Vietnam-Era Zippo Etchings Spark Artist's Fixation

American artist Bradford Edwards i i

American artist Bradford Edwards, who has lived in Vietnam for 15 years, talks with a vendor selling Zippo lighters in Ho Chi Minh City. Edwards estimates that he has examined more than 100,000 Zippos. Michael Sullivan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Sullivan, NPR
American artist Bradford Edwards

American artist Bradford Edwards, who has lived in Vietnam for 15 years, talks with a vendor selling Zippo lighters in Ho Chi Minh City. Edwards estimates that he has examined more than 100,000 Zippos.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Etched Zippo lighters, both real and fake. i i

Inscribed Zippo lighters, both real and fake, are displayed by a vendor in Ho Chi Minh City. Michael Sullivan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Sullivan, NPR
Etched Zippo lighters, both real and fake.

Inscribed Zippo lighters, both real and fake, are displayed by a vendor in Ho Chi Minh City.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Another display includes both real and fake Vietnam War-era Zippos. i i

Another display includes both real and fake Vietnam War-era Zippos. Michael Sullivan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Sullivan, NPR
Another display includes both real and fake Vietnam War-era Zippos.

Another display includes both real and fake Vietnam War-era Zippos.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Two Zippos on display, one real (left) and one fake. i i

Two Zippos, one real (left) and one fake, on sale in Ho Chi Minh City. Michael Sullivan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Sullivan, NPR
Two Zippos on display, one real (left) and one fake.

Two Zippos, one real (left) and one fake, on sale in Ho Chi Minh City.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Edwards' mother-of-pearl Zippo replica. i i

Edwards incorporates the Zippo into his own art, like this work in mother-of-pearl. Frank Zeller/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Zeller/AFP/Getty Images
Edwards' mother-of-pearl Zippo replica.

Edwards incorporates the Zippo into his own art, like this work in mother-of-pearl.

Frank Zeller/AFP/Getty Images

Tool. Talisman. Totem. The Zippo lighter was all of these things and more to American GIs during the Vietnam War.

And it's that "more" that has fascinated Bradford Edwards, an American artist who has lived in Vietnam for 15 years. His enthusiasm for these lighters is something Edwards happily — even aggressively — shares with almost anyone who will listen.

Edwards insists he's not a "Vietnam Zippohead."

"I'm not a Zippo collector. I'm not somebody into the Zippo, per se," he says.

However, he adds, "There are other people, certainly, who've collected Zippos and there's other people who know a lot, but I could say with some certainty, probably not many, if anyone, who knows more than I do."

His expertise comes from having examined, by his own estimate, more than 100,000 Zippos in the boulevards and back alleys of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. And it comes in handy in the late afternoon on Dong Koi Street in the heart of the city, as he peers into a case at one souvenir shop, where what looks like more than 100 Vietnam War-era Zippos are on display.

Some are obvious fakes. Others look authentic. But not one of them, Edwards says, is the real deal.

"There are some very good original fakes, but there are not any ones that I see that I can identify as what I'd call double original, meaning a period lighter with a correct period carving," he says.

'Pure Art Without Ambition'

It's those carvings — those personalized inscriptions — that have fueled Edwards' obsession with the Zippos left behind by American servicemen during the war. An obsession that began shortly after he arrived in Vietnam as a tourist in 1992.

"I'm not into it because, really, of the war or because of memorabilia or because of any real, I would say, direct historical aspect. I'm in it for the artistic sensibility and the direct emotional expression that you see via text or images," he says.

Edwards calls the Zippos left behind "pure art without ambition" — personal narratives that capture the mixed emotions of a confusing time and place.

"You find everything on these lighters," he says. "And what you find mostly is this general feeling of young male Americans. People who were not happy about coming and were even less happy about being here. Feelings about the war, about the military, about how they were feeling personally, missing their girlfriends, drug use, sex, everything was on the lighter. There it was, a miniature little canvas, and there was an etching table, a vendor, and you just had whatever you wanted inscribed on it. So, it was for them."

A sampling from the lighters in Edwards' collection include the inscriptions: "Death is my business, and business has been good"; "When the power of love is as strong as the love of power, then there will be peace"; and "Kill them all, let God sort them out." Edwards' personal favorite, which he suspects is from a fellow Californian: "Give no quarter. You can surf later."

Overcoming A Zippo Addiction

Edwards has incorporated the Zippo into his own art in sculpture, lacquerware and mother-of-pearl — with the help of Vietnamese artists and craftsmen, using traditional Vietnamese techniques. It's an attempt, he says, to make the lighters contemporary and relevant, beyond their value as collectibles. That series is now finished, Edwards says. And so, he claims, is his Zippo addiction.

"Dude, I have almost 300 of the best examples that I've seen over the past 15 years," he says. "And I'm done. I've made the artwork, it's over."

But when asked what he would do if he found another one as good or better than those in his collection, he couldn't resist.

"To be honest, if it was a spectacular lighter that was really hot — yeah, I'd probably pull out the 80 bucks... I've been in a long period of rehab, but if you put the right lighter in front of me, I could break," Edwards says.

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