The first stroke of paint
A year ago, I made my first stroke of paint on a perimeter wall of an old house at Everton Road. It was a blessed stroke which opened up a whole new world of experiences and a full year of happiness.
It actually started over two years ago when I chanced upon a little mural painted by Ernest Zacharevic at Victoria Street. It inspired me to try mural painting. I even toyed the idea with a long time friend, Yuen Kum Cheong, but we were so busy with our full time jobs that nothing got started, until I quit my job in June 2015. (Subsequently, in April 2016, Kum Cheong and I painted 6 Heritage Murals at 51 Waterloo Street)
I vowed to try different things during the break because I am getting old! Mural painting was just one of them, amongst film-making, travelling, starting a blog, meditation etc.
With time and passion, I picked up the courage to make a cold call to the property agent who had advertised to rent out that Everton unit. It paid off! Without a portfolio, I was lucky to have managed to persuade the house owner (Professor Victor Choa) to let me paint on his house walls. I promised to whitewash it if he was not happy with the outcome. Subsequently, I learnt that Prof Choa was the great grandson of Mr Choa Kim Keat, after whom Kim Keat Road of Balestier area was named.
After the first two murals at Everton Road got a little exposure on social media and mainstream media, I received many congratulatory notes, requests and enquiries. The first commissioned work of my life was the “Kampung” mural at Tanah Merah, on a wall of a private bungalow owned by Mr Tan Dibjin. When I first met him to survey the wall, I wasn’t even aware he is an artist himself, a fervent art supporter and philanthropist, and also the grandson of philanthropist Mr Tan Kah Kee, after whom Tan Kah Kee MRT Station was named.
Working on weekdays, painting on weekends and squeezing in time for family
I painted two more murals – “Provision Shop” at Everton Road, and “Coffee Story” at A.R.C. Café at Kampong Glam area – while continuing to attend job interviews, ready to return to the corporate world. In late December 2015, I signed the employment letter to work for a UK based company to lead a finance shared-services department, at the roadside while painting “Coffee Story”! During the job interview, my manager told me that he had checked out my blog website and appreciated what I was doing. That assured me of the work life balance support I would receive from the company.
Indeed, I felt appreciated and recognised for the work I was passionately doing. I was motivated to continue to do more, improve on quality and aim for the next level. I was determined to continue to paint, build up my portfolio and evolve my style even after I returned to the corporate world. I knew it would be very hard work since I only had weekends to paint. Projects would also be prolonged. With that in mind, I cautiously accepted some assignments for the year ahead. The 51 Waterloo Street project was rather complex, so I invited my friend Kum Cheong to join me. Another friend, Trisha Sng, also volunteered to help me which sped up the painting. I was glad she told me she enjoyed the experience. Even with help and collaborations, at times, I felt a little tired due to the heat, humidity and long hours of standing and squatting. However, I totally enjoyed the process of transforming a blank wall into one which breathes life and connects with people. Knowing I was missing my family during weekends, I made an effort to dine with them after the paintings whenever I felt the project was not too rushed. During the June school holidays, I took some weekend offs to go hiking in Malaysia with my daughter.
Appreciation by the public opened up a whole new world
The journey was filled with interesting encounters, some of which I had never expected. I was particularly impressed by how the public came up with all sorts of unimaginably innovative poses at the murals when I saw them on Instagram and Facebook. Some of them even dressed up and brought props to pose with the murals! I was even more impressed when a blogger wrote that she cried upon seeing the mural “Home” in Tiong Bahru. I also got opportunities to meet and befriend many interesting people and organisations. They helped open up my view of the world and give me balanced insights on the arts and heritage scene in Singapore – its politics, values, history, business, family and people. I take this opportunity to thank everyone for your appreciation of my works.
I had the honourable opportunities to know a few great people who had done meaningful work for Singapore and I learnt much from them. We even exchanged ideas on how to make Singapore a better place. I had been approached by businesses who wanted to make merchandise from print of the murals, or sponsor me materials and other peripherals. Media and educational organisations approached me for content and social study research interviews. Non-profit organisations, charities and government-related agencies have also approached me to collaborate on charitable, educational or ambassadorial projects or events. One of the most meaningful and touching event I have ever participated in was to guide a “YC’s mural walkabout” for a group of families with their special needs children. It was heartwarming to see the courage and relentless care of the parents and caregivers, and the joy that radiated from their special kids.
Perception of “Art is free of charge” and bureaucracies
I wish I had time to do all of the above things but I have to be very cautious of over-commitment at the expense of my family time and personal health. I also need space for my other work and passions. Whenever I received a request or self-initiate to paint murals, I always tell the property owner, regardless of people or organisations, private or public, that I charge a fee. Although I am not making a living out of art, I hold a responsibility to the Singapore creative scene, especially to all my fellow artists, to uphold the value of art and craft in Singapore. Art has often been taken for granted with an incorrect perception by the public and even government agencies that by giving artist a canvas or a space, they are already giving them opportunities and exposure. Intrinsic value aside, the fact is that artists need to make a living too. I made sure not to become an unsustainable charity! However, I also expressed that I am willing to consider working pro bono only for genuine charities involving supervision of residents or volunteers carrying out their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) works. In a way, I contribute to the community by sharing my experience with the younger generations.
As glamorous as it looks, only a small fraction of the explorations to collaborate will normally materialise into real work. Sometimes, I spend late nights drawing up proposals for projects that did not work out. For one exploration, I was almost taken advantage of by a large corporation who first requested for me to provide sketch proposals and quotations, and then they thought that my fee was higher than if they bring in overseas painters to copy my proposed sketches on their walls. It was a good lesson learnt.
Regardless of the probability of materialising a project, by meeting and socialising with people from all walks of life, I learnt many important legal, financial and social aspects of the creative world. In general, I learnt that appreciation of such street art has risen in Singapore. However, few people know how to or even want to pay for them, unlike in Western countries. Majority of government-related agencies and grassroots are good at initiating structured, top-down programmes without truly appreciating the intrinsic values of the creatives. It is quite obvious that some of them have other community service agendas and initiate these “art” programmes only as means to the ends. Due to their top-down mindset and approaches, they were also often at a loss with regard to ground-up initiatives. On three occassions, I noted various government-related agencies pointing to one another and not knowing how to get together to review and support propagation of ground-up initiatives.
Not giving up on Chinatown and dreaming bigger
Back to myself, I’ve already expressed openly that I have two dreams to achieve before I want to slow down on painting street art and move on to try other media. I wish to create a heritage mural series in Chinatown, and one or two murals related to South Asian countries in Little India to let our foreign workers feel at home. I dream to paint in Chinatown because I was born and lived there for my first 26 years. I have strong emotional attachments to Chinatown, however the Chinatown in my heart no longer exists. Walking down its streets today, I no longer feel any strong emotional attachment to either the people or the streetscape which had changed so much. Sago Lane, the street where I grew up in, is now a carpark! The familiar sights, smells and atmosphere had all disappeared. I wish to bring back some of the everyday ubiquitous and memorable scenes. An initial toying of an idea to the Singapore Tourism Board, the Town Council and its Advisor returned a decline with a somewhat good reason concerning site technical limitation. It was the clinical response that was disappointing, but I have not given up. I will try other routes to achieve an even bigger dream. As for Little India, I’ll just keep it as a dream until the Chinatown dream is fulfilled.
Learning to be a better artist
And finally back to the painting. I’ve learnt to paint more efficiently and with bolder brushstrokes. I think I am improving on the layerings, colours and the figures. I knew my weakness was the over tidiness and my figures looked like the Har Paw Villa statutes. I’ve also started to use more brilliant acrylic paints over the emulsion paints. I may go back to some of my earlier murals to touch them up with brilliant acrylic paints. However, what has not evolved is my style of theme and composition. I’m not in a hurry to change that but if you follow my paintings, I hope you will notice and appreciate the changes over time. I’m still learning how to be a better artist through trial and error and lots of practice. When I have more time, I will properly study Art. I will improve in my art, in being an artist and in my thinking. If I continue to work hard and work smart, one day, I will be a great artist!