Art of the urban world

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What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see bold, colourful drawings sprayed illicitly on the walls of railway stations, flyovers and other public places? Is it a rebellious act of vandalism or an artistic underground culture designed by creative geniuses?

Graffiti is gaining popularity, especially among youngsters. The streets are now a place where art thrives, and graffiti has become a symbol of the freedom to express opinions or to display the injustice and inequality in the modern world today, all using a canvas that has no boundaries and can’t be boxed.  

We spent an afternoon with a graffiti artist, and at the same time (under his supervision of course), got to spray the Niexter logo at the National Visual Art Gallery.    

Mahathir Masri, a full-time artist who goes by the moniker They (from the last syllable of his name Thir), is actively involved in Malaysia’s graffiti art scene. This Johorian spent his high-school years honing his graffiti skills. He admitted that during his childhood, the Internet was not as widespread as it is now, so he first came to know about graffiti from magazines, and it appealed to him greatly. Grinning, he revealed that his first drawing was of his name, done 10 metres wide using two dozen cans of spray paint. He was very proud of it since it was a portrayal of confidence. He had done it to get his name out there and to let everyone know his identity.  

Later, They studied mechanical engineering at the Penang Polytechnic but then realised his heart was not in mathematics. He made a courageous decision to switch to the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) to pursue an Art  and Design course. With 10 years of experience under his belt, it is no wonder that this 30-year-old has so much talent when it comes to this field.   

His passion has taken him to great heights, including being commissioned to participate in the painting of a humongous mural on the Malaysian Pavilion’s rooftop at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 — something he was extremely proud of — and attending art exhibitions locally and internationally. Imagine your art being showcased for millions of people in a global event.

No matter how simple it may look, graffiti is definitely no easy feat and requires a lot of practice to master the techniques. Our first try with the spray paint created a mess that looked more like malicious mischief or vandalism, which unfortunately gave They a hard time in touching it up.  

They kindly explained that the main reason for our failure was that our nozzle was placed too close to the wall and too much paint had accumulated in one spot. He told us that the spray would be more spread out and would drip less if we relaxed and moved further away from the wall. “There are numerous things that can affect the outcome, such as the distance from the wall, the size of the nozzle and the weather too,” said They. For example, in our country, the pressure of the spray cans can be increased, making the paint drip easier. The cans have to be dipped into ice to lower their pressure (think physics and pressure).  

“Graffiti on a large scale is much easier compared with graffiti on a small scale,” stated They. To put it simply, it’s easier to draw on a piece of A3-sized paper using a marker than to do so on a tiny piece of paper. A piece of artwork can last for years, but They chirped that other artists usually spray something over it after a short period of time.

They advises all young art lovers, “Whatever you want to do, just do the right thing. Don’t worry too much, and just do it.”

The experience was certainly an eye-opener for us. After working on the Bahasa Malaysia essays about Kesan-kesan Vandalisme where we explored the cons of street art, it was ingrained in our minds that graffiti is an act done by defiant, selfish teenagers who use private property to insult others. However, we realise now that graffiti is actually a double-edged sword. As long as we do not deface anyone’s premises, graffiti is definitely a form of urban art — a way to express our creativity.  

To learn more about They or view  ohis works, you can visit www.they-aos.com. Visit www.artgallery.gov.my for more details on art classes.

By Eer Kai Song, 17,
Selangor & Crystal Ng Pei Qi
both 17, Kuala Lumpur

From the first rough spray to the final artwork, graffiti requires precision skills.


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