From Bangkok’s streets to the city’s nightclubs, a mix of street artists, dancers and DJs are bringing a contemporary and distinctly urban scene to Thai youth. Yvonne Liang and Mark Bibby Jackson talk to some leading proponents to discover the opportunities and challenges for the Capital’s underground artists, and what the future olds for thos showing that there is another way. Photos by Nick McGrath.
Hi Face is hidden hehind a maska can of spray paint in his right hand, local street artist p7even sprays onto a clean surface. A vacant lot in central Bangkok, all around him are street paintings by Bangkok’s many urban artists – his own piece is a brown bear. But this is not how he likes to work.
“I always get permission first for my paintings,” he explains. Painting by day means he can provide greater detail to his paintings than under the cloak of night. He has only donned the mask for our photoshoot.
An artist and designer by training, p7even decided to turn to street painting 10 years ago to move his collection “out onto the street”. He has been colouring the streets of Bangkok ever since with relatively little hassle.
“I have not had problems with the police,” he says. “I like to paint during the day so the police can see me. They ask me sometimes what I’m painting and the police have no problem.”
Although he is constantly trying to experiment with new styles – mixing acrylic, spray paint, markers and pencil – he is still fully aware of the limitations that his culture places upon him.
“We have freedom but we always have to be aware of who we are,” he says. “Paying respect to people, places, and sensitive issues like the religion and royal institutions is very important as this country raises you that way,” he says.
Maybe this is one reason why Thai street art has a distinctly apolitical feel to it, something which p7even attributes to artists being more focused on developing their own style than to make overt political statements.
Still he believes there is more freedom for street artists in Thailand than in many countries in Asia and even in the US or Europe.
“Lots of street artists come to Bangkok because they can work on their art more freely here in public spaces,” he says. Social media sites, such as Facebook, has allowed artists to share their work on an international scale, often inviting other artists to come to Thailand to “jam” together on a collaborative piece of art.
Art for the People
Street painting is a lot more open than traditional forms of art, where works are generally locked away from the public within galleries or museums. For Chip Seven, this is one of the main attractions of the genre.
“It’s for anyone, and everyone who’s paying attention to see,” he says. “That’s the interesting thing about painting in public.”
Specialising in mixed media urban contemporary street art, he believes that Bangkok is a wonderful place for public art, partially due to Thailand’s healthy tradition of public art in Buddhist pagodas.
“It’s young, but growing fast,” he says. “This country has a long history of artistic elegance as far as murals that tell important stories via wall paintings, and I’m sure that will extend into the future.” Predicting an influx of new faces and talent, he claims to have noticed a significant change in the public’s appreciation of art in Bangkok in recent years.
“I think it’s about the acceptance and wider openness among audiences and consumers,” he says. “You can see that we now have many kinds of art galleries which specially support one kind of art. People are getting to know the different kinds of art that they may be not familiar with.”
Bangkok’s street artists are beginning to get some recognition, both inside Thailand and overseas.
In addition to appearing at several openings and performing live paintings, p7even’s works have featured in exhibitions in Singapore and at the Underground Pub and Gallery in Cologne, Germany. However, it was the pieces he had commissioned by the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre that gave him most pleasure.
“It was a dream, but something I never thought would happen,” he says of the phone call he received asking if he would like to contribute two pieces to the new gallery.
Local visual artist, radio DJ and drag performer Pan Pan Narkprasert agrees there are relatively few restrictions placed upon artists in Thailand, but he feels that, like just about everywhere else in the world, they are driven by financial necessity.
“Artists who are amazing sometimes don’t sell,” he says. Art is driven by the same rules of supply and demand as other elements of the economy. “Where there is more demand there is more art in general. There is less demand for it here.”
For him, the problem stems from a basic lack of appreciation of art by the public.
“It’s more important to get a handbag from Siam Paragon than go to an art gallery,” he says. “In Thailand we are more consumers than creators.”
You get the sense that his question is more than rhetorical when he asks, “instead of buying something why not create?”
Dancing in the streets
As a dancer, Narkprasert is better known by his drag queen name Miss Pangina Heals. He is often seen performing at nightclubs such as Bed Supperclub, Levels and the new Bash, as well as waacking competitions in Singapore and Malaysia, and the recent Pinktober at Hard Rock.
But it is not just on the stage that he performs.
“You have to live the street in you,” he says. “I practice my dance while walking. It’s like an act of meditation. My mind is constantly thinking about creating art.”
It is only when he is in this creative state that he can truly find himself. “You must really understand the art to understand yourself,” he says.
Like Chip Seven, he feels that Thai society is still evolving in its appreciation of underground dance forms such as waacking – where dancers flail their arms around and then hold a pose.
“I do feel the world around me is changing because I can go out in public wearing a white Afro,” he says.
Whether this greater acceptance of underground dance – and fashion – has led to an improvement in quality is a moot point.
Hip Hop dancer Kitty K. Maryteres, better known as Sign from the D MANIAC crew certainly believes so.
“Over the past four years new generations of dancers and dance crews have improved the quality of dance in Thailand,” she says. “I see more international styles of dance in Thailand. Some local dance crews are also joining international competitions to bring Thailand to the world stage.”
But has this improvement come at a cost?
“Overall, people have really lost the idea of soul – it’s all about a fad, about what’s popular,” says Narkprasert. “In dance, they don’t get into the core meaning of the music. The dance becomes soulless, empty, like aerobics.”
According to him, the dance of the 70s, 80s and 90s had “soul”. This came from the struggle performers had in order to create. “Today we have become too comfortable,” he says.
Perhaps this is inevitable in a business that has to reinvent itself every few years. Even waacking is arguably a re-hash of the Soul Train dancing of the 1970s.
“It’s all a circle,” says Narkprasert. “Once everyone catches on to it, the soulfulness and originality becomes empty again. It becomes the whore of people’s needs and over-demands.”
In the meantime he is just happy that his audience – a mix of “drag queen lovers, art lovers, club kids, mutual survivors, people that go through the same struggles, and gays” – should enjoy his work.
“It’s the greatest thing in life to make someone feel okay about themselves,” he says. “While the haters are hating I’m creating.”
Maryteres agrees that dance as an artform is well received in Thailand.
“People love to watch something fresh and artistic,” she says. “Art is in everyone’s soul and they will always need it to make them smile and feel fulfilled in their hearts.”
We need some education
Perhaps more than street art and dance, DJing represents the every day conflict between artistic values and commercialism the keenest.
Although DJ Spydamonkee has been spinning decks for 17 years, you won’t find him turning to commercial tracks. Instead he sticks to “mostly old school 90s hip hop, 80s hits, funk beats, dance hall and Thai classic dope tracks”.
He views the current scene as shallow – something he attributes in part to a lack of knowledge about music and in part to the ease of becoming a DJ nowadays. “Almost anyone can claim to be a DJ,” he says.
Echoing Narkprasert’s view of a lack of soul, DJ Spydamonkee says that Thais lack the individuality to choose their own style of music and instead revert to the tried and tested commercial tracks they know will work with their crowd.
“As long as they have a good time it’s good,” he says is the prevailing attitude.
This leads to a lack of choice for the consumer.
“Everywhere plays the same tracks because they think it will make money,” he says. “So, people have no choice to choose their own likes.”
He really isn’t even sure what the current music trend is on the streets of Bangkok. It’s all confusing and unsubstantial.
“There are so many tiny genres of music now,” he says. “A little bit of this plus that and DJs suddenly come up with a name for their hype without knowing where it really came from.”
DJ CleoP is more optimistic about the direction Thailand’s music is heading.
“It has been moving at a fast pace and towards a great direction,” she says. “We have more International Artists/DJs coming nowadays which will help the local music scene. In the end it will be us who can either learn from them or remain a spectator in our own country.”
Not that the current situation is without hope, even for a seasoned cynic like DJ Spydamonkee.
“There’s some people who keep good sounds, dope tracks going on the under and much love for those heads who appreciate sounds,” he says.
DJ CleoP believes it is for people like her to lead their audience rather than to pander to their wishes.
“It actually comes back to the artists and DJs,” she says. “We have to educate. We don’t cater to our audience based on what they like to listen to. We have to brand ourselves. So we DJs have the power, not the crowds. Not crowds who request songs. That’s whack and disrespectful.”
For DJ Spydamonkee, it’s a bit like going back to school. Audiences like “to see what the DJ can do rather than listen to tracks they can sing along to. It’s just like a classroom.”
Back at our wall, the photoshoot over, p7even leaves the scene of his art. Quite how long it will last he does not know. What with people placing advertising hoardings and the pressure of development inside the city there is an inevitable impermanence to his art. However, so long as there are walls left for him to spray and people willing to let him do it, he will continue to take his work to the street. The reason for this is the simplest of all.
“I love my work,” he says. “I just love it.”