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Out of the shadows, into the shop in Myanmar

By Nandar Aung The Myanmar Times  Thursday March 22, 2018

A graffiti artist puts the finishing touches on a mural or piece under a bridge on the Yangon circle line. Photo – Supplied

YANGON, Myanmar – Amid police crackdowns, a graffiti artist finds new ways to disseminate his art

For years, Yangon’s graffiti artists moved under the cover of darkness, perfecting the art of finding a wall, putting up their colourful mark and disappearing into the night before police even knew they were there. But it didn’t always go to plan, often becoming a game of cat and mouse with the authorities which occasionally resulted in coughing up a fine or worse, spending the night behind bars. 

But when in December 2016, within the first year of the NLD government coming to power, a top Yangon official made an unlikely overture to the city’s graffiti artists, they breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein called on local graffiti artists to paint the drab gray concrete facades of the Myaynigone flyover in an effort to brighten up the busy intersection. Artists just had to adhere to two rules: no politics and no sex.

“It seemed too good to be true,” said Ko Zin Toe Aung, better known by his graffiti moniker 2twenty.

Sadly the government’s embrace of local street art was short lived. Two years on,  the relationship between officials and graffiti artists is strained, with artists seeing their art form becoming more constricted by successive police campaigns targeting street crime, 2twenty, who has collaborated with international graffiti artists from across the region, told Pulse.

“At first, we were really happy because the NLD government welcomed us and gave us spaces to create our artworks,” he said. “But later, the rules were restricted again because the crime rate was higher around the city. We didn’t want to go outside anymore as we didn’t know the consequences if we got caught. We know we must obey the rules as a citizen but we don’t know what the rules are.”

2twenty and his fellow graffiti artists might exist in a murky legal area in the eyes of the authorities, but he says their street art isn’t vandalism.

“Firstly, [nowadays] we always ask permission from the building owners before we begin painting. The space should be in public, where people can easily see our artwork. And we are careful to make sure our art work is relevant to each place. If not, that could be considered vandalism.”

Rather than wait for acceptance from the authorities 2twenty’s finding different avenues to reach his audience.

“AlterEgo Sticker Pack” by 2twenty is being launched on March 26. Photo – Supplied

On March 26 he is launching the “AlterEgo Sticker Pack”, which contains 22 die-cut waterproof stickers featuring his designs, including dystopian recreations of Walt Disney icon Mickey Mouse, and evil spray-paint cans.

The stickers cost K6,000 a pack, and he also plans to release posters and T-shirts featuring designs from his AlterEgo line as well.

2twenty appreciates that commodifying an art style which rose from the gritty underground as a form of protest against authority might raise the ire of some of his contemporaries,  but he isn’t phased. It’s more important to promote graffiti culture and spread an appreciation of street art amongst young Myanmar people, he said.

“It is such a pity that some people don’t know the famous graffiti artists like they know  Andy Warhol or Kate Hanel and their pop-art.”

“This is one of my main reasons I’m producing my artwork at an affordable price. Some of my colleagues might hate me for selling my work but I don’t care, my intention is for people to easily be able to buy and collect my artwork.”

Contemporary graffiti art rose to prominence in New York city in the 1980s hand-in-hand with the emergence of hip-hop culture, but it wasn’t until the 2000’s about the time cult documentary Style Wars reached Myanmar, that people became conscious of the style, said 2twenty.

“This means that we are very behind compared with the other countries.”

One way the Myanmar government could help grow the local street-art scene and promote an inclusive street-art culture, he says, would be to provide designated public areas where artists can work in accordance with the law.

YCDC’s City Planning & Land Administration Department could not be reached for comment.

While encouraged by private initiatives such as Doh Ein’s Alley Garden project, which sees downtown’s disused alleyways turned into recreation areas with the help of local street-artists, 2twenty says the responsibility of providing legal avenues for street art shouldn’t sit solely on the shoulders of philanthropists.

“We don’t care if government still calls us illegal because we do what we’re supposed to do. But we want legal space for us to paint. A space that is open to the public where our artworks will be seen.”

Until then, it’s likely we could see more graffiti artists coming out of the shadows and into the shop.

“AlterEgo Sticker Pack” can be pre-ordered from the Bargayar Facebook page and 2twenty Facebook page.

From: THE MYANMAR TIMES (MYANMAR) Thursday March 22, 2018

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