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Kenji Chai on making ground in the graffiti world, and the steady growth of street art

Our September digital cover star, Kenji Chai, opens up about his relentless journey from graphic designer to graffiti artist and muralist. He shares his take on the evolution of street art today.

It is the early 1990s: the dawning era of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Street Fighter, and a young Kenji Chai is doodling the characters in his textbook at school, in the middle of a class he is not paying attention to. Fast forward a decade later and Kenji is dabbling in graffiti art, avoiding getting caught by authorities. Kenji’s story makes it difficult not to revisit the ‘lazy student turned delinquent’ stereotype — but while he may have been easily bored with his studies, Kenji is far from idle.

“I learned early on that pursuing art as a career takes a lot of perseverance and hard work,” says Kenji. “Of course, you also have to love what you do. That’s actually most important — you need to be sure of that before you start anything.”

Image from Instagram/@mr_kenjichai

Kenji talks of his own love of art with the same mood of inexpressible joy that artists all over the world share. And like all artists, Kenji’s passion comes from recognising art as his highest calling. “When I was doodling, it’s like I was in the zone,” he says. “Suddenly, without realising, time passed so fast and the school bell was ringing. It was that feeling — you know the kind of feeling when you believe something is meant for you? I didn’t know it yet at the time. All I knew was that I loved doing this… art, and drawing.”

The concept of the struggling artist, however, is a very real thing and Kenji Chai understands the view well. To live off of the art one creates is not always enough to make ends meet. So, Kenji went down the path of graphic design to acquire a day job. “I didn’t have much of a choice,” he says. “It was either that or interior design for me. I took graphic design just to get it over with. Later, after I got out, I realised that in the field there are boundaries. The colours, the logos… everything’s already set. You can’t change things however you like. There is such a big limitation of creativity and it feels like you can’t do anything.”

It didn’t take long for Kenji to feel worn out by his life as a graphic designer. He equates it to “having a gap between the monitor and himself”. Ironically, he explains, working tediously on the computer day in, day out created a huge disconnect from the art he was making. After an encounter with a friend where Kenji expressed his discontent with his work, he was introduced to someone who, as fate would have it, had recently quit his job in graphic design for a life of graffiti.

“This was, like, twelve years ago, and he taught me how to spray-paint,” says Kenji. “Once I started spray-painting on the wall, it took me back to that feeling I had when I was doodling in school. It was the exact same feeling. So, I kept going each weekend. It just made me feel so much better about myself. And that’s why I keep doing it, even now.” In 2013, Kenji embarked on a new path — starting up his own company for mural and street art. “I told my old boss at the time that if I couldn’t make it, I would come back to work for him, so I gave myself a one-year time limit — but then ten years later, here we are! I never thought it would turn out to be this big. I mean, it started out as just a hobby for me.”

Street art today, according to Kenji Chai

Kenji admits that times have changed since he first picked up the can of spray paint in his youth. Today, street art has evolved so much that there are different branches of it: ‘real graffiti art’, which is technically still illegal; and murals or ‘paid street art’, considered good in the eyes of the authorities and are usually pieces that have been commissioned.

“Street artists use spray cans to paint so that it becomes their own,” Kenji explains. “But most artists go down the first branch, the ‘true’ graffiti artists. These artists don’t usually gel with the mural artists, because ultimately it’s not about earning money. It’s about real graffiti. They choose to become vandals, and they aim to ‘destroy’ the property. So, sometimes the art can be quite messy and cluttered. Of course, there’s no problem with that. It’s just two different things. I do both types, too. But since I’ve already been ‘baptised’ into street murals, I get very perfectionist when I do graffiti.”

Kenji credits artist Ernest Zacharevic for the growing popularity of murals and street art in Malaysia. Zacharevic’s most notable work is “Kids on a bicycle” located on Armenian Street in George Town, Penang. Since the mural’s creation in 2012, the once-quiet heritage street has transformed into a busy tourist attraction, so much that even its creator laments his unintended contribution to gentrification, despite the piece gathering people from all walks of life together. It’s a tough call for an artist.

A pair of girls posing with “Kids on a bicycle” mural art by Ernest Zacharevic. (Image from Instagram/@ernestzacharevic)

“He’s originally from Lithuania and he’s London-trained, but I do feel that he helped bring up the mural art scene in Malaysia,” says Kenji. “His is quite a unique style. Not every client would go for that kind of style. So, in a way, it helped us rising artists to recognise the value in what we’re doing. People already understand what murals and street art are through social media, so it becomes easier for the rest of us to put our work out there.”

Style, as Kenji puts it, is very subjective. And he’s glad to see such a diverse range in today’s street art, and his hope is that young artists continue to express themselves in unique ways. “As you figure out your own style, you realise along the way that you can just have fun with it. When you love something, you will want to understand yourself more through it, so you will keep practising. Of course, when you feel tired, you can rest. But you won’t really feel sick or tired of something if you truly love it.”

Find out more about Kenji Chai in the latest issue of LSA Digital Cover Vol.005 HERE.

(All images are taken from Instagram/@mr_kenjichai)

Kenji Chai on making ground in the graffiti world, and the steady growth of street art

Puteri Yasmin Suraya

Brand & Partnerships Writer

Hailing from an English Literature & Creative Writing background, Yasmin has a deep love for fiction and poetry. When she’s not writing or café-hopping, she spends most of her time in the comfort of her own room binge-watching period romances, (badly) belting out show tunes, and curating Spotify playlists to match her mood for the week.

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