Graffiti Art—In Singapore?

Like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat before him, graffiti artist Daze made the move from spray-painting walls in New York to exhibiting canvases in art galleries around the world: Tokyo, Zurich, Miami, even Iowa City, Iowa. But his latest exhibition is opening in a really unexpected location: Singapore. Spray-painting is still a rare sight there, where it's still mostly associated with acts of vandalism punishable by up to three years in jail or eight strokes of the cane. Only recently a publicity stunt by the postal service involving a masked man spray-painting six mailboxes backfired when scandalized Singaporeans called the police. But a couple of weeks ago, Daze completed a commissioned giant canvas standing in front of a public outdoor amphitheater, all under the watchful—if not puzzled—glare of security guards. The piece (a woman's eye swimming in a sea of colorful words) is now installed in a shopping center, protected by a rope.

Singapore hardly rivals New York or London, but it's working hard to develop a more forward-looking cultural scene. As usual, this new direction is largely rooted in economic considerations. Like Dubai or Hong Kong, the small city-state understands that it can gain a competitive edge on its neighbors by showing a vibrant and multifaceted cultural face. "Singapore ranks high on global-competitiveness indices as a place to do business," says Lui Tuck Yew, the acting minister for information, communications, and the arts. "But where we have room to improve further is actually on the softer issues, the softer aspects—the cultural areas, the arts—to make this place an even more livable city."

One of Singapore's three economic priorities over the next decade is to transform itself into a "distinctive global city" and a "leading cultural capital." The government has already developed infrastructures for several museums and a much-lauded performance hall, the Esplanade. It has also encouraged the development of content—international events such as the Mosaic Music Festival and the Singapore Sun Festival, a must-attend event for classical-music lovers in the region. Plans are already afoot for a new contemporary-art fair in 2011, headed by Rudolf Lorenzo, who put the über-trendy Art Basel on the map. "There has been a remarkable transformation," says Benson Puah, the CEO of the National Arts Council. "If you look just statistically at the number of art activities in the last 20 years, it's gone from 2,000 events a year to 30,000, and living here one can feel it. Every which way there is something happening, and more and more, people, particularly the young, are drawn to this."

Still, considering the top-down, culture-by-fiat approach, you have to wonder if Singapore will end up carving its new image with what amounts to a dull creative knife. "I'm always a bit suspicious of government support of various projects all around the world," says Howard Rutkowski of Fortune Cookie Projects, the art-advisory firm that showcased Daze's works to Singapore. "Once officials get involved, art can lose its edge, and so Singapore is going to have to be very careful with that. Your heart can be in the right place, but you may still make a lot of mistakes." Singapore may be starting to see that graffiti isn't always vandalism, but in the art world there is no greater crime than being boring.