There is such an absurdist myriad of colorful preconception attached to the name of Bangkok, Thailand. And even so, it fails to delineate its full scope. Stepping out of the airport (assuming the air quality is somewhat subdued) a vibrant explosion of sights, sounds, smells, flavors, and questionable vices await anyone and everyone. But, akin to any city so grand in its cultural importance on a world stage, Bangkok is far more than a circus of the bizarre. Thriving at day in equal measure to the nighttime, Bangkok is a cultural haven no matter a person’s preferred cultural intake. Historical and religious landmarks dot the cityscape and seldom charge more than a few bucks. Phenomenal food stalls line every street corner and fill the air with spice and smoky char. Free museums featuring rotating works of fine art and photography are easily accessible. Malls brimming with designer fashion share their blocks (and oftentimes their parking garages) with bootleg markets. And just like every other patch on the cultural quilt of Bangkok, street art is not only seemingly everywhere, but is also vibrant, unique, and effortlessly influential on far-reaching international stages.
A five-minute walk from my hostel in the Ratchethewi neighborhood of East-Central Bangkok stands Chalerm La Park — the crumbling foundation of an old industrial-residential block turned graffiti strewn public playground. There, games of street soccer, volleyball, and sepak takraw — some sort of hypnotizing hybrid are casually played by laughing locals while a flood of foreigners and tourists stand behind the lenses of their smartphones and cameras, in awe of the walls, the ground, and even trees and tires placarding the park’s one-of-a-kind landscape design. Everything is painted. But this doesn’t look like any other grand exhibition of local street art you’ve seen before. This is Bangkok street art, and Bangkok street art is reflecting of its outlandish, one-of-a-kind city.
Perhaps the striking nature of the paint and design shouldn’t be taken so out of hand. A quick stroll around the city in any neighborhood — in any direction — and you’ll see things you’ve never seen before. Bright pink skyscrapers are not out of fashion nor hard to find, mimicking the blended nature of white light — skyscrapers, boat taxis, traffic — and red light — traffic, brothels, and 7-Eleven’s at nighttime. Seafoam green seems to be another favorite of Bangkok’s palette, oftentimes the color of taxis and tuk-tuks just the same that it’s also the color of schools and hospitals, it’s also unfortunately the color of most local waterways after decades of unregulated dumping and pollution. Intensive detail adorns every facet of Bangkok’s design, never failing to draw one closer to gates, floors, and sidewalks. Physical space is created with everything in mind, and seemingly, Thai people have a lot on their minds.
The Thai and in particular those in Bangkok, also have an incredibly rich artistic discourse. The crowned seat of Thailand and undeniably one of the world’s key cultural hubs, Bangkok has always been even more than that. One of the key capital metropolises to the world’s favorite tropical playground, Bangkok finds itself in shared, albeit varying hands with fellow Southeast Asian mega-cities, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Manila as some of the world’s largest, most culturally diverse, most artistically-inclined cities on Earth. And Bangkok being in Thailand — along with Manila in The Philippines — boasts a set of laws and cultural norms far more flexible and fluid than those of conservative and wealthy Singapore and predominantly Muslim Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. In effect, the culture — for the better and the worse — has less boundaries confining its explosive, oftentimes outlandish manifestation.
And by that lane, Bangkok became one of, if not the most colorful city on planet Earth.
But it wasn’t only relative lawlessness that got Bangkok to where it is today. Back at Chalerm La Park near my hostel in Ratchethewi, which is actually run by the local government, the original instillations were created at a festival where local artists were invited to come and paint the structures in an effort to revitalize the crumbling area, install a pocket park, and encourage creativity and art. And this is the case in many other parts of the city as well. Though of course illegal graffiti is prevalent, Bangkok discovered, just like many cities around the world, that allowing street art’s instillation in specific places curbs its unwanted counterparts in other areas of the city. In searching for vibrant street art, there is no better place to look than on the sides of the city’s many water taxi canals. As the boats zip through the canals, street art passes by like an ongoing comic strip, equally bright, equally attached to intense and enticing storylines. And for the most part, this street art is encouraged to brighten and revitalize otherwise poor and oftentimes aesthetically downtrodden neighborhoods. Even in a monarchy that has oftentimes been described as strict and self-important, art finds its way into the loving eyes of the locals and millions of annual tourists.
At the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre just blocks from my hostel and Ratchethewi and adjacent to the world-famous Siam Center and MBK mall, shops sell graffiti paint in droves to the local talent and aspiring youth while simultaneously inundating them with free installations of some of the best art that Bangkok, Thailand, Southeast Asia, and the entire world have to offer. These loose laws on spray paint and artistic encouragement lead to a particularly high percentage of creative talent in the city while also granting its dwellers something to aspire to and a respectable path towards artistic creation and individuality — both of which the Thai hold close to their hearts.
But, where there is a positive and bubbly side to a tale of art and creativity, there is always another story. Illegal street art, though usually beautiful and culturally important to neighborhoods, is oftentimes stripped by the government and police forces, leaving behind ruined walls — carcasses of where once existed beautiful works of art. And though the punishment for graffiti doesn’t come close to being publicly caned in Singapore, laws on locals — like in most places in Southeast Asia — are far more stringent than those on tourist who might break the same rules. Artists — particularly those in poorer neighborhoods, become criminals by geographical, social, and economic association. All over the world, this is a defining problem with street art, local laws and regulations, and their relationship to one another.
But, like most places in the world, there is only so much that can be done to curb even illegal street art. For every one piece stripped, multiple pop up just around the corner, and that ongoing process has left Bangkok a living, breathing work of ever-changing, vibrant, impossibly colorful artwork that continues to inspire local art, fashion, and videography. And, with Bangkok’s massive influence on the world’s art scene, most international urges of particularly colorful, vibrant, and poppy movements can probably trace at least some of their inspiration back to the street art of Bangkok.