Street Art Won’t Save Lives. Being Passionate About What You Do? Can!
Art is for audiences, but it is also for the artist. The act of creating can bring about a catharsis to help salve the feelings that brought about the art in the first place. Just last month (November 20–23), with the collective assistance of RSCLS, ZNC, fellow street artists BOON and STRANGER, Nüwa, UWCSEA and Addicted Art Gallery, 12 Vietnamese street kids that have been rescued by Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, participated in a series of workshops to learn new artistic skills and complete their own masterpieces, culminating in an exhibition, performance and auction at Hilton Hotel, Singapore. The results were outstanding. And it’s not just the artwork that was produced that we’re talking about. The Blue Dragon philosophy is to help children find their passion and use that to improve their lives. While these 12 kids may not all want to become artists, they’re passionate about seizing every opportunity that enables them to move forward and find that passion. Through this project they have discovered that they have a voice that matters and that they can express it if they want to. Here’s what happened…
10am on a Monday morning at Aliwal Arts Centre. You couldn’t hear a pin drop but you might hear a paintbrush fall…when a bunch of street kids meet a bunch of street artists for the first time it’s not like groupies meeting musos. The kids are shy (though that won’t last long), and the artists are understated in their demeanour, in contrast with how loud they are on canvas. The kids sit at the tables, where they’ll later chat, sketch and eat, some with heads down on the formica, some whispering. But you get the impression that the conversation has nothing to do with what they’re about to do and everything to do with their place in the group. Basically, they’re just like any other teenage kids. Meanwhile, the artists quietly go about setting up the studio.
This long featureless room will become a busy and colourful incubator of ideas over the next few days. 12 kids that had been given up, and sometimes given up on themselves, are about to find themselves on canvas. Some of them will develop a desire to keep pursuing painting after this trip and using it as a way to talk about their experiences, and for others, it’ll be enough to know that they can do something that they believed they had no ability for. They will be so proud of their achievements, and rightfully so, that they’ll opt not to auction off their pieces but to bring their artwork home. And what could be a more a powerful sign of success, for them and this project, than installing a visual statement of yourself, created by yourself, in a home that you previously never had? But first, there are 12 canvases that stare blankly from 12 easels waiting to be transformed.
Before any colours can fly though, it’s time to meet the crew. RSCLS founder and coordinator for this project, ZERO, introduces the team, including members of ZNC street art crew and fellow street artists BOON and STRANGER, and chats about the format for the workshop. The translators get to work conveying ZERO’s information and the wariness on some faces is slowly replaced with curiosity, open eagerness on others, as they find out that they’re about to go on a street art tour in and around the streets of Kampong Glam, guided by the best in the biz. First stop though is the RSCLS studio where the kids are enthralled by the organised mess of it all — pieces in progress leaning against walls, benches overflowing with materials, even a mini skateboard ramp that one of the RSCLS has made for when their kids come to work. A couple of the girls can’t take their eyes off one of the canvasses but they don’t know yet that it’s by SPAZ, currently the only female RSCLS member. They don’t share the same language, country or culture, but the girls recognise that SPAZ is saying something about being a woman that they all share. You can see a connection forming and a spark developing. Then it’s time to hit the streets.
It’s a surreal thing to see a bunch of Vietnamese street kids walk down the clean streets of Singapore, especially when you notice them collecting overlooked rubbish and tossing it in the bin. But the kids don’t let you get lost in the sad irony of it all — they’re too busy disarming everyone with their rapture at seeing new things. Whatever has happened to each of them in the past, they’re just moving forward, posing for photos in front of murals by local and foreign talents like Ceno2 and Anthea Missy, and generally playing the tourist. When we stop in front of a clean wall that’s been primed in black just for them, it reinforces the idea that these kids are just like any others wanting to live in the moment. They’re itching to annihilate this space near the Aliwal Arts Centre with paint. Even the shier among them is now piqued and ready to create. Anything. They’ll work it out in the moment. But the kids stand and listen to instructions from Zero first, with spray cans within easy reach, waiting for Wonka to open the doors to the Chocolate Factory. And then the floodgates open…
There’s more glee in graffiti than a glee club. And if you’re not sure about that, then put spray cans in the hands of 12 teenagers and watch the collective euphoria. So infectious is this form of expression that even the chaperones watching on from Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, Nüwa, and UWCSEA, had to shove itchy fingers into pockets and step away from the wall. But the best bit? Watching the kids tag. Not their names, but the names of their friends. Not interested in making their own mark, they simply wanted to acknowledge each other. The capacity of these kids to give when so much has been taken away is breathtaking. As are the fumes coming from the cans!
When ZERO finally manages to reign them in and put the cans down, it’s time to get back to the classroom and get to work. Stepping back inside the blank space, the mood is now different. Each kid draws the name of an artist from a bucket and that becomes their mentor for the next few days. Imagine being paired with someone for three days that is older than you, speaks a different language to you and is asking you to share how you feel with them so they can teach you how to capture it in paint. It’s daunting but the results are completely unexpected. Each pair quietly goes off to different areas of the room to chat, research and draw. The speed at which they get going is surprising and a mark of how effective and compassionate RSCLS, ZNC and their fellow street artists are.
A gentle buzz pervades the room. Some kids get straight into applying paint to canvas. Some are showing photos to the artist they’re paired with. Some are calling over translators to convey how much they love dance or football or their dog. Some are sketching together on paper and explaining techniques through hand gestures. There are lots of smiles and even a few giggles. Over the next few days the room becomes louder, busier and has the air of a bustling factory. Canvases pass by, being moved outside where the kids, artists now, can spray without intoxicating the room. Duos walk back and forward to the island bench where tubes of paint and brushes and pens jostle for position. People form unconscious tableaus as they stand, sit, lay, point and tilt in their bid to see different angles of three-dimensional ideas springing forward from a two-dimensional frame. And then they are finished. It’s taken three days to get here and it all ends the way it started — with a quiet ceasing of activity. Everyone is spent. Days of introspection has exhausted the kids and they need to get some rest before the big unveiling.
Arriving at the Hilton Hotel, we are met by the exuberant faces of nearly 12 kids — the rest are inside mingling. They are all dressed in black with matching bandanas around their necks, ready to transform into a hip hop troupe later. Right now, they are the consummate hosts, welcoming everyone, taking photos and encouraging us to buy bookmarks, notebooks and jewellery all handmade by Blue Dragon children. Inside, there are images of the streets of Hanoi mounted on the walls and 12 bold canvasses on easels being pored over by an interesting array of guests. Then Michael Brosowski, Founder and CEO of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, takes to the stage to explain to us a little of what these kids have gone through to get here, and to show us, through videos made by these clever kids themselves, how Blue Dragon is helping to shape their future. But we all know what we’re really here for…
All week, we’ve been hearing about the kids’ love for Hip Hop and musical ability. During the workshops, they could be spotted busting a quiet move as they went about their work. The intrigue has been mounting about their choreography, and knowing a bit more about these children from Michael, everyone is now primed for a performance. First, one of the boys gets up and takes a seat behind a keyboard. He has taught himself to play over the few times he’s had access to a piano. The visceral emotion spreading amongst the audience is palpable and the children in the audience are transfixed as they possibly realise that if you want to achieve something badly enough, nothing can stop you. Then eight sweet, teenage kids gather their swagger and give it all they’ve got to the hollers and delight of a crowd that wants more. The message is clear: don’t feel sorry for us, we’re giving it right back and using everything we’ve got. Ain’t nothing sad about that.
Piano recital by self-taught Trịnh Văn Nam
Blue Dragon Hip-Hop Crew in action
There is unanimous agreement that what the kids have invested in creating their artwork this week is more valuable than any financial investment the audience could contribute in auctioning them, so the canvases leave with the kids as the perfect memory of a great week. The biggest takeaway of all? Street art won’t save lives but being passionate about what you do can.
In Their Own Words…
Q. How are you enjoying the workshop and what have you chosen to create?
Bùi Văn Tuyền is a 14-year-old boy and was paired with HASTWO
Hoàng Thu Giang is an 18-year-old boy and was paired with BOON
Bùi Hoàng Long is a 20-year-old deaf boy and was paired with STRANGER
Phạm Việt Anh is an 18-year-old boy and was paired with ANTZ
Vũ Thị Hồng Phương is a 16-year-old girl and was paired with SPAZ
Trịnh Văn Nam is a 15-year-old boy and was paired with FREAKYFIR
Đồng Quang Quyết is a young man who was paired with ATOMICK
Vũ Thị Hồng Nhung is a 14-year-old girl and was paired with DEM & KILAS
Nguyễn Thành Đạt is a 13-year-old boy and was paired with TRASEONE
Bùi Út Hiên is a 17-year-old girl and was paired with SONG
Hoàng Minh Tuấn is a 17-year-old boy and was paired with SHEN
Cao Tú Anh is 13-year-old girl and was paired with NOEZ23
Written by Skye Wellington for Addicted Art Gallery