One of the striking characteristics of Phnom Penh is the near absence of graffiti. Strikingly stark walls undoubtedly tempt a mischievous segment of the population, yet an overwhelming proportion of those walls remains pristine. The relatively few exceptions tend to be on fences surrounding construction.
How can there be so little defacement, I have mused, though to my credit, only briefly?
I have concluded that one reason has to be the cost of paint in this impoverished nation. A probably more compelling reason has to do with the ubiquity of 24-hour security guards as well as the clots of tuk-tuk drivers and motodops on so many of Phnom Penh’s corners.
(Although most stores, villas, ordinary houses and high-rise buildings are attended day and night, many watching out are security personnel who nap in a chair, doze in a vehicle or sleep in a hammock.)
Maybe another reason has to do with the tradition of respect for others, and I wonder whether that characteristic of many Asians doesn’t normally extend to property. I don’t know.
On a route to do some errands, one of my minor pleasures has been to walk through a crooked alley perhaps about the length of a football field in Phnom Penh only two blocks from my apartment building and partly adjacent to a university.
One or more talented graffiti artists decorated portions of the walls with cleverly conceived drawings. I always had intended to photograph them but, with the exception of a mere one or two remaining, lost that opportunity.
A related, if weightier, issue came to public attention last month, and it hard to believe what the city government has destroyed. It had a remarkably arresting mural whitewashed high up on building for want of a permit. The artist said $2,000 was paid to an expediter (read “briber”) to obtain official approval who never did so.
A spokesman for the Phnom Penh government was quoted in the Phnom Penh Post as saying the art work’s destruction resulted from incomplete paperwork and declared that the news media should stop wasting time on the issue. Huh?
The bureaucracy had two choices: Ignore the permit’s absence or request a permit. It obviously made the wrong choice.
To my mind, the loss of the wall art is tragic. To my mind, the government’s action is unforgivably small-minded, exposing the incompetence and ignorance of officials whose jobs are to help, not hurt, not damage. I doubt that anyone who reads this post will disagree with me.
If you don’t pay up, goes the mentality, then officials could care less about higher values. A veritable canyon divides the attitude of Phnom Penh’s bureaucracy and the enlightened town fathers of Bristol, England, among numerous other municipalities that appreciate art.
Now back to the alley I mentioned. A couple of months ago, I happened there and was transfixed by the sight of a wall artist as he silently completed a large and engaging work of indisputable quality. I made a mental note to photograph the achievement with my actual camera unattached to a phone.
The photo below is not mine. It documents the destruction of a provocative work of art.
TWith respect to preserving the image for myself, it is a sad reminder that, alas. . .
. . . I was too late.