People who’ve known me for a while may have an inkling that I adore street art. I’ve written about it, tried to mimic it, spent an unhealthy number of hours thinking about it, and occasionally, when I am in a braver mood, debated about it. So when the whole Sticker Lady controversy bubbled up last year, some people asked me what I thought. Back then, in the midst of the issue, I took a backseat, even though I had my opinions. Now that the whole thing has died down, I am finally going ahead and writing about it. (This, perhaps, is what would make me a terrible current affairs blogger.)
For better or for worse, street art was thrown into the limelight last year when artist Skl0 – infamous for the tongue-in-cheek stickers like the ones above – was arrested for vandalism of public property. This came after her work gained significant traction both online and in public space (she had distributed the stickers for others to put up, as is a common practice with many street artists such as Shepard Fairey of OBEY fame). The issue bubbled and bubbled and took over everyone’s social media feed, birthing a substantial backlash and a subsequent online petition. All in all, if you were below 30 in Singapore you had to be living under the a rock in order to not have heard of it.
“At the time, what fascinated me most about The Sticker Lady issue was not the fact that she was hauled to court, but the widespread assumption that this consequence was unique to Singaporean laws.”
As it were, I heard about this whole thing while I was halfway around the world under my proverbial rock in cold, cold Chicago. Coincidentally, I had just written a tedious but heartfelt paper for a class on the significance of street art and why it had to remain illegal in order for it to thrive, and this case popped up as if to taunt my position on the matter. At the time, what fascinated me most about The Sticker Lady issue was not the fact that she was hauled to court, but the widespread assumption that this consequence was unique to Singaporean laws. (A barrage of comments on the paternalistic, backward nature of the local government ensue.) Although there are most certainly other examples of the nanny-like responses of Singapore authorities, what I realized was sorely lacking was the knowledge that other countries have equally strict laws about graffiti and vandalism of public space. For example, Chicago has banned the sale of spray paint within the city limits, and keeps the cans securely locked behind counters in surrounding suburban areas. It spends more than $9 million on graffiti removal a year, slapping white paint indiscriminately over tiny scrawls and sprawling murals alike. The same is true for many other cities within the United States – just Google “graffiti laws USA”. And, as with any creative community in any city, there has been a backlash. Responses run parallel to those heard in favor of Skl0’s work back home: that there should be a delineation between malicious graffiti and public art, that the law should allow for the flourishing of creativity, and that the injudicious use of white paint was even uglier than the scrawls to start with… at least the graffiti painters had a sense of style.
“I suppose what sets Singapore’s response apart… is that the local government is just so darn efficient at cracking down on people in general.”
I suppose what sets Singapore’s response apart from these “battles” raging on everywhere around the world is that the local government is just so darn efficient at cracking down on people in general – which I am sure is the envy of many city officials in the United States. Along with the fact that there are fewer graffiti artists in this country than a place like Chicago, Skl0’s art was easier to single out from the outset, and easier to pursue. Thus the difference lies in the enactment of vandalism laws, not in the intent. (Note that I say this of the artist’s stickers – her Shepard Fairey “Limpeh” spoofs may be a different matter altogether: )
Another thing that bugged me so much about the Skl0 case was the cries of people for the law to distinguish between “bad” graffiti and “good” public art. Although the intentions behind this sentiment are of the right heart, they are more difficult to enact than they seem. It is my personal stand (and you can most certainly disagree) that it is not the place of the law to determine what is art, and what isn’t. If the law decides tomorrow that aesthetically-pleasing graffiti pieces are art, and everything else is vandalism, then it makes an assumption that art must be beautiful. What about conceptual works that are intentionally jarring? How about thought-provoking text? Similarly, if the law decides tomorrow that only pieces that “do not look like graffiti” (i.e. no spraypaint) can be considered street art, then it is making a decision based on particular social connotations of certain styles. If the law decides tomorrow that it is only going to pursue graffiti works that do not originate from those who call themselves artists, then it is making an assumption about the self-identities of those taking part in this social movement. Ultimately, any decision the law makes that is any more discriminatory than it is now will be challenged by contentious new works that pop up.
“The fact is, street art, public art, graffiti – whatever you want to call it – has a nature that stands innately in opposition to the law. People must recognize this as its beauty and not its downfall.”
The fact is, street art, public art, graffiti – whatever you want to call it – has a nature that stands innately in opposition to the law. People must recognize this as its beauty and not its downfall. Despite the many styles, mediums, and messages that exist, every piece of work that is intentionally put on the streets has one common theme: it is there to take back public space. It is there as a reminder that a city is not made a city by its structures and walkways, but by the heart of its people. And because of that, sanctioned graffiti – work made legal – will never have the same sort of impact as a throw-up that appears on the side of a wall in the middle of the night, or stickers that multiply as if by magic to admonish and encourage testy pedestrians. Unfortunately, this means that graffiti artists will always be at risk. However, for many, this risk is acknowledged and is part of the job. You need to step out of the status quo in order to challenge it, after all.
The bottom line is this, I suppose: Street art is a movement happening before our very eyes. A social movement, an art movement, an urban movement – it is all of those. Mark my words – it will be celebrated in the distant future as exactly that, even if it is not thought about in that way right now. And as with every movement that came before it, it comes with a desire to change perceptions, to overturn social norms, and to challenge the status quo. None of these things the law will particularly like, but the law has its own functions to fulfill in other areas of society. The controversy Skl0 has sparked because of her stickers only go to show that her work is valuable, and that the movement is surely making an impact in Singapore.
I hope she is the first of many.