Art vs. Vandalism: a Colombian graffiti artist in Singapore

By: Natalia Angel

Graffiti is considered by some as a stimulant, a liberating activity or simply an expression that adds color and variety to a bland environment. Others consider it a reflection of carelessness, and even a crime offensive to certain social sensibilities. Seems the opinions regarding this style of art are as varied as its use; this in turn defines its context, as well as the judgment of the artist or “vandal.” It is so how graffiti causes curiosity to the spectator not only by the thrill of its revelation, but by the controversy it generates.

Previously in Singapore, the writing of slogans, drawings and tags on public and private property were being carried out uncontrollably. Citizens used public sewers, among other places, to express what in those days the Minister of Defense considered “antisocial and anti-national elements in the name of democracy.” Thus, in 1966, graffiti was banned through the petty crimes law.

While graffiti was being banned in Singapore, a romance was born on the other side of the world that would change the concept of this story forever. María Eva Rodríguez, a young teacher from Tolima, Colombia traveled to Ecuador to attend a conference. There, an unexpected meeting with Gilbert Mathieu, a Belgian teacher, would give her a new direction in her life. Maria Eva and Gilbert ended up creating a long distance relationship between letters and poems, which inspired Gilbert to move to Colombia to ask for her hand in marriage. Soon the couple wed, had their first son, Miguel, and two years later in Armenia, Didier was born, the protagonist of our story.

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Didier, his brother Miguel, and his two cousins. Cali, Colombia 1981.

At the end of the 1980s, the socio-political situation in Colombia became very dangerous due to drug trafficking. This led to the Mathieu family deciding to move to Europe; Didier at the time was fourteen. Two years later, in the midst of his interest in meeting new people in that distant country, he began painting in the streets of Belgium, sowing his affinity for graffiti through rap music.

Relying on his talent, Didier eventually began his studies in Space Art and Illustration, in St Luc Liège Belgium. His parents had always supported his freedom of expression and, more than once, had to go through Didier’s unpleasant encounters with the police. But for him, “vandalism” was not what drew him to paint on the city trains or on the walls of the neighborhoods. What really attracted him was the freedom to create an inspiration around a repressed environment. It was thus, through the controversy between art and vandalism, that Didier was promptly recognized as a leader of the graffiti culture in Belgium, so much so that he paid his lawyers with his art.

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Barcelona, 1998.

After a while, Belgium ceased to be a professional challenge for him, so in a moment of desperation he sent images of his art to five foreign companies at random. Months later, he received an unexpected offer from Singapore to work with Lucasfilm, the renowned digital arts workshop founded by George Lucas.

In 2007, Didier began working on his first movie, Transformers, without knowing the software they used and learning while working at the same time. His talent stood out from the beginning, receiving reviews for his excellence and being challenged with the most difficult shots. In his three years at Lucasfilm, Didier developed his digital design with a range of films from Indiana Jones to Iron Man and Star Trek (this last one being his favorite movie because of the incredible opportunity to learn directly from teachers at Lucasfilm San Francisco). In this sense, Didier tells us: “It’s very cool when you see your name in the credits of a movie, it’s a unique experience.”

Currently in Singapore, graffiti continues to be known as “vandalism” as well as having an imposing intolerance by the law. Here, “they paint” you a fine of SGD $ 2,000, or imprisonment for up to three years, along with corporal punishment (three to eight cane strokes). An expensive penalty highlighting the tension between art and vandalism. The rigidity towards this crime is notorious, especially for its international cases with guilty expats pleading amnesty.

In contrast, Colombia has always had relatively relaxed laws in this regard, especially now with the declassification of graffiti from “crime” to a simple breach of the law. That has led to the establishment of a “wall culture” where artists create elaborate works of art and actively challenge the duality between art and “vandalism”, and even between advertising and graffiti. The cities vibrate with works made by international and native talent, turning street art into a unique, tourist and cultural attraction.

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PAPAGALLOS. Didier ‘Jaba’ Mathieu. Medellin, Colombia 2015.

It would seem that the laws between my native Colombia and my adoptive country Singapore are like day and night, a bipolarity from permissiveness to authoritarianism. While other countries consider graffiti as an abomination made by young belligerents with criminal tendencies, Colombia has tried to adopt graffiti as the artistic expression of its people. Singapore, from the other spectrum, maintains a constant resentment in the population for the control of the public expression. Some people even come to think Singapore is beautiful and dazzling, but a little bland at first glance. Here is a revelation about the importance of the balance between the justice of the laws, the righteousness of who implement them and the impact on the country’s culture.

For this reason, the Singapore government has invested generously in the arts to create institutions such as SOTA (School of the Arts), fostered corporate partnerships such as Lucasfilm, and has fostered the creation of community events such as Singapore Art Week to support their artists and revitalize the kampong spirit.

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Aliwal Urban Art Festival. Jaba & Blackbook. Kampong Glam, Singapore 2017.

In Southeast Asia, the first street art manifestations apparently began in China, creating some influence for new appearances in neighboring countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Once, there were very few who dared to paint a graffiti and were basically denounced. Currently, under a legal framework created by the government of Singapore to support this art form; we can enjoy the great talent of Didier, which ranges from hyper-realistic to the abstract, with his inclination towards the wildstyle, with no need of drawings or grids. For him, the traditional graffiti is letter, but says that almost nobody will pay for that in Singapore. The public wants things that they can understand and that are enjoyable.

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Hiper-realism: DREAMSCAPE. Photoshop, 2014.
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Abstract: JABA FREESTYLE. Wilstyle spray, 2015.

After painting in Haji lane in 2010, Didier inspired a movement in that neighborhood that spread throughout Singapore. His tools were spray cans, a bamboo scaffold, his hands and the faith of the shop owner who, in an unusual bureaucratic challenge, let him paint first and asked for government permission later. The city today has come to be influenced by many other international as well as local artists who display their works in some of the most visited streets of the country. If you have not already noticed, that famous mural on the walls of the restaurant Piedra Negra and Blu Jaz Cafe (Haji Lane, district of Kampong Glam) are the work of Didier ‘Jaba’ Mathieu.

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EL LIO. Piedra Negra. Corner of Ophir Rd & Beach Rd, Singapore 2016.

Didier also impacted the student environment in Singapore by teaching his techniques at Nanyang Polytechnic in 2011. Through him, many students landed their first jobs at Lucasfilm. “The work with students is very rewarding, one feels better appreciated as a teacher than under the stress of the date of delivery of the films. Supervisors at Lucasfilm sharpened my eye and made me grow as an artist, but the students gave me an incomparable human reward. ” While teaching, he continued to paint and make exhibitions with the dream of teaching in the universities of Colombia. His mission was to inspire the young, but turns out they were inspiring him with hope for the future.

Didier never dared to make an illegal graffiti in Singapore, the rebellion that characterized him in other countries is a matter of the past. From Nanyang, Didier took a new direction by working on his first comic book, which was released in late 2016. A challenging two-year job in a new field and a major achievement in his artistic career.

“The culture of Colombia is in every native and diversity is incredible at every level. Intellectually, culturally and artistically, Colombia is distinguished in the Americas. Colombians are well received artistically, and this can be seen with the many works of Botero that appear in front of the most luxurious buildings in this city”, says Didier.

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KATHAKA. Little India Art Walk. Corner of Serangoon & Upper Dickson, Singapore 2017.

For twenty-six years, Didier has contributed his talent to the “wall culture” from Colombia to Singapore, painting on four continents and over forty countries, demonstrating the best of street art (and digital art) in the world. He does not care if he finds himself painting in the midst of a shooting in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, or literally, cleaning up the streets of Belgium, but the richness of his experience. Didier has rehabilitated abandoned streets, not only with his art but also with his community work, creating healthy spaces.

At the present time, Didier is pursuing his master’s degree in Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts and, in passing, he continues to create his legacy. Jaba shows a new heritage for the Colombians in Singapore. Who would have thought that a native of Armenia was going to leave his mark with aerosol in the antipodes! And after all the hundreds of murals and graffiti he has done, he feels he has not painted his favorite graffiti yet. This can only mean, the best is yet to come!

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