While Singaporeans are usually unsympathetic in incidents where public property is defaced – such as when subway trains were laced with graffiti in two separate incidents in 2010 and 2011 – the show of support by netizens this time round suggests that there is a perception that the alleged perpetrator’s work constitutes street art rather than mere vandalism. This is encouraging. Notably, even a Member of Parliament has weighed in on the alleged perpetrator’s side: Nominated MP Janice Koh, a former actress, has said that she does not "see street art as being the same as graffiti or vandalism".
Indeed the work in question, by expressing out loud the common refrains and frustrations of commuters, aptly captures the mood of viewers (who are unable to avoid looking because of how well placed the stickers and signs were) and challenged them, for a moment, to rethink their preconceptions. (Unfortunately the website of the alleged perpetrator is no longer available.) Moreover, judging by the public response, this work of street art seems to have been far more accessible than the sanctioned, highfalutin kind adorning the taciturn museums not usually visited by the general public.
There is a measure of subversiveness in street art, given that it is unsanctioned and often inconveniently sited in public places rather than in a gated venue such as a museum. That, of course, is usually its very point, as a means to challenge and directly engage the public. Street artists such as the reclusive Banksy – who is thought to have created art from Bristol to the West Bank – have received international recognition for their work. The authorities usually keep one eye closed because such artists are difficult to track.
In Singapore, unfortunately, such challenges to authority are often met sternly, with the usual motivation being to deter future perpetrators. Furthermore, in this case the hand of the authorities has been forced because they seem to have identified their quarry.
But the fact is that, as many have pointed out, the government cannot hope to encourage a more vibrant art scene to thrive by attempting to box it within well-defined, comfortable boundaries. It has an opportunity here to thread the needle by pursuing a moderate course and pleading the alleged perpetrator down to a lesser charge, perhaps even throwing in a sentence of community service teaching youngsters about art.
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