In a quiet, leafy street off Yangon’s Sayasan Road, a wall of shiny corrugated zinc stands awaiting its paint.
Beyond the steely exterior, on the front wall of what he calls the No. 2 Art Area, graffiti artist Arker Kyaw’s colorful Vishnu, the Hindu god, brandishes a can of spray paint and a roller brush instead of his usual symbolic instruments.
Through the gates in a large green garden, you’re confronted with a huge looming painting of a young man injecting his head with a syringe of books.
Such are the artistic visions of 19 year-old Arker Kyaw, who made a name for himself when he painted a graffiti mural welcoming Barack Obama on his inaugural visit to Myanmar back in 2012.
Since that landmark effort, Arker Kyaw’s career as a painter and street artist has flourished. 2017 sees the opening of his latest project — the No.2 Art Area — as a place to foster and support the street art community in Yangon.
Arker Kyaw is happy to answer my questions:
Could you tell me about this space?
This space is kind of gallery and workshop space. Some of my friends and I came together to talk about making something new, something different. We thought about how there is nowhere for street artists in Myanmar.
So we decided to open this place. We built up the wall at the back and invited street artists to help us come and paint it and practice their skills. For the name, we wanted something that suggests that it is a common area. Also, the building is number 2 on the street so we named it No.2 Art Area.
What is the objective of No. 2 Art Area?
In my experience, when my friends and I were young and just starting out we had no place to show our art. So now, we want to think about the young people. For example, one of the artists in the current exhibition [Che Zin Thit] is only 14 years old and I really like her style so we invited her to join this exhibition.
Could you tell me about the current exhibition?
We held the soft opening for the Art Area last Monday, January 30th. Three groups came together to exhibit their work for the event. The current exhibition is a collection of work from three groups of artists- No.2 Art Area, School of Contemporary Art(SOCA) and Nawaday Tharlar Gallery. Our official opening will be some time in the coming month.
In the future, what kind of art do you want here?
We will focus on street art but welcome all genres of art.
This location is perfect; a huge garden with high walls in a quiet neighbourhood. How did you find this space?
My friend Lynn Aung’s father owns this space. We are really lucky because he gave it to us saying to do anything we want with it. It’s a risk for him because rent in the area is very high. We really appreciate his support.
You made your name for yourself as a graffiti artist. When did your love of art start?
I was stupid. When I was young I was very bad at studying but pretty good at drawing. I was always drawing. I entered a lot of competitions. After high school, I didn’t have a focus on anything in particular and did many menial jobs to survive. At that time I read an inspirational book by John Lee which told me to pursue a career that focuses on my talent. I have always been drawing and painting.
When you started making graffiti Myanmar was still a conservative place and Yangon must have had little or no graffiti scene. Where did you get the inspiration to paint the walls of the city?
When I was in 8th Standard, for the first time in our country, Gtalk and Google started to become popular. We suddenly had Youtube and we got inspiration from there. We learned everything from the internet. Two years after that I started graffiti. At first I couldn’t even afford my own spray cans so my friends bought them for me and we went out painting together at night.
Was there a particular artist who inspired you at that time?
Every artist inspires me. I learned a lot from following the work of international graffiti artists and but now I am learning I also have lots of teachers in Myanmar. The first teacher I had was my father who taught me the basics of painting. He’s not a famous artist but he taught me things I needed to know. After that I tried to teach myself and attended every exhibition I could. The only way we can truly learn art with our eyes. Similarly, Youtube is a fantastic resource where you can learn everything.
Were you parents always supportive?
Yeah they were always supportive mentally. My mother said I can do anything I like. Except drugs. She said, ‘If you take drugs I will bring you directly to the jail myself.’
When you started out as a graffiti artist it was ground breaking stuff because there was so much talk about the reformist government and times of change and you were a part of that change. Your art was special because it hadn’t existed before that. But now things are very different, how do you think graffiti and the street art scene has changed?
It has changed completely. Now you can see the government is actually supporting street arts. For example you can see the Myaynigone flyover bridge has an area where graffiti artists are actually allowed to paint legally. Another example is being invited to paint at Wardan Jetty for the Mingalabar Festival last December. That’s a complete change but we still need more support. We want more legal areas to practice in.
Anything else you want to add?
Yes, everyone is invited to our art space. Every kind of artist is welcome.