“Back home, you’re expected to paint certain things. Here, there’s not a mature movement. I’ve found the freedom to paint what I want,” says Matthew ‘phed’ James, a 44-year-old street artist from London. He came to Hanoi on a whim with an English-teaching girlfriend, and stayed because he’d found a place that wanted to pay him for his art, and a team of artists to make it with.
That crew is Mau Colour, made up of 29-year-old Sam (aka Mudrok) and 25-year-old ‘Mate Two’ of England, and 25-year-old Alfie (aka ETZA) from Edinburgh. In Hanoi’s small-yet-burgeoning scene of street artists, it didn’t take long for the guys to team up, combining their painting, graphic design and illustration skills to tackle both personal and commercial projects together.
“There’s so much work. It just seems to keep coming,” says Sam.
“Graffiti and street art have become a commercial phenomenon. It’s now socially and commercially accepted. Back in London, it’s still very ‘gangsterish’,” Matthew says.
“Yeah, you’re painting, and someone will pull up in a car and jump out,” adds Sam.
This territorial aggression doesn’t yet exist in Hanoi, where the concept of street art is still relatively new, and the spray can is more closely associated with motorbike paint jobs than graffiti on a wall. When the team goes out to paint, they often attract an older crowd with not much to do but sit and watch for hours.
“They’re literally watching you really close up. They’ve never seen a spray can used artistically, so they’re intrigued,” says Matthew.
Sometimes, when the police are called, the residents of a neighbourhood will vote, by a show of hands, on whether or not a piece can stay.
“Here, it hasn’t started as a plague with evil connotations like in Europe and America, where originally, it was sort of criminal. They don’t quite get it, the residents and the police, and I don’t think they’ve actually got a charge [for it],” he says.
“My friend who lives in Danang has a Vietnamese wife, and she’s saved a message in his phone in Vietnamese that says, ‘Can I paint on your house? We’ll do it for free’, and people say ‘Yeah, go for it’,” Alfie says.
Of course, the crew must be culturally sensitive. No painting on government buildings or pagodas, and definitely no loaded imagery, like political figures or naked women. Even the image of an eye can be taboo — the group has a mural on Dang Thai Mai where locals repeatedly paint over the eyes of their characters out of superstition.
The public may just be pleasantly amused by Mau Colour’s work, but businesses are seeing the value in it. The group’s first big commission was the interior of new megaclub 1900 on Ta Hien in the Old Quarter, and they recently finished the longest mural in Vietnam on the temporary wall around a new international retail development in Yen So Park.
“We broke it down into 70-metre sections, so there’s Japanese, Vietnamese, American, Korean. It was all relating to the culture and nationality of the businesses there,” says Sam. In total, the mural covers 400 metres.
With art going out and money coming in, the group sees another kind of opportunity for their work. “I’d like to have an area where we can do [regular] workshops with kids. You can actually teach quite a lot of life skills through art,” says Matthew.
The mother of one of his students recently pulled him aside. “She said, ‘That workshop made such a difference. My son now looks at the world in a different way.’ That’s the sort of lightbulb moment that I love.”