Crime-themed Lego mural causes a storm in Johor Bahru
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Crime-themed Lego mural causes a storm in Johor Bahru

A plan to spruce up the streets of the Malaysian border town of Johor Bahru with street art has come unstuck after authorities took exception to a Lego-themed mural which they believe tarnishes the city’s image.

Johor Bahru City Council will remove a mural painted by Lithuanian street artist Ernest Zacharevic following a controversy over one dubbed ‘JB, home of Malaysia’s very own Legoland’, which shows two Lego figurines – a knife-wielding robber lying in wait for a woman carrying a Chanel handbag.

Malaysia’s south has seen a resurgence in street art in recent years, led by artworks in Penang, which have captured the imagination of Malaysians. Street installations by Zacharevic have also appeared in Singapore and Japan this year.

But the Lego artwork portrays a side to the city it would rather keep quiet; Malaysia is also currently grappling with a crime problem following some high profile killings earlier this year. Last month the government stopped providing crime statistics to the UN.

Johor Bahru is the home of Legoland Malaysia and is heavily reliant on its image as an investor-friendly region, although its reputation as a crime capital has dogged it for years, with neighbouring Singapore labelling it as a “cowboy town”.

Zacharevic told local news site Malaysiakini that his public artwork was not meant to be permanent and it was up to the local community to decide what to do with it.

“If I react to every criticism I receive, I would have never paint a single painting … I celebrate democracy and embrace pluralism,” he said.

“This is how it should be – people publicly, in a civilised manner, discussing what they like and what they don’t like. As an artist I follow my own consciousness and it is up to the rest how they interpret my artwork.”

Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang said it was ridiculous that the state government had been debating the mural and instead urged them to address the problem of crime rates in the city.

“Instead of removing Zachas’ ‘high crime’ mural, it should be allowed to remain to serve as a challenge to all relevant authorities to make JB low-crime and a standing testimony that high crime rate in JB is a “story of the past,” he wrote on his blog.

Zacharevic uploaded a photo of the mural on his Facebook page last week which garnered debate and more than 7,000 ‘Likes’. Local street artists have now added a new figurine of a policeman with handcuffs, presumably as a way to preserve the artwork for a bit longer.

Most Malaysians have been supportive of the artwork, although one critic told Malaysiakini: “It is unbecoming of a good painter to use his God-given talent to showcase something unpleasant about your host when you are a guest.

“There are many beautiful things in Johor Bahru that he can choose to show.”