These commercial opportunities figured prominently in “High Art, Low Art, Street Art,” a recent panel discussion at Bonhams Hong Kong held
in conjunction with the auction house’s display of work by New York-based artist
. During the discussion, the speakers tried to piece together the phenomenon of street art in Hong Kong, particularly the difficulties of securing public walls for artists and undertaking a traditionally rebellious art form in a city where issues of control and censorship have been front and center since the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. Among the speakers was Maria Wong, managing director of the annual street art festival HKWalls, which was started by Jason Dembski and Stan Wu in 2014 and has since served as a major platform for Hong Kong street artists.
Wong discussed how neighborhoods have slowly become more amenable to the HKWalls festival. “The first year, we had local shop owners saying, ‘What, you’re just going to scribble on my wall? Why should I let you paint my wall?’ They thought of it as vandalism,” she recalls. “Now, we have this great portfolio of work, and it helps a lot. It’s getting easier to convince people.” That snowball effect is evident in some of the massive walls Wong and her team were able to procure for the 2015 festival in Sham Shui Po.
“Hong Kong is catching up a bit late, but even globally I think it’s become kind of a trendy thing, so people see it as a way to market themselves and their business,” Wong says. “They also see the value of having it in their offices. That’s probably why you’re seeing a lot of it being paid for,” she adds, referring to the commercial side of street art in Hong Kong.
HKWalls is heading into its fourth year of giving local, regional, and international artists equal opportunities to get their work onto city walls. The initiative has exposed street art to the communities of Sheung Wan, Stanley, and Sham Shui Po, while educating shop owners about the work’s value and emphasizing the positive energy these artists bring into the spaces they inhabit.
Secret Walls is another group supporting street art in Hong Kong and abroad, with events coupling live art exhibitions with music, dancing, and drinking. In a tournament format not unlike a rap battle, artists take the stage and paint throughout the party. When all’s said and done, the cheers of the audience determine which artist moves on to the next round of competition.