JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia — Just about every city aims to present itself as a hub of creativity. But a recent plan to spruce up the Malaysian border town of Johor Bahru was skewered last week after local authorities whitewashed a Lego-themed mural.
The city council said the painting, by Lithuanian street artist Ernest Zacharevic, tarnished the city’s image.
And that's when the fun started.
The mural, dubbed "JB, home of Malaysia’s very own Legoland," showed Lego figures portraying a knife-wielding armed robber lying in wait for a woman carrying a Chanel handbag. It was cleverly positioned on a street corner.
“The robber gives an image that is not good for our country, investment and tourism. If the painting stays, everybody will be scared,” Aziz Ithnin, a council official, told the news agency AFP before the whitewashing.
Zacharevic was originally invited to Johor Bahru by authorities to help promote the city’s image, but was cautioned to “use his talent in the right way.”
Malaysia has seen a resurgence in street art in recent years led by the Lithuanian’s artworks in coastal Penang, which have captured the imagination of Malaysians. His street installations have been popular in Singapore and Japan too.
Zacharevic told the local blog Malaysiakini that his public artwork was not meant to be permanent and it was up to the local community to decide what to do with it.
“If I react to every criticism I receive, I would have never paint a single painting … I celebrate democracy and embrace pluralism,” he said, before his Lego mural disappeared.
“This is how it should be — people publicly, in a civilized manner, discussing what they like and what they don’t like. As an artist I follow my own consciousness and it is up to the rest how they interpret my artwork.”
Since the painting was whitewashed, his inbox has been “on fire,” according to one local newspaper.
Malaysia is currently grappling with a crime problem following some high profile killings earlier this year. Last month it was reported that the Malaysian government had stopped providing crime statistics to the United Nations. The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur even warned its citizens, “Remember to carry your backpack or purse on the shoulder AWAY from the road to prevent having it snatched by motorbikers.”
As the home of Legoland, Johor Bahru is heavily reliant on its image as an investor-friendly region, although its reputation as a crime capital has dogged it for years. Neighboring Singapore has labeled it a “cowboy town.”
The whitewashing seems to have only succeeded in drawing more attention to the city’s crime.
Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader Lim Kit Siang said it was ridiculous that the state government had been debating the mural for so long ahead of their decision to remove it. He instead told them to focus on the problem of crime, rather than depictions of it.
“Instead of removing Zachas’ “high crime” mural, it should be allowed to remain to serve as a challenge to all relevant authorities to make JB (Johor Bahru) low crime and a standing testimony that a high crime rate in JB is a “story of the past,” he wrote on his blog.
Locals attempted a stay of execution for Zacharevic’s Lego mural. Thousands offered support through his Facebook page; a local artist even painted a policeman with handcuffs behind the Lego assailant in an attempt to placate authorities.
Malaysians have responded by resurrecting copycat paintings, which have now started to appear in other parts of Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur and around the country.
One local told Malaysiakini that the painting had done more for the community than any government safety and awareness campaign.
“We spent millions putting up signboards to show certain areas as snatch thief areas, but this mural has created greater awareness than all the TV, newspaper ads and signboards put together. How is this mural different?”