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Canggu is My Canvas

Just a few years ago, Canggu in Bali was a tiny village surrounded by paddy fields. These days, its rapid development as a surfing spot seems to throw up a new grey wall every day. But while the break-neck speed of building brings growing pains, it's created perfect conditions for one group: graffiti artists. And here the street art scene has the chance to shape a neighbourhood's aesthetic like nowhere else.

WORDS - Breena Kerr

Graffiti is a conundrum. It’s often criminalised with anti-vandalism laws. But neglect comes in all forms, not just the broken windows, abandoned buildings and needles-on-the-street variety. In many cases, cities and towns feel neglected simply because they’re functional, grey, and no one has had the luxury of time or money to create something of beauty.

Canggu, Bali sits on the coast, northeast of the island’s busiest tourist spots, Kuta and Seminyak. Over the last few years, surfers, weary of the thumping nightclubs and throngs of tourists, migrated an hour’s walk up the beach and found Canggu, then just a tiny village surrounded by rice fields, with poorly-paved roads and a single beach shack serving food.

The Australians, Kiwis, Germans, Americans, and countless others brought their surfboards and their money and began makings homes in the village. Then they started looking for things they’d had at home: green smoothies to drink after the morning surf, poke bowls like the ones they’d sampled in Hawaii, surf shops, yoga studios, all-night burger stands. One by one, these all popped up in Canggu, and the town became a kind of Balinese Wild West, bursting at the seams with hope, energy, construction and lust.

Dragon graffiti Canggu Bali
Photo: Jared Hersch (licence). Photo at top: iStock.

Girls in cut-offs and boys in boardshorts cruise on scooters that have been rigged to carry surfboards. Hippies laze on cafe-side couches and sip coconut lattes while they run online graphic design businesses, edit films or design bathing suit lines. Trucks laden with construction materials roar by, spouting exhaust towards tourists walking along the road’s edge, inches away from passing cars. Balinese women in tightly-wrapped ankle-length skirts carry platters of offerings and sticks of burning incense to the family temple. Workers in tattered clothing wheelbarrow concrete around rising structures, bandanas tied across their mouths. The constant activity kicks up dust, tempered only by the thunderous afternoon rainstorms.

When a town creates itself in less than a decade, there are downsides. Indonesian law, or perhaps its enforcement, is lax when it comes to building codes, safety regulations, littering – at least compared to what I’m used to in California, where I recently watched an ice cream shop down the street take a year for minor renovations.

During my stay, I rarely looked up while walking around town; pavements were either non-existent or punctuated by missing slats, opening up to a drainage ditch below without any kind of barrier. I watched a three-story hotel with round-the-clock workers go from exposed wires and missing front walls, to nearly done by the end of my stay. I witnessed an entire outdoor dining area being tiled a foot away from me as I sat eating a pizza one evening, trying to avoid the flecks of flying concrete. I saw a pavement hastily constructed where there had been none before – and then that same pavement began to chip and crack before my eyes over the days that followed. 

With all of that construction comes at least two things: an ever-shifting sense of place and a prodigious number of grey, concrete walls. And that’s where the graffiti artists come in.

“If a wall is neglected, it’s a graffiti artist’s duty to do something about it,” a Canggu-based tagger who goes by Tipse told me. "I have been painting graffiti half my life, so any area with graffiti is more interesting.”

Tipse’s not alone in feeling that way. Canggu is covered in street art, from the boilerplate Stussy S to stories-high murals. It’s impossible to take a five-minute scooter ride without seeing either a rice field or a mural. 

Tipse Canggu Bali TropicaWall No. 6 by Tipse. Photo: Tropica Festival.

Julien Thorax, the owner of ALLCAPS graffiti gallery and supply shop, is part of the reason for that. Thorax organised Tropica Festival last year. Part community service, part business promotion, the event was the village’s first ever graffiti festival and one of the biggest in Asia. Using money from sponsors and some of his own – Thorax left a career in the Swiss insurance industry to move to Bali – Tropica Festival invited 45 artists from around the globe and offered them the chance to paint one of the village’s concrete walls.

“It was very challenging at the beginning, because graffiti is still very new here," he told me on the phone from Bali. “But as it turned out, we were able to convince many of them. We painted this one home in the middle of a rice field, for instance, and now the family is super proud of their walls. They're the star of the neighbourhood,” he said. “Many local people here don’t have a strong relationship with contemporary art. But street art is a very good way to connect with people.” 

Balinese muralist SLINAT was one of the Tropica artists. While some are content with tagging technicolored versions of their name, SLINAT uses his art as a form of social and political commentary. Many of his recent murals feature men and women in traditional Balinese dress with gas masks covering their faces. 

Slinat Canggu Tropica BaliSLINAT's mural for the Tropica Festival. Photo: Street Art Atlas.

“Art is another way to talk,” SLINAT wrote to me from Bali on the eve of Nyepi, the Balinese 'Day of Silence', this week. “People often only talk about the gorgeous side of Bali. I wanted to call attention to all of the invisible problems behind Balinese tourism.” Environmental pollution, accelerated by the consumption patterns of tourists and governmental neglect, is one such problem, he said. But there are others, too.

“The price of land is sky high because lots of expatriates and other outsiders come to live in Bali. It causes Balinese to never be able to afford land any more. Someday, probably, the Balinese who live here will only be able to be renters.” SLINAT believes in street art’s ability to communicate beyond words. “I can reach a wide audience and every social class in the community,” he said. “And if people don’t like my work, they’ll vandalise it.”

SLINAT’s large Canggu mural, made as part of the Tropica Festival in partnership with artist Cinzah Merkens of New Zealand, shows a Balinese dancer in a gas mask on the left (above). Across from the dancer on the right of a wall, an octopus with wide eyes swims amidst a sea of plastic bags. The wall sits at the edge of one of the village's remaining rice fields, many of which are flanked by restaurants, boutiques, homestays and other new constructions. 

Canggu Bali Tropica graffitiWall No. 2 by YEAH!. Photo: Tropica Festival.

Almost all of the rice paddies in town are choked with garbage that drifts into the drainage channels and obstructs the flow of water before draining out to the nearby beach. On bad days, after a storm, locals know not to walk south on the shoreline toward the beach clubs of Seminyak. Past the surfing spot at the town’s edge, a large, rushing river carries the garbage out to the sea: flip flops, diapers, toothbrushes, baby toys, plastic chip bags.

SLINAT isn’t the only artist who feels that street art comes with a built-in social responsibility, and it’s part of Tropica Festival’s mission too. But not everyone feels the same way. Quint, who was born in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, but now lives in Bali, said he just wants to make things beautiful. “I’m not trying to change the world,” he said. “I just love beauty and I want to show people that you can find it everywhere, even in an abandoned building, even on a trash can.”

Quint mostly paints stencils of beautiful women and leaves the social commentary up to other artists. Then again, he doesn’t let people screen his art either. “I’m mostly painting without permission, so I don’t really ask people if they like my art or if they don’t,” he said.

Quint Canggu Bali Tropica
Quint's piece for the Tropica Festival. Photo: Tropica.

In almost all the cases I saw in Canggu, the street art made buildings, streets, the entire town, more beautiful not less. It’s not surprising that graffiti artists agree with me about this – Tipse even told me that he can barely stand living in cities with no graffiti, because he associates clean walls with a lack of artistic expression. But what is surprising is that many lawmakers around the world have begun to side with artists, as well. A number of major cities have been turning to graffiti artists to help them revitalise districts that have fallen into grey, depressing disrepair, or simply lack character.

In 2013, for instance, the police shooting of a 16-year-old graffiti artist in Bogota, Colombia prompted Mayor Gustav Petro to change anti-graffiti laws and promote it as a form of artistic and cultural expression. Cities like Queens, New York; Paris, France; Taipei, Taiwan; and Melbourne, Australia have zones where graffiti is sanctioned and encouraged.

Edi Rama, the now-Prime Minister of Albania, battled grey neglect with street art when he was the mayor of the capital city, Tirana. Facing a non-existent city budget, he nonetheless chose to spend some of the city’s scant euros on paint. In a moving TED talk, Rama described how he endeavoured to use colours “to revive the hope that had been lost in the city.”

"This use of colours was not just an artistic act,” he said. “Rather, it was a form of political action... When we painted the first building, by splashing a radiant orange on the sombre grey of a facade, something unimaginable happened. There was a traffic jam and a crowd of people gathered as if it were the location of some spectacular accident, or the sudden sighting of a visiting pop star.” The colours did more than just wow the citizens, they made them feel safer. Then, as a result, crime began to fall. 

Of course, as long as street artists tread the line between sanctioned and illegal works, their work will remain in that grey area: vandalism to some and art to others.

On the night I spoke to Thorax, he called me back after midnight, apologising for being late for our interview. He had been caught in the rain, he said, and then his cell phone had rung with an urgent call. One of the local artists had been caught tagging a private gate and was being held by a security guard. It took Thorax some time and diplomacy to keep the situation from escalating. “That’s how it goes, you know?” he told me. “The guy just picked the wrong wall.”

The biggest stumbling block for Canggu’s street art scene is also its biggest asset, Thorax told me. The pace of development is impossible to keep up with, and even harder to anticipate. Recently, a developer announced they were going to build a giant hostel on a rice field right in front of the town’s most high-profile mural, possibly obscuring it forever. There’s not much Thorax or the artist can do. “By the beginning of summer it won’t even be visible anymore,” he said. “But that’s how it goes. And every time they build a new building we have a new wall to paint.”

Our In Colour series explores the elusive and surprising phenomenon of colour in cities, with artists Craig and Karl as guest editors. The pair are working on a secret commission to transform one of White City's unloved spaces.

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