Thai street artists creating headache for junta

A caricature by street artist Headache Stencil of Thailand's junta chief - depicted as "a lucky cat" with a paw raised to rake in money - is spotted on a wall on Sept 4. Headache's work has caught the imagination of a country where an increasing numb
A caricature by street artist Headache Stencil of Thailand's junta chief - depicted as "a lucky cat" with a paw raised to rake in money - is spotted on a wall on Sept 4. Headache's work has caught the imagination of a country where an increasing number of people are looking to art to dissect the anti-junta angst that lurks below the surface.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BANGKOK • Thailand's junta chief caricatured as a "lucky cat" with a paw raised to rake in money, or his face crossed out by a thick, red line - daring graffiti is cropping up across Bangkok as the city's walls become a canvas for rare political scorn.

The pioneer of the new wave of street artists is Headache Stencil, whose spray cans satirise the powerful in a country where free expression has been muted since a 2014 coup.

Dubbed Thailand's version of Banksy, the British graffiti artist turned multi-millionaire art auction darling, Headache - whose nickname alludes to the pain he hopes to inflict on the mighty - catapulted to fame in January with a piece skewering junta No. 2 Prawit Wongsuwan, who was struggling to explain his collection of undeclared luxury watches.

The stencil art showing Mr Prawit's face inside an alarm clock was a jab at the lack of financial transparency by generals who seized power claiming that only they could save the country from untrammelled graft.

It was a bold move in a tightly controlled country where simply reading George Orwell's 1984 novel in public is deemed defiant, and whose well-connected elite are quick to file criminal defamation charges.

Speaking at his Bangkok studio, Headache is unrepentant.

"The root of street art is that people have no rights, no voice," he told Agence France-Presse, his face masked as much for a dramatic flourish as protection from the authorities. "The aim is to spread the words we want to say but cannot. So we paint them for those who walk by... for officials or the general public to understand."

After the clock image went viral, police attempted to monitor the artist and city officials hit the streets to paint over subversive graffiti.

Mr Prawit insists the watches were borrowed from friends, but nine months later, Thailand's anti-graft body has yet to finish its investigation into the issue.

Headache again stole the spotlight in March - this time with graffiti showing a black panther crying tears of blood. It was a reference to the case of a Thai construction magnate who was later charged with poaching one of the protected cats during an illegal safari hunt in a national park.

Once again, the artwork was a hit online, cheered for its brazen lampooning of another wealthy target.

Much like Banksy, Headache's carefully maintained mystique adds to the allure of his work.

And it has caught the imagination of a country where an increasing number of people are looking to art to dissect the anti-junta angst that lurks below the surface.

"Street art has a fast life... you can cover it with paint but once it is on social media, it stays," said Mr Apinan Poshyananda, artistic director of the Bangkok Art Biennale, which debuts next month and will feature other street artists.

Headache now holds workshops across the country, including in the north-eastern provinces, the political heartland of the toppled civilian government. Meanwhile, a mushrooming number of galleries and studios are hosting dance and art performances addressing the kingdom's toxic political culture and complex social issues in subtle ways that dodge censure.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2018, with the headline 'Thai street artists creating headache for junta'. Print Edition | Subscribe