Artist interview: Ceno2 goes public with Keepers

Artist interview: Ceno2 goes public with Keepers

Spray it, don't say it

Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Vanessa Caitlin

Right before he gets down and dirty, we chat with graffiti artist Ceno2 on his collaboration with Keepers: Singapore Design Collective

"With great power comes great responsibility". It's a phrase that's often mocked since its uttering in the Spider-Man comics and movies — but for local graffiti artist Muhammad Azlan Ramlan, it alludes to the ethos he surrounds his craft in. Commissioned by Keepers to paint the 19x5 metre wall on its pop-up at Orchard Green, the local artist commonly known as Ceno2 is about to take graffiti to the public. Legally this time.

Yes, in his youth, the 29-year old has had his fair share of brushes with the law, but that hasn't stopped him from moving onto collaborations and commisions with big names such as Rolls-Royce, the Singapore Police Force and boutique hotels such as Hotel Clover The Arts. Now, a household name in the local street art scene, he has a strong 69,000 following on Instagram (@iamceno2) and shuttles back and forth between Singapore and Chicago to be with his crew, SB.

With Ceno2's masterpiece in the making, 'Beauty Beneath The Surface', Keepers' founder Carolyn Kan sees this as a way to redress the perception of what graffiti is, and how art as a weapon can be chosen to either uplift or deface. Ahead of his first spritz, we chat with Ceno2 about using graffiti responsibly, his relationship with walls and that one time he was mistaken for a foreign construction worker. 

You're more than just a graffiti artist — you have a background in oil painting, your favourite artists include Rembrandt and you're fond of chinese ink painting. How do these influences fuel your craft?
I make spray paint relate more to fine art than graffiti. I love the strokes in Chinese calligraphy — in fact my moniker (Ceno2) is based on that. I had a lot of mandarin-speaking friends in art school, and although I didn't understand the language, I adopted the word 'cina', meaning Chinese person in Malay, and added the number two to remind myself that I'm not number one... so I have to keep working hard. 

You've been caught doing graffiti illegally before. How did this craft turn lucrative?
I believe that good things will happen if you have good intentions. I was caught for a while, then I started to work for commission. Instead of paying a fine, I rather get paid. I didn't expect this to be a way for me to earn a living. I just kept going and going.  My intention is to uplift the community through art. I believe in proper and good art when there's a message behind it, and when strangers can be friends when there's a subject to talk about.

How did this collaboration with Ceno2 and Keepers come about?
I met Carrie (Kan) at the opening party of the Keepers pop-up last year, and was shocked at the amount of designers and artists we have here in Singapore. I told her that I wanted to get involved, and she said, "We have a 19x5 metre canvas, do you want to paint it?" 

It's more of a collaboration than a job. They gave me a space, I sketched something out, and had authorities to approve it.

Ceno2, Artist

Authorities had to approve it?
This is Singapore [laughs]. 
But it's good. Sometimes you can create a wrong message to viewers, and that's not a healthy thing. This is something new here — if it's not delivered in a proper way, then people will take it in a bad way. 

So what's this sketch that was approved then?
It's a man and a woman tearing the wall apart to reveal a green garden ‚ which nicely relates to Singapore being a garden city. I love to paint portraits, so it's expression-driven, strictly using only spray paint. I'm not Banksy, I don't use stencils. The public thinks I use brushes, masking tapes, projectors... but I don't even sketch. It's not that I hate drawing, it's not my cup of tea. I love to paint, that's why I do graffiti. It's faster, more aggressive.

You'll be painting live in such a high-traffic, public space. Do you think this will be challenging? 
If I focus on the person who comes up and talks to me, I'll lose my momentum. I'll be fine here, I'll just plug in my headphones. I've done live painting before in the middle of Zouk with drunken girls and guys, and I've done it in the neighbourhoods for the Singapore Police Force. I've also scaled a six-storey high building, Hotel Clover The Arts, where people thought I was a foreign construction worker.

How do you approach a wall and its potential to be an artpiece?
Whenever I see big walls, I get excited. If you put a pretty girl next to a big wall, I'll say, "You go away, man, I need to look at the wall!" I don't want my walls to be sloppy. I touch and smell it, in the way I like to smell paints. Don't get me wrong, I'm not addicted to spray paint fumes, it's just that I love to stay close to it. For example if you love somebody, no matter how bad the attitude, you'll still love him or her. I go through the same process with the wall. I have to treat it as another human being.

Ceno2 will be spray painting live from 10.30am till late from now to 6 August. Catch him in action at Keepers' pop-up at Orchard Green.