Graffiti lovers in Hanoi keep street art alive

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A part of the work painted by participants in the recent "Long Bien Graffiti Battle" competition in Hanoi. Graffiti lovers in the city hope to create a wall that depicts the history of the capital for this year's celebration of Hanoi's 1,000th year anniversary.

For 23-year-old Pham Minh Hoang, nickname Hoang Art, graffiti is a stress reliever.

"Whenever I feel bored or down, I paint," he said.

Hoang, who first learned about graffiti through the web in 2005, belongs to one of about a dozen graffiti groups in Hanoi. The members are mostly college and high school students or recent graduates.

In Vietnam, graffiti art is not as popular as in the West, but Hoang and his graffiti friends hope that will change.

Hoang and many others actually operate within the confines of the law, as opposed to the forefathers of the graffiti movement in New York in the 1980s, who "tagged" on public places illegally.

Hoang said local artists were hoping to win wider acceptance for their craft by creating a graffiti wall that reflects the history of Hanoi, similar to the ceramic wall that currently adorns part of the Red River dyke.

"It's our gift to the city. That is, if we get the space and the funding," said Tran Tuan Anh, nickname Zugi, a member of Hoang's group.

Hoang Art and Zugi recently got some media attention when they organized what they hope will be an annual "Long Bien Graffiti Battle," an open competition in which 15 graffiti-loving groups and individuals transformed a neighborhood behind Gia Lam Train Station into a giant picture of Hanoi's Old Quarter: there was Hang Ma Street shops selling masks and lanterns, ancient homes on Hang Ga Street and of course, Long Bien Bridge, an icon of Hanoi.

According to Hoang, most people often mistaken graffiti as a form of vandalism

But group members say they prefer finding places where local residents permit them to paint or locations where the art does not damage property.

For example, they got the permission from the residents in the neighborhood behind Gia Lam Train Station so long as the works promoted positive themes.

Nguyen Thi Thao, a local resident, said the graffiti helped transform the area into an interesting spot.

"Foreigners are very attracted to this area," she said, pointing at a wall that says "Happy Birthday to Hanoi 1,000 years."

Both Hoang and Tuan Anh said they are now running a weekly class to teach the art form to others.

"Graffiti for us is a way to express ourselves creatively," Hoang said. "Our idea for the wall is also meant to express our understanding about history."

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