BANGKOK — A junta leader’s face appeared on an alarm clock over Sukhumvit Road. The mural, a challenge to the general then engulfed in scandal, lasted two days before it was painted over.
For the attention it got in the media, the work’s creator was awarded equal parts fame and peril. With security forces hunting him, he fled his own condominium which had been staked out by security forces.
“My life has changed forever since,” the artist, who creates his work anonymously, said in a recent interview. “Who would think that spraying on a wall, what I had done for four years, would put me in that much trouble?”
It’s been one year since Headache Stencil issued what he described as a wake-up call to the nation over corruption in the military government exemplified by junta deputy chairman Prawit Wongsuwan’s watch scandal.
In that time, fear of being hunted by the authorities hasn’t stopped the street artist from addressing other hot-button issues through his preferred format: stencil graffiti.
A black panther with a mute icon became the iconic image after a powerful mogul was accused of poaching a black panther. Crying eyes appeared beside the stump of a 50-year-old tree felled by the city.
“I read a lot of news and my work depends on what I’m into at the time,” he said, adding that he researches his topics beforehand. “I can’t be reckless. I gotta be responsible for what I do, especially when my works are shared on social media.”
Combining stencil works, political messages and a mysterious identity draws inevitable comparisons to another famous artist. But being called “Thailand’s Banksy” obviously doesn’t sit well with Headache Stencil.
“It’s flattering in a way. But if people call me that because they think I copy Banksy’s works, I don’t know what to say because in fact I don’t. So every time I’m about to do something, I gotta see if Banksy has done it already?”
Agreeing to be interviewed by Khaosod English, Headache was comfortable in his own residence. He opened the fridge to fix an artificial lime juice with one hand while the other gripped a vape pen. Over a table covered with mirrored sheets that he uses to cut his stencils, Headache reminisced about his past and the international fame he earned overnight.
Headache is a “30-something” man born and raised in Bangkok. He discovered stencils during a university year when his roommate bought a second-hand photocopier. The walls of his university soon became the canvas for his “experiments.”
“I started calling myself [Headache Stencil] because I knew what I did is going to cause people headaches. I’ve been a troublemaker since I was a kid,” he said.
After graduating, Headache did not daub a wall with graffiti again until after the 2014 coup, when he was in Chiang Mai. Frustrated by bars and clubs being ordered shut early, Headache grabbed a spray can again to mock Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha by likening the junta chairman to Dr. Evil of “Austin Powers” villainy.
There are always problems in our society that need to be solved, and I think I’ll never run out of things to talk about
A friend, also an artist, encouraged him to enter an international contest in Australia. He was selected to be one of 84 finalists, and the only one from Southeast Asia.
Back home, Headache didn’t make any headlines until his alarm clock mural caught a reporter’s eye one morning.
The news went out and people learned about Headache Stencil. His Facebook followers leaped from a few hundred to more than 50,000.
Despite gaining a larger audience, the street artist still struggled to find a venue for his first exhibition this past July. He was rejected by many galleries.
“I understood them though. No one wanted trouble. Plus, it’s never a guarantee that my works could sell. Who would wanna buy political art?”
Eventually, his first exhibition, called Welcome to the Dark Side, found a home at Voice Space, the event hall of Voice TV, a broadcaster known for its critical reporting. Spanning the hall was a maze with graffiti art on the walls. The concept was meant to be a relatable metaphor for Thais and Thailand: trying to find a way out.
Fearing it being shut down by the authorities, Headache never announced the venue in advance and instead relied on word of mouth and social media.
‘Not Only Graffiti Anymore’
As Thai muralists like Alex Face, Rukkit and Mue Bon gain respect and commercial success, there’s been a surge of graffiti art in urban areas such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen.
The big change in attitudes toward graffiti was made clear when Bangkok’s old Charoen Krung district turned itself over to some of the world’s best muralists three years ago as part of the Bukruk Urban Arts Festival.
“We used to be disgusting to people. But these days many of us have helped improve communities, we’re even given permission by the property owners to spray on their walls,” Headache said.
In March, at the peak of black panther outrage, a veterinary clinic offered space for 10 muralists to emblazon a 15-meter-by-3-meter wall to demand justice.
“It’s not only graffiti anymore. It’s street art. We make the neighborhood pretty, and we send out messages to the public.”
But life remains under military rule in a society controlled by the powerful and unaccountable. Even at home, talking privately, Headache struggles to answer some questions, pausing and restarting. He admits there are things he must be careful about.
“With the power and things that are unspeakable, it’s forced me to yoo pen,” Headache said, using Thai slang that means going with the flow to avoid conflict.
“How can I keep my ideology so I can continue to do what I do? … It’s like chess. If you’re captured, you’re out of the game. But if you take a step back sometimes, you can be a winner some day.”
Asked when, or if, junta leaves the power, what’s next for him, Headache said he would continue to hit other issues that have persisted a long time.
“[Prayuth] was not the first prime minister in the chair when I have seen problems in society. Actually, I’ve seen them through my life,” he said, mentioning corruption and canals jammed with trash.
“There are always problems in our society that need to be solved, and I think I’ll never run out of things to talk about,” he added.
Prostitution and drug issues are two topics that he’ll take on in an upcoming project at a gallery in Patpong (Check his Facebook page for details). Headache will also hold his second exhibition, Thailand Casino, Feb. 24 through the end of March at WTF Gallery and Cafe. The bar-gallery space is located on Soi Sukhumvit 51 and can be reached by foot from BTS Thong Lo.