Bangkok Graffiti Matures Amid Beef and Growing Pains
What if you could paint graffiti on the side of a busy street in broad daylight without permission, and no one cared? In Bangkok, this is a reality, even if you get caught in the act by police.
All photos by the author
Part of what makes writing graffiti an exciting challenge in the the US and Europe is the fact that it's illegal. The threat of arrest makes for pounding hearts and breathless adventures. It dictates how much time a graffiti writer will spend painting a spot and forces writers to make stylistic choices. It turns graffiti from a creative pastime into a lifestyle choice and it weeds out the weak. So what if you could paint graffiti on the side of a busy street in broad daylight without permission, and no one cared?
Following my visits to Seoul and Hong Kong, I traveled to Bangkok to learn more about the history and current state of its graffiti culture. During my stay, I met up with CHIP7, a New Jersey native and founder of the illustrious MAYHEM crew (which included, among others, the late SACE, a.k.a. Dash Snow). CHIP has Thai ancestry and has been living in Bangkok full time for several years. When we sat down for coffee in the bustling Siam Square area of Bangkok, he told me,"In Thailand they have an adjective—is it suay [beautiful] or mai suay [unattractive]?"
"Thai people say that about everything," CHIP continued. "Is it beautiful or is it not beautiful? They'll talk about it for a dress, they'll talk about it for sunglasses, and they'll talk about it for the wall, too. They look at [graffiti] as art. It doesn't have that criminal element that it has in other places, where somebody's house got tagged or something. In America somebody would probably call the cops in two seconds. Here, you don't really see that kind of thing. When people see you painting, they usually give a thumbs up." While I heard rumors about plans for increased police enforcement, getting caught in the act, like other police encounters, is still likely to be resolved with a few baht, the local currency, rather than official consequences. Though I asked several writers and locals about graffiti's de jure legal status in Thailand, no one could confirm an answer, as it's handled differently on a case-by-case basis.
Like most graff scenes in Asia, the Thai scene is still fairly young, but it has very distinctive roots. In part, its origins can be traced to the long-running practice by students of competing colleges to mark their territory with spray paint. "We call it institutional graffiti," explained COZ, a young Thai writer who picked up writing graffiti while studying abroad as a young teen and who has since made a name for himself as one of the most talented bombers in the region. "It looks like the LA cholo letters, but it's in Thai. They write their school names and then they beef with other schools." While these students are not graffiti writers, they introduced the use of graffiti tools in their city.
Graffiti from more developed scenes is another major influence in Bangkok, and COZ is not the only Thai artist who got turned on to it abroad. An older writer called CIDER, known for his piecing skills as much as his bubbly throw-ups, lived in California for several years in the 90s where he got connected with MSK, one of the most established graffiti crews in the US, joining the ranks of prominent members such as REVOK, SABER, and RIME, to name just a few. He returned to Thailand in the late 90s and influenced a new generation of graffiti writers who were already looking at American pop culture for inspiration.
"The graff scene really started when CIDER came back from SF," recalled COZ. "At the time, people started noticing it more—from skateboard magazines and music videos and whatnot." While a few, such as local artists CETRU and LOBATT, had been illegally painting cartoonish characters on the street, CIDER introduced the concept of primarily painting letter-based graffiti as it's done in the States. Said COZ, "He brought the modern graffiti back to Thailand and then it started developing."
Yet just as the Bangkok graff scene was starting to bloom, it suffered a serious setback about three years ago. What happened is so complicated and layered that the whole story could take up the length of a book, so we'll only provide the basic details. According to a variety of sources, Thai graff writers got swept up in beef between several warring factions of high-profile vandals from the US, some of whom had spent time in Bangkok. A few locals decided to take sides, and others got drawn into it by association. As a result, the graff scene in Bangkok became stifled by division, distrust, and tough-guy posturing that imitated the attitudes of American writers. The most visible outgrowth was that writers dissed each other's work all over the city. It was ugly, literally, and according to comments I heard from one writer who asked not to be mentioned by his name, it set back the scene by as much as five years.
Fortunately, as the dust gradually cleared over the last year or two, a distinct new crop of relatively young writers saw an opportunity to distinguish themselves with solid work. And while a few kids still play tough guys and war over imaginary turf and other beef, some young Thai writers—among them COZ, FLORE, BEKOS and ROMES—are followingin CIDER's path and painting graffiti that would look at home in New York's Lower East Side as much as on Bangkok's streets, where graffiti has become ubiquitous in the city's central shopping districts and along some of its canals.
As I discovered, painting missions in Bangkok are often more relaxed than in other places. One afternoon, I climbed aboard one of the boats that serve as an important transportation method on the city's many canals along with SADUE 907, another American transplant who now calls Bangkok home, in order to meet up with CHIP at a painting spot further out.
It was the middle of a heat wave, and a rain storm had temporarily cleared the air. We found CHIP and, armed with ice-cold cans of Thai beer, which we drank through straws, according to local custom, proceeded to a spot right on the canal. As the sun slowly set, CHIP and SADUE worked on their pieces, inviting curious glances from pedestrians and passing boats. CHIP painted his distinctive letter-based moniker, filled with wild colors and tricked out with spacey patterns and a tribute to the recently-deceased Prince.
Inspired as much by traditional Thai art as futuristic fantasyscapes conjured by his restless mind, CHIP's graffiti is a cultural hybrid that has become his trademark style in recent years, opening doors to other creative and commercial projects. He is currently working on a short live action film that will accompany a mixtape of music he composed, and he's also produced artwork for global brands such as Red Bull. That said, his ethos remains grounded in the illegal bombing sprees of his youth.
CHIP was positive overall about the prospects for Thai graff culture. As in other Asian countries, there is a temptation to turn short-lived graffiti careers into more lucrative endeavors. Nonetheless, he told me, "there are a lot of really talented artists here! All the temple murals, all this intricate stuff is quite ingrained in the culture, and it's part of the national identity." With time, the Thai graff scene has a unique opportunity to take advantage of lax law enforcement and inject color and creativity into the vibrant urban fabric of Bangkok, forging a distinct legacy in an increasingly internationalized outlaw culture.
See more photos from Ray's visit to Bangkok below.
Ray Mock is the founder of Carnage NYC and has been documenting graffiti in New York and around the world for ten years, publishing more than two dozen limited edition zines and books. Follow him on Instagram.