It’s hard to imagine that a country as conservative as Singapore would ever take the raw, undisciplined provocativeness of street art and graffiti seriously, but, thanks to the efforts and talents of Zul Othman, better known by his moniker Zero, it did. The 40-year-old founder of street art collectives RSCLS and ARTVSTS, as well as lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts, became the first street artist in Singapore to be awarded the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2013. His works from his 2010 solo show at The Substation, The Spectacular Spectacular, have been acquired by the Singapore Art Museum is now part of its permanent collection.
In an era when commercialisation seeps into every aspect of life, street art and graffiti offer authenticity and accessibility. After years of despairing behind a desk in corporate jobs as a Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa)-trained graphic designer, Othman decided he wanted to do something that was wholly his own. He started his first street art collective ARTVSTS with five of his Nafa batch mates in 2003. “I wanted to focus on street art over graffiti. Graffiti is existential because you’re using it to say ‘I was here’, but it’s bound by spray paint and lettering,” he explains. Street art is an extension of that and opens up new mediums.
“Street art also started in an urban space, and it’s about taking back that space. It’s a counterculture to advertising. We’re okay with advertising companies telling us we’re too fat, or that you’re only successful if you buy a Mercedes-Benz, but we’re not okay with someone painting illegally,” he states.
But Othman isn’t opposed to branding. “Everyone does it. People who say they are conceptual artists or performance artists are branding themselves to museums and galleries without realising it,” he says. His clients include brands themselves, like Nike, Adidas, Facebook and Google. Those commercial commissions help pay the bills, but his real calling is providing support and a safe space for fellow street artists. So when his friends in ARTVSTS moved on to different chapters in their lives, Othman continued his mission by starting RSCLS, a collective of 13 street artists from around the region.
“STREET ART IS ABOUT TAKING BACK URBAN SPACE. IT’S A COUNTERCULTURE TO ADVERTISING.”
With legally sanctioned spaces for street art and the growing promotion of the artists behind them, Singapore is clearly making an effort to be progressive, but it’s not enough for him. “I’m fine with legal walls but if I can’t say anything about sexuality, politics, religion or race on them, all that’s left to say about the art is that it’s beautiful,” he says. “But I realise I’ve been complicit in that. I helped attain some of these spaces for the community, like the Somerset Skate Park and the Rail Corridor.”
For someone who has exhibited around the world, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai to mural festivals in Paris, Othman believes that the next progression to look into, is that of scale. “Challenge us. Give me a giant wall on the side of the building like you see elsewhere in the world. Let the side of an HDB flat be painted by an artist and not a Bangladeshi recreating a design by the community,” he says. “I’m not inspired to do things; I’m moved to do them. When something irks me, I’m called into action like a soldier, and there’s still a lot to say.”