Singapore is in an uproar. The news has broken that SKL0, a local street artist – identified in the press as a 25-year-old woman – has been arrested for vandalism. Public outcry, strongly driven through social media, has been pointing out all night and morning: “See. See, this is why we can’t have artistic things.”
I have been trying, and failing to come up with a coherent response to this. On one hand, I am shocked and saddened by the arrest.
On the other hand, I understand–and sympathise with–why it was done.
(No, really. This is true.)
SKL0’s work has been known to Singaporeans for many months. Stickers with tongue-in-cheek quips such as “PRESS ONCE CAN ALREADY” “PRESS TO TIME TRAVEL” and many others have been showing up above press-to-walk buttons at pedestrian crossings. I’m pretty sure the authorities, LTA et al knew of it – shame on them, if they didn’t, aren’t you supposed to be monitoring our traffic fixtures? – but chose not to do anything about it.
What crossed the line, apparently, was her spray-painting of roads with the cheeky slogan “My grandfather road”. LTA lodged a police complaint, the police did Their Thing, and very soon the news agencies had an arrest to report to a dismayed public.
Let me categorically state that I support SKL0 and her artistic expression. I’ve come across the pedestrian crossings with her stickers on and they brought a smile to my face and brightened my day. I wish she could have gone on creating her funny, delightful, subtly subversive street art without interruption.
But I can understand why LTA did what they did. Roads are roads. Unlike buildings and sidewalks and even traffic light fixtures which can be repurposed for many things – including art, “legal” or not – our modern roads are made to be single-purpose. Cars go on them. Bicycles go on them. People cross them. There’s really very little you can do on a road that doesn’t involve getting from point A to point B.
More than anything, the markings on roads convey crucial information. And I can understand why LTA wants to keep this – the marking of roads- in the preserve of authorized bodies. Roads are not, and should not be a canvas for artists.
You can argue that in this case, there was very little harm done. Nobody was going to die in an accident because of a little sign on the side of the road saying “My Grandfather Road”. No-one was going to be confused and think it’s a stop sign, or that it was something other than street art.
But LTA, in the end, is a governing body, and like it or not, a governing body has to play by the rules. I can understand why they didn’t want to set a precedent on this. It cannot boil down to them deciding what is “artistic” and therefore allowable– this too will set a bad precedent. They do not, and should not have the power to judge what is “art” and what is “vandalism”.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not condemning SKL0 for what she did. I respect her for her courage and her willingness to defy the status quo. I’d like to think that she knew the risks of what she was doing, and took them anyway, in the name of her art. Even in her arrest, she has given us lots to talk about, and think about. Censorship. Control. Freedom of expression. Isn’t that the mark of a good artist?
Should she have been arrested? Hmm. If I were the LTA and/or the police, I would have let her off with a warning. I would have sent a statement to the press saying “Don’t paint things on the roads”. I might even have held a press conference about it. After all, making a fuss is what I’d be obliged to do.
But I am not LTA, nor am I the police.
In the end, I am proud Singapore has someone like SKL0. And I hope that the discussion and widespread public support around this will still spur and inspire even more paradigm-breaking artists.