Crouched amid rubble, a 16-year-old boy draws a portrait of the late crooner Sinn Sisamouth on a wall. As the portrait of the 1960s music legend takes shape in black and white paint against a bright red and blue backdrop, it joins a series of tableaux—part of a revival of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood.
Kimchean Koy, alias “Koy,” was among the artists participating in one of the neighborhood’s regular Sunday painting sessions, which first began in October.
Once a vibrant hub of tourism, the cluster of guesthouses and small restaurants around Phnom Penh’s lakeside area—a popular alternative to the riverside—had lost much its color in recent years.
In 2008, the lake was filled in with sand to make way for a development project planned by Shukaku Inc., a company owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin, and some 3,000 families were evicted from the site in a controversial move that was widely condemned.
About 600 families who remained on the fringes of the lake secured land titles in 2011 after Prime Minister Hun Sen intervened on their behalf, but their woes are far from over: After every heavy downpour of rain, their homes are inundated with water as a result of inadequate drainage.
“Before, we had tourists here,” said Sam Oeurn, a tour organizer at No. 10 Guesthouse, who has lived in the area for a decade. “Now, we lost guesthouses and everything. We lose jobs every day.”
Meanwhile, many residences and businesses now stand derelict among the dusty alleys, while others have been reduced to debris.
The street art project is part of a greater community revitalization effort dubbed “Develop Boeng Kak Art” that is being spearheaded by French natives Marj Arnaud and Ludi Labille.
The business partners founded Simone Bistrot & Art on Street 93 at the edge of the former lake in October. Their establishment currently serves as the hub for several local initiatives, including street clean-ups, community gardening, concerts, a craft market and—of course—street art.
The call to paint the walls has attracted artists not only from Phnom Penh, but also from as far afield as France and Malaysia. At the end of December, after the project had been running for just three months, nearly 30 artworks have been completed by more than 20 artists from Cambodia and around the world.
But Ms. Arnaud says the initiative—which has helped to propel the opening of four new stores on Street 93—is rooted in the recent history of the area.
“When we arrived, we saw a lot of street art already in the street,” said Ms. Arnaud, who came to the neighborhood about two years ago. “But it was dark…. It’s around drugs and everything—stories from before. And now we want new stories, something happy and positive.”
That means turning concrete into canvasses. And Ms. Arnaud says anyone can pick up a spray can or paintbrush and join the street art project.
The first young Cambodian artist to jump on board was Inn Mayoura, alias “Ra Small,” whom Ms. Arnaud first came across online.
The 18-year-old started dabbling in art by drawing on paper before venturing to paint on the wall of his parents’ house in 2012. He’s currently a first-year design student in university, but says he discovered street art through the Internet.
“I did a lot of searches on YouTube on graffiti,” he said.
Watching videos of what was being done in other countries, Ra Small found how abandoned buildings and other urban spaces could be not only a great medium for art but also have a transformative effect on the cityscape.
“I saw that graffiti beautifies the city,” he said. “It inspired me to apply graffiti in Cambodia.”
Due to the proliferation of contemporary graffiti in the U.S. and Europe—glamorized by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the notoriously elusive Banksy—the art form is more naturally associated with Berlin or East London rather than cities such as Phnom Penh, where it still hasn’t quite caught on.
Some of the young, local artists at the Boeng Kak event are just dipping their feet and paint-smeared hands in for the first time. But though they say they found inspiration from foreign artists, they are eager to ensure their own culture is reflected in their work.
“Sometimes, graffiti looks like a new concept brought into Cambodia by foreigners but we, the artists, can apply traditional painting to street art,” Ra Small said.
His fellow graffiti artist, Koy, added: “I see all the foreign artists. We see what they could do and I guess now we’re trying to show what we could do.”
“We get a lot of inspiration from them but then we also have a background of the traditional art and we can combine that together,” he continued, referring to Cambodia’s rich artistic heritage.
For one, Koy drew his inspiration from classic Khmer rock ‘n’ roll—the music his father would play in the car while Koy was growing up. The Sinn Sisamouth piece was his first public work in Phnom Penh, he said.
However, reception to the graffiti has been mixed.
“I’ve noticed that not all Cambodians support street art, while almost all foreigners I know like graffiti. Some landlords didn’t allow me to do graffiti on their walls while others agreed,” Ra Small said.
But judging from the interest and participation in painting sessions in Boeng Kak, things could be changing, at least among the youth.
“In Cambodia, unlike in its neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the graffiti movement is just beginning,” said Henri Colomb, alias “Diseck,” one of the foreign artists involved in the project.
The 36-year-old from France says graffiti serves as a crucial platform for expression in public spaces, especially for young people—and Ra Small agrees.
“The other benefit of doing graffiti is that it attracts young people a lot. So we can use street art to attract young people away from wasting their time with gangs, by joining hands in painting,” Ra Small said.
“Few artistic movements can unite as many artists in one piece of work,” Diseck adds via Facebook. “Hip-hop transcends language barriers because our culture is shared.”
Here in Phnom Penh, Ra Small notes graffiti’s role in the public sphere is useful not only for artistic expression, but also political discourse.
“Art in general is the best tool to express social issues, political views and human rights as a whole,” he said.
“I have a plan to do graffiti for political expression, but I don’t get any support from families and friends since [they think] it’s not good to do political expression through street art in Cambodia, unlike in other countries where you can easily do street art for political expression. But I hope I can do it someday.”
Koy also sees the potential for street art to grow.
“There’s a lot of hidden talent because people are so focused on surviving,” he said. “There’s a lot of people out there who might have the potential but they haven’t had a chance to figure it out. With this [initiative], other people can come and try to see what they can do.”
Street art has long been a tool for the masses, a way to express themselves publicly outside—even against—the establishment. Whether Boeng Kak’s street art will prove potent against the juggernaut of development at the expense of local communities remains to be seen.
At the very least, the local artists hope a touch of color can help bring back Boeng Kak’s effervescent vibe.
“Art should bring people together,” Koy said. “There’s not much I can do as an individual but at least it’s something.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)