Posts in Vietnam
Chicko takes on Graffiti, Interior Design and The Saigon Projects

When we asked interior designer, graffiti artist, and photographer, Nguyen Tho (artist name, Chicko), to suggest a place to meet for an interview - he proposed The Factory. We sat outside the colorful containers of this beautiful Arts Centre, drank some coffee, and continued our conversation as we walked through the exhibit inside.  

The Factory was a perfect place to meet as it represents both innovative design, in architecture and interior, as well as contemporary arts. Chicko lives in these two worlds, specifically - interior design and art.

Chicko Nguyen Portrait
 
 “The Factory aims to be a dynamic destination for art, designing innovative programs illustrating the criticality of Vietnam today.”  www.factoryartscentre.com

“The Factory aims to be a dynamic destination for art, designing innovative programs illustrating the criticality of Vietnam today.” www.factoryartscentre.com

 The Factory, Ho Chi Minh City

The Factory, Ho Chi Minh City

 

Chicko is part of an emerging group of young people driving the art scene forward in Saigon. His foray into the arts began in 2010, when he and his friends created a group called The Saigon Projects.

The group travels across Vietnam, painting and exploring new areas of the countryside. One of the most inspiring things about the group is how they share graffiti with local communities. He describes this process saying, “When we go to a new town, we start by explaining with what graffiti is and bring spray cans along to show them how it works. We’ll demonstrate how to sketch, and they can even try it out themselves. People love it!”

 
 Photo taken by Chicko 

Photo taken by Chicko 

Despite travelling all over Vietnam to paint, Chicko tell us that he still finds most the most inspiration from his hometown of Saigon. This wasn’t always the case. He says, “When I was young, I didn’t really understand the culture of Saigon. But now, sometimes I wake up early, find a small local shop, and watch people as they go to work. I also love driving around at midnight, taking photos, and finding inspiration all around for my graffiti and interior design.”

This inspiration is evident in his work both with The Saigon Projects, and his daytime gig is as an interior designer. Chicko is passionate and skillful at crafting experiences for people who enter a space, whether it’s a coffee shop, restaurant, house or hotel.

Be sure to keep an eye on this emerging artist and designer, as he’s beginning to make waves the city.


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Will Phu Quoc become an Island for Art?
 Sunset at The River Mouth (Dormstay Riverside Hostel), Phu Quoc

Sunset at The River Mouth (Dormstay Riverside Hostel), Phu Quoc

Will Phu Quoc, Vietnam become an island dedicated to contemporary art? Peter, owner of The River Mouth and The Phu Quoc Gallery of Contemporary Art (GOCA) certainly hopes so. 

Lying on a hammock by the river, Peter tells us about his dream. He imagines that the hostel we’re sitting at will offer artist retreats and that his gallery and bar will promote both local and international talent. The ultimate vision is for others on the island to follow suit and start their own artistic spaces, making Phu Quoc a true art destination. 

 Community dinners hosted at The River Mouth, Phu Quoc

Community dinners hosted at The River Mouth, Phu Quoc

He’s not far from this vision of building a creative community.

Today, a visit to The River Mouth usually includes a community dinner below twinkle lights, prepared by an amazing chef and drinks expertly crafted by Hiep (who also helps with the gallery and bar). Both Peter and Hiep are passionate about what they hope to build. The Phu Quoc Gallery of Contemporary Art already attracts visitors from across the world. While we were in town, the gallery featured an impressive range of modern sculpture, mixed-media photography and paintings. Even the design of the space itself was a delight!

Unfortunately, there is an alternate path for the future of Phu Quoc. As tourism is picking up across the island, trash has become a serious issue. While some beaches are far enough off the beaten path to remain (relatively) clean, most are not so lucky. Massive resorts and hotels are lining the beachfront and dumping waste straight into the ocean. Tourism overall is on the rise, but return visits are low - something that would be necessary to compare with the likes of Naoshima Island in Japan.

We're not completely pessimistic though. After spending a few days with both Hiep and Peter, we felt inspired by their commitment to making Phu Quoc a destination for the arts. Only a quick 30 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Phu Quoc is well positioned to become an international cultural hub, artist haven, and art tourism destination. The question remains: can artists save a place from human filth? We sure hope so!

To stay at The River Mouth Phu Quoc (currently under renovation, but back soon)

To visit the Phu Quoc Gallery of Contemporary Art (don't miss out, have an expertly crafted cocktail while you're there)

 Starfish Beach, Phu Quoc

Starfish Beach, Phu Quoc


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From tagging in Paris to festivals in Saigon – the journey of Suby One.

A Different Kind of Art School

On a warm March morning in Saigon, we met with Trang Suby (artist name Suby One) over a cup of Vietnamese coffee. Even before the caffeine kicked in, Trang’s presence exuded an infectious energy. It was immediately clear how important building an art scene in Saigon is to him. Before we get into that, we first must go back to where it all started on the street of Paris.

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It’s hard to think of a cooler artistic education than tagging subways with a crew in the Paris underground. For Suby, the streets and trains of Paris were simply the most accessible places to learn, practice, and make new friends.

“I started tagging in 1991, because the older guys in my neighborhood were tagging. I also had a mentor who lived next door to me. He was three years older, which at the time was a big age difference. He seemed so cool, so I started painting with him. I then started a graffiti crew and every Wednesday at 2pm we’d go watch the older guys do big graffiti pieces and learn. I wanted to be part of something, and had no idea I’d still be doing it today. Some people give up, but I just kept at it. I liked the fact that we were leaving something behind, even if it was just a tag.”

We found out there are a few rules in the graffiti world that are part of the learning process. Suby explains, “There are rules. You learn tags first, then do some bubbles, and then you can do a piece. There’s an evolution to it.”

After learning from others for more than a year, Suby tagged his first subway in Paris. He explains, “I was the one young guy the older ones would bring in to tag the trains. I did this for about five years, but had to stop because I was tired of being chased by the authorities.”

From Graffiti to Galleries

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Suby continued to tag other parts of Paris, but as he got older Suby started thinking more about his legacy as an artist and building something more permanent.

“You can spend two or three hours going to tag a train and it sometimes only lasts ten minutes. Something you make one day can be gone the next. You get older and you think, maybe other mediums can last longer than graffiti. For me, it was a natural transition.”

While artistically it was a natural transition, mentally it was a big change to go from showcasing work on the streets to being presented in art galleries. It was an internal struggle. He says, “When you grow up and see fine art exhibitions you think, eh, that’s not for me. At the time I thought, if I ever get shown in a gallery, I’m going to do something really different and unique.”

He followed through with this promise. In 2010, Suby was invited to create a few pieces for an art exhibition in Paris to mark the anniversary of his graffiti crew. His work definitely stood out. “Everyone was doing graffiti for the exhibition, and I wanted to do something more abstract on canvas. People didn’t really like it and thought it was pretty weird.” Despite the feedback from his peers, the exhibition was very encouraging for Suby. “On the last day of the exhibition, the gallery curator called me over, and someone bought my painting. It was a great feeling.”

Building a Scene in Saigon

Suby has worked relentlessly to create unique, visual masterpieces on walls and canvases throughout the world. He’s also moved to Saigon. “It’s a call of the roots. My grandparents and parents were both born and raised in Vietnam. When I moved here, it helped me understand so much more about my family and about myself.” The lifestyle of Saigon also is much more suited to Suby.  “I like the way of life here. Europe was great but Ho Chi Minh City is more relaxed. You actually have time to see friends.”

The move hasn’t been without its challenges. “There aren’t many big murals here. It’s hard to get access to that kind of space and to get the proper scaffolding.

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The street art scene in Saigon is still in its infancy, but Suby is working hard to make it bigger and encourage the younger generation. “If one guy succeeds, others will follow. If there are no mentors or examples, nobody will pursue this as a career. It’s exciting to show kids that it’s possible to have a career as an artist.”

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He’s backed up these words with action. Suby organized a two-day festival with a few others at The Factory, an arts center in Saigon. The festival showcased over 25 artists, DJs, break-dancers, and rappers. With a determined look on his face, he says that “a group is starting to form” in Saigon, and we believe him.

Please check at Suby One’s work on Facebook and on Instagram


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A look inside Ho Chi Minh City's emerging creative scene

Linh Nguyen’s influence on the creative community in Ho Chi Minh City is palpable. The first venture he opened, Saigon Outcast, filled a gap the city didn’t know it had: a space for people to congregate, to create, to feel inspired, and to feel at home. He has since opened two additional unique venues in restored, creative spaces: Rogue Saigon, and SOMA Art Café.

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A few days after we first met and interviewed Linh, we spent an evening at Saigon Outcast. Kids scrambled up the climbing wall, a group of artists focused intently on their live model session, a graffiti artist painted the entrance wall, and friends sipped on beers at picnic tables…this was all happening at the same time. Everyone relaxed, treating the space as his or her own. A fellow patron explained, “Linh’s places are such amazing hubs. I felt like even though I didn’t know anyone, I could go there and something would happen or a nice conversation would spark.”

Finding space to share art, music, and creative thought can be hard to come by in a city infamous for having exhibits, shows, and entire venues shut down by the government. Opening places like this is financially risky, pouring effort into hosting a concert that might be shut down at the last minute is not for everyone. But Linh’s passion for creating platforms where people don’t have to feel intimidated to share their work and opportunities for expression inspires him to continue to pursue these venues. The young creative community is "really hungry and restless but shy. They seem like they've been suppressed and they have so much to prove and achieve and get their name out there. They have so much energy. Really, they are very passionate. But they need encouragement and places to work.”


Saigon outcast

Beer garden meets alternative events space, graffiti, climbing wall, craft beer, live music, flea markets... 

Opening Saigon Outcast with a small budget in 2012, Linh and his friend Ha, found an inexpensive piece of land and pulled together containers and an old VW camper van in an artful way. “When I opened Saigon Outcast, it was for myself really. I didn’t know there was a demand for this type of space…but clearly there was." Immediately, the space filled with artists, skaters, and friends. Saigon Outcast became known as a destination for graffiti art, music, and collaboration: “The first couple years we had so many graffiti artists on the walls so that when it peels, you can see the layers of all the previous art works.” Today, Saigon Outcast hosts events most nights of the week, from drawing classes, movie screenings, farmers markets but many also stop by for a beer with friends.

Rogue Saigon

Rooftop specialty beer and music venue. 

Looking for a new place to host concerts (after receiving noise complaints from Saigon Outcast) Linh opened second venture. “The craft beer scene boomed a few years ago, but there weren’t any craft beer spots. At the same time, we didn’t know how long we would have Outcast because of noise complaints with our music. I needed to move the bands somewhere else, so I opened up a place that could have music and great beer!" Located on the top three floors of an old building, Rogue Saigon is a perfect spot to sip on one of the local craft beers on tap and overlook the city below.

Soma Art Cafe

Organic (and local) coffee and art gallery featuring up and coming artists.

“Saigon is really small. We know each other. There are only five galleries in Ho Chi Minh right now and they are all booked out with really famous artists selling their work at high prices. Soma is different, we feature up and coming artists who might not otherwise have a place the show their work." Situated in a beautiful building in District 2, Soma is a fantastic place during the day to have a delicious cup of brewed coffee with a friend. Stop by at night for art openings and a cocktail!

 

What’s Next for linh?

Linh hopes that he inspires other "business to do the same and to open spaces here for sharing creativity." Promoting music and arts in Ho Chi Minh drives Linh to keep working. He has observed that young artists lack confidence, and hops to set up more opportunities for mentorship with foreign artists. In the music scene, he wishes there were venues that could host international musicians. There used to be two: Cargo and Outcast, but with Cargo closing and Outcast's neighborhood growing, they've recently they have had to turn away amazing acts (such as Damien Rice!). "Right now we’re depleted of our capital since we work alone. But until I get it out of my system, that’s what I want to focus on."

Stop by one of Linh's three hangouts and stay tuned, we're certain Linh will have more up his sleeve! 


 

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Kilomet109 seamlessly blends traditional techniques with contemporary fashion.

You likely own clothing that was made in Vietnam (brands like Target, H&M, Gap, and Zara all manufacture clothing here). But there’s more than fast fashion coming out of this country. Fashion label Kilomet109 is leading the charge with traditional artisan techniques adapted for contemporary design. Bigger than a trend, they are setting the stage for a new, sustainable fashion movement across Vietnam.


After winding through narrow streets in a quiet northern section of Hanoi, we knocked on an unmarked door and hoped for the best. Taking off our shoes as we entered, we were greeted by people sitting at sewing machines and arranging textiles. Relieved, we knew we were in the right place.

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We carried on upstairs to where designer, Vu Thao, and her family live. Sitting at the table with Thao and her husband, we drank a cup of tea, ate Mung Bean Cakes, and chatted for hours. Later on, we toured her museum-like racks of traditional clothing and her label, Kilomet109’s previous collections.

About six years ago, Thao decided to take the leap and started her own fashion label, Kilomet109. After two years of intense research Thao launched her first collection in 2012. Like every collection since, each piece preserved traditional artisan techniques while blending contemporary, functional, and attractive design. Her 2014 collection, SEEDS, marked her first hand woven “100% sustainable collection, [using] home grown fibers and natural dies. A – Z made by us from planning through the end.”

Early Days: There Was No Word For Design

“In Vietnam during the 80s and 90s we had few choices. We had to make our own clothes. Everybody developed self-made skills from parents and grandparents and others in the community. I grew up with that.” Despite “always having a really strong connection with textile,” the thought of becoming a designer never entered her mind. “Design wasn’t a viable career. You could make something, but you were a laborer or tailor. It was more about making, not about the idea generating of design. We actually didn’t have a word for that at all.”

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A major turning point for Thao came in 2000, who was working at a magazine at the time. When “open policies in Vietnam were passed, it changed the whole scope of how Vietnamese dressed. Society was changing a lot and people started to pay attention to appearance [as a way to] express yourself.”  It was then that she decided to return to school for fashion design. After graduating, she worked for other designers and also taught at a fashion school. Teaching her students about sustainable design inspired Thao to do it herself. “I knew Vietnam could be a leader of this movement [of sustainable design], and that I should be one of them.”

Named in homage to Thao’s hometown, situated 109 kilometers from Hanoi, Kilotmet109’s designs appear to be effortless, simple, and high quality. To be clear, simple does not imply boring or thoughtless—quite the contrary. Each button, color, and thread is a thoughtful decision; every decision is a negotiation between design, functionality, and traditional craft.

The art of Thao’s work is in naturally “weaving together the message of protecting local [craft] in a contemporary form.” She hopes her work will help Vietnamese people realize “we can use what we’ve got and transform it in a modern version. It’s not the fashion from the past, it’s the now fashion. It’s the future.”

Blending contemporary design with traditional artistry comes with its fair set of challenges. But, by forging strong relationships with the artisans themselves and working through issues of communication and process, Kilomet109 has not only gained global recognition, but has set the standard for integrity, quality, and collaboration between old and new.

The Design Process: Experiments, Shifting Mindsets, and Play

Thao is the sole designer at Kilomet109, but she works closely with artisans in nearby villages who have passed down their craft for generations. Collaboration, particularly with a language barrier (each of the villages near Hanoi has a different language), is a delicate art. “In the beginning [when I suggested new designs] they were quick to say no, it won’t work. They would do it, but without believing in it.”


   The process of adapting the Batik technique to new designs     “Batik is a technique that I applied in our latest collection. I spent two weeks with the group of Blue Hmong observing six women sit around like we are, in the kitchen. They make designs of flowers and animals by looking at each other and doing the same thing. It takes so long to make one piece and they use five to ten tools for each one.     [At the end of our time there] I asked them to use only one tool, whichever one they liked. I gave them a simple sketch of geometry, lines and dots, and told them to play around with it. The young girls were okay trying that, and the older ladies just laughed. All of them thought this [exercise] was only for the moment, not to make to a design.     Later when I came back with the design for the collection, they couldn’t believe I used this work. They were shocked and thought ‘is this design from that day?’   

The process of adapting the Batik technique to new designs

“Batik is a technique that I applied in our latest collection. I spent two weeks with the group of Blue Hmong observing six women sit around like we are, in the kitchen. They make designs of flowers and animals by looking at each other and doing the same thing. It takes so long to make one piece and they use five to ten tools for each one.
[At the end of our time there] I asked them to use only one tool, whichever one they liked. I gave them a simple sketch of geometry, lines and dots, and told them to play around with it. The young girls were okay trying that, and the older ladies just laughed. All of them thought this [exercise] was only for the moment, not to make to a design.
Later when I came back with the design for the collection, they couldn’t believe I used this work. They were shocked and thought ‘is this design from that day?’ 

To try and overcome this challenge, Thao spent more time in the village in order to better understand the subtleties of process and tradition. Quickly, collaboration improved. “When you are willing to spend time with people, the relationships are so much easier on both sides…they know I make an effort to work with their tradition…now, we really inspire each other. Sometimes I have ideas that are too ‘out there’. I can make experiments in the studio, but when it comes to cost and production, their input is really valuable.”

The biggest shift Thao observes is that “[the local artisans] are not saying no when I have designs. They ask for it! ‘What do you have next, what’s the next?’ Before it was [resistance] but now they talk about next idea, next collection, next project. It’s really nice to see.

Hanoi: A Village within a City


When a young woman noticed a glass button on Thao’s dress, she invited Thao back to her house in search of buttons handmade by her late father years ago. After hours of searching in a dark room, they found and admired the stunning collection. At the young woman’s request, Thao took home the buttons. “She said her father wanted the buttons to go to someone who loves them. Hanoi has these kind of surprises. Even for someone like me who’s lived here so long, you always find something that wows you.”

“There are so many hidden places where people are making things. It’s very helpful for my design. Whether it’s simple silk thread or hand make glass buttons, we can make them ourselves here. It’s a really wonderful thing that we still have here. It is like a village that exists within a city.

 I’m so fortunate to live here and work in the countryside. Hanoi provides a great balance for my personal life and design. I love the speed of Hanoi and how it’s always moving.

When you live in the city you have to consider so many things – traffic, air, movement. So my design considers that. When I make a jacket, I have to think about how to get on a motorbike without the material bunching up. The city is so many things at once. Even the colors of Hanoi are really inspiring. It’s endless visually.”

We’re excited to watch as Kilomet109 continues to pave the way for fashion design in Vietnam. Shop their past collections here: http://kilomet109.com/shop/


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