Another Burner in the Wall
(originally published in Word Vietnam, January 2015)
“On average, Linh says, the wall gets painted over twice a week. ‘There’s so much paint it’s going to preserve this wall for a thousand years.’”
It’s in the name — Outcast. Ever since Saigon Outcast started up two-and-some years ago, it’s been a haven for the kind of youth culture that doesn’t play at the Ho Chi Minh City Youth Culture House.
And surrounding the anything-goes scheduling — the afternoon skate sessions, the music-and-arts festivals, the rock-paper-scissors competitions — are four walls of bright acrylic colour, laid down weekly by Saigon’s best graffiti artists. This is what Outcast co-founder Linh Nguyen and I are here to chat about today.
“It did evolve spontaneously,” Linh says. “Outcast was self-built. We didn’t have a space until they came” — he’s referring to the people who’ve formed the Outcast community, the people skating and writing graffiti on this lazy Tuesday late-afternoon.
“Then they came and built a Totoro oven [an earth oven in the shape of Studio Ghibli cartoon character Totoro], they came and did graffiti, they came and built a ramp, they came and used the space.”
The Saigon Projects crew put the first paint on wall. They were some of the first writers in the city — now split into two or three factions. There may or may not be some beefs there.
“The graffiti scene used to be really small,” Linh says. “Now it’s expanded, people are moving in different directions, and they’ve kind of moved away from the main group, doing their own thing.”
But in the beginning, everyone was on the same page. After Outcast opened, Linh says, “they came over more and more. Then they asked to use this place to host the Style Jam. That was the first graffiti event — the first event at Outcast.
“The graffiti was here from then till now. Only recently did I decide to take photos, only a year ago. Before it just got painted over.”
How many generations of pieces have been painted over? On average, Linh says, the wall gets painted over twice a week. “Often they take off a piece of paint [from their pieces]. There’s so much paint it’s going to preserve this wall for a thousand years.”
There’s only one first-generation piece up — Los Angeles-based graf legend El Mac’s portrait of an old Vietnamese woman, drawn way back when he was a special guest at that first graffiti event at Outcast. The portrait is split by the threshold of the middle bathroom.
“We had a timing fan,” Linh says, “and its cooler was over the El Mac piece. And I literally just said to the guy — ‘Remove it, I want [the piece] back.’”
Outcast’s walls have become a lightning rod for graffiti artists just passing through. Linh says, “We had Regan Ha-Ha” — one of the world’s most influential graf artists — “he came and stayed here, the first resident artist.”
Ha-Ha came, spur of the moment, off an exhibition in Singapore. It was a happy accident, like so much of Outcast’s history has been — co-founder Doan Phuong Ha’s boyfriend knew him and invited him to stay a few weeks. “He did workshops,” Linh says, “taught people how to cut stencils. Every day, he joined in the activities, watching movies, talking to people, having interviews. He has a big obsession with UFOs, he talked about UFOs quite a lot.”
There are some few-week-old artworks on the containers that Ha-Ha slept in — the scaffolding isn’t up all the time — but otherwise everything else on the walls was painted within the week. “They pick a spot and they paint,” Linh says. “And it’s always the same people. They know the artist, they know that this is only here for two or three days, they leave it and they’ll go and paint another spot. It’s all respect.”
Linh’s idea now is to mobilise some of the frenetic energy that’s made Outcast such a creative turbine. In November, they took VND10 million raised at the Melting Pot arts fest and put it toward the restoration of the An Phu public pool. They repaired its crumbling walls, then set 20 artists in their network on it, spray cans supplied.
It all came together in one afternoon. Now the kids don’t swim in the shadow of decay — rather, their surrounds are a supernatural blend of Outcast aesthetic. And just like that, the brilliant, ephemeral colour Outcast is incubating is having a permanent effect.
“I really like the dog on the skateboard I recently painted on the front wall… But I also really like this one I did of one of my monster characters holding a sword in one hand and a weird balloon creature in the other while riding a little dog monster thing.”
Crews: NC + LGS
Years writing: 8 years
What’s your style like? I mix some things from my favourite styles together and add something of my own in it. I’d like to say ‘Saigon style’.
How many pieces have you done at Outcast? I can’t count.
What kind of paint do you usually use? I use local paint together with imported cans (Kolour and Montana).
What’s your favourite piece you’ve done? My favourite piece I have ever done is one on a District 5 rooftop.
Why is Outcast cool? It’s cool because it’s different. There ain’t no place for us like this before.
Years writing: 20
What’s your style like? My style always goes with my mood, can be wild, experimental, simple… I hate doing the same piece twice.
How many pieces have you done at Outcast? I’m in Vietnam a year now, and Outcast is the first place I’ve painted. I think I’ve done over 20 pieces there.
What’s your favourite piece you’ve done? At Outcast I would say a girl’s portrait.
Why is Outcast cool? Outcast is a damn dope place, because they’ve got all that young people can ask — a ramp for skating, walls for painting, music, live bands… and nice staff!
Years writing: 7
What’s your style like? I love to do characters, and I do letters too, simple style.
Why is Outcast cool? I like painting at Outcast because they have a cool place, chill music, kind people and they love graffiti.
Crews: 10S, NewDay + EVE
Age: Still young
Years writing: 8
What’s your style like? I started with old school letters and tried painting some different styles but nothing special. Now I’m still doing old school letters and some comic characters.
What kind of paint do you usually use? Any brands. Playing with many kinds of spray paint is an exciting game.
What’s your favourite piece? I’m on the way to creating it.
Why is Outcast cool?
- The owners are super cool.
- The spot is great — where I can paint, chill and hang out with friends.
Years writing: 14
What’s your style like? I do both letters and characters. I have a name I do when I paint letters and a name I use for my characters. Frenemy is the name I use for my character work and my style is very influenced by cartoons and illustrations I loved as a kid. I like funky colours and I have a whole world of wide-eyed characters I create.
How many pieces have you done at Outcast? I moved here about two years ago now, and I have probably painted about 20 different things at Outcast since I have been here.
What’s your favourite piece you’ve done? It’s hard to say — I really like the dog on the skateboard I recently painted on the front wall… But I also really like this one I did of one of my monster characters holding a sword in one hand and a weird balloon creature in the other while riding a little dog monster thing. That one was pretty fun as well.
Why is Outcast cool? Before I moved here I was looking up anything I could find about graffiti in Saigon, and Outcast was the first thing to pop up. Graffiti is such a huge part of my life and the tool I used to connect with other artists anywhere I travel around the world. Outcast gave me that easy meeting point, and through Outcast I have been able to meet all of the best friends I have here in Saigon. It is by far my favourite spot to hang out at in the city. It’s nice to have a place we can all meet and paint at with no worries.
Holm (The Tooth)
Age: Over 30 but under 50
Years writing: I started when I was 12, but had some breaks in between
What’s your style like? I do characters.
How many pieces have you done at Outcast Around 10, I guess. I didn’t count.
What’s your favourite piece you’ve done? I just recently started a new style, less comicy, more anatomically correct. I did two of these pieces so far, they are my favourite at the moment.
Why is Outcast cool? I love the vibe, the freedom, the music and the owners are so nice.