The first time I meet Donald Abraham, I’m smoking outside a gallery in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. Decked out in skater gear and laden with tattoos, he looks like a rebellious teenager as he burps his way through a can of Sprite. But I’m about to learn that the man next to me, actually an artist in his 30s, is one of the most promising new talents in Malaysia’s growing urban art scene.
I'm invited to Abraham's studio, set in what he describes as "a neighbourhood where everyone gets shot all the time." He lives and works in an open-plan space that's divided into a makeshift home at one end, and a more traditional artist's workshop at the other. Colorful canvases, some of them floor-to-ceiling in size, decorate the high walls of the former warehouse building. The floor is littered with line sketches, paintbrushes, and unfinished work. Holding an overburdened ashtray in one hand and a stuffed animal toy in the other, he attempts to make space on the floor so we can sit down.
Born on the small Malaysian island of Labuan, Abraham's career as an artist wasn't exactly a planned endeavour. He didn't learn to read until he was 13, but began sketching—"only for fun, though"—at age five. As a teenager and young adult, skateboarding was his only passion, save for designing the occasional custom board for a friend. His experimentation with painting on canvas came just four years ago, after a skateboarding injury left him off his deck for six months.
It didn't take long for word to spread about his art. "I was crazy bored so I put some photos online. I thought it would be fun and people just liked them," he says.
Patrice Vallette, director of the Vallette Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, was one of the first art world influencers to take an interest in Abraham's work. “When I first met Donald, I could see he was a unique artist. I fell in love with his work and saw great potential in him,” Vallette says. “He has a burning desire to express his feelings and has done this in many ways—from skateboarding to sketching to painting.”
Kuala Lumpur’s street art movement has been growing steadily over the past five years, and it’s recently begun attracting international attention. The quirky, comic book-style sketches in Abraham’s notebooks have quickly been transformed into massive, graffiti-inspired wall canvases —which now sell for more than $5,000 a piece, and to buyers all over the globe.
The popularity of work by artists like Abraham symbolizes the changes Malaysia’s urban art scene has been experiencing. “Malaysia wasn't known for this kind of art in the past, but now it has become a staple of our country’s offering,” says Christine Ngh, founder of Kuala Lumpur-based arts organisation Bumblebee Consultancy. “We have started to appear on the world map of street art. Many people are discovering and celebrating this art form in Malaysia."
Vallette is quick to agree, having seen this form rise to prominence through his gallery, and attract the attention of traditional art lovers. “There’s been a noticeable increase in street art's popularity. This seems to be because the artists are active at promoting their work online, and because more galleries are putting on exhibitions for this kind of art," he says. "There is also a greater acceptance of street art as respectable art in society, and a lot of people have started collections that represent their age and time.”
Urban Art Central Malaysia, one of Bumblebee's central projects, has been widely involved in showcasing and promoting new urban artists. Through an initiative called My School Rocks, the firm organizes for professional artists to teach urban art skills in schools, aiming to educate and engage local communities with contemporary art forms. “The public has a better understanding of the difference between vandalism and artwork these days," Ngh explains. “As a result, urban artists have become more confident about working out in the open, and as people learn about graffiti art, the interest grows."
Walking around the streets of Kuala Lumpur, it’s difficult to believe the act of creating graffiti was considered a criminal act here just 10 years ago. The KUL Sign Festival, which ran from the end of 2010 to the beginning of 2012, aimed to add color to the ugly concrete walls along the Klang River. Today, the area is brimming with vibrancy: images of cartoon characters, dystopian futures, and political symbols appear in shades of blue, green, yellow, red, and orange. In one mural, a contemplative child in an orange baseball cap surveys a busy road above the river, while another depicts a distraught, hollow-eyed toddler in striking detail.
Street art is flourishing in KL's Central Market, too, especially on Jalan Pudu Lama, a street close to rough-and-ready Chinatown and upscale retail district Bukit Bintang. Artwork commissioned by the Malaysian government and private companies appears across Kuala Lumpur; in luxury hotels, global banks, and inside the city's plethora of shopping malls.
Ngh believes that this is just the beginning for urban art in Malaysia, and that hunger for the form will keep growing. "The Malaysian public already wants more. There aren't enough projects to satisfy everyone at the moment," she says. "This means that art promoters, community groups, and organizations like ours must work harder to ensure more and more is happening all the time, and as quickly as possible."
Back in Abraham’s studio, sharing a cigarette over an ashtray fashioned from a Coca-Cola can, I’m curious to find out why Abraham thinks Malaysian urban art is garnering so much attention these days. “Our community is faster-paced and more urban than it's ever been before," he says. “People are always looking for something new, you know? Especially things that are cool and look interesting. If art is good, it's always like that.”