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Easybadwork's Free Spirits Are Rooted in Nature and the Underground

A sparrow swooping across a special-edition can of Coca-Cola, the illustrations featured in the artworks of Ngọt's Grammy-nominated album boxset, or perhaps even the tattoo on a stranger you pass on the street: you have probably seen the work of Khim Đặng, the man behind Saigon fashion brand easybadwork, without knowing it. His graphic designs have graced a variety of commercial and collaborative works in Saigon, but easybadwork is his hobby business. “A true business makes you money, a hobby business makes you happy,” he told Saigoneer.

Easybadwork products at LÔCÔ Art Market (left) and Khim Đặng's show “Thả Hổ Về Trời” last year. Photos via easybadwork Instagram and Khim Đặng's Instagram.

I've seen easybadwork products at LÔCÔ Art Market, OHQUAO and elsewhere in the city, and attended his first solo art show, Thả Hổ Về Trời, last year, so I was already a fan of Khim Đặng’s style, but visiting him in his home studio earlier this month, what really impressed me was his approach to art, creativity and lifestyle. 

Khim Đặng in his home studio.

Five years of easybadwork

Quality work takes time and effort; it’s difficult. Khim Đặng ardently believes this and thus playfully flips it for the tongue-in-cheek name, easybadwork, which he occasionally further changes to phrases like easybadhuman and easydeadwork on designs. Specializing in T-shirts, bandanas and caps, the brand is celebrating its fifth anniversary this July, which serves as a perfect opportunity to reflect on its origins, ethos and future.

Photo via easybadwork Instagram.

Easybadwork began simply when Khim Đặng’s friends started asking him to put his artwork on T-shirts. He gave away the first batch of 10, except for the one piece he saved for himself, a habit he continues today for the sake of archiving his work. Shirts, he admits, are the obvious first move for any clothing brand, but bandanas are more unique. He explained that they result from his propensity to create mirror-image designs that fit comfortably on a bandana’s square shape, as well as paper’s fragile nature. Prints often get bent, wrinkled, and ultimately thrown away more easily than cloth. So in addition to functional fashion accessories, easybadwork bandanas can be hung and displayed like paintings.

Easybadwork has become more popular over the years, but Khim Đặng limits each product run to 100 pieces, including the one he always reserves for his personal cataloging. Once they sell out, that’s it; he refuses to re-print or re-release popular ones. And each month, he releases one new design to keep himself creatively motivated. The decision to operate this way reflects his motivations for easybadwork as a whole: “The goal is not making bestsellers, it's a creative life,” he said.

A self-proclaimed lack of style that's impossible to miss

Tigers with elongated torsos and an occasional extra set of limbs; rabbits leaping through flaming hoops; slithering dragons and elephants circling verdant undergrowth: while easybadwork doesn’t restrict itself to any particular subject matter, a few themes and images reoccur, particularly Vietnamese flora and fauna.

“I love and respect nature, but I cannot do anything to save the environment and nature in Vietnam or the world; I’m too small. [So] my work is to keep nature in mind - for myself and for the people that buy it,” Khim Đặng explained. 

Images via Khim Đặng's Instagram.

This reverence for wildlife and its prominence in his artwork were cultivated, in part, by a trip he took with his mentor Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn. For a project the renowned artist was working on, they visited several of Vietnam’s national parks and observed how humans and animals interact. Khim Đặng was surprised to see that the individuals leading the efforts to protect the forests were mainly foreigners, suggesting a need to raise awareness and appreciation for nature amongst Vietnamese. Art allows him to channel his passion into this productive goal. Frequently depicted as supreme deities, the animals featured by easybadwork aim to instill a sense of pride, admiration and respect for nature. He hopes this will result in better stewardship of the natural world. 

When our discussion of favorite subject matters turned to talk of his influences, Khim Đặng brought up Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and how if those German stories could become books, films, cartoons and general pop-cannon fodder worldwide, why not Vietnamese ones? This realization further motivates him to include references to Vietnamese myths, fables, phrases and cultural touchpoints, particularly for but not limited to Vietnamese audiences.

Plates made in collaboration with a local ceramics artist.

I asked Khim Đặng how his style has changed over the past five years, but he rejected the question’s premise, claiming he has no specific style. Rather, his work represents the confluence of all his influences: the many artists across mediums that he knows personally here in Vietnam, as well as those abroad with whom he is acquainted via social media and online portfolios. While working for Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn, Khim Đặng learned studio, film and production design, sculpting, and fabrication that he added to his repertoire of self-taught skills. He can point out specific elements of his creations that he learned via studying other individuals, but ultimately, his work is a tapestry of styles and comingled reinterpretations of countless artists that he has admired and attempted to emulate in different ways. He hopes to pay this concept forward as well, encouraging young artists to seek out his work and copy it as a form of practice while they work on developing their own styles that they can eventually share with the world. 

The value of a boring, orderly lifestyle

Easybadwork is not a profitable venture. Khim Đặng explains that, after the cost of supplies, with an emphasis on always treating his suppliers well by paying on time and not asking for discounts, and renting his studio space in a shared District 10 tube house, he has yet to turn a profit, and isn’t concerned if that never changes. He has a few unrelated business ventures that bring in relatively passive income and he also takes on contract design work for brands, but admits his fierce commitment to his own vision has earned him a reputation as a “difficult” artist in some circles. “I really don’t care about the brand target, I just do [the work] for myself and try my best,” he explained. It appears that this approach has helped him, as the only clients that approach him now do so as fans of his creations, eager to give him ample latitude and limited demands.

Recent commercial projects.

Khim Đặng is fastidious about the materials he uses. The imported shirt fabric, for example, is stunningly nice — soft but sturdy and made to last; among the best I have ever encountered. When discussing materials, he explained that screen-printing his designs poses a challenge, particularly in creating gradients and shading with only four colors. His printer, serendipitously, was his friend back in 2013, long before either was on their current career trajectories. When the pair reunited years later, they discovered their respective talents fit perfectly. Smiling while proudly showing off the printing details up close and praising his friend’s work, he says he has no interest in learning how to screen-print. His friend can do that, and Khim Đặng is a firm believer in the power of appreciating creative industries without a desire to pursue them. 

This idea of leaving specific fields to those passionate about them reoccurs throughout our conversation. Khim Đặng enjoys creating album designs for musicians and of course listening to music, but has no desire to create music himself. Similarly, he spent four years helping tattoo artists in a loose collective improve their illustration skills, but has never wanted to learn to tattoo himself. Contributing flash designs and helping the group secure a space and sponsors is enough. Similarly, he recently created a stunning three-piece series of gold sign lettering with his friend, Saigon Gold Signs, who has studio space in the same tube house, but Khim Đặng doesn’t plan to get into letter design. 

Tattoo flash designs he drew and now keeps in his personal archives.

“I started underground, I like underground,” he explained of his DIY lifestyle that consists of networks of creatives across mediums. I recognize the impact of this “brotherhood” as he calls it in his willingness to do all his own marketing and promotion as well as his skepticism of private galleries that approach him, expressing fandom for the sole purpose of profiting from his art. It pairs well with the assemblage of tools that fill his workspace for his various projects as well as the expansive garden of philodendrons on the balcony. Learning from the internet and plant enthusiasts in Saigon, he has slowly cultivated what he estimates to be one of the 10 largest philodendron collections in the city. And when they get too large, he gives trimmings to his friends to grow. It’s all really quite punk when you think about it.

As much as I love the designs themselves, this punk vibe is what I admire most about Khim Đặng. He creates with a spirited confidence in his personal taste and vision with no concern for commercial implications. And yet he does so with a regimented schedule and organization at odds with the romantic notions of the devil-may-care artist one might expect. Answering my first email within an hour, he proved to be the most responsive and organized creative I’ve ever engaged with. Every morning, he wakes up early, goes out for breakfast and returns to his workspace, a set of wooden tables he handbuilt 15 meters from his bedroom. He will remain in this space until 5pm, after which time his energy is reserved for friends and family. It reminds me of the famous French novelist Gustave Flaubert who advised: “Be boring, orderly and bourgeois in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Before founding easybadwork, Khim Đặng fulfilled his compulsory military duty which he credits with helping him appreciate the virtues of a strict schedule. And although he acknowledges that previous dalliances with youthful, rowdy indiscretions helped develop his perspective, he knows such behavior would have ultimately doomed his ambitions, if he hadn’t abandoned them. This maturity, coupled with his ability to make ends meet, convinced his family of the potential for a successful life creating art. Coming from a family of business-minded individuals, he had encountered all-too-common condemnation when he revealed he wanted to be an artist. It took some years until he was again welcome in his family’s home.

That Khim Đặng’s fiercely free-spirited style exemplified superficially by his sleeves of menacing tattoos is juxtaposed by the routine of an accountant and supplemented by a calm and earnest reverence for nature is interesting enough. But the most endearing aspect of his personality might be his humility: “I don’t want to be famous, I don’t need everyone to know who I am. I just want to grow authentically and make merchandise for people to have nice stuff and to create a legacy.” 

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