KATE MCLAWRY documents Bangkok’s Hopewell Project, a graffiti lined abandoned elevated railway system dubbed ‘Stonehenge’, now co-opted by local street artists. BARNEY MCLAWRY tells the story.

The name is now deeply ironic: The Hopewell Project. Sounds like a charitable organisation, right? Very wrong. It’s actually an abandoned elevated railway system in Bangkok that bureaucrats ceased constructing in 1998, leaving a legacy of fiscal waste and a sizable stretch of concrete pillars that serve no definite purpose.
However, a concerted stroll between Lak Si and Bang Khen station on the train line running past Don Mueang International Airport into the heart of this bustling city reveals an entirely unexpected use for this financial and structural mess. Out of the bottomless pit of public spending has emerged an outdoor gallery of street art that affords train travellers something interesting besides shanty suburbs, freeways and discarded rubbish to occupy their eyes.


If the hallmark of a major metropolis is its wealth of worthy graffiti, then judging by Bangkok’s ‘Stonehenge’, as it has been dubbed, this city is up there with Berlin, London and New York as a vibrant locus of counterculture imagery and ideas designed and designated for the pleasure of the people. Since people power doesn’t necessarily take the form of protest marches (though there have certainly been plenty of those in Bangkok in recent years), civic center occupations (again, the city has had many of these lately) or sitting at a desk composing virulent social media posts, it’s appropriate that the people have taken back these concrete canvases to express themselves.


From pillar to post has never been more appropriately applied than to the hundreds of concrete monoliths co-opted by street artists on the fringe of one of the most chaotic yet advanced cities in the world. Bangkok is a city of contradictions. Skyscrapers rub foundations with dilapidated tenement buildings, while poor people ply their measly trade amongst million dollar houses and billion dollar complexes. Wild cats, dogs and rats roam the streets, and the incessant traffic toots, revs and crawls past innumerable pedestrians on the dirty pavement. But it’s Bangkok’s residents that make this city so fascinating. They live harmoniously with everything, barring politicians, even though the contradictions of life in this part of the world weigh heavily on their lives.


Which brings us to the art itself on Hopewellhenge. Across five kilometres of defunct pillars, an invisible, mostly anonymous slew of artists have expressed all manner of ideas and styles, statements and reflections. Hundreds of pieces smear the sides of virtually every remaining pillar, with the outstanding standard of much of the work a testament to the talents of Bangkok’s street artists. Some pieces are clearly political or social in nature. Others reference pop culture or local cultural concerns. Still more simply aim to amuse or abuse their audience’s sensibilities, striving to provoke a response in the few seconds a viewer has to absorb what he or she is glimpsing as the train ambles past these works.


Now the remaining 300 pillars face demolition at a cost of 200 million baht (NZ$8.4 million, AUS$7.8 million), reinforcing the transient nature of street art. Not that anything has been designated to replace them. Instead, it’s just another pointless excuse to spend public money, throwing bad money after bad. In South East Asia, where there are so many desperately poor people and the tax pool is so fractious, councils and governments are still highly adept at wasting money, whether through disaster-prone projects, corruption or civil unrest. (Wars are great business for demolition, not so good for construction.) Travel through Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia and what is striking is the sheer volume of abandoned construction of public buildings and amenities. What happened? And why isn’t there more graffiti covering these surfaces? At least then they serve a purpose. For without purpose, what’s the point?