Monk-Turned-Street Artist Paints the Homeless to Teach New Yorkers Compassion [Tricycle Magazine]

Published on January 11th, 2016 in Tricycle Magazine (in a slightly shortened form). This original, exclusive profile was one of Tricycle’s top stories of 2016::

Pairoj Pichemetakul

On a cold Autumn night in 2013, Pairoj Pitchetmetakul was walking home from the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco, where he was a student, when he came upon an unforgettable scene. On a deserted street in the SoMa district, he saw a young man viciously beating a white-haired homeless man, who looked to be in his 70’s. The attacker punched and kicked his victim, then sat on his chest and pummeled his face.

Pairoj wanted to help but fear held him back. He was new in the country, his English was poor, and he couldn’t call the police because his cell phone battery had died. So, he just walked home. “I couldn’t sleep,” the 32-year-old artist says. “I went back in the morning to find the old man but he wasn’t there.”

Three years earlier, at the Wat Hua Krabue Buddhist temple west of Bangkok, Pairoj was a saffron-robed monk who tried to avoid stepping on insects while walking between his living quarters and the temple where he prayed daily.

Why, then, had he failed to show similar determination for the homeless man?

Pairoj as a monk in Thailand (Courtesy of Pairoj Pichetmetakul)

Pairoj as a monk in Thailand (Courtesy of Pairoj Pichetmetakul)

That question troubled him so deeply that he resolved to make amends the only way he felt he could — with his art. Thus began an artistic and social project he calls ‘The Positivity Scrolls.’

First in San Francisco, and now in New York where he lives, Pairoj wanders the streets every week pushing a folding cart that holds his brushes, paint, and a long roll of canvas. “What’s your name?,” he gently asks when he encounters a homeless person. “Why are you homeless? Where’s your family? What are your dreams?” And, finally, “Can I paint you?”

Some say no. Some shout and curse at him. Many say yes.

Taking inspiration from Chinese scroll paintings, Pairoj paints his subjects on 10-foot-wide by 150-foot-long rolls of canvas, which he slices into shorter, more manageable lengths then stitches back together later. He’s already filled four “scrolls” with side-by-side portraits of some 250 homeless men and women and plans to start work on a 300-foot scroll soon.

He hasn’t yet shown all the artwork publicly. Finding a venue large enough to display the scrolls, which each span nearly three times the width of a typical New York street, is a challenge. One gallery recently rejected him for that very reason. But the completed paintings, Pairoj says, are secondary to the message. “I want people to learn from me when I paint. I want to inspire them and let them know the homeless need help. I just remind them that we’re all one. We all need hope.”

Courtesy of Pairoj Pichetmetakul (4)

Courtesy of Pairoj Pichetmetakul

On a recent Saturday, just off Union Square, Pairoj met a man named Michael, a 40-year-old epileptic who had spent much of the day being ignored, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk waiting for handouts. Pairoj spread his scroll on the ground in front of him then placed a donation box next to the canvas with a sign that read, ‘Hope For Him,’ with an arrow pointing toward Michael.

Pairoj worked on his feet, standing on the canvas and bending down to paint with thick strokes in a large, colorful, abstract style he describes as ‘Thai Street Art.’ “A big portrait shows more emotion and impacts more people when they walk past,” he says.

Michael, meanwhile, drew Pairoj on a small sketchpad. He said he liked to draw, so Pairoj gave him paper and colored pencils. A young girl stopped to watch. Pairoj asked if she wanted to paint. She did. She began painting a flower on Pairoj’s canvas, next to his portrait of Michael. Passersby stopped to chat and take in the unlikely scene: a Thai artist, a homeless man, and a child painting together on a city street.

Pairoj painting Michael. Michael Painting Pairoj. A llittle girl painting a flower. (Photo by Terence Cantarella)

Pairoj painting Michael. Michael Painting Pairoj. A llittle girl painting a flower. (Photo by Terence Cantarella)

That collaborative artistic process, Pairoj says, is the purpose of The Positivity Scrolls. It makes the homeless visible: “Some homeless people just want someone to talk to. People are scared of them. But when I paint, people come and talk to them.”

Pairoj chatting with Michael before painting him. (Photo by Peche Di)

Pairoj chatting with Michael before painting him. (Photo by Peche Di)

People also give money. On the day Pairoj painted Michael, they filled the donation box with nearly $40 during the one-hour session. But Pairoj never keeps the money. He gives it to his subjects along with a container of food that he gets from The Spicy Shallot, a Thai restaurant in Queens where he works as a waiter. “I don’t want to profit from their lives,” he says.

And if he ever gets to exhibit the full-length scrolls, he wants to donate the money to The Bowery Mission, a non-profit human services organization on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he volunteers and recently showed three non-scroll paintings at a charity exhibition hosted by The New Museum. Those paintings earned a total of $600 for the mission.

Laurie-Anne Bentley, the Bowery Mission’s Director of Corporate Partnerships and Events, describes Pairoj as “a very talented artist” with “a kind heart and great compassion for the homeless and poor in New York City.”

Keith Schweitzer, meanwhile, is the director and co-founder of The Lodge Gallery in Manhattan, which presented an iteration of the Positivity Scrolls earlier this year. “Often, projects purporting to support the homeless, even if well intended, can feel exploitative or self-promotional,” he says. “What has impressed me about Pairoj most, apart from his high degree of execution, is his generosity and selflessness. Pairoj is deeply Buddhist and brings a genuine level of non-judgemental compassion to his work, and this genuineness is reciprocated by the people he engages.”

Courtesy of Pairoj Pichetmetakul.

Courtesy of Pairoj Pichetmetakul.

Even so, the long canvases Pairoj uses are pricey — $875 per roll. Then there are the art supplies and the $75-$100 citations the police often give him for partially blocking sidewalks with those canvases. Perhaps, he concedes, he would keep enough money from any sales to cover those expenses. Nothing more.

Pairoj’s parents wanted him to be an architect, engineer or doctor. But after seeing the work of prominent Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat at age nine, he took up drawing and resolved to study art when he grew up. In 2007 he fulfilled that dream, earning a BFA from Bangkok’s Silpakorn University. But monastic life called to him, too, and he soon traded the bustle of Bangkok for the tranquility of the temple. Artistic ambition eventually pulled him back to society in 2011. He crossed the Pacific to pursue an MFA at the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco where he mostly produced conceptual paintings on traditional canvases.

Pairoj credits the Buddhist practice of meditation and looking inward, as well as the beating he witnessed, with transforming him from a studio artist into a socially-minded street artist. “I realized that if I spend five hours painting in the studio, it’s useless,” he says. “But if I paint a homeless person, it helps.”

Courtesy of Pairoj Pichetmetakul

Courtesy of Pairoj Pichetmetakul

At the temple in Thailand where he was a monk, there was no electricity, Pairoj recalls. He was given one small candle every evening. When it burned down, he was left in the dark. That burning candle, he says, taught him to focus, to make every action deliberate and meaningful. Moreover, he resolved to do only positive things with his time. “No bad things. And to do them today, not tomorrow. Keep doing. Keep doing.”

Today, he hopes to teach that message to others as he paints his Positivity Scrolls on the streets of New York, where he resettled last year for its better art scene. “In New York, everybody comes to find their dreams, to make money, to pursue a career, but they forget their heart,” he says. “I want to help them find it again.”

To read in Tricycle Magazine, click here.

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