Graffiti artists thrive in reform-era Myanmar

Sun Aug 26, 2012 5:39pm EDT
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(Note: strong language in paragraph 16)

By Andrew R.C. Marshall

YANGON (Reuters) - A television set with wings hovers on a wall in a murky Yangon sidestreet.

"This was my first one," says Aung, 33, pointing proudly to an image he spray-painted last year to protest media censorship and now duplicated across Myanmar's commercial capital. "Media freedom is a big issue for me."

Aung, who requested that his full name be withheld, belongs to a new generation of Yangon street artists whose often politically charged graffiti was almost unthinkable before Myanmar's recent burst of reforms.

For decades Myanmar was a dictatorship where pervasive surveillance by military spies meant even "tagging", the quickly drawn signature found in graffiti worldwide, was too risky. That began to change when a semi-civilian government took power in March 2011.

It has freed political dissidents, legalized trade unions and improved relations with the West, and the once-ubiquitous government spies have all but vanished. Emboldened, street artists are hitting Yangon to comment on everything from power shortages to money-laundering.

Their number has doubled to about 50 in the past year, says Aung, a painter and freelance graphic designer who has documented the rise of street artists.

Drawing inspiration from Yangon's nascent hip-hop and punk scenes, or from cult British artists such as Banksy, they find each other through Facebook or after dark out on the streets with paint cans in hand.   Continued...

Street artists spray-paint graffiti on a wall under a bridge beside a railway line in Yangon August 25, 2012. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun