Vietnam city turns its walls into a graffiti canvas

Shrouded by fumes and surrounded by spray cans, Vietnamese graffiti artist Kong conjures his latest masterpiece, a monkey clutching an aerosol, a colour-splashed act of rebellion in a communist country where the youth are 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. For many the spray can is a tool of rebellion - illicit spray-painting is a way of defying restrictions in an authoritarian country where artists must have their work approved before exhibitions, shows are routinely shut down, and works deemed controversial are replaced by a black ‘X’ on gallery walls.

But Kong knows better than to dabble in politics, opting instead to paint playful images less likely to incur the wrath of censors in the authoritarian nation. 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 colour and plastered with art -- including Kong's wide-eyed massive rooster wearing sunglasses.

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