Art Radar profiles 4 artists from the Myanmar urban art scene.
Street art has been experiencing a creative surge in Southeast Asia in recent years, yet in most countries politics and self-expression go hand in hand. In the nascent democracy of Myanmar, artists still battle for freedom of expression.
Myanmar artists are taking to the streets in increasing numbers, some working alone, others as members of crews, and albeit illegally, they work day and night to give form to their dreams. Art Radar profiles four among Myanmar’s best known street artists, all of whom are defying the illegal status of graffiti.
Born in 1986 in Yangon, Thu Myat holds a BA in Business Management and a Diploma in Multimedia. He is one of the urban artists that came to the fore during Myanmar’s military rule and has been actively involved in urban art since 2008. In 2009, Myat was part of “The New Zero Graffiti Art Movement” exhibition at Yangon’s New Zero Art Space, which according to Shireen Naziree, curator of “OFF THE WALL” (PDF download) at Thavibu Gallery, Bangkok,
provided models for discursive boundaries within Myanmar’s contemporary art history. It also demonstrated how, despite being cut off from the international arena, global trends were impacting more than Myanmar’s politics.
As a designer, and co-founder of the graphic design company Plus Ka Gyi, Myat has a strong interest in developing consumer concepts, thus recognising the changing nature of urban art and its role in raising awareness and social consciousness amongst the community. This is also seen through his work as a street artist, both individually and as part of OKP Crew. Myat’s dedication to the urban art scene has led him to organise “Rendezvous: South East Asia Urban Art Event” since 2012, a gathering of young graffiti artists from the region.
Myat’s work is vibrant, playful and often humorous. Inspired by contemporary life in Myanmar, with its mixture of tradition and Western cultural imports, Myat’s oeuvre juxtaposes East and West, past and present in simple yet poignant representations of contemporary Myanmar’s urban culture. For the artist, urban art is like public art – its creation is intended to enhance and transform the visual amenity of sites that, if left alone, would be dull, even ugly.
Yet, the challenge lies with the public itself. Talking to the Myanmar Times, Myat says:
It is not very difficult to work in Myanmar as a graffiti artist compared to other countries, but it is the acceptance from the audience that is different. In Myanmar, most people don’t know about urban artists because we just started in 2008. They just think we’re people destroying the beauty of the land with our graffiti.
Born in 1978 in Yangon, Wunna Aung is considered one of the foremost street artists in Myanmar. He graduated with a BA in Music from the National University of Art and Culture and a BA in Creative Writing from Dagon University in Yangon. Aung took up painting in high school and he studied under artists such as U Aye Htun, U Win Htein, U S-Tin Shwe and U Aye Myint (TTC).
In 2013, Aung was invited by Thu Myat to participate in “Rendezvous”, which led the two artists to collaborate frequently later on, such as in their exhibition “OFF THE WALL” at Thavibu Gallery. Aung works both individually and as a member of the street art crew ROAR (Release of Artistic Rage), alongside 9Micro and Bart.
Aung’s style trespasses cultural frontiers and genres, and juxtaposes ancient and traditional Myanmar culture with pop art. The artist mixes his inspiration from popular and urban culture with his interest in Myanmar’s history and the personalities that have helped shape it, in both their symbolic nature and their vestiges of human existence.
Aung also creates work for ‘gallery walls’, as seen in his series on the royal family at Thavibu Gallery. However, he told Art Radar that although he does value this part of his artistic practice, it is not the only way:
Many regular artists must go through the art galleries and art shop, etc. I don’t want to be [part of] this situation. I want to [have] more freedom and [talk] more directly to [the] public. Thus, I found graffiti and street art.
Aung tells Art Radar that he has two styles: one for the galleries and one for the street. Although many of the techniques and media he uses overlap in both, his graffiti art is characterised by a greater freedom of “subject and concept” and, ultimately, a greater diversification of ‘canvases’. He works with stencils, wheat pasting, sticker bombing, spray paint, 3D street art and others. Aung’s graffiti often portrays Myanmar characters replaced by popular imagery for a layering of meaning and are, as the artist calls them, “satire”.
Aung tells Art Radar about the street art scene in Myanmar:
Now our situation in Myanmar, [the] graffiti and street art circle is a little narrow, but [is becoming] wider and wider. Yangon street artists are under pressure by the Yangon Municipal Act 2013, [which] has a fine fee for graffiti of 100000 kyats (100USD). But we don’t care [about] anything and [we are] painting on urban walls still right now. I want to say to a person who likes graffiti and street art or dislikes it: “the place with graffiti and street art is an open museum for all.”
9Micro, a native of Yangon born in 1991, is a co-founder of ROAR, as well as a member of Singapore’s TAC international crew. He started with graffiti in 2005, but was only known on the streets from 2007 by the tag name ‘Gmicro’. At that time, the artist was only doing sketches and was introduced to graffiti through hip-hop music videos.
As he tells Art Radar, he did not know then that “those things were called graffiti”, but was attracted to the colours and styles. He picked up paper and pencils, crayons and brushes and started sketching in his own room. Later on, he learned how to use spray cans from videos and started using them in his work, changing his tag name to 9Micro.
9Micro mostly paints letters and sometimes photorealistic pieces, circling around design, street art, custom products and digitalisation. As an artist, he recognises the challenges of the profession and the needs for survival. Although he does not like the idea, he has to accept commission pieces such as characters and logos. Nevertheless, 9Micro’s passion lies in the streets, where graffiti is still not accepted.
He tells Art Radar:
Mostly, my graffiti is still not acceptable to most people here in Myanmar, they still see graffiti not [as] an art form but [as] vandalism […] I don’t care, as long as I can paint what I want to paint… […] The graffiti scene in Myanmar is so messed up, like if you do a piece of national leaders and such, you’re gonna be popular, if you do a letter with flows and nice combination of colours however, you’re a waste… There are still no legal walls to paint in public spaces, but we will try and paint every time we can on streets, illegally…
Since 2012, 9Micro has been getting jobs and commissions to do graffiti, and has been participating in various festivals, events and exhibitions at home and abroad, including Singapore, France and Austria, where his work and that of his crew appeared alongside renowned street artists such as Shepard Fairey.
Bart is currently attending Singapore’s LaSalle College of the Arts, to become a CGI or concept artist in the field of Animation. The youngest crew member of ROAR, Bart started doing graffiti around 2008, inspired by 9Micro’s work. His artworks focus more on composition and colour theory rather than subject matter, and his style is “a mixture of graffiti and comics”. As he states on his website, his style is “futuristic, abstract, organic and fused with the sense of Pop Art,” and he is inspired by Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.
Bart tells Art Radar about why he does graffiti:
I do…or all of the members of the crew do graffiti or any form of art because we simply want to. We don’t really care what is going on out there. We are happy as long as we can produce what’s in our head and put down a great piece.
Bart explains that when he and his crew started doing graffiti, Myanmar was still not ready for it. As other artists have put it, graffiti was (and still is) considered more as vandalism than art. He tells Art Radar:
Graffiti was really alienated by the society when we first started. Even if we produced a big mural with pleasing visuals, they would not still approve us as artists because of our choice of medium and tools. Also most people, to this day, don’t see letters and tags as a form of art. But they accept portraits and cute characters on the wall now. Funny. For me, I’ll keep on doing letters, organic shapes mixed with my favorite comic elements (always from Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’).
As Bart’s fellow crew member Wunna Aung told Art Radar, the situation has changed for the worse for graffiti artists in terms of legalisation since late 2012, when Arker Kyaw painted a mural of Barack Obama in a prominent area, just prior to the US president’s visit to Myanmar. The mural was defaced overnight and the crew painted another one in another location. This incident spurred the authorities’ action and shortly afterwards, Myanmar’s government published notices in the state-run press declaring graffiti illegal.
A graffiti artist told Reuters, “a security guard is always watching”, but as street artist Soe Wai Htun said to CS Monitor, “of course we’re gonna paint anyway; we just have to be more careful.” Graffiti artists are taking to the streets in even greater numbers and defying the authorities as well as the public’s opinion. As Bart tells Art Radar:
I don’t really care what the audience thinks […]. I paint for me.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- 4 Iranian street artists to know – January 2015 – Art Radar brings you 4 artists to know from the streets of Iran
- 4 emerging Burmese artists to know – START art fair, London – June 2014 – Art Radar features 6 promising Burmese artists exhibiting at the START art fair in New York
- French-Tunisian graffiti artist eL Seed on his Arabic roots, “Lost Walls” and reclaiming purple – interview – June 2014 – eL Seed talks about his journey to Tunisia’s most forgotten and remote areas, his re-appropriation of the colour purple and his run-in with Chewbacca
- Manila’s mean streets: 7 Filipino street artists – part 3 – May 2014 – the Filipino Street Art Project is a transmedia project documenting street art in the archipelago’s capital
- 6 of the best street art projects in Asia-Pacific right now – March 2014 – 6 exciting street art projects in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, hand-picked by Art Radar
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on street art in Asia-Pacific, Africa and the Middle East