Back in England, I lived on a big steel barge in the heart of one of the largest cities in the country.
She was moored in the old dock where the vegetable market used to be. At weekends, if the weather was calm, I would take her out for a run down the canal for a picnic to see the countryside roll slowly by.
The inland waterways of northern England are often hidden from view as they wander through fields and woodland and the industrial areas of towns and cities. Because of this, the industrial buildings, bridges and walls are perfect canvasses for young graffiti artists to vent their creativity when no one is around.
As in many UK cities, our council has set aside some walls in the city center for graffiti artists to use as they wish. The hope is that artists will use these walls to experiment with their work rather than on privately-owned facades. These public spaces also give people the chance to watch artists at work and to learn about their tags and messages.
Of course, the public walls don’t completely satisfy the artists’ need to produce clandestine creations and to tag concrete walls to say, “I was here.” The quiet concrete canvasses of the canalside buildings are the perfect location for these adventures. So I would look forward to seeing the latest creations under the motorway bridges, inside derelict factories and on lonely walls.
When I came to Vietnam, I never thought I would miss all this urban art, but actually, when I spotted my first piece of tagging in District 1, I felt a kind of relief. Somehow, I felt reassured that young artists are indeed active and practising even in this distant, tropical, urban landscape.
Vietnam has a proud tradition of street art. The government used to commission artists to design and paint huge messages to promote healthy living, career or personal development along with a few inspirational or heroic words to the masses. Since the beginning of time, man has been communicating the greatness of kings, victories in battle, the teachings of prophets and gurus and other historical events and stories through visual arts. The great murals at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the paintings in the great pyramids of Giza in Egypt are superb examples of this.
So what are the modern-day graffiti artists saying? It’s not certain they are saying anything in particular. Their work is like that of most other artists; they do it because they love it and the style of work varies from artist to artist like any other genre. Picasso once said that “an artist is a child who managed to survive into adulthood,” and graffiti artists generally have a stronger sense of play and enjoy using more fantasy and imaginary characters than ‘traditional’ artists – that’s for sure.
For my part, I would always support the arrival of more color in our urban landscapes and generally find most graffiti more acceptable that some modern, commercial advertising hoardings which are responsible for most of the visual pollution in our neighborhoods and highways.
Graffiti brings a human touch to neglected walls and surely the works are no more offensive or intrusive than all those stencilled telephone numbers we have come to find so endearing.