Sport & Culture

City as Canvas: Bangkok’s Bukruk Street Art Festival

Artists have splashed colorful murals across Bangkok for the city’s first international street art festival.

Bangkok may have a reputation for being a concrete jungle, but from February 16 to March 17, the Bukruk Street art festival is giving the cityscape some added color.

Visitors to the festival – displaying works by 26 European and Thai street artists throughout 400 square meters of exhibition space provided by the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC) and 1,000 square meters of exterior wall paintings – are sure to enjoy a break from the mundane.

Next to a motorway, a three- to four-storey image of a funky beachfront complete with Pina Colada (painted by Low Bros) offers a break from Bangkok’s sweltering heat.

Underneath Scala Cinema, strange beings painted by Daan Botlek and Ibie are seen traveling through the walls, to and from imaginary spaces, “adding a mini-wonderland to a gloomy corridor that one would usually avoid,” Bukruk co-organizer and BKK Arthouse co-director Bow Wasinondh told The Diplomat.

Then there is the giant mutated fly, painted by Yuree Kensaku, battling soldiers who are blasting the creature with poisonous beams (courtesy of fellow artist Tawan Wattuya). It “makes you feel like you are witnessing an epic war set in Bangkok ruins,” Wasinondh added.

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In Thai, Bukruk literally means “invasion.” The name is fitting. As an article in the Wall Street Journal points out, the artists of Bukruk have invaded Bangkok with their works, which in their turn reflect the mood and terrain of the city. This interplay between artist and place is one the most distinctive aspects of street art.

“I feel the narratives of the city play a big role in shaping Bukruk artists’ works,” Wasinondh said. “Many Thai and European artists draw inspirations, not only from the physical architecture of Bangkok city, but reflect on the layers of stories (community, history, culture) that they experience while exploring the urban settings and Thailand in their paintings.”

Making arrangements for this festival was a lot of leg work for Wasinondh, who spent months getting permission from building owners and businesses in charge of the spaces needed by the artists to execute their aesthetic visions. The effort finally paid dividends and the project took off with the backing of corporate sponsors, the Toot Yung Gallery, Nemo Studio, and even some European embassies and the European Institutes for Culture.

While it may seem strange that this festival – it is graffiti after all – has the backing of European governments, it goes to show the extent to which street art has become mainstream. Street art has become a truly global phenomenon, with colorful graffiti tags and sophisticated murals in full bloom across the Asia-Pacific region’s urban centers, from Hong Kong and Tokyo to Jakarta and Sydney.

With its rise in popularity, street art has made the leap from gritty building sides to gallery walls. This transition is playfully portrayed in the often hilarious documentary film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which tracks the exploits of Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash), an eccentric Parisian filmmaker-turned-street artist based in Los Angeles.

Directed by Banksy, a famed British street artist whose work is loaded with satire, dark humor and subversive socio-political commentary, the film shows just how much street art has “invaded” society. Street art has crept into the market in turn.

For those who want to see street art painted by permission, the Bukruk festival offers a good introduction. To see the more subversive roots of this art form – tags and murals in the raw – turn down an alley just about anywhere and take a peak. There are gems to be found there.

To quote Banksy: “Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.”