Time taken : ~10mins
His work is unmistakable – large, surreal figures in black and white, almost woodcut-like in their appearance. Across Singapore, walls are adorned with his work, from The Substation to The Projector and of course, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. Farizwan Fajari, better known as Speak Cryptic, is one of Singapore’s most popular street artists. Like most of his peers, his initial guerrilla-style practice has transitioned into a more formalistic one, shifting into institutions such as galleries and museums. His career over the last 15 years has been expansive, having presented paintings, installations, performance art and sculpture, both at home and abroad.
2019 was a busy year for him: A solo exhibition with gallery Chan + Hori Contemporary, a public art sculpture commissioned by the Singapore Bicentennial Office, an installation at the lower concourse of Esplanade, among other endeavours and overseas residencies. After moving into his new studio at Goodman Arts Centre, he now takes the time to slow down, to take stock of his artistic growth and career over the last few years. He shares more with us about his beginnings, his philosophies in life and his lesser-known practice as a musician and bassist for local underground legends, I Am David Sparkle.
First things first—why the name Speak Cryptic? While most street artists have monikers, his was bestowed upon him rather than one he chose himself. In 2004, while he was still a student at LASALLE College of the Arts, he started to take interest in street art, having had friends who were street artists as well. His first street campaign, “Speak in Cryptic”, revolved around the censorship that he observed in Singapore, both by the self and the state. It quickly gained popularity through the stickers and posters that were plastered on walls and lamp posts, featuring his now-distinctive characters. Eventually people addressed him using the campaign’s name. “It just stuck. Now, even my close friends no longer call me by my given name,” he says with a smile. “They just call out, ‘Hey Speak!’ and I'll respond to it. Truthfully, if I had it my way, I would’ve chosen a simpler name, or something cooler.”
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Crossing Shores, 2019. Singapore Bicentennial Public Art Commission. Image courtesy of the artist.
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In All Directions, 2019, Esplanade Concourse. The installation featured characters that traverse across the tiered landscape of the Esplanade Concourse steps.
Before he became a street artist, Farizwan had already been interested in art. “But I was never good at it! I never really got complimented on my drawing. Even now, I don’t think I'm great at it.” More than the end product, the process of drawing was far more interesting for him. “What I love is just putting pencil onto paper, dragging it along and seeing what is formed. I’m still chasing that ideal image in my head, and I think my style is the product of my struggle with the pen or paintbrush.”
Skill aside, the concepts and ideas behind his work have always been robust, often dealing with topics of multiculturalism and identity. “That is my North Star, the one thing that I have always pursued. I've always thought about what makes up a person, what forms their character, personality.” He sees himself reflected in his art too, taking inspiration from his personal life. He remembers his initial challenges in embracing his own identity. “I’m born Singaporean Malay of Baweanese descent, but I remember rejecting all of these things when I was younger. I wanted to watch my MTV, wanted to read my magazines.” In particular, he regrets not being able to learn more about being Baweanese, especially from his late grandfather. The Baweanese in Singapore once made a living as horse trainers, and while he was alive, his grandfather made a living by making horse saddles. “He passed a couple years before I really became serious about my art and became interested in the idea of identities and such. There was a moment in time where I could’ve learnt all that.”
Now, he tries as much as possible to be open and sensitive to his environment, to how his identity affects his situation and vice versa. This philosophy worms its way into his art as well, in that he and his close friends are reflected in the characters he creates. "I’ve had the same friends for almost two decades now, and they’re almost a part of me, and inform most of the characters [in my art] as well. I think their friendship and my memory of them is what will probably continue to inform the work for a long time.”
These friends that inform his art were made through the music scene, including his wife, whom he met through the different gigs and events that they both attended. Music had always been a big part of his life, and even his practice. “The friends I met through music, they always get me and my art. They understand what I have to say through my work.”
Long-time followers of his work are probably aware, but newer fans may not realise that Farizwan is also the bassist for the instrumental post-rock quintet, I Am David Sparkle. The band has been around since 2001, and he joined six years later, after being friends with the bandmembers for more than a decade. “We were all jamming at the same studio, TNT Music Studios at Parklane [mall], playing in our respective bands. When their bassist left, they asked me if I would like to join them. I had always been a fan of them and their music, so I said yes.”
His introduction to music, however, was nothing like the heavy sounds of I Am David Sparkle. His first memory of music was the piano lessons he took when he was younger, and he cites Pachelbel and Chopin as composers he enjoyed. At age 11, he began listening to punk and metal, in part due to his brother’s influence. “At that time, my older brother was my hero, the coolest guy I knew. Whatever he listened to, I wanted to listen to as well. But I was really drawn to the music, in a strange way. It made sense as metal music also has very classical elements. It was a gateway into heavier music.” He continues by listing the bands that he listened to when he was younger – The Exploited, Rage Against the Machine, early Green Day, The Clash, along with English rock bands such as Ride and Inspiral Carpets. Of course, local bands were in the mix as well, such as Still, the Oddfellows, Stroll, the Pagans, Sideshow Judy, Plainsunset and Sugarflies (a band he played in when he was 17). Having worked at a blues bar, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix are also among his favourites.
A band that he holds dear to his heart is Fugazi, from Washington D.C., USA. Their influence on him is not merely as a musician, but as an artist and a person too. The band, now on hiatus, was known for their "do-it-yourself" ethic and anti-corporate stance. They were self-managed and self-produced, and also kept shows accessible by removing age restrictions and selling show tickets at 5 to 10 dollars. “I realised later on that has something to do with the ethics of punk rock. They're important to me because those ethics also come into play with my art as well. When a commission or an offer comes in, I always think ‘What would Fugazi do?’”
Almost 40, the street artist now feels like it’s a good time for him to slow down, even while he takes the time to continue his artistic practice. He reveals that he has been experimenting with music of late, more electronic in nature but with elements of rock and roll, and of course, heavy on the bass. When asked about the future, he says simply and rather poetically: “Before, I felt like I was just putting sentences together. Now, it’s more like calligraphy, where I'm trying to add flourishes.”
“I used to tell people that I was an artist of convenience. I made art with materials I could readily get my hands on, like paintbrushes or markers. But I don’t feel like there’s much to progress with if I keep using the same medium and materials. I could do so much more. This year, I'm ready to get out of my comfort zone, and really see where I can push my art towards.”
Speak Cryptic's work can be found outside the Recital Studio at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.