When Saigon is one big graffiti canvas
Shrouded by fumes and surrounded by spray cans, Vietnamese graffiti artist Kong conjures his latest masterpiece, a monkey clutching an aerosol, a color-splashed act of rebellion in a soiciety where many are still expected to follow strict social mores.
"Young people want to break the rules," said the 21-year-old, his fingers speckled with paint.
"We want to see more interesting things on the street or on the wall, so we do graffiti to express ourselves."
Kong belongs to the growing ranks of graffiti artists in Ho Chi Minh City, where subcultures – BMX biking, skateboarding and breakdancing – jostle for space on the hipster scene.
The artist knows better than to dabble in politics, opting instead to paint playful images. Yet many artists like him believe there is something almost political in the very act of spraying a wall – and rejecting parents' expectations to find a stable job.
Kong fell into graffiti as a teenager, bored with online gaming and looking for a creative outlet.
But his parents didn't approve, hoping instead he might find a steady office job.
"They still don't like it... they think it's a dangerous game and it's bad for my health because of the spray paint," he said with a chuckle.
Ho Chi Minh City is now a graffiti hotspot, thanks to pioneering artists – both local and foreign – eager to fill blank wall space.
"It has become a part of Saigon, you can't imagine Saigon without graffiti," said independent curator Nguyen Nhu Huy, using the city's former French colonial name.
Today, the city has several hubs for graffiti and street art, such as 3A Station, a collection of colonial buildings that were reportedly occupied by the CIA during the Vietnam War.
The walls are bursting with color and plastered with art luring tourists taking Instagram-worthy selfies.
Though not technically allowed, police tend to turn a blind eye.
And residents have come to love the free art for the most part, said Danny Daos, a local graffiti artist.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the artwork today is a construction boom, which some public pieces have already fallen victim to.
"Now the city is growing up, development with a lot of building, a lot of security, so it's really hard for us to paint masterpieces," said Daos.
Hemmed in by towering high-rises on all sides, the colonial properties home to 3A Station have been sold to developers hungry to get their hands on the valuable downtown land.
Occupants have been told it will be demolished within weeks.
Though heartbroken, 3A's coordinator Mai Do believes Ho Chi Minh's graffiti culture will grow, even after her space is gone, as artists are finding new spots showcase their work.
She added: "That's a good way for them to survive."
Story by AFP/Jenny Vaughan
Photos: 1st and 2nd by VnExpress/Quynh Tran, 3rd and 4th by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
Video by VnExpress/Nhung Nguyen, Minh Nhat