When we stand in a gallery staring at a painting on the wall, sometimes art has already left the building. Everything the artist has gone through, their accumulated years of experience, surrendering their ego to go deep within to bring us back some truth from the trenches, it’s all rendered there in paint, clay, ink, blood, sweat, tears and sometimes even elephant dung. The process is complete and what is left is our response. There are few instances in the long life of art where the act of creating remains as important as the art that results. Or where the act could be considered the artwork itself. Street art is one of them. This is what came out of a discussion with up and coming Singapore street artist, SONG, member of street art collective, RSCLS.
Free-spirited yet industrious, graf apprentice yet familiar with the world of fine arts, SONG is a mercurial mix. “I don’t consider myself an artist. If people want to label me that’s ok, but I see myself as an explorer,” says SONG, fresh from being awarded the Runners-Up Prize in the recent ‘Graffiti Art Battle’ held at the Singapore ArtScience Museum. In his short 23 years, SONG has shown great promise in his arts practice, both in deftly plying a paintbrush under the tutelage of masters and now wielding a spray can mentored by established Singapore street artists, ZERO and ANTZ, founders of RSCLS.
“I grew up painting and drawing in a traditional household,” explains SONG. “My parents encouraged me to pursue fine art.” Until he realised he was the only kid in school taking art class. “I grew up with the idea of the Singapore Dream — it was all about earning money. It was the norm for everyone around me to want to get rich. But I wasn’t interested in that. So when the school threatened to take the art class away I had to really fight to keep it. It was the only thing I was good at. If I didn’t have art I wasn’t going to succeed at school and I wouldn’t have a future.”
After school his path continued to deviate from his peers. He enrolled at LASALLE and continued his fine art education. “I used to get a lot of people asking me how I was going to earn a living, what was I going to do for money. They seemed more bothered than I was.” But as time went on, SONG became disenchanted with fine art. He’d amassed great technical skills but he felt restricted by them when it came to saying something original. “Fine art is very precise and nice. I didn’t want to necessarily create things that people liked the look of. It was hard to find my own direction and resist becoming commercial. I ended up just thinking it was all bullshit,” he says emphatically.
In reaction, SONG started experimenting with abstract work, figurative human portraits, found objects and multimedia. “LASALLE gives you a lot of freedom. But ultimately I lost direction. I knew I wanted to excel in art though. Looking back, I just needed to go throughthis to find my way,” he says. Not long after, a friend suggested they start messing around with spray cans. SONG was addicted from the get-go.
“Using a spray can opened up a whole new medium for me. It gave me more freedom than a paintbrush. I just loved the result. It was trashy and brash but so powerful and different.” SONG would practice alone at home on sheets of salvaged wood, then meet his mate, spray cans drawn at dawn, to practice the illicit aspect of street art — creating an entire artwork with limited time in a public space while remaining undetected. “It was dynamic and fun and I wanted more,” says SONG.
Meanwhile, back at LASALLE, one of SONG’s lecturers turned out to be none other than ZERO. “I didn’t realise what his background was at first. We began talking over a period of time, not really about street art though. As I got to know him more I told him what I’d been experimenting with, and eventually he took me under his wing until I became a full fledged member of RSCLS.”
He was put through his paces. “The first time I came to the RSCLS studio it was all about testing my dedication. They wanted me to know and understand the history of graffiti and street art.” Then the intensive apprenticeship began, sketching and lettering everyday then analysing the output. “ANTZ is amazing with graffiti and ZERO gets me thinking about what I’m saying. They didn’t compliment my work — they would critique it. That was the best thing for me. Too many people go around saying how nice your work is and it doesn’t help you grow your style. You need feedback. The RSCLS guys pushed me until I was appropriating other styles less and less and found my own techniques.”
Top row left to right: The Blackbook Studio (2016), Aliwal Arts Centre (2016), Aliwal Arts Centre (2017)
Bottom row left to right: SCAPE(2018), 369 Tanjong Katong Road (2018), SCAPE (2018)
He had to do homework too. “I travel a lot. I save up and then go and explore different places and pick up ideas. RSCLS turned this into part of my training and would set me a mission. It was great. I’d be painting some shitty wall in Bangkok, trying not to get caught, and it gave me a real sense of what street art is all about. It’s a combination of planning and honing your idea over time and then executing it in one rapid shot. How the art got there is the integral component, not that it comes from a spray can. The act of throwing it up there, fresh with no second chances, is the art. If you manage to pull off something meaningful as well, then that’s great. But in the end, you can never get too attached to what you create as it won’t last long. That’s the beauty of it. It’s of the moment.”
Top row left to right: Hong Kong (2015); Jakarta, Indonesia (2017)
Bottom row left to right: Jakarta, Indonesia (2017); Manila, Philippines (2017); Hue, Vietnam (2018)
Opportunities for art to be truly revolutionary are pinnacle points in history. When Van Gogh fused his rhythmic brushstrokes to create a tumultuous, swirling scene, that he painted from memory, in Starry Night, he announced to the world that art could express inner turmoil and the human condition. It was a precursor to the Fauvism Movement. When Jackson Pollock painted with automatic action to create his drip paintings he revolutionised form and led the charge for Abstract Expressionism. When Andy Warhol used a production line of people in his Factory to screen print masses of identical Brillo boxes for him, the repetition and iconography of the everyday birthed pop art. When Marina Abromovic sat still for 75 painful days at MOMA looking deep into the eyes of thousands of people who took turns to sit opposite her, she epitomised the purpose of performance art. Now street art has evolved to be regarded for its spontaneity and social commentary, designed for the public and eclipsing the need for traditional gallery spaces in order for its message to reach an audience.
“For me, street art just has more depth to it. It’s visceral and intense and you can see the action that has gone into it. Art in the street is for everybody,” SONG says. Which makes the recent invitation to return to his school, where he was the only art student, to talk about pursuing a career in art, even more ironic. “It was a full class and it was interesting that a lot of the students had the impression that I was part of a trend. That they see street art as so popular that it’s fashionable. One the one hand that’s great, but you’ve got to be smart about it. I know my art history, I can paint still life’s, but I practice art on the street because I can have a dialogue with people in the street, everyday.”
Those streets might be in Hong Kong, Beijing or Europe. “Once I finish National Service in September I plan to go travelling as far as my money will take me. I’m still exploring. There are a lot of streets out there, and in the future I reckon that’s where most art will be.”