A street mural that was whitewashed by authorities because it highlighted Malaysia’s crime problem has gone viral, with versions popping up across the country and earning their creator comparisons to UK graffiti artist Banksy.
The original mural that appeared on a wall in the southern Malaysian city of Johor Baru last week had depicted a woman drawn in the style of a Lego toy walking towards a street corner, where a black-clad, knife-wielding Lego robber waited to pounce.
The mural, by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, was intended as a commentary on the city’s reputation for crime and drew on the image of a Legoland theme park which opened nearby last year.
Angry city officials quickly painted over it, but the image has tapped into public concern over crime.
Drawings by other artists as well as paper cut-outs featuring the figures have appeared at sites in Johor Baru, the capital Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere, with social media sites filling with photos of the copycat renderings.
“Spread the word! Don’t let these silly officials hide the problem. We need a safer Malaysia,” said one Facebook posting.
At least one new Facebook page in Chinese — Malaysia has a large Chinese minority — is dedicated to the phenomenon and has drawn more than 16,000 “likes”.
T-shirts with the figures on were on sale on Facebook at 20 ringgit ($6) a piece, including one that says “Art doesn’t damage a city’s image. Crime does.”
One posting in Chinese declared Zacharevic “Malaysia’s Banksy” after the British graffiti superstar.
Zacharevic, who reportedly lives in the northern Malaysian state of Penang and is 27, was quoted on Thursday expressing delight at the reaction.
“I have never had a reaction of this scale over my work and of course, it is a good feeling,” he was quoted telling The Star newspaper, saying his email inbox was “on fire” with messages from fans.
Zacharevic has done a number of commissioned murals in various parts of the country but did the Johor Baru drawing on an “impulse”.
“I could clearly see that crime is affecting people’s daily lives. There is a climate of fear lingering around,” he said in an email to AFP last week.
“I guess it was important for (the public) to be able to talk about the subject,” he said of the reaction.
AFP was unable to reach Zacharevic for comment Thursday.
Malaysians have expressed increasing alarm over a perceived rise in crime in recent years, an issue that exploded this year with an outbreak of gun violence that police have blamed on warring gangs.
The federal government, which set ambitious crime-reduction targets a few years ago, has released figures showing a dramatic decrease in crime, but critics accuse it of doctoring the numbers in order to claim targets were met.
Johor Baru, in particular, has long had a reputation as an unsafe counterpart to squeaky-clean neighbouring Singapore.
Messages on Zacharevic’s Facebook page have praised him.
“Awesome. The world needs more critical thinking and less authoritarian rule,” one user posted.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]