Why graffiti artist The Sliz chose spray cans over skyscrapers

Why graffiti artist The Sliz chose spray cans over skyscrapers

While ‘bombing’ one of George Town’s alleys, The Sliz gets candid about how he is constantly adapting in the fast-changing art world.

By Emilia Ismail

Kneeling next to a drain, his hand carefully manipulating a can of spray paint, The Sliz and two fellow artists, FBR and Taz were ‘bombing’ an alley by Barfly George Town along Jalan Gurdwara.

‘Bombing’, in the graffiti subculture, is an act of painting many different walls inside one city area within a very short timeframe, for obvious reasons. It can also mean – to go out writing. “This piece is a permissible graffiti piece, but we still bomb at night because old habits die hard,” he laughs, a reference to his past where he would be out bombing at 3 am to evade authorities.

Bandung, Indonesia

Given his background as an architecture student, The Sliz has an eye for detail. His strokes are precise. Each imperfection in every drip, smudge and splatter is intentional and deliberate.

“For me, when I approach a graffiti project from my architectural background, I will use a wall as a massive drawing board, with detailed sections, axonometrics, and perspectives.”

“From an artist point of view, a graffiti can add a new dimension to the common building elements – doors, windows, walls, shutters.”

“In a lot of ways, whatever applies in architecture, applies in arts as well,” he says.

When asked about a transferable skill he learned as an architecture student, he answers, “Coming up with a formula to charge a client. There could never be a perfect fee. There is always a trade-off. Sometimes, if a wall has high foot traffic and the owner allow you to tag the wall, then I can be more flexible with my rate.”

He says that with his experience working in architecture firms, he has learned to treat a graffiti project just like a construction project. “The charges per square feet usually get lower as the piece gets bigger. However, the intricacy of the piece will also affect the rate,” he says.

A collaborative piece in support of nuclear disarmament.

With his long hair, T-shirt, and ripped jeans, The Sliz does not fit into the architecture-student stereotype of dockers, polo shirts and the ever-present sketch pencils. He resisted it so much he threw his sketch pencils in his final year as an architecture student and picked up spray cans instead.

“I never looked back ever since. My freedom of expression is far more valuable than chasing the dream of designing a skyscraper.”

Since becoming a full-time artist, he has worked on several notable projects for Celcom, iM4U, Hin Bus Depot Art Centre, and various local brands such as Mutha Puaka & Gajah Lama. He even founded The Secret Hideout collective in Subang in 2011.

This 32-year-old graffiti artist first came to Penang when Ernest Zacharevic was on the verge of putting Penang in the global spotlight. In 2012, the London-trained Lithuanian artist was commissioned to paint a series of murals in George Town in conjunction with the George Town Festival. Zacharevic’s murals went on to receive worldwide recognition, with the BBC calling him Malaysia’s answer to Banksy.

 “I think no one expected street art to have such a massive impact on Penang’s economic growth, especially in tourism,” The Sliz says. 

Hin Bus Depot, Penang.

Moving to Penang came naturally for this Subang Jaya native as street art continues to thrive in George Town. “I think that was my way of adapting to the changing art scene. You have to change with it. You have to go with the hype. Otherwise, you’d fade into obscurity.”

“I have evolved as an artist. I don’t think we can only have one model. At one point I was into fine art, and I was targeting galleries. Today, I’m more comfortable finding a balance between galleries and the
street,” he says.

While graffiti art is typically viewed by most Malaysians as a less celebrated artform compared to its more prim-and-proper cousin – street art – both actually hold the same purpose and importance: to beautify a space. “It’s just two different terms to define the exact same thing. The problem here is, the idea that street art is usually painted with permission and is done by a formally-trained artist while graffiti art is often painted without permission and can be done by anyone,” he says.

Manila, The Philippines

Additionally, according to The Sliz, modern graffiti art became associated with gangsterism in the 70s, where subways and streets in the United States were used by gangs to mark their territories. “The art movement then became a borrowed culture in Malaysia and often associated with vandalism,” he adds.

However, there has been an increased appreciation of graffiti as an art form in recent times. “Melbourne has embraced graffiti for its commercial and touristic appeal. The art form has become respectable,” he says.

The Sliz left his mark on the wall of Hosier Lane in Melbourne in 2018. The bluestone cobbled laneway is deemed by many as a mecca for graffiti artists the world over since the city council declared Hosier Lane as a graffiti tolerance zone.

Hosier Lane, Melbourne.

“My trip to Melbourne has made me think that adaptability applies not only to individuals but to cities, too.”

Having his thoughts brought back to Penang, The Silz expresses his frustration at the pace at which the state accommodates new ideas and art. “Ernest is a friend of mine, but Penang has been riding on his murals for a very long time now. It’s about time for a new thing, don’t you think?” he asks.

“If you noticed, all the big walls and projects are commissioned to non-Malaysians. It may give Penang the exposure globally, but there must be some sort of balance. We need local representation too.”

Trying to be the change he wants to see, The Sliz spoke with the shop owners along Carnarvon Street and arranged for local artists to spray paint graffiti on their store shutters. He saw this as a way to expose people to the work of local artists.

Carnarvon Street, Penang.

He said he wants the public to question why local artists only get to paint on shutters and not on George Town’s walls. “I want the people to ask themselves that question, rather than us asking them ‘why not because we have been asking for years. “

Although this project has been on pause for some time, The Sliz wishes that upon completion, it will change the mindsets of people.

“I hope we can help Penang discover the commercial and touristic value in graffiti art as well.” 

The Sliz’s collaborative pieces with Ajim Juxta are exhibited at the latter’s TUGU|UGUT show at Hin Bus Depot until 7th April 2019.

Facebook: fb.com/sultan.sliz

Instagram: @thesliz

All images courtesy of The Sliz. Cover photo by Firdausghaz

Emilia Ismail is a writer and publisher. Her articles can be found in The Star and Penang Monthly. Her publishing company, Flatplan Publisher, worked on artist Thomas Powell’s debut book Chinese Zodiac and More.