HKwalls 2021: 4 Hong Kong Street Artists Share What Inspires Their Work
When Jason Dembski moved to Hong Kong to start a new job in 2009, what captivated him about the city was less its buildings and more the street art scattered on its walls. He began taking photos to document what he saw, as he felt graffiti was underappreciated by wider society.
“Back then, there weren’t a lot of sanctioned or legal murals. Not a lot of galleries or art fairs here were ready for street art,” says Dembski, an architect originally from the US, who co-founded the non-profit HKwalls in 2014. “Lots of artists were creating illegal work on the streets and going to abandoned buildings, such as ATV [a former television studios] in Sai Kung, to paint bigger artworks without being bothered by police.”
From prehistoric cave etchings to gang tags on New York City train cars, the need to leave an identifying mark as a message to others is a trait as old as the human race. Graffiti and street art spread from American culture to Hong Kong in the 2000s through media such as magazines, movies and MTV.
Seven years since its inception, the city’s largest annual street art festival returns this month with an exhibition at Soho House to introduce a pilot youth mentorship programme that will cultivate young artists while showing street art to the public through the many murals. Here, four artists share why they go to the wall for Hong Kong street art.
Bao Ho is one of few street artists born, raised and educated in Hong Kong. Her mural series, which features a white, bun-shaped character called Bao (“bun” in Cantonese), can be seen in the K11 Musea mall as well as in the offices of Google and Uber. Ho was crowned the “Queen of Hong Kong’s street art scene” by local media when she won the Hong Kong Secret Walls contest in 2015, just one year after she became a professional artist.
Ho’s personal experiences inspire her art, which is centred around freestyle doodles that reflect dark topics. Somewhat unconventionally for a street artist, she uses brushes and paint, a technique that is “more direct and faster in capturing my overflowing ideas before they’re gone”, Ho explains. “But mostly, it’s because I didn’t come from a street art background and I’m not familiar with using spray.”
Ho receives commissions from major international brands as companies race to align themselves with a younger demographic that values authenticity. “Previously, companies used influencers to promote their products, but more clients are looking for street artists for collaborations. I believe Hong Kong will have more space for artists in the future,” she says. “But I’m most happy that my family finally gives my artistic career their full support.”
Xeme was one of the first Hong Kong graffiti artists to tag using Chinese characters, having started producing graffiti in 2001. “I could see Arabic graffiti and Japanese graffiti. The only reason why we didn’t write Chinese as a Chinese graffiti community was just because no one happened to take on the challenge and just do it,” he says.
Despite street art being a less celebrated and promoted medium in Hong Kong than it is in the West, Xeme disagrees that the city is anymore hostile towards its artists than other places. “In Europe and the States, even putting up a sticker could get you jail time,” he says.
However, as street art’s popularity has grown, brands tapping artists for marketing purposes is something Xeme remains sceptical towards. “Graffiti has to be illegal. If a wall is given, it’s not really a mural. It would become something else like a job or watercolour lesson. Taking the risk and challenge to get away from people or the police is a part of our game. We enjoy the process.”
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Kowloon-based Lousy’s signature square divided into two kissing figures can be found on shop gates, trucks and walls around Hong Kong. “My art is about love and goodbyes. The kissing says it all. It can be anyone or anything; it doesn’t have to be a couple,” he says.
One of the city’s best-known figures in street art, Lousy explores erotic themes through work that depicts gods, monsters and women, occasionally courting the taboo—he claims to have been chased away by older men who spotted him mid-painting.
When he started out, he painted in an anime style—far from the rhythmic, minimalist technique with a neon palette he now employs. He has also adopted nude models as a canvas upon which to present his recognisable line drawings, a progression he says made sense. “My stuff could be on anything anywhere: why not move it to a natural set-up?”
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Catherine Grossrieder knew she was different as a child growing up in Hong Kong. “I consider myself a third culture kid. I had a hard time defining myself because I didn’t know what it was,” says the half-Thai, half-Swiss 37-year-old artist, who goes by Cath Love. “I was very artistic, but I couldn’t pinpoint my style."
Grossrieder’s calling card is Jeliboo, a voluptuous female character who can be spotted in places like Hollywood Road Park, Sam Ka Lane and Western Street. “I wanted a character that was chunky, cute and easy to paint, and travels well,” she says. “Whenever I paint Jeliboo, people go: ‘That’s her!’” Grossrieder also set up Club Third, an art studio in Sheung Wan that encourages expression by others like herself, who struggle with their identity, through art.
She says, “People are happy to come and view high art but showing street art in a gallery is very trendy, as it feels more approachable.”
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