Seven years ago Boeung Kak Lake was a thriving community – a Mecca for the backpackers who filled its hostels and bars, where fisherman rowed their boats and cast their nets, and the sun set every night over the water.
Today, the water has disappeared, replaced with sand to make way for a development project, and residents have been evicted. The streets have all but emptied out. But an artistic movement has revived what’s left of Lakeside.
On Street 93, works of art can be found around every corner. In quiet streets and deserted alleys, bright murals reside on walls, and fresh paint covers the crumbling cement.
Though the area now has a haunted feel, there are individuals making sure that the artistic heart of the city lives on. Marj Arnaud and Ludivine Labille are part of Develop Boeung Kak, also known as dbk art. The organization was set up in 2014 to help young street artists find spaces where they could paint. dbk art has worked to promote art and culture in Boeung Kak through a range of projects, and the results are stunning, making the lake into a treasure trove of eye-catching and colorful murals.
A boy plays beside a mural at Lakeside
Graffiti by both local and international artists can be found in the area, but the style is distinctly Cambodian. Sharp-toothed dragons scale walls with heads rising like flames. The towers of Angkor Wat stand out in silhouette above Khmer script. Apsara figures dance on walls. You can even find a mural featuring a bowl of noodles and chili sauce, complete with a slice of lime.
This tendency towards traditional iconography can be found in street art throughout Phnom Penh, with certain motifs recurring again and again. The decorative k’bach style is a staple.
K’bach is a term that can be used to describe many forms of Cambodian art, from Apsara dance movements to patterns on stone carvings. It is familiar to most of us from visits to Angkor Wat, and the influence that Angkor has had on interior design, decoration and architecture nationwide. Lotus petals, ficus leaves, spirals and flames repeat in patterns that unfold like a spread fan, while mystical figures such as the dragon-like naga or the hang bird rise out of the fray.
Koy, a young Cambodian street artist whose work can be found at Lakeside and Street 19z in Phnom Penh, says that the popularity of the k’bach style is down to its artistic flexibility. “I think many artists really like the k’bach style because it is iconic, striking, and fluid. This allows it to be used in many various forms while still being coherent with the piece.”
A street artist known as Chifumi Krohom, who learned to graffiti in Strasbourg, France, is also a proponent of the k’bach style despite not being Cambodian himself. His art can be found in Herb Café, on Street 51 and Lakeside. He says that he finds inspiration from traditional Khmer architecture because it fits with his new context. “I’ve been living in Cambodia for more than four years and I have been playing with Khmer patterns since I think it is important to make the first step in this process of mixing cultures.”
The Cambodian street art scene was kickstarted five years ago, when pioneer artists Lisa Mam, a native of Cambodia, and her Cambodian-New Zealander husband Peap Tarr, met by chance. Lisa Mam was inspired by the graffiti she saw on family trips to Paris, but she only ventured into street painting herself when she met Peap Tarr. Today Lisa Mam is one of Cambodia’s most successful street artists, and has been making waves in the city. Her intricately curlicued patterns adopt the decorative k’bach style, but she brings a uniquely modern twist to the pieces by adding female figures and animals into the fray to bring the murals alive. Her work can be found in Starbucks BKK1 and Lakeside.
Lisa Mam says the ancient capital of Angkor is an influence on the couple’s work. “We just wanted to paint together, and take our Khmer heritage and visually translate the ancient into the modern. We have always wanted to promote our culture through art because we feel that one of the best ways to communicate with the general public is visually.”
One reason for steeping street art in Cambodian heritage may be to make sure it stays up on the walls. The style appeals to the public, who prefer a traditional look, and is more likely to get the authorities’ approval. Any experienced street artist in Cambodia will know that there’s a history of street art going up one day and being painted over the next. Chifumi says that’s because the authorities don’t like people painting without permission, and the punishment is having your work whitewashed. “I’ve seen almost all the illegal painting deleted after few days or sometimes just a few hours.” But according to international artist Lisa Mam, this is not just a problem in Phnom Penh. “It’s no different to painting anywhere else in the world.”
One famous case of deletion happened back in December 2015. Miles ‘El Mac’ MacGregor, a world renowned street artist, came to Phnom Penh to work in the iconic White Building on Samdach Sothearos Boulevard. He got to know the people inside, and marked his stay by painting an enormous mural on the north side of the apartment building. It depicted Moeun Thary, a seamstress and resident, holding her needle and gazing defiantly into the distance. She stayed that way for a few days, before the mural was whited over.
There is a difference between street art – the large, sprawling murals seen on the sides of buildings – and graffiti. Graffiti is more about vandalism, with the artist adopting a nickname that they spray onto walls. Most graffiti in Phnom Penh is in English, suggesting that it is mostly visitors making their mark.
Max Gibbons, a graffiti artist and calligrapher from the US, makes this distinction: “I would say that most of the street art in Cambodia is done by locals experimenting with the art form and working with traditional Cambodian elements, like Lisa Mam and Peap Tarr, and graffiti (bombing, tagging, etc.) is done by expats and tourists.”
Bombing is the practice of spraying your tag, often by night, in as many spots as possible. Inevitably, this gives it an illegal aspect that Phnom Penh-based artists have tended to avoid. Instead you can find larger, and often collaborative, murals. The idea is to make sure the art stays up.
Despite the fact that the medium is still relatively new to Cambodians, Phnom Penh has proved itself a street art hub. As well as homegrown artists, well-known international figures have made their mark.
The urge to entrench street art in Cambodian culture led veteran graffiti artists Chifumi and Théo Vallier to team up with the French Institute in Phnom Penh to create the first ever Cambodia Urban Arts Festival. It was first held in 2015 and ran for two years, propelling the work of young Cambodian street artists like Koy into the spotlight. Chifumi and Vallier invited both local and international artists to paint murals across the city, with tuk tuk tours transporting visitors to each site.
The founders had over ten years of experience in urban art, and Chifumi says that meant they couldn’t stand to see Phnom Penh empty of street art. “So we started to reference all the artists who had the same interests as us and we pushed a few Cambodian kids to make their first artworks. The idea of the festival came naturally, it was a perfect solution to make the first official step for street art in all of the Kingdom.”
With programs like dbk art and the Urban arts festival giving the medium exposure, and increased access to the internet ensuring that everyone can see the styles of current street artists as well as scope out the popular spots for painting, it seems like the future is bright for young artists who want to take their work to the streets.
Some bars, wishing to soak up the atmosphere for themselves, have asked graffiti artists to paint their interior walls, taking the style from the streets into business establishments. Many hotels and bars show off walls decorated with graffiti-like designs, so that the public can appreciate the art as they drink a beer or rest in their hotel room.
For Lisa Mam and Peap Tarr in particular, street art sells. The married duo have become so successful that they have been flown from Paris to the Maldives to paint commercial commissions, and their designs can be found on clothing and beer glasses.
While some may decry commercialization as a threat to authentic art, business ventures have provided young artists with the funds they need to work, as well as valuable exposure. Koy says being commissioned has impacted positively on his career. “I think commercialization is very helpful. It has helped me a lot and if the customer is nice, I feel like my work is respected.” According to Lisa Mam, the importance of exposure from commissions can’t be downplayed. “In all honesty, artists need to be seen to live the life of a full-time artist.”
Chifumi agrees, and adds that commissions are a good way to make sure your art isn’t taken down. “Phnom Penh gets harder and harder in terms of urban art. Some places are safe for painting around the city. But mostly the safer places are businesses like bars or shops who will commission artists. Mainly these artworks, even if they are sometimes oriented in a commercial way, will stay.”
It is obvious that the street art scene in Phnom Penh is well-established and has adopted its own signature style. So how can a budding artist join in?
Max offers some tips on gathering the necessary materials. “There are a few vendors in the city who sell quality paint from European companies who have specialty brand spray paint for graffiti art. These cans come with different pressures, lots of colors, and better caps that allow for artists to have more control over the size of the lines.
“Artists will always find a way to make their art though, and any local hardware store has the basic materials: spray paint, bucket paint, rollers, brushes, tape, rope, etc. Graffiti is about making a mark, so any tool that makes a mark can be used for graffiti.”
Max has some sage advice for amateur artists hoping to make it big. “Overall, the most important thing to do is just get out there and practice, learn the history, and try to improve on the past.”
Lisa Mam agrees that street artists are trying to build a legacy. “We are moving forward and want to show the world that we are heading into a brighter future – one where we are up-to-date and moving at the same speed as the rest of the world.
“I would have to say though, I feel it is important that South East Asian street artists hold onto their identity through their art and message, so that we stand out from the rest of the globe.”
A bicycle passes street art on Street 308
BY: OLIVIA DEHNAVI