Phuket: Where Food Inspired an Arts Movement
Why the colorful street art of Phuket is worth skipping a beach day.
The Thai island paradise better known as Phuket is famous for its white-sand beaches, crystalline blue waters, and thumping nightlife. But many visitors are setting aside time in their itineraries for cultural pursuits, especially in Old Town, where authentic restaurants serve up traditional recipes in meticulously restored shophouses. Another reason for the shift: the vibrant murals seemingly around every corner, which are helping transform the quaint but fading historic district into a contemporary arts hot spot.
Thank UNESCO for inspiring the street art movement here. In 2016, the organization recognized Phuket as a Creative City of Gastronomy, showering attention on the resort town’s merits beyond sun, surf, and sand. Sensing an opportunity for long-term impact, a collection of local business owners worked with the mayor to invite a dozen artists—both Thai and international—to add a touch more color to Phuket’s streets. Their central theme, naturally, was food.
Walking through Old Town today, you’ll spot life-sized market scenes and over-sized desserts, like the painting of ang ku kueh, or “red tortoise cake,” on the corner of Thalang Road and Soi Rommani. “I found the ang ku kueh really interesting in texture, shape, and color,” says Bangkok-based muralist Alex Face, who’s made a name for himself painting a three-eyed baby (known by fans as “Mardi,” after Face’s daughter) on walls from Bangkok to Belgium. “It’s really positive,” he adds, noting the treat’s ceremonial role as an auspicious gift at life celebrations and as an offering at temples for good luck. In Face’s mural, Mardi becomes the pastry, bringing new life to the ancient tradition.
Another giant mural, on nearby Phangnga Road, also showcases a turtle as part of Phuket’s heritage. Here, Face’s close friend and fellow artist Mue Bon was inspired by the Phuket pastime of beachside picnics, where islanders have traditionally enjoyed watching turtles lay their eggs. In Bon’s mural, a yellow-beaked, big-eyed bird—the artist’s signature motif— is depicted kitesurfing with a flaming turtle, its eggs dropping from on high rather than nesting in the sand. “The turtles that have come to shore for generations are facing extinction,” says Bon. “I want to make people aware of this issue, and to convey the nature of human aggression through the painting.”
Below, see more works by Bon, Face, and other artists turning Phuket’s Old Town into the latest urban center transformed by colorful murals.
A Street Art Guide to Phuket
Face’s other Phuket mural, near the Downtown Market on Soi Phisai Sapphakit, shows baby Mardi as one of the market vendors. “I’m always looking at the environment around the wall. What’s going on, what people do there,” says Face. “I went to the market early one morning and saw everyone selling and loading fruit onto these two-wheeled dollies. I knew I had to draw that. Only this time, I sketched my baby in traditional Phuket clothing, and replaced the fruit with money. I wanted people to feel like when they’re working, they can make money.” Photo by Alex Face
Following the 2016 death of Thailand’s beloved King Rama IX, local student group 4 Studio painted various scenes from the monarch’s life, including his passion for sailing and photography and his military career. Find it on the corner of Dibuk and Yaowarat roads.
This intimate portrait of a Phuket woman in her kitchen, by artist Phichit Paidaeng, has evolved since it first appeared near the intersection of Phangnga and Yaowarat roads in 2017. What used to be a solitary “auntie” with a few ingredients is now joined by a young girl and boy—presumably eager to eat her home-cooked meal.
Phuket-based artists Liudmila Letnikova and Lolay collaborated for this vibrant mural, on the corner of Phangnga Road and Soi Pradit. The two-part piece, showcasing an incense-smoke lion alongside Lolay and Letnikova’s red-hued lanterns and pineapples, is an homage to the fêtes surrounding Chinese Lunar New Year in Phuket.
See a dreamy, dessert-induced nap on an alleyway off of Ratsada Road, opposite the popular Italian restaurant Salvatore. Artist Pin’s larger-than-life mural showcases a woman in traditional “baba” clothing, referring to locals of mixed Chinese-Thai heritage. Here, Pin’s subject reposes surrounded by popular Phuket treats, such as khanom kosui, a bouncy sugar and rice flour cake topped with coconut.
Another Chinese tradition that made its way to Phuket: hand puppet performances and food offerings at Taoist shrines. At Old Town’s Shrine of the Serene Light, which dates to the late 1800s, you’ll find Letikova’s depiction of this custom, with two people holding a puppet surrounded by treats.