BANGKOK – A Thai street artist known for his satirical stencils lampooning the Southeast Asian country’s military junta has opened a new installation in one of Bangkok’s notorious red-light districts, this time focusing on the social issues of prostitution and narcotics.
The anonymous artist, who goes by the pseudonym Headache Stencil, launched the show “Sex, Drugs & Headache Stencil” at the opening of the new Candle Light Studio gallery on Friday in the Thai capital’s infamous Patpong neighborhood, home to a bustling sex industry that mainly caters to party-hungry foreigners.
“I’ve gotten bored with politics lately,” Headache Stencil told epa-efe when asked why he had shifted his focus from targeting the junta to wider societal problems.
“I know the gallery owner and he invited me to be the first show for his gallery. When I heard the words Phat phong, I said ‘okay, I’m not going to do it about politics, but about sex and drugs,’ and he said yes,” the artist explained.
Some of the show’s highlights included a heap of Barbie-like plastic dolls – undressed except for high-heeled shoes – splattered with red paint imitating blood; a silhouette of a woman locked inside a physical metal cage and an image of red ants crawling over a female torso.
A long glass table filled with skulls and strewn with materials imitating cocaine and ecstasy pills also contained a whiskey bottle, a beer can, shot glasses and several beakers and bongs, all in front of a stenciled rendition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”
Another wall displayed a pattern of symmetrical blue phalluses that served as a background for three pieces featuring women sex workers: one appears in lingerie in front of the word “Dirty,” another in a suggestive pose holding up a book emblazoned with the title “Rape Bible,” and a third shows a faceless young girl surrounded by dollar signs.
A portrait of the late Colombian cartel boss Pablo Escobar stood next to a young boy smoking from a glass pipe. The latter conveyed the artist’s concern with underage drug abuse, which he told epa-efe should be a factor when considering the legalization of substances such as cannabis.
“I think other civilized countries have legalized weed before but with Thailand, it often happens that when we pick up something from outside, it’s not that good,” he said.
“If we legalize, the people that love weed, or the people that need to use it for their cancer or something, that’s good, but the question is how to control that minors don’t get that? We’ve always had problems with underage drinking and smoking,” he added. “That’s why I did the kid with a bong.”
Cannabis legalization was a hot-button issue in the recent election campaign, as several parties – including the Bhumjalthai party, which filled the country’s streets with posters sporting the iconic marijuana leaf – promised to relax Thailand’s stringent drug laws and liberalize cultivation.
Romain Guiot, one of the partners running Candle Light Studio, told epa-efe that the project had been in the works for about a year.
“The authorities say that prostitution doesn’t exist in Thailand, so of course we’ve done this in Patpong, of all places,” he said.
Guiot promised to round off the exhibit on its last day, May 1st – celebrated worldwide as International Workers’ Day – with a theatrical show featuring actual sex workers.
Headache Stencil, a Bangkok native who is now in his thirties, entered the graffiti scene while studying art in college. He adopted his nom de guerre as an allusion to the neuralgic symptoms he intended to cause on the subjects of his witheringly critical street art.
His rise to prominence was fueled by a fearless denunciation of the army’s grip on the country, as well as an emphasis on other salient topics such as the environment.
He first went viral when he started to ridicule powerful members of the regime following the bloodless 2014 coup d’etat that removed the democratically-elected prime minister and installed military rule by the euphemistically-named National Council for Peace and Order.
His depiction of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the coup and later became prime minister, as Dr. Evil – the main villain in Mike Myers’ popular “Austin Powers” film series parodying spy movies – quickly spread through social media amid a government crackdown on freedom of speech that left little room for openly criticizing the powers that be.
However, Headache Stencil only started to really get into hot water with the authorities in Feb. 2018, after he sprayed the face of the junta’s deputy chairman, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, inside an alarm clock – a clear reference to the general’s alleged corruption scandal involving luxury watches.
It took city officials two days to remove the graffiti, but by then, the damage had been done: countless people shared the image online and Western media picked up the story, signaling that Thais’ discontent with the establishment was perhaps larger than met the eye.
Headache Stencil later said in an in-depth interview with the news portal Khaosod English that he was forced to flee his condominium when security forces started harassing him. After all, he only appears in photographs with half his face covered for a reason.
Although he is often compared to the British artist Banksy, he told Khaosod that he was weary of being likened to the Bristolian vandal-turned-megastar, as he did not want to be seen as someone who was merely copying the latter’s work.
In addition to lambasting the junta, Headache Stencil has targeted other members of Thailand’s elite; for instance, he sprayed a roaring black panther accompanied by a “mute” symbol in an act of outrage over the poaching of one such feline by Italian-Thai construction tycoon Premchai Karnasuta, who was arrested last year for illegally slaying the protected animal.
He also once painted two eyes shedding tears next to the stump of a 50-year-old rain tree that was felled by Bangkok city officials.
While his political activism shows no signs of abating, the artist conceded that he needed to take a break after a frantic year in which he not only has had to worry about evading authorities irked by the alarm-clock mural, but has also been kept permanently busy with setting up various shows, including one in Tokyo, that have left him exhausted and with little time for leisure.
“I have to rest at some point,” he told epa-efe. “This past year, I’ve had six shows. It’s too much. I need to rest for two, three months now and clear my head.”
He also stressed the uncertainty currently surrounding Thai politics following Sunday’s general election, where no official results have yet been announced.
“It seems like everything that’s coming from the government now is confusing and we can’t imagine what will happen tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t think my art can change anything now but I think it can just get people to be interested in learning more details about the stuff that’s going on.”
“Now, I think people have learned more about the word ‘freedom.’ Before, they always said ‘oh, we have freedom in Thailand, you can say anything, blah, blah,’” he added. “Now they know that there isn’t any real freedom.”