When street artist Arker Kyaw heard that Barack Obama would visit Yangon this month, he had the idea to paint a public mural of the recently reelected president of the United States.
“I painted Obama’s portrait on a wall at Yangon Eye Hospital on Natmauk Road, near Kandawgyi Park. My friends helped me create the mural at 3am on November 12, as a mark of welcome to the American president,” Arker Kyaw, who uses pseudonym Night for his creative work, told The Myanmar Times.
But the artist said a friend called later the same day to tell him that someone had used spray paint to deface the portrait. The group suspects the vandalism was perpetrated by the government or by another group of street artists, although this is pure speculation.
Considering the short lifespan of the mural, some might consider the effort to have been a terrible waste of time. But Arker Kyaw said street artists are well aware that their work is never likely to last long.
“Paint applied to streets and exterior walls never lasts long. It will be removed one day. But that doesn’t stop my desire to be a street artist, and I will continue to paint,” he said.
Another issue for street artists is the need to paint at night, mainly because the questionable legality of their work.
But Arker Kyaw, who started painting when he was in ninth standard, said he’s not bothered by losing sleep when he venture out in the wee hours of the night.
“Some people say making street art is like defacing public property. That’s why I try to paint subjects that will appeal to many people. I want street art to be considered a legitimate part of the art scene in Myanmar,” he said.
Ko Thuta, who participated in the creation of the Obama mural on the morning of November 12, said the general impression of street artists is that they “go out at night and spoil the walls and roads”.
“But if we could present the best ideas that would attract the most viewers, I think they would change their attitudes about us,” he said. “As long as there are a few supporters who encourage street art, we will continue painting.”
On the other hand, Ko Thuta said some people have reproached his group for seeking popularity by painting murals of famous people. In September they created a mural of U Thein Sein, shortly before the Myanmar president’s first trip to the United States.
Another member of the group, Ko Soe Wai Htun, said the group had a general rule to never paint over another person’s work.
“It causes the other artist’s idea and presentation to be spoiled,” he said.
However, he admitted that the wall where the Obama mural is located had previously been painted with the word “POSH”.
“But it had been done a very long time ago, so we painted over it to create the Obama mural,” Ko Soe Wai Htun said.
“Street art has to be presented in a public area without any permission. The essence of street art comes from the public’s excitement. But in Myanmar culture, we have to respect homeowners and the elderly, so in some places we paint only when they have given their consent,” he said.
“However, we feel excited when we paint in some areas without asking permission.”
He added that many of their artworks are removed almost immediately, but there’s at least one place where their efforts persist.
“There’s one house we painted where the child of the homeowner keeps reminding his parents not to remove our artwork. We get great pleasure out of knowing this,” he said.