The artwork of Jahan Loh, who’s very much a child of the ’80s, is replete with pop culture references. From Sunday morning cartoons to 8-bit video games, Loh’s oeuvre may contain stark elements of the contemporary, but his influence roots deep into past masters of the graffiti scene and the ancient text of the Bible.
Is there a higher meaning to his work? Can one get a sense of the messenger? The account of his wanderings, the grasp of his paints, his philosophies reconstituted; we look into the book of Jahan’s life.
The last four years when Trump was president… that has a lot of negative energy, says Jahan.
- And it came to pass that Jahan Loh needed to move to a bigger studio. He has amassed a number of stuff over the years and his old space brimmed with relics of his past. His new place is chaos. Half-opened boxes; sculptures in corners; framed paintings hang on walls; others are kept in storage.
- Jahan forms some sense of order in a room within his studio. There, graven images of his interests can be found—Transformers, loose Star Wars figurines (many that were inherited from his cousins), Robotech model kits, comic books, artwork from his peers (SSUR, Futura, Stash), vinyl toys. Sometimes, Jahan hoards multiples of the same toy.
- Many things I own are mass-produced, says Jahan.
- In this age of mechanical reproduction, does it lessen the value of his hoard? Everything sparks joy, says Jahan. However, you will not find images of skulls. The symbolism doesn’t sit well with Jahan. Bad vibes. The last four years when Trump was president… that has a lot of negative energy, says Jahan.
- Renovations of the studio were waylaid by the pandemic for eight months. Putting aside the inconvenience of settling in, Jahan sees the pandemic as a catalyst for the progression of technology; the digital age accelerates. While the pandemic quickens some things, others remain constant. The pandemic has also stoked the fires of Jahan’s hypochondria. Other than the increased vigilance for his health and hygiene, Jahan’s routine didn’t alter much. Jahan still paints. He’d enter his studio at 10.30am and work while listening to an array of music.
- And Jahan now conducts his meetings, albeit online. It’s a solitary life, one that has him in the studio eight to 10 hours in the day before returning home to his wife. He eschews clubbing or attending gallery openings.
- To understand why Jahan is what he is today, we must look back at what he was before. Sunday mornings are filled with cartoons and children’s programmes. A lot of Woody Woodpecker and Kamen Riders.
- Jahan also has a fascination with science fiction. And Jahan has refused a career in law and scored a scholarship to the LASALLE College of the Arts. The experience at LASALLE is as ‘terrible’. He went in with the romantic notion of learning about art but there wasn’t much of a foundation for him to draw from. It’s like kung fu, says Jahan. If you don’t perfect your fundamentals, how will you advance in your craft? His teachers always put him at risk of failing. Jahan took this negativity and created a piece called ‘Gone to the Dogs’.
- Jahan graduated from LASALLE in 2002 and followed that with his first solo pop art show, Cherry Pop. Ensconced in his own world; daydreaming, world-building, and all of his creation exist inside Jahan’s head. His friends refer to him spacing out as being very ‘dazed’. Jahan was also inspired by the graffiti of Daze aka Chris Ellis.
- Dazed-J would be his calling. Dazed-J would be his call sign.
- By day, Jahan would serve out his scholarship bond with The Straits Times creating cartoons and infographics for the national broadsheet. By night, Jahan and Maslan Ahmad aka Skope would go out to tag. Soon after, Jahan broke his bond and moved to Taipei for a job offer. He’d work for Machi Entertainment and he won several Taiwanese music awards including MTV’s CD Cover Design of the Year.
- Jahan would form Invasion Studios that designs album covers and direct music videos. Invasion Studios would eventually gear itself towards art and animation. When he started as a full-fledged artist, Jahan subsisted on his own savings for the first two years. When you hit the bottom and you’re scraping on the ground, you’re still alive, says Jahan.
- When you reach the lowest depths, there is no way you can sink any deeper. Several exhibitions later, Jahan is still painting. Death comes to all of us, that is the first truth. In understanding that first truth, why would you toil at the things you do not want to do? That is the second truth. With an understanding, Jahan continues making art. He endures.
- Jahan shows me an image he’s been working on: a study in momentum. Using a 3D programme, Jahan divided the simple motion of running into progressive phases and spliced them together. The result is his iconic spaceman, with his many arms and legs.
- My friends think this is my subconscious telling me that I’m running out of time but it’s actually capturing time, prolonging time, says Jahan. This ties in with his contemplation of humanity’s fate. Recently revisited for Intergalactic Dreams exhibition in 2019, the spaceman character was first conceptualised for the Collision in 2004 with New York-based graffiti artist Crash.
- A year before the show when Jahan was still based in Taiwan, he read that the country produced enough PET bottles that can encircle the earth. With that rate of consumption, the earth is screwed, thought Jahan. If the earth is done for, then there is no other recourse than to migrate to another planet.
- And Jahan created the spaceman and saw that it was good; this creation who sets forth for the stars to search for a new earth.
- Seven years later, the threat of climate change starts to show its teeth: icebergs break off from the Antarctic ice shelf; the extinction rate for floral and fauna climbs a thousand times higher than the natural baseline; extreme weathers are now commonplace.
- I have seen the Future, says Jahan. There is no Planet B. We all live in the present. We never really look to the past or paid too much attention to the future, says Jahan.
- His words hold echoes of George Santayana’s immortal phrase: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
- Jahan points out that mankind has rebooted times before. The great civilisations of Egypt or the Mayan empire; these pinnacles of human culture that are easily eradicated.
- Create. Destroy. Repeat. How many times have we cycled through?
- How many more can we do so?
- The last time he illegally painted was in 2005.
- Graffiti quickens Jahan’s soul. The rush of blood in his head, the pulse of adrenaline. There is a thrill into doing things you’re not supposed to do. When Jahan tags a building in Club Street, he ‘owns’ it. That’s his. That’s how you lay claim to a structure that you don’t own at all.
- At the time, Jahan was based in Taipei and ever so often he would swing by Hong Kong for a sojourn. One evening, swimming in the afterglow of alcohol he had drunk earlier, Jahan, to his delight, found paint leftover from an event.
- Near a junction at Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui, Jahan ran up to a concrete sloping planter and painted a mini-throw-up. With no stencils nor lookout, it was a quick execution in the 24-hour surveilled city.
- Jahan saw what he had made and it was good. But lo, Hong Kong’s finest spotted him. Jahan dropped the spray can and hoofed it. Even with his tag visible for all to see, the Hong Kong authorities never arrested him. It was an experience to be lauded. The art of getting up is never getting down, says Jahan.
- But Jahan sees it as a sign of his times, to walk the straight and narrow path. These days, street art is commodified. That’s the way it is. Street art is cool but it’s not graffiti.
- People commission Jahan to put his art on the wall.
- The form is the same but the essence is different. What was once a rebellious art form is now struck dead after 9/11. When the towers collapse, the many Argus eyes of surveillance arose.
- I have this idea that I’m a tiger in an urban jungle, says Jahan. Now, he feels that he’s a circus tiger; trapped behind gold bars and only let out to entertain. Alas, it is not as fun but that’s part of life. Graffiti, street art… they are never permanent. They will fade along with the seasons until the walls crumble to dust.
- Identity is a mercurial beast that forms according to its environment. After returning to Singapore (from Taiwan), the Esplanade asked if he could create a solo show about identity.
- In his time in Taiwan, many of their local press assumed Jahan is Taiwanese. Jahan wondered how he can talk about his Chinese-Singaporean identity to a global audience. For his exhibition Cherry Poke: Reconstituted Philosophies, Jahan took the object of his childhood obsession—a can of Ma Ling luncheon meat—and painted it.
- In 2001, Jahan sojourned in New York to meet with Jakuan Melendez from 360 Toy Group.
- Now, there was a man named True that Jakuan introduced Jahan to. This man asked Jahan about his graffiti style and he showed it to him on his smartphone. True saw that it was good but knew it could be better. He said unto Jahan, you’re Chinese but why do you write like a kid from the Bronx?
- And Jahan wondered who was True to tell him what to write. Jakuan pulled Jahan aside and said unto him, that the man he spoke to, True is Phase 2. Sing forth the glory of his name: Phase 2 who created the style of graffiti writing called bubble letter or softie; Phase 2 who pioneered the use of arrows in graffiti; Phase 2 who elevated the art form, his work turning into ‘hieroglyphical calligraphic abstraction’.
- And Jahan reflected on what True had said. He started to hold his paintbrush in the Chinese mao bi style. He veered from writing in English to crafting his wildstyle in Mandarin. Jahan does not know if he started Chinese wildstyle but he is now associated with that look.
- You can see Jahan’s Chinese name in his inimitable style. For two years Jahan laboured to translate his wildstyle into a 3D sculpture; his name buried in the complexity of the strokes.
- Jahan’s visions were something to behold. When he read about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, he sees them like Akira on his motorbike, riders on iron horses. The Chinese folklore of a shen xian (‘deity’ in Mandarin) rising from the belly of the dragon can be interpreted as a spaceship’s hold opening up for TIE fighters to emerge from.
- It is how people back in the old days would perceive things. They see a smartphone and they draw from their own frame of references. This is a box, they say, behold, it lights with the glory and speaks with tongues of angels.
- Is it unfathomable then that when Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire or when the shepherds were visited by throngs of angels, that these visitors were the unidentifiable extraterrestrial sorts?
- That is what inspired Jahan to create his spaceship when he saw a mural painted in the 11th century in Georgia’s Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. He believes that divinity is extraterrestrial, that Jesus and the heavenly hosts are intergalactic visitors. If there is divine salvation, it would be found in the outer reaches of space.
Alas, like the rest of us, Jahan is grounded. Merciless gravity anchoring him to terra firma.
- Five years ago, Jahan visually translated the Book of Genesis (before Adam and Eve’s expulsion) into an exhibition called Genesis: God’s Terrarium. Jahan sees the earth as a biodome and Adam and Eve as the start to God’s experiment. Origin myths are similar across cultures: a sacred force establishes order and reality into existence.
- The primordial Pangu separated the heaven and the earth, his body became the mountains and rivers; Raven released the first humans from a cockle shell and stole the sun, moon and stars and hung them in the sky; knowing that He’s unable to create the earth on by Himself, God worked with the Devil. [sic]
- Jahan’s messages are left open to interpretation. Even if the viewers miss the point with his message, he’d like to hear different points of view about his work.
- The first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And, in its place, a new heaven and a new earth.
- And our descendants were fruitful and multiply. They progress while the memory of their forebears lessens with each generation.
- One day, they will uncover relics from our present. They will be pored over. Our iPads, will they think it is our sacred tablets? Our Star Wars figurines, will they assume that it is our idols? Our magazines, will they read the text and think of them as holy writ?
- And what will they make of Jahan’s work then?
- What will be the takeaway when his sculpture is pulled from the ground and the dirt is dusted off its body
- Will his message endure? Selah.