Vietnam-Era Zippo Etchings Spark Artist's Fixation The Zippo lighter was a tool, a talisman and more to American GIs during the Vietnam War. Artist Bradford Edwards calls the carvings on the lighters "pure art without ambition" — personal narratives that capture the mixed emotions of a confusing time and place.

Vietnam-Era Zippo Etchings Spark Artist's Fixation

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He shared his enthusiasm with NPR's Michael Sullivan on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: First, what artist Bradford Edwards insists he is not.

MONTAGNE: I am not a Vietnam Zippohead, really. I'm not a Zippo collector. I'm not somebody into the Zippo per se.

SULLIVAN: On the other hand...

MONTAGNE: There are other people who've collected Zippos. There are other people who know a lot, but I could say with some certainty probably not many, if anyone, who knows more than I do.

SULLIVAN: It's an expertise that comes from having examined, by his own estimate, more than 100,000 Zippos along the boulevards and in the back alleys of the city formerly known as Saigon, and an expertise that comes in handy in the late afternoon on Dong Koi Street in the heart of the city. As we peer into the display case of one souvenir shop where there are probably more than 100 Vietnam War-era Zippos on display, some are obvious fakes. Others look authentic. But not one of them, Edwards says, is the real deal.

MONTAGNE: No. 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.

SULLIVAN: 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.

MONTAGNE: I'm not into it because really of the war, or because of memorabilia, or 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.

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

MONTAGNE: You find everything on these lighters, 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.

SULLIVAN: Edwards has incorporated the Zippo into his own art, in sculpture, lacquer-ware and mother-of-pearl - with the help of Vietnamese artists and craftsmen, using traditional Vietnamese techniques, 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.

MONTAGNE: Dude, I have almost 300 of the best examples that I've seen over the past 15 years, and I'm done. I've made the artwork, it's over.

SULLIVAN: If we were sitting here and you found one here that was as good or better than the 300 you have in your collection, what would you do?

MONTAGNE: To be honest, if it was a spectacular lighter that was really hot - yeah, I'd probably pull out the 80 bucks.

SULLIVAN: You'd have to have it.

MONTAGNE: Probably. I've been in a long period of rehab, but if you put the right lighter in front of me, I could break.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Ho Chi Minh City.

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