Authorities in Jahor Bahru have covered up a mural painted by Lithuanian street artist, Ernest Zacharevic, a permanent resident nicknamed “Malaysia’s Banksy” by the media.
The mural depicted two Lego figures: a woman carrying a designer handbag and a robber wielding a knife just around the corner. The picture stirred controversy by bringing attention to two things that Jahor Bahru is most known for: a Legoland theme park and a high crime rate.
“My paintings are always a response to whatever social environment I get exposed to. I noticed many people just feel extremely unsafe. Everyone I talked to—no matter what their situation—would say, ‘Take care of yourself and hide your bag,’” Zacharevic told the BBC.
Authorities feared that the artwork would damage the city’s reputation.
“It’s vandalism. 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, an official with the Johor Baru City Council, told AFP.
Johor Baru’s crime problem became a sensitive topic when officials designated the area as a huge development zone, one that has already attracted billions of dollars in investment commitments. Although the federal government recently released figures showing that crime is trending downward, the statistics were met with suspicion and did nothing to allay fears over a perceived rise in crime.
Residents immediately shared pictures of the mural on Facebook and took to social media to share their stories of being mugged or attacked in the city. Some even created their own parodies by Photoshopping Bruce Lee or other objects into the original picture. Local artists even tried to soften the message of the controversial mural by painting in a policeman chasing after the mugger with handcuffs.
Despite the addition to the mural, Johor Bahru City Council workers decided to remove the artwork, despite a public outcry.
“The wall painting reflects the desire of the people, and should therefore be preserved. No one should attempt to modify or whitewash the painting just because they want to paint a rosy picture of the city,” Lim Mun Fah wrote in an editorial in the Sin Chew Daily. “A city that does not accommodate dissident voices will never be one that deserves the respect of people.”
Zacharevic, who first came to attention two years ago with his wall art in the inner city of George Town, Penang, was ranked No. 2 in Street Art News’s ranking of the top 10 most popular murals of October 2013 after Banksy. The mural was a departure from his more lighthearted pieces scattered throughout the streets of Malaysia. Zacharevic was reportedly invited to Johor Bahru to paint and was told by state executive councilor Tee Siew Keong to “use his talent in the right way” and “help promote the state’s tourism and development.”