Myanmar's graffiti artists test edges of emerging democracy

Graffiti artists are on the frontline of an ongoing debate over where freedoms begin and end as Myanmar continues its transition.

Susie Taylor
Graffiti artist Arker Kyaw stands in front of a current mural project, last week, in Yangon, Myanmar.

When he first got word of President Obama’s historic trip to Myanmar this fall, street artist Arker Kyaw stayed up through the night spray-painting a mural of the US leader smiling against a backdrop of American and Burmese flags.  

“It was not political, just a way of showing the public new art,” says the lanky 19-year-old.    

But in a nascent democracy experiencing a flush of civil freedoms, self-expression and politics are inseparable. The next day, Mr. Arker Kyaw returned to see his mural scratched out. A week later, the government decreed a nation-wide ban on street art.

After more than five decades of oppressive rule, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is awash in free speech on fronts where none was permitted. Breakneck reforms, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and an end to direct media censorship have allowed stifled voices to emerge in newspapers, art galleries, and theater houses where plain-clothes security agents used to eavesdrop for signs of dissent.

But the government does not yet have a mechanism that grants artists access to work on public spaces, putting them at the frontline in the ongoing debate over where freedoms begin and end as the country continues its transition. 

"It's certainly a good thing that young artists are testing the limits," says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. It’s not unlike the tests of democracy that have been seen by graffiti artists across the world. At the same time, he warns, "it seems there is a narrowing of tolerance for expression in some areas ... and now the government is going after graffiti artists. One wonders: Is this a backlash, or is this political opening as sincere as [Myanmar's] leaders would have us believe?"

The ban has not stopped dozens of artists steeped in the renegade spirit of American hip-hop culture from working in the shadows. Fresh graffiti, spanning flying television to stencils copied from British street legend Banksy, seem to pop up every other morning under bridges and on construction projects that are tearing up entire blocks and intensifying traffic snarls. 

Myanmar's graffiti culture 

“Of course we’re gonna paint anyway; We just have to be more careful,” says Soe Wai Htun, noting that his crew has plans to a do “an even bigger public exhibition” in the wake of the defaced Obama mural. 

Smug defiance toward authorities is one standard practice that Burmese street culture has adopted from the United States; tribalism is another. 

When Arker Kyaw heard that his Obama mural had been attacked, he initially suspected the hand of municipal authorities, as had been done before. Only later did he learn that a rival graffiti crew was responsible for the defeatist phrases “We Quit” and “This is Not Message, Do Not Reply.”

While he is affiliated with a larger crew, Arker Kyaw insists that he stands for the individual and paints alone. “I’m interested in expanding the art form, not revenge,” he says. “I want to be the best.”

Others counter that “battling” is fundamental to graffiti culture, wherever it is practiced, and an affront to stale notions of ownership. “We battle each other like real street artists do, in America,” says one rival, who goes by the nickname Marshall.

'It's evolving' 

While the vanguard Yangon’s art scene generally welcome what they’re seeing as an antidote to old taboos and the crass modern development that is cropping up around the city, some say it understandably lacks the technique and conceptual originality that has elevated street art in cities like New York and Tokyo.

“It’s evolving but there’s not yet enough originality, ” says Aung Soe Min, a prominent gallery owner who works with more than 200 artists in Myanmar, just a handful of them graffitists. But, he adds, the quality of public art is “evolving quickly” and “has symbolic value in a country that always thinks of law and order first.”

In these still uncertain times, a growing number of street artists are organizing private exhibitions as a platform to introduce Burmese urban art to new audiences 

In December, curator Moe Satt hosted a festival entitled, “Beyond Pressure,” featuring the works of top graffiti artists from Yangon and Mandalay. “Rendezvous,” a new exhibition that begins this week, includes work from as far away as the UK in a bid to raise Myanmar’s street art profile in Southeast Asia and promote homegrown artists alongside more established talent, according to organizers, who say it’s the largest urban art event ever held here.

Fine line between legal and illegal

Until public art is embraced in the new Myanmar, Arker Kyaw and company say they plan to walk the line between legal and illegal, alternating between spot-lit galleries and sidewalks by night. Then there are those who prefer to work within the spaces that are permitted – and shout as loudly as they can about their grievances with the new government

On a recent afternoon, Lailone, a some-time street artist with an engineering degree, held his first solo exhibition in the lobby of a tattoo parlor across the street from a five-star hotel. A mixed crowd of Burmese and foreigners enjoyed donuts and coffee, while taking in cartoons under the theme “Not For Sale”: a not-so-subtle indictment of the surge of land grabbing being perpetrated by powerful business interests with ties to the military.   

One of his pieces depicts a lawyer asking a poor farmer if he’s reading an agricultural guidebook. The farmer replies, “No, I’m studying land laws ahead of the confiscation that’s coming.” Another piece depicts a farmer hanging from the top of a flagpole, singing the national anthem as foreign companies raze all the land beneath him. 

“I’m afraid for my culture, for the environment,” says Lailone.

At least he’s no longer afraid of speaking his mind, say analysts. Looking around at his room full of politically charged creations, he adds, with a wide grin: “Now I can drown [the authorities] with my humor.”

* Susie Taylor contributed to this report from Yangon.

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