Street art is polarising and controversial. While some regard graffiti as vandalism, it’s undeniable that there are really beautiful pieces of art out there, many of them even delivering a political or social message. I’m no expert on street art and frankly only really know Banksy, who everyone else knows too, but I can honestly say that I find good graffiti really enjoyable. I believe that a few rogue murals here and naughty graffiti there spices up a city’s appearance in a very special way. After all art is significantly influenced and inspired by the culture and the vibe of its city. Over the past couple of months of my summer here in Chiang Mai, I have come to really appreciate the al fresco art of this city.
For me the best way to get a genuine impression of what street art in Chiang Mai really looks like, was to drive around the Old City and try to find some gems on walls and garage doors. Surprisingly it was not as easy as you might think. An abundance of the bright and lively graffiti was hidden on walls in teeny tiny alleys. I had to peer really closely into every single corner and street in order not to miss any of them. Thus the hunt for murals and colourful walls even made me explore Chiang Mai itself as I went to places I’ve never been before and I would have never found if it wasn’t for my curiosity and my article.
I spent almost four hours strolling through and around the Old City, which seemed to me like an outdoor gallery, admiring the artworks, taking heaps of pictures that were not only going to be added to this text but also going to fill my Instagram account. I came across a marvellous graffiti that looked just like a painting of a mighty Greek god. Even a Spanish graffiti artist called “Iagazzo” found his way to the Rose of the North leaving a trace of love. Here and there other graffiti also spread the message because as The Beatles once sang “all you need is love”, right?
But what certainly stuck out the most was the attention to detail and the Asian themes that were displayed on the walls. The longer I stared at the murals, the more I discovered. Most human figures had almond eyes, either yellow or greenish coloured skin and wore rather traditional clothes and some of them even had tattoos. I guessed that all the various portrayed human figures might indicate the accumulation of different ethnicities here in the North which blends into one unique culture. I could talk about those graffiti for ages trying to analyse them and their place in contemporary art but I wanted to know more about the street art scene itself.
I had the pleasure of chatting with MAUY, a Chiang Mai artist whose intriguing works can be found throughout Chiang Mai and Asia and even in Europe. He graduated from Chiang Mai University and spent some time in Germany with European graffiti artists. It was only two years ago that he started to turn Chiang Mai’s walls to his canvas and added a lot of graffiti to his portfolio. While he gets paid for his graffiti artwork in Bangkok and other bigger cities, he says that Chiang Mai is just at the very beginning of recognising and appreciating graffiti as some kind of art.
Furthermore MAUY added that he was quite picky and choses locations for his work very selectively. “The location always influences the outcome of the graffiti. When I am looking for the perfect site I am not thinking about where the most people can see my work. I am rather looking for a site with character which in the end positively affects the whole picture”. After always asking the owners for permission, naturally.
MAUY explained that there were only a few other artists contributing regularly to Chiang Mai’s current street art scene, claiming that they all share a university degree in Fine Arts, the respect towards the city and the dedication for their craft. I was told that “a Thai artist always puts his whole heart into his work to receive the perfect result”. All the graffiti I’ve seen that day were so detailed and lively that you could literally feel the artist’s sweat and love mingling into his craft and finally resulting in an actual art piece.
For me the graffiti art is nothing like the scribblings and taggings often found on street corners by teenagers. It is a shame that the two forms of expression share a name, but since beauty and art lay in the eyes of the beholder why not grab a bite and go explore and tell us what you think of it all?