Breaking the canvas

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A set of wall paintings by young graffiti artists has inspired a conversation about art, culture and the changing times in a HCMC neighborhood.

One of the half-length portrait murals portraying a member of the Click9 project

The area around this old Pho Shop will never be the same.

Pho Dau, one of Ho Chi Minh City's most famous noodle stalls and a prized local landmark for decades, is surrounded by color like never before. Located off a courtyard down an alley on the way to the airport, the quaint neighborhood surrounding 288 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street has been taken over by graffiti. But the people aren't mad.

This is the work of a young group of artists breaking new ground in making graffiti a respected art form in Vietnam.

The community-based project "Graffiti in the alley" was put up by Click9, a group of graffiti painters and art students from July 12 to August 7 at ZeroStation, an art studio and gallery located right next to Pho Dau.

A far cry from what many consider petty vandalism, Click 9's art has inspired an open exchange of ideas about street art and life among residents in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.

Pham Ngoc Sang, 60, head of local security in the area, finds Click9's wall paintings remarkable. The man, who has spent nearly all his life living at the site at 288 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, says that the residents should appreciate such inspiration and dedication from the younger generation.  

"The urban art is created by mostly students. The paintings, some of which are a little bit confusing, are really beautiful and color the whole area," says Sang.

"Some of my neighbors told me that they do not thoroughly understand the murals, but somehow, they like them. One more interesting thing is that the spray-painted murals can evoke different feelings, like some think about sex, while others say it is about the environment. The residents seem to talk to each other more than they did before the graffiti came here."

He also says the graffiti artists were lucky to have such an ideal location at ZeroStation.

"I am sure that all the pho eaters glance over at the young painters' work, and many of them like it. The kids love the vivid colors and it is much better to dominate the walls with bright images than hate or abandonment," says Sang.

In one month, nearly 30 paintings were painted, then erased and re-painted in a community-based project called "Graffiti in the alley" hosted by Click9 at ZeroStation studio and gallery. Before Click9, many local and foreign projects about graffiti were started but most of them were prevented from moving forward by provincial governments.

Nhu Huy, art director of ZeroStation studio and gallery, says that one of the interesting points of the project is featuring the ephemera nature of street art.

"'Graffiti in the alley' is about how art changes over time. It changes daily or even hourly," he says, adding that in one month, nearly 30 paintings were painted, then erased and re-painted.

"This also implies that the things we value most in life can be easily changed or lost."   

But the local government is not exactly as enthusiastic about the graffiti project as many art lovers.

Click9 member Huynh Cao Vu Khang, 21, says the group has had some trouble with public officials.

"We've had to explain to make it clear what we are doing," says Khang. "Prejudice against the art, on the part of both people and government, is part of a city-wide debate on whether graffiti is a legitimate form of art or not.

"But we've done nothing wrong. The painting's content is pure. Moreover, ZeroStation is private property, not a public place, so it gives us more freedom to paint. After checking our story, the officials have agreed to leave us in peace."

Luu Danh Quyen, 21, another member of Click9, says that prejudice against the subculture has only inspired the group to work harder.

The project has also attracted many other graffiti painters, both local and foreign, and even some local residents have joined in painting the wall together.

"There are students from art schools outside Ho Chi Minh City and all over Vietnam," says Khang. 

"A Japanese travel painter was just here and drew on our wall for two days. Some French artists and even the neighborhood kids have played around and drawn with us. We've had a lot of fun."


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Most of Click9's members have day jobs in interior design, graphic design and as handicraft artists. The group was originally founded in 2007 as Click 76 by two members who were born in 1976. But the group has recently expanded to around half-a-dozen painters, some of whom are only 20 years old.  

After "Graffiti in the alley," three rookie members of Click9 took part in a graffiti event held by the German Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City on August 10.

"Germany meets Vietnam" included graffiti murals on the walls of the German Consulate General office and will be up until September.

But graffiti projects elsewhere have been haulted by authorities.

Street Jockey, a Hanoian group of graffiti painters, has been punished by police for an indecent drawing, and officials in District 2 recently erased a series of murals painted by French graffiti artists in a blighted District 2 neighborhood. (The art was featured in Last Hurrah , July 8, 2011, issue No. 93 of Thanh Nien Weekly.)

However with increasing media attention and public approval, it looks like graffiti is in Vietnam to stay. For Khang, the point is to make sure that graffiti is constructive, a part of the culture that makes society better.

"One talks of the anti-social aspect of graffiti, but why not turn it into a social thing to do?"

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