In a Rundown Phnom Penh Neighborhood,
Graffiti and Street Art Thrive
Graffiti in Cambodia has not historically been very common, but that’s changing fast.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Graffiti in Cambodia has not historically been very common, but that’s changing fast due to the city’s relatively young and increasingly urban and networked population. While many tags are done by people passing through or immigrants who live here, locals are discovering the joys and thrills of tagging as well. Nowhere can you see this more clearly than in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak neighborhood.
បឹង (boeung) means lake, and Boeung Kak was the largest lake in Phnom Penh until it was leased for redevelopment in 2007. Many protests, evictions, and tons and tons of sand later, the lake remains largely undeveloped but completely filled in. The residents who lived nearby, and many in the surrounding neighborhood, have been forcibly evicted and simultaneously harassed, neglected, and ignored by the government.
The abandoned buildings and small residential houses, which the government and real estate developers alike would love to see demolished, have made Boeung Kak the perfect urban canvas for taggers. Walking around the neighborhood, I saw several foreigners preparing a mural, a few wasted foreigners in the midday heat, and I was offered drugs and women several times. It is of the opinion of many (myself included) that it is an intentional tactic by the government to allow places such as these — prime real estate that is largely occupied by poorer families — to fall into squalor, making forced evictions and the redevelopment process easier to swallow for the public at large.
In Phnom Penh, two of the current graffiti stars are Lisa Mam, who is considered Cambodia’s first and definitely most successful female street artist, and Chifumi, a prolific foreigner based in Phnom Penh who helps organize the Cambodia Urban Arts Festival with the French Institute. Both Mam and Chifumi combine contemporary illustration with traditional decorative styles from Khmer architecture and sculpture called Kbach (ក្បាច់). Chifumi is most recognizable for his depictions of the hyperextended fingers of traditional Cambodian Apsara dancers.
Traditional Cambodian subject matter, like Kbach design and Angkor Wat, is pervasive. Also found is Rahu, a bodyless god who lives in the sky and catches the moon or the sun, briefly swallowing them whole to create eclipses. I’m saddened that, given the beauty of Khmer script, I rarely see it used in street art. I think this is a testament to how foreign-oriented the scene currently is.
A good representation of the state of Cambodian graffiti is the above tag, “ខ្មែរ” which, as the tagger helpfully translates, is the word “‘Khmer” written in Khmer letters. I assume but am not certain that this was written by a foreigner. However, the translation gives us an idea about its intended audience.
But there are some younger Cambodian kids emerging on the scene. One active group in Boeung Kak is នគ រាជ (Noko Reaj) which means “royal kingdom.” Pictured below is a piece by the group with the members’ signatures under the Angkor Wat outline. I’ve seen many of these names involved in various tags throughout the neighborhood.
I spoke with one local resident, who had a piece on one side of her house that had been done by Lisa Mam, Peap Tarr, and Seth. She said she loved the work and hopes that the artists can help to make the neighborhood more beautiful. Not a 10-minute walk away, I asked an older woman for permission to photograph a tag on the side of her house. “Why do all you foreigners love this stuff?” she responded. “What does it mean?”
“Did they explain what they painted?” I asked her.
“They didn’t tell me anything, they didn’t ask,” she responded. “I don’t like it. This is my house.”
And so, the endless debate about graffiti continues, from NYC to Phnom Penh and everywhere in between.