Pairoj Pichetmetakul doesn’t need a studio. The 33-year-old Thai painter and former monk finds his subjects on the streets of New York City; his muses are the people who sleep on cardboard boxes and in tents, brave the city’s shelters, and depend on spare change to survive. “My studio is on the street, and I have a very big studio,” Pairoj said.
Pairoj has been painting homeless people on the streets of New York and San Francisco for the past three years. The inspiration for the project, which he calls “The Positivity Scrolls,” started when he saw a homeless man being beaten on a deserted street in San Francisco. He was new to the United States, his English wasn’t strong, and his cell phone had died, so he went home, returning to find the man—unsuccessfully—after a sleepless night.
Ever since then, in an act of penance that has become an artistic exercise, Pairoj gathers his supplies and walks the streets at least once a week. He loads his giant canvas scroll—which weighs more than 100 pounds—into a cart with his art supplies and boards a train to Manhattan from his home in Queens.
Unlike the rest of the city, Pairoj seeks out homeless people, crouching down, introducing himself, showing them photos on his phone of other portraits he’s done, and inviting them to be a part of the series.
Tiffany Thompson agrees to let Pairoj paint her on a cold January day as the sun is setting on a busy corner of 34th Street. After putting out a donation box with a sign that reads “hope for her donations,” Pairoj starts to paint, capturing her furrowed brow and the deep creases in her face with blues and purples.
Thompson says she has been on the streets a few weeks, unable to work because of her breast cancer treatment. She has worked since she was 14, but was recently cleaned out of her savings by one of her children. “If you told me two months ago I’d be here, I’d say, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Thompson says.
Pairoj paints Thompson for more than an hour. Many people stop to watch. Some give money and leftovers and even help him paint; a few chide him for blocking half the sidewalk during rush hour in one of the busiest intersections in Manhattan. By the end, Thompson is helping Pairoj paint too, adding a flower and a bee as her signature.
As they hug good-bye, Thompson digs in one of her bags and tosses Pairoj a pair of gloves. “They’re too big for me, and your hands must be freezing.”
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.