Bangkok Street Art and Graffiti: Hope Full, Hope Less, Hope Well

Sagrika Singh

Rupert Mann's Bangkok Street Art and Graffiti provides a captivating journey into the heart of Bangkok's subculture, deeply rooted in the early days of graffiti and heavily influenced by the global hip hop movement. Over the past few decades, this subculture has dynamically transformed the city's urban landscape, turning it into a dynamic canvas of creativity.

The book traces the burgeoning Bangkok street art scene from the early 2000s, as artists delved into diverse forms of self-expression, merging elements of traditional Thai culture with contemporary urban influences. Abandoned buildings and neglected areas became vibrant spaces for artists to display their talents, often conveying potent social and political messages on issues such as environmental conservation, social justice, and human rights. While gaining popularity, the street art scene faces hurdles like vandalism and the impermanence of outdoor art, with instances of artworks being painted over or removed due to ongoing development.

Mann's primary aim is to dissect the evolution of graffiti and street art in Bangkok, showcasing the broad spectrum of styles and experimentation with various mediums that the city has witnessed. The book is structured into seven chapters, each offering a subjective compilation of graffiti and street artists' works, along with the author's personal insights.

The initial chapters vividly explore the Hopewell site, emphasizing how the old Bangkok culture yielded to the new amidst the urban expansion of the 1960s and 70s. As cemented columns adorned with art were demolished, the author endeavored to document these pieces. In 2013, the impending demolition of Hopewell's columns led to a congregation of street artists, solidifying the site's place in Bangkok's street art history. Tribal tensions arose between originators of graffiti and proponents of newer styles, while global birthplaces of these art movements were traced back to New York and Philadelphia.

Emerging artists scour the city for prime locations to create their pieces, adapting to the city's dynamic development. As Bangkok lost much of its architectural and cultural heritage, a schism grew between the royal administration and inhabitants of small hamlets. The once-green spaces succumbed to cement and power cables, resulting in a busier and more alienated society. American culture permeated the emerging Bangkok, narrating its story through the ever-evolving graffiti and street art scene.

Mann critically highlights government failures and the tumultuous political landscape post-demolition of sites like Hopewell. Projects were abandoned, squandering Thai public funds, a sentiment echoed by local graffiti and street artists. Hopewell transformed from a symbol of shame to a hallowed ground for creativity and political discourse. It became a testament to wasteful, incomplete investments, a stark reminder of their futility.

In Chapter 4, Mann traces the cultural metamorphosis of the city, where destruction and construction provided an avenue for street artists and graffiti writers to thrive. Neglected cement slabs in abandoned public parks and various sites were repurposed as canvases, eventually becoming some of Bangkok's most Instagram-worthy spots. The fusion of American culture with traditional Thai graffiti art and the emergence of teenage gangs experimenting with spray paint, and stencils marked a significant shift in style. The hip hop culture, predating the internet, found resonance among Thai youth. However, access to this cultural phenomenon remained confined to elite families.

Mann observes that typographical styles continued to dominate Bangkok's art scene, with many graffiti writers incorporating both figures and lettering. Around 2012, character-based styles gained popularity, aligning with global trends as stencil art gained traction. While tastes shifted, some artists continued to straddle both styles, asserting that characters possess greater memorability and recognizability. Conflict, competition, and the persistent presence of buffing and bombing remained integral to graffiti culture.

Chapter 5 delves into the ongoing debate between street art and graffiti terminology. Clashes between old and new schools of thought within the graffiti and street art communities intensified. Polytechnical students took pride in opting for spray paint for its efficiency. Street art and stencil art, in contrast to graffiti, commonly conveyed political messages. The advent of social media and increased internet access expanded the audience reach. Artists could now share their work globally, albeit at the cost of a more sensory, immersive experience that physical journeys to the streets once offered.

Chapter 6 explores the rising inclination towards employing street art as a political tool. It became a voice of dissent, a means to critique those in authority. A clear divide emerged between artists with power and connections, and those without, influencing who could express themselves most openly. Mann highlights an incident involving the illegal hunting of a black leopard, underscoring how financial means could potentially shield individuals from legal repercussions. Many artists turned to politics as a concept, finding it an accessible means to connect with the public. Some used political depictions as a form of communication, while others did it for fame. The burgeoning influence of social media, however, led to curbed free expression through censorship. Paradoxically, this constraint potentially fueled creativity by compelling artists to make statements that challenged the law without violating it.

In the final chapter, Mann sheds light on the Hopewell site's art, elucidating the costs of corruption, consequences of censorship, and fallout from over- and under-planned development. Street artists emerged as antidotes to the dreariness of neglected places, embodying the cultural repercussions of globalization. While cultural exchange across borders accelerated with the internet's advent, the slower pace before facilitated more organic adaptation of local traditions.

Mann's work presents an invaluable insight into the dynamic world of Bangkok's street art and graffiti. His meticulous exploration of the Hopewell site, in particular, offers a poignant narrative of cultural transformation and urban development. By juxtaposing the old and new Bangkok, Mann effectively underscores the impact of government policies on the city's artistic heritage. The book successfully highlights the societal shifts and political undercurrents that have influenced the evolution of street art. However, one area that could benefit from further elaboration is the international context. While the book touches on the global origins of graffiti and street art, a more in-depth exploration of their connections to broader artistic movements worldwide would provide a richer understanding of their significance. Additionally, Mann's analysis of the socio-political implications of street art is compelling, but a deeper examination of its role in shaping public discourse and civic engagement would enhance the book's impact.

To sum up, Bangkok Street Art and Graffiti by Rupert Mann is a commendable work that illuminates the cultural tapestry of Bangkok through the lens of street art. Its nuanced portrayal of the Hopewell site and insightful commentary on urban development make it a valuable addition to the discourse on contemporary art and urban studies. With a more expansive exploration of international influences and a deeper dive into the societal impact of street art, Mann's book could truly achieve international acclaim. Rupert's book serves as a unique contribution as a record of Hopewell and other doomed sites, and of the lost and changing art and subcultural heritage of Thailand.