Nurturing street art in Cambodia

A facet of street art lies in its temporality – a new piece springs up without us realising yet we’ll never know whether if it’ll be there the next day. As with the scene in any Asian country, graffiti and murals suffer from the unpredictability of their existence regardless of how they turn out or the number of ‘likes’ on Instagram. In countries such as Cambodia where street art as a culture is emerging, it unfortunately does take more time and effort to ease the community (authorities and citizens alike) into seeing intervention on their public space.

It was just last year in 2015 when Phnom Penh developed a possible civil consciousness against the authorities who ordered for a large mural to be white-washed. (Read: Street Artist El Mac’s blogpost on the tragic recount of his mural being painted over.) But it seemed to have sparked something more than grievance for the lost of a beautiful portrait. NGOs and people alike demanded apology from the municipal- are as important as the work of art itself. On hindsight, this saga made the image a spawning legacy and a sign that the local street artists need to do a lot more in order to gain acceptance. 

Potrait of local Cambodian seamstress and resident of the building. Photo by Paco Raterta, taken from El Mac's blog
‘Threat of Life’ – Portrait of local Cambodian seamstress and resident of the building by street artist El Mac. Photo by Paco Raterta, taken from El Mac’s blog.

We know that tension between authorities and public art artists is not uncommon around the world. But what’s interesting about relatively short history of street art in Phnom Penh is the absence of ‘organic’ or ‘grassroot’ activation or initiation to the movement. Instead, it is the ‘expatriate’ street artists living in the kingdom who have had a big role in the cultivating street art in Phnom Penh. Some would attribute the beginnings to pioneers such as Lisa Mam aka ‘Lil Dots’ (Cambodian) and Peap Tarr (Cambodian-New Zealander) who brought home his international experience of making street art. Subsequently next big wave was the initiation of the Cambodian Urban Art Festival, conceptualised by two French artists, Chifumi (@chifumi_gram) and Theo Vallier.

Cambodian Urban Art, 2016. Taken from Cambodian Urban Art.
Cambodian Urban Art, 2016. Taken from Cambodian Urban Art.

The Stickerbomb team went down to Phnom Penh and caught hold of Chifumi when he was working on a canvas piece for his next solo show in opening in January. More so really, we got to hear how just a handful of them are creating and harvesting the grounds in the kingdom for the local youth to develop their own street art culture.

Don’t get us wrong! We are in no way suggesting of a bunch of non-locals who ‘invaded’ and are imposing their culture on a foreign country. As a street artist coming from an entirely different background, Chifumi is conscious that isn’t just a mere imposition of what they think street art is or should be, but an entire process of immersing himself within the community. Acculturation took place first for Chifumi before he started his intervention on the streets of a city he calls home now. He spent time understanding the local culture and visual language before he gained confidence to start making works. 

Check out the clip below as Chifumi shares about the difference between working on a canvas piece and on the streets of Cambodia.

Read on to see what Chifumi has to say on the scene in Cambodia and his determination behind influencing the local youths with his art. #respect.

How is like being living and painting in Cambodia?

It’s really great and the weather is good to make ‘stuff’ (new works) on the streets everyday. But at the same time, the political part makes it not that easy. From El Mac’s incident (white-washed mural of local seamstress) the government and the municipality do not approve of this culture so, we can still do some stuff but sometimes you have to be quiet and not do it big otherwise they will clamp down on the culture.

Do you get people being beaten up on the streets then?

Uhhhh.. There are about only 5-6 street artists in Phnom Penh so there is actually not that much stuff being made. It’s not like in Paris where you wake up every morning and go “uhh yeah that’s a new piece, there! There!”, with lots of emulation. But PP is like super quiet.

Do you remember any cultural shocks when you first got here?

Culture shock… I was actually travelling from the Thailand by bicycle and when I reached Cambodia for the first time, the culture shock hit my stomach. I ate something bad on the street… (laughs)… and I stayed blocked for 5 – 6 days. But thereafter, I discovered the temples, the background, this culture of Cambodia. The people are almost always smiling like they are super relaxed. You can do whatever you want on the streets, that’s super relax. It’s amazing, quite different from Vietnam and Thailand. I guess you can say the other culture shock came from experiencing the happiness of the people.

You are an artist who has had a fair share of painting on the streets in both Asia and Europe. Do you feel a difference between painting in Europe and in Asia?

It took me like 6-7 months just to understand where I am when i first arrived in Cambodia and the first month I didn’t paint anything. I was just trying to visit temples, talk to people and trying to understand the culture. Then i started to paint…. But I kept quiet about it. I didn’t want to impose anything because I didn’t know the culture and the visual language of the country – what was possible or not, if this had a negative meaning, I won’t know. When I’m travelling I google a lot of stuff about the country and try to understand it first before I can started mixing styles together.

Interior of Cloud, Ville De Phnom Penh, Phnum Penh, Cambodia. Photo taken by Chifumi.


How was the recent experience in Kathmandu, Nepal for the PRASAD festival?

Well, it was my second time painting in Kathmandu, so it wasn’t  foreign to me. People are really nice. They really enjoyed the painting. They’ll all stop and ask questions, ask  if they can help you and try to encourage you. It gives me a lot of motivation to finish your work, which is totally different from Cambodia!

Were there a lot of local Nepali street artists?  Anyone look out for?

As with the same situation in Cambodia,there was probably nobody making street art just a few years ago. Now, the culture is expanding, emerging, lots of kids are doing stuff and they are actually really good. H11835 – Strange name but he uses spray cans only for the cars.

Has there been any interesting encounters with a person(s) who has seen your murals? A passerby, residence of the place etc.?

I was painting at a train station in Phnom Penh, the police came and they wanted to put me in jail! I was like “f*** man!”. Finally, it took me 4 hours just to explain that i was doing ‘graffiti’ and not demolishing their property. But they just went on talking and talking. Funny thing is that at the end of the day, they said “if you want, you can just paint on the police station, that’s not a problem!” And they left me alone.

Of course i didn’t do it, i just escaped, I was too afraid. I don’t know, it was a strange situation I didn’t understand.

St+art Delhi Festival 2016, New Delhi, India. Photo from Chifumi
St+art Delhi Festival 2016, New Delhi, India. Photo by Chifumi.

If you owned a Stickerbomb book and were allowed to use them anywhere, where would you do it?

If I had shit loads of stickers you mean? I would maybe put them on the house of the First Minister of Cambodia, just to see if shit happens!

Appreciate getting us in trouble, haha! Lastly, could you name a few street artists, illustrators in Cambodia Stickerbomb fans should look out for?

Of course there is Peap Tarr & Lisa Mam, Théo Vallier, Venk. The five of us are just living here, trying to work everyday on street art. There are many young street artists  who juggle between school and their passion, so they do not focus 100% on street art but still have a lot of energy.

Look forward to more of Chifumi’s (@chifumi_gram) work this coming 2017 as he continues his adventures across Southeast Asia!


STICKERBOMB believes in providing artists, illustrators and muralists with a platform for showcasing their work to a global audience. A brainchild of Studio Rarekind, a creative workshop with an established presence in London, Bangkok and Singapore, Stickerbomb curates artwork in its popular sticker book collectable series, raved about by a worldwide following. Today, Stickerbomb stays true to a vision of building a community of emerging artists, by giving fans a daily dosage of contemporary art and street culture.