Travel

A Short History of Singapore's Graffiti Movement

Yes, graffiti in the squeaky clean city-state exists.
November 20, 2018, 8:30am
graffiti
Letting off some steam at 369 Tanjong Katong, a building slated for demolition that was opened for painting. Image credit: KRINGE.

When you think of vandalism and graffiti, Singapore is unlikely to be a city that comes to mind. Since the early ‘90s, the city-state has established a reputation for its cleanliness – from the infamous ban on chewing gum to fines for petty misbehavior such as spitting and littering. Dig a little deeper into the history of graffiti subculture in Singapore and you will find that a small number of graffiti writers once practiced freely among and under Singapore’s squeaky-clean streets. Before the arrival of colorful murals and the commercialization of “street art”, there was a time when the youth were simply inspired by the energy of the worldwide graffiti movement. They caught a glimpse of it in hip-hop and skateboarding magazines and took it upon themselves to learn about it.

Indonesian Writer TUYULOVEME leaves his mark at 369 Tanjong Katong during a recent visit. He is part of the local crew RSCLS. Image credit: KRINGE

Indonesian Writer TUYULOVEME leaves his mark at 369 Tanjong Katong during a recent visit. He is part of the local crew RSCLS. Image credit: KRINGE.

On his early experiences of painting, SLACSATU, a pioneering Singaporean graffiti writer recounts, “we got some paint and tried it out on some cardboard boards from a coffee shop that we taped together, but soon after, we felt the need to move onto a proper wall, and that’s when we began going down into the drains and canals to practice. You didn’t need an art background to try your hand at it, it was simply a matter of trial and error”. Back when graffiti culture in Singapore was in its infancy, a spirit of community had begun to form among its first practitioners. Crews like ZNC, OAC, PB and RSCLS were formed, and they realized they were not alone. “That was how we made our friends and foes back then, on the wall. We painted together, but also over others and that’s what started Singapore’s first graffiti turf wars,” SLACSATU added.

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The Blackbook Studio, a local graffiti shop with its own fabricated walls, where writers usually gather to paint and hang out. Image credit: KRINGE.

That however, did not last long as the authorities began to take notice, resulting in a large-scale crackdown. Among the legal chaos, the result was a stalemate agreement which allowed graffiti to exist on permissioned walls—with these in place, writers would have a sanctioned place to practice and should otherwise have no more reason to break the law. While that compromise remains the current state of affairs, its limitations on the growth of the community are evident. SADAR, a writer from Toronto who has been living in Singapore for the past year observed, “while the community remains small and close-knit, painting and re-painting the same walls repeatedly isn’t the most motivating or challenging—neither does it provide the same raw adventurous experience that graffiti is best known for”. In a way, graffiti in Singapore lacks a certain charm, although its refusal to disappear completely is in a way, a silent rebellion.

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The first Anniversary of ZNC (ZincNiteCrew), 26th July 1999, Buona Vista Canal. Image credit: SLACSATU.

Of late, opportunities to paint buildings that are about to be demolished have momentarily brought life to the graffiti community, but these are few and far between. Despite the predicament, Singapore’s writers are determined to preserve what remains of the local community.

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One of two legal walls at Somerset Skatepark. The pieces usually have an average lifespan of 1-2 weeks, sometimes even a few days or less. Image credit: KRINGE.

For now, they take advantage of the the city’s geographical location, hopping onto cheap budget flights to be a part of the flourishing graffiti scenes of its Southeast Asian neighbors.