Can-do attitude: Cambodia’s street artists starting to make a mark

Renaissance in urban art has been given new impetus by designation of a graffiti zone in country’s capital, Phnom Penh, and launch of a festival featuring local and overseas artists that starts this week

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 6:02pm

A young man crouches on the floor, inches from a dilapidated wall, concentration etched on his face. A crowd of children gather round him, watching with curiosity as he waves his spray can in the air and, as if it were a magic wand, transforms the shabby concrete into a colourful swirl of patterns and colours.

The youngster is one of many giving a new lease of life to buildings around the former Boeung Kak lake in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

As a designated spot for graffiti since 2014, it attracts a growing number of young Cambodians, who are honing their talent for urban art – a movement which is bubbling across Phnom Penh.

“Boeung Kak is today considered the artistic expression platform for young Cambodians and Southeast Asians,” says Ludivine Labille, president of Develop Boeung Kak Art (DBKA), an organisation launched in September 2014 with the aim of nurturing young street artists by providing them with a space to paint.

“Cambodia is in its early stages, and we are lucky to witness the birth of its street art generation,” she says.

Despite still being in its infancy, street art is spreading fast, with graffiti cropping up on walls not only in Boeung Kak but across the capital. The inaugural Cambodia Urban Art Festival was held last year, drawing attention to young people who could form the next wave of street artists in the country.

“The urban art scene here is very new, but there is a lot of interest, and a lot of promise,” says festival co-organiser Chifumi, who learned to graffiti in Strasbourg, France, and returned to Cambodia with the aim of spawning an urban art movement.

A renaissance in Urban art began in Cambodia four years ago thanks to a chance meeting between Lisa Mam and Peap Tarr. Art runs through the veins of Mam, who was born and bred in Cambodia, and began sketching at the age of six. Despite her natural talent, she was dissuaded by her parents from pursuing it and she was a teenager before she picked up a paintbrush again. When she was 21 she was introduced to Tarr – a Cambodian New Zealander and street artist with international experience.

The street artists bringing life to one of Hong Kong’s oldest neighbourhoods, Sham Shui Po

As soon as she saw his work, she felt a connection and the duo hit it off, starting an art collaboration that continues today. Wanting to carve a signature Cambodian style, the couple set about stamping Phnom Penh with their work. Their distinctive murals draw on the country’s rich heritage, being influenced by the intricate patterns found on bas reliefs of the ancient Angkor temples, the mesmerising hand gestures of apsara dancers and the five-headed dragon Naga, who protects Buddha.

We are inspired by our Khmer heritage and visually translate that into street art
Peap Tarr

“We are inspired by our Khmer heritage and visually translate that into street art,” says Tarr.

Soon the pair were able to capitalise on their skills and found themselves being commissioned to revamp the walls of restaurants, bars and hotels across the country and beyond, inspiring an interest in this new movement.

“It’s amazing to help a new urban art movement grow in my hometown of Phnom Penh,” says 25-year-old Mam, who remains the country’s only female street artist.

“I want Khmer graffiti and street art, and also the creativeness of the future Khmer urban movement, to be seen around the world.”

Today, the couple carry out commissions across the globe, with their work featuring in the fashion world on clothing and watches.

“I have been able to merge my art with a business side, starting a new urban art movement in Phnom Penh alongside Lisa, bringing new international attention to our work and a focus to Phnom Penh where we live,” says Tarr.

Chinese street artist finds perfect canvas to show city's rapid development – Beijing’s abandoned buildings

Theo Vallier, who moved to Cambodia from Marseilles, France, in 2007, is another of the artists to have fostered the burgeoning Cambodian street art movement. “I really want to try and develop the street art scene in Cambodia, and that’s my most important goal. It was hard when I first got here because nobody really knew about it or understood what it was about,” he says.

As access to the internet grew in the country and more young artists discovered the art form for themselves, Vallier noticed interest in graffiti slowly gaining traction. When fellow street artist Chifumi landed in the kingdom three years ago, the pair set about organising a festival to boost interest.

In April last year, in conjunction with the French Institute, the first Cambodia Urban Art Festival was held, featuring live painting performances, exhibitions and concerts.

Vallier and Chifumi gathered together a handful of local and international graffiti artists, including Tarr and Mam, and invited them to paint murals across the capital on designated walls. A tuk tuk tour of the work was held, with the 50 reserved vehicles filling up within minutes.

The second edition of the festival will be held this year from March 31 to April 23, with urban art exhibitions across Phnom Penh. Local and foreign artists are putting the finishing touches to the art ahead of the event.

WATCH Chifumi’s video promoting the urban art festival

Kimchean Koy, 18, will be taking part in the festival for the second time. The Cambodian has brushed up on his street art skills by surfing the web, taking art classes at school and meeting peers.

The artful dodger: Japanese street artist 281 Anti Nuke is risking his freedom to be heard

“The street art scene seems to be growing rapidly as people are seeing the potential,” he says. “More and more pieces are popping up here and there, with no signs of slowing down. The future seems bright and, obviously, colourful.”

While street art could really take off in Cambodia, challenges remain for the country’s artists. Resources are scarce, with paint and materials imported and expensive.

Manila street artist jailed for offending religious beliefs

Festival participant David Ou, a Cambodian American who moved to Cambodia seven years ago and incorporates ancient Khmer scripts into his work, became so frustrated with the situation that he set up his own online store selling good-quality imported products.

“It can be difficult with the lack of materials,” says the 20-year-old, who goes by the name of Strange the Rabbit.

Doing graffiti without breaking the law can also be tricky, but Vallier is adamant that while the scene is in its infancy artists are best off keeping government officials onside.

In December, a 10-metre-high mural of Moeun Thary, one of the few seamstresses left in the country using traditional techniques, was painted on the side of the White Building, where she lives, by visiting Californian graffiti artist Miles “El Mac” MacGregor.

Within days of its completion, officials ordered it be painted over, claiming the correct permissions were not sought. “With the scene being so new, we have to make sure we do it right before it is shut down,” Vallier says.

Still, there are high hopes that with the Urban Art Festival becoming an annual event, and with the work carried out by the DBKA and other artists, Cambodia’s urban art movement will continue to grow.

“I believe it will chug along well into the future,” says Koy. “I hope that more and more local artists emerge and they find the freedom that I found.”