Steve Tierney is another enthusiast for Cambodia’s hand-painted signs. Whereas I have directed my own interest towards creating the book, Steve has interpreted the signs through his series of “Collage Art Posters”. I caught up with him to learn more about his work and his own connection to the hand-painted signs of Cambodia. Here is what I discovered, illustrated by photos and artworks from Steve’s collections.
Tell me a bit about yourself, what you do and what brought you to Cambodia.
I’m an artist and designer from Sydney, Australia. Before coming here I was freelancing for different clients in both illustration and design. I actually never thought I’d be living in Cambodia until my girlfriend told me she wanted to apply for a job here. I wasn’t against coming here, it just never entered my radar as a place to go. When she got the job I actually didn’t think too much about it, I just booked a flight and as soon as I arrived, I felt comfortable. I’ve had a lot of fun here in the last year.
Can you remember anything about when you first started to notice hand-painted signs in Cambodia? Tell me about it, what happened, why do you think you started to see them?
I noticed hand-painted signs as soon as I arrived. As soon as I was out on the streets they were everywhere. I could see right away that some were better than others, some are just basic text in Khmer, but some have really detailed portraits or crappy paintings of motorbikes. The best ones I’ve seen have been out in the provinces, but even around Phnom Penh there’s some amazing hand-painted signage down backstreets and out in poorer districts. Moto mechanics, hair salons, barber shops. They’re great.
What is it that appeals to you about these signs?
My background is in graphic design, so graphic art naturally appeal to me. As a fine artist my images always have a design influence. But more than that, as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for old movie posters, old books and anything that has a natural kind of worn or aged look about it. I’m sure every designer has the same appeal to urban graphic art, but it’s still hard to explain why in some ways.
I enjoy seeing graphics that have been worn naturally by the elements. So outdoor signage really appeals to me. I like that they are hand-painted and aren’t perfect too. Some of them are just bad artworks. But that’s what’s good about them. Peeling paint, faded colours. It like design versus nature.
Do you have any favourites?
In Cambodia I love the men and women that are on signs outside beauty salons and barber shops. The women are like these tacky, kitch goddesses. It’s like they’re beautiful and ugly at the same time. To me it’s not about the aesthetic beauty of the women that’s appealing though, generally they’re pretty rough looking women. It’s as if the sketchier and more imperfect the sign is as a whole, the better it is.
Do you have any stories about any of the signs or the process of discovering them?
Because I wasn’t working so much when I first arrived, I was riding my moto around during the day a lot. Basically I was doing some volunteer work while I tried to make some contacts and get some freelance design work. So I was getting around, meeting people, just sussing the place out. I began to see more and more really amazing and also really shitty hand-painted signage. I just started to photograph it all. I had no real plan at first.
Last year I completed an artist residency in Mexico. I studied ‘carteles’ or bill posters in the streets, as well as urban street art, to create a body of work at the end of my residency. I ended up silk screening my own posters, which were images re-mixed from found archival imagery, comics and magazine as well as other rubbish I’d collected.
I haven’t been all over the world, but out of all the places I have been, Mexico and Central America have the best hand-painted street signage. It’s everywhere and it’s big, colourful and in your face. Huge walls with massive coloured logos, business names and characters. They hand paint almost all their public advertising still. There must be a lot of work for sign writers and artists in Central and South America.
So really, I was already interested in this art form before I came here. I notice it everywhere I go, even back home in Australia. In fact, as long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with street posters. I like the worn effects created when something is left to the elements.
I like to see a row of posters on a wall, and the form that is created by the mixing of different images and text in one big mess of paper. They’re often torn and faded, revealing the posters below them. They kind of all merge into one big design and make something new that wasn’t intentional.
I guess I’m actually trying to replicate that in my own art by using worn effects and mixing things together, but it will never be as good as what happens naturally.
Can you talk a bit about how you have used these signs to inspire your own work, notably the collages. What are you trying to do/communicate with these designs?
I collect things. Rubbish mostly. Cigarette packaging, pieces of paper, old magazines, postcards and flyers etc. Then I cut things up or scan images in and make new pictures from them. Collages basically.
Collage works best for me because it’s all about thinking less and moving quickly.
The more I think about an image I’m creating, the more contrived and over thought it will appear to me when it’s finished. I prefer to have an idea in mind, whether for my own art or a brief for a job, collect a bunch of images that kind of relate to that idea or maybe don’t at all, and just throw things on a page or on a computer screen and see what happens.
Almost every time, the best ideas come by accident. I always have some kind of idea in mind, but the best images I’ve created have come together quickly, almost on their own. A lot of the smaller detail in my works are usually just random entries and don’t really make sense too much, but when you look at the image as a whole it all makes sense together. It’s often just about the merging and juxtaposition of shapes, not necessarily the content. I’m all about negative space around shapes.
The posters I’ve been creating lately and the ones you see here are inspired by the fact that there are no remaining images, books, physical art works or posters from the time before the Khmer Rouge. For me that’s so hard to comprehend. My days in Australia are spent in book stores or markets looking through old magazines from 40’s, 50’s 60’s etc. I love all that stuff.
It was really frustrating for me to know that there were magazines and posters here in the 50’s and 60’s that would have been amazing, but everything was destroyed. It’s crazy to think that people here have no knowledge or reference of their cultural history. Even basic international art history is generally un-known. In my experience working with artists here, pretty much whatever they have been taught now is what they use to create their art. They have no knowledge of other materials or processes that may exist unless they are shown it.
So these old street signs are the closest thing I can find to retro or vintage imagery. Because I use those kind of images in my own artworks, I just started photographing them and collecting the pics on my computer. I guess I was just entertaining myself at first. At some point though, I decided, rather than just make prints of the photos, I’d make my own artworks by combining the originals pictures with other collected material as a kind of homage to a forgotten era. I figure anyone can go and photograph the signs on the street, which is cool, I have a huge collection of photos, but my collages become unique art pieces. Which makes them different.
Are there any other aspects of Cambodian life that you have enjoyed discovering while you’ve been here? What are they, what do you like about them?
In general, Cambodia is an incredible country to live. I didn’t know what to expect. Coming here I was kinda expecting the wild west in some ways. In Phnom Penh at least, it’s much more civilised than it was up until only recently, but it’s still definitely been a life changing experience.
I’ve been involved in loads of really different projects in a short amount of time. I’ve run art classes with young children, taught skateboarding to street kids, held design workshops out in remote provinces and exhibited with contemporary Cambodian artists. People here are very open to new ideas and creative ways to make positive change. I’ve tried to get involved in as many diverse projects as I can. I’ve found myself in some crazy situations and places. The simplest day to day tasks often become a pretty hilarious adventure.Put simply though, I love Cambodia and it’s a really easy place for a foreigner to live. Most of the expats I’ve met here say the same thing. It’s hard to say whether I’d feel the same way about any other place I could have ended up, but I’m aware of how much more difficult it would be working in other developing countries where there’s war or extreme poverty. Of course there’s definitely still shocking living conditions and human rights issues here, but there’s also lots of opportunity for people too. It’s inspiring and disheartening at the same time.
Where can people find and buy your designs and how can they keep in touch with your work?
Online is the most obvious place, my website is www.teaguesart.com.
I’m a working illustrator and designer and available for commercial or private jobs. That’d be one way to buy my art directly.
If you’re in Cambodia you can visit the Vintage Shop at the Russian Market where I sell these large colour posters and they’re also available to buy from my website. A guy who I’ve now become friends with named Balazs Maar runs the shop. He photographs street signs and sells them as posters too. When I first saw the posters he was selling I knew he thought the same way as me. I just approached him with the idea and showed him my own artwork and he was keen right from the start. He pretty much funded the entire thing. Paid for the printing at least. I guess he liked the idea that they were unique artworks too. He still sells prints of the signs he has photographed, he’s got a great collection. My posters just added another element to the concept of the store.
I’m also hoping to work on an exhibition at some point. I’ve been working on silk screening my own posters again, like I did in Mexico. I just need to find some time. There’s lots happening right now… which is great really.
I really hope that with the development of Cambodian industry that these signs can survive somehow. There’s a new generation of signs popping up that are digitally printed on metal, and they are terrible. Just bad, over worked photos of people and motorbikes, badly designed.
I guess in a way by photographing the old ones, it’s preserving them somehow. It’s probably inevitable, but it would be a shame if they disappeared from their actual locations and got replaced by the horrible stuff I’m seeing a lot of now.
I love finding a great sign in some random back street out in Battambang or somewhere. Just stumbling upon some dingy little salon with an old lady sitting under her gawdy, worn and distressed advertisement. I get a lot of pleasure from discovering new ones.
Thank you Steve for taking the time to talk with me and for sharing these lovely images.