The characters in Speak Cryptic’s work emanate a calming energy despite the environments they live in. Perhaps it’s their facial expressions, the way their eyes are closed, or the fact that they can co-exist with you in a physical space without demanding for your attention.
“There’s always a tinge of sadness whenever a wall gets painted over,” says Farizwan Fajari, who works under the nom de guerre, Speak Cryptic. “As long as the mark is still there, I’m reminded of the time when I was there to actually make the mark. Once it’s gone, you can see a picture but you can’t really touch it.” Such is the ephemeral nature of a visual artist’s canvas, though you can count on Farizwan to cement his mark with murals, paintings and solo exhibitions across the island and beyond.
We spoke with Farizwan about the driving forces behind his work, staying true to yourself and finding a balance between ambition and practicality.
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You’ve mentioned before that you wanted to be an artist but you weren’t ready to do the work. What does that work entail?
I wasn’t very practical when I was first starting out. I fell in love with the idea of being an artist and I had these preconceived notions of an artist who was very free and bohemian, which was the kind of life that I thought was very appealing to me. When I was 14, you only needed three credits to get into NAFA or LASALLE and I didn’t want to give myself any choice, so the plan was to self-sabotage by passing only three subjects because I was so much into the idea of being an artist. I think I passed English, Malay, and Art, barely passed History, and failed Maths and Science quite miserably.
When I enrolled into NAFA, I acted like an artist straightaway, whatever that means. “I’m an artist. Wow, look at me.” There was a lot of clashing with regards to the ideology of what I had to do and what the school was telling [me]. I think that’s probably the reason why I didn’t graduate. I did the work but it was almost like I had a grudge. I came from this line of thinking that art is subjective. So how can you say that this is not art? Whatever I do has to be art because I say it’s art. But this is an institution and a school, and there are certain requirements that you need in order for you to pass and graduate, and I really struggled with that. It took two years of discipline in National Service where I think I grew up a bit. I still had the same kind of ideas, though not as much. I just did the work and the process was a bit smoother when I was in LASALLE.
I didn’t realise how much work is actually needed, whether creating or even the attempt to put your work out there. If the opinions of others will affect you to the point where you will change your ways, then being an artist is probably not a good thing. The first time I was criticised about the things I was producing, it was really painful.
How long did it take you to not only accept constructive criticism but also use it as fuel, instead of changing who you are?
The first challenge is to figure out what’s constructive and what’s not. It took me a while to figure out that difference and how to avoid taking any of that personally, even constructive feedback. It might be useful but it might not be something that I want to try now. I need to sift through and make sure that whatever I’m producing is natural not forced.
Was there a turning point for you?
Yeah, I think that happened when I was a bit more sure of what I was doing. If you’re not sure of your work and what you’re trying to achieve, then everything is feedback, constructive or not. There was a time when there were TVs on double decker buses and when I was doing street art a couple of years ago, someone suggested [to put a sticker on the TV so that people would definitely see it]. I said I wasn’t comfortable doing it because then it would be more of an obstacle. I can definitely empathise with people who get on the bus after a full day of work, wanting to chill and watch TV and not [see] my fucking sticker. I think that was one of the first few times where I felt like, “Oh, your suggestion is valid but I don’t want to do that because I have this other thing in mind.” I still didn’t know what I wanted to say [at that time], but I knew that it shouldn’t be a hindrance or an eyesore. I want it to be of value to people.
You’re represented by Chan + Hori Contemporary and Gallery Krisstel Martin. What is it like to be a street/visual artist who is also represented by a commercial gallery?
I’ve known Khai Hori since 2006 and he’s been very instrumental in my artistic career. Khai and I have a very natural working relationship. A lot of the breaks I was given and jobs I was commissioned to do were from Khai. When he was a senior curator at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), he was the first one who curated my show in which I was involved in the exhibition itself. Wherever he went and whatever institutions that he was a part of, from SAM to Palais de Tokyo to now with Chan + Hori Contemporary, we’ve always stayed in touch. It’s important that I trust the people that I’m working with and Khai has always been the person I go to for everything. He knows the kind of stuff I’m doing or the kind of things that I want to do.
The thing with Chan + Hori Contemporary is that their ambition involves breaking [down the traditional barriers of a gallery] and I think that’s evident with the stuff they’re doing with the whole D/SINI festival. I’m also represented by Gallery Krisstel Martin which is still considered as a Singaporean gallery but is now based in Venice, Italy. With Krisstel Martin herself, I think she also shares the same values with Chan + Hori about how we should make art more accessible to the public. Plus, I’ve known Krisstel for quite a while as well and she’s one of those people that I’ll trust with my life.
You said that you lacked business acumen when you first started out, and now you’re working with a core group of arts managers to [encourage the fostering of relationships between visual artists and arts managers]. How did that idea come about?
It’s difficult because I’m not someone who plays by the rules, whatever those rules may be. I wouldn’t go out and meet people and do all those kinds of things, which I feel are the kind of skills artists should have to actually have a chance to succeed. I was quite lucky to have met the right people, Khai being one of them. But it took me a really long time to figure out the things you need to have a shot at being an artist in Singapore. The reason in having this open call for arts managers is because I realised that there are a lot of talented artists out there who might not have the chance to succeed simply because they’re too shy, they don’t know how to price their work properly, or they don’t really set the proper strategies that are needed to make sure that they go to the next level. I was very lucky because for some reason, people would give me the time of day to sit down and educate me. There’s a lot of work involved [in being an artist] and 70% of the time is not even spent creating.
I feel that there’s this white space between artists and managers. You have [hundreds] of people who enrol themselves in arts management courses every year, but when they graduate, you don’t really see them working with other [arts managers]. So for the past three to four years, I’ve been working with this core group of managers who are still students and trying to pick their brains as to why people aren’t approaching others, especially artists in Singapore, to create a working relationship.
What has come out of the discussions so far?
Right now, it’s at the stage of addressing the problem but not necessarily having a solution for it yet. It’s not really new but it’s something that I feel a lot of people haven’t really thought about. If I were to put myself in the shoes of an arts manager, the question is, “How do I start? Where do I start?” These kind of questions are very daunting so it takes time to process and strategise. My personal opinion is that the only way to actually learn is to do it and if it fails, at least we can move on and keep progressing. Hopefully someone will take those questions and try to answer it themselves, but it has to come from a place of really wanting to help an artist and ultimately themselves. As much as artists need arts managers, it should be that arts managers need artists as well.
There’s a lot of work involved [in being an artist] and 70% of the time is not even spent creating.
So arts managers don’t really need artists right now?
I think the reason is because there are options for arts managers. I feel like the career path of arts managers in Singapore is to do the course and then see if they can get a placing in institutions like National Arts Council or National Heritage Board or even overseas. From my conversations with arts managers, they were trained to create budgets and write policies and all of these things are very catered towards [the bigger picture]. I don’t think there’s anyone who actually thinks, “Maybe I should be an arts manager who actually manages artists.” I have a feeling that some people might be interested in doing it but the question of how to start and where to do it is one of the main reasons why they’re holding back. And also because there hasn’t been a successful template of someone who has done it and is making a career from managing artists.
Is there the impression that you need to have a gallery first before you can manage artists?
Yes. But the traditional gallery is on its way out. Everything and everyone is going online. So do you really need a physical space to sell art? We don’t. That means that the overheads for you to start an online art business is really low and I think not a lot of people are taking advantage of that. Once it happens, I’ll be really excited about it. With that being said, gallery representation is not the be all and end all of being an artist, of course. But artists need to be self aware and figure it out. Having a gallery to represent my work is great because I definitely won’t be able to do this by myself. But there are others who are just as great as representing themselves and creating art all at the same time.
Perhaps it’s because arts managers have to follow the system and work in a structured way, whereas artists move more fluidly. So it’s a matter of finding a balance where those two lines meet.
I was quite lucky because art is now my full time thing, but it took a while to get to this point. The idea of an artist who works three or four jobs at the same time is very common. When I was still struggling, I was teaching, working at the library and at the same time trying to do art and small commercial illustration jobs just to make ends meet. I thought that was normal [since] it’s what a lot of artists do. But this is subjective and different for everyone. Personally, I realised that I’m not someone who can excel if I have too many things on my plate. I’m not very good at talking to people, I don’t have a lot of people skills. I then realised that my only option was to remove the safety net and see what happens. And that’s what I did. As soon as I removed the safety nets, there were people who saw me falling and decided like, “Eh, you want a show?” So that was good. I feel it was all luck and it paid off, but I know how scary it can be for anyone who is attempting to do that. I’m happy to say that I’m now a full time artist and I will be forever grateful to everyone who has been instrumental to getting me where I am right now.
How do artists like Charles Bukowski, Jenny Holzer and Cy Twombly, who come from different creative backgrounds, inspire you?
The kind of people that inspire me the most just happen to be artists. It’s really their stories and struggles that inspire me more. I love Bukowski because he uses certain words that just looks good on paper and makes me move and feel a certain way. I’m very much in love with the written word, not necessarily what it means but how it looks. Twombly and guys like Jean-Michel Basquiat are like my heroes. But there are also guys like Ian Mackaye, who plays for a band called Fugazi, who is someone you would call a punk rock god within my circle of friends. He’s someone who’s very DIY and his band was offered to sign on to a major label numerous times, but he didn’t want to because he wanted control over the music that he writes and produces with his band. I thought that was something to admire in this day and age when everyone has a price. How much are you worth?
I’m also inspired by guys like Mike Giant who’s a graffiti artist and known for his black and white drawings. There was this interview that he did where the question was about how he makes a living as an artist, and he said that he’s able to keep his drawings affordable because he produces a lot of them. He didn’t want to [price his works at a museum market rate] because he thought that everyone should have his drawings. That changed my view of an artist. As soon as I stopped wanting to be rich, that’s when [I realised that I can actually do this]. I don’t need $4000 to $5000 a month, all I need is $2000 maximum and I’ll be able to afford a good cup of coffee, taxi rides once in a while, dinner with the wife every weekend, and still have enough to pay the bills and give my mom money. It’s these kind of guys that are very practical but still doing great things that inspire me.
That’s really good advice.
Yeah. I’ve been trying to spread the gospel of how much you really need in a month. It’s a trade off between being super rich or doing something that you love for the rest of your life, and if you happen to be rich because of that, that’s an extra bonus.
There was one tweet of yours where you said that doing what you love shouldn’t come at the expense of your health and happiness. Can you elaborate more about what inspired that tweet?
There have been many times where my friends have been in a position of doing something that they claim to love, but then they complain. They complain about never getting enough sleep or working all the time. The reason why I sent out that tweet is because I was catching myself complaining about the fact that I’m able to draw for a living. It sounds so ridiculous and I don’t know exactly what I was complaining about but I think I was having pain in my shoulders. I was losing sight of the bigger picture which was the ability to do what I love for a living. Full stop. And it shouldn’t come at the expense of sleep or being sick. If you are one of the few to be lucky to be able to do what you love for a living, then you need to make sure that you’re healthy and happy so you can keep doing it. It’s human nature to look for the cons [in everything].
If you are one of the few to be lucky to be able to do what you love for a living, then you need to make sure that you’re healthy and happy so you can keep doing it.
We do have a culture that glamorises working yourself to “death”.
It’s very funny, I don’t know where that came from. It’s like if you don’t feel like you’re working, then you’re not working. If you don’t feel tired, if you don’t feel like dragging yourself back to your office, or if you don’t dread what you’re doing, then it’s not work. That mentality is broken. I think the whole thing about the 5Cs or whatever is an illusion. You need to be firstly be happy before anything else can happen and I think that comes from a sense of self ownership. I think I’m the only person who finds value in bitching. If you unload just because you want to unload, that’s a different story. But if you’re unloading because you want to recognise problems, then it’s either a) you do something about it or b) you swallow it and move on with your life. There are things that can’t be helped, like family for example. But you can choose your friends. At the same time, not everybody can do what it is they want to do. It’s about realising your dreams and being practical at the same time. For a lot of people, it’s like all or nothing.
I don’t feel like I was born to draw but it’s just that I love drawing despite my talent. I’ve said before that my style is a product of the struggle with the pencil or the brush. I have in my mind what I want to draw, but 95% of the time, it’s not there. It’s getting better but it’s still a bit far. I remember a time when I was younger and my best friend and I were drawing transformers in primary school, and kids being kids, they will go over and say, “Eh, what you drawing?” They looked at my friend’s and went, “That’s damn nice.” And they looked at mine and said, “Eh, what’s that sia?” That didn’t bother me but that’s when I realised that I just like drawing. At that moment, it felt like someone who likes to sing but is completely tone deaf. I think if you’re desperate enough, you find the strength to do things that you never thought you could do. It’s a bit extreme but that’s how I see it. I don’t tell a lot of people this but I am desperate in wanting to become an artist because it’s all I think about and it’s all I’ve wanted to do.
There are two driving forces behind what I do: fear and revenge. Revenge sounds like a very dark thing, but when you grow up and start to make sense of the world, you start to realise that people say things just to hurt you. That’s how the revenge thing came about. “Okay, I’m going to take what you said and I’m going to use it as fuel to push myself more.” And the fear that all of this is for nothing is the other thing. To me, being an artist is to create works that will hopefully mean something to someone. It’s not a numbers thing. I’m not trying to speak to the world, I’m just trying to speak to someone.
You’re basically competing with yourself.
Yes. A journalist asked me about what I thought of the local arts scene many months ago. It’s not the first time someone has asked me that question and my answer has always been very general, but I decided to answer it a bit differently this time because it was my own truth. I said I have no idea what I think about the local arts scene because I’m trying to survive. I’m trying to perfect my own work and that doesn’t really give me the time to look up and see what other people are doing. Of course I’m very familiar with my immediate environment and my friends are artists themselves. But outside of that, it’s a bit hard to tell because you’re swimming and I don’t think I can afford to stop and tread water to see how other people are doing. When I said this to the journalist, she looked at me like she wasn’t expecting that answer. But now I feel is the time for me to answer things honestly.
You didn’t last time?
I would answer with something that I think you would want to hear, and also because I didn’t really believe in the kind of things I was saying to myself. It took me a while to realise that there’s some value to what I’m saying. If it offends people then I will need to stand by what I’m saying, but it has to come from a good place and it has to mean something.
Is this related to the story you shared behind your name, Speak Cryptic?
There are two versions of the story, which one are you referring to?
The one I read was about a friend who said that —
Yes, that’s the real version. The other version was addressing the issue about self-censorship.
Technically, it is self-censorship.
Yeah. Do you know the story about my friend slapping me?
No, I don’t.
This is a different friend. The reason why I started speaking in cryptic in the first place was because I used to say the meanest things to people without thinking about it. This went on for years until my best friend when I was 16 finally had enough of my shit and went, “You say the meanest things to people, you know.” I said, “Huh? I have no idea what you mean. You know what, if this happens again, you have permission to slap me across the face.” And it didn’t take long for him to slap me; I think it was on the same day. It was a really good slap. After he slapped me, I started to realise all the shitty things I said to everyone. It was like multiple light bulbs going off at once. Because of that, I started to become very wary of everything I said and many years later another friend was the one who addressed it and said, “Why are you always speaking in cryptic?”
Now you’re trying to balance the two where your honesty comes from a good place.
Yeah. So if I’m going to be critical about something, then I cannot be critical just for the sake of it.
You shared an old drawing that you did when you were 12 on Instagram. How have these characters evolved with you?
I think the essence of it still stays but the way I approach drawing has changed a bit. My characters are a reflection of who I am and I use them to tell stories like precise instances of my day-to-day, a conversation with a friend and how that made me feel, or other bigger instances that affect more people. I use these characters as my vehicle to express how I think about the situation. They have similar hairstyles but their faces always look a bit different no matter how much I try to make them look the same. I try to use the same hairstyle to show that they’re the same person but I’m running out of hairstyles.
What’s your biggest fear?
I’ve never said this to anyone because this is very recent, but it’s more of an insecurity than a fear. There’s this thing at the back of my mind that I’m not really here and that all of this is just an illusion. In the grand scheme of things, it really is all for nothing. Even the greatest person in the world will be forgotten someday. There’s that saying of being the change you want to see in the world, and that’s one of the only reasons why I feel that life is worth living. You try to be a positive change even if that [sometimes] means that people are going to see you as a negative person. But if something positive happens through that negativity, then I think that’s a good thing.
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Photographs & images courtesy of Farizwan Fajari