Hong Kong Graffiti: Not for Lack of Inspiration
Subversive commentary should be thriving in Hong Kong. All the ingredients to spark graffiti are there -- the divides in social class, the thriving materialistic culture, and political antagonism with Mainland China.
“The longest recorded piece of graffiti was painted by a student in the toilets of his college, Changsha, China, in 1915. It consisted of over 4,000 characters criticising his teachers and state of Chinese society. After completing this masterpiece the student handed himself in and was paraded in front of the school and threatened with expulsion. The student was a 22 year old Chairman Mao. A graffiti artist who later founded the People’s Republic of China and was responsible for the deaths of over 30 million people. - Chiang Fang, Chinese Army Magazine, December 1968” – Banksy
When it comes to modern graffiti, New York or Paris immediately springs to mind as the pioneering centers of the art. Many overlook Asia’s contribution to the genre, which has been embraced by the mainstream as one of the four elements of modern hip-hop culture. Very few actually know that the Great Wall of China has been the public canvas for local and traveling artists alike since the 1950s. (Take that, Berlin Wall.) Over time, accreting layers of graffiti on the Great Wall have prompted management of the Juyongguan section to set up a diversional fake wall in 2006, for visitors to “pay as you carve”. Despite such efforts, it is impossible to refrain artists from marking such an historical and coveted landmark. Emerging graffiti groups like Knitta Please and Made in Guangzhou have, with success, tagged the sacred wall and escaped the wrath of state authorities to tell the tale.
Graffiti on the Great Wall
Artists in Hong Kong have also been tagging for decades. Tsang Tsou-choi, who went by the moniker “The King of Kowloon”, scribbled his family history on myriad public surfaces for over 30 years before his death last July. His works have been auctioned at Sotheby’s, and he was heralded at the 50th Venice Biennale as “probably the oldest graffiti artist in the world”. At Sotheby’s in 2004, a work by Tsang sold for twice its pre-auction estimate, shocking both the international auction house and Tsang himself. "It's worth that much money?" he asked the Sing Tao Daily, a Hong Kong newspaper.
Although he did several stints in jail over the years, citizens of Hong Kong loved Tsang, though many, too, tired of his claim to be the sovereign of Kowloon. Like Keith Haring and Banksy, Tsang painted on surfaces because he wanted to send a message. His works never made much of a dent in society, but everyone got the jist of his message. "Down with the Queen of England!” exclaimed in several of Tsang’s pieces. His legacy was also a style that Hong Kong could finally call its own, and many have fought to keep his signature calligraphy alive, even after his passing. However, no one has bothered to pick up where Tsang left off; in Hong Kong there is still a fundamental lack of appreciation for street art, despite Tsang’s international reputation.
Tsang Tsou-choi (reads: "Emperor", Tsang Tsou-choi's name, followed by all his ancestors' names.
“The government generally views street art as vandalism, ” explains Stan Wu, founder of InDeepEnd ent., a Hong Kong based, non-profit association that organizes street art events and discussion forums. According to Wu, this dismissive stance discourages companies from sponsoring graffiti events like Wall Lords, the largest multi-city graffiti competition in Greater China, which is organized by the group. In several of the five cities across the region in which the event is held, no public space was granted this year. Privately donated, less-than-ideal sites instead had to be found. Hong Kong’s Wall Lords graffiti battle took place inside a community center gymnasium. Wu said he “would have hosted the event somewhere else” if he’d had a willing corporate sponsor to fund the exhibit.
Gary Kramer, owner of The Embassy, a local Hong Kong gallery, also suffers from lack of funding, which forced him to move to the outskirts of the city to find a space that was both affordable and large enough to hold the works of street artists he promotes. Although content with the exposure the gallery has so far received, Kramer also freely vents the frustrations of a struggling gallery owner who’s trying to earn a decent living while not sacrificing the integrity of his message. “Look, The Embassy is not a business venture,” he says. “The best we’ve ever done is broken even on any event, and we usually come out in the red.” Local artists and galleries like Wu and Kramer still wish for the day when they may have to consider the dilemma of “selling out”.
Apart from funding issues for keeping the graffiti gallery open, there’s the problem of Hong Kongers themselves, who show little interest in perusing art galleries. Like their counterparts the world over, Hong Kong gallery owners readily admit that if it weren’t for free booze, people would not be bothered to attend gallery events at all. “I don’t know if people were there for the free beer, or if people were there for the art,” wonders Jurgen Abergas, director of Fabrik Contemporary Art, while describing his crowded Banksy exhibit opening in April.
Hong Kong, Kramer claims, “is a business city, not so much of a cultural city.” Based upon his observation and his experience as an artist in New York City, “It’s lacking in inspiration. You walk around the street and you’re only exposed to Louis Vuitton, and people making and spending lots of money.” Like every elitist group that springs from wealthy cities, Hong Kongers are also a notoriously materialist bunch who would rather attend a Prada store opening than a local art exhibit. “People in Hong Kong love to be in ‘it’ places,” explains Abergas. And they love to buy “it” objects. Sotheby’s reaped a record US$51.77 million this April in a single day from selling a slate of works by faddish contemporary Chinese artists at The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, located in the heart of the city. Auctions in Hong Kong, where art is often bought simply as a financial investment, have risen to become the third largest market behind New York and London.
In a New York Times article published in April 10, 2008, titled “Chinese Art Continues to Soar at Sotheby’s”, writer David Barboza explained that the most “sought-after artists” at the Sotheby’s auction were “in their 40s and 50s and came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s, when contemporary art was just beginning to blossom in China after broad economic and political changes.” While these older, more-established Chinese artists continue to bask in their newfound popularity amongst the richest circles, radical young Chinese artists are mostly ignored.
Yet there must be a young artist in the city that aspires to follow in Tsang’s footsteps, right? After all, Tsang possessed an inspiring story of influencing a new generation of designers and filmmakers, despite lacking art credentials himself. His unique style of obscure, pattern based Chinese calligraphy converted even the harshest of critics, including a member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council. Dom, founder of local art group Start From Zero, points out that many artists try out graffiti in Hong Kong, but few stick with it. He’s noticed no increase in the number of graffiti artists since he first started eight years ago and estimates that for every ten street artists in the city who pick up the spray can, nine quit within a year. “Where are all the local graffiti artists? Where are the local DJs? Where are the local hard-core bands?” wonders Kramer, the gallery owner.
Dom bemoans an “attention disorder” that plagues many local artists. According to him, they try only because of its stereotypically rebellious connotations. But the stagnation in creativity can also be attributed to Hong Kong’s laissez-faire capitalism. Chan Hoi-Man, professor at the department of sociology at Hong Kong’s Chinese University, says, “It’s a question of choice, if the population spends more time and attention on economic affairs, obviously culture or cultural creativity is de-emphasized”. By having spent too much time on economic affairs, the populace of Hong Kong has ended up defining good art by its price tag. “In the whole of Hong Kong, things are measured by their visible, immediate, and concrete outcome,” explains Chan. And to indulge in ambitious ideas like persistently spray-painting walls, where there is no immediate monetary gain, is deemed crazy by local standards.
Graffiti, an art form that is developed as subversive commentary, should be thriving in Hong Kong by now. All the signs of suppression are there -- the divides in social class, the thriving materialistic culture, and political antagonism with Mainland China. Yet not much noise has been made recently to address these issues. If the city continues its course of pure economic pursuit, those same artists who have been ignored by following the rules set up by government, will soon reach a breaking point. Hopefully, someone will come forward to announce their displeasure by developing uncompromising works of graffiti. Hopefully, someone as crazy as Tsang Tsou-choi.
Philip Leung is an arts and culture freelance writer from Toronto. He currently resides in Hong Kong and have written for publications such as Time Out Magazine and Corduroy Magazine.