A few years ago, during my care-free student days, I travelled to Europe for the first time and spent a life-changing summer in Berlin, the experience broadened my awareness of new cultures far beyond belief. One of my most memorable discoveries during this summer was that of the Berlin ‘street art’ scene.
A common occurrence in Berlin, yet something that was totally new to me, street art is everywhere in Europe; walls, pavements, buildings, subway stations, parks, restaurants are all adorned with tags, phrases, paintings. Bare bricks represent blank canvasses, and an open invitation for budding street artists to express themselves.
The most iconic form of Berlin street art stretches 1.3km across what remains of the Berlin wall. A quick lesson in European history – the wall was constructed in 1961 by the Socialist Union Party who governed Eastern Germany as a totalitarian state at the time. It separated East and West Germany, dividing the two states for 28 years. On the eastern side all aspects of life, including propaganda, were controlled by the state while on the western side things were far more liberal. The western side of the wall was covered in artwork, in contrast the eastern side was bare since people were not allowed close enough to the wall to be able to touch it.
The end of the Cold war in 1989 saw people free to move between east and west and much of the wall was quickly dismantled however the 1.3km stretch that remained formed the ‘East Side Gallery’. Artists worldwide flocked to Berlin to put their artistic mark on this previously unobtainable canvas on the eastern side. Within a year the bricks were transformed into an international memorial for freedom, hope and love. The 105 painting on this wall represent what is now the World’s largest permanent open-air muriel collection.
Fast forward to 2016 and I have travelled and settled again, this time in Saigon. My search for street art in my new home this time proved less fruitful, there are of course some artistic forms of propaganda and government campaigns, but other, more individual, forms of street art and expression are less apparent.
In my first few weeks in the city I considered that maybe street art is not popular amongst Vietnamese, or maybe they are simply not an artistic culture. However, I quickly discovered this not to be the case since art galleries are prominent in the Saigon social scene and graffiti too is popular, adorning the interiors of hip cafes, bars and restaurants.
Banksy, the prolific London street artist, said a couple of years ago “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing.” It is an art form used by individuals all over the world to express themselves socially and politically. So why no graffiti or street art on the streets of Saigon? Perhaps because traditionally the culture here is less accepting of this liberal form of self-expression. In Saigon street artists risk a fine of between 5-10 million dong if they are caught by the police and many locals see graffiti as a form of vandalism.
But take a look a little deeper and it would appear that the street art scene in Saigon is steadily growing. Where there have previously been barriers to this art form a few prominent figures have found collaborative ways to work around these. Art space, 3A Station (Alternative Art Area) in D1 is a 2000-square meter area of previously abandoned warehouses which are now shops, art galleries, cafes and bars. The area is unique in Saigon because here graffiti is allowed and legally approved by the government. Bricks that were previously bare are now adorned with quirky and colourful expressions courteously of the Saigon youth scene.
Another collaborative project, Saigon Graffiti Club, strives to make unseen graffiti artwork available to the public through legal and proper means. It would appear that within this ever-evolving city cultural attitudes on this art form are changing, perhaps, not yet to the extent of the rapid cultural shift that Berlin witnessed in the early 90’s. Nonetheless, Saigon’s street art scene is having it’s moment of cultural shift with projects that are approved by both the vibrant art community and authorities. Given another 5-10 years who knows what we will see walking around the streets of this fast-developing city. I can’t say for sure, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
To find out more about Saigon’s developing art street scene check out some of the below;