Artwork by Zero, 2011 - 2017
The greatest feats in humanity are not accomplished in the absence of obstacles – they are accomplished because of them. For Singapore street artist Zero, the founder of the RSCLS collective, that obstacle came in the shape of an out-of-shape high school teacher who was more interested in getting some shut eye than teaching an art class. “He sat on the desk to take a nap and told us to draw what we saw…,” says Zero, “…so I did.” And in so doing, Zero proved he possessed creative talent, went on to become one of Singapore’s best known street artists, has been featured in urban publications, lauded in local art circles, displayed in galleries, is the only street artist in Singapore to receive the National Art Council’s Young Artist Award, now teaches at LASALLE College of the Arts and most recently completed his Masters degree…Well, it didn’t go down quite like that, there were a few other obstacles to overcome along the way to street art success. And without them, he probably wouldn’t be where he is today.
Growing up in Singapore in the eighties and nineties was a bit challenging if you were an artist and if you were Malay. If you were both, you were almost invisible. “Malay culture is very creative and expressive. Our heritage includes batik, gamelan, all sorts of expressive crafts. I think a lot of us are naturally creative. But it wasn’t valued back then,” explains Zero. “Obviously academic excellence is valued highly in Singapore, so art was never a priority. If you weren’t achieving in those areas, you didn’t get much attention. I was really into design and technical subjects but my grades were not good enough to pursue those subjects, so I was sidelined into an arts stream instead.” Obstacle 1.
A fortuitous thing, because as it turns out, the kid could draw. Canvasses of choice included typical rites of passage items such as school bags, pencil cases, textbooks, skin. “I knew I liked to draw but it was something I liked to do for fun,” says Zero. He was inspired by comics like GILA-GILA magazine, a Malaysian version of MAD magazine. And then one day, his sketchbook was confiscated. Obstacle 2.
The cover of the very first edition of Gila-Gila, 1978
Like contraband, this innocuous little compendium of school boy doodlings was passed around the school staff room, until one teacher noticed that the doodlings weren’t doodlings at all, but drawings with some real potential. “One of my teachers discovered that I liked to draw and he wanted to encourage me,” says Zero. And just like that, Zero landed his first job. “He connected me to a local horror writer who wanted me to draw ghosts and spooky scenes for her book. It was the first time someone had paid me to draw and it was the best $200 I ever earned.” But Zero didn’t consider entertaining the idea that he could make a career out of being an artist. “Even in art class, there was little room for creativity. We were taught to follow things a certain way, and if we did we would pass, and if we didn’t we would fail.” Obstacle 3.
So Zero decided to fail. Spectacularly. “During my Maths O level examination, something inside me just snapped. I wrote my name on the paper but I didn’t complete the exam. I just couldn’t.” There was no back up plan, there was no plan B, but one teacher took him aside. “She said to me, what do you want to do?” says Zero. It focused him. Zero went home and told his Mum he wanted to pursue art. Luckily, she supported him. But back then, tertiary art institutions were privatised and no government assistance existed. Not to mention, Zero was from a low income family and had three younger siblings. Things would be a struggle. Obstacle 4.
“Can you imagine what it’s like when your father earns $1400 a month and your tuition fees are $1400?” asks Zero. The sacrifice his family made so he could attend NAFA is something he appreciates to this day. “We didn’t have very much, but we were happy. I grew up in a creative household and whatever my Mum was doing, I did with her too. If she cooked, I learnt to cook, if she sewed I learnt to sew.” But NAFA wasn’t working out so well. “One lecturer remarked that my art looks very Malay, despite there being no visual references to a Malay aesthetic at all. Lecturers referred to us as Kampong people. In the end, I hated it there.” Obstacle 5.
So that’s exactly what Zero did. If he was going to be an outcast, he was going to create a village of outsiders. “There was a group of us that this happened to. We banded together. I’d gotten into the skateboard scene by then, so we started designing logos and characters and screen-printing our own t-shirts. We started to create an identity. It was productive and dynamic and better than anything we were learning,” explains Zero. He told his friends he wanted to pursue fine arts, and they dissuaded him. “They said I’d have trouble getting work and convinced me to focus on design instead.” Obstacle 6.
Sometimes we don’t know if the path we take is a detour or a road to somewhere else. Before Zero could find out where design would lead him, national service came calling. “I actually really enjoyed training. I like pushing myself physically and I discovered I was good at leading.” This would come in handy later when forming RCSLS. In the meantime, while not on active duty, “I was really into table-top war games, so I had this hobby making all these figures. It was pretty intricate work,” explains Zero. “I would paint them with a lot of detail, sculpted personalised details, and I’d make up complete back stories for each one before giving them away to my platoon mates. They loved them.” In other words, Zero got as comfortable as you can in fatigues. “I would’ve stayed if I could have trained to be a sniper. Not because I condone war, but because I liked the camaraderie of the army. But back then, this wasn’t available to people of certain ethnic and religious backgrounds, even though I’m indigenous to Singapore.” Obstacle 7.
You know that feeling that churns in your guts when you ignore your instincts? It usually comes back to bite you. For Zero it didn’t take long at all. “Once the army was a no-go, I picked up on design again and went to work in some agencies.” It only took Zero a few stints to realise that working on other people’s brands was not what he wanted. “I just didn’t see the value in being a tool for someone else. I wanted to create my own stuff.” But what? Obstacle 8.
“First of all, I experimented with regular street art. Lettering, bombing, throw up’s.” But things started to change when Zero got together with friends from NAFA and an artivist. “I started to play with the concept of street art as a way to provoke. We began creating our art on sticker paper and then placing it in strategic locations. We didn’t see it as vandalism. It was about using public spaces to say something new and question things. Like when I was a kid - I would see those signs around our HDB block saying no playing, no running, no ball games. But why? Who is getting hurt? We began to question that.” But before his art could generate some answers, Zero’s mates got married and had kids. “That’s when I realised I wasn’t ready to grow up. I wanted to struggle a bit more.” Obstacle 9.
This is when things went from a single man on a mission, to a collective game-changer. Zero, along with other pioneers of street art and graphic-influenced graffiti, formed ARTVSTS. With this collective in place it was time to focus on the doing. But doing what? Obstacle 10.
Finding purpose, searching for meaning – it can take a lifetime and you still may never work it out. But maybe the act of enquiry is the point. In questing and questioning perhaps we arrive at the place we’re meant to be. “One of the biggest things ARTVSTS did was being invited to create intervention art at the Singapore Art Museum. We were given free reign to participate in an exhibition and create immediate, reactive works in a show which was already opened.” Zero painted stencils of CCTV cameras everywhere so the audience felt they were under surveillance. That project gave Zero a clearer insight and direction into what he felt he wanted his artistic career to be like. In 2006, Zero managed a project where he organised a group of seven or so graffiti / street artists to paint the heritage exterior of SAM. A couple of days into painting, they were temporarily halted as it was causing a lot of controversy. “The old boys of St Joseph Institution which used to be housed in that building hated it as they felt we desecrated the memory of their school and word on the street was that that LKY himself saw what we were doing one morning on the way to his office and told the management he hated it. But we continued anyway. It was a powerful message. It demonstrated our message.”
“We.Bomb.SAM (Singapore Art Museum)", 2006
And just like that Zero was a street artist inside a gallery, creating installations, transcending the idea that street art can only be on the street, and demonstrating that street artists are just artists, after all. Zero had arrived. There were no more obstacles left.
Not on the road to establishing himself anyway. On the road to legitimising street art in Singapore, legitimising the role that art has to play in commenting on Singapore society, legitimising his culture, there was a whole other type of obstacle course to climb, swing and duck. Eventually this meant that ARTVSTS wasn’t the right platform to take some of the leaps and bounds that Zero was keen to make. That’s when RSCLS came along. Explains Zero, “Antz, a fellow street artist, and I had bonded over our love of mythology. We started painting in alleyways together and I could see he was diligent. We wanted to do bigger and better things, so he and I set up the RSCLS collective.” RSCLS is now a multi-disciplinary group who are passionate about their practice and developing a network of street artists across Asia, and using their collective might to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Well at least, paint them anyway.
Zero could be forgiven for putting his feet up and kicking back like that teacher way back when, after dodging the debris on his path to becoming founder of RSCLS. But despite commissions being offered, projects in the works, and a disappointing experience with educators, he hasn’t stopped learning and pushing boundaries. “Recently I had a gallery show, as part of my Masters of Fine Arts, where I staged graffiti and reframed it. I literally scraped layers of paint off walls and mounted them as an archaeological piece of work. The work is my way of subverting existing graffiti practices in Singapore as well as commenting on permanence and how we relate to public spaces.” While the exhibition was a success, it highlighted how even street artists themselves need to understand the power of what they’re doing. “Even though I used graffiti from legal walls, some artists weren’t pleased. They missed the point that graffiti doesn’t need to be permanent or public to be considered art. Their work was going to be painted over eventually. I found another way of elevating what they do.”
“Even though I used graffiti from legal walls, some artists weren’t pleased. They missed the point that graffiti doesn’t need to be permanent or public to be considered art. Their work was going to be painted over eventually. I found another way of elevating what they do.” - Zero
“The Sum of Us” Exhibition by Zero, LASALLE College of Fine Art, Singapore, 2017
Educating audiences (and even other artists), is nothing new. But in Singapore, where street art can still be charged as vandalism, it can be. And perhaps because his education was so hard fought, Zero understands his job as a Singapore street artist is not just about breaking ground on why street art is valid, but about breaking down cultural boundaries too. “My biggest known work is probably my portrait of Rajinikanth on Hindu Road. He’s a working class hero from Southern India and my tribute to the migrant workers who have literally made this country,” says Zero. The Little India Association couldn’t agree more and gave Zero permission to paint the mural on a prominent wall. But objections by the landlord almost stopped the project in its tracks. “Amongst some homophobic remarks, he explained he didn’t like my subject matter. He doesn’t share ethnicity with a lot of occupants in Little India and he just didn’t get it. It made me realise how far we still have to come,” explains Zero.
“Working Class Hero [Rajinikanth]”, ARTWALK Little India, Singapore 2017
The Chinese landlord is happy now though. He still doesn’t care much for the mural but it attracts regular crowds which means more business for him.
Education is a lifelong process. And so is leaping obstacles in a single bound.
Zero (aka Zul Othman) with his son Ezra.
Written by Skye Wellington