Credit: AIDAN JONES/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
'Thailand's Banksy' lampoons military government ahead of elections
As Thailand prepares for Sunday's elections, not everyone in the country is optimistic about the supposed return of democracy after five years of military rule. Street artist Headache Stencil, often dubbed the "Thai Banksy," believes the odds are unfairly stacked in the ruling junta's favor.
A sculpture at his subversive new exhibition depicts the country's military leader, Prayut Chan-o-cha, playing poker against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2014 coup.
The current leader is shown holding two aces -- a winning hand -- though his pockets are visibly stuffed with other cards.
"This election is the same as poker," the artist said in a phone interview from Bangkok. "They're gambling with the nation. And if you're on the wrong side, you lose your money, you lose everything."
The pseudonymous artist -- who chooses not to reveal his name or be photographed without a mask -- has acquired a growing reputation for poking fun at the junta.
Thai artists have faced growing scrutiny under military rule. Exhibitions have been reportedly censored, including the forced removal of political photographs from a Bangkok gallery in 2017.
Nonetheless, Headache Stencil has continued to take satirical swipes at the country's elite, as pro-democracy and pro-military forces vie for power.
The walls of his new show, "Thailand Casino," have been blanketed with images of helicopters and firearms. Stencil paintings of huge black flies reiterate the artist's disdain for the forthcoming elections.
"I think this election is dirty," he explained. "And when something's dirty and stinky, the flies are going to enjoy it."
The artist attributes some of his disillusionment to new voting procedures introduced ahead of polling day -- a move he believes is intended to confuse the electorate.
Prayut's government has also been accused by opposition parties of redrawing constituency boundaries to its advantage, though it denied suggestions of wrongdoing. A Thai court's decision to disband a popular pro-democracy party is widely seen as part of the military's attempt to cling to power.
"The government says it's mending (elections) or making them better," the artist said. "But I don't think there are many people who believe that. It's (now) easier to cheat."
A nuisance to power
Before finding space at WTF Gallery in Bangkok's Watthana district, Headache Stencil reported difficulties securing a home for the controversial works. The reasons, he said, were both commercial and political.
"I don't think any gallery believes that people will buy my artworks, because who wants a dictator's face in their house?" he said. "They thought they might not get much profit.
"Maybe they would also have problems from the military, so they (declined offers to) show my work," he added, admitting that he "understands" galleries' concerns.
The masked artist is undoubtedly known to authorities. When one of his murals went viral in Thailand last year, he was visited by police and subsequently went into hiding for four days.
But while the alias "headache" stems from a self-professed mission to irritate authority, the artist's ire is not reserved for the junta. Should pro-democracy forces prevail Sunday, he said he'd continue to rally against the abuse of power.
"If we change from a dictatorship, maybe we still have to wait to see a new government working first. If they're corrupt or (break their promises) then I'll have to speak again."
His iconoclasm also stretches beyond party politics.
Murals on the artist's Instagram page depict historical and religious figures brandishing assault rifles and drug paraphernalia. He also hopes to address social issues in Thailand.
For now, however, Headache Stencil is focused on encouraging his compatriots to think about how they vote.
"The trend on social networks in Thailand now is that people don't support the dictatorship any more," he said. "Many people want it to go away. But we have to see what will happen after they open the (ballot) boxes and count the votes."
"Thailand Casino" is on at WTF Gallery in Bangkok until March 31, 2019.