He has painted murals in Miami, London and Ibiza, but when street art star FinDAC came to Siem Reap to oversee an exhibition of his work at a new gallery, he was not planning to pick up a paintbrush. Then things changed.
"He was here for about 20 minutes and he got bored and said, 'Find me a wall,' laughs Nat Di Maggio, co-owner of the street art-focused Tribe Art Gallery, a relaxed venue that doubles as a cafe. That proved to be something of a challenge in a town with no history of street art. "In the end we found someone who said yes, but they said they would paint over it if they didn't like it."
Fortunately, the portrait of a traditional apsana dancer wearing one of FinDAC's trademark masks met with the owner's approval, and has now become a permanent feature in a nearby alley. It has already been joined by another work, by renowned stencil artist, Pure Evil, with a piece by Carne Griffiths coming up. "We now have the owners from all the other buildings coming around, saying, "I have a wall too!" Di Maggio laughs.
Di Maggio and his partner, Terry McIlkenny, only recently moved to Cambodia. The keen street art collectors were determined to do something to help the local art scene, destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years. "We were touched by the plight of a culture that had had the art ripped from its soul," McIlkenny says. "We thought, how can we help?"
What the pair had to offer was relationships with many of the world's most respected street artists. "We started collecting these artists when many of them were starting out," Di Maggio says. "That's why we have the contact book we do."
The gallery doesn't just host exhibitions; they also hold workshops for locals hosted by the likes of FinDAC and Pure Evil, covering not just skills such as stencil making and mural painting but also the business of art, from the basics of commissions and marketing to how to protect your images.
Some of those locals are already gaining recognition, including young artists such as Nak Noy and photographers such as Phirom. Like most Cambodians, Phirom had never considered a career in art. He was working as a tuk-tuk driver when a passenger asked him to take some photos. The passenger, a professional photographer, was so impressed by the results that he suggested Phirom switch professions. Phirom sold his tuk-tuk and bought a camera and Phirom is now making a living as a photographer – one of a small number of Cambodians working full-time on their art.
"It's so hard," McIlkenny says. "When I was 20, I was able to go to university. For someone from a family of poor rice farmers, by the time they are 20 their parents are physically broken [from working the fields]. They have to work at least three jobs to help feed and educate their siblings."
The couple are delighted to be making a difference. "I used to work in executive leadership," says McIlkenny. "I'm now using those skills to help young Khmer artists make a living – and it feels so much more rewarding."
Qantas Singapore and Vietnam Airlines offer one-stop flights from Australia to Siem Reap.
Located in the heart of Siem Reap, Shinta Mani Angkor – Bensley Collection is a collection of ultra-stylish private villas, each with a lap pool, roof terrace and personal butler. From $US660 including breakfast. See shintamani.com
Siem Reap Art Tours offers personalised tours of Siem Reap's best galleries, including introductions to artists and owners. From $US75 per person. See siemreaparttours.com
Ute Junker was a guest of Siem Reap Art Tours and Shinta Mani - Bensley Collection