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Hong Kong street artists struggle to brighten up the city

BY Reported by Phoebe Lai; Edited by Robert McGain; Photos edited by Kobie Lee / Hong Kong Baptist University | 25-Oct-2018
People gather in an alleyway next to a quirky antique store on Hollywood Road. They snap photos in front of “The Kowloon Walled City”, a mural outside an old building. “They want to promote a kind of local Eastern lifestyle in contrast with a Western equivalent,” said Ms. Mou, “so they pay the artist to depict something very local in Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong street artists struggle to brighten up the city: Reported by Phoebe Lai
Edited by Robert McGain
Photos edited by Kobie Lee


People gather in an alleyway next to a quirky antique store on Hollywood Road. They snap photos in front of “The Kowloon Walled City”, a mural outside an old building.

“They want to promote a kind of local Eastern lifestyle in contrast with a Western equivalent,” said Ms. Mou, “so they pay the artist to depict something very local in Hong Kong.”

Emerald Mou Tian-tian, who works full-time at The Economist, conducts street art tours in Central for Accidental Art at weekends. She said most of the murals in Hong Kong are commissioned.

“That means the owners of the walls pay the artists to depict what they agree to be put on the walls,” said Ms. Mou.

Jason Dembski, the co-founder of HKwalls, an art NGO which focuses on street art, said coming to an agreement on what should go on a wall varies in different districts.

“The owners are more engaged in Central. Sometimes I would say maybe a little too much,” said Mr. Dembski. “ We have our preferences and they have theirs and the artists have their preferences on which wall they want to paint. So it’s a lot of work.”

Local artist, Neil Wang Lai-ho, is participating in the HKwalls festival this year. He was not allowed to paint on the wall of a jewellery shop because of his design.

“When the shop owner looked at my design, he seemed to dislike the fact that the woman I wanted to paint wears jewellery,” said Mr. Wang. “He doesn’t want it to seem like he is showing off. He is afraid that people in the neighbourhood might have opinions.”

Mr. Dembski said organising HKWalls in Sham Shui Po two years ago was much easier. The shop owners were accepting towards street art even though they didn’t seem enthusiastic.

“In Sham Shui Po, it’s much more local and maybe low-income as well,” said Mr. Dembski. “People there have other concerns.”

Phoebe Luk Hou-hei, is a co-founder of Dreamory, a local online e-commerce store which paints the gates at shops in old districts. She said they obtain permission from shop owners mainly by getting in touch with people who know the owners.

“We approach the shop owners through our collaborators, YWCA, a non-governmental association that provides community services to people in the district,” said Ms. Luk. “We then approach the shop owners to discuss what we would like to do for them.”

Connections matter when it comes to commissioning street art. Stan Wu, a co-founder of HKwalls, also owns Egg Shell Stickers, a sticker company based in Hong Kong which has worked and established connections with artists from all around the world. The company was also a major sponsor of this year’s HKwalls.

“He knows a lot of people and has a lot of their contacts already,” said Mr. Dembski.“ From doing this festival over the past five years, we have met a lot of people.”

HKwalls has reached out to people who they have known for some time, for funding and other resources to make the festival a success.

Sylvia Lam Yee-shan, works for Montana Colors, which started in Brazil and produce and design spray paint specifically for street artists, in the UK, a sponsor for spray paints for the HKwalls festivals. She said many of the artists participating in the festival have worked with them in the past.

One of the artists, DILK, has worked with MTN 94 for over 20 years.

“It’s all about partnership,” said Ms. Lam. “It’s like a family-run business.”

Ms. Luk from Dreamory, however, said it can be hard sometimes to start street art projects in Hong Kong because it’s difficult to find sponsors and resources.

“Usually, we start without any funding,” said Ms. Luk, “we buy paint and brushes with our own money, and hopefully, when you start getting attention, you get funding and resources from people who believe in what you do.”

Ms. Lam believes there are lots of opportunities for street art in other cities.

In Bristol in the U.K for example, the government invested a huge sum of money in Upfest, a three-day street art and graffiti festival. Artists from around the world are welcomed. Upfest is the largest festival of its kind in Europe. To promote local talent, Bristol-based artists are given more space than artists from anywhere else.

In Amsterdam, the government also puts money in the Urban Art Festival, which includes mural exhibitions and street art tours in partnership with more than 50 artists.

In Hong Kong, HKwalls rented a venue in Central where artists can showcase and sell their work. Stickers and t-shirts are also on offer.

Ms. Luk said the Hong Kong government has shown support for local art development by funding the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, but she doubts whether the council has clear directions on how to spend the money on developing street art.

The Hong Kong Arts Development Council focuses on annual art surveys to tap the trends in the local community. Through questionnaires, they gather the views of local businesses on art sponsorship and cultural activities.

Over the past year, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council provided more than $15,000,000 in grants, mainly to theatre, music and film operations.

But Mr. Wang, a local artist, believes street art has its audience in Hong Kong.

“I saw many photographers who have been following the work of HKwalls by wandering around this area,” said Mr. Wang. “People gather around to watch us paint.”

Media coverage of the festival has been extensive. Ms. Lam said street art has the potential to develop in Hong Kong because young people like it, but the progress can be faster if the government is willing to keep up with the trend.

“I think the difference is that governments in other countries are more open to new things and experiences,” said Ms. Lam, “maybe it’s not that the Hong Kong government is not accepting of new things, but just they are used to what they have always been doing.”