BANGKOK — In New York, they drew lipstick penises in subway stations to protest the art world’s gender imbalance. In South Korea, they struck at its democratic principles. In Bangkok, they marched on the Democracy Monument a day before the charter referendum.

They are the Guerrilla Boys. Drawing inspiration from Guerrilla Girls – an anonymous American feminist group formed in 1985 New York City – the three artists say they share a similar purpose: fighting sexism in institutional art through provocative acts.

Comprised of one Thai and two farangs, they are indeed boys. Boys who adopt the same collectivist, transgressive chic of provocateurs such as Pussy Riot – but without the vaginas. For that, they’ve also been criticized for appropriating the tools and symbols used in feminist agitprop.

One of the three is an artist in Thailand. He said they started the group about two years ago after seeing Guerrilla Girls fought in vain three decades ago without success.

Contacted over Facebook, where the group publicizes its work, the Thai member agreed to be identified as GB1. He said they can’t reveal their identities or exact locations for fear of getting into trouble or interference with their projects.

They were wandering the Museum of Modern Art in New York, GB1 said, where they noticed much fewer works by female artists than men. Doing some research on the matter, they found only 10 percent of the work in most galleries were by female artists.

Most of their work finds their audiences online through social media.

Frustrated by the imbalance in the art world, the three vandalized subway station signs, walls and ads using colored lipstick for their first project in April 2015, “F(eminist) Train.”

One month later they made headlines in South Korea where they protested an exhibition at the Gwangju Museum of Art for including a Thai artist’s work in support of the movement which helped pave the way for the 2014 coup.

Much of the Thai art establishment was outraged when the museum included “Thai Uprising” by Sutee Kunavichayanont, created to support the Bangkok movement against the democratically elected government. Many complained it was a poor choice for an exhibition commemorating South Korea’s uprising against dictatorship.

GB1 took action by showing up at the museum and taking photos in a gorilla mask holding an A3-size paper reading: “This work still waiting ‘junta’ create democracy for them!!!”

The demonstration was captured in Polaroids stuck to walls throughout the museum by chewing gum.

“We wanted to send a direct message to the museum’s curator,” the anonymous activist said. “It’s not a small issue that the curator can just let go.”

One of the Guerrilla Boys poses in front of Sutee Kunavichayanont’s ‘Thai Uprising’ on May 25 at the Gwangju Museum of Art. Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Instagram
One of the Guerrilla Boys poses in front of Sutee Kunavichayanont’s ‘Thai Uprising’ on May 25 at the Gwangju Museum of Art. Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Instagram

Divided Response

It was in Bangkok late last year that Guerrilla Boys met a strong reaction. Their first activity in Thailand was an installation called How Many Female Artists Do You Know? at gallery-bar Speedy Grandma just off Charoen Krung Road.

That day at Speedy, dozens of attendees wore simian heads and scribbled messages on the gallery’s walls in red lipstick, but the monkey business got intense when some present openly challenged them.

“Why define women with lipstick,” read one message on the wall. “You sexist swine.”

Some present strongly disagreed with their purpose and bona fides, according to gallery co-founder Unchalee “Lee” Anantawat.

“Since they focus on a controversial issue, they have to be prepared for the questions raised as well,” Lee said. “In terms of their success, I think it only has impact on a specific group of people not people in general.”

A Guerrilla Boys-made Polaroid at the Gwangju Museum of Art. Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Facebook
A Guerrilla Boys-made Polaroid at the Gwangju Museum of Art. Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Facebook

Lee expressed her own uncertainty over the group’s authenticity, adding that, for her, it would take time to prove.

GB1 said some negative reactions were expected. He blamed that on the state of feminism in Thailand.

“[Other countries] have Free the Nipple campaign, but we don’t. We’re still stuck,” he said in reference to a Western campaign to normalize the sight of breasts. “[So] our strategy is to provoke women to do something. We’ve talked about this that if we put this kind of work in Thailand, some people would be panicked,” he said.

But artist Grisana “Chris” Eimeamkamol was at the event and said he appreciated their use of masks to bring a message into focus without distracting the audience with their identities.

“It’s public art raising questions without the essence of the author,” Chris said, noting the unexpectedly high turnout for the event. “With LGBT and feminism the hot topics now, I think it’s good to have someone provoking and getting people to exchange opinions.”

Boys Will Be Boys

The counterculture mystique of the whole “guerilla operative” thing certainly seems part of the appeal.

“I’m a risky person. It’s exciting,” GB1 said. “Once I sneakily placed works by Thai artists onto a restroom wall at a museum in England.”

Believing that just leaving petroleum-based graffiti won’t draw the limelight, the boys post their work online and tag the galleries and individuals involved, from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and its director Glenn D. Lowry to London’s Tate Modern gallery.

“Museum of Modern Art tapped a heart at one of our Instagram photos,” GB wrote. “New York Times did it as well while many other museums subscribed us.”

This recognition fills them with pride. At Speedy Grandma, they hung banners showing likes of their Instagram photos by Big Media and Big Art. One seemed intended just to show they were followed online by The Guardian’s photo team.

They definitely appear to relish the attention of the same institutions they raise their middle fingers at.

“Right now I still doubt whether they really are interested in feminism or only want to spark a trend,” said Lee of Speedy Grandma. “I’m really interested in what they will do next.”

In response, GB1 said it’s more complicated than that.

“We define ourselves as f(ak)eminists. If we identify ourselves as feminists, there would be only feminists who come to see our work,” he said. “So we redefine ourselves and just do it. Let the audience be the judge.”

Check out their work and actions on their Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram.

Top: One of the Guerrilla Boys in a photo from Aug. 6 at the Democracy Monument mocking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for saying earlier this year ‘We’re 99.99 percent democratic.’ Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Courtesy

Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Instagram
Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Instagram
Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Instagram
Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Instagram
A Speedy Grandma wall during Guerrilla Boys’ How Many Female Artists Do You Know? exhibition. Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Facebook
A Speedy Grandma wall during Guerrilla Boys’ How Many Female Artists Do You Know? exhibition. Photo: Guerrilla Boys / Facebook