The Battle for Bali's Upcoming Graffiti Scene

The Battle for Bali’s Upcoming Graffiti Scene

On Echo Beach in Canggu, an Australian graffiti artist finishes a geometric mural on the back of a warung, a traditional Indonesian restaurant. Down under, he will often be commissioned thousands of dollars for his murals, but here in Bali, he’s painting this wall for free. He finishes as the sun sets, packs up his paints and heads off, only to find that the owner of the restaurant has gone over it with a big brush and boldly painted ‘warung barack’ across the entire piece.

The next morning, Julien Thorax, a Swiss guy who owns the local graffiti store, rocks up to get a photo of the sun rising over the piece. “I showed the picture to the artist” Julien tells me, “and his first reaction was ‘What the fuck!’ But then, ‘Ah, collaboration’. Everybody loved it. It was really sweet. The guy had no idea he had ruined a beautiful piece of art, but he was so happy with it, so proud of it, it was touching.”

To understand how the Balinese graffiti scene exists side by side with unknowing locals, I enter ALLCAPS, part gallery, part graffiti store, over the cry of roosters and the hum of motorbikes. Julien, who used to work in finance and has now found himself in the humid heart of Canggu, was attracted to Bali’s culture and passion for art.

Upon arrival, Julien introduces me to a Labrador puppy who nearly falls of the couch in enthusiasm for a back rub. “I found her on the beach,” Julien explains. “She was groaning, covered in mud”. The dog is now yet another member of the ever expanding graffiti family here.

We walk through their open-air gallery, spread across the outside walls of a few neighboring warehouses, which are filled with local and international artworks. The surrounding buildings are locally owned, yet Julien and the ALLCAPS team have been permitted to use the walls for painting. On the concrete floor of the space are children’s splattered hand prints and erratic lines. He points to them and laughs. “We do workshops with kids once a month,” he explains.

Youth are increasingly embracing graffiti here, floating in and out of ALLCAPS regularly, enthused by paint. For them, it is often the first time they visit an art gallery. Though three years ago, there were only around 20 active graffiti writers in Canggu, now, Julien reckons, there are more than 100 painting regularly, developing their own style and getting commissioned.

Quint is one artist who has gained international regard for his stencils of the female form. Hailing from Jakarta, a city with an active graffiti scene, he tells of his love of portraying women. “What inspires me is beauty,” he explains. “Women represent beauty … my message is that you can always find beauty somewhere, no matter if it is a nice villa wall or an abandoned house in the jungle.”

Unlike thriving urban scenes, Bali attracts those eager to paint in remote areas, set amongst crumbling ruins in the middle of rice paddies, by drooping palm trees. With help from ALLCAPS and their annual Tropica festival, internationals are coming weekly to Bali to paint the walls. “Before this,” Julien remarks, “they just came with their girlfriends on holiday and forgot about painting.” However here, even the big-time artists have to talk directly to ambivalent owners to gain authorisation for their works.

Fintan Magee, a world-renowned street artist from Brisbane, had to battle with the owner of a guesthouse to paint a mural on one of Canggu’s largest walls for the Tropica Festival in 2016. The owners intended to use it for a large Telecom advertisment, but buckled when offered $500 to keep the wall until after the festival. It was the first time Julien had spent money to acquire a wall. Now, it is one of the most iconic walls in Canggu. The owners use flyers and social media to promote their guesthouse as “the one behind the mural”.

“What makes Indonesia different is the culture,” Quint explains. “In Europe, there are more straight rules for street art … more material and support and of course it’s a bigger scene”.

Street art doesn’t find the same backing or understanding as larger graffiti destinations. “When you have some super big names coming here and starting festivals and stuff like that, in Europe everyone is like, ‘Please paint my wall!’” Julien explains. “But here they say, ‘You can paint it but you put my name on it and a free Bintang.’ People have no idea who the graffiti artists are or how it can be for business”.

People are often happy to have nice colours painted on predominantly grey waterproofed walls for free. However, local authorities can act out to give travellers a scare, as unlike big graffiti cities such as Berlin and Melbourne, in Bali, there are no official laws against graffing.

Julien laughs about two Australians caught in the middle of the night drunk-bombing (tagging) roller doors by local community security. The local security threw their scooter keys in the nearby rice field and threatened them with a machete. “They would never hurt anyone,” Julien reasoned, “but they wanted to scare the hell out of them and it worked out very well; the guys peed their pants off.”

The pair ditched their hostel the next morning with all their paints, hiding them in bushes nearby ALLCAPS after some frantic text messages. They’ve assured Julien since that they’ll be back; however, months have gone by, and they have not yet returned.

Sadly, not all is fun and games. “What we are trying to do with the park, the events, and the big walls,” Julien explains, “is to show that guys with a spray can make some real art.” Despite his ethos, the budding graffiti scene is not met with enthusiasm by all.

A week after I first met Julien, the owner of the warehouse space ALLCAPS use for their open air gallery makes the decision to buff every piece of art in the place, walls that I have only weeks earlier walked and admired with Julien. Only one is untouched – a stencil by Quint, which Quint buffs in solidarity with the artists. When I ask Julien why the owner has rendered these artworks to white, pieces that often took weeks and many men to complete, he explains that the grandmother who runs the rice production business behind the gallery was tired of having kids and tourists around all day taking pictures and leaving behind rubbish. Not all are enjoying the publicity ALLCAPS is bringing in.

“Pretty ironic,” he says, “as we have made a huge clean-up of the area to remove tonnes of shitty rubbish … compared to how it looked two years ago”. The divide in appreciation for new forms of modern art and self-expression between young and older generations spans across cultures, but is particularly present in Bali.

“Very sad day today in ALLCAPS PARK 🙈” Julien posts on their Facebook site. “Working hard to try to solve the issue with local owners. Thoughts going to all the local and international artists who spent time, energy and sweat painting these beautiful mural representing the growing Bali street art and Graffiti scene”.

I asked Julien before he knew the pieces would be destroyed, admiring the vast range of artworks, if he found the inevitable transience of their artistic form upsetting. It seemed a shame for these intricate pieces to be painted over every few months, for walls to be rendered again to grey.

“You know, sure… yes and no,” he replies. “It’s always sad when you have a beautiful piece of art that you have to cover, but on the other hand, today there are a lot of pieces that don’t last long in the streets. Their lifespan is a couple of days, a couple of weeks, and in the past it would have been very annoying for guys to get covered but today a lot of the action is happening in social media, so as long as the guy gets a picture of the piece, it lives forever.”

Transience is what makes graffiti what it is: impermanent, ever evolving, risk-taking yet rewarding. In this significant battle taking place, ALLCAPS and the graffiti family aren’t going to surrender any time soon.

Cover by Nat Kassel, inset 1 and 2 by the author, inset 3 via ALLCAPS Instagram