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[Illustrations] Mesmerizing Modern and Mythic Vietnam Re-Imagined

“I know this is going to sound super corny but I'm going to say it anyways; I left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left me.”

Artist Brian Hoang was born in Vietnam but grew up in Canada. A recent return trip to the country ushered in a shift in his artistic style as he began to incorporate more images, motifs and historical elements of Vietnam into his work.

"The Trưng Sisters."

Brian shared with Saigoneer a backstory that will be familiar to many Asian artists. Inspired by action figures and superheroes, he was the student that sat in the back of the classroom drawing.  “Towards the end of high school when it was time to start thinking about what to take in college, I wanted to study illustration but my parents were dead set against it. They didn't see it as a smart career path to guaranteeing a stable income for the future,” he says.

Like many, he followed his parents’ wishes and enrolled in an Engineering program where he “spectacularly failed in the first year (four "F" grades out of six classes).” He eventually made the transition to art, and while his parents remained skeptical they supported him, especially once he graduated and took on a non-art job for 10 years.

Despite not working as a professional artist, he was constantly drawing and painting. Encouraged by his wife, Gillian Newland, a talented artist he met in art school, he continued to create work inspired by his favorite pop culture icons that he brought to comic conventions. Each year, his pieces were better and better received and he credits her with encouraging him to quit his day job in 2014 and live on art through a combination of selling prints on his website and doing commissioned pieces for book covers, comics, album art, music posters and various illustrations for other businesses to use as product labels. 

Hoang notes with pride: "Once my parents saw how much I wanted to pursue art, they turned a 180 and fully supported me in my decision. And even when I was stuck with a non-art job for 10 years, they never made me feel like I had made the wrong decision. Now that I'm doing art full-time, they couldn't be happier for me. Every piece of Vietnamese-inspired art I do is always done with them in mind."

"A Quiet Day."

Styles, inspirations and interests naturally change over time, and Hoang's trip across Vietnam is clear in his recent works as he continues to look through photos he took, read and watch movies about the country. He says the impetus for the piece varies, from sketching for fun to looking at others’ work to sometimes a random idea, but the process, which takes anywhere from 1 week to 1 month, is similar: “I always start with a traditional drawing using good old fashioned pencil on paper or board. I'll then go into the inking or painting process. For this, I use a fine-tipped pen and then I either paint with ink wash or use toning markers like Copics. Sometimes, I'll paint with acrylic or colored inks as well. Once that's done, I scan in the original work and do the rest digitally.” 

In North America, his work reaches a diverse audience of Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. The former group often has an immediate and deep connection with the familiar images of ancient and contemporary Vietnam while the later becomes intrigued with the stories behind the scenes. To that point, he often adds in his website and Instagram descriptions details of the legends and characters, including admitting Hồ Tinh was "a bit of an asshole." Regarding his depiction of Hai Bà Trưng, Brain says, “So many people outside the Vietnamese community told me how much they loved learning about these two women and it made me feel so good to share this part of our history with them.”

Of "Rùa" Brian notes: "The concept of this illustration is based on the comedic amount of items that people in Vietnam are able to load onto their motorbikes ... everything from big home appliances to stacks of huge boxes to every member of the Wu-tang Clan all somehow fitted on a small vehicle."

Brian at work.

While expressing his concern for the ongoing public health situation in Vietnam and his admiration of the nation’s resilience, Brian said that the COVID-19 epidemic in Canada gave him an opportunity to rethink his work. Without the ability to travel to conventions, he re-worked his portfolio and came away with a selection of pieces he is more proud of.

Looking ahead, Hoang plans to continue exploring Vietnamese life, culture and mythology in his work while diversifying the ways people can appreciate his art. He will release pins, stickers and possibly a line of T-shirts with California-based brand Little Saigon Official. The earnest and humble artist sums up his mission simply: “I want it to reach Vietnamese people and non-Vietnamese people alike. I love when people take an interest in the culture and I love sharing what I know with them.” 

Check out more of Brian's work below and visit his Instagram account and website:

"Hạ Long."

"Mythic Turtle": One of four in a series titled "Mythical Vietnam" with each piece depicting one of Vietnam's four Sacred Animals and a traditional Vietnamese instrument. This one includes a đàn nhị.

The famous 42 Nguyễn Huệ Street apartment buildings at day and at night.

"Depiction of Hồ Tinh"

Of the top image, "Show Them Your Teeth," Brian notes: "I initially had a much calmer concept for this illustration. However, with news of continued attacks on elderly Asian citizens in the west, I felt the need to change the mood of the piece."

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