GRAFF: Baked’s pursuit of happiness
“It was a struggle to get here, but I’m so much happier. That’s all that matters to me”
During Singapore’s infancy as an independent nation, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister famously declared, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.” This emphasized the importance of a technical education, while simultaneously brushing away the notion of arts as a form of sustaining a living.
Regrettably, this sentiment seems to still ring through to this day. How often do musicians and artists across all disciplines have to pick up a conventional job in order to make ends meet? How often do artists lose their drive and burn out because they couldn’t juggle two separate careers? How often do friends and family members ask, “Can art really put food on the table?”
In Singapore, if you’re an artist, the chase for personal gratification and happiness derived from one’s work could be sidelined by the need to get by. Ultimately, making the pursuit of one’s passions as a career a distant ideal that is almost impossible to reach.
Or is it?
Maybe plunging into a risky abyss bears great rewards? Maybe all it takes to start is calling quits on your stable job as a technician of eight years.
Enter Boon, who writes under the name Baked, a full-time graffiti artist based in Singapore. Take a peek into his headspace as he recollects on his journey from a technician to an artist, the experiences he has gone through, the diversity of Singaporean graffiti, and his spraycations to stay out of trouble.
Hey, give us a quick introduction to you and what you do.
I'm Boon, I go by the moniker Baked and I’m a full-time graffiti artist.
How long have you been a graffiti artist?
I've been doing my own things since I was little, man. The first time I actually saw graffiti was before the internet. I used to ransack my uncle’s room and he always had magazines laying around. He had one specific magazine which was dedicated to graffiti, and I remember thinking “What the f***?” when I first saw it. I was immediately intrigued and tried to copy whatever I saw in that magazine by myself.
And from then on, I just started tagging and doing throw-ups in the streets. It was only in 2016 that I really met the Singaporean graffiti community in KL during a yearly event calledMeeting of Styles.
What were you doing before you started doing graffiti full-time?
I was a technician for eight years, but I wasn't happy. I mean, I loved the job but I never was happy. So in 2017, I left my job and decided to pursue art full time. At the start, I was airbrushing helmets for motorbike riders, but it was too tedious and the returns for it weren't good. Luckily for me, I had already met the graffiti community, so I hit up Zero and ANTZ from RSCLS, asking if they had any jobs or things I could do with them. Then they linked me up with this guy called Idris, and I started to get a few jobs painting areas within Haji Lane, a narrow street in central Singapore which houses stretches of bars, cafes, and lifestyle stores.
Through that, I met Jaba who is like an OG. He was working on a mural around Haji Lane as well, and he told me that he wanted me to work on it with him. From there on, he brought me to do so many more jobs with him, and whenever he was doing huge projects, I would be his assistant. He was like my mentor.
Did you start networking from then on?
Yeah, from there I met the local guys and then I started mixing with them. It was then that I was introduced to Blackbook, Singapore’s first-ever physical graffiti store and studio. We would often go on Spraycations.
For example, we would be chilling here at night, and then we would head over to Golden Mile Complex, a spot where some bus travel and tour companies to Malaysia also operate, and get a bus ticket up to Kuala Lumpur. Once we reach KL in the morning, we’ll hook up with our friends from there, paint till the evening, have dinner, and book a bus back to Singapore. Because here, you can’t really do graffiti without getting caught, so that’s what we would do man.
It seems the pieces just fell into place as your journey went, especially with the fact that you took a risk by leaving a stable job as a technician.
Yeah, I’m blessed. I think that was the best thing that happened to me. Right after I left school, I went to do my National Service [Singapore requires qualified male Singaporean citizens to serve two years of active military service.] While I was nearing the end of my service, I started to look for work instantly. I remember completing my service on a Friday, and I started my technician job straight away on the following Monday. For eight street years man, no breaks whatsoever in between those transitions in my life. And when I made the decision to quit, I really started to work and hone my craft, because I didn’t want to go back to that “working” life. I didn’t want to answer to anyone, let alone work for anyone. This is the path I chose and I worked hard for it. Now, I’m living such a blessed life.
It was a struggle to get here, but I’m so much happier. That’s all that matters to me, to be happy. I don’t wake up cranky or feeling the dread of going to work. It used to happen to me all the time, you know? I would be up all night painting, then I would have to stop myself to get some sleep so I could work the next day. But now, I’m at peace.
Why were you pulled into it? What is it about graffiti that made you want to drop everything and pursue it full time?
For me, graffiti is such a personal thing. There’s no right or wrong, it’s an expression of yourself. It also has helped me go through so many different emotions I experienced in my life. When I’m sad, I’d paint. When I’m happy, I’d paint as well – not for anyone else, but for myself. That's the beauty of it. I don't have to prove to anyone or to seek validation from anyone either. The entire process of it is therapeutic, from start till the very end.
The community is good. It has a big family spirit. In my experience, no matter where I go in the world, when I visit a graffiti shop, it always feels like I’m part of their tribe. It’s the same family when people come to Singapore and they find Blackbook. We might come from different walks of life, but there’s this side of us that binds us together – the love for graffiti.
Tell us more about how your relationship with Blackbook came about.
Blackbook started in 2011. It was Slac and a few of the first writers, and I came by four years ago. I used to stay near the studio, so I would frequently come to Blackbook to chill with the guys. After I got kicked out of my place, I joined Blackbook. Now, I'm one of the guys who runs Blackbook. There are three of us - Slac, Ayid, and me
What kind of events/workshops do you folks do at Blackbook?
Just like last week we had a graffiti jam. We had a barbecue, and the graffiti community in Singapore would turn up and we’d just chill and jam out together. We called down Hip Hop DJs and the B-boys, all of us just hanging out and having a good time.
We also organize workshops, and at the moment we have two. One of them is a graffiti sketch workshop, where we guide participants on how to stylize their letters rather than writing the normal ABCs. The other is a 15-minute crash course of us teaching them how to use a spray can, and then they’ll spray on our walls.
We also do workshops for kids. Recently, the Canadian International School in Singapore contacted us and brought over the school kids aged from eight to nine for two or three times a week over the course of two months to learn sketching.
Is there a reason why you feel like Singaporean schools don’t take up such an initiative?
In my opinion, I think the locals don't really see graffiti in Singapore. I think they don't know what it is, cause they don't see it vividly here. When you go overseas, you can see graffiti everywhere. I believe that's where style comes from, like Indonesia, or anywhere else, they grow up seeing the same style everywhere – it’s like their local flavor. But in Singapore, we don't have that distinct local style. I think here, everyone takes influence and inspiration from all around the world. It’s more diverse, and it’s a collection of everything as well as their own personal style.
Do you think that in the future Singapore will have its own flavor? Or do you think that Singapore will always be like a mix of everything?
I don’t know. I think Singapore doesn’t have a local structure. Like, when I see graffiti in Indonesia, I can immediately tell that it is Indonesian from its style. But here, you can see that Singaporeans have influences from New York, Europe, and all around Southeast Asia, and are making it into their own. Singapore is diverse, and I think whatever the next generation brings, that will still be Singapore’s flavor.
Tell us more about your experiences doing graffiti around the world.
There's this one time, I got to paint for this event called Step In The Arena, a prestigious event held in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Straight after the event, we went to this guy's graffiti shop, and he gave each of us 50 spray cans each for free. Afterward, he got us a car and a van and then we drove up for like two hours to the south of Belgium.
We ended up in this jungle, and then we trekked up to the yard where they paint. It was a huge yard man, and we had a train cabin each for us to paint on, and they were about 35 meters long. I did it with a close friend of mine and it took us about six hours.
What was the biggest mural you’ve ever done?
I think the biggest mural I’ve done is the longest mural in Singapore, which is located in Little India. If I’m not mistaken, it’s about 70 meters long. I painted three peacocks.
That was my first commission, which was by LASALLE [an art college in Singapre] for the event called ArtWalk Little India. That was my first experience doing a huge wall all by myself.
What's it like to graffiti live in front of people?
During one of Sappy Chill’s performances, Akid got me to come up on stage and spray paint the words ‘Sappy Chill’ on the back of their vests while they were performing. And it was timed for when I was done, it would be my portion of the track to drop a few bars.
The second time was at a block party, where Akid brought with him a canvas – he wanted to incorporate graffiti into that performance as well. So halfway through their set, I went up and spray painted ‘Sappy Chill’ on the canvas.
Doing it halfway through a set? In a way, you were performing, too.
Yeah, but I was too far in my element to really take consideration of that. It’s fun, and it makes me happy, and that’s why I do it.
In closing, what’s it looking like for Blackbook and you going into 2023?
Blackbook was hit hard during COVID and we had to stop bringing in cans and doing events. But now, it’s slowly picking back up, and I’m planning to bring more spray cans in from Indonesia. Looking toward the distant future. I hope more people will come by, grab a can and just paint, man. I’m trying to sell the cans at an affordable price so that people can go crazy on the colors for their pieces. I love the community, and this is my part to play in giving back to them.