Saigon’s youngest graffiti crew speak about vandalism, jail time and their passion for art.
Every weekend or so a group of teenagers can been seen gathering in front of a long stretch of washed out wall near an alley off Dang Van Bi street, adjacent to the Truong Tho milk factory. “You hoodlum punks. Go vandalize somewhere else. Get out of here!” yells a lady when they get too close to her house. It’s apparent that their presence is unwanted but they continue with what they’re doing – spray painting the wall.
They may be only teenaged schoolboys but they’re far from being hoodlums. They’re Sons of God (SOG), a graffiti art crew comprised of six boys between 17 and 18 years old. Buis is the leader with Cur, Krostic, Tin, T.O.X. and Thiinh completing the group. SOG started roughly a year ago stemming from a shared passion for graffiti artwork, and trouble with adults and the police along the way have only forged a tighter unity among them.
“We are, I think, a third generation crew since the start of graffiti in Vietnam in 2006. The first ones are UFO of Saigon and The Street Jockey of Hanoi,” says Cur. “We formed our crew when we were 16, but many of us dabbled long before that. Vietnamese graffiti artists really don’t get any younger than us.”
“We started out with the wrong idea of graffiti, like a lot of other young people who went along with the hype,” explains one of the members. “We learned to draw from Japanese manga art. At first only copying, and then creating our own versions, our own style. It’s about the same for 8x, 9x generation Vietnamese. For us, that was the one art form easiest to access.”
Some of them already had a background in art, others were simply intrigued or tagged along for fun.
“Somebody suggested the name Sons of God,” says Tin. “It sounds really boastful and not actually that good. But then again, if you’re going to leave your name on the street, you want people to remember it and for that, boastful does the job. Eventually, we agreed on it.”
Their spray painting began the same way as countless other graffiti artists, with actual illegal defacing of public and private properties, one of which happened to be the subterranean wall of Thu Thiem tunnel.
“That one was a co-op job. Lots of crews came, not just us. We nearly got into trouble. The police came,” remembers Cur. “In another session, a full-blown painting and not just a tagging or bombing, we got caught by the police. We ended up spending the night before Tet in the police station. My dad said, ‘Take responsibility for your passion.’ What he meant was that he wasn’t going to bail me out the next time that happens.”
And what’s their opinion on the differences between the graffiti subculture in Vietnam and the West? “It’s pretty friendly. It’s not the same as the Western ones as all,” states Cur.
“When I was younger, my uncle, who lived in America, sometimes came around to check out my graffiti art,” says one of the crew. “He says even graffiti art in America doesn’t have such a good reputation and that only the African-Americans in the black neighborhoods do it. People tend to stay away. It’s not the same way here at all. Sure there are some rough kids, but all in all, the older crowd of graffiti artists are supportive and open.”
Graffiti began its rise alongside hip-hop and breakdancing in Vietnam back in 2006, starting first in Hanoi. Like other youth fads, it has its highs and lows and once the hype fades, it is usually a small group of hardcore enthusiasts who remain. Vietnamese graffiti art has had three such highs.
“There are not that many of us,” says Tin. “Not enough to foster the kind of overly competitive street environment that some would expect. We tag. We bomb. We mark our territory, but nobody’s going to give you a good thrashing if you happen to step into their territory. Instead, we have co-ops where two or more crews will get together and do a shared job on one wall. It’s our way of getting to know each other, and also our way of learning from each other. Since we are the youngest, there’s a lot to learn.”
It was from these older groups that the Sons of God actually learned the proper way to view graffiti, as art and not vandalism. “We have learned to be polite and accommodating. We have asked for permission to paint on people’s walls and houses instead of bombing a big one on theirs without asking. Our art is coming along. When something is beautiful, it’s harder to dismiss it. What it all comes down to is a matter of trust. Once you have proven yourself trustworthy school kids, people don’t find it that hard to let you paint on their walls,” Cur says.
There comes a time when childhood whims and fun must end though, and that time is approaching for T.o.X. as college and adulthood is eminent this year. “We have our hopes and our ambitions. We have never actually earned money from our graffiti, but there are old bros before us who succeeded and made a living out of what they love, like the crews behind Saigon Outcast, or Zero Station and their Creative Space. Now it’s our time of testing, and we’ve got to find out whether we will work a day job to feed our passion, or will our passion become our job and feed us.”
Images by Adam Robert Young