By Sheela Sarvananda
The chaos of war amid the fall of Saigon in the 70s saw a shy 6-year-old Cyril Phan step aside to make way for the beginnings of the artist he is today: Kongo — one name only, and with a 'K', thank you very much.
Almost 40 years on, fast forward to today, he is one of the standout representatives of urban art, anywhere. His is the quintessential story of a street kid made good.
Based in Paris, with homes in Hong Kong and the Caribbean, the 43-year-old graffiti artist with worldwide success was in Singapore for his exhibition, From Paris With Love, featuring 19 stellar works created for Asia.
Kongo's progression from humble beginnings to respected artist has been all but easy. He says the devastating images of the war he fled are never far from his mind. Being a refugee in France meant his new home was not welcoming at first, either. But he allowed those experiences to mould him to who he is today.
"I think, to survive, I needed to cut out all my memories about Vietnam. To forget some of the strong images I had in my head. It's a part of me I don't know exactly.
But what I learnt with this experience is that life is ephemeral and you have to enjoy the present. What you have today perhaps you will not have tomorrow. You have to enjoy your life in the now, at any time. And from six years old, I still live like that."
Shy and funny, he is a child at heart. He laughs, jokes around and lights up any room he is in, but turns serious when talking about his life's work.
"When you are alone and you are shy, you want to express yourself. My only pleasure was drawing. This is because I have two personalities: one is Cyril, the really shy and quiet guy. The other one is Kongo. He can write everywhere, he doesn't care about support, and he doesn't care about a worldwide campaign. He just leaves his mark on society."
Shy or not, his graphic vocabulary is extensive. From the sweeping contours of his circles, to the mixes between letters, his distinctive take on graffiti lends itself to his signature style.
Known for the sold-out KONGO X HERMES Graff line of vibrantly-coloured scarves he developed for Hermès, his climb to the top was all but easy. But as with every good story, his is a tale of serendipity and fate meet hard work and passion.
He was painting on the streets in Hong Kong one day when a man with his son came up to him and started asking him questions about his graffiti. Thinking he might be with the police, Kongo nevertheless answered his questions, with his usual good graces.
Growing up in the projects of Paris and the streets of Congo, Africa (from age 13 to 18), he had long learnt graffiti and the long arm of the law go hand-in-hand. Graffiti artists often work in secrecy, looking over their shoulders for the police to stop them in their tracks.
However, this was no police officer. The man turned out to be a director with Hermès.
So impressed was he with the art before him, he commissioned Kongo to design the windows of the luxury brand in Hong Kong. This led to headquarters in Paris calling, asking him to design the eponymous line of scarves, which were an instant hit.
Kongo's trajectory from there on was sealed. No more the street kid, now the artist had fully arrived.
Gallery-owner Dominic Khoo brought Kongo to Singapore, to showcase his work at his space, 28th Février. He reveals that the artistry and humility of Kongo were his main draws, not his commercial success. Khoo is a champion for the urban arts and says local talent can grow tremendously when they interact with the all-stars in the industry.
"One very important point I make when I bring in artists is that we don't just bring them in to exhibit, we don't just bring them in to sell. We also insist there's a roundtable, a master class and a workshop. This is so that they Singaporeans can level up, and we can send the elevator back down. I think it's very important that we have the 'no man gets left behind' mentality here."
In broad strokes, this is a critical aspect of the urban arts culture — it breaks down boundaries and brings people together. And make no mistake, it is a culture.
In his time here, Kongo worked with top Singaporean graffiti artists, designing and exchanging ideas about the medium. The artist himself brings home this point, saying it's about giving back.
"I give everything, I give all my life! When I paint, it's a gift. For so many years, I know a lot of people started to paint and do murals in their cities because I was painting before them. For me, it's the best — better than money, better than everything else. I just give my passion and keep the fire burning. This is what I give back to society."
And what's next for the artist extraordinaire? He says he is already partial to Singapore and wants to come back. His parting words: "From Paris with love — to Singapore, with love!"
From Paris With Love will be on exhibit till the end of the month at 28th Février.