IT was scorching hot in George Town, Penang. Sweat trickled down my back, soaking my shirt. The straw hat I was sporting didn’t seem to help much. I was in Penang a couple of years ago to experience the George Town Festival and happened to be walking down Ah Quee Street with my brother.
“Stop!” I recall my brother yelling, immediately stopping me in my tracks. He pointed to a wall and asked whether I wanted to have a picture taken in front of it.
Then I saw it — the famous “Boy on a Bike” mural, with a real old bike attached to rusty red wooden doors and a drawing of a boy wearing a helmet who appeared to be riding the bike. Of course I wanted a picture to be taken there.
There’s no way that visitors to George Town should leave without at least posing for posterity with some of the amazing street art that grace many of the once-grey walls in the town. Most of these works, I later discover, belong to Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic whose name is now synonymous with Penang.
Meanwhile, in the UK, an anonymous graffiti artist who goes by the name of Banksy has been marking his territory on streets, walls and bridges of cities throughout the world. As of 2014, Banksy’s been regarded as a British cultural icon and has even had his work shown in galleries such as Sotheby’s in London.
But what about closer to home? Do we have our own Malaysian cultural icon when it comes to street art? Well, Abdul Rashid Abdul Raman, or Acit as he’s fondly known, has been dabbling in graffiti since 2007. The artist has his own distinctive style and loves to incorporate Malay cultural elements into his art, such as batik.
Not long ago, street art was regarded as a form of vandalism in this country. And this was the very reason why Acit would indulge in it discreetly, usually at night after work. When he was working with Central Market, he used to go down the Klang River to paint the walls there.
“I was so nervous. I’d look left and right and was always scared of getting caught,” recalls Acit when we meet at The Curve in Petaling Jaya.
Taking me back to his early days, this Penangite shares that he’d always had a passion for art, even from a young age. His canvas back then was the ground in the compound of his house in Balik Pulau. His tools? His fingers. He later studied Multimedia at Mara PolyTech in Ipoh, Perak, and went on to work with Central Market before being employed by an animation company, Les’ Copaque.
He befriended some graffiti artists who influenced him to try his art skills on a wall instead of the computer. And it wasn’t long after that he really started to grow fond of this rather unconventional form of art. “I like the fact that I can use my whole body to paint instead of sitting at the desk and just moving the mouse,” confides Acit, before sharing that he quit his design job in 2014 to pursue graffiti full-time.
His first body of “work” in this area featured predominantly letters before he graduated to abstracts. “My signature is batik. But I also like to use all the elements from my childhood in my artwork. It could be something nostalgic that we all can relate to, like ayam (cockerel), since I’m a kampung boy.
“I also painted a praying mantis once. Do you remember that song when we were small?” he asks me, eyes lighting up. I nod, smiling. Mentadak mentadu, macam mana (insert any name) tidur? (Praying mantis, praying mantis, how does (insert any name) sleep?).
When I was a kid, I’d sing this song and use my sister’s name. The praying mantis would then move and I’d believe that that’s how my sister positions herself when she sleeps. “People prefer something that they can understand,” adds Acit, smiling at my comprehension.
Suffice to say, this affable street artist has come far. In fact, Acit flew to the United Arab Emirates during Ramadan last year with seven other Malaysian artists to paint 24 walls in the ultra-modern city of Dubai.
Recalls Acit: “Dubai doesn’t have local artists. My Malaysian artist friend happens to work there so when his company received this project, he called us.”
A developer there was hoping to revive an old shopping area in the city by showcasing some features of Dubai’s culture. So Acit took the opportunity to draw knitting yarns, as textile is one of Dubai’s earliest and oldest trades. “It took us more than a month to finish the project. We even celebrated Raya over there,” he shares, chuckling.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Acit was the sole representative from Malaysia out of the 38 artists who participated in the HKWALLS graffiti event. The Malaysian was given the freedom to choose his subject and he opted to paint the bangau (egret), something that many Malaysians can relate to through the folk song, Bangau Oh Bangau. The egret also happens to be a symbol of eternity in Chinese mythology.
ACCEPTED ART FORM
“There’s been such a proliferation of mass media coverage on this (matter), which in turn has led to so much public curiosity that today, graffiti has become accepted and dare I say it, a desired artform,” says Christine Ngh, the founder of Bumblebee Consultancy, a creative consultancy that promotes art and artist collaboration.
According to Ngh, it’s a misconception that street artists do what they do as just a hobby. “Many street artists are professionals and even doing street art as a full-time job. Some are doing very well for themselves.”
And Acit and those like him are testament to that. So what has led to the evolution of street art in Malaysia, particularly the way it’s received today, I ask. A pause before Ngh tells me that she believes it started with a Kuala Lumpur City Hall project called KUL Sign Festival held in 2010 and 2012, which engaged some unknown artists (at that time).
The once-grey concrete walls along the Klang River near Central Market were given a new lease of life with more than 100 local and international artists letting their creative juices flow. Sometime in 2012, Penang Tourism decided to include street art in their tourism promotion strategy. That worked surprisingly well for them as well, leading to the creation of another gravity centre for street art in the country that was outside of KL but with very different characteristics. While KL focuses more on urban contemporary, Penang’s thrust is heritage.
“All hell broke loose after that. Most states have emulated such initiative and created their own version of back lane street art, signature art and artist space,” says Ngh. This growing excitement over street art has led to the emergence of more street artists, some of whom are self-taught while others hail from art schools.
FUTURE OF STREET ART
For the first time, people can see artistic expressions outdoor, and on a huge scale. Thanks to social media as well, the future of street art certainly looks good. Together with her team at Bumblebee, Ngh is working tirelessly to ensure that other artists don’t miss out on the opportunity to make their mark.
“We work two ways. One is helping our clients create art projects, and the second is helping potential artists get their projects sponsored,” explains Ngh, who adds that she hopes to bring this art form to schools to educate the younger generation about it so that they learn to appreciate it too.
As for Acit, he hopes that street art is here to stay and will not just be a passing trend. “I’m aiming for international exposure. I want to bring our culture out there. I will keep on painting and sketching and maintain my style. It has been 10 years since I started. Graffiti is in my blood,” concludes the 33-year-old father of one.
Let’s hope Acit will get the chance to showcase more of Malaysian culture through his graffiti here and internationally. Who knows, maybe one day he can even enjoy the star status of Zacharevic or Banksy, with the latter a firm favourite of celebrities Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt!
Check out Acit Instagram @abdulrashade