A generation of street artists have risen in the streets of Yangon where graffiti has become a new form of expression, drawing inspiration from underground Burmese hip hop and punk scenes in the city. The walls and streets of the city of six million people provide many canvases, particularly Kaba Aye Pagoda Road with its high traffic and thus, option for high visibility for these artists.
Certain images have become highly symbolic. The artist Aung’s winged television set [above], often accompanied with the words “FOR UR RIGHT” protest media censorship and has spread through the city. That of a washing machine next to initials of well known banks refers to their role in money laundering.
Graffiti of an electrical socket trailing a wire, usually accompanied by the slogan “Plug the city”, became common in Yangon in May, when frustration over chronic power shortages led to nationwide protests.
“We didn’t do it on the people’s behalf, but because we ourselves were affected by the lack of electricity,” says Twotwenty, 27, the pseudonym for a member of the collective Yangon Street Art, known by its plump, multicolored tag “YSA”.
Only 25 percent of Myanmar’s 60-million population has access to the national grid, according to the World Bank.
Like critics of graffiti everywhere, ordinary residents of the already run-down city find it hard to distinguish between street art and vandalism. “Most people don’t know much about this art and the owners of the places where we graffiti are still very sensitive about this,” said Aung.
So far, he says, no street artists have been jailed, although some have been briefly detained and let off with warnings.
Graffiti artists also fought a paint war against an unpopular Yangon mayor. A brigadier general in the army, Aung Thein Linn won a seat for the junta-created Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in a fraudulent 2010 election.
By way of protest, street artists defiantly tagged the wall of his official residence on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road.
“All of us try to draw on this wall,” says Aung. “It’s painted over the next day.”
Aung Thein Linn was replaced as mayor last year by another retired brigadier-general, and the graffiti war on the residence wall continues.
Another coveted target is the Yangon mansion of self-styled billionaire Tay Za, a U.S.-sanctioned business crony of the former junta. But its walls, which hide a fleet of top-end sports cars, remain unsullied.
“A security guard is always watching,” explains Aung.
The 50 or so artists in the city all have an unwritten code of conduct- schools, hospitals, and religious places including pagodas, temples, churches and mosques are kept free of graffiti. As the artist Twotwenty says; “We may be regarded as destroyers, but […] We don’t destroy these places, we destroy places we don’t like, the places that were taken by force.” A reclaiming of public property for the people again, a reclamation of their right to voice their dissent.