The meaning of a street artist’s work comes not only from its content, but also the laws, politics and religion, both official and unofficial, that govern the region. In Chiang Mai, in Thailand, street art is not necessarily illegal – the streets are filled with trash, good luck symbols and homemade signs – but many natives will tell you it is a form of expression that has no connection whatsoever with their country. They claim the few working artists are either westerners or Thais – mostly students – obsessed with western culture.
Like in many developing countries, Thais fear the westernization of almost every aspect of their culture is corrupting their few remaining traditional values. These following stickers, for example, are almost certainly directed at foreigners.
Yet as far as political statements in Thailand go, these stickers are relatively safe ground. You can, for example, walk all over Chiang Mai and never see anything, street art or otherwise, referring to the growing tensions between the Thai royalists and the Thai democrats. Both of whom have a strong presence in the city. Partly this is a reflection of the media censorship currently in place and partly this concedes to the old Thai custom of saving face – rarely, no matter how angry they feel, will a Thai person show their true feelings in public (rarely, but not always after a bottle or two of Chang beer!). Mostly, however, it seems tied in with those old world attitudes of always respecting your elders and never, if you enjoy your freedom, questioning your so-called betters.
In Chiang Mai the artists never work in range of any government or religious buildings. Nor do they work in the areas where the residents earn their livings selling their wares on the street outside their homes. In general they only write on sites that cause the least amount of offence.
Like the numerous electric boxes that stand as stiffly as royal guards on the edge of the sidewalks
The numerous telephone boxes that you never see anyone use.
Abandoned buildings located on the edge of a busy road.
An artist sometimes leaves his work on a garage or shop shutter door, but it is usually of such quality you wonder if the owner gave him his permission.
When artists in Chiang Maido do leave their work on a wall it is almost always at the entrance of the alleyway, lane or road and no further.
A Thai street artist called Bundit Puangthong, now living in Australia, states the reason there is not much street art in Thailand is that “there are not a lot of large clean walls waiting to be painted on like there are in Australia… every little bit of the street is used by street hawkers, businesses, pedestrians and traffic… It is already very visually chaotic.” Judging from the number of large clean walls here, he never worked in Chiang Mai. The following few pictures show areas that in cities across Europe and North and South America would be, to use a graffiti phrase, bombed to hell.
Yet it is in the inoffensive nature and placement of much of the artists’ work that makes the street art in Chiang Mai so refreshing. They have certainly taken their lead from the artists in Europe and South and North America, but rather than just copying it, they have adapted it into something that it feels a little more Thai.
One of the most common themes in the city is that one must always respect nature. Buddhist philosophy is only one source of inspiration. The people of Chiang Mai also live only ten minutes from some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
These images of fish are a little more political in nature, probably addressing the issue of overfishing: some Thai waters are among the most overfished waters in the world.
You will see this evil looking panda plastered on walls, buildings and electric boxes throughout the center of the city.
While you may know that the artist is referencing the pandas currently enjoying celebrity like status in Chiang Mai zoo, you are probably less clear why he or she draws the main part of his head looking like a dskeletor. As a visitor to the country it is probably best not to give it another moment’s thought. Just shake your head and azed remind yourself, nothing in Thailand is ever quite what it seems.