Skeleton soldiers, bug-eyed generals, and a boy urinating on a submarine – Thai artist Baphoboy’s provocative drawings are a smash hit among an increasingly bold pro-democracy movement largely led by students and youth activists.
“In the age of protests, art helps people to access politics,” Baphoboy, who has more than 32,500 followers on Instagram, told VICE News.
Named Sippakorn “Ken” Khiaosanthia, the 24-year-old is part of a new cohort of Thai artists using memes, social media and graffiti-style imagery to push topical boundaries.
They are working at a time when topics once considered taboo in Thailand are being debated out in the open, including unprecedented discussion about all-powerful institutions like the country’s monarchy, which is shielded by lese-majeste laws.
A recent graduate of Bangkok’s Silapakorn University, Baphoboy said peers from his generation want to “see and taste democracy” and believes his art can play a role.
A testament to the simmering political mood in Thailand, where another youth-led mass protest is scheduled for Saturday, posts by Baphoboy on his Instagram account rack up thousands of likes and comments.
The drawings, many done using the red, white and blue of the Thai flag, express distaste with an administration led by generals who seized power in a 2014 coup and held onto it in flawed elections last year. Many also feature a cartoonishly grinning face, a riff on the tourist promotion of Thailand as the “Land of Smiles”.
“Much of my work touches on injustice brought about by the government. Elections change very little in the current system,” Baphoboy explained. “In my drawings, I represent myself as a little boy who dares to question things – even in a country where there are many [sensitive] issues that we cannot talk about. The smiling faces you often see in my pictures are not so innocent. They represent the voices of children and the deceased, civilians who don’t have a voice or lost theirs in the fight for justice and political reform.”
He draws inspiration from social media, the news, and a peaceful protest movement that has swelled since February in what political observers have called history-making rallies.
His work was recently showcased alongside a hundred other local artists as part of a public exhibition in Bangkok that touched on the theme of “disappearing art under dictatorship”.
“We want art to be part of the protest movement so we are showcasing artists who are openly challenging government propaganda and dictatorship,” Emarin, founder of the Unmuted Project, told VICE News.
Baphoboy has drawn parallels with fellow subversive artist Headache Stencil, dubbed Thailand’s Banksy. Keeping a low profile, Headache has been on the radar of Thai police and government authorities since his 2018 mural mocking deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan and his apparent love for expensive watches.
“In the eyes of the law, I’m a stencil terrorist,” he told VICE News, adding that he wants to keep at it. “Artists like me remain determined in spreading our political messages through our art and we do so at great personal risk because it’s for an important cause, one that will pay off if we see change.”
Political art is growing bolder alongside public sentiment. The recent wave of protests have been described as the largest anti-government demonstrations since the 2014 coup.
“It has been brewing for quite some time,” said Charlie Thame, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University. “There’s a lot of frustration at the state of the country, especially among young Thais, many who feel that their future has been snatched away from them – this is what they are fighting for and why they are so determined.”
Headache Stencil makes a point to reflect the new politically-aware and restless mood in his work, which aims to help create a “better future” for Thailand.
We live in a constant state of fear and propaganda and it’s time to change that,” he said. “We should be proud of what we’ve achieved so far and it’s only the beginning of what’s to come.”