I had the chance to talk to Rupert Mann, the author of BANGKOK STREET ART AND GRAFFITI published by River Books. We sat at a coffee shop on the ground floor of the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC).
To avoid any confusions:
BU = bkk UNZINE
RM = Rupert Mann
BU: Let’s get the basic questions out of the way. What was your goal with this book?
RM: It changed, my original goal was to take photos of the HOPEWELL project which I discovered by mistake. I knew that these abandoned columns, with hundreds and hundreds of street art pieces were going to be destroyed slowly. I started to realize the political meaning behind that place, and slowly, it fascinated me.
I guess I wanted to understand something about Thailand, not even about “Thai” (which is difficult to define) because the book is about Bangkok. As an outsider, my personal aim was to have some sort of insight. On another level there has always been a close relationship between Street Art, Graffiti and Photography because this kind of art gets buffed by authorities or gets painted over by other artists so as a Photographer I wanted to keep a record.
The memory of Street Art and Graffiti lives on through Photography.
BU: In the book we hear the Street Artists and Graffiti Writers share their views on Bangkok, but I don’t remember reading any impressions from you, how do YOU see Bangkok?
RM:I really don’t have much to say about Bangkok other than it has changed so much, there are three things which can be found everywhere in this city: Commercialism, Power and Religion and it’s the result of the dynamic that plays out between these three elements.
I don’t think people realize how much has been lost without being recorded. There are parts of the city that are preserved due to political reasons for example but there is no telling how that affected people so I wanted to somehow record that.
For most people coming in from the rural area, Bangkok is a terrifying and promising place.
It’s a beautiful and fascinating city – however, there are parts of it that make me sick, like when I walk around the Sukhumvit area, it has been sanitized and the streets made unwelcoming so that makes you want to escape inside the malls and buy sh*t. Once in a while I’ll see a tag or a graffiti around that area and I get this relief: “Ah, there are REAL people here.”
BU: The Artists in the book give their take on this topic, but I’m just maybe too stupid to understand: What is the difference between Street Art and Graffiti?
People constantly argue about that, but who knows, who cares? I don’t.
All I could do was to let the artists talk about what they had to say. What was interesting though is that even if the artists had different views and didn’t agree with each other, they still had similar things to say about what makes a good street artist and graffiti writer.
It’s a relatively new art form, like many art forms, the Artists make it as they go.
I also wanted to let people know through this book that Street art and Graffiti might be considered “underground” or alternative art but there is a strong tradition and dedication to the craft that continues to this day.
BU: By the way, I just wanted to give a shout out to River Books for putting out such beautiful books. So, in the book, the artists comment on the fact that most of them use English in their art.
There are a few who do Thai Street Art and Graffiti but yes most of it is in English again this also is part of the intention to keep the tradition that started in the US.
BU: In Thailand, there is a heavy political context that looms over everything, especially now. What do you want to say about Artists who feel powerless to do anything?
Many Thai people try to avoid direct confrontation so these Artists play an important role, which is why “illegal” and direct communication through public graffiti and street art is crucial. I admire that.
An artist can work out a piece in his blackbook and go out at night and start working and there is no one else involved in that creation process. On top of that, if that artist chooses the right spot it could be seen by hundreds, even thousands of people.
When there is censorship from the authorities, the artists have to be more creative to find a way around it.
What authorities don’t understand is that censorship actually makes people more curious. At the same time, if we compare Thailand to other countries where people can say whatever they want, the content loses its edge in my opinion. Here Artists could get into trouble for what they create but their method can be more effective.
BU:Do you want to talk about what you do when you are not doing Photo essays as books?
RM: My background, my career is mostly in heritage conservation and urban heritage management, I am working for an NGO, actually I have been working in Myanmar for the past 9 years.
BU: You end the book with the areas buffed by the government…
RM: Yeah that was to prove the point that Street Art and Graffiti don’t last. And make a point about the purpose of Photography and the book itself. That’s the fate of Street Art and Graffiti.
BU: Any advice to an up and coming art magazine like ours?
RM: When you study a subject, get different opinions on it, like bringing lights from different angles to reveal the different sides to let an image form. Don’t try to engineer a clear path and if it’s complex let it be, don’t try to resolve it because you’ll be ultimately wrong.
BU: Last question: What is your plan now?
RM: I am always working on several books simultaneously, they also take a long time. I’ve worked on this one for about 10 years (the first photos of the Hopewell columns were taken in 2013) . I don’t like to talk about projects too ahead of time but all I can say is that I’m working on three other books at the moment (2 books on Myanmar and 1 book on Tokyo).
BU: I highly recommend people pick up this book, for me personally I’ve had this idea on behalf of bkk UNZINE art magazine to “ART BOMB” Bangkok with sketches and art that artists wanted to throw away anyway as a way to say “Look at all the artists in Bangkok” and “Art doesn’t have to be only in galleries”. This book beautifully reminded me the simple fact that, the art bomb already exists, they’re the Street Art and Graffiti you see. Here’s where you can order the book:
Interviewed and written by Sketchman Boris.