canvas vs billboard

An unadorned transformer box is a rare sighting in Hanoi.

Whether a given box is dedicated more to art or commerce seems to vary by neighborhood and, on a block-by-block level, by the value of the surrounding real estate.

Vibrant, multicolored roses and white chrysanthemums adorn the transformer boxes surrounding a mall near the heart of the city. This paint job camouflages what could have been seen as an eyesore by pedestrians and potential mall visitors, turning them into less visually obtrusive elements in a photo or selfie, boosting coveted “shareability.”

In contrast, transformer boxes in across other neighborhoods are typically more dedicated to advertising contextually available/useful services.

To what extent is the art meant to serve as decoration, done to beautify (or at least not detract from the beauty of) the adjacent property, and to what extent is it done to deter those in search of a street-level billboard space? Stickers of advertising posters do not appear hesitant to paste over each other’s advertisements in Hanoi, but art seems to be treated differently, perhaps claiming that a space has been “spoken for,” like it being frowned upon to tag over someone else’s graffiti with your own mark in New York City (or perhaps just being carefully cleaned and maintained by employees of the same entity that commissioned the boxes to be painted in the first place). 

Alternatively, it could well be that the lower rent, more densely-populated, and often mixed-use commercial-residential neighborhoods (in Hanoi, at least) are simply likelier markets for the services being advertised, in comparison to the riztier commercial districs; common ads include cleaning services, home construction and repair, painting, aluminum framing, electrical wiring, plumbing, roof patching, and concrete floor installation. 

One pervasively advertised service seen on many of Hanoi’s transformer boxes is “vaxe” – air pumping. When not in motion at breakneck speeds down the city’s generous boulevards and tortuous alleys, Hanoi’s scooters tend to congregate in informal sidewalk-based parking lots. One need not look far from such a parking lot to find handwritten advertisements for adding air to deflated tires appear, meaning in most places across Hanoi where the sidewalk doubles as a scooter parking lot, it also often triples as an impromptu workshop for impromptu maintenance and basic repairs.

Take a moment to step back and look at your neighborhood through the lens of how its infrastructure shows up. What is being advertised on transformer boxes or telephone poles on your street? If advertisements for hyper-local services, which services are there, and why? Why advertise here instead of on the internet? Are you (or might you someday become) their target audience? If you set out walking from where you were, how far would you have to walk before you perceived a change in what was advertised on the local infrastructure?

Alternatively, is your sidewalk-based infrastructure an exhibition for the talent of local artists, repurposing local infrastructure as their canvases? 

On a connected thread, Shanghai – like Hanoi – has its own unique take on infrastructure that borders on reverential, just as some in Chongqing take things in the opposite direction, and approach infrastructure in a more playful way.

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