During the Vietnam War, American soldiers used more than 200,000 Zippo lighters. But they weren’t just for lighting smokes. As soldiers began etching designs and words on their Zippos, the shiny silver lighters became canvases for self-expression and very personal symbols of identity in a situation where individualism and creativity were discouraged. And today, those symbols are on display, thanks to the collection and art of Bradford Edwards.
A multimedia artist and freelance writer who’s lived in Santa Barbara for 33 years, Edwards stumbled upon the decorated Zippo phenomenon on his first trip to Vietnam in the early ’90s. Street vendors were selling memorabilia from the war, and while many tourists were drawn to the dog tags, Edwards became obsessed with the old Zippos. Over the next decade, Edwards-who now lives half the year in Vietnam-sorted through at least 100,000 of the personalized lighters, eventually collecting about 300 of them.
“I started discovering ones that were very reflective of cultural pop sensibility in the States,” said Edwards, whose father was a pilot in Vietnam. But he wasn’t looking for the military themes, which were prevalent. “I was looking for more countercultural themes, more black humor, drugs, and sex-things decidedly anti-military.” His collection became the basis for the book Vietnam Zippos by Sherry Buchanan.
Along the way, Edwards found endless artistic inspiration from the Zippos, and began his series of portraits that are now on display at the Perch Gallery. Edwards used traditional and contemporary Vietnamese techniques in his mixed media designs, with highlights being a Zippo abacus and aerial shots of the lighters assembled in Vietnamese courtyards (shown above).
But while Edwards’s portraits are on display, he sees the Zippos themselves as the epitome of art. As he writes in Vietnam Zippos, the lighters are “art without ambition, a real and honest venting of feelings, invaluable evidence of an experience, heavy juju.” It’s juju worth checking out.
89 Portraits of Vietnam Zippos shows at the Perch Gallery, 25-C West Cota Street, until September 27. Artist Bradford Edwards will do a booksigning of Vietnam Zippos on September 20