Hong Kong’s art scene may seem to be all about art basel and cocktail receptions, but lurking not too far below the surface is a thriving, and young, street art movement

The Bricks and Mortar of Street Art

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Banksy is a household name around the world. And with artists such as Shepard Fairey (whose iconic Obama Hope poster defined the 2008 election) commanding huge figures for their works, street art is a recognised art movement around the world these days – a far cry from the image of young kids spray-painting graffiti in railway yards.

Even in Hong Kong, a small but dedicated group of street artists is making their mark all over the city. Cara To, a Belgian-born Chinese artist, is a relative newcomer to Hong Kong, but she’s already ingrained in the local street art scene. “When I got here with my boyfriend, we were staying in a nine square metre apartment. It was driving me crazy that I couldn’t create anything in that space, so I headed out to make art on the streets. From that, it just snowballed.” Six months after arriving, she’s already exhibited at the recent Work in Progress exhibition of street art at Swire Properties’ Somerset House and she’ll be hosting her own solo show in August entitled ‘Drowning in Dreams’.

For To, making art was a way to get away from her strict Chinese upbringing. “I wasn’t allowed to go out to play, I couldn’t go visit friends. I was only allowed to sit at home and watch television. That’s why I know every 90s movie and TV show by heart! Anyway, I guess one day, I just decided that TV was boring and I just started to draw. And I haven’t stopped.” Even so, her path to street art was unconventional. After studying biochemistry (“isn’t it amazing you can grow human ears on mice?”) and video game design (“I was really interested in the 3D aspect”) in her native Belgium, she escaped to Amsterdam. “After the strictness at home, I arrived in Amsterdam and I just felt everything was possible. So I just decided to do things that I’d always wanted to do: skating and painting walls.”

Her prolific interest in absolutely everything lies at odds with her own humility. “For ages I just used to keep my art to myself, because I really didn’t think it was good enough.” But it was good enough to win her a commission to paint the wall of the new hip spot, Cha Cha Wan. “They wanted me to make a piece that’s both Thai and Chinese, so I researched and designed something with this Chinese opera face in the middle but with the golden fingers and headpiece of Thai art.”

Cara’s journey couldn’t be anymore different to that of 4Get, one of her frequent collaborators here in Hong Kong. He admits it all came about quite accidentally. “My ex-girlfriend liked to doodle. One day, I said something like, ‘well I could draw hundreds of those doodles every day!’. She said, ‘go on’, and that’s really how I started to draw.” Even though a Hong Konger through and through, 4Get’s art really started to flourish when he was studying in England. “I was there to study English, but then I started studying design.” When he came back to Hong Kong, he met some of the local street artists and got hooked.

For 4Get, inspiration is everywhere. “Every time I see people, when I’m taking the train, I see all these emotions and expressions. The expressions are different in the city and in the villages. So these emotions get stuck in my head and I try to draw them.” And ultimately, it’s the pure pleasure of painting walls that drives him. “I went on a trip to Vietnam and painted with a bunch of local artists. We painted every day and it was just so much fun.”

To the extent that street art is by definition public art, it’s interesting that 4Get isn’t bothered by people’s reactions. “All I want is for people to look at my stuff and see where it goes in their imagination. My job is to paint the wall. Your job is to look at the wall, and hopefully enjoy it. Sometimes I paint characters. One of my motifs is an angry rabbit, but people have come up and complimented me on it, thinking it was a lion or a dragon. And that’s really good, because it means everyone has a different point of view.”

Moreover, working on walls and public spaces means that street art is usually temporary, which seems to go against the usual ethos that art is permanent. As 4Get says, “when it’s gone, it’s gone. For me I just really enjoy the painting.” This attitude is shared by Mark Goss, a fellow exhibitor at Work in Progress (as well as 4Get’s collaborator for this month’s cover of BOOM). For Goss, “it’s the nature of painting on walls. It’s ephemeral. It could be there for years, or it could disappear before you know it. When you paint a piece on the South Bank [in London], you could literally come back a few hours later and it would be gone.”

Of course, Hong Kong is new to the movement. “In Europe and America, it goes back decades, so there’s more acceptance of it. But it seems like in the year that I’ve been in Hong Kong, there’s been more projects.” And underlying that burst of creativity lies the sense that suddenly in Hong Kong, people are interested in art for art’s sake, and not just for the financial reward. “The difficulty here is rent, but the beauty is that the city is so new to it. Because of that, it’s a great place for an artist to be. At some point, people will recognise that, and artists will move here.”

The contrast with London and Antwerp, where Goss was formerly based, is jarring. “Belgium is the easiest place to find walls to paint. You can pretty much find a legal wall, or permission wall, in every city. There’s graffiti everywhere. London used to be like that, especially in the East End, but they painted over a lot of it for the Olympics.”

Goss is now a designer with Edison Chen’s Clot, but back in his youth, he admits his first start was graffiti. “That’s how you start. You bomb [i.e. spraying graffiti illegally]. All my friends were doing it, so I did it. But the difference was when they stopped, I just carried on. And you don’t tend to get good at it until you get a bit older.”

It was only after studying graphic design and illustration at university, during which time he stopped painting walls altogether, that he saw that his own style had developed as well. “Before Belgium, I was doing classic graffiti, but after my studies, I found myself doing illustrative and graphic pieces more and more.” Even now, Goss divides his time between design, illustration and street art, and feels each medium is equally important to him artistically. Although the telling aspect of street art is again the sense that the artwork is ultimately not a possession. “If an illustration of mine got destroyed after I drew it, I’d be unhappy. But a wall isn’t yours. It’s not something you can control, so there’s no point in stressing over it.”

Despite the transient nature of street art, though, Goss is convinced it’s a form of expression that’s here to stay. “Street art is happening now. Stash, Todd James, Twist (Barry McGee), they’re all doing museum shows,” he explains. “They’re having their movement, and they might fade off, but it’ll continue to be something that’s spoken about in the future. It can’t help it. I mean, it’s everywhere you look.”