Spraying His Way to Fame and Notoriety

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 20 July 2013

At first glance, there’s nothing remarkable about Arker Kyaw. But put a can of spray paint in his hand, and the lanky 20-year-old becomes an artistic rebel with a cause. Already famous for the mural of US President Barack Obama that he painted during the American leader’s historic visit in November 2012, he has more recently earned notoriety for similarly honoring Myanmar’s President U Thein Sein to mark his birthday in April.

Now the artist known as “Night” is facing charges for defacing public property. He recently spoke with Irrawaddy reporter Kyaw Phyo Tha about his brush with fame—and with the law.

Question: Tell me about the charges against you for painting the graffiti of U Thein Sein.

Answer: I was summoned to the township municipal office for my mural of the president and the Myanmar flag nearly a month after I sprayed it. I learned that I was being prosecuted because I had vandalized a public place with my painting and, they said, my action was against a municipal law that bans spray-painting in public places that came into effect last December. I was fined 100,000 kyat.

Q: Why did you paint it?

A: It was just a birthday present for our president. I wanted other people to be aware that April 20 is our president’s birthday. The location I chose was a good one to attract public attention because it’s a busy place. I had no hidden agenda. I simply thought people should know the birthday of the man who has let us see some change under his leadership.

Q: Weren’t you aware of the municipal ban on graffiti?

A: Of course I knew about it. Yes, I felt a bit guilty about breaking the law, but at the same time, it was kind of exciting. Actually, I spray-painted a portrait of the president last year, but it was white-washed within a few hours. We posted [a photo of] it on Facebook before his birthday, and it attracted a lot of “likes” and “shares” and positive comments. So maybe that warm reception made me think I could get away with my act of defiance. But please don’t get the idea that I worship U Thein Sein. We are still watching him.

Q: Why did you paint a portrait of US President Barack Obama?

A: His visit was historic. I spray-painted his portrait to show my respect for him and to let him know that he was warmly welcomed. Actually, I had to do it three times, because some people kept trying to destroy it.

Q: Why did you choose to paint pictures of famous people? Was it just a publicity stunt?

A: Some people think so, but for me, it was an artistic decision.

Q: Why do you like to paint graffiti?

A: When I was in high school, I was fascinated by graffiti illustrations on international music album covers. So I looked for more on the Internet and learned how to do it myself. But I like all kinds of painting. For me, there’s no special difference between using a brush on paper or canvas and using spray paint. Which medium I use just depends on my feeling.

Q: Some people consider graffiti to be an eyesore, or just a form of vandalism. What do you think?

A: I think if you carelessly paint on someone’s wall, you’re just going to make them mad. But if you make it look great, they might feel their property was vandalized, but they might also think, “Wow, that’s cool!”

Q: What difficulties do graffiti artists face now?

A: We have lost our canvas because of the government’s restrictions on graffiti. But they are just doing their job, and we have to do ours. We have to find ways to keep our art alive.

Q: Do you think graffiti is now getting a warm reception in Myanmar?

A: I don’t know about the general public, but even people as old as my uncle and grandpa have been encouraging. “That’s it, boy, keep it up!” they say. Their remarks make me really happy.

This story first appeared in the July 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.