Street Art, Stencils, and Skateboarding on the Steppes

Malou Rose is a long way from Bondi Beach. The Australian transplant has spent the last three years in Mongolia becoming an activator in the Ulaanbaatar art scene, launching a pop-up gallery, getting to know graffiti crews, and with the help of her repat partner, she’s launched a skateboarding program for kids. A photographer and an idealist, she’s made a niche for herself by exploring the most precious of Mongolia’s natural resources: the creative energy of its youth. 

This year, Malou joined the board of directors of the homegrown International Street Art Festival, ТАТУМ  (sounds like “Tatum”). The festival, funded by Alliance Francaise  and the Goethe Institut, is five days of art, music, workshops, skate demos, and cultural exchange. It’s an endeavor that wouldn’t be able to take place without local support and participation, not only from the creators, but the city government and a hefty roster of businesses open to having their surfaces re-imagined. 


GR: Where were you before Mongolia and what did you do there?

MR: I was “working” from my old Spanish apartment, getting a killer view of the ocean and swimming breaks at my little beach, Tamarama. It’s the next to the infamous Bondi Beach of Sydney, Australia. I was hanging in my own hood barefoot, a lot. We had a good café in the day, wine bar by night, friends for neighbours – all on our one street – and a big park at the end, taking you to the edge of a cliff that housed Sculpture by the Sea every year, so I could enjoy strolling around crazy art installations with my bro’s dog. My other time was spent producing photography shoots for fashion editorials and advertising, trying to make ends meet with creativity and inspirational pros.

GR: What brought you to UB? 

MR: It was when digital photography replaced film in the industry. It wasn’t the same for me after that. There were some great changes, but I wasn’t as inspired and my own work ethic was dropping – which I didn’t like about myself. I had to do something. I knew I could learn more and get involved. My home city is extremely beautiful – I love it – but it also has a lot of rules and regulations to pay attention to, which can weigh you down. The only TV I watched was docos on National Geographic Channel, and Mongolia took my breath away: the nature, the history of horses, nomadic, romanticized ideas of sitting with the Tsaatan and reindeers, paired with wanting to work as a volunteer and learn about non-governmental organizations (NGO) for a straight month and nothing else in between. I wanted to work with children who weren’t able to be children. Since I had such an easy going start to life myself, it was time to learn to give. I researched and found out that Mongolia had loads of international organizations. One month turns into three years this June.

GR: Tell us about ТАТУМ. Who organizes it? Who contributes, and who attends?

MR: ТАТУМ, which is an old Mongolian word for something not finished, a continuing, never ending and growing sensation, is the name we came up with for the 2nd International Street Art Festival in UB. Part of the concept lies in the name, to educate and share information. June 15 is the big day for the whole community to enjoy. We’re hoping for a big family affair as we have events, activities and stalls for all ages. All week we have free, open workshops where locals, students, friends, foreigners, artists – basically all walks of life – can attend, with the exception of the graffiti workshop, where applicants were selected from their submitted artwork. The workshops are headed by international artists: DJ No Breakfast from France, who also paints with light; Noe 2 from Paris, deep in the history of French graffiti; German duo Matthias Muller and Andreas Ullrich, with their stickers and stencils; and Mario Auburtin, aka Spone, French graphic fine tip bomber. This year the project is being organized by Alliance Française de Mongolie and the Goethe Institute. We are lucky to have mainly local artists helping out on the big event day. This festival means a lot to them, as they see it as a platform to share Mongolian graffiti with the world.

GR: How did you become involved in the festival, and what is your role in organizing it?

MR: Everyone gets about when the snow finally melts in spring. I was relaxing outside at a central spot my boyfriend likes to skate, when my friend Saraa from Alliance Française, was walking past and told me what she was working on. I immediately proposed a skateboard event tying in nicely with the street genre. I was also about to hold my first pop up gallery party for artists. She also knew that I’m all about supporting artists here in Mongolia, and that I’ve been getting to know them. I volunteer with an organization called the Mongolian Contemporary Arts Support Association, and help out in their 976 Art Gallery.

I’m on the board, brainstorming, getting artists in on it and organizing our Skateboard Mongolia project. My boyfriend Eddie, is one of the original skaters in UB. After being with kids through the long winter here, stuck indoors, I felt a loss for them and kept thinking of how to release their cabin fever. I thought it’d be nice to have an indoor skatepark. A mutual skater friend told me about this guy who had recently returned from seven years in the US and Italy who also wanted to [build a skatepark]. He was a skater, which made me feel my idea had the possibility of being realized and stepped up. So we met, and took it further by adding what we think is important, mixed with our passions, so projects for children and the community surfaced, starting in UB.


Eddie and Malou

GR: What lessons were learned from last year’s festival and how will this year be different?

Location has helped shape the ideas we had bouncing around. We have secured the Children’s Park . It’s already a popular place – the only fun park here – and it has a lot of ground in pretty much downtown UB.  The Park gives so much flow, variety and support to our plans, and we’ve really mapped out the spots to marry the concepts. For example, we have blank walls to bomb and anyone who comes to the workshops can paint, write it up, or do their very own piece. And this is also a nice example of growth from the first festival, being able to involve more community participation, local artists. We also have city government backing it up by giving us a large, outdoor, public wall at Sansar Tunnel. iLoft Function House  allowed us into the club for our DJ workshops, to put more art on their walls, and to host our pre-party.

Community is of major importance to us this year, so by landing these locations, we’ve also brought in different people. And we get to not just share an incredible art movement with amazing artists, but to introduce everyone to the idea that art, especially street art, is a free way we can all appreciate living and learning together, and take advantage of this uniquely small population. It takes dedication, creativity, work and skills. The more people involved, the better it becomes.

GR: Tell me more about Skateboard Mongolia. 

MR: We are dreaming up so many projects, because we see skating as a sport and an art form that has real, tangible truths that can be applied to strong mental and physical health; like determination, working hard to achieve your goals, communication and not wasting your time, to name a few. And yes, our main project is to open an indoor skatepark, in all the right ways. When you have been dreaming of things for some time, it’s amazing how quickly you can make them happen when the opportunity arises. The skatepark will house things like this first project [with ТАТУМ], but on a larger scale, and it will cross over with other arts. This first project is a foundation and so exciting for us. We will make the most out of learning from it.

Already, some things haven’t gone to plan due to lack of funds and time, but we take it as all part of the experience and keep going. It’s about giving kids something to do before they get bored and lost. Eddie got his students just from skating round and having kids come up to him in interest, to teach them skills and tricks, and some skate terms in English. He’s been workshopping them for a month now. Then, on the 15th, we will have the kids show us what they have learned. I’ll introduce our project and skate philosophy to our community. The experienced skate crew he’s part of, Ulaanbaatar Originals, will do a demo with our friend playing some electric guitar and another two on the decks. I’ve just been contacted by a hip hop artist who wants to help out, so we have rappers involved as well. All while some artists will be scribing on t-shirts. We wanted to give our five students a brand new board each on the day of their demo, but again, it will have to wait. They share boards at the moment and two of them have Eddie’s old, ripped boards he fixed from a mash of graveyard pieces.

Everyone involved has volunteered. The support has been incredible and we are very family oriented. Sometimes the kids come around to our apartment, play with our pups, or on our mini-foosball table while Eddie fixes their trucks. Support has also poured in from other friends in the community. The Pop Up Gallery parties I’ve been holding have landed us the only funding for our project so far. I’ve got these first couple of projects happening for the first time, all at once. But I wanted to really listen, observe and talk to the people of Mongolia, to see how I could give, and finally I’ve discovered I can, through all types of arts; arts for education, health, environment, sustainability, and creating jobs that people want to do. There’s so much, not only donating food or other necessities, that we can give children and the community; bursts of creativity that they are also hungry for, freedom of expression, interaction, color, inspiration, connection. And we can balance out the mining industry, as not everyone can be part of that. And we can add to the international perception of Mongolia.

GR: Where do you see street art and culture headed in UB?

MR: I see street art everywhere. It’s not only happening in UB, there are writers in Darkhan too. There are talented and experienced crews out there. The first graffiti was up in 1997, by the artist ANZ, and it’s been well documented since, partly because of him. He’s gained a lot of respect from everyone due to sharing his skills, standing away from the spotlight and instead, encouraging those who seek it. There is so much constant change in Mongolia. You can literally watch the grass grow, so there is always new street art going up. I think they are headed to be a respected part of the community. It can be so dark, with construction or cold, that graffiti has made a more colorful environment.

At the moment, there are half built buildings here en masse. It’s a perfect playground for street art. But having said that, there’s a large strip of wall that leads down to the train station that was originally bombed with permission from the Government and Railway Authority. The support is interesting. I’ve been told there has only ever been one arrest from bombing the State Department Store’s wall. There are many strong, lasting traditions, so the culture is already thick.

A workshop participant stands in front of her contribution to a collaborative wall.

I have started Pop Up Gallery parties to expose as many Mongolian artists as possible, and support the arts community as freely as possible, making it everybody’s event. In the end, because a lot of it is volunteering what artists already have on hand (the parties are called “Come as You Are”), just people showing up for a good night makes it all possible. They’ve kicked off well, and we’ve sold a lot of work, as well as having interactive art. Our tattoo parlor gets a working, the DJs are performing, our pups are socializing… everyone is creating! I don’t take any commission on artworks and I try to make it an artist initiative – they help hang and organize, and I label all their contact details so anyone interested can reach them directly, or through me.

I see Mongolian street art being embraced by the community here, especially from this year’s festival. Slow and steady, and ready for the streets and galleries around the globe.

GR: What do you see as the locally grown elements of UB street culture, as opposed to the imported influences?

MR: There are so many elements unique to Mongolia that shapes their style. Like the weather – they really can’t do anything in the heart of a -30’s celcius winter. Unnatural influences, like the constant construction and changing infrastructure of the city. And largely, they are influenced by the small population and their culture and traditions. For example, the history of the Mongol Empire gives their characters an automatic comic-style warrior, as do their animals and their own writings in calligraphy and old Mongolian script. It can bounce from old to new in one piece. And materials are really hard to come by, like proper spray (but I hope to change that soon) which adds creativity. There’s a widespread use of paint and once they are writing or bombing, they have the time, since no one seems to mess with them.

The support given to different crews, and as individuals, helps create a strong community of graffiti artists who know the history of their own city’s writings very well. They share knowledge and experiences. They are influenced by the more experienced graffiti artists and they already overlap with home grown hip hop and rap artists.

Imported influence – I could see that if they had access to imported cans on an everyday basis. It’s not just the decent quality, but the range of colors they could choose from that would make for different pieces. But yeah, foreign tags have been documented. Not many, but some artists from other countries have visited. They have the desire to hook up with them and exchange in the future. It’s like a new city here since Mongolia became a democratic country; working things out all over again, the economic rise. It’s like a new, young city, and they’ve grown up in these times. They are doing and discovering things themselves. Open to surfing the net, their curiosity replaces fear. Hungry for knowledge, thirsty to meet international artists, they’re not pushing it.

GR: Who are the artists that the world should be watching out for?

MR: Mongolian writers, Mongolian crews, Mongolian contemporaries, absolutely. It may all seem young right now, but I like these times, I like it raw.

A look at street art in UB. 

1997ANZ  does the 1st stencil in Mongolia, an image of Zorig “I believe”.

BTC forms, writers are all from the same district of the city.

2005 – Inter Crew bombs the long wall on the road to the train station. This was the first graffiti there.

2008Red Eggs Crew  makes its debut.

2009 – Mongolian graffiti by ANZ is featured in Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents.

First graffiti battle sponsored by a commercial company is held. S United crew wins. They also went on to make the longest piece of graffiti in the city, “Hamag Mongol” (Great Mongolia).

Music video collaboration with graffiti crew S United and  Panz from Click Click Boom  called “Color Transporter”  about coloring the dark city.

2010 – Red Eggs Crew creates first 3D graffiti in UB.

2012Heesco  returns to Mongolia to paint a mural at the School of Cultural Education in UB

First International Street Art Festival takes place in Ulaanbaatar.

FAILE  comes to Ulaanbaatar for a collaborative installation project in the National Garden Park.

2013 – 976 Art Gallery opens “Lost Children of Heaven

Second International Street Art Festival takes place at the Children’s Park in Ulaanbaatar.

Follow ТАТУМ on Facebook for up to date photos of the work going up around the city and at the Children’s Park. For more information about any of the artists mentioned, or  to find out how you can help Skateboard Mongolia, contact Malou Rose.