Tracing the Origins of TR853–1 — From Pioneering Singapore Street Artist to Designer of a Cultural Community
What happens when you whack some unsolicited wheat-paste on a wall or stencil on the streets in Singapore? Can you call it art? Nada…. Not really….Well, perhaps. Being charged with vandalism doesn’t necessarily negate artistic merit. But the brevity of exposure that a spontaneous installation will surely receive on the Little Red Dot might just render the art kinda inconsequential. A blip on the urban landscape. And when the Singapore Government instituted the Vandalism Act in 1966 to criminalise any blights on public property, that’s pretty much what they intended. To reduce any voices of dissention to a mere whisper, quickly forgotten.
But does that mean there is no street art scene in Singapore? Bollocks to that!
TR853–1 (aka TraseOne, aka Sufian Hamri), once a teenage spray can tagger and now the thinking man’s street artist, and member of street art collective RSCLS and Titan Aerosol Crew, reveals a microcosm that is making its way into the mainstream, one sanctioned mural at a time. While mounting his Holi-coloured artworks on vertical surfaces everywhere across Singapore from the Australian High Commission to Tekka Centre to the headquarters of Facebook, TraseOne has been steadily breaking down walls and creating a series of initiatives that draw street culture from the fringes and into the heart of communities. And he’s well placed to do it.
Sufian Hamri always loved to draw. “My Mum was an art teacher and used to encourage my creativity at home,” he explains. In fact, his moniker is a homage to his late mother who taught young Sufian to draw by laying tracing paper over pictures so he could follow their lines. Whenever he wasn’t working on an illustration, “I was into anything that combined wheels and tarmac. Skateboarding, BMX-riding, rollerblading. You name it, I loved it,” he says. He was a regular fixture on the streets where he lived. And the evolution was pretty obvious. With a front row seat to the happenings in his neighbourhood, pretty soon Sufian was compelled to comment and bring his art to the streets. But how do you indulge your greatest impulse, when you live in a country where you’re likely to get jail time and a dose of corporal punishment if you dare tag yourself anywhere other than Facebook?
Like most street artists, TraseOne started experimenting in clandestine locations. “I’d get together with other kids, older than me, and we’d sneak into tunnels or under bridges to practice tagging. It was risky but it wasn’t meant to be for audiences.” Quickly though, Sufian wanted to bring his creations out into the light. He tried his hand at performing pieces under cover of darkness on roller doors and streetscapes around Boat Quay and other built up areas, but it was short-lived. “I got caught a couple of times but I got let off. After I cleaned up, of course. I was pretty lucky.”
Lucky indeed. Remember the case of Swiss national, Oliver Fricker, back in 2010? His handiwork, involving the redecoration of a train carriage after breaking into an MRT depot, earned him a jail term of 5 months and 3 strokes of the cane. The audacity of his appeal incensed authorities so much that his sentence was increased to 7 months! Then there was US citizen, Michael P. Fay, who was sentenced to 6 strokes of the cane, for car vandalism and spray painting, until Bill Clinton intervened and appealed for clemency. His punishment was reduced to 4 strokes of the cane instead. Upshot? Don’t mess with Singapore. Just don’t mess it up at all.
“It’s not like Singapore will ever be New York in the seventies,” says Sufian, “but there is still a lot you can achieve here as a street artist. In fact, it can help you to be more creative. You’ve gotta push boundaries while playing within the rules.” His early brushes with the authorities allowed Sufian to discover he had no interest in getting caught. In fact, his only interest was in honing his skills to move beyond tagging and simple characters to creating fully fledged street art. He didn’t want to deface, he wanted to adorn Singapore — with thought-provoking and uplifting murals that could stimulate discussion and count as a productive form of social activism.
And so, TraseOne began. At first, inspired by artwork he saw on the decks of skateboards, Sufian began painting on the free-to-use wall space at what was formerly known as National Youth Council and Somerset Skate Park, where *Scape now stands. “Having space to practice makes a big difference,” he says. “Kids these days don’t get much of a chance because there’s not many places you can use legally.” Which might explain why Sufian found himself a co-organiser of Graffitude in 2001, a showcase for street art created in collaboration with students from Lasalle College of the Arts, where he initiated a series of educational lectures, symposiums and workshops on street art. It was inspired. And inspiring.
“I didn’t do well at school. But I was starting to see that I could maybe make a living out of being a street artist. I’d taken on some commissions — mainly illustrations on shop fronts for lots of stores in Far East Plaza. Then, after getting to know students at Lasalle, I decided to study.” Sufian cleverly used his experience with Graffitude to gain entry and finally received his honours degree in 2007, all the while playing an integral coordination role for a series of Singapore Street Festivals. Actually, at the first one in 2003, he won the Graffiti competition. We’ve seen the rest. From exhibitions such as A Public Living Room and Cannot Be Bo(a)rded, to public initiatives such as 50 Bridges, to being exhibited at The Affordable Art Fair, TraseOne is now a prolific and permanent fixture on the Singapore art scene. And he’s using his power for good.
“While budgets for things like the Singapore Street Festival are getting smaller, there’s still room to think big,” says Sufian. He’s referring to the moves being made by mosques to provide street art workshops for Muslim youths as a way to draw the community together. Sufian explains, “My father is an active leader at my neighbourhood mosque, and is a big supporter of what I’m doing. Although you can’t paint figuratively within the Islamic faith, some street artists are really pushing boundaries using Islamic calligraphy and motifs. Inviting kids in to the mosque and validating their interests has a great effect on the community and it takes street art into another realm too.”
So will TR853–1 continue to stay inside the line? Not country lines, that’s for sure! Through his role as a member of the collective known as RSCLS, he is helping to create an outreach programme with street artists in other Asian countries such as the Philippines. “We’ve got a trip planned for Mongolia soon. There’s an amazing hip hop scene there and some good up and coming artists. The only problem is space. There’s a lot of it, but not many walls. Just lots of mountains and plains.” It’s an interesting dilemma, and we can’t wait to see the work-around for that one.