State Curated Street Art
Street Art Break in VR with Tom
Singapore isn’t an edgy place and neither is its street art. Any public expression that seriously challenged authority would not last one day.
Street art began as a provocative violation of property rights. Cities fought it. Street artists were major outlaws once.
Singapore made a law against provocative violations of property rights over 50 years ago, known as the Vandalism Act of 1966. It stipulates mandatory fines, prison time, and corporal punishment; ie. caning, 3–8 strokes.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Art or Graffiti. It doesn’t matter if you’re Picasso. If you didn’t get written permission from the owner, it’s vandalism and you’re in deep shit.
I traveled to Singapore developing educational programs a half dozen times in the early 2000s. I rode the MTR all over the tiny country, got out and walked around frequently. There wasn’t any street art then.
Instead, there were constant government campaigns aimed at shaping behavior at scale. When I was there, the “Have Fun” campaign was starting up. Officialdom had decided that people needed to let down their hair a little more, just a little though. It was made legal to dance on table tops in certain places during certain hours. I’m not making this up.
I was also well aware of the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) during the years I was there. SKM is a non-profit registered ‘Institution of Public Character,’ which was formed in 1996 in response to then-Prime Minister Goh saying, essentially, ‘we nailed the economic part, now let’s do better socially.’
The logo has the two halves of one heart (giver and receiver of kindness) — plus, Singa the Kindness Lion, the official mascot. Singa is all over the place, on posters or as small outdoor sculptures, exhorting citizens to ‘engage in random acts of kindness.’
These are street visuals, iconic, reproducible and placed for a purpose.
There is another way the State uses the streets to tell stories the way It wants them told — glorifying cultural heritage.
Singapore is a multi-ethnic country, with a Chinese majority and significant Malay and Indian populations.
It is considered a meritocracy, which is a probably true in some ways, but not absolutely true in all ways. Nevertheless, a mellow version of the past supports the narrative of social harmony now.
According to Professor Chang Tou Chaung, National University of Singapore, the government made an explicit opening to street art in the early 2010s. Before this point, everything on the walls publicly was there because the government put it there or OKed it as commercial advertising.
Some people in government obviously looked around at the rest of the world and saw new possibilities for street art, still kept carefully under control.
Artists could be creative, but not too creative. Can art inspire, but not excite? That was the idea.
Nostalgic views of the recent past fit the bill perfectly. As an outside observer of Singapore Street Art, I would say that sweet past cultural preservation is the preferred genre.
Nobody does it better than Yip Yee Chong, YC. He was headed toward an accounting career when he noticed how much everyone loved his childhood memory drawings. They still do — on walls all over the city.
They are detailed and so warm in their tone. Each one tells a story.
I love YC’s murals. I am not being critical when I say that the story and the meta-story he tells aligns with the state’s policy perfectly.
At my recent Street Art Break in VR event, I featured four of his pieces.
This one is a Provision Shop. Others show a Cantonese Opera, a Hokkien Temple, and an old fashioned coffee business. They are all lovable, feel-good pieces.
I included three other works in the main event world.
“A History of Healing” is a nicely done story of a long-time medical care facility, by the, Tell Your Children group.
The “Chinese Women” mural, by Justin Lee, shows six women dressed in traditional Chinese style — all holding modern hi-tech devices.
I wrote about “Portraits on the Singapura Club” in September, 2022. Drawn by Ceno2, maybe Singapore’s best-known street artist, it is not warm and fuzzy. But it is not incendiary either.
What is “True Street Art?” Who gets to say?
Professor Chang concludes that Singapore’s approach to street art unleashed creativity but kept it on a leash. I’d say that the government gave creativity some new space and street artists filled it right up within limits that were well understood.
Limits can help make art happen, some kinds of limits and some kinds of art.
There are 195 countries in the world and Singapore is just one of them, doing street art its way. I think it’s a good idea to let different points of view be expressed in any culture or community. When all public channels are subject to censorship from the top, many points of view are excluded.
Singapore seems to be doing pretty well at the moment with its highly curated public art. Curated by the State.
I write about VR and Meditation and other topics I have no standing to write about on Medium and Substack.
I have a black belt in learning and I’ve been meditating for so long you’d think I’d be enlightened but I’m not.