In 2013, in the middle of my Home trip, I took a quick trip to France with my brother and cousin to visit family in their tiny town of Draguignan. It was a much-needed break after going through the eastern coast and southern states of America and getting to visit family, who happened to love the beach, was nice. Unfortunately, my brain never turned off from ethnographic interviewing mode and I asked my cousin’s husband, who grew up in Draguignan, too many questions.
For instance, why is Draguignan’s coat of arms a dragon? Why is there dragon imagery everywhere in Draguignan? Why is Draguignan surrounded by a lot of cities named after saints?
Well, it turns out, Draguignan got its name when Saint Hermentaire pulled up and murdered a dragon to free the people. I found this endlessly fascinating. I mean, why wasn’t the city named after Saint Hermentaire, like how its neighboring cities of Sainte Maxime and Saint Tropez are?
I always wanted to document it somehow – it was in my Notes app since 2013. I took this picture of the city with some undetermined future project in mind, I just knew I wanted to put a dragon in there.
Predictably, this project kept getting pushed down and down, because of the second leg of my Home project, then because I had to find a job.
Fast forward to the spring of 2019 and Atlas Obscura puts out a call for submissions to get a $15,000 grant to go on a journey to learn, explore, and grow. This seemed like an amazing opportunity to really dig into my unknown passion for etymology and the folk stories that they’re based off. I spent weeks writing, rewriting, and editing my essay to get it just right. I consulted friends to read it and give me feedback, and then I rewrote and edited it some more. I submitted my mission a day before the deadline and heard back the next day:
Thank you for submitting a proposal for Atlas Obscura’s First Journey prize. It was an absolute pleasure reviewing so many excellent, inspiring journeys. Unfortunately, your proposal was not selected as a semifinalist. We do hope you get a chance to make your journey.
Yours in Wonder,
It stinks not even being long-listed, but I was really proud of my writing, so here it is in full.
While visiting family in Draguignan, France, I asked my cousin why there was so much dragon imagery around this village. He said back in 400 AD, the tiny mountain town in southern France was constantly terrorized by a small, but fierce, dragon. A bishop, now known as Saint Hermentaire, slew the lizard and freed all the villagers, and that's how Draguignan got its name.
This tale stuck with me because as an advertising art director, I've been telling the same brand stories about antacid tablets and nasal strips for years. Sadly, my 30-second commercials won’t be passed down generations like Draguignan’s origin story. Those kind of tales are fragile and rely on oral traditions to keep folk history alive.
My parents told me about some Vietnamese folktales growing up, but not enough to have a deep, emotional connection – a majority of the stories I know are from the West. As I journey across Southeast Asia, I want to find more cultural and traditional history to help people see the richness in regions not often represented in the States.
These stories are sometimes hidden in plain sight in the etymology of the city's name, or featured by the city's folk art, statues, temples, or plaques. Other times, they have to be hunted down by talking to the locals and listening to their oral history.
After gathering these stories, I'd like to preserve them in writing, and visualize them with videos, photographs, and illustrations.
Spreading these folk histories to the Atlas Obscura audience will help preserve them, and broaden the readers’ minds and understanding of Asian cultures in the most human way possible – a story.
So here I am in the summer of 2019, slowly working on personal work on the docket, thinking about how instead, I could’ve been traveling around Southeast Asia for three months on a new project that I’m passionate about. I never got to share my vision with Atlas Obscura, but while I have you, here’s the Draguignan dragon.
First I started with the image and a sketch on my iPad. I have a particular way I always draw dragons, but I had to check how this particular dragon has been depicted throughout art and adjust it, because this little guy was always a little menacing, at various sizes, with a curly tail, two legs, no arms, wings, and two horns.
I wanted to explore new ways and styles to illustrate while keeping my look, so I experimented with new Kyle brushes (dry media pastels this time) and ways to outline and draw.
Though I didn’t get the $15,000 grand prize, or even the $500 runners-up prize, I’m still happy with where I ended up, and the winner is very deserving and will have a great journey.
Anyway, if you want to donate to my journey to do that other thing I wanted to do, here’s a button to drop some pennies in until I get $15,000.