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Ian Helwig
11/07/2023 - by Lanlalit Samanuhat

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What drew you to the art practice that you're doing now?


I am from New York. I went to Parsons School of Design and then in 1996 I dropped out and joined the Navy because being simply at the art school was boring to make art. I was stationed in Japan for 3 years, which influenced me way more than any time in art school that I spent. Being an alien in another country and just trying to adapt to living in another culture. Joining the Navy was a response to leaving art school, which for me was such a discouraging atmosphere. So I would say the Navy broke me out of the typical American mindset because I got to travel outside of America and almost outside of myself. 


While I was in Japan, I had my sketchbooks and I kept up making art there. After being away, I moved back to New York to stay in a space with friends from the art school. Since then I have been making art almost full time.

What brought you to Thailand? Is there anything special about Thailand that made you want to stay and create art here?

I’ve been coming here for vacation and I feel like Bangkok actually seems like New York in the sense that they’re both pretty raw cities. You can do anything you want to do, you have a variety of lifestyle choices. So I lived in New York until 2014 or 2015 and then I moved here.

When I moved here, I had just broken up with my partner of many years and it felt like I was breaking up with New York as well. I came out here not intending to return to America for any long period of time, I would go back every harvest season to work on a friend's farm in California. Because of the relatively low cost of living here and just the general vibe of Bangkok, for me it represents endless possibilities for painting and exploring. Just the pure chaos of everything going on all at once, the energy is palpable. It’s still exciting to me after 8 years living here!

Can you talk about your work? What are your choice of materials?

I mainly use spray paint as my background is graffiti art. I tend to use discarded items, beautiful garbage. I pick them up and reimagine them. It’s more fitting for man made objects to paint that way, kinda sloppy like me. And it’s free! It started off with the matchbooks I found during my trip in India. I painted them on canvas. I was inspired by the fact that a culture can be produced just from garbage and it shows how disposable culture is.

In many cultures, some objects or materials have special meanings. How do you use these cultural symbols and meanings in your art made from discarded items?

My studio used to be across the street from a recycling center where people sell bottles, scrap metal, cardboard, CD’s, plastic, pretty much anything and everything that people throw away can be sold and made into new products or packaging that will eventually become garbage again. So that practice of repetitive production of garbage basically fuels me to “upcycle” these images that seem so basic and unremarkable. It’s elevating the discarded into works of art.

Can you tell us a little bit about some of your works?

A lot of them are reimagine designs on canvas with spray paint. There’s SHANK, NEW HOUSE, BELT IS BEST, MEGA DUCK, ZEBRA, HIMAL and WHEN THE FUN STOPS which are based on Indian matchbook designs. There’s NADIA which is based on an image from a cotton bud packaging I found in India. And there’s DURHAM which is based on a gap filler design. As I mentioned earlier, they’re based on abandoned objects I found on the streets. Some were picked up because I found the design interestingly groovy and funny. Some contain images I personally feel related to, like MEGA DUCK which reminds me of an inside joke between me and a friend of mine who is an announcer for sports, NEW HOUSE which kinda represents my relocation to India. And some were unexpected to me, an image I think wouldn't be so common to see, like a Native American skiing displayed in HIMAL.

What about now? Can you tell us about what you’re working on and the upcoming projects that you would like to do?

I’ve been painting graffiti in Bangkok. I usually paint the word “Sadue” which means an Indian holy man (Sadhu), not a belly button in Thai (สะดือ). Well, that’s what people used to call me back in India.

When I go out and paint, I also collect things from the ground to create new artworks. With that, hopefully I can do some new work based on Thai Graphic design. As for my inspiration, it really depends on what I see and encounter in my daytoday life. My work has no direction towards politics. I feel like as soon as you make something political, people start to alienate. So, I create something funny for people to escape to the fantasy. I would say my work represents a sense of humor, something not so serious which matches perfectly the style of how I paint, splashy and trippy.

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