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Drawing a thin line between art, ‘vandalism’

Update: December, 30/2017 - 09:00
Illustration by Đàm Minh Chí
Viet Nam News

By Nguyễn Hằng

An admittedly eye-catching work of art on a coach of the Cát Linh – Hà Đông elevated railway train has caught the eye for the wrong reasons as well.

The work, done on Monday midnight, has drawn mixed reactions.

Just to set a context that should not be ignored, the Cát Linh-Hà Đông elevated railway is still under construction after six years. The reasons given for the prolonged delays are slow capital disbursement and the general contractor’s limited management capacity. The train had been put “in place” to prepare for its trial run next September. 

On Tuesday morning, workers at the construction site discovered the graffiti was done on the top and sides of a coach. The graffiti artists also drew a “Hello Việt Nam” and “Paris 17” design next to the graffiti.

Local police are seeking the “vandals,” media reports have said.

When the news, along with the photographs, broke out, there was some applause for the eye-catching graffiti. The people doing the applauding said they’d seen graffiti in many countries, and it has been accepted as street art.

There were plenty of detractors, though.

“The graffiti is nice, okay. The graffiti as some kind of street art, okay,” said Lê Hồng Anh, a resident of Đống Đa District. “However, the issue is, who allowed the painters to do it?”

Phạm Thị An said it was “obviously wrong” when you did something to a property without the owner’s permission.

To those arguing that graffiti was very normal in many countries and Việt Nam should open its heart and mind to it, An countered that in Singapore, illegal graffiti on a train would fetch a prison term.

In March, 2015, a Singapore court sentenced two Germans to nine months in prison and three strokes of the cane after they pleaded guilty to breaking into a depot and spray-painting graffiti on a commuter train carriage.

In an article on VTC online, Nguyễn Việt, director of the Việt Nam Museum of Ethnology’s Southeast Asia division, said the “installation art” was quite creative.

“It does not look like a picture painted by a person who wanted to damage the train,” Việt said.

However, he also added that it was still wrong, because a regulation had been violated.

The law

Nguyễn Anh Thơm of the Hà Nội Bar Association said the act could be identified as a behavior to damage others’ property, attracting a fine depending on the extent of damage caused.

According to the 1999 Penal Code’s Article 143, revised in 2009, a person who destroys or deliberately damages another person’s property, causing damage of between VNĐ2-50 million (US$88-2,200), or under VNĐ2 million ($88) but causing serious consequences, can, depending on several conditions, be subjected to non-custodial reform for up to three years or to a prison term of between six months and three years.

The law prescribes higher punishments for damage to properties with higher value, including higher fines, longer jail terms, and even a ban from holding certain posts, practising certain occupations or doing certain jobs for one to five years.

Other countries like the UK and the US, laws also prescribe varying fines and other forms of punishment for vandalism, but the question before us now is this: when is graffiti art and when is it vandalism?

The answer can be complicated, but we can try to simplify it, even if we are not successful every time.

When and where

Let’s personalise this for a minute. Imagine that you find one day that someone has painted over your house without your knowledge or permission. You will, rightly, feel aggrieved, unless it is a surprise planned by a loved one, and you like what has been done.  But if you don’t like it, and don’t know who did it, you would call it vandalism. However, would you feel the same way if you saw a really breathtaking piece of art on a dull wall somewhere in your city?

In this case, you might like it, but the city administration might look askance, even if it was done by a genius, like a Picasso or Monet. Appreciation of art being a subjective thing, when it happens in public places, art becomes more prone to controversy.

The carving, etching or writing on trees, rocks and other landmarks in tourism spots, especially of visitors’ names or that of the “love of their lives,” has correctly been called defacement. While graffiti does not belong to this category, the simple rule that it is vandalism if it is done on property owned by somebody else without the owner’s permission and knowledge, could apply, almost all the time.

When the property belongs to the State, which is essentially public property, we will always walk a thin line.

I personally think graffiti is a part of modern art. Some places with famous graffiti have attracted a lot of tourists, including Vila Cruzeiro and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, with graffiti by two artists Haas and Hahn; or Bristol, the United Kingdom, where Banksy has essayed his famous artworks.

Is there a compromise solution, then? As with everything else in life, we have to strike a balance. Can an administration decide which areas are okay or not for graffiti? Would such designation put off artists?

Let the debates and discussions ensue. We might just find a creative solution. — VNS















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