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How Vietnam's Street Artists Have Made a Global Medium Their Own

Graffiti, street art, urban art…living in Paris before settling in Vietnam, they were part of my daily life and wonder. Riding the metro, graffiti is everywhere along the way. Wandering around the French capital, street art pops out of every corner.

My phone was full of pictures of Invader’s ceramic tile mosaics, C215’s colorful portraits and or Miss Tic’s poetic stencils. What’s funny is that the best place to see urban art in Paris is the XIII district, o ther “Asian district,” where you can admire gigantic murals by international artists like Obey or D-Face.

Visiting Saigon in 2015, what struck me was the absence of graffiti or murals. I ran to Saigon Outcast and 3A Station for familiar surroundings. Six years later, tags have flourished on Vietnam’s walls, while recognition of graffiti and street artists remains limited. With Vietnam Urban Art 2021, the time has come for a quick sketch of graffiti and street art's history, and of their emergence in Vietnam.

3A Station before its demise. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Brief History of Graffiti and Street Art

To understand graffiti and street art, one must understand their origin. The first tags were reported in America, drawings on walls and cars by New York gangs in the 1920s. Long before being appropriated by artists, street art techniques were used on walls to express territorial or political messages. Only in the 1960s did graffiti culture become the one we know today, emerging with the hip-hop movement and the advent of spray cans.

From the tag, a simple signature on a wall or car, graffiti emerged. Word-based, this act of vandalism took roots in city neighborhoods, a rebellious way for the young generations to express themselves. When artists took over, and lettering techniques evolved, art lover communities and the press slowly recognized graffiti as a legitimate art from in the 1980s.

Graffiti's “little brother," street art, is mainly image-based. Still conveying a message – poetic, activist, impactful – or giving a voice to forgotten communities, street art recently entered galleries and art auctions. Since the 2000s, important auction houses such as Sotheby’s have begun to include street art in their contemporary art program.

Street artists play with countless techniques and shapes: spraying, stencil, installation, 3D and anamorphism, stickers and posters, yarn bombing, mosaics, surface scratching, urban hacking, etc. It has become the major contemporary art movement of our century, despite still being considered illegal in some countries.

Controversy remains at the heart of this movement. Some artists claim that it belongs to the streets, while others monetize their artworks. Some artworks are robbed from the streets to be sold, while Banksy makes fun of the art auction market. Cities fight against graffiti vandalism, while also capitalizing on street art attractiveness in dedicated legal spaces.

As street art got out of the street into galleries, museums, and private displays, the terms “urban art” appeared. One distinct feature is the notion of permanence, as opposed to the ephemeral act of graffiti and street art. Beyond space beautification, urban art is also seen as a pillar to support the development of sustainable, smart cities.

An old photo of LinkFish's first mural, completed in 2003 in Thanh Hoa Province. Courtesy of LinkFish.

The emergence of graffiti and street art in Vietnam

Vietnamese graffiti and street art is still young. It has only been since the 2000s that graffiti has surfaced on Hanoi’s and Ho Chi Minh City’s walls. The short documentary “Spray It, Don’t Say it” - by The Propeller Group artists’ collective - follows the pioneers of Vietnamese street art, inspired by American graffiti style.

LinkFish of the Street Jockey graffiti crew, based in Hanoi, discovered graffiti in 2003. “It was on Limp Bizkit’s album 'Significant Other," he said. "I loved the artwork and wanted to know more. But I didn’t know anything about the keywords to find it on the internet!”

Graffiti and street art’s debut was strongly supported by the enthusiasm of Vietnamese youth for hip-hop culture. Not to mention other so-called “rebellious hobbies” such as skating and rock.

Repeating the international story, graffiti and street art bloomed underground and online. Artist communities were active on Tumblr (The Saigon Projects started in 2009), then on Facebook or Instagram. In 2014, graffiti and street art were pushed under the spotlights with a dedicated festival at Hanoi Creative City.

In 2016, Ho Chi Minh City organized its own festival at The Factory. At that time, French-Vietnamese artist SubyOne pointed out that this art movement was still lacking recognition.

Tangible dedicated spaces, supporting street art and open to public, are missing in Vietnamese art landscape. The fall of art hub Zone 9 in Hanoi in 2014, then 3A station in Saigon in 2017, has left a void for graffiti and street artists. They went back to operate in hidden spots, sometimes unveiled to the public, where youngsters - spraying on their free time - and professional artists, are mingling. Some venues, like Saigon Outcast or Hanoi Creative City, are still open for it, but the feeling is not the same.

Exhibition-wise, artists are often invited to display their artworks during group shows in artsy bars and coffees, although without curation or fixed compensation. Very few galleries exhibit graffiti and street artists: Vin Gallery with Trialogue in 2016, Giant Step founded by SubyOne, REI Artspace which recently exhibited Daos501. So far, SubyOne is the only one to make it to the HCMC Fine Arts Museum.

Not many graffiti or street artists live thanks to their art; usually getting commissioned by restaurants, bars, or brands, rather than selling their own artworks. Last year, the street art scene became exciting again. Artists took over a whole residence with House of Paint, and Cyril Phan’s gallery opened in Hanoi. Better known as Cyril Kongo, this French artist with Vietnamese origins is an internationally recognized graffiti artist.

Street art for a positive impact

Vietnamese residents and local authorities consider graffiti to be vandalism. Hanoi's iconic Long Bien Bridge being tagged raised rumblings of discontent in 2019. Street art, on the other hand, has gained the heart of locals thanks to individual initiatives, associative actions, and public art projects. When street art was used to beautify neighborhoods or villages, rejection transformed into appreciation.

For artist Scott Matt, who revamped electric boxes in his Hanoi alley, “people living in the alley went from hating […] to inviting him over for oranges and beer.” Saigon’s manholes were also magnified by local art students, who painted natural landscapes to hinder people from littering. When COVID-19 broke out last year, a Vietnamese artist redecorated his entire house to bring attention to health prevention.

Street art remains largely apolitical in Vietnam. However, CHANGE Vietnam used it as a medium in educational campaigns to tackle environmental issues. In 2017, colorful rhinos appeared on Saigon’s walls to raise awareness about endangered species.

Part of CHANGE's street art campaign aimed at raising awareness of the plight of rhinos. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

In 2019, Wildlife Street Art Bus Tour promoted wildlife conservation along high animal-trafficking Vietnamese borders. The non-profit organization Tô Đậm is also bringing art to schools in remote areas by creating murals with kids.

State-supported public art projects are a recent addition to Vietnamese street art’s scope. From Hai Son’s community frescos to Tam Thanh's first-ever mural village, street art turns into an asset to attract visitors. Beyond tourism development, fighting poverty is also at stake. In the capital, the Phuc Tan Public Art Project was officially inaugurated in 2020. The 200-meter-long artwork was created by 16 artists in agreement with the local community, and aims at revamping a slum area, as well as cleaning up Hanoi’s riverside.

Tam Thanh mural village. Photo by Adrien Jean.

Saigon Urban Arts 2021

This is when street art becomes urban art; long-lasting public art with the purpose to sustain urban development. The French Institute is dedicating 2021 to urban arts with the theme “Sustainable Cities” as a silver lining. Vietnam Urban Arts 2021 kicked off on April 24-25th with the event “JAM.” Six emerging Vietnamese street artists were selected to produce murals in front of the public, based on Sustainable Development Goals.

“Our long-term objective is to bring attractivity to [HCMC], with urban arts cultural positioning,” shared Frédérique Horn, HCMC French Institute’s director. She was impressed by “the craze for urban culture among young Vietnamese,” the target audience of Vietnam Urban Arts 2021. “We wish to bring the expertise of France, a pioneer country for street art.” In 2010 and 2016, famous international artists Seth and Kanos were invited to Vietnam by French institutions.

“We are not to be subjected to the city, but to live the city,” Horn says, adding that a smart city is also a sustainable one. The four pillars of sustainable development, as defined by United Nations, are economic growth, inclusivity, environmental balance, and culture. Future cities shall then take into account sustainable, cultural, and social factors toward a “better living together.”

Works on display as part of the "JAM" festival. Courtesy of the French Institute Ho Chi Minh City

The “JAM” artworks, exhibited on the walls of the Résidence de France until July, are now in Hue. Then, artworks will go on a tour to be exhibited in other Vietnamese cities. Vietnam Urban Arts 2021 will resume in November. The second part of the project, in partnership with Goethe Institute and Swiss Arts Council, will feature murals all over the city, created by Vietnamese and international artists. An international conference will be dedicated to urban arts and sustainable cities.

When looking back at graffiti and street art in Vietnam, it has been ups and downs since its appearance. Vietnam is making its way into the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and implementing the National Strategy for the Development of Cultural Industries to 2020, with a vision to 2030. With Vietnam Urban Arts 2021, it will be interesting keep an eye on whether Vietnam will also enter the cultural cities‘ urban art movement.

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