1 April 2016
Off the Wall
In Kowloon’s gritty Sham Shui Po district, an industrial building has gone under wraps. Concealed beneath a sturdy bamboo frame and sheathed in green netting, two artists from the Hong Kong collective Parents Parents are painting against the clock to complete a large-scale mural spanning nine floors. Hong Kong is no stranger to regeneration, but this creative endeavour is something new.
“The biggest convincer is explaining what we are. Sham Shui Po has an older generation, with a local population that might not even be aware of the street art concept or know what a street festival is,” says Jason Dembski, co-founder of HKwalls, an annual week-long arts festival to promote street art and graffiti, which ran 21-27 March.
“They are concerned about legalities and content,” says Mr Dembski of tenants he approaches about procuring their wall space. “But so far, the response has been pretty good. There’s little debate. It’s usually a five-minute conversation followed by a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
Asia’s Art Hub
Once regarded as a cultural desert, Hong Kong has, in recent years, become Asia’s go-to art hub. It has been a little over five years since art fair behemoth Art Basel acquired the city’s successful, fledgling fair Art HK, and since then interest in art has bloomed, with March becoming Hong Kong’s de facto “art month.”
What once was a highbrow activity for the well-off is trickling down, springing offshoots and satellite fairs catering to a diverse crowd. Fairs running alongside Art Basel in 2016 included the Asia Contemporary Art Show and Art Central, with a host of smaller scale gallery and private showings, talks and events. One surprising success has been HKwalls.
Until recently, very little graffiti art has been seen in Hong Kong: enter HKwalls. Responding to the big fairs and spotting an opportunity to promote street art, Mr Dembski, a designer, started HKwalls three years ago with friend Stan Wu, a long-time Hong Kong-based graffiti artist.
Reaching a Wider Audience
In 2014, HKwalls grassroots initiative was run on a shoestring budget in Sheung Wan, a hip, up-and-coming neighbourhood on Hong Kong Island. That year, 15 artists took part, painting small spaces between coffee houses, bars and boutiques.
This year that number doubled, with artists flown in from the United States, Spain, Singapore and the Philippines, to name a few. A partnership with skate shoe producer Vans has boosted visibility and funds. That has extended programming to events and workshops, helping to defray flight costs and other expenses, such as rental fees for cranes and bamboo scaffolding. These are all costs that add up, notes Mr Dembski.
The festival location this year moved across Victoria Harbour to the working-class neighbourhood in Sham Shui Po. Moving was a double-pronged decision. The fair’s organisers wanted to reach a wider audience outside its existing, mainly expatriate base. The older district also offers bigger spaces to paint.
Hong Kong’s budding local street-art scene appears to be growing. HKwalls has done much to boost recognition in Hong Kong and overseas; news of the festival has spread fast, frequently by word of mouth. For many international artists, HKwalls is a first taste of Asia, and Hong Kong’s urban location holds appeal. “They are keen to get Asia in their portfolios,” Mr Dembski says.
Spanish graffiti artist Oscar San Miguel Erice, a pop surrealist who works under the name Okuda, heard about HKwalls through an artist that participated in its 2015 festival, Felipe Pantone. Mr Erice says he loves the concept of painting in an “urban jungle.” An in-demand artist who takes part in global events and festivals every few months, he was swayed by the wall space in an old textile building in Sham Shui Po. “My painting was in the middle of buildings with different sizes and in a very special location,” he says.
The festival’s calendar timing with Art Basel was an added incentive, offering networking opportunities and a chance to mingle with the larger art community, he says.
For Eman Reharno Jeman, better known as Singaporean artist Clogtwo, HKwalls brings together the Asian street-art community for shared ideas and inspiration. Kristopher Ho, a Hong Kong-based artist often commissioned for commercial projects, took part in this year’s festival and shares a similar view. “It’s a good chance to test my skills and to learn from these experienced street artists in Hong Kong. At the same time, the impact it gives is far greater than a regular artwork on paper,” he says.
Art collective Parents Parents has been involved with the festival since the event’s inception in 2013, and has watched it evolve. There have been TV slots, magazine articles and print exhibitions showcasing participants’ work. Interest in street art is spreading among the Hong Kong art community, members of the collective say, and street artists are receiving invitations to exhibit. Gallery Above Second, which in 2013 held a huge exhibition of international public street art, is one space dedicated to showing graffiti, graphics and design work.
“People are intrigued by street art and graffiti in general, and they are really curious about what an artist will do,” says Mr Dembski of HKwall’s appeal. But even he admits being surprised by how much the festival has caught on. “Sometimes I just can’t believe we are doing this,” he says. “It’s kind of nuts.”