Graffiti tagger turns gallery owner

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Fonki’s Mural at FT Gallery entrance, The Factory Phnom Penh Artspace. SUPPLIED

With its roots in the early hip-hop scene of 1970’s and 1980’s New York City, graffiti as an art form has over the years gone from being viewed as destructive vandalism to becoming a celebrated and widely imitated guerilla art form that uses spray paint to add color and imagination to decaying urban landscapes.

Graffiti-style lettering and graffiti-inspired graphics are everywhere in pop culture now, but there are still artists dedicated to the original mission of graffiti culture who like to do things the old fashioned way: Spray painting walls, sometimes with permission but often without.

Fonki (a pseudonym) is one such artist who has been covering walls and canvases across the globe and he’s one of the people most responsible for introducing graffiti art to the Kingdom, a place where it had little prior history and is still rarely sighted even in Phnom Penh.

Back in 2012, the French-Khmer Montrealer painted a family portrait for a documentary film called The Roots Remain, which documents Fonki’s return to Cambodia and the painting of a giant mural as an emotional tribute to his relatives who were killed in the genocide.

The film also shows that during his time in Cambodia, Fonki connected with a group of Cambodian youths who were hoping to breathe new life into their damaged culture. Though Fonki had visited Cambodia prior to 2012, it was the experience of the film project that he says called his heart to move from Canada to Cambodia a few years later.

“When I met [French-Cambodian filmmaker] brother Sok Visal and other artists there, I saw there was a renaissance happening in Cambodia. Then after the film I was coming a couple of times or four times a year to do more and more art projects. But it wasn’t until 2017 that I mentally committed to actually moving,” he says.

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Montrealer-Khmer-French artist Fonki, 31, working on his mural. SUPPLIED

As the curator and owner of FT Gallery and Studio at The Factory Phnom Penh, Fonki, 31, has no need to sneak around with spray cans at night anymore in order to get his artworks exhibited, but it was an uncertain road to success from where he started out.

MS-Paint or spray paint cans?

Drawing has always been his passion, but in 2005 at the age of 15 he took an art class with a friend who told him about graffiti and hip-hop culture and showed him graffiti in person underneath bridges in Montreal.

He then started out like most graffiti artists do – “tagging” their name all over town with a stylised signature designed for rapid execution when nobody happened to be looking. But he had no early plans for an art career.

“At 15 years old you don’t think much about what you want to do. But I remember I started with painting the student’s cafe. The year after, I was asked to paint my high school’s yard. Then I was asking them for a budget so that I could afford all of these expensive cans.

“I just wanted to paint and I guess I was finding ways to do it,” he says.

At university he was studying 3D animation for films because he thought that was his best shot at an art career. Then he realised that he was happier doing murals or exhibitions and he was starting to make good money from it.

“I decided to go just all-in and do my art. And once I really committed to it, the projects just kept flowing,” he says.

Walls and canvases around the world

After more than 16 years as an active artist, Fonki has now produced over one hundred creative projects on walls and canvases across the globe, receiving international attention from the US, Mexico, France, UK, Belgium, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and of course in his home countries of Canada and Cambodia as well.

Wherever he goes, he paints something so that he always leaves something behind wherever he travels.

“Sometimes I’m just doing it for fun because that’s the beauty of graffiti. It became my job but it’s important that I remember myself that I’m not actually just doing it for money or else I would lose the purity of purpose behind why I started it,” says Fonki.

At the same time, when discussing what he charges of his artworks he says that he refuses to go lowball with his prices or undervalue his own work in exchange for “exposure” because artists owe it to other artists to maintain the value of what they do.

“Is Khmer culture valuable? I think it is. And when I’m drawing or painting a person or a thing that is the product of a culture that is thousands of years old, I think that’s worth something. As a professional artist and a gallery owner I need to set a standard for myself and for other artists in order to make it possible for us to make a living from our art because nobody else is going to do that for us,” he says.

Fonki says his art has been influenced by other people and his cultural heritage and he loves learning new things from other cultures he encounters and he likes to adapt new styles to the energy of the street that graffiti embodies.

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Fonki’s first Kbach graffiti in Cambodia in 2012. SUPPLIED

“We are not here to give answers but to raise questions and to trigger thoughts. It should be almost a neutral thing that is used to channel some discussion or dialogue. Because whatever subject or topic that you’re working on, art will always have so many different interpretations and that’s what I love about it,” he says.

Platforms for emerging artists

After nearly a decade in Cambodia, Fonki has seen the number of active artists in the Kingdom grow steadily. However, one thing that may be holding some artists back, he says, is a lack of platforms to accommodate the Kingdom’s explosion of young artists.

“This partnership with Factory Phnom Penh and Urban Village is because I see it as a mission and an opportunity to be able to create this platform for artists to let their work be seen and be known so that they meet other clients and even just meet each other. Bringing all my friends together for that purpose is what I love about running the gallery.

“Now I see more and more attention internationally and not enough locally yet, but it’s starting to improve. I believe we first need to focus on ourselves and commit to the idea that Khmer will place a high value on Khmer arts.

“That can be buying modern Khmer art at prices that will sustain the artists. Or for those with fewer means, it can just be supporting art projects and anything that is community-related or culture-related,” Fonki says.

Covid-era cancellation frustration

It’s been a stressful year in Cambodia without being able to travel and with all the projects that require crowds of people in attendance getting canceled or postponed serially.

Fonki says it was funny timing to try and open an art gallery at the onset of a global pandemic that is crushing the economy both locally and globally, but he was still blessed to be in this situation where he could focus on helping artists.

“Covid really made us assemble a community within Factory and FT Gallery and it fostered exchanges between artists and discussions about our community. We started to build a foundation for a sort of micro-economy within the art scene that has more stability,” he says.

Almost every month at Factory Phnom Penh there are art related events that the public can attend.

September 3-5 Fonki returned to the spotlight with an art talk, then a collaboration with Kampum Era on a “Wall of Hope” along with three other Cambodian artists. People will be encouraged to use stencils to write messages on the wall and engage with the artists as well as watching a planned performance.

Apart from that, Fonki was able to summon back the Khmer Tao (lion) for The Japan Foundation Asia Center that was mistakenly erased due to some poorly planned renovations.

He’s also doing a joint project called the KiZUNA Memorial Mural co-created with Japanese artists TWOONE and Kenichiro. It is named after the Kizuna Festival which is conducted annually as a cultural exchange between Cambodia and Japan.

“With art there is no border, you can break all barriers and create a bridge between individuals, collectivities, nations. We can connect people to people and nation to nation,” he says.

For more information, Fonki can be contacted via his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Fonki514

FT Gallery is located at the Factory Phnom Penh in the capital’s Urban Village development located at #1159 National Road 2 (Norodom Blvd) and it is also on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FTGalleryPhnomPenh/