For Peap Tarr and Lisa Mam, two Cambodian street artists currently working to merge their work together and into the urban landscape of Phnom Penh, the street art medium offers a means of communicating with a community new, and so far welcoming, to an urban art dialogue.
How did you two meet and start working together?
PT: When I was in Cambodia I was mostly painting by myself, and I didn't know anyone- because there isn't much graffiti art there. So I met Lisa and it was like we connected, our styles were similar because we have the same cultural influence, with Lisa being from Cambodia and me being half from Cambodia, and using that Cambodian element, that is how we link.
How long have you been back working in Cambodia?
PT: I have been coming back off and on since I was young, but officially, when I came back to stay was April of 2010.
LM: I was born in Cambodia, live in Cambodia, grew up in Cambodia. I am Cambodian.
How is your work being received? Are you finding that people have a primarily positive reaction to your work?
LM: Most of the people are positive about it, they do like it, because it does include the Khmer culture.
PT: We have our own version, our own take on it, mixing that with the Cambodian style and creating a modern version. Cambodia has been through a lot of war, and a lot of creative people, educated people, were killed, so the generation now is just starting to come out of that. In Cambodia the history is so rich in culture... but now it is a new style and a new beginning.
Lisa, in your painting you include imagery of female figures, who or what do the figures represent?
LM: In Cambodia they have a sculpture of an apsara, which is a dancer from the Angkor Wat period. I'm creating my own version of apsara.
Peap, what is the meaning behind some of the imagery in your paintings?
PT: For me, I like to show something that is powerful. In Cambodia and Thailand there is the Naga, the five-headed dragon that protects the Buddha, and for me I think the Naga represents power and stability on the land, it is like a protector. If you come to Cambodia you can see the Naga everywhere, in statues, on the bridge, in the temple, etc., so it has a lot of meaning. At the same time, while I like to paint things symbolic of Cambodia, some things I also just make up, I like to do my own interpretations of things that show power, it is like a release for me to paint that.
How is the experience of painting in Cambodia different from other places where you have painted? Is it different?
LM: Because in Cambodia it is so new, people are really attracted to it, they come around and watch you, but painting in Thailand and France, some people come to watch but at the same time, graffiti has been around outside of Cambodia, so most of the time people don't pay as much attention. They might come check out the finished product, but in Cambodia, people might come and watch from the start to the finish, because it is new, graffiti in Cambodia is new, fresh.
PT: I would say painting everywhere, I mean of course the environment everywhere is different, but for me I treat everyplace the same, I am just painting, and generally when I paint I do everything legal so everywhere it is cool. I guess in New Zealand people come and talk to you more. Or maybe it is just because I look more foreign, they will think Lisa is foreign too and will say something to her and she'll answer them back in Cambodian and then they will be like, 'Oh! You're Cambodian!' and then they bond and talk and ask questions.
What kind of questions do they ask you?
LM: What are you painting? What's your name? Where are you from? Why are you painting that?
When someone asks you why you are doing this, how do you respond?
LM: Because I love to do it, or sometimes I will tell them that it is a commissioned job, because they wonder why we would do it for free. But sometimes, I tell them that I just want to beautify the wall, the street.
PT: It's different, in New Zealand or Hawaii, or even France, people will come up and say it's cool, but in Cambodia it's different. Both kids and adults will come up and just ask a lot of questions. But I gotta say, there are also things that are much the same everywhere in the world, I mean it's fun, everybody can see it, it's not limited.
In Cambodia, do you feel there is any sort of connection between urban graffiti art and the greater contemporary art scene?
PT: Not really yet, I mean it is so new. At the moment, the only people who are really doing it, is us, as far as graffiti art. I mean for me I was doing it for a long time before, but really Lisa is the innovator there at the moment. Until I came back to Cambodia and started doing this, there were no Cambodians doing graffiti art there. The other Cambodian street artists that I know, I know one guy in Switzerland, and one in the US, but you know, I can count them on my fingers. So there hasn't been that real link yet, because I think with graffiti art - they don't really even quite know what it is yet.
LM: Because it is new, that is the thing. People are still not quite sure about it.
PT: Also, they think that graffiti art is just only what we do; that is graffiti art - black and white. In Thailand, it has been around and you even have people with problems within the scene, competition. We want to create the environment where there isn't that kind of thing happening. I come from the perspective that Cambodia has had so many problems, Cambodians killing each other, it's enough - that is it - we have to be more unified. And I'm just happy that me and Lisa could connect and do work like this. It is interactive with your environment. Some people like it, some people are gonna hate it, but in general me and Lisa have always had positive feedback. We've never had any real trouble at all.
LM: We've never had problems with anybody, we just paint. It is better to do what you do than waste time with that. You should spend your time doing your work.
PT: I mean I got people who like what I do, but it's great what Lisa is doing in Cambodia because even though we are both doing it, the younger people, and especially girls, they connect with Lisa because she is Cambodian, and female, and she's doing something that is cool. I've always had this balance between New Zealand and Cambodia, in Cambodia there is lots of talent, there are a lot of talented people, but art is not pushed like it is in Thailand or elsewhere, where things are more economically stable.
LM: Sometimes people are afraid of thinking outside of the box and sometimes they are afraid that what they do might get banned by the government, because artwork that is revealing can be banned. But there are some people doing abstract and different styles.
PT: It shows that you can think differently, some people think our work is not Cambodian, but some people can see the cultural reference, and they can see that it is being modernized, because you have to keep the vision alive, but at the same time you have to move forward. They can see it with me to a certain extent, but when they see Lisa doing it, who is from there, it can start to open their mind. They can start to see that there is a bigger world out there and that revival will come back, Cambodia's history is so rich in art, culture, music, but it was slowly destroyed and put to death by the Khmer Rouge.
What is next for you? What are your upcoming plans?
PT: We have been going back and forth between Phnom Penh and Thailand, we had lots of commissioned jobs here.
LM: We might have a new job here soon, kind of a surprise project.
PT: There are lots of things on the agenda. We had some shows here that led on to new things and we have also been going back and forth working with some Thai graffiti artists. So, yeah, some future projects - not set in stone just yet but some cool collaborative stuff for sure because we definitely want to build this bridge between Thailand and Cambodia. Politics - I'm not into it - but through art I can see that people can become more unified, politics is a game.
Last question, if you could choose any wall, in any city, in the world to paint - where would you choose?
LM: Somewhere by the beach, with a big white wall...
PT: For the moment I am choosing Cambodia and Thailand, because there needs to be more done there. I mean I love to paint anywhere, but right now I want to paint more, bigger scales, and in Phnom Penh.
Peap Tarr, Lisa Mam
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