Photos: Chee Boon Pin
Art has always been a means for expression, a creative outlet in which the artists makes a point or take a stand. For urban artist Mohammed Zulkarnaen Othman, better known by his artist moniker ZERO, his foray into street art stemmed from a desire to make art accessible. “It’s a basic idea,” he says, “we were young people who enjoyed drawing and painting. We didn’t even consider ourselves ‘artists’. We just wanted to share our art, to put it on the street for people to appreciate it.”
But while he might have always known that art was a calling, he never actually expected to be showing work in museums or galleries because “no one really cares about these kinds of things,” he explains. Describing his experiences in the scene back when he started out in his early 20s, “a lot of the work was ‘non-commissioned’ and done along Arab Street and on Haji Lane, way before what it is now. It was a ‘dead’ place with shops used for storage then. We’d go into abandon places and paint our stuff (murals like the one you see here). We never really thought that it was vandalism because we were still young. Like kids playing football under the void decks and skateboarding in the streets, there is no malice there. The intention isn’t to disrupt anything. It’s an outlet for us to express ourselves.”
The turning point, according to the soft-spoken 35-year old, came when a friend had been approached by the Singapore Arts Museum, “to come in and do stuff in the gallery,” he details. “It was the first and only time they had intervention art during an exhibition. That was also my first time having a critic session with a curator. That was eye opening for me: the idea of adding context and concept into art. I’ve always known that I wanted to say something with my art.”
Since then, the boyish-looking artist has grown from strength to strength. His work has been exhibited both here and abroad and he’s also worked with brands like Converse and adidas. Just last year, the urban artist was the recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award, the first graffiti artist to receive it. While it might have been a proud moment for him, he remains committed to creating work that is engaging as it is eye-catching.
“I see myself as an artist for the community,” he explains. “Whatever work I make, I keep in mind the sentiments of who we are as Singaporeans; what we go through on a daily basis, and the emotions we are experiencing.” In between lecturing part-time at the LaSalle College of the Arts, ZERO works together with with his collective RSCLS, to promote the growth of urban arts and culture in Singapore.
How did your nickname ZERO come about?
I had been skateboarding since I was 15, and I always had an affinity for skate culture and the kind of music I listen to, like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins during the Grunge period. Smashing Pumpkins also had an album titled Zero. One of my favourite skateboarders, Jamie Thomas, also skated with Zero skateboards, which he owned. That was my first love for the number zero and it stuck.
Can you tell us more about your artistic influencers?
I like reading comics and I was inspired by my uncle who drew a lot. He drew a lot and had scrolls of paper with portraits of movie stars like Stallone in the movie Cobra. Then, I started skateboarding as well. I like works with a dark sense of humour. Those were my main inspirations. A lot of the guys who did graffiti art had a background in skateboarding; it was like a natural progression. You could say that I’ve always been connected to the urban environment.
How would you describe your artistic practice?
I would describe it as free. I’m not bound by structure. As an artist, you should be free to do whatever I want to express myself. Sometimes a painting doesn’t work for me, it’s too two-dimensional when I’d like people to walk around it and see different aspects of it, so I’d do a three-dimensional piece. But street art has always been stereotyped lah, it can become a problem when I do something different. Now I can’t label myself a street artist because it’s not done in the subversive nature it should be.
What’s your creative process like?
As someone who does street art, you react to the surroundings, to what’s already there. I try to be as spontaneous as I can. When I’m painting my murals, I might have a sketch, but it’d be spontaneous along the way. If someone behind me was saying something, it gets channelled and becomes part of the art work. That’s why I don’t listen to music when I do anything. I’d rather listen to my surroundings and observe everything else. I don’t have my own personal space to ‘zone out’, that way I can gather information, and ‘react’ to situations. I’m a very reactive person as an artist, but zen as a person.
Do you have a signature feature in your work?
The characters and faces that you see recur in pretty much all my art works. The portraits look morbid, with a lot of lines on their faces.
Where do they come from?
From my mind, I guess. I think human beings are the most interesting subject matter. Every time I paint these characters, it becomes a part of me. I may be painting a face, with structure of eyes and noses. But sometimes, I’d put the mouth as the eyes, and the eyes where the mouth is. I’d make it morbid, not to the extent where it won’t be palatable. I use very bright colours, like pink and purples and luminous shades. It is distraction, to take you away from the darkness of the character and that’s the probably the first thing you’d notice.
But do you worry about your messages being too abstract for your audiences?
The more I feel that I should make work that is ‘dumbed down’, the more we will never be exposed and create a culture of understanding art, or even understanding yourself through art. If you keep creating beautiful things that say, for example, that racial harmony should look like this: colourful and all that, we will never have that point of understanding. I believe that Singaporeans are smart enough to appreciate that.
Is pushing boundaries the way to grow as an artist?
We need to put more sophisticated art work into spaces where people will really see these pieces. Give audiences a chance. So what if they don’t understand it? Eventually, if they see more, they will learn. This is the same way the Europeans got more sophisticated. The art was there, in their faces, and it became part of their lives. They grew into this culture of art and architecture and slowly developed this understanding.
What are some of the themes you explore in your work?
I’ve always been very interested in the aspects of living in an urban environment, consumerism, capitalism and all the –isms and –schisms. Politics as well.
Is there any resonance with your personal life?
When I had my first solo painting exhibition last year, I was going through a personal thing and painted, for the first time, something that was all me. That was a full series of art work that talked about me, my emotions and touched on my personal experiences. I had been going through divorce, and I have a child. It was a profound experience for me. That said, I still painted it brightly, and in a way, that experience was like exorcising my demons. People could actually relate to it, the story, and the emotions. I’ve always believe in creating works that people can relate to. I’m not unique, I’m just doing something different.
How do you hope your work engages with your audiences?
Understand it in your own way. I could put an art piece in the middle of a HDB void deck and have people ask me what I’m doing, and I’d reach out to them and tell them about my narrative. You may see it differently, but I’m not going to force it.
What’s been the most satisfying part of your work?
The fact that people appreciate it. I feel satisfied when I know that I’ve put in a hundred or more per cent into my work, even when I know that the walls with my murals, despite having spent sleepless nights painting them for 12, 13 hours straight, are being painted over. I don’t allow the fact that it’s temporary to compromise the effort and heart.
Tell us more about receiving the National Art’s Council’s Young Artist Award.
It was a very proud moment for me as I was representing graffiti and street art, the fringe of the fringe. You don’t see us in museums or galleries. It’s a way for me to inspire other artists, the younger generation and to show that I came from a background where I painted on the street and I’m able to be where I am. Historically, I’m already a part of art in Singapore, where if you talked about graffiti in Singapore, my name would be there, along with the other leading artists in their fields, the guys like Tang Da Wu and Lee Wen.
What’s your take on street art being misunderstood as vandalism?
What makes it vandalism is totally based on the laws in a country. If they were written differently, street art would be something else. Recognition can be a double-edged sword. After showing in a museum, we’re stuck in a position where we can’t go out and paint on the streets as much as we’d like because we have a persona, now we have a face.
Do you think street art is being commercialised?
The recognition is definitely there, and the amount of galleries showing works by street artists is definitely more. I won’t say it’s totally commercialised because anything in the world is always, at some point, capitalised on. Street art has evolved. You now see different artists coming up with new ways and methods of questioning themselves. Of course, it took the commercial art world to take a while to embrace this. But they did, and if you’d go to Art Basel in Miami, it’s everywhere.
This article first appeared in Vol 3 of Gallery & Studio.