Fit to a tee: stranded German artist’s wearable works

By Ngoc Diep   January 4, 2021 | 01:58 am PT
Tangled electrical wires, draught beer and smoking bamboo pipes are some images of Hanoi that German artist Heiner Radau prints on t-shirts he designs.

In the last three years the 32-year-old has traveled to France, Belgium, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vietnam. In each locality, he would randomly settle on a sidewalk and sketch images he thinks characterize the land and culture.

He traveled to Vietnam in 2016 and 2017, but when he came for a third time in March 2020 he has been stranded as the Covid-19 pandemic stopped all international travel.

Heiner Darrau, artist and globetrotter, travels and captures in illustrations what he thinks are unique about a country.

Heiner Radau, artist and globetrotter, travels and captures in illustrations what he thinks are unique about a country. Photo courtesy of Heiner.

His ‘Heiner Radau Travel and Draw’ project has evolved into the ‘Heiner Radau Travel, Draw and Printing’ project after he was stuck, hoping to turn his works into wearable arts that people can sport or keep as souvenirs.

Not only was he challenging and expanding his scope of work, this was also a unique way to express his appreciation for the people and culture of Vietnam.

Every t-shirt is handmade and supervised by him from the initial sketch until printing. He makes the sketches with markers on silk paper, stretches it over a frame, pours ink, and presses it onto a plain t-shirt.

The back of the tee has a timestamp showing when it was printed.

Heiner's biggest inspiration is Hanoi, but not its lovely landmarks or tourist sites but montages of city life like overhead electrical wires, smoking bamboo pipes, mopeds, interesting signs, and faces.

He says: "I like the architecture here and the contrast between old and new."

But the culture is what bowls him over, Heiner says, adding it "is unlike anything I’ve seen in past travels."

Glancing at his works, most people would immediately associate it with doodles on their notebook margins as a student. But these apparently random strokes are graffiti-inspired and are visual stories of Heiner’s daily sightings. They follow a specific order, starting from the center outwards.

"They are illustrations of the Hanoi city life that you are familiar with. Yet on the shirt, the more you look the more it becomes an optical maze without a beginning or end, almost like an infinity landscape painting," he says.

Working place of Heiner Radau in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Heiner.

Working place of Heiner Radau in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Heiner.

Heiner's first product sale took place at the recent Christmas fair at Vincom Mega Mall Royal City in Hanoi's Nguyen Trai Street, where the intricately-designed tees were a hit.

Vu Huy Hoang, 36, of Cau Giay District, vouches for the shirts saying they make for a great travel souvenir. "I think this is a creative take on the culture. I can wear this around my international friends and have the shirt do all the talking for me."

Each design comes in a white tee with two color options: black or colorful tie-dye. Each costs VND290,000-490,000 ($13-21).

To make the tie-dye tees, Heiner uses a special technique called experimental screen printing. While this is not more difficult than the regular printing method, it requires more effort and time because it is done manually.

Each tie-dye T-shirt has a unique colorway and fading effect, making some as expensive as VND1 million ($43) and only available to order.

Images of Hanoi life like overhead electrical wires, smoking bamboo pipes and street signs inspire Heiner Radaus drawings. Photo courtesy of Heiner.

Images of ordinary city life in Hanoi inspire Heiner Radau's drawings. Photo courtesy of Heiner.

Heiner has had several memorable experiences in Hanoi. He fondly recalls some encounters with the police and curious passersby while sketching on the sidewalk.

Hanoi was also the first city where he panicked when riding a motorbike and while strolling at night because of a few suspicious incidents.

He said he especially enjoys Vietnamese food despite not knowing how to spell the name of a single dish.

Heiner is also fascinated by images of female motorbike drivers fully covered in colorful printed garbs that remind him of his own paintings.

"This is a very interesting outfit that few German women would dare don publicly. But here it is commonly worn and a characteristic of the street culture."

Heiner’s elaborate T-shirt printing process.

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