The cultural significance of hip hop is not bound to the streets of New York or Los Angeles. It’s not bound to the output of MTV or New York’s Hot 97. In fact it’s never been tethered to anything at all. It seems to seek out those most willing to accept it, to embrace it, to make it something that is their own. But it is not easily described and that’s what draws such special appreciation for it. “It’s about doing something together and being creative”, says Hamburg, Germany based visual artist Anh Duc Nguyen of Hip Hop Culture. “It’s a way of being together no matter where you are from and loving music and art among each other and expressing yourself.” Duc speaks of inclusion, togetherness, and acceptance with great passion and careful grace. He currently resides in Hamburg, Germany although his life was very close to be being much different. “My parents fled the Vietnam War and settled in Bavaria. I can speak with a Bavarian accent which I’m really proud of!”
Duc’s father was a soldier in the war and fled when things got unbearable. His family was lucky and got picked up quickly on the sea. Duc’s father still tells stories about the turmoil that brings tears to his eyes. Duc grew up with no other Vietnamese children around him and his parents tried very hard to maintain their culture in a land that was not their own. “Education was very important to them”, says Duc. “They were strict at home. Whenever they caught me drawing they would make me go do homework.” Art beamed from him anyway. He couldn’t stop even if he wanted to. He grew up to love art and went on to study graphic design.
Duc drew inspiration from meeting new people in a bigger city, with a more diverse crowd who carried different attitudes and embodied something bigger. His humble beginnings in hip hop were not unlike most of ours, rap cassettes from somebody’s older brother. But it wasn’t until college that Duc really appreciated what the culture meant to him. He gathered inspiration from the graffiti he saw near the train tunnels and buildings. “It is such a visual part of CD covers and magazines. I grew up in an area where you wouldn’t do things like that. Friends of mine that have done graffiti in the past are much better artists now. They have great understanding of form and composition. I was so blown away by it.” Duc still takes inspiration from graffiti artists today, although he himself has never done it. He says of graffiti artists,“I have much respect for all the graffiti artist(s) who are going out at night and make great piece in such a short time and having the fear of getting caught. It needs a lot of passion, willingness and crazyiness [sic] to do such things. Sometimes I wished I would have done stuff like them when I was younger. Today I still look at graffiti as an inspiration.”
Duc’s art is a wonderful conglomeration of graffiti, pop culture, and music. In short, his art could be best described as Hip Hop and it’s hard to look away. He has managed to make intricate art look simple, with a clear message that differs by the individual, a brand of art that looks so much like Hip Hop, but looks so much like the intricate life that has been Duc’s. He has sense of humor about it when asked about his Hamburger Head piece. “I live in Hamburg and so many burger places opened up. I turned a person into a burger head.”
Duc recently joined a contest where teams of 3 artists have 90 minutes to paint a plain white wall with nothing but black magic markers. The teams are awarded points by judges, audience cheers, and the highest priced bid through an auction. The money is then donated to Viva Con Agua, a company that is “committed to establishing access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation for all humans worldwide.” Duc’s team won, a fact he’s humble about but equally as proud.
When asked why he is an artists he replied,
Drawing and painting is a place for me to escape to my own world. In this world everything is allowed; making mistakes, exploration, being imperfect, playing like a kid. To learn about what is really important to me and not what is said to be important by other people and put by them into my head. It is like a therapy for me from the strict upbringing by my parents and society. It is a honest place. Most Asian parents never tell you that they are proud or make compliments. They always try to make you feel bad and keep you down. They are very scared that if they do you would not work hard enough. They always compare you with other kids and always make them better than you. So in my head there was always a voice telling me that I wasn’t good enough. My art is a place where I’m able to shut this voice down.
Duc’s parents may not have always been supportive of his choice to be an artist. But they are coming around to realize that it is not going away. And that Duc is really good and gaining popularity. His parents see his work and understand, maybe proudly gazing at their son as they try to comprehend what it is he is trying to accomplish. “I think that the process of develop [sic] something out of nothing is my daily goal or the reason I’m doing it. But I couldn’t stop doing art even if I couldn’t survive by it.”
We are all certainly glad for that.
Or go directly to Duc’s website: www.ismilealot.com
Or shop for some of his amazing work here: http://de.dawanda.com/shop/ismilealot
Anthony N. White is a writer currently living in Rochester, NY.
He can be heckled on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat @Ruthieshusband