“I’ve kept my Vietnamese name to myself for a long time,” he says as he blows another puff of cigarette smoke into the air. The air in the small room we are in is already heavy with humidity, there’s just one electric fan to share among the four of us. Two of his friends, also fellow members of the art collective, All-In-One-Studio, that Danny has helped to co-found, are working close by. “From the time I started tagging buildings in Saigon, I thought it best that not many people know my name,” he says with a grin.
His tag, the alias he uses when he ‘signs off’ on his graffiti, is well-known in the underground circles he mixes in. He writes his tag on a piece of paper for me to see. It looks familiar.
“In the beginning, I used to destroy every wall I saw,” Danny recalls of his teenage years that he says were filled with angst. “We spent our teens on the streets, drinking, smoking and doing stupid things that young people do sometimes. But after 10 years of behaving like that, I decided I needed to slow down and focus on what I love, drawing and painting — I’d played around enough.”
The angst Danny was dealing with, he says, was borne out of “family problems and the people around us, the city and this country.” His family’s roots are in Hanoi. However, now 27, Danny was born in Saigon after his parents moved south as business opportunities began to show promise.
“He’s a businessman and is focused on making money,” says Danny in a tone that leaves very little doubt of his feelings towards his father. To this day, they remain estranged. All he says is that his parents divorced when he was a teenager, he was raised by his mother and says he doesn’t want any contact with his father. “I didn’t like it [that my parents separated]. I love my mum, she understands me. When I told her I don’t make enough money to support her right now, she was okay with that, because she knows art is like a fire inside me.”
Marvelling At Comics
It was comics that first sparked Danny’s ambitions. By the time he was 16, he was creating his own. So good were they, his talent caught the attention of a Japanese comic book publication that invited him to work for them. “I love manga and have many books about it.” He was one of 10 applicants chosen out of 300 who answered a Vietnamese newspaper advertisement. Ultimately, his parents encouraged him to finish high school, which he did, eventually leading him to Van Lang University in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh, where he studied interior design (his father wanted him to be an engineer or architect). It took him six years to complete, instead of the usual four, because he had to juggle compulsory military service, study and part-time jobs to pay the bills.
“Not long after I graduated, around 2014, I landed a job working at a tattoo parlour; that’s where I learnt how to tattoo, and that’s how I met the guys I’m living with right now.” There are five young men sharing the small dwelling that is a home, studio, tattoo parlour and headquarters for their collective. The place is strewn with pieces of art, clothes and bedding, a housemate is sprawled out asleep on one floor, an unbranded star-shaped bass guitar circa-1980 rests against a bookshelf on another.
After 18 months working 10 hours a day, Danny called it quits at the tattoo parlour and with some of his workmates decided to move in with them to make a go of his art career. Since then, Danny has exhibited his paintings in a recent solo exhibition, while along with the others, he’s been able to attract clients wanting tattoos. Most of the time, however, they practice on their friends. On this day, a young friend of theirs is getting prepped to have a large tattoo inked across his stomach that says, ‘Mum & Dad.’
But it’s painting that Danny wants to be recognised for. His subject is animals, or anything from nature. He hands me some of the ideas he’s working on, one is of a wolf.
“I was drawn to wolves originally because they are like me, lonely, but still care about each other,” he says. His metaphor hints at how he sees his relationships, especially those with his housemates, society, his culture, and his father. He says what he’s trying to express through his paintings is “freedom... and the nature that is inside of me.”
Nature is something Danny speaks a lot about, noticeably when he discusses Saigon. “People need to chill more, do more gardening, slow down. They care less about values. They just want to get rich.” And when pressed on his freedoms as an artist, he has this to say: “Yes, there are restrictions in place, but I’m not political. My art is just about me.”
Photo by Olga Rozenbajgier
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