RANGOON — It was only a few weeks ago that graffiti in Burma’s largest city grabbed international attention, when a Rangoon street artist sprayed a portrait of US President Barack Obama on a roadside wall to mark his historic visit last month. At the time, the authorities even posted guards to protect the president’s beaming face from vandalism.
Now, however, this brief moment of fame is over, as the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), a municipal body, has imposed a ban on spray-painting walls in public places of the former capital.
The committee decided to impose the ban because, it said, “those ugly drawings and lettering damage the city’s beauty and annoy residents.” It warned that those who break the rule will be punished under relevant municipal laws.
But the committee didn’t specify in its announcement on Tuesday what kind of punishment lawbreakers will receive, and did not respond to calls from The Irrawaddy requesting further information.
According to Kyee Myint, a member of the Lawyers’ Network, an offender would earn either a three-month prison term or a fine of 10,000 kyat (US $11.50), or both.
Arkar Kyaw, the painter of the Obama portrait, said that even though the order makes him feel restricted, the government’s move on the issue reveals the fact that the underground art culture is thriving in the country.
He added that street artists have to face reality, as there are laws in other countries to protect public places from vandalism.
“YCDC may feel we’ve gone too far, so that’s why they issued the order, I think,” said the 20-year-old artist. “Whether we like it or not, we have to follow it, since we have no power to go against the ban. But it would be better for us if they provided spaces for our art.”
In recent years, Rangoon people have seen a boom in street art across the city, especially on the walls of public places like zoo and hospitals. When the city suffered an acute electricity shortage last summer, young graffiti artists joined the campaign to push the government to provide more electricity by spray-painting an electrical socket trailing a wire and writing “Plug the City” on the walls. In a satirical take on the burning issue of land confiscation in Burma, they also scribbled “How much land does a Man need?” among other messages on the brick wall of Rangoon’s zoo.
Not everyone appreciates their efforts, however. Ba Shein, 62, says he feels uneasy whenever he walks past the zoo’s wall and sees the spray-painted graffiti.
“It’s just an eyesore to me. Do they call it art? For me, it’s just vandalism,” said the retired headmaster. “It’s OK if you do it on your own private property, but in public places, it’s another matter.”
Ye Hein, a street artist, said most of the artists have long been aware that the government would someday move to restrict their activities.
“But it’s ridiculous that a few weeks ago they put Obama’s graffiti under police watch, and now they impose a ban on street art,” he said.
Internationally, graffiti is a form of art and it could be an element of a city if well promoted, said Min Yan Naing, 32, a one-time street artist.
“Providing them [street artists] with spaces for their creativity may be the best solution, I think,” he said.
“If you force them to give up something they love to do, they will surely find a way to do it, because as young people, they tend to be defiant.”