All over the planet the graphic landscapes of cities and towns have been steadily moving away from hand-painted signage toward more photographic imagery. This trend has also affected Phnom Penh, albeit at a slower pace than many other countries. And that is a very good thing indeed.
The largest and most graphic imagery in Phnom Penh can be found on movie theater marquees. During the 60s the city had many theaters and a thriving cinema industry, in no small part due to King Sihanouk’s avid interest in making movies.
Fortunately, the craft of hand painting movie signs has endured, but just barely. Lim Kiev, 63, is one of a shrinking handful of artisans that still paint the large canvas signs seen at Phnom Penh’s movie houses. Because increased competition and cheaper technology have pushed printing costs down, these days hand-painted signs are considered optional.
“I never went to an art academy or had any formal training in art,” Lim says. “I simply picked up the skills and developed them over the years. I have been painting for over 40 years now and am good and fast. Of course, the faster the better, because I can make more money.”
Over the years he has painted signs for local theaters such as the Lux Cinema, Kampul Pech and the Khemarin Cinema. There are two distinctly different styles and approaches to his painting for the cinema: one for the imported films and another for those produced locally.
“The Khmer films have much more action scenes and lots more blood and guts. They are much harder to paint and take considerably more time to complete because of the detail,” Lim says.
Visitors and locals both have been attracted to the lush and uber-kitsch imagery that they see on the marquees. Some of the more impressed have sought out Lim and commissioned him to do custom-designed paintings.
Sometimes they ask him to do straight portraiture from photographs. The more adventurous request large compositions that mimic the original movie signs themselves. He finds it funny that they want to place their own likenesses in the movie-poster-style painting, usually asking for the more violent, gory genres as the backdrop.
The current (and likely last) grand-master artisan of hand-painted movie marquees is a vital and glowing man, looking a decade or two younger than his actual age. Luckily for Phnom Penh it appears that he will be around for many more years. Lim is successfully competing with increasingly more sophisticated printing technology in the first part of the 21st century. This is no small achievement for a self-taught artist who has witnessed massive change in his lifetime.
“I just keep using my brushes and my imagination and hope that someone will always need what I can offer. What else is there to do?”