Chiang Mai, an hour’s flight north of the Thai capital Bangkok, has long been a favourite among backpackers and for those seeking access to the wilds of northern Thailand. Laid out flat in the belly of a valley, surrounded by steep, rolling hills of jungle, the city sprawls outwards from an old city ringed by a centuries-old moat and lined with crumbling fortress ruins.

Once the capital of the Lan Na kingdom between the 13th to the 18th century, Chiang Mai has preserved a sense of distinction from Thailand’s commercial south, which is centred around the massive metropolis of Bangkok. It’s heavily influenced by Burmese culture—it takes the same amount of time to fly to the Burmese capital Yangon as it does to get to Bangkok—and many Chiang Mai-ers have some kind of Burmese connection.

Chiang Mai’s growing cosmopolitanism and confidence has inspired a generation of street artists.

Recently, the city has become a hub for so-called ‘digital nomads’, the name given to those lucky souls who have managed to find a way to work digitally and remotely from the sources of their income. A laidback vibe and generally excellent WiFi connections across the city give it a sense of both freedom from, and connection to, the rest of the world. Expats working on laptops and phones in cafes and restaurants are everyday sights in Chiang Mai.

The city’s growing cosmopolitanism and confidence has inspired a generation of street artists. Drawn from the ranks of both expats and locals, these creators make their art openly in public spaces, and are often encouraged to do so by the owners of the walls and buildings that becomes their canvases.

Realist depictions are crunched up against some vibrant abstracts, like two gallery curators are having a power struggle.

Without painting the exterior of buildings, some Thai neighbourhoods can seem a little drab. The backstreets of Chiang Mai’s Old City, for instance, are fascinating to wander, but somewhat devoid of colour. Now, the mood is lifted by vibrant abstracts and Realist imagery, provided by street artists spraying life on to the outer walls of homes, hotels and offices.

Iago, a well-known street artist, is a native of Barcelona and owner of the T-shirt store Iagazzo. He tells New Naratif that the legality of street art is a little grey. Generally, he says, the police will not bother anyone who has the permission of the property owner. “And” he adds, “as long as you stay away from politics and religion.”

But that political red line isn’t all that clear either, and can sometimes be tested.

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JJ Rose

JJ Rose is an Australian writer and audio producer.