Bangkok, an open-air street art museum?
#BANGKOK Is the Thai capital on the verge of dethroning the Western capitals and establishing itself as the new mecca for graffiti artists? In any case, it is the feeling that grips us when we consult Alisa Phommahaxay’s book. In “Bangkok Street Art. A look at the Thai urban scene”, she offers a detailed inventory and a collection of the most beautiful frescoes in this open-air museum.
It is during her regular trips to Asia that Alisa Phommahaxay, originally from Laos, discovers a flourishing and unknown street art scene, quite different from what she is used to seeing in Europe. When she gets back, she looks for a book to study more closely what she perceives as a real breath of oxygen. But apart from China and Japan, there is practically no information on Asian street art and even less books. That doesn’t matter, and without claiming to be a photographer, she will realize it herself, a way to support in her own way the messages of protest, which she believes are the essence of street art.
Meeting a young woman who is not afraid of anything!
How does urban art fit concretely into the city’s neighbourhoods?
There are several areas in Bangkok where you can see graffiti/street art. The city is huge, it can afford the “luxury” of also having works in the city centre, such as the Chinatown district, and not only in the suburbs as seen in other major metropolises. (see map). I would distinguish 3 pioneers in the history of Thai street art: Mamafaka, P7 and Alex Face. The first, Mamafaka, was promised a bright future. But he died suddenly in 2013 without having been able to put his name definitively in stone. P7 has launched a whole generation, but its old school style is now less appealing. Finally, Alex Face is the only star, with perhaps Mue Bon, who has made a name for himself internationally and in the West.
How do graffiti artists work, solo or in groups? Can we say that there is a local specificity?
Indeed, we can say that the Thais really stand out from the American influence, although we still feel a strong New York influence in graffiti). But their style is very figurative, there are many animals and characters and it is very colorful. The influence of local folklore and Buddhist bestiary is very pronounced. In addition, there are many collectives, such as MSV Crew in Chiang Mai, with their own style. Even if they all come from different backgrounds, they almost all have an artistic background. And if some artists do not belong to a specific collective, they often paint together, help each other and enrich each other.
The essence of street art is to be ephemeral, so how can we preserve these works?
We have the example of Banksy! Some cities choose to put plastic sheets on to keep them. But it is above all respect that still remains the best conservation. In the world, we have to respect each other’s work, and the big names remain on the walls, rarely “toyer” (the fact of going over it again).
Everywhere in the city, there are construction sites, so the population is rather delighted to see the walls decorated with these colorful frescoes, and Bangkok does not escape the rampant urban planning like all Asian megacities. But it’s true, street art is ephemeral in essence.
You’re talking about an art of protest, so what messages do these artists want to convey?
Since 1932, the beginning of the constitutional monarchy, there have been twelve successful coups d’état, and it is a military junta that holds power with what one can imagine of censorship and repression. The political context is unstable. So of course, artists create in opposition to the military. On the other hand, he never attacks the King who is a sacred character in Thailand, a kind of demigod. It would be a very repressed lèse-majesté crime.
It is very rare to challenge the military head-on. This is always done in a roundabout way, except with Headache Stencil or Rap Against Dictatorship, which are very virulent and risk imprisonment every time. here, we can go to prison for a simple sharing of articles that relay information against the government in place or the monarchy.
– What is the recognition of Asian street art today on the international scene?
Until now, Asian artists have only been recognized in the Pacific zone, except as I said earlier, Alex Face and Mue Bon to a lesser extent. It can be said that P7 has paved the way for a new generation, even if the students have since surpassed the teacher. Alex Face is the first Thai street artist to be mentioned when talking about this scene. But although he has collaborated with Mercedes, he is not represented by any gallery in Europe yet. Australia is the only “Western” country that “recognizes” them, probably because of its geographical proximity. In Asia, collectors generally buy “locally”. Of course, there are artists who “go beyond” this framework, like Murakami or Jeff Koons, their ratings are the same everywhere. But overall, it remains a local market.
In these Asian totalitarian regimes, what interested me above all to report was the following thought process: In a”strong” diet, I write something on a wall anonymously to express my dissatisfaction. So when the regime is authoritarian, there is necessarily an underground scene that responds to this deprivation of freedom, with more or less visibility. I am sure that in North Korea, there are people who gather illegally to create a dissident iconography.
“Bangkok Street Art – A look at the Thai urban scene”
Criteria Editions, Opus Délits collection, N°85
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