Street art not vandalism, regulate rather than banish it

April 8, 2024 | 03:29 pm PT
Trinh Phuong Quan Architect
Walking through the main streets of downtown HCMC, I could not help notice the messy, bizarre and ugly drawings on every blank space.

They were on walls, rolling doors, electric cabinets, bus stations, and even on the beams of overpasses.

As an architect, I must admit there are occasionally impressive drawings among these "works," full of artistic flair, which somewhat bring life to the city.

However, the majority comprises defacement and smearing.

Last year a train on metro line No. 1 (Ben Thanh - Suoi Tien) near the Long Binh depot in Thu Duc City was found defaced, and not the first time. This vandalism caused significant trouble to the investor, especially as the line was about to be put into operation.

Graffiti, a visual expression, has always been a controversial topic for its supporters and opponents. The word "graffiti" comes from the Italian "graffiato," meaning "wall drawing" or "scratch," which has been around since prehistoric times in the form of cave paintings, and were often carved with a sharp object and sometimes done with chalk or charcoal.

During the Renaissance period in Europe, artists carved or painted their names on buildings or works of art.

The type of graffiti commonly seen today developed from the 1960s and 1970s in New York, the U.S., and from there spread worldwide.

Graffiti, along with emceeing (rapping), DJing, and b-boying (breakdancing), is considered part of the hip hop culture, to express oneself.

However, unlike other forms of hip hop, graffiti is easily misunderstood and frowned upon because it is often done illegally. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the majority of graffiti lacks aesthetic value and is closer to vandalism than artistic creation. So graffiti artists are not as welcome as rappers, DJs or dancers are.

Paintings on abandoned walls in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress

Paintings on abandoned walls in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress

I always wonder what can be done when the line between urban art and vandalism is blurry. And how to address this issue if penalties and preventive measures are ineffective?

Imposing high fines, installing surveillance cameras to catch offenders or attempting to remove the graffiti will only see the repeat of the costly and futile cycle of defacement and cleaning.

Graffiti inherently carries a spirit of "resistance," the aim of expressing oneself in public spaces.

The success of programs like "Rap Viet" and "King of Rap" in recent years reflects the rise of hip hop culture, especially in the context of Vietnam's young population boom. But its current urban infrastructure lacks suitable spaces for this demographic.

In HCMC's main parks, I see playgrounds for children and exercise areas for seniors, but there is a scarcity of spaces for young adults.

To address this issue, it is necessary to enhance the design of public areas, including spaces for hip hop, skateboarding, rapping, and graffiti, allowing teenagers to express their creativity while reducing illegal defacement.

Abandoned areas could be repurposed into graffiti spaces, allowing young people to display their talents and creativity.

Besides, major cities could organize contests to create a playground, helping discover outstanding works suitable for decorating key structures.

Events like graffiti exhibitions should also be organized to provide opportunities for the community to participate in and enjoy street art, turning them into "check-in" points for youths and tourists.

This will not only encourage creativity but also create business opportunities and growth for the street art industry.

Not long ago the Malaysian government viewed graffiti as a manifestation of youths' rebellion, and equated it with vandalism. But today the country is vibrant with talented artists who are passionate about creating unique images on walls and streets.

The story of Lithuanian graffiti artist Ernest Zacharevic, who lives in Penang is an example.

In 2012 he was tasked with creating a series of six mural paintings for the George Town Festival in Malaysia. His most famous works like "Children on a Bicycle" and "Old Motorcycle" skillfully combine two-dimensional wall paintings with three-dimensional objects.

Not only Penang, but also Kuala Lumpur, the country’s bustling capital, is a hotbed of street art.

Ipoh, Perak and the city of Malacca are also emerging rapidly as street art hubs.

From being considered vandalism, street art has become a highly regarded art genre and a must-see contemporary Malaysian culture.

Rather than opposition, it may be straightforward to acknowledge that graffiti is part of modern urban culture where youths have the opportunity to express their individuality, unleash their energy and express their emotions.

Choosing the right way to deal with graffiti is an opportunity to not only eliminate the nuisance of defacement, but also to expand and encourage street art in the context of strong urbanization and the young demographics.

*Trinh Phuong Quan is an architect pursuing a master’s degree at Stanford University in the U.S.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top