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In 'Vietnam Retropunk,' a Young Illustrator Dreams of a Cyberpunk Hanoi

To Đặng Thái Tuấn, the talent behind illustration project “Vietnam Retropunk,” whimsical depictions of robots and animatronics sprouting out from everyday objects and activities embody the space in between the ancient and the futuristic.

If Vietnam had advanced significantly in machinery and technology since the 1970s, what would it look like? Tuấn explores this question in “Vietnam Retropunk,” an ongoing series consisting of 16 total illustrations making up two books (so far). Woven throughout the series is a sense of nostalgia for Vietnam’s recent past, including important historical episodes like the subsidy era in Hanoi.

Everyday scenes with just a little sprinkle of cyberpunk.

Using a bright color palette and blending pop art, pen art, vintage, and futuristic style elements, Tuấn depicts quintessential Vietnamese everyday objects and activities such as bánh chưng, xe xích lô, street vendors, and mothers on a groceries run, with the addition of robots and animatronics: a cheeky little girl sits eagerly awaiting her robot to stuff, wrap, cook, assemble, and steam her bánh chưng; a mother with grey-streaked hair in floral pajamas is carried by a diligent cart-robot hybrid on the way to get groceries. “I love and wish to depict things that seem simple yet, upon closer observation, express unique stories and qualities of Vietnam,” Tuấn tells me in Vietnamese during our virtual chat.

The North-South Express reimagined as a robotic dragon.

The series is heavily imaginative. Tuấn calls upon childhood through commonplace motifs that are sure to resonate with many Vietnamese readers: toys, traditional food, street snacks, daily commute vehicles, and female figures — the mother, the aunt, the student in áo dài. “I hope that the motifs used evoke in audiences both feelings of familiarity and novelty,” Tuấn explains. “Most of what I depict, the everyday subject matter, feels familiar, but here and there, certain aspects feel altered or standout in a way that may surprise and make audiences think.”

Our childhood toys in mecha form.

In ‘Cảnh Phố’ or ‘Random Streets,’ for example, Tuấn points out how it might seem like your average train on first glances, but the precise inspiration is Hanoi's “tàu điện leng keng,” a network of old tramway criss-crossing in the capital from 1901 to 1991. This is one example of an element of a time Tuấn, having been born in 2000, barely experienced. “These images and way of life mainly exist through stories told to me by my parents and other adults in repetition, [details] that I relish on online archives such as Ảnh Hà Nội Xưa,” says Tuấn. This balance between familiarity and novelty, doused with imagination and recollection, encourages audiences to hold dear the smaller things that make up the Vietnamese way of life in past decades.

New ways to đi chợ!

“Vietnam Retropunk” is therefore a blend of classic (retro) and futuristic (punk) — the punkness here is from cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction in a dystopian futuristic setting. Art that is cyberpunk often uses a combination of lowlife and high tech juxtaposed with societal collapse to highlight the detrimental impact of drug culture, technology, and the sexual revolution. Tuấn cited Akira from Katsuhiro Otomo, Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow, Cyberpunk 2077, The Blade Runner franchise, and Akira Toriyama as inspirations and personal heroes.

I also offered The Matrix trilogy, to which he agreed. We realized that there was a universality to the cyberpunk subgenre, especially its aesthetics — the doubtful yet eager reception of industrialization and technological revolution in the face of tradition and normalcy. Yet unlike most referenced cyberpunk inspirations, Tuấn’s work is anything but gloomy or nihilistic. With “Vietnam Retropunk” specifically, he wanted to connect with his roots — Hanoi specifically, and Vietnam at large — and embrace his love for where he came from in a way that was authentic to him.

Get your gas the futuristic way.

Given his current high demand, as seen in a thriving freelance portfolio encompassing well-known names such as TiredCity and Uniqlo, one would not have guessed that Tuấn recently graduated with a degree in IT. His journey to illustration has not been linear. “Having always had a knack for design, I had applied to design school at the end of my secondary years, failed short of that, made a pivot, only to find my way back through part time design jobs," Tuấn both bashfully and blissfully recalls.

He went through a period of assembling an amateurish CV and portfolio sparse with nothing but hobby-based drawings and secondary school projects, and getting rejected by all part-time positions except one, a graphic designer job at Memolas, a yearbook design and manufacturing company. It was here where the idea for ‘Bánh Chưng’ or ‘Banh Chung Making Machine,’ the first of “Vietnam Retropunk”’s illustrations, was conceived and realized on a shabby, off-brand tablet bought off of Shopee. As his designs gained traction, Tuấn rewarded himself with a second-hand iPad where the rest of “Vietnam Retropunk” came to be.

The first-ever illustration that started it all.

Having graduated from the simplistic short stories, Tuấn’s portfolio now boasts mesmerizingly detailed, larger-scale illustrations like ‘Hà Nội Rong’ or ‘Moving Hanoi’ that won him a design competition hosted by TiredCity. Looking forward, Tuấn plans to continue with “Vietnam Retropunk” and freelance commissions. He is slowly but steadily working on the first illustration for Book 3 of “Vietnam Retropunk,” as he believes there is still more ground to be covered with the series’ purpose, message, and central themes.

Tuấn's award-winning entry.

For now, through Vietnam Retropunk 1 and 2, Tuấn inspires his audience to not only remember but appreciate and hold dear the slower-paced, analogous way of life that is so enjoyably Vietnamese in this age of rapid technologization; to maintain focus on the small things of value; and to use advanced technology to serve the things that matter.

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