The brand new, ultra-luxury city hotel Rosewood Bangkok celebrated its grand opening with the distinctive #WaiBangkok campaign, showcasing the dynamism, creativity and style of the Thai capital. As part of this creative launch initiative, I was commissioned to photograph a documentary series that considered the modern interpretation of Thai culture. As a way to explore this, I decided to spend time with five young contemporary Thai artists — street artist TRK, tattoo artist Tentass, hip hop artist 19Tyger, fashion designer Takara Wong and musician Daniel Didyasarin — all of whom were born and raised in Thailand, yet reside and create in the space that falls between the traditional Thai conventions and customs that surround them and the global influences and trends that impact us all.
Rosewood Bangkok: The Modern Interpretation of Thai Culture
Street artist TRK‘s grandmother was an artist and he used to spend his summer holiday months with her learning how to create Thai patterns and symbols. He was also passionate about skateboarding, and as a boy he loved skate culture and was attracted to the skateboard art from America. It is this collision of cultures and the corresponding mixing of Thai and international styles that defines TRK’s craft, including his skateboard and street fashion line Preduce. As TRK grows older, he finds that he’s increasingly attracted to Buddhist art and symbolism — despite the fact that he feels people don’t respect it like they should — which is why he is inspired to make his creations modern expressions of traditional art, merging ancient and contemporary elements in an homage to his roots and culture.
Tattoo artist Tentass was born in Bangkok and attended the top art school in Bangkok where he studied fine art with a focus on drawing, painting and sculpture — however he was always sketching tattoos. After his third year, he made the decision to drop out of university and apprentice in a tattoo shop. His love for body art started when he was younger and saw hip-hop artists and their tattoos and fell in love with the aesthetic. But in Thailand, he explains, tattoos are seen as either “traditional” sak yant for religious people or “gangster” for mafia or convicts. However, younger generations view tattoos differently — they are seen as personal expressions. Tentass prefers being counterculture and is trying to change how people see tattoos; he believes that if people see and appreciate his art, perhaps he can alter people’s perceptions around tattoos. “Everyone who comes and sees me, they buy my art — and it lasts forever.”
Rapper 19Tyger explains that, growing-up, people looked at him differently and made fun of him because of his skin, his hair and his height — his mixed Thai and African American heritage meant that he looked different than everyone else living in the sprawling Bangkok slum of Khlong Toey. When he was a teenager he was first exposed to hip hop on MTV; this took him on a journey — one where he became lost in his imagination — and he fell in love with the music and poetry of these artists. This inspired him to write some of his own raps about life in Khlong Toey, and one night he performed an original song for his friends. One of them filmed it and posted it to Facebook where it blew up online. 19Tyger says he’s not angry at anyone who bullied him as a boy — actually, he’s happy because he showed people that he could do it. He explains that he knows he’s poor and from a bad place and that he doesn’t look the same as everyone else — that people used to look down on him — and he acknowledges that one song changed his life. “People who used to talk about me before…now they all want to have a selfie with me.”
Fashion designer Takara Wong is the only son of a Thai/Chinese family where, culturally and historically, there are large expectations placed on boys to be masculine and successful and assert themselves. His family encouraged him to study marketing at university — they desired for him to run the family business — and although that’s not what he wanted to do, he felt he had little choice. So he rebelled as a teenager, skipping school and making friends with the “punks” and the “skaters”. It was these people who introduced Takara to a whole new world of countercultures and mixed races and encouraged him to be different. And it is through these different international traditions and subcultures that he draws his inspiration. Takara believes that imperfections are what make things truly interesting, which is why his eponymous clothing brand focuses on the underdogs of society and the rebellious spirits that reside in us all.
Self-taught musician Daniel Didyasarin, of mixed Thai and American ancestry, started playing the guitar as an 11 year-old, influenced by his mother who performed in a college band in the United States. Daniel grew up with his mother in Bangkok, but he attended an American international school, explaining that living between these two worlds — a traditional Thai home and an international school — was confusing for him sometimes. He reveals, “When I interact with people, I have different standards. There is a reason that culture is so important. It comes down to the most basic human thing: communication. We have different ways to speak to family, to speak to teachers, but my music gives me a universal language and that’s where I feel most comfortable. We’re taught to speak openly at school. But at home there’s a lot left unsaid. This is another side of me. My music allows me to bridge this gap. It allows me to express myself truthfully. There are boundaries that come from culture and my music helps me bridge these.”