Back to Borneo: Street Art tells the tale of two capitals

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ August 4th, 2011. Updated on October 5th, 2013. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » Malaysia » Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
Street Art in Kota Kinabalu

Street art in Malaysia is not always about vandalism, sometimes it’s just a way of telling the world about your life … This man was living in this ruined building.

Street Art in Malaysia is helping me see something new

I’ve never been a huge fan of street art in Malaysia or graffiti anywhere else in the world for that matter. Don’t get me wrong, I think that freedom of expression is of paramount importance today. It simply never visually appealed to me.

Then, the more I traveled, the more I saw how good street art livens up bland, grey, dirty and boring cities.

Yes, street art can look like vandalism, or the work of bored youth.

But look a little deeper at good street art and you can see something quite revealing about a society, a culture, and the times they are living in.

Leslie Koch who writes for the informative Downtown Traveler online magazine began writing about street art in New York city, and it irked my curiosity how Street Art in Malaysia was being created.

This is what I saw …

Street Art in Kota Kinabalu

Sometimes Street Art is just for fun …

Street art or vandalism?

Generally speaking I find street art in Malaysia to be artistic rather than the typical scrawl signatures littering many cities. With street art you do have to factor in chance before discovering good works of art.

And, like a lot of art, it can be relative.

Does the old couple walking ahead of me look at the picture of a movie poster and think it’s just vandalism?

Or do the teenagers beside me think of it as an act of rebellion rather than artistic expression?

Modern Day Street Art in Kuala Lumpur

Modern Day Street Art in Kuala Lumpur … Big & Bold

Turn a corner and you could find someone marking their territory, or you could find someone depicting a powerful message. A message that could be washed away in a few hours.

Colorful Street Art in Kuala Lumpur

Colorful Street Art in Kuala Lumpur

It is this “random” effect that makes me enjoy street art in Malaysia today

Street Art in Malaysia reflects what the people on the ground are thinking

Street Art in Kuala Lumpur is all about big bold colors with the message of freedom of expression. In a city where there are religious police, racial tension and strange rules that only certain people must obey, there is a call of visual expression.

It reflects a lot on how I found Western Malaysia. There’s a social divide there, and people are still trying to find their voices. Visual street art is helping them be heard.

Street Art on display in Kuala Lumpur

Street Art on display in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur street art is about now, and about being heard

I walked along a drainage run off in Kuala Lumpur near Pasar Seni to get some close up shots of 20ft artists work on display there.  A lot of this work came about in the 2010 Kul Sign Festival and again in the 2011 Kul sign Festival. A promotional festival highlighting such things as an understand between city hall officials and constructive graffiti artists, public awareness of graffiti art, and as a way to promote tourism.

Today it brightens up a long boring stretch of drab concrete. Still maintained by some artists it’s not that accessible to the public aside from distant viewing. Along the way I had to avoid some unsavory types, a few police, and the odd dog to get close up shots of the street art.

Street Art in Kuala Lumpur is about freedom

Street Art in Kuala Lumpur is about freedom of expression …

The street art here depicted a lot of movie poster spin offs. Animated cartoons, and several quotations about street art itself. Almost as if the artists themselves were trying to educate people that street art is good, and has a purpose.

The promotional Kul Sign festival once again in February 2012 more details on their FaceBook page.

Street Art in Kota Kinabalu

Another capital, in the same country but in a different region, and street art brings a different message.

Here it’s all about the past.

Here there’s a more tribal feel to the art. It’s also drawn on old abandoned buildings, not on modern walkways.

Street Art Keyboards in Kota Kinabalu

Making use of some broken steps to create something … well, creative!

There are direct messages here. Some about fun, but a lot from one artist about WW2.

The depiction of a woman praying with the writing “remember WWII” would not be lost in a  modern gallery.

What’s more, it’s drawn on a broken column.

WW2 street art in Kota Kinabalu

WW2 street art in Kota Kinabalu … good enough to be in a gallery?

Street art in Malaysia: KL vs KK

I’ll have to give my personal nod to the street art I found in Kota Kinabalu. There’s not that much of it around in this pristine South East Asian city. And, it seems to be very distinct with direct messages. Then again, I do have a slight bias for historical references.

While in Kuala Lumpur, it was bigger, more generic, and less cryptic.

Both certainly made me look at the cities differently. If that’s not a tourist attraction to otherwise bland walls, I don’t know what is.

Either way, the street art in Malaysia you’ve seen in this article could be washed away by the time you read this. I hope by photographing a fraction of it that some of this art work will at least be preserved!

Hotel search at the Longest Way Home

Planning on booking a hotel room in Malaysia?

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Coming Soon:

The Longest Way Home: is one man’s global quest to find a place called home …  and this is what it’s like …

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24 Great responses to Back to Borneo: Street Art tells the tale of two capitals

  1. ML Awanohara says:

    Curious and unreal — as we have a habit of saying at The Displaced Nation! I agree there is a difference between Western and Eastern street art, and I think you’re right, the Eastern version is more artistic. But why? Is it because the West is basically “free” — so street art is for subversives? Whereas the East is more repressed — so street art is an outlet for young people who are too creative and free thinking for such a system? I’m not sure, but find it an intriguing comparison.

    Likewise, I agree there’s a difference between KL and KK, as depicted above — but unlike you, I’m more perturbed by the street art in KK. I really don’t get it…

    In any event, thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

  2. Love these images … Art (music, words, images), sports, cultural interaction is way the world changes for the better … forget politics, nationalism, religion, consumerism.

    Great spotting, Dave.

    the candy trail … a nomad (and artist) across the planet, since 1988

  3. cracko says:

    nice article… yeah the art on the abandon building in kk is almost gone now.. hopefully will get to see new stuff there soon… hehehe….

  4. Kristina says:

    That’s some pretty damn impressive street art. I just visited a special exhibit here in Los Angeles at MOCA where the entire museum was filled with street art. Fascinating, and some of it very disturbing at the same time.
    In Rome, there’s a totally different style, using stencils, mostly black and white, to convey the message. Really interesting too.

  5. Denise says:

    I personally love quality street art. It brings a city to life. It’s like you tattoo a city :)

  6. John Wilson says:

    Interesting article, a good view on a different subject.
    Good pics and good insight on how it makes you think.
    John D. Wilson

  7. Leslie says:

    LOVE THIS ART! Thanks for introducing me to street art in Malaysia. It’s colorful and creative. It’s interesting that some of the art is promoting art itself; as you mention, this is like a guerrilla PR campaign to encourage people to appreciate graffiti. PS- Thank you for mentioning Downtown Traveler. I’m glad our posts inspired you :)

  8. Trudy says:

    This is SOOOO cool. Beyond words!

  9. egn says:

    very good article, I noticed the difference between KK and KL street art… but, that’s not what I want to see, I want to see the day that there will be no more barriers, no more walls, its time KK and KL be one, and our voice will resonate through out the country…and beyond! hehe… I believe art can achieve that.

  10. Scott says:

    That’s some excellent artwork you snapped photos of and you really hit the nail on the head of what street art is. Whether it’s in the East or the West it’s about spreading a message. There is a huge social divide between the rich and the poor and this is one of the few ways for people to express themselves. Why do we allow large corporations advertise directly to us non-stop yet think of street art as hooligans? Why is it only art if it’s in a museum?

    Thanks for the photos!

  11. pinasinfo says:

    I agree with you Scott. Art should not be confined to museum or walls of wealthy people. Arts in the first place are expressions of what is presently felt by people. Street art is a powerful tool for communicating that message across.

    Thank you DAve for writing this piece. keep travelling!

  12. katie says:

    what a surprise to see so much amazing graffiti in malaysia! i just got back form penang and there was none of that. the most amazing graffiti I’ve seen was in Greece (a very graffiti-friendly country), the ones in University of Ioannina just blew me away.

  13. The street art in Malaysia is the most interesting I’ve yet to encounter in all of Asia. You did a great job capturing it in this photo essay.

  14. I love street art. It is definitely not graffiti (well to me graffiti is just someone tagging their name and leaving crude sentences behind). I also love that when street art is painted then often other taggers will never touch that wall space so the whole area looks nicer. Thanks for capturing them!

  15. pleng says:

    Thanks for putting up those pics. I do agree with you on visual expression as well as using the least expected object like the steps as part of artistic expression. Will be on the lookout for interesting “voices” when I visit KK.

  16. Raz Veinz says:

    Malaysia have a wonderful talent! Proud to be Malaysian.

  17. aisyah says:

    Hye…sekarang saya sedang membuat satu majalah mengenai seni jalanan..hope u can help me?