Monkey Magic — How the artist ANTZ is using Chinese mythology in street art with simultaneously subversive and conservative results
There’s that saying, everything old becomes new again. We’ve seen everything from Soda Streams to Guns‘n’Roses make a comeback, so why not the punkiest monkey that ever popped? That’s right, cult classic Monkey is set for a remake. The unreal adventures of a naughty monkey that can summon a cloud faster than an Uber, on a celestial mission to India with a monk and a pig, did for Chinese mythology what Apple have done for big phones. But are oriental legends simply back in fashion? Prominent Singapore street artist, ANTZ, thinks there’s more to their relevance than just a modern makeover.
His motif might actually be his motive in saying so. ANTZ is known for his bold depictions of the monkey king, otherwise known as Sun Wukong or Hanuman in different faiths. “It just came out of me one day. I don’t know why. He just willed himself into being,” explains ANTZ, sounding very similar to the technicolour Monkey that suddenly hatched from a stone one day thousands of years ago.
He’s a cheeky simian in the murals that ANTZ creates, not so different in personality from the 80s screen idol. Which makes sense, because Sun Wukong is the main character in the 16th century Chinese classic, Journey to the West, which happens to be the inspiration for the hit TV show. “He’s really fun to draw,” says ANTZ, “but it goes deeper than that. Even when I’m trying to work on something else, like my dragon or rabbit, he pops out of nowhere and leads me where he wants to go.”
The spiritual quality of this creature, with all his wisdom, strength and heroism, working through the artist is not lost on ANTZ. “He’s teaching me what I need to know. I started out not knowing much about Chinese mythology, but creating this character in my artwork has made me want to find out more. I’ve researched links to India, South East Asia and Thailand. It has strengthened the meaning of my painting.”
Packed with that knowledge, ANTZ has been able to make his monkey dance for him and his audience. “There’s a lot of hidden meaning in my work. The symbol of the monkey, and Chinese mythology generally, represents so many themes that are relevant to what’s going on today. Power, corruption, sex, good and evil, you name it, it’s in there. So I can use the monkey figure to comment on our society.”
Not that you’d pick up on it at first glance though. His layered work, honed from years spent as an illustrator and graphic designer working on major projects for the likes of Ministry of Sound through to the Singapore Armed Forces, can mean different things to different people. “That’s the beauty of the monkey,” says ANTZ, “he can transform and be anything. The overall message is cultural and the audience can interpret what they want.” This is not a brush off though. ANTZ sees the audience as intrinsic to his work.
“It’s a dialogue between me and the audience, but I’ve got to be careful,” says ANTZ. “I’m a street artist based in Singapore. I’ve been caught out by the authorities before and I’m not interested in doing anything overtly provocative. I’m more interested in being involved with the community. Having said that, my art does reflect how screwed up things can be.”
So if this monkey magic is more than skin deep, more than a passing fad, what does he say to people who want to scratch beneath the surface? “When people ask about the work I give them a story,” explains ANTZ. “But depending on how interested someone is, I can give them the official story or I can give them the real story.” Just like the monkey king himself, ANTZ has many incarnations.