The rise of Hong Kong street art – signs of a new creative awakening?

Street art is surging in Hong Kong. 

Two important exhibitions at Pearl Lam Galleries and Above Second are bringing artists off the gritty concrete and into the air-conditioning – revealing the city’s thriving sub-cultures and the presence of notable international talents. 

Installation view of 4Get from "Hidden Street" at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo by Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Installation view of 4Get’s work from “Hidden Street” at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo: Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Are we seeing signs of a creative awakening in Hong Kong? The city’s street artists have certainly been busy in recent years with the establishment of major events and galleries to support them, as well as a wave of international street artists coming to exhibit or even settle in the city to collaborate with local artists. Art Radar looks into the wave of developments in recent years and questions what the future has to hold.

Installation view of Bao's and Sinic's works (from left to right) from "Hidden Street" at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo by Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Installation view of Bao’s and Sinic’s works (from left to right) from “Hidden Street” at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo: Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

In 2013 the largest ever exhibition of international street art “Work in Progress” took place in a loading bay and defunct office space in Quarry Bay’s glitzy Somerset House. The show drew attention in the media and gave an international kick-start to the street art scene.

The following year, Hong Kong’s only international street art and graffiti festival was founded. HKwalls became a great catalyst for creative production of street art at the local level, giving the opportunity for artists to leave their designs on surfaces with the permission of building owners. Works from the 2014 festival in Sheung Wang and Stanley Market are still visible.

Adding fuel to the trend was the vast Umbrella Movement in late 2014. The protests turned out to be a rife platform for the creation of street art, with students, activists and citizens leaving their marks on the city’s concrete and turning the streets into extraordinary art installations. Their visual messages and rebellions were catapulted into the world’s consciousness via the international media reporting on the protests.

Sinic, Felipe Wong, Anny, Cath Love, Hadrian Lam, Uns and Peter Yuill from "Hidden Street" at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo by Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Sinic, Felipe Wong, Anny, Cath Love, Hadrian Lam, Uns and Peter Yuill from “Hidden Street” at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo: Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

From the streets to the gallery

This August, we’re seeing a new shift. Pearl Lam Galleries in SOHO is now starting to do the opposite: bringing the streets into the gallery with “Hidden Street” (PDF download), a community art project and exhibition of urban art on show until 11 September. Featuring some of the most well-known, young graffiti names in Hong Kong, the show includes a three-day live-painting session, artist talks, events with local indie singer and illustrator Jan Curious and workshops. A highlight is the screening of On The Road (2012), a street art travel documentary supported by Converse that recounts the 50-day, 2.250-kilometre-long painting journey from Southwest China’s Kunming to Tibet by artists Sinic, NAN and WHYYY (IDT Crew).

Installation view of Peter Yuill's work from "Hidden Street" at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo by Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Installation view of Peter Yuill’s work from “Hidden Street” at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo: Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

The exhibition is also taking place in an area that is the ripest for street art in Hong Kong. The artists in the show all have connections to the Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun neighbourhoods – historic areas on the western side of Hong Kong Island that are known for a unique art scene, restaurants and nightlife where Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO is located. The gallery provides a map with the location of some of the artworks present in the area by the nine exhibited artists.

Installation view of Bao, Anny, Felipe, Hadrian and Uns' collaborative mural from "Hidden Street" at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo by Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Installation view of Bao, Anny, Felipe, Hadrian and Uns’ collaborative mural from “Hidden Street” at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo: Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Bao, a young self-taught female graffiti artist, has created two large murals in collaboration with Hadrian Lam, Felipe Wong, Uns and Anny, inspired by the red, white and blue colours of the neighbourhood, and using found objects like majhong tiles and a post box for a collage effect. Canadian artist Peter Yuill’s hand-painted raven is inspired by Norse mythology, while local artist Sinic incorporated advertisement posters he took off local walls with a fusion of Western and Chinese calligraphy, transporting the alley into the gallery and visualising what is happening to the old buildings in the area.

Gallerist Pearl Lam tells Art Radar:

[…] By showing nine Hong Kong based street artists, I hope we can create a platform to engage audience[s] from a more diversified background and encourage dialogues at all levels.

An artwork by Nick Walker. Image courtesy the artist and Above Second, Hong Kong.

An artwork by Nick Walker. Image courtesy the artist and Above Second, Hong Kong.

Another major show opens

Only a few days after “Hidden Street” closes, another gallery in the area, Above Second, launches a solo exhibition of pioneering British street artist Nick Walker (b. 1969) entitled “Entrophy”.

Nick Walker, who is based in Bristol, first came to Hong Kong in December 2014 to gain inspiration and collect photographs for his future work in the show. “Entrophy” comprises a series created for the exhibition in honour of Hong Kong’s urban aesthetics, whose “abundance of old signage and history, and […] a very gritty edge” provide a connection between the city and the artist’s street scenes. Walker’s dystopian sci-fi imagery takes inspiration from the illustrative works of Moebius and Ridley Scott’s 1982 feature film Blade Runner (which was produced by Hong Kong’s Sir Run Run Shaw) as well as Jasper Johns.

An artwork by Nick Walker. Image courtesy the artist and Above Second, Hong Kong.

An artwork by Nick Walker. Image courtesy the artist and Above Second, Hong Kong.

An artwork by Nick Walker. Image courtesy the artist and Above Second, Hong Kong.

An artwork by Nick Walker. Image courtesy the artist and Above Second, Hong Kong.

A growing trend?

The increasing number of street art-focused exhibitions in Hong Kong may indicate a growing trend or renewed appreciation of the genre. While street art has long been in the city, it is hitting a new level of visibility. David Langlois Ng at Above Second tells Art Radar:

Street art is an art form that grew because of its ability to inspire individuals from every walk of life, the richest and least wealthiest person on the street can appreciate a tag if they know what they’re looking at. […]

Gallerist Pearl Lam, whose new gallery space in SoHo aims to complement her larger Pedder Building gallery, tells Art Radar:

Attention and interests on street art are developing. Graffiti was one of the first street art forms the general public came across, but nowadays, the audience is exposed to a wider range of street art including sculptures, mural paintings, installations and more, thanks to the support of various arts institutions and galleries providing exhibition space. You would be surprised by the number of active street artists in Hong Kong. […] The popularity of street art is growing in Hong Kong but it has been underrated for many years. The recent ‘Wipe Out’ exhibition at PMQ drew much attention and attracted a great number of crowds. The exhibition particularly went viral on social media platforms. […]

Installation view of Cath Love's work from "Hidden Street" at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo by Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Installation view of Cath Love’s work from “Hidden Street” at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo: Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Will it last?

Secret Walls, a worldwide live street art and graffiti competition, premiered in Hong Kong in 2013 and just held its 2015 edition in July. Together with the annual HKwalls festival, this event is a catalyst for the local street art scene and promotes a better understanding of graffiti art to the public, as well as giving a platform for artists to express themselves freely. But while HKwalls tries to find permanent locations for at least some of the artwork, Secret Walls is more of a temporary, even though rewarding, opportunity for artists.

Many artists, both local and international, creating street art in Hong Kong have one common complaint: the government is very quick and effective in erasing the art from public walls and street venues. One obvious local example is the late King of Kowloon, a street art legend in Hong Kong, whose works have all been painted over, even after the government committed to preserving some of it.

Installation view of Bao, Anny, Felipe, Hadrian and Uns' collaborative work from "Hidden Street" at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo by Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Installation view of Bao, Anny, Felipe, Hadrian and Uns’ collaborative work from “Hidden Street” at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo by Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

In early 2014, French street artist Invader came to Hong Kong to install 48 of his tiled works inspired by first generation arcade videogames in various spots in the city, only to see the majority of them being scratched off a month or so later. The Hong Kong Government was in for a surprise a year later in early 2015, when a replica of Invader’s life-sized Hong Kong Phooey (HK 58) achieved HKD1.96 million (USD250,000) at auction at Sotheby’s.

In May 2015, the new arts venue PMQ held “Wipe Out”, an exhibition of works by Invader, including some of those that the government wiped off the city’s walls. This may also be another solution for street artists, who usually are intimidated and out of context in a gallery: creating work that can be collected and conserved ‘forever’, not in the streets but still in the urban surroundings, as Zhang Dali’s evolution demonstrates in his recent exhibition “Under the Sky” (PDF download) at Pékin Fine Arts in Hong Kong.

An artwork by Nick Walker. Image courtesy the artist and Above Second, Hong Kong.

An artwork by Nick Walker. Image courtesy the artist and Above Second, Hong Kong.

Fortunately, there are places where artworks can survive their short material life in the virtual sphere, like HK Street Art, a website that archives an ever growing collection of street art and graffiti around Hong Kong. The Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective has also made an effort to preserve, document and archive the 2014 protest art. The Google Cultural Institute has a vast virtual collection of images of King of Kowloon’s work.

Installation view of Sinic's work from "Hidden Street" at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo by Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

Installation view of Sinic’s work from “Hidden Street” at Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO, 2015. Photo: Moses Ng / studioEAST. Image courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.

A new cultural awakening?

Even though street art might still have, for the majority, a short life span in Hong Kong’s public spaces, an increasing number of venues and art galleries in the city are welcoming and commissioning street artists to create work to display on the walls of their restaurants, cafes and businesses. There might, after all, be a bright future ahead for artists devoted to the form.

As David Langlois Ng at Above Second tells Art Radar:

Hong Kong is now the base for many renowned street artists such as: Peter Yuill, The Parents Parents, Stern Rockwell, Cath Love among others, and previously Mark Gross and the late, King Of Kowloon. Culturally and politically, this is a crucial era in Hong Kong’s history. With groups such as HKwalls, Vafford Gates, and our gallery, who exist here and are committed to putting street art in the public eye, street art appreciation in the city has grown exponentially in the last few years. Though we might not be at the point of what was going on for street art in New York during the 1980s with the graffiti boom, or Bristol at around the same time, I wouldn’t think that we are far off from a new cultural awakening.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, emerging artists, street art, graffiti, urban art, political art, art and the community, democratisation of art, gallery shows, events in Hong Kong

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