Here’s my latest essay for VNExpress International. Below is the unabridged version.
Shalom (שלום), MAA
Graffiti as Visual Pollution
In addition to the usual types of pollution afflicting Vietnam and affecting our quality of life, including air, water, and noise (e.g., outdoor karaoke), a recent and disturbing phenomenon has been an explosion of visual pollution in the country’s major urban centers in the form of graffiti. Every closed door, window, wall, or slab of concrete is a blank canvas just waiting to be baptized by self-proclaimed “artists” armed with cans of spray paint, a smug attitude, and nothing better to do with their time.
Areas that have fallen victim to this vandalism look like the economically depressed and often violent neighborhoods of my home country, stark places of victimization, deprivation, and human suffering. Walking or driving by these dystopian scenes in Hanoi, where I live, or HCMC, which I visit on a regular basis, leaves me with feelings of unease, sadness, and anger. During a recent trip to the South, I was struck by two distressing and ubiquitous sights: building for rent signs, a legacy of the pandemic, and graffiti.
This defacing of public and private property, virtually unheard of ten years ago, is an indication of decline and a loss of control. It is a sign that parts of our community no longer belong to us, the people, but rather to a group of twentysomething delinquents who relish the thought of sticking it to the authorities and trying to be cool at the same time.
A Public Declaration of War
If nothing is done to stop this nightly faux-artistic rampage, cities like Hanoi and HCMC will continue to lose their charm. We must declare war on these cretins who do their dirty work under cover of darkness and with impunity, in most cases. They are not rebels creating something of value but visual polluters who are making Vietnam ugly – one surface at a time. Their “work” is a blight on the cityscape and a stain on a civilized society.
Spray painting what is not theirs is not making a statement; it’s a crime against property and an assault on the aesthetics of the places we call home. One attorney stated that those who spray painted two out of 51 HCMC metro cars may not be aware of the seriousness of the act. Maybe they did it for the sake of beauty and did not intend to destroy property or make a statement. Seriously? These are not naughty children who need a firm hand and a good scolding, but young adults who are well aware of what they’re doing.
Some say that society should create areas for these budding artists to “express themselves.” For example, designated zones that double as outdoor art galleries. They would have their outlet for artistic expression. Or beautifying utility boxes with drawings of flowers and trees. That misses the point entirely. Most are not interested in either option. The fact that it’s forbidden and illegal is part of the thrill, after all. It’s what gets the adrenalin flowing. It’s the drug that lures them onto the streets night after night.
Stop indulging and start arresting these arrogant, self-indulgent smart asses. Make public examples out of them. Make the punishment so severe that it will act as a deterrent to other members of this dysfunctional community. In Singapore, which places a premium on law and order and frowns upon anyone sullying their fair city-state, caning is one of the punishments for graffiti. In a highly publicized case in Singapore in 2015 two young Germans were sentenced to nine months in prison and three strokes of the cane for spray-painting graffiti on a train. Vietnam must act swiftly to reverse this visual tide of disgrace.
These miscreants, domestic and imported, scurry around like urchins on a twisted mission in the depths of night when most people are sound asleep. Later, after hours of exhausting, exhilarating, and sometimes risky spraying and scrawling on other people’s property without permission, they sit back, relax, and yack about their “achievements” with fellow graffiti “artists,” drink and cigarette in hand. Some are proud of their “art” and even view it as a contribution to urban culture. Such are the towering heights of their delusion.
The pathetic reality is that most of these artist wannabes would fail miserably as “artists” in the real world – in contrast to the parallel universe they inhabit, where they are folk heroes and influencers, respected, admired, and despised, much to their delight. Since “graffiti artist” is not something they can put on their resume to impress prospective employers, their experiences, such as they are, will fade into memories of a misspent youth.
Fighting Fire with Fire
The solutions to this growing problem are simple and less expensive than painting surfaces with an anti-graffiti coating that makes it easy to remove spray paint. (This is a costly but effective option for those individuals and companies that can afford it.)
First, install more motion-activated lights and security camera at strategic locations as a deterrent. Graffiti “artists” are aware of their immediate environment, including the presence of police, security guards, and cameras. They are unlikely to launch into a 30-minute orgy of spray painting a virgin surface if they think someone or something may be watching.
Secondly, create a national database of previous offenders, including photos. Then apply facial recognition software using the videos obtained from these cameras. There’s nothing quite like catching a criminal in the act. The heavy hand of the state is completely justified under these circumstances.
Thirdly, activate neighborhood watches and send out more official patrols. Use the money from the fines to support some of this activity.
Fourthly, infiltrate their groups via social media and other means. Like other members of their generation, memories aren’t enough. (Their answer to the philosophical question “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” would be a resounding no.) They feel compelled to brag about their exploits, taking photos and making videos of their misdeeds to share on social media. Find this evidence and use it against them. No secrets, boys and girls.
Finally, drastically increase the amount of the fines for those who are apprehended and include prison time for convicted repeat offenders. The perps should also be required to cover the cost of cleaning up their messes. For that matter, reward people who report the riffraff. They can supplement their income and perform a public service at the same time.
In case you’re wondering, a 19-liter jug of Elephant Snot Graffiti Remover will set them back 15.4 million VND ($652.89 USD) Krud Kutter is priced at a more modest 5.5 million VND ($234.35) for the same amount. Graffiti removal, which has spawned another industry, doesn’t come cheap.
Foreigners, who are guests in Vietnam and here at the pleasure of the government, should also be fined and given a warning. If they’re caught a second time, they should be deported and placed on a travel blacklist. Let them “express themselves” at home, if they dare, or in another unsuspecting country in which anything goes. They are violating the terms of their visa and besmirching Vietnamese culture.
On a Constructive Note
Just to show that I’m not all stick and no carrot, here’s another suggestion for those graffiti vandals who may be inclined to shift from the dark to the light side and make some money at the same time. Individuals, companies, and the government could commission artists to create street, or graffiti, art, including scenes of beauty and with a message. Finalists could be selected through a competition and create designs based on the preferences of the client.
Preserve Vietnam’s Beauty
While it’s true that graffiti is not in the same league as other serious societal problems, it has become a widespread quality of life problem that we as a community must tackle head-on and solve. We must not let the petty criminals win.
Vietnam is our country, whether we are Vietnamese nationals or foreign transplants. Property owners, both private and public, should not have to tolerate wanton destruction of what belongs to them. As citizens, we have a right to an environment that is pleasing to the eye, heart, and soul.
Bonus: Here’s a photo I took in Danang near the Han River. Graffiti “artists” call this art? You could give kindergarteners cans of spray paint and probably end up with a more visually appealing result. Another important point is that the “canvas” doesn’t belong to the “artists.” It’s easy to deface this wall because it’s hidden from the street. (The river is behind me.) Vandalism with impunity.
Another bonus from Hanoi-based artist George Burchett, who has written and spoken out about this problem: “Day time, the imported ones look something like this…”