From the moment I stepped off the plane in Cambodia I felt as if I was at home. The people were beyond friendly, the food was amazing, everyone would flash us huge grins and smiles, even the drunks fighting out on the street at 2am fought lovingly- I didn’t want to leave. And while the locations of the walls we had to paint on were planned in advance (we were given instructions that the only images that would not be tolerated were skulls or images of death, which we respected, even though half the artists in the group love painting skulls), we had no plans what was going to be painted until we got there. I’ve worked as an investigative journalist with the Emmy award winning VICE / HBO team, where we rigorously fact check all our stories to uncover the truth. However, this trip to Cambodia was not a news trip, we were there strictly to spread the message of love, light, beauty, joy, free expression and creativity. I didn't realize how many millions of musicians, artists, writers and creative people had been murdered in the Cambodian genocide, so I wanted to bring the best artists in the world to Cambodia, a country that has virtually no murals or street art. Our goal, working through the #IglooHong Foundation, was simple: to spread some light, joy and beauty to a country with such a dark past.
I will admit, I try to stay purposefully ignorant about the history, politics, and current events of most places I visit. Ever since I started hitchhiking all over the planet in my teens, I would rather get an oral history from the people I met travelling instead of reading about it on my phone or in a book- it's infinitely more interesting to me that way. It’s been a lifelong journey and fight to stay present, to live in the moment without holding onto old grievances, revenge, or getting stuck replaying histories I cannot change. It never made sense to me that a 20-year-old kid should be burdened with a past created by their grandparents. I’m looking to shape and share the love now, in the moment, instead of trying to find a reason to repeat a cycle of anger, hate and trauma. To not live in fear. To live in the now and the present. We all have a past, sure, but can’t we look beyond that and see the today that surrounds us without judgment? It’s asking these questions and thinking this way that has allowed me to take stunning vacations on the Gaza Strip, with beautiful beaches all to myself and only calamari strips and licorice wine to keep me company. Ignorance is bliss, but so is staying present. It’s about freeing your vision to allow you to see the beauty in the imperfections around you, and every once in awhile those imperfections culminate into a perfect day.
It was during my first week in Cambodia where I experienced one of those perfect days. One of those perfect days you don't get too many of in life. A day where everything just happens as it should, a day you couldn't plan if you tried- I was with all my friends who also happen to be the art idols I look up to and are the most talented people on the planet, we were walking through an old apartment complex that I was told hadn't been renovated or painted since the 50's. It was crumbling: mold and decay was everywhere, but there was also a laughter, with children smiling amongst the tons of torn down walls and bricks. Together, we stacked the bricks and made little sculptures, painting Batman and other superheroes on the surfaces which the kids loved. We walked up and down all the floors taking requests from the residents: a woman said she wanted flowers, so we painted flowers all up and down a staircase; someone else said they wanted something beautiful and peaceful, so we painted Cambodians in traditional garb levitating while praying. I noticed a balloon vendor having trouble selling the 300 Gangnam style balloons he had attached to his scooter, so I bought them all and took them to the roof where there were about 20 kids messing around up there enjoying the sun. We gave them all the balloons, everything; the kids went wild with glee. I was so tired, hot, sweaty, completely covered in paint and dirt from painting all day, with leftover diarrhea from my trip to Brazil, but I was so happy watching those kids scream and play- it was perfect. The sun started to fall while we walked the length of the whole roof. At the end we saw a woman on a mat with glasses using the remaining sunlight to sew the most intricate handmade shawl I’d ever seen. I couldn't believe the detail, patience and craft involved- all the beauty in the imperfections. I asked her if I could buy it from her when she was finished and my translator explained to me that it was a dying art and that there were only two people left in the city that did this kind of thing by hand now. I felt so honored to witness her making it, I wanted to buy it from her (it takes a month to make each one) as a gift to my mother who really appreciates handmade fabrics and would go crazy over it. She gave me a number and I bought it full price without the normal third world country haggling and we shook on it- good business is when both parties walk away happy and satisfied. My friend Mac was moved enough by this happenstance random encounter, and we all thought how cool it would be if we could paint a huge bright beautiful portrait of her on the side of the building where she actually lives so her family and neighborhood could see it everyday. A true community collaboration, the background would be her intricate traditional Cambodian designs, combined with a portrait of her holding a needle and thread- showing her craft, artistry, and profession. That was our only intent: to create something beautiful that honored this beautiful woman, something to honor her art, her craft and her lifetime of hard work, something to honor the Cambodian people as well as their community and culture. We thought she was the perfect subject, and that’s it, that’s where we were coming from- no agenda. Through battling heat, extreme rain, lost in translation problems with the lift driver, mosquitos, crooked cops, and countless other endeavors, El Mac was able to finish this beautiful portrait of Ms. Thary with a proud noble expression holding up the tool of her craft- a needle and thread, an intricate instrument that is small but holds much power, power to inflict and open wounds just as much as it can heal and close them, power to create a tapestry of woven shapes, colors and cultures, and power to bring us all closer together. That was it: a perfect day, meeting the perfect person, inspiring the perfect artist, to create a perfect mural, in the perfect city.
I only came to Cambodia with peace and love in my heart. I hope one day the people of Cambodia get free beautiful public art everywhere, and artists all over the world can start to look at Cambodia as an artist friendly country that welcomes and supports free expression, a type of openness and love that will only bring joy to everyone involved. Thank you to the Cambodian people for all the love and respect you gave to me and all the artists involved with the #IGLOOHONG project. We are honored and humbled by your support, it gives us inspiration, courage and power to continue to create. Cambodia does not need me or anybody to show them how to be creative, they are already masters of it. Angkor Wat is breathtaking in its scope, detail and mastery of art, sculpture and architecture. It almost seems like humans couldn’t have made it, it should be mecca for all artists to make a pilgrimage to. I cried when I got there, it is the most impressive, beautiful, humbling hand-made masterpiece in all of Asia and has inspired tons of creativity for centuries. Cambodia definitely does not need me to help inspire creativity, but I definitely need you. We love you Cambodia, you will never know how much your country and your friendship means to us, we will never forget how you stood up for us. Peace, love and respect to Cambodia– when you silence art, it only gets louder.