Hidden Art in Hong Kong: How Do Graffiti Survive in the Small City

——By Visen Liu & Saeyeon Lee

Hong Kong.  The city that never sleeps, East Asian New York City.

City where people say it is alive during the nights, and the shine brights it’s beauty at its most when the sun goes down. The view from both ends of the harbor of Hong Kong island and New Territories that is full of lights decorate the darkness of Hong Kong night sky that makes the place unforgettable and instantly famous. Yet what many people do not recognize from Hong Kong is its beauty during the daylight, in the right corner of your eye, the alley that you have passed by withholds its own local collection of art that is not always easy to spot.

Another aspect that HongKong share in common is the abundance of graffiti. Hong Kong has its own fair share of painted allies. It even holds street art festival called HKwalls, and their fifth event HKwalls 2018 was successfully held in the area of Sai Ying Pun, Sheung Wan, and Central. We took the liberty to hunt down its art pieces all over the town as you can check it out in the story map below.

StoryMap: HKWALL 2018 HUNT

HKwalls, as a non-profit street art promotion organization, commits itself to building platforms for street art artists to collaborate and to demonstrate their talents. During its street art festival, HKwalls invites street artists from Hong Kong and all over the world to paint at a certain district of Hong Kong each year. The festival has been held in Sheung Wan before in 2014, then in Stanley market in 2015, later it moved on to Sham Shui Po in 2016, and then Wong Chuk Hang in 2017.

Unfortunately, creating these beautiful creative pieces are technically still illegal in many countries around the world. Hong Kong is of no exception. Although Hong Kong claims to be a metropolis open to public art creation, Hong Kong Cap. 228 Summary Offences Ordinance clearly states people who “in or near any public place defaces any rock or any road-cutting by carving or otherwise marking thereon any letter, character, figure or device” or “without the consent of the owner or occupier writes upon, soils, defaces or marks any building, wall, fence or paling with chalk or paint or in any other way whatsoever; or wilfully breaks, destroys or damages any part of any building, wall, fence or paling, or any fixture or appendage thereof” shall be liable to a fine of $500 or to imprisonment for 3 months. Graffiti, often considered as vandalism, seems not acceptable by the government and some of the public.

The concept of Graffiti has been around for the longest time as anyone can remember, history may even say it goes far back as ancient Rome and Egypt, but of course, not the way it is in the present days. It started to really become a method of modern expression during the 1970s when the African-Americans flourished their ground-breaking hip-hop culture in their neighborhoods of New York City in many ways, including the art of graffiti. It had slowly been part of people’s lives since, within the corners of different streets, towns, and countries. The wild style, contrasting color, sharp shape and the rebellious meaning of graffiti make many people look down to it and few think it as a format of art. Even though in Hong Kong, where many artists have been painting graffiti for more than a decade, the stereotype of it still exists.

Tsang Tsou-choi, known as “King of Kowloon”, was a famous Chinese calligraphic graffiti painter and his graffiti inspired a lot of fashion designs by local artists. He was arrested and indicted by the Hong Kong government many times for his graffiti when he was alive. Last year, some of his graffiti works were painted over by a government contractor.

However, Jason Dembski, one of HKwalls’ founders, points out the difference between graffiti and other forms of street art: “Traditionally most people, even those who paint it, have considered graffiti by definition to be illegal and therefore vandalism……generally graffiti is letter-based and usually done illegally, street art could be illegal or legal and takes on many forms, while murals and public art are typically created legally.”

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Just a taste of the latest HKwalls vid from @fifthwalltv & @akira.mimasu.design! Check the full video on FB and YouTube and YouKu! Big thanks to @vanshkg! & @eicopaint @ovolohotels @hilltophollywood @montana_colors @eggshellstickers @youngmasterales . 2018 Artists: @cinta_vidal @alexis_diaz @anthonylister @alexsenna @imbolaw @biscosmith @zlism @kahsone @rebeccatlin @carolmuiii @33x3x33 @lousyjonnn @storm_ha @neillhw @remirough @45rpmwhat @voyder @melissa.luk @fi__nu @hugoyunus @dilk1 @sik13 @senk32_mts @sheep.chen @iammelancholy @simplebao @boms_boming_here @west.one.fs @negiyakisoba @elsajeandedieustudio @hadrian_lam @instaguss @wooooongtimyiu . Wall donors: @chiresidences @lacabanehk @lacantoche @stazionenovella @happyparadisehk @thehideoutcoffeehousehk @a_side_b_side . #hkwalls18 #hkwalls #vanshkg #OfftheWall #eicopaint #hilltoponhollywood #momtanacolors #eggshellstickers #youngmasterales #ovolohotels #buckteethgirlsclub #paintedwitheico #discoverhongkong @discoverhongkong

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Hong Kong Development Bureau and Energizing Kowloon East Office also launched a “Back Alleys @ Kowloon East” program in 2015 and invited artists and students to paint street art in this area. Development Bureau says: “Prior consent from the owners of the relevant private buildings had been obtained before the artworks were created, and hence there is no legality issue. The artworks are generally welcomed by the public.”

Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung makes a comment on the law: “Graffiti is no doubt a form of art, but the spirit of the law is that you have to do it in the right place with the owners’ approval.” Therefore, the murals and wall paintings with the consent from the property owners are legal.

On the street of Hong Kong, signs saying “No Graffiti” on the walls of many residential or commercial buildings are not rare. Hong Kong-based graffiti artist and illustrator Kristopher Ho thinks nowadays people still draw graffiti even if it’s illegal, and some may think it as part of the fun. XEME, another local artist who dedicates to the letter and Chinese caligraphy-based graffiti, says that Hong Kong people are not that offended by graffiti, so artists like him seldom get bothered by the legality.

Interview with Kristopher Ho

The stereotype of graffiti that it is connected to rebellion and vandalism gradually breaks down as increasingly diversified graffiti styles appear recently in Hong Kong and manifest different messages other than non-conformist disobedient ideas.

Among the graffiti and murals created during the past five years are works drawn with different types of pigment and styles. XEME likes combining his graffiti with traditional Chinese calligraphy to break conservative rules. Local illustrator and fashion designer Zoie Lam’s colorful painting with lovely “Zlism” characters expresses her positive attitude towards life and her observation of the world from a childish perspective. Kristopher is fascinated by using monotone delicate line drawings to illustrate flowers and animals. Exploring the possibilities of using just one mark pen is his greatest pleasure.

Kristopher also credits the change of the public’s attitude partly to the local art festivals like HKwalls and the population of social media. Many Hong Kong street artists post the photos of their artworks on Facebook, Instagram and their websites, where more people can access and appreciate their works. The public’s recognition of street art and its beauty, therefore, largely increased.

Even many brands realize the aesthetic value of street art and invite artists to decorate the pillars and walls in their offices. Kristopher still recalled his first mural job of painting the wall for an office in Shanghai after graduation as an illustrator. Later, NIKE, Facebook, Red Bull, Starbucks, and WeWork all invited Kristopher to decorate their offices in Asia with his detailed monotone line drawings. In many restaurants and coffees in Hong Kong, mural becomes an important factor of interior trim and romantic atmosphere. The mural business gradually develops during the past several years.

The style of graffiti is also auctioned and sold to the collectors and graffiti enthusiasts in the cost of thousands of dollars. Even at this moment, there is also a selling exhibition opened up in Central, held with the graffiti paintings of the worldwide famous street artist Banksy from 22nd of November to 7th of December; The art pieces are, according to the coordinator, is estimated to be sold from 88 thousand HKD to 35 million HKD, which had been recorded with their most signature painting, “The Gas Mask Boy”.

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“The Gas Mask Boy”, Banksy

Hong Kong is still an art center and a city full of inspirations for many talented artists, but unfortunately, its size is too small to satisfy street artists’ need to express themselves. “We are still so restricted to the space of the city. Everything is so packed. Having an empty wall is very difficult.” Kristopher says, “That’s why most street art nowadays is not kind of street art anymore. It’s more like office art and indoor art. I think it’s kind of ironic.” But Kristopher also thinks that’s the way that street art adapts itself to the crowded expensive city.

“Hong Kong is a city with great potential, with so many talented artists. I am pretty positive about that (street art in Hong Kong).” Standing in front of his tiger-themed mural in Sheung Wan, Kristopher says with a smile.