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, Wrung, 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.