Art in the Streets of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the world’s most fantastical cities with towering skyscrapers veering out of the beautiful natural environment that surround the dense urban development. Its Blade Runner juxtaposition of gleaming new towers versus old factory buildings, grimy little side streets and urban decay would seem like the perfect canvas for urban art. There are examples of people like Tsang Tsou Choi, the ‘King of Kowloon’, a Hong Kong citizen known for his calligraphy graffiti from the 1950s onwards, but surprisingly, it’s only in recent years that the real scene has started to grow. And to find art in the streets of Hong Kong, you must know where to look (and get in fast, as it often gets covered up quickly).

A critical mass is forming along with an appreciation of the value that urban art brings, but the artists themselves face lots of challenges such as a lack of government support and the financial pressures of living in an incredibly expensive city with limited space.

Its interesting to think that Hong Kong is one of the world’s leading arts hubs in terms of sales, but that street art remains an underground movement, on the fringes of the art world. This retains the grassroots nature as a true act of defiance. It’s an exciting time to be witnessing the scene in the city, but the pressures also mean that many artists are turning towards commercial avenues to be able to create their art.

Jason Dembski is a key figure on the Hong Kong street art scene, which he says is underdeveloped for a city of seven million. Originally from Ohio in the USA and an architect by trade, he founded as a running archive of the graffiti and street art found in the city after moving here seven years ago. Together with artist Stan Wu,  Dembski founded HKwalls, an organisation which has been pivotal in pushing the urban art scene forward, putting together an annual street art festival.

“HKwalls started from a frustration with the events happening during Hong Kong’s art month. Before HKwalls, there were few things that month related to street art, and no events actually happening in the street.” says Dembski.

Many of these artists spend weekends climbing in and out of abandoned buildings just to paint walls where they won’t be bothered or have to watch over their shoulders – but this also means that very few people ever get to see any of that work. “So, we decided to gather permission to paint as many publicly visible surfaces in one area as possible, and invite artists to paint them all in one week. It’s a free festival, open to everyone, where people can not only see the final product but witness the process and even interact with the artists – and that’s how HKwalls started.”

“I’ve certainly seen a general increase in an interest in art and design in Hong Kong since moving here and public acceptance of street art is certainly growing, but I’m not sure the number of artists involved is keeping up with that. Street artists pop up and disappear within a year quite often – for no apparent reason. When I first moved here, street art was dominated by Start From Zero and Graphic Airlines but they aren’t as active in the streets as they used to be and I would say not any single artist or group of artists has really stepped up to fill the gap.”

Dembski brings the challenges of the street art scene back to culture, saying, “when you are taught that success means becoming a doctor, lawyer or banker, most kids are generally steered away from careers in the arts. So, it takes a lot for someone to pursue art anyway, and even more for them to take to the streets and do it without permission. However, there are increasingly more and more opportunities for artists to create work legally or even paid in the public realm.”

Some of these factors that have led to the commercialisation of the art, as street art and graffiti are being embraced by corporates and brands who hire artists for private commissions in their offices or restaurants, and host live painting events.

Bao Ho is a local rising artist who was born and bred in Hong Kong. Ho’s pull toward street art and mural painting came to life in 2014 while travelling through Italy. A self-proclaimed free stylist, she scouts the city for the hard to come by walls and any space where she can exercise her passion. Most of her work on the streets is covered up quickly, proving a race against time.

Ho agrees the scene in Hong Kong is small – but she doesn’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. “It means almost all the artists and people related to the scene know each other. It’s a cool thing as most of the people are super supportive and willing to help.”

Like Dembski, Ho sees the culture of street art in Hong Kong gaining momentum and becoming more popular and commercial before it even has the opportunity on the street. Recently, she’s been commissioned for indoor murals for shops, restaurants and even offices – and like many Hong Kong artists, she’s been heading across to Mainland China to work as well.

Hailing from Southern Italy, street artist Barlo made the move to Hong Kong, without having any idea of what to expect. A graphic designer by trade, he found Hong Kong new, exciting and terrifying. With the luxury of a stable income and a need to do something aside from graphic design, he started painting again, the first time since his teens, and it quickly became more than just a hobby – he now considers it the most important thing he does.

“On a subconscious level, painting here probably has a lot to do with the nature of Hong Kong. Literally next door to each other, we have the very rich businessmen and the extremely poor elderly people who must collect paper just to survive,” he explains.

“Then there’s the contrast between the urban jungle and the actual jungle surrounding it, or, again, the old temples next to the western buildings, the 40-storey real estate complexes and the risk of finding a snake or a monkey in the street just downstairs, the rooftops, the abandoned buildings.”

It was these contrasts that affected Barlo and now are distilled into visual metaphors. Some of his best-known works include a long mural in seven parts painted in 2015 at the Hong Kong Institute of Education titled Nature of Knowledge, The World Upside Down, and the Fisherman on Lamma Island. Fortunately – all three pieces are still in existence and Barlo says he still feels engaged with all of them.

“Hong Kong is a very commercial city, so that means that there are a lot of good commercial opportunities to get paid for your work. On the other hand, when people ‘invest’ in a mural, they are looking for reactions like ‘the wall is so much nicer with these colors’ and therefore ask for work that is not political, not too dark, happy and colorful. Essentially boring.”

Barlo says he wishes there were more people with a genuine interest in the art, rather than the exposure they may get from it – a common theme throughout the art and culture worlds in Hong Kong. “I feel that the commercial side of the practice is growing but that the art is losing a bit of its edge.”

Alongside the commercial reality of street art, Barlo also feels strongly about the internationalisation of the scene.

“Another consequence is that many more brands and organisations have started inviting famous guest artists from abroad. On one hand, it’s positive to see more artists coming to the city and bringing a diversity to the work, but I’m not sure it’s making the local art community grow. There is often a lack of interaction, creating a big gap between certain artists treated like superstars and others rated as B-level. I don’t discourage people from bringing guest artists here because I believe it’s interesting to have a moment of confrontation with other scenes and experiences.”

“The city is full of all sorts of struggle. This makes it a very creative environment. I just believe that a lot of it is hidden between the layers of social etiquette that’s constantly pushing people to do stuff that is quieter, almost sedated. I wish there were more people trying to express something personal, going a bit deeper than the surface of what you see,” says Barlo.

Aside from individual artists, Parents Parents is a collective which was established in 2012 and is currently made up of four graffiti and illustration artists born and bred in Hong Kong and who all met at art school. Their style is mixed based on graphic design, typography and unusual characters (and just for the record, their mission is to buy a home for their parents, hence the name).

“There’s a growing number of people starting to do graffiti, tags and street art in the streets every year, but we’re mostly seeing work by foreign artists and travellers who are coming through Hong Kong,” says Ccchris from Parents Parents.

Interestingly, he thinks that there are less barriers for street art than in other places, true to Hong Kong’s relaxed nature. “Compared to other countries, Hong Kong is the easiest city to bomb or do street art in. The cops don’t really care, pedestrians don’t give a damn and there’s no CCTV in the streets.”

There’s been a tenuous relationship between street art and politics in Hong Kong, and the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 seemed to signify a change for the scene.

“I found the Umbrella Revolution and the immense amount of artwork and community that was created around it to be the most inspirational thing I’ve ever experienced. I thought it was going to be the start of a strong vibrant street art scene in Hong Kong,” says Dembski.

It seems that institutional support from art organisations seems to be on the rise in the city, with an increasing number of exhibitions and events focusing on street art. Galleries like Voxfire, Pearl Lam and Opera are putting on shows related to graffiti or street art, following in the earlier footsteps of Above Second, who was for many years the only gallery in the city that represented urban art. What could be a crucial indicator that things are on the move, the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation (HOCA) have added another level to the exhibition scene in the past two years, creating large exhibitions for international superstars, Space Invader and Vhils. HOCA along with the annual HKwalls event, has been crucial in supporting the urban art scene in the city.

HKwalls moves to a different Hong Kong neighbourhood every year leaving a legacy behind. And outside of the festival, the organisation is working towards artist residencies and cultural exchanges to help cultivate both Hong Kong and international artists’ careers.

“At the most basic level, the city could encourage Hong Kong’s youth to be interested in the arts, to pursue those interests and provide more opportunities for people to be creative. The city needs to realise there is great value in art, and be willing to pay artists for that work, rather than expecting it to be free,” says Dembski.

Dembski is optimistic about the future of urban art in Hong Kong, saying he thinks it will continue to grow and become more accepted.

“There is still so much yet to be seen, and for me that’s exciting, because we get to see and be a part of its growth.”

HKwalls 2017 runs from Saturday 18 – Sunday 26 March and this year is based in the creative and industrial neighbourhood of Wong Chuk Hang on the south side of Hong Kong Island. fluoro are proud supporters of HKwalls 2017 and will be on ground to bring you all the highlights from the event. Stay tuned to our Instagram and Facebook for news from Hong Kong.

Words by Slavica Habjanovic.

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