The title of this mural is ‘Coffee Story’, but rather than writing about the details of the various coffee aroma, history and art of coffee brewing (best left to the baritas), I’ll share a little story of the joy and challenges of making this “cup of coffee”, the largest cup I’ve ever made!
After the Sunday Times reported my two Everton Road murals in September, I received several enquiries and requests to paint murals on residential and business premises. For this one, I received the request through a Facebook message to paint a mural for a Café, (A.R.C. – Academy, Roastery, Café) then under construction at 29/31 Sultan Gate, Kampong Glam conservation area. I got excited because the area is well known for its cluster of street arts, including those by Ernest Zacharevic, the famous Lithuanian mural artist who painted those iconic murals in Penang. Precisely, it is his murals at Victoria Street which inspired me to start my own mural adventure. Moreover, as this was the first formal request to paint for a business premise, I thought it would really be interesting.
On my first site visit in late September, I was very surprised to see a 3-storey high gable wall because I had only imagined it to be a small shopfront wall along the the five-foot way of a standard shophouse. My first concern was the logistics and risks involved in painting at a height without any experience. But such a rare opportunity also got me really excited to want to attempt it.
I was quietly proud to hear from the A.R.C. team that they had at first approached Ernest Zacharevic to paint the mural. However, because they did not manage to contact Ernest directly, perhaps he was busy, the house owner suggested to them to contact the local muralist who was recently reported in the Sunday Times for painting the Everton Road heritage murals (yours truly:-)). They told me the house owner even gave them the newspaper cutting.
Working with the A.R.C. team
Thereon, we worked through several versions of the concept, from an unrealistically ambitious first design to the final much more relevant and logistically humbled version. I must admit that, in the beginning, I was overly enthusiastic in emphasising my signature heritage theme, with lesser weight for the business, so I was really glad that the A.R.C. team guided me along to strengthen my imagination of their business concept and operation. It was hard for me to imagine it when the Café was under construction, but A.R.C.’s General Manager, who is Singapore’s 2008, 2009 and 2015’s Barista Champion and his youthful team, patiently described the details and showed me pictures of how their operation should look like. It was a joy to learn some trendy things that happen behind the Barista’s counter, from bean sourcing, roasting, to the art of brewing and serving. While I only had a vague childhood memory of how coffee beans were roasted in an oil drum coated in black soot at the backlane of a Chinatown kopitiam, I now learnt how coffee beans are roasted in a modern roastery. Vice versa, I advised them about balancing the aesthetic, interaction and how to better evoke emotions in the public’s heart. I feel young again working with such a youthful, energetic and entrepreneurial team!
In Singapore, doing street arts on private or public properties require owner and/or authorities’ permissions, otherwise one could land up in jail. The approval of the concept from the URA authority was the easy one as the concept was straight forward without any potential danger to property and lives, or subversive messages, and also follow conservation guidelines. The key challenge was my inexperience with painting on high walls. After researching how other muralists do it, I soon realised it is very troublesome logistically and very costly! To rent a boom lift or scissor lift with an operator, plus obtain the Land Transport Authority’s road use approval and other insurance costs required, would cost an economical bomb disproportionate to my commission. Nevertheless, I attended a one-day scissor lift operator certification course anyway so that I may self-operate it, and I thought it would be fun to have the experience and expertise for the future too.
Due to these troublesome logistics and high costs, we almost wanted to give up the concept and keep the whole mural to just the ground level. However, we were all determined that there must be other ways to do it more smartly, yet retain most of the elements of the concept required to give it the oomp. In the end, we collectively decided to downsize the mural to a height that doesn’t need these troublesome scissor lift and road closure logistics. Similar to my “barber” and “provision shop” murals, a sturdy ladder could easily paint a mural height of about 3.5 metres very safely. A paint brush strapped to a long bamboo stick with rubber bands, plus my steady hands, would do the trick for the milk line pouring from the second storey milk pitcher. The barista pouring the milk from the second storey window could be painted from inside the window with a stencil. The plan sounded “bingo” but along the way, we continued to face challenges such as the exposed drain between the wall and road made it too far to paint even using a ladder. A ledge on the second storey window parapet blocked a part of the window. As a resourceful team, we brainstormed ideas to overcome these challenges one by one, with safety first foremost in our minds and sheer hard work (including running up to the second storey to paint and running down to view the outcome, countlesss times). Neighbours also kindly contributed by lending us suitable ladders, concrete drain covers and safety cones. Many passers-by gave moral support through compliments, drinks and food (on top of the A.R.C on-the-house!). I was stuffed up! An uncle who worked at a nearby shop even offered to be my model for the kopitiam man, but unintentionally, it turned out he looked more like the teh tarik man!
Lastly, I painted this mural single-handedly exactly within 7 days during the monsoon season. 7 days had to be a hard-stop as I had to leave Singapore for a backpacking trip with my daughter. The week had two storms that almost flooded the drains and countless showers. Due to rains mostly expected in the afternoons and my need to complete the work in time for my planned vacation, I had to start work at first light everyday (around 7am) and normally ending in the dark. Aside from the rains, it was a joy to paint under a blessingly cloudy sky and cool weather.
During the painting week, I was offered a finance job which I accepted. The recruitment firm even visited me at the mural and I signed my offer letter by the road side! The company kindly allow me to start work in Feb 2016, so that I can complete my father-daughter backpacking trip (overland Hanoi to Shanghai) and other plans in January 2016. The other plans include doing one or two murals, if feasible, at another location. Otherwise, I will make a short film, something which I told my ex-colleagues I had wanted to do during this sabbatical, but which I hadn’t started a stroke. Painting murals to such extent wasn’t in my sabbatical plan, but it was a really nice twist. Although I will return to the corporate world soon, I know I have started a life long journey in the creative arts as a hobby. Due to my time constraint, I will do it more selectively and collaboratively (I still dream to paint the life-sized Cantonese Opera Stage mural one day).
I will remember these few adventurous months for life. Thank you!