Amid the chaos, Thai street artists spray themselves into the conversation

Peering over the concrete barrier and razor-wire, we saw the police in riot gear. On our side, the rattle of cans was the only conversation. It had begun.

Eight Thai street artists armed with a few boxes of spray walked to the front line. Reinforced police barricades blocked a bridge from both sides near the prime minister’s offices at the Government House, and the bridge itself was covered with razor wire that we were told was electrified. Past that, across the bridge stood the lines of riot police.

As sonic cannons pelted Thai pop music at crowds on our side of the bridge, the rattle of spray cans is barely audible and the eight artists set to work.

One artist painted the outline of a message chosen by his Thai counterparts, “Fuck Government Hate.” The letters spread across the security barrier, now a 15-meter billboard.

Since the ‘70s, when Graffiti started becoming a popular subculture in New York, graffiti has mostly been about social acceptance and recognition. Early artists just wanted their name to be seen everywhere and anywhere, to tell the world they existed. Graffiti since has been used for self promotion, vandalism, marketing and in political movements. They say the pen is mightier than the sword. If so, think of a spray can as a giant pen that can paint personalized billboards in just moments.

A year ago a French journalist told me that she felt Thai street art had no soul, no meaning, no purpose. Yet amid the protests across Bangkok this month, protesters have been using brush and spray to write messages on police barricades and signs in the hot areas to promote their cause. Although passionately brushed or sprayed, more times than not, it looks messy and illegible.

Thus it was amazing to watch this group of graffiti artists work earlier this month, back when the protests were focused on the proposed amnesty bill. They moved as one and everyone knew what they were doing. By the time one letter was outlined, it’s almost been filled with color and the background around it is nearly done. The speed of eight people spraying with two cans each has to be seen to be believed.

Everyone just seems to know what they’re doing. The letters are filled, the background is done, details are added for punch, and a crisp, white outline is applied for extra flavor. The whole thing took just 15 minutes, and in that time these artists showed they have a voice in the conversation happening out in the streets.

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