Hong Kong’s Thriving Street Art Scene Risks Selling Out
In Hong Kong, buildings rise and fall daily in a jungle of bamboo scaffolding. Many are torn down and replaced within only 30 years of their construction. With the exception of the colorful high rises that light up the sky along Victoria Harbour, the architecture of Asia’s commercial center is defined by utilitarian shades of gray and beige. In reaction to their drab surroundings, a core group of local and international street artists have been making their marks on Hong Kong.
“Cities right now are really ugly, because at some point in the first half of the 20th century, people started to have a very strong belief that a single ideology could create a new world,” says the Italian-born, Hong Kong-based street artist Barlo. Around that time, he says, the idea of decoration fell by the wayside. “That was the beginning of modernism, born from the idea that when you create a building, everything is designed to follow a function from beginning to end.”
Over the last five years or so, explosions of artwork have begun to breathe life into areas around Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories. Depending on whom you ask, you’ll hear this artwork called street art, muralism, graffiti, calligraffiti, or even vandalism. Each of these monikers represents a different style and attitude found among the international culture on Hong Kong’s busy streets. For contemporary artists, these forms of art present both an opportunity to beautify the city and a chance to experiment.
“I actually stopped painting for a while when I was living in London,” Barlo laments. “I would walk outside and get discouraged because there were so many legends working around me. In all that busyness I think I lost my own voice.” He recalls feeling inspired upon arriving in Hong Kong, where he initially didn’t know anyone and wasn’t confronted by an onslaught of art on the streets. With this newfound creative freedom, Barlo moved on from graffiti and portraiture to develop a more naturalistic style of painting, using brushes to portray mythological creatures and fantastical scenes in Hong Kong.
Compared to the long histories of street art and graffiti in cities like New York or London, Hong Kong’s scene is still embryonic. Yet it’s evolving at a startling rate in recent years thanks to an influx of international talent and a growing cadre of locals looking to make names for themselves. While street art has existed in Hong Kong in niche groups for nearly two decades, beginning with the illegal works of graff writers like Tsang Tsou Choi (a.k.a. the King of Kowloon) and then Xeme, it is only recently that the general public has taken a genuine interest, often driven by commercial support. In this city built on “making the sale,” street art has become a hot commodity, and many groups are jumping on the bandwagon. Thus, we are seeing an uptick in opportunities for artists to create work legally.
First, there are galleries and museums—including Above Second Gallery, Over the Influence, and nonprofit Hong Kong Contemporary Art (HOCA) Foundation—that have exhibited the works of international stars such as Cyrcle, Shepard Fairey, and Vhils. Above Second’s director, May Wong, takes a lot of the credit.
“I don’t want to sound boastful, but we kind of brought the street art trend to Hong Kong,” she says, pointing to “Work in Progress,” the gallery’s 2013 group show. “With Cyrcle, Rone, and all these artists, we already had one of the biggest street art exhibitions years ago. And that’s why the education level has come so far in Hong Kong.”
Educating Hong Kongers on the artistic merits of street art is a motivating factor for Wong and her peers. “I think it’s just taken longer for people to understand,” Wong says. She recalls seeing the King of Kowloon’s work as a child. “I walked by it going to school every day or would see him in action. I’d ask my mom, ‘What is he doing?’ and she’d say, ‘Oh, he’s just a crazy guy.’ Back then, I didn’t see it as an art form or even as graffiti.” That changed after she spent time living in New York. “It hit me that a public space can have something that influences the society and gives energy to the community,” Wong says. One such community in Hong Kong is Lam Tei village near the Siu Hong MTR station, where local artist 4Get and Frenchman Sautel Cago collaborated with eager residents of this lower-income area to create abstract, improvisational works on their walls, which can still be seen today.
4Get, who splits his time painting in Hong Kong and mainland China, sees the presence of big, international names at museums and galleries as a boon for the local scene, not an intrusion. “There are many artists who come and go in Hong Kong, but basically, we all know each other. It’s not a big community—there are only 20 or 30 people doing [street art] who are [Hong Kong] locals,” 4Get says. He acknowledges that, as an artist, the infusion of these international artists fuels inspiration and offers an opportunity to learn about the broader landscape of contemporary street art. “We have the chance to get to know the outside world and see big artists like Shepard Fairey, to see how they execute their work and their crazy styles.”
In contrast, Barlo believes major street art exhibitions are limiting opportunities for local or unknown artists. “It always depends on what is your goal in life,” he says. If you want to become a famous contemporary artist and show in galleries—no simple feat anywhere in the world—Barlo says Hong Kong is an especially difficult place to start. On top of that, he doesn’t see it as a place where artists are encouraged to take risks.
“A lot of the people that want to do street art here want to play it safe,” Barlo explains. “The main problem is no one will give you a space and say, ‘OK, you are a street artist for a living. Please change this space and create an experience for the viewer, so that they enter your world and want to leave with a piece of it.’ ” Instead, if an artist receives a commision, that transaction is more like an investment. “But if you’re someone who’s never had a solo show, then who will invest in you?” He adds that confining street art to white cube galleries is creatively stifling. “It’s taking that change you are trying to create in the city and confining it to a gallery—boring.” How, then, are local street artists supposed to make a living in Hong Kong?
“It’s easy to be a punk when you’re 16,” says Cath Love, an artist whose character Jeliboo is gaining popularity on T-shirts and apparel. “But then you grow up and the bills start rolling in.” Many Hong Kong street artists, Barlo included, work day jobs as graphic designers, and they make a point to distinguish that work from what they’re doing in the streets. With the exception of a few exhibitions from Above Second and Pearl Lam—who, last year, put on a show of nine local street artists called “Hidden Street”—local street artists aren’t well represented in Hong Kong galleries. Yet somewhere between the worlds of high art and advertising, the collaborative and commercial opportunities for artists in Hong Kong are growing, usually through private and corporate commissions as well as citywide street art festivals.
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 KAWS. 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.
Secret Walls Hong Kong recruits artists from various backgrounds to compete in their shows. Among them are local artists Boms and the collective Parents Parents, who come from backgrounds in illustration and graphic design. Boms paints Chinese characters, rather than English letters, alongside cartoon characters in works that resemble a twisted Studio Ghibli film. Since taking part in HKWalls and Secret Walls, local artists have received invitations to international festivals, as well as commissions to create works in restaurants and office spaces around the city. Most recently, Parents Parents painted a mural at Facebook’s Hong Kong office.
Barlo is critical of these commercial jobs, which nevertheless offer a large source of income for Hong Kong-based street artists. “I think what we see right now is a resurgence in Confucian ideals, really. A respect for authority. I think that’s why you don’t have very many young kids just going and painting in the streets,” Barlo says. “If your goal is just to do Nike’s office from the beginning, what are you doing?”
While Barlo may criticize these commercial gigs, others, like veteran Hong Kong painter Stern Rockwell, a transplant from New York, believes that any support for the scene is positive. “I don’t believe in selling out,” Rockwell says. “Obviously, it’s more fun if someone just gives me a wall and lets me do my thing, to improvise. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to make a living and hold on to that visa. So you’ve got to work inside the lines a bit.” Rockwell has sold small pieces through a number of galleries, and he’s willing to compromise with his patrons, but only to a certain extent. “Some people want a specific idea that is suitable to their company and represents their image, and it’s more of a back-and-forth process dealing with the corporate side of things. So, for me, that’s not the fun stuff, but it’s still cool in the end. It’s still my work, and I’m still happy with the outcome.”
Given this commercial focus and the lack of overt political motivations found in the provocative works of artists like Banksy or Blu, Hong Kong’s street art scene is an easy target for criticism. However, the medium’s storied, rebellious spirit does thrive, albeit somewhat secretly. In the far corners of the city, abandoned buildings double as training grounds for those brave enough to make the journey. Barlo and Boms reminisce about the days they painted abandoned warehouses or school buildings in the New Territories or out past Kennedy Town on the Island Line, before they were confident about putting their stuff out there. These more established artists and the veteran Rockwell agree that doing this work off the beaten path is the best way for aspiring artists to start. “A lot of people want to do what I do, and to them I just say: ‘Do it.’ The walls are out there,” Rockwell says.
As someone who has made Hong Kong his home after visiting for many years, Rockwell has had a comprehensive look at the city’s changing climate for street art. “The majority of people here in Hong Kong embrace it. I think people here like the idea of expressing themselves and seeing people expressing themselves,” he says. “I started coming here in the early ’90s and there was absolutely no creativity at all. It was just how much shit could you jam into a store. So it’s changed a lot.”
Several organizations have sprung up recently to encourage and develop a homegrown brand of street art. Secret Walls, for example, has a side project in the works called School Walls, with the idea that, one day, kids around Hong Kong will compete and collaborate with one another in the name of street art. And Write the Future, a spray paint store and meeting place in Kwun Tong, encourages all artists, whether visiting or local, to use its space for sharing and educating people on the merits of street art—a concerted effort to eradicate the stigma surrounding this misunderstood art form. Barlo, for his part, looks to the example of 4Get’s collaboration with Lam Tei village, and he hopes to one day involve the growing refugee population of Hong Kong’s New Territories in a documentary art project.
“When it’s done right, street art is not just decoration to make a city more cute or more colorful. We must make a city more interesting,” Barlo says, “and touch someone on a deeper level, to make them think. It’s about changing the environment you exist in.”