A few years ago, a teenager spray painted a wall in Bien Hoa, and a man approached to ask, “Why are you painting like that? Do you work for an advertiser?” The young artist explained that he was painting for fun, because he loves it. The man was shocked, and said, “Are you crazy? You are just wasting money like that, without profit?”
That teenager was Trane. This 17-year-old entrepreneur has been a graffiti writer for three years. In that time, Trane has connected with graffiti artists all over Vietnam, and with some international ones too. Even big names, like El Mac, the American muralist who made some of the outstanding pieces of wall art found at San Art (3 Me Linh, Binh Thanh) and Saigon Outcast (188/1 Nguyen Van Huong, Q2).
Practising graffiti is not quite like getting a colour rush on a smartphone with Candy Crush. You need the same amount of nozzle-pressing/touch-screen tapping control, but a little more space. Trane and his colleagues practise mostly on the walls of a basketball court in their neighbourhood, with the approval of the owner. Since opening last year, Saigon Outcast is another space run by open-minded patrons that encourages the growth of creative expression on the enclosure’s walls.
“Before Saigon Outcast,” Trane says, “artists from Saigon came to Bien Hoa to paint. We have a basketball court in Bien Hoa, with a very big wall. The owner is a very supportive. Her son is a basketball player and he loves what we do, so she lets us paint there.”
He sees the divisive art as a public service. “Before we came to paint,” he says, “the wall was very old and very dirty, so we give it more life.”
The drive to paint well is what led Trane to seek out not only safe places to practise graffiti, but also to obtain good quality materials. Last year Trane opened NC Store, the first graffiti store in Vietnam.
Those English lessons Trane took after school are now proving very useful, as is the internet. Connecting with international artists, Trane learnt that the spray paint and the nozzles available in Vietnam did not offer the best control and coverage. At VND20,000 a can, you couldn’t complain. But why not aim high and get better quality?
Trane wanted the best tools to create graffiti. Seeing they weren’t for sale in Vietnam was a clear sign of a gap in the market, which he promptly took the initiative to fill. His parents supported him — “My parents are business people, so they let me do what I want and they support me a lot, although they didn’t when I was young,” says the 17-year-old. “They want me to train by myself, they want me to become more mature.”
With his savings and some extra money that he borrowed from relatives, Trane invested in some quality American nozzles that visiting graffiti writers had told him about. They were affordable, reusable and could be adapted to the cheap local paint cans. He imported an order and once the local graffiti artists heard how good they were, they sold like hot cakes.
He imported more, placing a bigger order that included marker pens, books and other items. They sold out quickly too.
After cutting his teeth, Trane was ready to take bigger risks. He opened a shop in the foyer of a friend’s house in Go Vap. Even if on first impressions it may not look like a flourishing business, Trane’s is a groundbreaking achievement. NC Store is not a trendy shop in prime location (at least not yet) — it’s more like one set of shelves and a glass display case. You can’t see the shop from the road. There isn’t even a sign to help people notice it behind that motorbike repair stall.
But the shop has products that can’t be bought elsewhere in the country, and it offers customers the opportunity of trying the products before buying. The parking areas surrounding the shop are covered in hundreds of layers of tags and squiggles made by customers testing the goods. Next to the rough tests, there are realistic portraits and wildstyle, 3D signatures. These professional creations are an inspiration to the newcomers — which most of them are.
“Most graffiti artists here are 16 or 17,” Trane says. “They want to study at an art university or be tattoo artists.”
There are enough people interested in graffiti for the shop to be known by the Vietnamese graffiti community from word-of-mouth alone. Social networking has helped promote sales, but doing business in Vietnam is what keeps this store constantly renewing its stock and expanding its range. A country where over half the population is under 25 and where new trends are embraced obsessively is the place to be.
“Graffiti in Vietnam is a new trend,” Trane says. “Some people, if they have an open mind, they will welcome graffiti. Some are old-school, and we have to explain.”
All City Like Phase 2
In his short career as sole ‘import administrator’, Trane had the foresight to pump the earnings back into his business. But the next order for the newly-opened shop required a much larger investment. Trane needed another loan, and help from people experienced with dealing with customs. Problems were faced and solved, and a few months ago Trane received a shipment of cans of quality spray paint that is so rich it can completely cover walls of any shade with only one coat, something the local spray paints can’t do. Despite costing over ten times the price of the local brands, the imported cans are selling out faster than Trane anticipated, and, as before, he is getting returns on his investment.
Trane’s future plans involve developing his own brand of graffiti materials. This is not a distant dream, he has already liaised with manufacturers in Europe to get quotes and samples and begin negotiations. At 17, Trane has grown his business with every order, and he has sealed deals with suppliers over three continents.
What makes a good business? Though he’s new to the game, Trane has already learned this lesson. Give your customers what they want.
NC Store is at 242 Nguyen Oanh, Go Vap, or on the digital at facebook.com/ncstore
It’s been 10 years since Vietnam ‘discovered’ graffiti. Once a youngster in Hanoi found out that the images on some hip-hop videos and CD covers were called graffiti, interest in the art form started growing. If you’ve been in Ho Chi Minh City for more than a few months, you’ve already stopped noticing the KCBT or KCAT signs (from khoan cat be tong, concrete drilling and cutting) stencilled on walls around the city.
If you’ve been here for longer, you may have noticed how those signs are now competing for space with names in bubble writing. Soon, it might be possible for these monochrome scribbles to become sophisticated wildstyle works of art.