Street artist find new outlet for free speech

Graffiti is becoming an increasingly popular media for artists in Yangon to express their views on anything from censorship to money laundering

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2012, 3:49am


A television set with wings hovers on a wall in a murky Yangon side street.

"This was my first one," says Aung, 33, pointing proudly to an image he spray-painted last year to protest media censorship and now duplicated across Myanmar's commercial capital. "Media freedom is a big issue for me."

Aung, who requested that his full name be withheld, belongs to a new generation of Yangon street artists whose often politically charged graffiti was almost unthinkable before Myanmar's recent burst of reforms.

That began to change when a semi-civilian government took power in March of last year.

Emboldened, street artists are hitting Yangon to comment on everything from power shortages to money-laundering. Their number has doubled to about 50 in the past year, says Aung, a painter and freelance graphic designer who has documented the rise of street artists.

Inspired by Yangon's nascent hip-hop and punk scenes, or from cult British artists such as Banksy, they find each other via Facebook or after dark out on the streets with paint cans in hand.

"Most young people just do tagging, which I don't like much," says Aung, referring to the quickly drawn signature found in graffiti worldwide. "It has no ideology."

His hero is the celebrated British activist Banksy, whose often tongue-in-cheek work takes aim at war, poverty and the snobbery of the art world.

Aung was hooked after watching Banksy's Academy Award-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.

"I liked his political thinking," he says. "I realised I couldn't say everything I wanted through art, but I could say it through graffiti."

Yangon's street artists have a vast canvas: the walls and shopfronts of a city of six million people. The spaces on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, a busy north-south route, are favoured for their high visibility.

Graffiti of an electrical socket trailing a wire, usually accompanied by the slogan "Plug the city", became common when frustration over chronic power shortages led to nationwide protests.

A sketch of a washing-machine beside the initials of some well-known Myanmese banks refers to their suspected role in money laundering.

Like critics of graffiti everywhere, ordinary residents of the already run-down city find it hard to distinguish between street art and vandalism. "Most people don't know much about this art and the owners of the places where we graffiti are still very sensitive about this," said Aung.

So far, he says, no street artists have been jailed, although some have been briefly detained and let off with warnings.

Graffiti artists also fought a paint war against an unpopular Yangon mayor. A brigadier general in the army, Aung Thein Linn won a seat for the junta-created Union Solidarity and Development Party in a fraudulent 2010 election.

By way of protest, street artists defiantly tagged the wall of his official residence on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road. "All of us try to draw on this wall," says Aung. "It's painted over the next day."

Aung Thein Linn was replaced as mayor last year by another retired brigadier general, and the graffiti war on the residence wall continues.

Another coveted target is the Yangon mansion of self-styled billionaire Tay Za, a US-sanctioned business crony of the former junta.

But its walls, which hide a fleet of top-end sports cars, remain unsullied.

"A security guard is always watching," says Aung.