submit their own fun “politically correct” interpretations of Zacharevic’s art.
One reader removed the man’s knife and made the lady hold a broom instead. Another inserted Bruce Lee to “protect” her. Someone else turned the robber into a Santa Claus holding a present.
Frankly, I felt all this was fantastic. Malaysians were shrugging off our old labels as being apathetic and obedient robots. We were showing off our inventive and innovative sides.
Sure, we may have more crime than Singapore, but now, at least we had something artistically rebellious to thumb our noses at those socially-conformist, sterile, rote-learning folks across the causeway. Hah!
As the controversy grew, some unknown local artist/s took the initiative to make the mural more “acceptable” by painting a Lego police officer with a pair of handcuffs into the mural scene.
However, JB Mayor Ismail Karim maintained that the “graffiti” on the wall was classified as “vandalism” as it was “done without permission”.
The honourable Mayor is perhaps unaware that such artistic “vandalism” is now embraced in the West, collected by the likes of millionaires, bankers and Brad Pitt, and exhibited at prestigious art galleries such as London’s Tate Modern. Last month, renowned British graffiti artist “Banksy” was busy painting New York red, adding real cash value to walls – each of his works regularly sell for over US$100,000 (RM320,000) at auctions.
Given this backdrop, Act 3 of our local drama was tragi-comic. The JB City Council came in to literally “cover up” the mural by actually “white-washing” it, all phrases with unfortunate overtones of sweeping uncomfortable issues under the proverbial carpet.
Now, if this were a movie or stage play, I wonder what kind of music would have accompanied this action? How about P.Ramlee’s “jeng jeng jeng…”?
Ah … if only the City Council were equally efficient at white-washing other forms of “vandalism without permission”, such as loan sharks’ stickers and dubious “volcano massage” ads.
Malaysians are still somewhat shy about expressing feelings openly as we prefer the “Asian way” of suffering quietly and grumbling privately.
Thus, the real danger of this mural is that it has given public voice to the people’s silent despair at soaring crime. It has been a gentle, comical reminder of the authorities’ seeming inability to maintain general safety, causing a certain loss of, shall we say, “face”?
Yet, don’t we all know that the best way to ensure that something becomes even more popular is to suppress it?
Ban a book? More people want to read it. Outlaw pre-marital sex? The forbidden fruit grows in allure. Spray tear gas at a political gathering? The cause gains momentum.
That’s probably why Act 4 of the show – audience participation – unfolded on Thursday, just hours after the City Council white-washing. Unknown people put up paper cut-outs and stickers of the art in a guerrilla counter-strike at several locations in JB.
Perhaps the City Council was hoping to regain pride by parading its powers. But it should be mindful how citizens of JB have also volunteered to “protect” Zacharevic’s other works from enforcement officers. Is this Malaysia’s first art protest?
Act 5 is now unfolding. The City Council public relations officer, Aziz Ithnin, said it would conduct “regular checks” around the vicinity to ensure that such stickers were not put up.
“We do not want to encourage others to start street painting ... as it may lead to other social problems,” he said.
So, will the authorities deploy more staff to watch out for wall painters rather than for bag snatchers? Will officials keep making pious statements about the dangers of street art, while street crime continues?
In other words, will the show descend into a farce?
At times, we seem to be living in Gotham City, where our only hope of busting crime is some superhero like Batman. Or, in our case, a painting of Bruce Lee.
As this drama unfolds, the roles of villains and heroes are being defined in the public consciousness.
But all I want to see are real heroes who can tackle the root issue of crime, rather than its artistic symptoms.
> Andrew Sia prefers full-bodied teh tarik over weak-tasting English tea any day. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags / Keywords:
Opinion, Lifestyle, art, graffiti, crime, Johor Baru, Ernest Zacharevic, Andrew Sia, Teh Tarik
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