Cover Kenji Chai posing with his signature motif Chaigo, the dog

This Malaysian artist has gained international fame for his spectacular graffiti art

The neighbourhood I grew up in had this concrete wall that remained, against all odds, untouched; an empty expanse of gray so clean that it almost seemed to taunt wayward folk in crudely lining the walls with spray paint, something you’d normally see in the city’s grimy alleyways or mischievously tagged onto the occasional pillar.

Then one day, I see it: this bright, mint-green-and-turquoise dog with its tongue lolling out in a cheeky grin. I was 12 at the time, I think, but I remembered being awestruck by just how vivid it was. I was introduced to Chaigo, and by extension, the man behind the smiling canine, Kenji Chai.

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“I was 28 when I dipped my toe into the world of street art—nothing serious as I was still working as a graphic designer at the time,” Chai recalls. “I don’t remember the exact year, it was probably somewhere between 2006 and 2008, but I definitely remember being real jittery for my first time. It was in the dead of night and I was at Kampung Attap with some friends who were graffiti artists themselves. At the time, I kept thinking, ‘What if the police were to come and bust us’, but that was just nerves talking.”

“By the time I hit 30, I sat myself down one day and really thought about what it was that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, because sitting in a chair with nothing but a monitor for company just felt too stagnant. It wasn’t physically engaging enough, you see. Nor did I feel precious about my work. So, after asking a friend to teach me the basics, I quit my old job and got to work.”

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But becoming the internationally renowned graffiti artist he is today was no easy feat, as prior to his long list of achievements, including a 25-storey mural for a four-star boutique hotel that got certified by the Malaysia Book of Records, his first foray into street art was met with an unimpressed audience. Chai remembers attending a hip hop event in 2010 called R16 to join the street art competition they hosted; and as he was in the middle of drawing, he overheard a hushed conversation between two boys that stood behind him, who commented about how “they’ve seen better work” compared to his. It was then the graffiti artist decided to make a vow that would eventually become the motto of his entire career—and that was to simply “keep trying”.

“‘Give me a year’, I said to myself then,” said Chai.  “It didn’t matter if it took me 50 pieces or more, but give me enough time and enough practice, my work in the future will definitely look different years from now. Because the thing is, when you’ve come from nothing like I did, you’ll keep trying as you’ve already experienced what it’s like to be at your lowest. You can’t go any lower than that, so even if you fail miserably in your aim to become successful, it doesn’t count as failure when you’re already at rock bottom. You try because you have nothing else to do but just that.”

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Born in Sandakan, Sabah, the 39-year-old apparently possessed an artistic streak even at a young age, and was the kid in class that used to doodle within the margins of his textbook. Then, at 22 and with barely any money to his name, he moved to Kuala Lumpur to pursue a graphic design course at the Central Academy of Arts, though Chai professes that he wasn’t what people would call a “model student”.

Funnily enough, however, years after realising his calling as a graffiti artist, he found himself bumping into an old acquaintance of his who used to be at the top of his class and as the two caught up with one another, Chai discovered that the once, actual “model student” wasn’t even working in the creative industry.

“Reality is brutal,” he bluntly states. “There’s no such thing as a free meal in this world—especially when you’re an artist. You want to earn your first 50k? Well, you’re going to have to lose your first 20k as well just for that entrance fee to learn. Remember the story about the rabbit and the turtle? Well, that’s just it. No matter how good you are at the start of the race, if you stop there just because you don’t get immediate returns, then it’s over. You need passion to value the things you do. You can’t stay in the game for long if you don’t have the sincerity.”

And that very persistence, Chai stresses, was key to surviving in the midst of uncertainty. “I’d be lying if I said that the past year didn’t take a toll on me,” he says. “But I’ll keep going anyway. I trudged through mud to get to where I am today, so I’ll survive.”

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  • ImagesCourtesy of Kenji Chai
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