Painted stories on walls gain city folk’s support

Customers of this shop appreciate the mural while dining in an alley in Kuala Lumpur. — Photos: LOW LAY PHON and NORAFIFI EHSAN/The Star

WHEN mural artist Ejad Ali painted dragonflies on a wall in a once-seedy part of Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur several years ago, he was aware that he was being watched.

Each day that he came closer to completing his work, the feeling of being observed grew as his team of freelance artists worked round the clock to meet their deadline.

Soon, people --- especially business owners in the area ---came over to take a closer look at the transformation. They complimented the artists’ work and asked if Ejad could paint their walls as well.

“At first there was this feeling of resentment that we were intruding into their territory.

“My staff also complained that people were throwing rubbish from the apartments above where we worked.

“But that all stopped as they came to appreciate and respect us for our work, ” said Ejad.

According to him, in the beginning, foreign workers who occupied the units of old flats above their work site would throw rubbish down, at times missing the artists by inches.

The then-incomplete mural was also vandalised by unknown parties.

“But the situation slowly changed as our work came together, bit by bit.

“The vandalism stopped and even the rubbish was no longer being thrown from over our heads.

“They were impressed by how a simple painting could transform a neighbourhood and make it vibrant, ” added Ejad.

Today, Bukit Bintang’s inner streets of Jalan Alor, Jalan Rembia and Tong Shin Seh that served as the pilot project for the programme have not only been converted into viable tourism pockets, but businesses in the area have also recorded higher sales as colourful murals attract Instagram fans as well as film-makers and photography studios for wedding shoots.

The images of giant butterflies, dragonflies, snails, birds, cats, flora and fauna did wonders to soften the look of the dark alleys and walls of dingy areas that were notorious for illegal activities in the past.

After the project was completed, businesses started renovating their buildings and changing their look to follow the theme of the area.

More walls to beautify

Ejad’s success in changing the people’s mindset and attitude towards rejuvenating old walls has got Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) wanting to expand the beautification plan.

It is now looking for more walls to transform them into beautiful works of art.

Its Project Implementation and Building Maintenance Department assistant director Mohd Shahrul Faisal Ismail said DBKL officers had been assigned to all 11 parliamentary constituencies in Kuala Lumpur to source for potential walls for its rejuvenation project.

“We have a team to survey such walls and engage owners for possible collaborations that will benefit everyone, ” he elaborated.

One of the latest mural projects by DBKL that was completed early this year was the Masjid Jamek lookout point at the River of Life (ROL) site near the Medan Pasar area.

“Two murals measuring 1,200sq ft each depict a very old Medan Pasar or what was once known as Market Square in 1885. The upstream portion of Sungai Klang where elephants used to bathe can be seen here, ” said Shahrul.

“We are very proud of this work as it reflects the charm of an old Kuala Lumpur, ’’ he said.

Sadly the lovely murals, which were the latest to be completed in March, went unnoticed as it was finished just two days before the movement control order (MCO) was imposed on March 18.

Shahrul related: “Only after June did people notice it, and only after the Sept 10 flash floods did pictures of the murals start surfacing.” Incidentally both murals were the works of Ejad and his team, said Shahrul.

He said the idea of transforming the walls at the ROL site was the brainchild of former mayor Datuk Nor Hisham Ahmad Dahlan.

“He saw the potential during the upgrading of Medan Pasar in 2018.

“Besides, the two walls which were part of a private building, looked rather old and the paint was peeling off.

“They did not fit in with the overall picture of the area as a tourist attraction, ” Shahrul explained.

He said the building owners were then convinced to allow the walls to be painted, free of charge.

While DBKL welcomed parties who wanted their walls transformed, he said that in order for future collaborations to be successful and sustainable, building owners also needed to put some effort and capital into the project.

“After the success of the Bukit Bintang project, which managed to transform and spur the economy of the businesses along the inner lanes, people began to approach us. Business owners and hotels were keen on working with us, ” he added.

Tale of Market Square

Ejad spent almost two years working on the Medan Pasar murals and it took a few weeks to carry out research on the subject.

“I spoke to historians and went to the National Archive, poring through pictures and looking at the clothes and shoes they wore back then. Everything had to be authentic.

“It was 1885 and at that time, Frank Swettenham was Resident General of the Federated Malay States.

“Swettenham proposed to use bricks to build the market square area and the bricks came from factories in Brickfields, ” he said.

Ejad wanted to retrace the way things were in the earlier days and how the Malay, Chinese and Indian traders did business as they arrived upstream in their sampan (row boats).

However, Ejad’s first draft was rejected by DBKL for being too abstract.

He then added more elements of old world charm.

The end result is an evocative mural that captures the buzz of an old market over 100 years ago.

Ejad is currently working on a project outside Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve in Ampang, near the old tunnel.

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