Flying pigs, retro hairstyles and hand grenades are among some of the images found in this new book celebrating the art and craft of Cambodia’s hand-painted advertising. Published in November 2012, the book introduces the signs, the people who paint them and uses them to explore Cambodia’s art, culture and history.
Cambodia is a country awash with hand-painted signs, but behind their quirky nature is a story entwined with the country’s own troubled history. These signs and the people who paint them were among the victims of the Khmer Rouge era in the late 1970s. They were targets because they exist at the intersection of commerce and the arts, two spheres of activity that the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy. Their recovery since 1979 has mirrored that of the country and this book documents the results in Kratie, North East Cambodia.
While the signs have experienced something of a resurgence in the last three decades, they now face another demise, this time at the hands of technological and economic development. In this respect, author Sam Roberts draws parallels with his interest in ‘Ghostsigns’, the fading remains of advertising painted on buildings in his native UK:
“The loss of hand-painted signs marks a distinct period in countries’ economic development. It is the point at which access to technology and rising labour costs tip the balance in favour of mechanical or digital formats. In the UK this happened in the middle of the last century, in Cambodia it is happening today.”
Roberts’ fascination with the painted signs in his own country led to him first noticing those in Cambodia. Drawn to them during his two years working with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), he set about capturing those in his new home of Kratie, a sleepy town set on the banks of the Mekong. A New Year’s resolution given to him by his wife, Gilly, led to him writing this book:
“I’m so pleased I took the time to photograph the signs when I did. Since doing so I have already seen a number replaced by synthetic printed signs. For me, these don’t have the same character and charm as their hand-painted predecessors.”
The book features over 170 images and uses these to explore Cambodian art and history. Roberts believes the signs also tell us about the people and culture of Cambodia and, through them, he reflects on his own experience of living and working in the country:
“Some of the signs are fairly mundane but some highlight interesting aspects of Cambodian life. For example, those for beauty salons usually list skin whitening among their services. This shows a different attitude to skin colour compared with countries where tanning salons are all the rage.”
Other examples include signs advertising dog meat for sale and those offering the mating service of pedigree bulls and boars. The book uses these observations to provide a narrative through the photographic material and offers readers an insight into Cambodia from this novel perspective.
Roberts’ research has not only helped him uncover the history of the signs and the stories they tell, but he has also tracked down some of the men who paint them. Their story is also told, with particular emphasis on that of Sai Sokheang, Kratie’s leading artist producing hand painted signs. Growing up in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, Sokheang discovered his talent for art at a young age. However, he too is feeling the impact of customer preferences shifting to printed formats and lessening demand for hand-painted signs. His work impressed Roberts so much that he was commissioned to design and paint the cover for the book.
Roberts is not the first person to be inspired by Cambodia’s hand-painted signs and his book draws on others who have gone before him in terms of collecting and photographing them:
“As my interest in the signs grew I soon became aware of others who had been equally captivated by their quirky nature. I suspect that most visitors don’t even notice them, but those that do soon find themselves in a world that will intrigue, bemuse and delight.”
It is this world that Roberts hopes to share in ‘Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie’.
- Details of how to buy Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie.
- News and updates about the book and other aspects of hand-painted signs in Cambodia can be followed on the blog, the RSS feed, the Facebook page, and the mailing list.
- A selection of images and translations from the book are available for use in press and can be requested at http://kratie.ghostsigns.co.uk/press.
- All enquiries should be directed to Sam Roberts, firstname.lastname@example.org, +855 (0) 7880 0093.