HANOI, Vietnam: They are sprayed on like graffiti all over Hanoi’s walls. Down alleyways, on the face of public buildings, and even on the walls of people’s homes. The letters KCBT followed by a string of numbers can be spotted in every corner of the city.
This is a form of illegal advertising by demolition service providers. KCBT, short for "khoan cat be tong", means concrete cutting and drilling. People call the number on the wall if they need quick renovation work done. Working in small groups, these freelance contractors will show up at your doorstep within 24 hours if there is a job for them.
However, their way of advertising has been the subject of public annoyance for decades.
Fuelled by public complaints, the government made these advertisements illegal a few years ago. But they continue to proliferate, a reflection of the need for old buildings to make way for newer ones as Vietnam's population gets richer.
Thanh Ngyuen, is a former urban planner. (Photos: Lam Shushan)
"Several years ago it popped up as a problematic situation. You saw illegal advertisements everywhere and it looked so ugly," said Thanh Ngyuen, a former urban planner.
The Government has tried to solve the problem by blocking numbers on the walls, but once this happens, a new number just takes its place the next day. As a result, a myriad of numbers, both registered and unregistered, pepper the city’s concrete walls like termites on wood.
Remnants of an old KCBT advertisement peek out from underneath a new layer of paint. (Photo: Lolo Zazar)
“Sometimes, people even call the numbers on the wall to express their anger," said Do Viet Hong, the owner of a small construction company who works with KCBT groups for his projects.
Although these demolition groups operate illicitly as unregistered companies, many people still choose to work with them over big construction companies.
Do Viet Hong is the owner of a small construction company. (Photos: Lam Shushan)
“Many Vietnamese houses are located in tiny lanes. Big machines cannot be brought to houses in small lanes, so there are always jobs for these workers. That’s why they’re still around,” Hong explained.
Some tourists and foreigners have compared this to the nature of graffiti, where drawings constantly get replaced by newer ones by other artists trying to leave their mark.
French artist Lolo Zazar sees these vandalised surfaces as art. (Photo: Lolo Zazar)
Lolo Zazar is a French artist who first took notice of the advertisements when he arrived in Vietnam some 20 years ago. "It was like a painting and contemporary art for me," he said.
Over the years, he has photographed thousands of surfaces vandalised with KCBT advertisements, showcasing the blue and red stenciled letters against different backdrops.
French artist Lolo Zazar. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
In some prints, Lolo captures the letters against brightly-coloured walls. In others, he demonstrates how the KCBT advertisements are so prevalent that they have become woven into the city’s fabric.
"You have these letters on the wall with things around it like helmets, clothes that are drying. It’s very charming, there’s a lot of poetry here," said Zazar.
Still, not everyone views the advertisements from the same perspective.
Layer upon layer, paint is applied to cover up the vandalised surfaces, but a new number always reappears within days. (Photo: Lolo Zazar)
"From an urban management point of view, it’s not good at all. But if you are an artist, maybe you can see some romantic aspect of such a phenomenon," said Thanh.
Zazar himself has faced skepticism around his work. "I’m sure there are some Vietnamese who will look at my print and laugh. Some say 'foreigners'... Why make a print of KCBT? They looked at me like, 'what’s the interest?'" said Zazar, amused.
A compilation of photos taken by Zazar which he made into a calendar. (Photo: Lolo Zazar)
Lolo has held several exhibitions in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and over the years he has noticed an increased interest in his work, especially from the country's youth.
"Some people have really changed their minds and realised that there is something about their culture and city that is unique," he said.
Zazar's works being exhibited in L'Espace, Hanoi's French cultural centre. (Photo: Lolo Zazar)
The stenciled letters have also started to emerge as a popular motif in Hanoi’s subculture. Local fashion label Ginko started using the design in its clothing and accessories a few years ago.
A bag with the KCBT advertisements as motif. (Photo: Lam Shushan)
KCBT advertisements may be a nuisance to the majority, but its prevalence is a symbol of the changing face of the city with its constant need to tear down and rebuild.
For others, it is proof that through the city’s chaos and lack of regulation, art and culture can still arise.
KCBT advertisements stenciled in blue and red ink are a common sight on the city's walls. (Photo: Lam Shushan)