The refrain “We’re a country, not a war” has been repeated for years in Vietnam to rebuke global perceptions to the contrary. The American-Vietnam War was the first “mediumized” war. Televised news, anti-war protests, and a continued production of Hollywood films on the subject have perpetuated many a stereotype on Vietnam and its citizens. Barack Obama’s official visit to Vietnam in May 2016 has contributed to making the refrain obsolete, but already in 2010, the artists of The Propeller Group have been at work to erase from our collective unconscious untold prejudices about the southeast Asian country.
Vietnam: The World Tour is a creative project by this three-man band (Phu Nam Thuc Ha, Matt Lucero and Tuan Andrew Nguyen) who met in California but now work from Vietnam. The Propeller Group’s experience in the advertising industry helped them think up this exercise in re-branding a whole nation, changing the image of a country that was known for little more than the background landscapes in Platoon or Apocalypse Now. The Propeller Group (TPG) questions the concept of national identity working in collaboration with international artists and creatives. Vietnam: The World Tour has generated documentaries, logos, videos, murals, and performances with a youth culture aesthetic. Under the patronage of art centers, spray paint manufacturers, and fashion brands, the project has recruited international dancers, graphic designers, rappers and graffiti artists.
In order to deconstruct obsolete stereotypes and generate new ideas about the country, Vietnam: The World Tour is an expanded work that proposes a revision of dominant ideologies, although it’s output is all fun and no politics. Break dance choreographies and meters of tagged walls make no comment on Vietnam’s authoritarian regime. Direct political critique could be potentially dangerous and is not one of TPG’s objectives. They have even gone the other way, creating a TV ad to promote communism. Their video Television Commercial for Communism (2011) combats tiring representations of the “yellow man” as the evil enemy of those Born in the USA, described by Bruce Springsteen with—thankfully—less hyperbole than Hollywood.
The process of constructing a new national identity is something the first graffiti artists of Vietnam have been thinking about. Linkfish, alias of the young man from Hanoi that formed the first known crew in the country, is aware that the iconography that he and his colleagues paint is derived from international graffiti seen on the internet.1 It’s not surprising that the first steps in this new medium in Vietnam are inspired by foreign imagery, the artform is practically a newborn. Neighboring countries have considerable graffiti history. Indonesian activist Andi Rharharha began a digital archive of urban art there in 2011, whereas in Thailand, the Bukruk Urban Arts Festival has become quite a landmark since it was first organized in 2013.
Urban art was “discovered” little over a decade ago in Vietnam, following the postwar period in which tourism did not really exist, and there was little international exchange of any type. It was around 2004 when Linkfish, that Hanoi writer, found out that a certain style of images painted on walls that he could see in rap and hip-hop music videos were called graffiti. This small linguistic fact enabled an online search that opened a universe of information that the search for “writing on the wall” had failed to do. Linkfish started to paint, copying the style he saw on-screen, and within six months there were already crews in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
“Graffiti in Vietnam is a new trend. Some people, if they have an open-mind, they will welcome graffiti. Some are old-school, and we have to explain,” says the teenager who thinks of graffiti as a start-up. Graffiti in Vietnam is also entering its teens. There aren’t that many paintings on walls in Vietnam, apart from the KCBT stencils that, since the explosion of urban development, advertise demolition and building services, something seen all too frequently. The four letters are an acronym for khoan cắt bê tong (concrete drilling and cutting), followed by a phone number. These reiterative interventions in public space have captivated thousands of tourists, and have inspired a few foreign artists.2
However, the ubiquity of these stenciled signs is ill-treating the patience of urban dwellers. Vietnam’s big cities assault the senses with noises, smells and harsh visuals that locals have tolerated without exasperation, happy to see the prodigious development of their country. But a few decades of frenetic growth can be tiring. At last, the epidemic of illegal advertising—painted without seeking consent from the residents of the buildings—is being challenged. Groups of irritated citizens are making websites to promote the eradication of the signs, or they arrange to deactivate the phone numbers advertised.
How will citizens react to graffiti, this rare pictorial manifestation that is far from saturating Vietnam’s city walls? Artistic graffiti is so unusual that most people don’t know what it is. They assume its publicity. Some years ago, a teenager named Trane was tagging a wall in a town near Ho Chi Minh City. A passer-by stopped to ask what type of ad he was painting. The young artist explained that it was a creative activity that he did for fun. The man could not conceive of such a concept, “are you crazy? You are just wasting money like that, without profit?” Spending valuable cash just to change the color of a wall is something that might shock many in a country that is still eradicating poverty.
For now, the tags and graffiti seen in Vietnam are not highly original, although much effort is invested in developing the art. Trane and his colleagues practice regularly in a private basketball court in their hometown, with the approval of the supportive owner. “Her son is a basketball player and he loves what we do, so she let’s us paint there,” Trane enthuses. “Before we came to paint, the wall was very old and very dirty, so we give it more life.”
Trane first attempted graffiti at age 14. “When I was a kid, I really loved Hip-hop culture, and then I found graffiti…I really loved drawing and painting.” He now insists in calling himself a graffiti writer, since graffiti—at its core—is text and not image, he explains, deterring anyone from labelling him a painter.
As in other countries, beginners feed their passion with nighttime excursions in search of empty streets, and pylons and bridges in the outskirts where they can try out their ideas undisturbed. In Vietnam, regulations on public interventions are somewhat vague. Creators can be fined for putting up “illegal advertising” or made to do several days of community work. A Hanoi writer said there was more vigilance (and more fines) in Ho Chi Minh City than in the capital city.
Fortunately, Ho Chi Minh City has had a legal space to practice graffiti since 2012. Saigon Outcast is a spacious private venture set up as a home and as a creative and welcoming cultural meeting place. The walls around Saigon Outcast are coated in graffiti that changes almost weekly, with the ebb and flow of youngsters who come to spend their leisure time here.
Trane’s motivation to improve his technique led him not just to look for safe places to practice, but also to obtain high quality materials. The English lessons Trane had taken after school have served him well to find information online and chat to graffiti writers from other countries. Through his research, Trane understood that the Vietnamese spray paint he used wasn’t very opaque and the nozzles did not enable good control of the paint flow. At around a dollar a can, you couldn’t complain, but good work is easier with the right tools. Seeing that no foreign spray paint was sold in Vietnam, he decided to fill the gap in the market.
“My parents are business people … and they support me a lot,” says the 17-year-old. “They want me to train by myself, they want me to become more mature.” With his savings and some extra cash he borrowed from relatives, Trane invested in some precision nozzles. They were affordable, re-usable and they could be adapted to the cheap, local spray paint cans. He sold his first imported order in a flash. Entrepreneurial, he placed more international orders, bigger and for different products: markers, paint, books, etc. He sold four times more than he expect to. “I have sold 400 cans in a month. I can’t believe it!” Trane says, still excited a few years later.
Once he’d cut his teeth, Trane was ready for big business. “No risk, no fun!” he grins. In 2012, still 17, Trane opened NC Store, Vietnam’s first graffiti materials shop. It’s in a friend’s house in the outer limits of the metropolis. The entrance is through the roadside patio, also a business: a motorbike and puncture repair one-man band. The hall of the private home doubles as the shop window. Trane put up some shelves with imported urban art goods. The patio walls are an improvised graffiti exhibition, functioning as an inspiring showcase and as a practice area, where customers can try for themselves the quality of the materials.
Given that these products are not commercially available anywhere else in Vietnam, NC Store could skip on advertising. Word of mouth amongst graffiti practitioners and some social networking was sufficient. Even if graffiti is still a big unknown in the country, half of Vietnam’s 90 million inhabitants are under 25 years old. The youth market is big, and enthusiasm for new trends can spread like wildfire. Some graffiti artists have been commissioned to create work inside bars of fashion stores, where urban art will attract young consumers. “Most graffiti artists here are 16 or 17,” Trane says, “they want to study at an art university or be tattoo artists. They would like to start a business but they don’t want to put [in] the effort. To be in business with a store like this is not easy. I had to find and contact a lot of dealers. It’s hard to do, you need to be good in English.”
As his start-up grew, Trane had to learn to deal with unforeseen problems, from procuring the funds needed for bigger shipments coming from three continents, to dealing with customs. Yet before formally entering adulthood, Trane was making ambitious future plans. He plans to develop his own line of products, designed specifically for artists, not as vehicle enamel. His advice: “If you want to do something, just do it. We don’t have to think about reasons too much, because the more we think, the more we hate it.”
As his customers gain expertise and increase their visual culture, the quality of Vietnam’s graffiti is growing on a par with nozzle sales. Globally recognized names such as El Mac and Seth Globepainter have already created work in Vietnam, and other voluntary and exchange initiatives suggest that intercultural mingling is popular for all involved. After a year of working out their business model as they went along, the owners of Saigon Outcast made the bold move (well, the spontaneous decision) to initiate an artist in residence program. Regan Tamanui, known as Ha-ha, from New Zealand, spent a month in Vietnam living in one of the converted containers at Saigon Outcast and doing outdoor workshops on stencil cutting and collaborating with local artists. Sponsorship is even becoming a thing, with art centers like San Art and Zerostation, both in Ho Chi Minh City, or the aforementioned artist collective The Propeller Group (TPG, not to be confused with The Saigon Projects, TSP, a graffiti crew), reaching out to promote urban art and invite international artists, such as Shamsia Hassani, from Afghanistan.
Vietnam’s graffiti may be gaining solidity as a practice, but—to date—it seems to be apolitical. It’s easy to imagine that censorship has created a climate of fear, but it’s more likely that this form of artistic expression is still giving so much joy to its creators that, in their euphoria (and Vietnam’s, the country has palpable vital energy) see no reason to complain about anything.
Many urban artists in Indonesia and other countries do link their art to a critique of oppressive ideologies. During the Occupy movement, Destroy All Design, a pseudonym of a New York based artist, felt that most street art was about the 99 percent, whereby he critiqued the 1 percent and its tyrannical system. Walls the world over amuse and inform passers-by with intelligent visual critiques of consumption, police repression, the Arab Spring or any other hot topic. We shall wait to see if Vietnam’s graffiti dabbles in visual activism. Vietnam’s powerful propaganda posters made during wartime are cult objects for collectors. Young Vietnamese, racing into their glowing future, rarely look back to rediscover the visual and lyrical force of propaganda imagery made by previous generations. But teenagers grow up, and history repeats.
*All photography credit: Cristina Nualart
- 1. The video Spray it, don’t Say it, by TPG, includes a brief interview with Linkfish and other graffiti artists from Vietnam: http://vimeo.com/23667393
- 2. See for example , KCBT (2015), by Lauren Cook: https://vimeo.com/127303545, o Lolo Zazar’s photographs: https://hanoigrapevine.com/2012/05/kvt-lolo-successfully-stencils/.