Lithuanian 'Banksy' makes Malaysian streets his canvas
A visitor looks at a mural at Ernest Zacharevic's first solo show in Georgetown on the Malaysian island of Penang on January 18, 2014 - by Mohd Rasfan
Its creator, 27-year-old Lithuanian Ernest Zacharevic, arrived three years ago as a backpacker with little more than some paint supplies and the yo-yo that he performed tricks with on the street to earn money.
Since then, his often cheeky works have given a jolt to a nascent street-art scene struggling to find greater acceptance in a society where conservative Muslim attitudes and censorship linger.
"Before, we didn't have this kind of thing," said C.P. Lim, 33.
A visitor to Zacharevic's first solo show in the city of Georgetown, Lim examined a life-sized installation of a knife-wielding robber in the style of a Lego figurine, about to pounce on a Lego woman carrying a Chanel bag.
"I don't agree with what our government does. We should be able to say what we want to say," said Lim.
Breath of fresh air
Many political, social and racial issues remain touchy topics in Muslim-dominated, yet ethnically diverse Malaysia, which is ruled by an authoritarian national government.
Experts say this has constrained art, which also suffers from government underfunding.
The Lego scene was initially a wall mural in southern Malaysia -- where a Legoland theme park is sited -- painted late last year as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the sensitive subject of growing crime in the country.
Embarrassed local authorities quickly whitewashed it.
But photos went viral, touching a raw nerve among Malaysians tired of crime and strictures on expression.
Copycat mutations sprung up around the country, and Zacharevic was hailed as an artistic breath of fresh air.
He has been called "Malaysia's Banksy" -- a reference to the UK-based street-art superstar -- but the lanky, introverted Zacharevic rejects that label.
While "Banksy" murals and installations around the world often bear sly social and political messages, Zacharevic prefers portraits of children at play.
"For me it's not about the culture of really running around in the streets at night and spraying the trains, but it's more of a reaching out to the audience," Zacharevic said.
"Street art has grown into a thing of galleries, and travelling, and big festivals and commissioned walls and murals, which is an amazing experience."
'The Ernest Factor'
People are now talking about "The Ernest factor".
"The 'Ernest factor' became a tipping point in the street art scene, which is now moving toward wider acceptance," bringing more attention to Malaysian street artists, said Christine Ngh, founder of art agency Bumblebee Consultancy.
"The reason is simple: his art touches people, community and social issues, which creative people in Malaysia are somewhat conditioned to shy away from."
Zacharevic is generally careful to avoid politics or provoking authorities. He typically obtains permission before doing a wall mural.
"There are bigger risks, like sometimes I hang on six-storey tall (buildings) doing the murals," he said.
Growing up in a family of artists in Lithuania, Zacharevic studied fine arts in London before setting out to see the world, tiny easles, canvasses and paints in his backpack.
Reaching Malaysia in 2011, he painted on the streets, selling his first canvas for less than $70. His works go for thousands of dollars now.
'Art is Rubbish'
He soon segued into the street mural scene that grew out of the illegal graffiti boom of Europe and America in the 1980s.
Zacharevic found a home in Georgetown, the artsy capital of Penang state, which is governed by Malaysia's relatively liberal opposition.
His works dot the city, many done for a 2012 festival celebrating its UNESCO World Heritage status.
In one recent work, Zacharevic constructed a frame around a notorious Georgetown street pothole -- a commentary on authorities' failure to address it.
At his show, "Rubbish is Art is Rubbish", a combination mural-installation depicts a painted girl in a blue dress holding real balloons bobbing on strings.
Gabija Grusaite, his girlfriend and publicist, said "most" of the show's saleable works were sold. She declined to give details.
A mural showing two children riding a real bicycle fixed to the wall was chosen last year by British daily The Guardian in a reader survey as one of 15 top graffiti works world-wide.
Zacharevic painted his first mural in Georgetown three years ago, drawing curious and appreciative crowds as he worked.
It was painted over within two days, but the enthusiastic public reaction made him think: "This place deserves more."