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Bali street art reflects changes in local society

Wall murals address the impact of tourism on the island

This mural by artists Slinat and Wild Draeing in the Balinese capital of Denpasar symbolizes the easy money made from tourism, now gone because of COVID-19, and the potential of agriculture as an option to mass tourism. (Photo by Ian Neubauer)

DENPASAR, Bali, Indonesia -- Graffiti as a bona fide art form in Indonesia can be traced to the early 1990s when hip-hop, break dancing and elements of the urban American protest movement were assimilated by local youth.

Jakarta remains the epicenter of street art in Indonesia, but Bali, the country's most cosmopolitan and popular tourist island, has developed its own unique street art culture. The first graffiti to appear in Bali were "tags" of names or characters splashed across the drab grey buildings of the capital Denpasar. But as their skills developed, the street artists began painting murals that conveyed stories and social messages. "Your treasure does not guarantee your health," read a message on a mural featuring an archetypal capitalist fat cat surrounded by ordinary folk with tape covering their eyes.

Most of these earlier works have disappeared. But street art in Bali has found a new home in the surf mecca of Canggu on the island's southwest coast. A building boom there to support rapid tourism development has provided ample wall space for graffiti artists.

"Street art first took off in Canggu in 2015 when international artists started coming here," said Brutal Mark, a local artist who incorporates the imagery of Balinese face masks, traditional dancers and Hindu deities in his murals.

Jungle, a graffiti artist from Spain living in Bali for four years, said "the work of local artists is super interesting because they have their own style that mixes ancient Balinese culture and contemporary themes."

Top: Nature and wildlife conservation is a popular theme among the murals of Canggu. Middle: A graffiti artist starts a new mural over old "tag" art in Bali. Bottom: A traditional Balinese dancer in headdress is juxtaposed against skulls and imagery of death in this mural. (Photos by Ian Neubauer)

The street art movement in Bali was given a boost in 2016 with the launch of the inaugural Tropica Street Art Festival Bali, with half of the artists being local and the other half foreign. It has gone on to produce some of the largest and most elaborate graffiti murals in Indonesia.

"My favorite mural in Bali is Bintang Lagi (Another Beer)," said Brutal Mark of a massive painting of a female tourist in a pretty dress sitting on plastic waste on a beach that occupies an entire side of a three-story building. "It was painted by a Dutch guy during the 2017 festival," he said.

Top: This mural -- the largest and most popular in Canggu -- shows a Western woman sitting on plastic garbage. Middle: A traditional Balinese mask is showcased in this mural in Canggu. Bottom: Traditional Balinese dancers as they were painted and photographed during the Dutch colonial period of the 1920s and 1930s is a common theme among the murals. (Photos by Ian Neubauer)

Nearby is another massive mural featuring a giant octopus co-created by New Zealand artist Cinzah and Balinese artist Slinat. The latter's contribution is an iconic black and white photograph of a Balinese dancer taken in the 1920s, but with a gas mask on her face. "These old photos were the first imagery used to promote tourism in Bali and convey it is an exotic place. They kick-started tourism in Bali," Slinat said. "But then we had too much tourism and it ruined the exoticness of Bali. So I created this parody to express how much things have changed here since those photos were taken."

Parody is a common theme in many of Slinat's murals, which has sparked mixed reviews from locals. "Some people like it but others ask me why do you not keep with the traditional image of tourism? I tell them that in reality, it's not like that anymore. It's not all pretty," he explained.

Top: A collaboration between Slinat and New Zealand artist Cinzah. Middle: The levy at Echo Beach in Canggu is carpeted in graffiti, most of it just ugly tags -- the calling cards of graffiti artists. Bottom: The Hindu gods of Bali and surf-chic culture are interwoven in this mural. (Photos by Ian Neubauer)

While Balinese street art can be viewed on the internet, Slinat is perhaps the only Balinese street artist whose work has been exhibited overseas, at an event hosted by the Australia Indonesia Art Forum in Melbourne last year. But like all other street artists on the island, he must cover the cost of paint by selling art, merchandise or working odd jobs.

Most of those jobs were related to tourism, a sector that accounted for around 60% to 80% of the island's economy before Indonesia banned foreign tourists in April to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those jobs are now nearly all gone.

Bali's economic turmoil during the pandemic is the theme of Slinat's newest mural, called "Sugar Fields in Bali." Completed in August, it features again his parody of the dancer in the gas mask with two outstretched hands: one holding burning U.S. dollar bills and the other holding fat fluffy rice stalks.

Top: Simple but thought-provoking street art can be seen everywhere in Canggu. Middle: Massive murals cover the grounds of the former headquarters of the ALLCAPSSTORE art collective in Canggu, but they had to move last year because of skyrocketing rent. Bottom: A mural of a Balinese dancer at the former ALLCAPSSTORE headquarters. (Photos by Ian Neubaer)

"The gas mask on the model was originally symbolic of pollution caused by industrialization. But now in the coronavirus era, it has a new meaning," Slinat said. "The burning money symbolizes how it was so easy for us Balinese to get money from tourism that many people wasted it on things they didn't need. Now that there's no tourism and no tourism money, things are a bit crazy. But the rice stalks show other ways we can live that aren't dependent on tourism. Things like agriculture and woodwork."

To promote that message, Slinat chose a commercial street in Denpasar for the site of the new mural. "While Canggu is where tourists stay," he said. "I chose to do to it next to a traditional market in Denpasar because it is the middle of Bali where local people can see it every day."

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