A fierce green tiger roars over a red songthaew (public transport in the form of a mini-pickup truck) as it turns a corner, passing a jungle painted on a stone fence, with a backdrop of real trees. A stenciled Kurt Cobain in his trademark shades stares at the traffic zooming by, while a building-sized cat-like creature yawns over the late afternoon horizon above a bar packed with farangs (foreigners) enjoying their first cocktails of the day.
Past the most obvious landmarks of the Lanna Kingdom, and beyond the bustling bars, restaurants and temples lies another Chiang Mai that’s not apparent at first sight. It hides in the alleyways of this café- and hotel-lined labyrinth, occasionally making its way to the high streets before disappearing again.
But once you’ve slipped down this rabbit hole, it reveals another dimension that you can never fully escape, no matter where you go. Not that you’d want to; it’s a vivid and colourfully painted world, full of recurring characters, unforgettable faces and intriguing patterns, constantly blurring the borders between past and present, traditional and modern. They belong to Chiang Mai as much as everything else, and make the city what it is: a laid-back getaway with an urban twist.
BRINGING WALLS TO LIFE
Street art here seems a reflection of Chiang Mai’s deep art roots, a contemporary vehicle through which the ancient city expresses itself. It’s new and hip, while clearly offering a respectful nod to old traditions.
My guide to unraveling this secret world is Mauy Cola, a quiet, twenty-something local who is considered one of the most important leaders of Chiang Mai’s street art movement. His name echoes all the way to the Thai capital where I’d begun my initial research, and learnt of him through Thailand’s number one graffi tiartist, Alex Mardi aka AlexFace whose work is known nationwide. AlexFace’s popular and easily recognisable works featuring a furry creature – apparently bearing his own daughter’s face – is a common sight in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
According to Cola, the origins of Chiang Mai’s graffiti movement can be traced back to 1995. What began with sticker bombing and slogans left on walls around town by a small skateboarding community, only developed into what it is today about six to seven years ago. It certainly has come a long way from its abstract slogan-dropping street style and evolved into a full, character-based form of self-expression. Right now, there are 10 active graffiti artists working around Chiang Mai, the most popular ones being Sanchai (a famous musician whose green Lanna-style inspired character pops up everywhere I go); the renaissance-inspired Waris; Kaneat, known for his colourful cubic patterns; Poyed, one of the movement’s earliest pioneers; Mauy Cola himself; and, of course, AlexFace whose work appears across this northern city.
And then, of course, there are the foreign ‘guest stars’ who occasionally come to town to paint: Iagazzo from Italy, Disek from France and the British Himbad Sultan whose cat face masterpiece on a huge building along the high street is the largest painting in town at the moment. They usually fly in for holidays, contact local artists upon arrival to paint together or collaborate, then leave town again. It’s a quick affair; each artwork, no matter the scale of it – be it a small fence or a 20-feet wall – is finished in a matter of hours, with astonishing results.
A UNIQUE COLLABORATION
Surprisingly, graffiti is tolerated, and at times, even encouraged, by local authorities. Thailand doesn’t have any particular law prohibiting graffiti, which means the police have no reason to arrest street artists. However, the subject of graffiti is often controlled and based upon mutual agreement. Nothing proves this better than the creative works that decorate the walls of the US consulate, extending a block down to the river. And although I was photographed by a security guard while snapping pictures of the intriguing art works, I perceived no real threat or sense of danger; the guard just smiled and allowed me to continue shooting the graffiti on the walls of the consulate.
“We have grown up surrounded by art in Chiang Mai,” explains Cola. “The owners of the properties feel the same way about this. When I find a good wall, I contact the owner, show him or her sketches, what I have in mind for that particular wall, and see what he or she says. They’re not very keen on the old-style graffiti because they consider it dirty, but when I point out that I want to paint, for example, animals, they get excited. Quite often they have suggestions regarding what they like and most of the time, we agree. But, even if we would paint on the wall without asking, and let’s say, the owner calls the police, the cops might not even come out. Or if they do, they might just say ‘That’s beautiful!’”
Needless to say, this wasn’t the case with the walls of the US consulate. The paintings appeared as part of Chiang Mai’s Design Week, held for two consecutive years in 2014 and 2015, with students from various local schools contributing their own vision to celebrate the 180th anniversary of Thai-US relations. Even more proof that the area is a hotbed for contemporary art can be found some 10 kilometres away in the neighbouring Mae Jo City, which recently hosted the Meeting of Styles graffi ti festival where the world’s top graffiti artists showcased their work in an abandoned building. Quite often, you’ll see street art commissioned by companies and businesses. For example, the well-known painting of the elephant – one of the first things visitors see upon entering the city from the airport – was actually commissioned by the telco, dtac.
All over Chiang Mai, free-styling is allowed. Of course, out of respect, subjects for artworks on bigger walls are discussed with wall owners beforehand. Street art certainly receives a warm and largely positive reception, and this appreciation infuses the city with creative energy.
THE ELEPHANT IN ART
Although art in Thailand is multi-layered and finds expression in various forms, common elements – the image of a monk in prayer or a Lanna-style temple – may be observed across genres, be it in sculpture, painting or graffiti pieces, binding these artworks. One of the most important motifs is the elephant. This gentle beast represents royal power in Thai culture, and is a signif cant element in Buddhist art, symbolising wisdom. Throughout Thai history, the elephant has been man’s greatest ally, using its great size and strength to assist not only in labour but also in warfare, protecting the sovereignty of the Thai kingdom.
In terms of art, Chiang Mai places deep emphasis on honouring the elephant. You’ll see this cultural icon depicted on everything from touristy trinkets and souvenirs like t-shirts, lighters and wallets; to mid-range statues; and even sophisticated (and often gigantic) paintings that can cost up to a whopping hundred thousand Thai baht (approx. USD3,000)!
Whether portrayed as cute and cuddly or regal and magnificent, the elephant is everywhere. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the popular night market along Changklan Road, located in the eastern part of the city. Here, in the basement section of the market, art is the largest draw, making it the perfect spot to pick up treasured Thai artwork and meet the creators of these splendid souvenirs.
ART IN THE BASEMENT
Established by a few local painters 30 years ago, the Changklan Road art market has developed into a hub of some 20 open shop-galleries hosting around 50 artists, most of them sharing a space to save on rent.
One of the first artists to rent a space here was Kittidet Wongmeung, better known as Fei. Opening a gallery-shop, Fei was instrumental in training young, local artists, many of whom now have galleries of their own in the very same basement.
Surprisingly, there’s no rivalry between the artists. Everyone knows everyone, and they accept each other’s successes and failures, as one community. They make a decent living out of selling their paintings but supporting a family can still be tough at times. Although Fei admits that half of the art produced here are copies of photos, there’s also a significant number of original artworks. This is where the local artists truly shine. Their original creations bring real value to this art enclave, differentiating it from the standard tourist market where talented artists end up churning out cheap reproductions.
“Tourists – especially a growing number of Chinese tourists – ask us to reproduce their romantic photos as paintings or sketches, but there are regular, serious customers who fly in to buy our originals and resell them, usually in Germany, Australia and the US,” says Fei.
For original works, prices range from a few thousand up to a hundred thousand baht, but the latter is the highest amount spent here, and it doesn’t happen very often; that’s considered a lucky sell. On average, the amount spent on a quality painting hovers around 10 thousand baht, approximately USD290.
Another artist, Narong Kumpunbutr whose striking elephant paintings dominate the view as I walk down the main stairs, opens up to me, explaining how artists here often work their magic. “Sometimes, paintings start as a copy of a photo but the artists work their own idea into it, developing it into something else, adding their own technique and painting it into an abstract, for example. These make the best sales because they are more valuable. But average tourists mostly spend on cheap, affordable copies to take home a bit of Chiang Mai.”
Sometimes, I think that it’s the less tangible – a memory or an impression of a place – that remains with us the longest. These priceless souvenirs captured in our mind’s eye can be ours to take home with us forever, and without ever paying a cent.
And of all the art forms, this is where graffiti really wins. No one can truly own it, and so, it becomes art for everyone. There today, gone tomorrow, its f eeting quality makes it even more precious. Buildings may be razed to the ground and true masterpieces painted over overnight, but this sense of all being temporary is what makes this art form unique and exciting; you never know for certain how much time you’ll have to appreciate each work before it disappears.
Mauy Cola tells me that just a few weeks back, an entire abandoned house that had once hosted the best works of various artists was torn down, its remnants a colourful mound of rubble. This made me think about my favourite street art in Chiang Mai – a textured painting by Cola that depicts a tiger and hyena in profile, alongside his own self portrait, done over a wall and fence – and how it could very well be gone the next time I visit.
Unable to resist, I ask him if artists are ever heartbroken when their work is destroyed. “Well, the walls are not ours. So, we accept this fate from the moment we paint on a wall. It’s part of the graffiti code.”
To complement your art exploration in Chiang Mai, enjoy a dose of culture at the city’s many galleries and museums.
A notable attraction is Daraphirom Palace Museum, which off ers a peek into the abode of Princess Dara Rasmi, consort of King Chulalongkorn and half-sister of the chief Prince of Lanna, showcasing royal living during the early 20th century. Princess Dara Rasmi was instrumental in merging the Lanna Kingdom with Siam, present day Thailand.
The Tribal Museum of Chiang Mai (which recently moved to a new location at Ratchamankla Park) was established in 1965, and showcases the unique heritage of northern Thailand’s hill tribes, including the Karen, Akkha, Lisu, Hmong and Mien. The colourful exhibits include traditional costumes, eating utensils, musical instruments and jewellery.
The Chiang Mai National Museum, with its Lanna Thai roof, showcases the beauty of Northern architecture, and off ers an insightful journey into the history of the Lanna kingdom and the rich heritage of its people, as well as the development of Lanna art. www.tourismthailand.org
THE WHITE ELEPHANT & DOI SUTHEP
One of Chiang Mai’s most famous legends involves a white elephant, a rare creature that is considered sacred and auspicious, and has in centuries past been depicted on flags of the kingdom of Siam. The elephant embodies strength and is revered in Thailand, where, today, its image can be found in numerous artworks.
Although various tales exist, one of the most beloved revolves around the construction of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Legend has it that 600 years ago, a monk named Sumanathera from Sukhothai had a vision about finding a sacred relic, Lord Buddha’s shoulder bone. He travelled to the place described in his vision, and once he located the relic, he realised that the bone was imbued with magical powers; it could glow, vanish and even duplicate itself!
Hearing about the relic, King Nu Naone of the Lanna Kingdom summoned Sumanathera. The monk took it to the king in 1368, and the holy relic duplicated itself. One of the pieces was enshrined at Wat Suandok, while the other piece was placed atop the back of a royal white elephant that was released into the jungle. It is said that the elephant climbed up Doi Suthep mountain and trumpeted three times, before it knelt down and breathed its last. This unusual incident was interpreted as a divine sign and the king erected a temple there to house the sacred relic. The temple, called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country.
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