Having not ventured out of the states until this summer, I was quickly greeted by an overwhelming wave of culture shock the minute I stepped foot in Chiang Mai. I was overwhelmed by its hectic and stressful traffic, overwhelmed by the amount of food options offered at every corner, and most of all, overwhelmed with the diversity of Chiang Mai while I observed a mix of locals and tourists from all over the world walking the streets going about their day. After I settled into my hotel, I found myself with a full day before I started my summer job writing for Citylife, so I decided to hit the streets to see just how much culture shock I could experience.
Near the end of my four-hour walk, I stumbled upon John Gallery, a shop tucked away from the street under an umbrella of overgrown branches and leaves. I walked inside, and even more interesting than the exotic exterior, the interior was cluttered by thousands of pieces of art, low ceilings with hanging lanterns, and narrow walkways of intruding tree vines. The store had a variety of things to sell from shirts and wall hangings to postcards and headbands, all painted with psychedelic imagery accompanied by beautifully written quotes by famous writers. Although frequently losing my bearings around each corner, I found the gallery to be beautifully mysterious. The vibrant artwork contrasted the wooden and stone infrastructure in a way that brought life to the low-lit interior. I moved from room to room marveling at these Thoreau and Tolkein inspired art pieces and I couldn’t help but apply them to my own journey in Southeast Asia.
I returned to the store, with a little more confidence after having put a couple of days under my belt at Citylife, looking to interview the man behind the artwork. Through all the clutter, I managed to find John Monoon, the owner and local artist who had created the thousands of psychedelic artwork that covered every inch of the walls. It’s hard not to like the guy. As I walked through his workshop doorway, John, in his hippie-ish yet fashionable attire, looked up from his desk and greeted me with a wide smile. He saw that I was a journalist looking for an interview, so instead of sitting down to talk, he insisted on taking me around his shop to visualise his story. I quickly threw my notepad in my backpack, seeing that this wasn’t going to be a conventional interview and followed him.
“This is what I hope for. This is what I believe in,” said John showing me a small piece of fabric that read ‘My hope is that you like what you see…but if you don’t, it’s all the same to me!’ Although I’m a foreigner, I knew that this type of free spirited art wasn’t typical of Asia; his artwork was a platform to exercise his freedom of expression. We continued to a part of the store that opened up to a room full of colorful wall hangings. The abstract paintings and impactful messages that John produced dug deep. It was apparent that his goal was selfless; John made art that reflected his own journey, in hopes that it would inspire others.
John led me to a room with a wall covered in photographs and articles from various international newspapers. “36 years I have worked in this store and I’ve made a lot of changes,” explained John. “Before settling in Chiang Mai, I travelled to London and New York to sell my work and I learned a lot from the people I met there. I’ve learned to change my art just like you and I change everyday,” said John reflecting on his long career. Since becoming an artist, John has been constantly driven by being dynamic. John continues to not only change his artistic platforms, shown by the array of shirts, postcards and tapestries he offers in his gallery, but also the messages that inspire each and every one of his art pieces.
After walking the store and reminiscing on his career, cutting me a deal on one of his wall hangings and revealing to me what he called his “masterpiece”, a ten-foot wide painted tapestry that John had finished a week before, he left me to be alone.
“Go around the store, be inspired and change,” John said with one last remark.
I strolled around the store for an hour finding new pieces of art around each corner. I read and reread the messages and admired the abstract, psychedelic backdrops he had created. As impressed as I was with his deeply spirited work, I left the gallery valuing not the piece of art I came away with, but what I had experienced in that last hour. As a man that seeks adventure and new experiences, I couldn’t help but be motivated by John’s story and the inspiring quotes that he continues to live by until this day.
I walked onto the streets of Chiang Mai with a quote in mind I had seen on one of his wall hangings that perfectly summed up my in-store experience: “It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey to get there.”
Tel: 053 232245
Tha Phae Road, Chiang Mai