Until recently, if you’d asked me for a word association with Singapore, adjectives like squeaky clean and law-abiding would’ve rolled off my tongue. Street art and Singapore in the same sentence? “Not on your life,” I would’ve snorted. The idea of illegal art existing in one of the most highly regulated countries in the world, where you can still get your hide caned for overstepping the mark, sounds unlikely at best.
But venture into the Lion City’s historic, multicultural neighbourhoods and – surprise, surprise – pop go the colours. Psychedelic scenes of bicycle-riding cows lurk behind a metro stop. A plus-sized slinky snakes along an alley. Giant faces weathered with laugh lines cackle above a laneway bar. Wall murals lead to graffiti strips and on to public sculptures, each addition adding layers to a place usually characterised by its spray-and-wiped surfaces. Who knew?
“There are a lot more spaces now,” says Zul Othman – aka Zero – who’s regarded as one of the founders of Singapore’s street art scene, which kicked off in the early 2000s. “You walk around Kampong Glam and you see it. You walk around Chinatown and you see it. Little India, too.”
Sitting barefoot in his shared studio in Aliwal Arts Centre, surrounded by spray cans and stickers, Zero shows me thick chunks of layered paint he recently hacked from illegal graffiti walls. Their heft represents years of the undercover art form in Singapore. “Me and my collective knew of the existing scene of graffiti writers and tagging [back when we started out],” he explains. “But we did things differently. We focused more on characters, stencils, stickers and a bit of spray painting.”
Over time, the law has become harsher and artists have turned to agreements with the state and building owners so they can continue to create. It’s a double-edged sword: there are now more pieces, but strings are often attached.
Still, the world is waking up to Asian street art, and Zero’s pleased most works here are produced by locals or Singapore-based internationals who’ve twigged to the nuances of the Little Red Dot. “On the surface, street art adds depth and things to look at apart from just shopping and advertisements. It gives a different view,” he says. “I like to see artworks that are a bit more aware, works that understand culture.”
Zero leads me around the back of the centre to a wall designated for art. His wife, Laurie Maravilla – street-art name SPAZ – who leads a collective of female street artists, has sprayed the neon-lit faces of two Asian youths over the top of an exotic woman with wild hair. Her long eyelashes and swirling tresses poke out from behind. The wall is constantly changing, he tells me, with artists from his current gang, RSCLS, happy to paint over one another’s pieces as part of the constant evolution.
We head around the building to where he and another guy have just finished a new piece. It’s a sea of skulls and spray cans in blood red and lurid purple, with a giant aqua skull peering through. A hand with a discreetly raised middle finger hovers over its nasal cavity and Zero’s trademark, an upside-down gold crown, hovers above. It’s an impressive piece, even if a sign about motorbike parking cuts through the middle.
In Singapore’s thick heat, we wander across the road to a spray paint shop called the Black Book. Beneath the relief of leafy trees, it doubles as a graffiti hangout zone. Artists splash the brick building and enveloping car park walls with loud colours, cartoon faces and huge lightening-bolt lettering. Some pieces are unfinished, something Zero finds frustrating, but it shows the life in the scene. He points out a mural inspired by Malay batik – it’s like a rainbow in a dream.
Zero gives me directions to one of his works nearby, a melancholy head partially submerged in purple waves, tucked down an otherwise whitewashed service laneway in the shadow of the domed Sultan Mosque. From there, he tips exploring the independent boutique strip of Haji Lane. It’s nothing like what I’ve come to expect from Singapore. Micro bars, cafes and shops shoulder one another. A fresh juice joint leads to an eclectic gift shop selling glass jewellery filled with dried flowers, and the urban fashion sees me linger longer than I should. There are quirky shop names, like the Drunken Balloon, Going Om and Juice Clinic, and bunting overhead. Between it all, I stumble across a massive scene of Aztec-meets-anime warriors smothering every surface of a bar called Piedra Negra.
Nearby, the Singapura Club reflects its purpose as a people-watching spot with giant portraits of characterful elders gazing outwards. I follow an alley and find a strip of sunset-hued, fabric-inspired patterns by Singapore-born Sheryo and her Australian partner, Yok. Away from the action, beside Sultan Gate, I spot a storytelling mural revealing how coffee brewing is changing from traditional Malaysian kopi and teh tarik (pulled tea) to modern espresso. Perhaps ironically, the neighbouring roastery has closed down.
The heavy weather is building to an imminent storm, so before it buckets down I take Zero’s advice and leg it to Singapore’s street art hotbed, Little India. Ho-hum streets between the neighbourhoods give way to masses of gritty street-side cafes, fabric shops gilded with gold thread and an astonishing number of shops selling suitcases. I duck in to a produce market on Hindoo Road and spot one of Zero’s recent works, a giant mural of a Tamil movie star, in the distance. It’s the biggest he’s ever done, created after nutting out an agreement with a building owner. It didn’t go entirely well, with the proprietor turned off by the blokey-cool image of a moustachioed, dark shades-sporting celeb. Zero stated his case, and the work stayed. “I painted it for the South Indian migrant workers who live in the area, who built Singapore,” he tells me. “They’re the cleaners, and this is my homage to them.” Across the road is more of his work – a park filled with giant painted elephants. As I walk through the herd, rain starts to pelt. Everything stops as people corral under awnings and covered walkways. But it’s still warm and, although I get some puzzled looks, I soldier on, pausing to gaze at huge traditional Indian dancers with painted nails near the flower stalls of Upper Dickson Road. As it gets torrential, I find refuge under the roof edge of the Little India MRT station on Kerbau Road. It’s a lucky score: I spot a zany bovine mural playfully interpreting the district’s heritage as a cattle trading post and the Hindu reverence for cows. Many of the walls I see have been painted in the past 12 months, a result of the ArtWalk Little India festival. Each January since 2015, local and international artists have been invited to spray new walls, and tracking down their works might just be the best way to tour the area’s vibrant streets.
As the clouds clear and the sun fades, I scoot to what feels like Singapore’s coolest neighbourhood, Chinatown. Red lanterns are strung across eat streets and hawker centres lure with the smells of wok-fried noodles and sizzling pork, but I’m on a mission to get to Keong Saik Road. Again, Singapore surprises – there’s personality and verve here. Once a red-light district, the gentrified precinct retains plenty of sass and a high concentration of slick eateries worth queuing for (and people do). The Australian-helmed Burnt Ends is reason alone to visit, as is number 27 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 list, Tippling Club. But I’ve got street art to find. Deposited down alleys and lanes, it reveals itself slowly. A pyramid of poppy bulbs edges a black slinky winding along a white wall on Neil Road. Abstract shapes in pastel hues curtain both sides of a nameless shophouse lane. The insides of hawker hub Amoy Street Food Centre – where I refuel with smoky char kway teow – harbour a Chinese dragon, traditional food cart and laughing Chinese woman. Next time I’ll combine the hunt with a cocktail crawl, starting at Butcher Boy, where they serve boozy Thai milk tea in a plastic takeaway pouch with a straw, and finishing with a late-night pork taco and margarita at window bar, Kilo Merienda, which only opens at 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
To thoroughly get in to the street art groove, I’ve booked myself in to a new art hotel called Hotel Indigo Katong, which takes its design cues from the surrounding neighbourhoods’ heritage. Inside, it’s a sensory joyride of ornately patterned bathroom tiles, Perspex lions, designer furniture, statement lighting and street-scene murals on bedroom walls. Rae Tang, who works there, says the style is pure Peranakan. This eclectic culture was birthed by Chinese traders who first arrived in the fifteenth century and married Malay women, resulting in a mish-mash of Malay colour and elite Chinese refinement, further enhanced with Portuguese, Dutch and Indonesian influences. The people decorated the outside world as artistically as they did the insides of their houses. “They would put patterned tiles outside, on floors and buildings, to show their wealth,” says Tang. Strolling along sun-baked Koon Seng Road in Joo Chiat, rows of terraced Chinese shophouses are so colourful they’re arguably living urban art. A hot pink and baby blue frontage feeds into its neighbour’s pastel green and arctic white facade. There’s lace-like wooden edging, wreath plasterwork and floral ceramic tiles. It’s like being in an architectural lolly shop.
Contemporary street art is thin on the ground here, although a fun piece called Jousting Painters by lauded Lithuanian street artist Ernest Zacharevic looms large on the corner of Joo Chiat Terrace and Everitt Road. It shows two lifelike boys riding horses drawn in doodle form. In a sign there’s more to come, local mural artists the Ink&Clog have recently opened their first urban art store, Utama Co, selling spray paint nearby. Wiping my sweaty brow, I head inside to steam up some more with a $5 nonya laksa at the cafeteria-feel 328 Katong Laksa. It’s famous locally for delivering the goods in this foodie heartland. It’s also known for being a Gordon Ramsay favourite, although seeing his mug on the wall isn’t nearly as surprising as discovering the urban galleries of street art Singapore keeps on the quiet.
Air Asia flies to Singapore’s Changi Airport from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast, Perth and Darwin via Kuala Lumpur.
Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong, located in the heritage neighbourhood of Joo Chiat, cleverly blends character related to its location – Chinese fabrics, silk lanterns, lacquered furniture, patterned tiles, murals of Katong street scenes – with contemporary style and loads of colour. Its built on the site of the former police station, which has been used to house the hotel’s Baba Chews Bar & Eatery. A rooftop infinity pool is perfect for cooling down after checking out the local scene. From about US$150 a night.
There’s no definitive guide to Singapore street art, but local blogger Jaclynn Seah of the Occasional Traveller has created a bunch of excellent street art guides and explanations, divided into neighbourhoods. ArtWalk Little India and Aliwal Urban Art Festival take place in January – check the websites for dates.