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Seeing the Obvious: Tikam-tikam Mural-making with the Community

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

Written by Ajriani Asrul

Mural at the void deck of Blk 177 Boon Lay Drive

Over the course of two weeks in April 2021, the void deck of Blk 177 Boon Lay Drive was a gathering space for a mishmash group of people to gather and co-create a new mural. Under the guidance of artist Huang Suhuai and 3Pumpkins team, volunteers from GIC, Boon Lay Youth Network and Singapore Pools worked alongside children and youth from Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC) and Boon Lay residents to give a fresh coat of mint green paint on otherwise dull walls and pepper them with an assortment of shapes and colours. Inspired by the spirit of play and chance, the playful design reflects the randomness at which encounters in the neighbourhood happen and give life to a community.

This write-up aims to provide perspectives on the process of co-creation in a community-based artwork and the importance of establishing meaningful relationships with local stakeholders.

The mural is made possible with the support of the aforementioned volunteers as well as Yong Hon Kong Foundation, the stART Fund under the National Arts Council and the Boon Lay Residents’ Network.

A design that’s not really a design

Titled ‘Tikam-Tikam’, the mural is the latest addition to one of 3Pumpkins’ flagship community-building programme - Seeing the Obvious. First initiated as a joint project with Nanyang Polytechnic in 2019, Seeing the Obvious (STO) is a community place-making project that seeks to activate and transform public spaces in ways that connect people and create a sense of belonging. Each edition of Seeing the Obvious is a result of longitudinal research practice in the neighbourhood and is an attempt to make the ‘invisible’ social dynamics and relationships visible through art and design. The initial work in Toa Payoh received a Cities of Love merit award (2019) for social sustainability and has since been organised in Lengkok Bahru and now, Boon Lay.

Most conventional murals are created this way – an artist is commissioned to prepare a sketched drawing of an artwork which is then superimposed onto a wall surface. When communities are engaged, participants will be assigned segments of the wall which they paint! The act of standing shoulder-to-shoulder to do your small part and contribute to a bigger purpose is a hallmark of such community engagement work. This ethos was something ‘Tikam-Tikam’ sought to emulate but Suhuai was determined to enable a process that is more participatory and organic.

From the onset, it was clear that the design would be less structured, not entirely sketched out and possibly turn out quite random. In some quarters, there would be enough reason to be aghast, especially when permission had to be sought from multiple stakeholders to approve this design which did not spell out the exact visual output. But to the credit of approving bodies including the local town council, resident’s network, community club and Grassroots Advisor, much faith was placed into the process, and Suhuai, set out to design a system to co-create the mural with participants (and to placate anxious minds, a rough mock-up of what the final artwork could look like was eventually done!).

A mock-up of the mural by artist Huang Suhuai

Not for the Paint-Hearted

As soon as the 3Pumpkins team and volunteers started to busy themselves to prepare the floors and walls of the void deck at Blk 177 for the mural-making, children, youth, and residents grew curious about what was taking hold. Although located only a stone’s throw away from the TTKC centre, the void deck was not necessarily a focal area of the flurry of activities that typify the children and youth-led community space. The plain space often bore witness to curious puddles of water, cigarette butts, empty cans and thrown-out furniture, and was also used as a midnight toilet for drinkers. By instating a mural and involving the community to create it, the space was imagined to be an inviting place – for kids to run through, as a hangout spot, or a backdrop to a community art gallery. In fact, immediately upon activation, the space was slated to host a photography exhibition in May 2021 as part of the Singapore HeritageFest 2021.

Volunteers, staff and children working side-by-side

There was little that needed to be said as soon as the paint cans were opened. Paintbrushes were quickly snapped up by an army of volunteers and children who set out to turn any white surface they could find green. The older kids did a brilliant job of getting in the corners and tight edges while the younger ones were just thrilled to play with paint. Those who could not grab hold of brushes dipped their hands in the paint cans and started to stamp their handprints on the wall! It was all sorts of chaotic, but in a fun and good way. Adult volunteers complemented the work by painting the higher surfaces and second coats.

We were especially enthused by the efforts of Uncle Francis, an elderly resident who stayed two doors away from the void deck. He started out as a curious onlooker, observing the proceedings for lengthy periods, and eventually started to dish out advice to us on painting techniques. When he saw how haphazard some of the painting was going, he decided to take matters into his own hand and took out his personal supply of sticks, brushes, and tools to help us work better. It was heartening to watch how much Uncle Francis took on a personal stake in the project, even staying on after the last volunteer had left to apply just ‘one more coat of paint’.

Resident Uncle Francis demonstrating how to use a roller paintbrush to youth

As the walls readied themselves for the mural, Suhuai devised a system where participants were able to decide on certain colours and shapes to paint on the wall. First, they could choose from four colours – blue, white, red, or yellow. Then, they were asked to roll a dice. The number the dice landed on would then correspond to a particular shape. Participants could decide where in the void deck space they wanted the shape to be and proceeded to paint their piece of the mural. Suhuai’s artistic input to this process was to decide on the size of the shape, sketch out the outline on the wall and balance the overall coherence of the shapes. During an initial test round with a small group of kids, these instructions were not as simple as they seemed. Even the adults got quite confused!

Eventually, a set of visual instructions were developed, refined, and simplified to better engage the participants. It was printed on A3 paper and prominently displayed in the middle of the void deck. The adult facilitators were also thoroughly briefed so that they could facilitate the painting process. As the entire project took place during Phase 3 of Singapore’s Covid-19 reopening plans, groups of eight were observed and within a controlled environment, the participants were briefly taught techniques on how to hold a paintbrush by Suhuai. There was also an attempt to pair every child with an adult facilitator to supervise the painting.

Artist Huang Suhuai explaining the mural process to children and youth

Facilitators supervising the children’s painting, wiping away any ‘mistakes’ or in some cases, letting the painting go wild!

Lots of Wet Tissue, Touch-Ups and Masking Tape Later….

There are many lessons to be gleaned from this co-creation work. While there were some successes, difficulties that arose also provide much for the team to ponder over.

1. Community Participation

Many children and youth from TTKC jumped at the opportunity to be part of the mural-making process. The low barrier to entry and openness to welcome anyone without the need for particular skill sets made it an easy sell to the community. There was little persuasion needed to direct their energies to the mural, with a lot of enthusiasm that eventually had to be managed by the adults. Several participants would return over and over to paint a variety of shapes. Ask any child and they would gamely show you every part of the wall that they painted! Each time a TTKC staff brought out the supplies from storage or packed up at the end of the day, many would take the initiative to help – be it to carry a paint can, a bucket of water or a stool. The active participation of the community over the course of two weeks enabled the work to be shared across a bigger pool of people and completed within the stipulated timeline.

Aside from the immediate TTKC community, the space also saw several walk-in participation from passers-by who had been curious about TTKC but did not interact with the space previously. Over the course of an hour, one mum was so thrilled to see her son engrossed in the painting that she developed the confidence and trust to leave him with us for a further period while she scuttled home to manage other tasks. It is encouraging to know that projects like this can provide an entry point for engagement with the wider community.

2. Imperfect shapes and colours

Early into the mural-making process, it became clear that clean lines and smooth painting was not an expected result from the children’s efforts. As it turned out, painting on walls is quite different from painting on canvases which the children were more accustomed to. A certain artistic expectation of the final mural outcome also did not render leaving the efforts of the children as is an option. Thus, an additional step had to be integrated into the process where Suhuai and adult volunteers and staff had to touch up the foundations laid by the children’s painting. It proved to be quite laborious in the end, requiring several afternoons worth to complete.

It would be worthwhile to consider how the artistic merit of murals can be balanced with the abilities that participants offer within this means of co-creation. Future reiterations could possibly focus on working with older participants that can produce better results or designs that are more suited for imperfections.

3. Stakeholder Management

As heavy rain poured on the first day of the mural-making, and the void deck was cast in complete darkness, it was evident that we needed to strike a warm relationship with the neighbourhood cleaners and town council staff. As we quickly learnt, much power is vested within them to switch on the void deck lights which was sorely needed to enable any work to happen. As we commenced our work on a Saturday outside of office hours, a call to the town council, which oversees any estate-related matters, was rerouted to an operator manning the Essential Maintenance Service Unit (EMSU) hotline. After speaking to at least two operator hotline operators and a cleaning supervisor, the neighbourhood cleaner turned up several hours later to manually switch on the lights from a switchboard next to the void deck. We made sure to get the cleaner’s number afterwards and gained his support to help us out whenever we needed a little bit of light!

4. Permits, Approvals and Funding!

All public housing in Singapore comes under the direct purview of a government agency, the Housing Development Board (HDB). During the process of seeking funding for the project, we considered the HDB Lively Places Programme as a potential source of funds as the objectives of the grant were highly aligned with our purpose of developing a higher place identity. We also had an impression that it would help to make the process of applying for permits to use the space much more convenient. However, this turned out to be far from our experience.

We realised that we still had to seek approval for the permits with local grassroots organisations and town councils by ourselves by tapping on local networks. Thankfully, based on past experience in other communities, we had the know-how of which key stakeholders to engage. But if one is new to this, the process can be quite opaque and require some skilful people management. We also later realised that the grant would require us to do some ‘extra’ work outside of what was planned such as creating memorabilia for residents and including slogans to encourage neighbourhood friendliness. After weighing the benefits and challenges, the team decided that the requirements of the grant were too much for us to handle and decided to park it for another time.

A future home

Within a week of the mural’s completion, the void deck at Blk 177 played host to ‘This is what we eat at home’, an intimate multi-media exhibition assembled by the children, youth, and families of TTKC. It featured their family’s food heritage through photography, audio interviews and recipes. Although the physical exhibition was cut short by two weeks due to Singapore’s return to stricter measures under Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), the exhibition continues to be viewable in the digital realm. It was a worthwhile experiment to see how the mural could function as a canvas for a community gallery with considerable success.

Minister Desmond Lee visits the exhibition

There is much hope that the space will be adapted and used by various users in the time that it continues to exist in its current form. While 3Pumpkins sets out to bridge intra and inter-connection among residents, and stakeholders in a neighbourhood of diverse communities to forge a sense of community belonging through ‘Seeing the Obvious: Tikam-Tikam’, ultimately it is up to the residents to decide how they want the space to feature in their lives. While we continue to concoct new ideas on how artists can interact with the community using the space, we quietly observe how traces of life are created within it – from footprints on the wall, as an outdoor dance studio or a quiet space to hang out at, away from the bustle of the busy playground.

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