White Building mural painted over by city

A before (left) and after (right) photo of a mural painted by Miles MacGregor on Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building earlier this month.
A before (left) and after (right) photo of a mural painted by Miles MacGregor on Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building earlier this month. Victoria Mørck Madsen

A huge mural painted on the White Building this month by an internationally famous artist has been removed by City Hall because the paperwork for a permit had not been officially approved.

The 10 metre-high green and black aerosol painting – done by Californian artist Miles “El Mac” MacGregor as part of a project called “Igloo Hong”, conceived of and paid for by multimillionaire US artist David Choe – was painted over with rollers on Wednesday night.

It depicted seamstress Moeun Thary, a resident of the building who sews dresses for traditional dancers, and was framed with designs used in Thary’s dresses.

Phnom Penh municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said the city had received an application for permission but the artists had gone ahead with the work before it was approved.

“We didn’t take action during the painting because they painted at night and the local authorities thought the team had permission,” he said.

“It is not only that area, we don’t allow people to paint large murals anywhere.”

He said the municipality would take action against other large public paintings but had not decided how to go about doing it. No further action would be taken against the artists, he added.

The decision to paint over the mural quickly sparked ridicule on social media. Posts on Facebook accused the municipality of hypocrisy for allowing garish advertising billboards around the capital while actively destroying public art.

One image altered in Photoshop showed the subject of the mural with a Cambodia Beer glass with the tag: “If he added a glass of beer, it might not be a problem.”

Thary, the seamstress, said she was disappointed the painting had been removed. Her neighbours had liked it, she said, but added it was important to respect the law.

“At the time, I was happy and proud when they chose to paint me,” she said, “but when I heard that they had not received permission, I felt regret for them that they spent money and time to paint it.”

However, village chief Hun Sarath said she didn’t like the mural because the subject was not famous or widely respected.

“If they want to represent Cambodian culture in such a prominent way, they should paint more well-known or experienced people that the public will recognise, for example an old dancer or art teacher.”

It was not clear whether or not the artist’s team had reason to believe they had a green light.

Sarath said that she thought the Tonle Bassac commune chief Khat Narith had been told by a City Hall employee to allow the artwork to go ahead, despite not yet being officially approved.

However, Narith contradicted that, insisting he had warned the artist’s team not to go ahead with the painting without the municipality’s permission.

Sarath later backed up Narith.

The Igloo Hong project involved MacGregor and internationally known artists James Jean, Aryz, Esao Andrews and DVS coming to Cambodia for several weeks during which they painted numerous artworks on walls around Phnom Penh and Kep. Emails to Choe and his manager were not returned yesterday.

However, a local Cambodian-American who was working with the artists said they believed they had permission for the White Building work.

The man, who declined to be identified, said a “fixer” was dealing with another intermediary who was supposed to have secured the permits.

They had paid about $2,000 in “fees” to the authorities, he said.“We thought we had permission.” However, he said they had only received it verbally and there was no paperwork.

According to his bio, MacGregor has in the past been commissioned to paint large-scale murals across the US, as well as in countries including Mexico, Denmark, Cuba, South Korea, the Netherlands and Vietnam.

He cites European painters such as Caravaggio and Vermeer, and Art Nouveau symbolists such as Klimt and Mucha as influences along with contemporary graffiti art and Chicano and Mexican culture.

In Phnom Penh, he spent about a week working between 6pm and 2am standing on a crane to paint the mural. To achieve his signature style, he cools his spray cans on ice.

MacGregor did not respond immediately to emailed questions about the destruction of the piece.

However, when the Post spoke to him earlier this month, he said the Igloo Hong artists had gone to great pains to ensure they had the proper approvals – either from local authorities or property owners.

He wrote on his blog that the painting was intended to honour Cambodia’s artists, most of whom were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime.

“Since I had the opportunity to paint such a large, visible wall in a place where there are seemingly no other large scale murals like it, I felt an extra sense of responsibility to paint something beautiful, meaningful, and uplifting,” the artist wrote.

“I hope this mural can serve as a respectful tribute to the importance and perseverance of Cambodia’s creative legacy, and possibly, in some small way, offer inspiration for younger Cambodian artists to sustain this legacy.”