March 31st, 2010

How to Become a Street Artist in Hong Kong

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Chief Executive Donald Tsang is telling us to develop Hong Kong’s creative industries. But not everyone can join a band, start a graphic design firm or curate an art show. If you’ve got enough talent and a penchant for risk, there is one thing you can do: become a street artist.

To find out how, I spoke to two of Hong Kong’s two most prolific crews of street artists, Start From Zero and Graphic Airlines, whose posters and stickers can be seen all over town. Start from Zero specializes in stencil-based images that represent artistic freedom and new beginnings. Graphic Airlines is known for a range of odd cartoonish characters — monsters, mutant bunnies and especially a band of chubby-faced people that represent the Hong Kong everyman.

“Hong Kong people are so busy, we don’t have time to slow down and think about life,” says Vi, one of Graphic Airlines’ two members. “Street art gives us a chance to think about something other than making money, investing in property or the stock market.”

Here’s how you can work to way to street art stardom.

1. Learn from the masters

Banksy is probably the best-known street artist in the world. After getting his start in the early 1990s with a Bristol graffiti crew, he moved on to stencilling, which allowed him to create more complex pieces in less time. His work is known for its satire and tongue-in-cheek wit — one piece depicts a municipal worker cleaning off cave drawings from a wall in London — and it has earned him an astonishing amount of celebrity. Even that doesn’t stop his work from being regularly removed by cleaners.

Here in Hong Kong, Tsang Tsou-choi, better known as the King of Kowloon, covered the city in manic diatribes claiming that he was the rightful owner of Kowloon. Though the message was loopy, his distinct calligraphy won him international attention and praise. When he died in 2007, the government vowed to preserve what remained of his work, but so far only a pillar at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry pier has been protected.

2. Brainstorm

Street art is most powerful when it packs an intellectual, emotional or political punch. Site-specific art that comments on its surroundings is especially effective. In 2006, the Montreal street artist Roadsworth attracted international attention with playful stencils sprayed on sidewalks and roads, including an owl perched on the shadow of a lamppost and a lane divider transformed into a zipper. The French artist JR went to a shantytown in Nairobi, took photos of the residents and then printed the portraits on giant vinyl tarps that he used to make new waterproof roofs for the area’s shacks.

Start from Zero got its start in the early 2000s when its founder, Dom, was fresh out of high school. Inspired by a Shepard Fairey poster he saw near Times Square — “it wasn’t commercial, it wasn’t a government announcement, so I really wanted to know what it was” — he began making his own stencils and stickers and distributing them through Stencil Revolution. They proved especially popular in the UK and Taiwan. “It gave me a lot of energy to see my stickers in other countries, even though it cost me a lot of money in postage.”

Dom and his partner in crime, Katol, come up with a concept before getting to work on a stencil. One of their latest pieces is a portrait of Henry Tang that attacks the textile tycoon and government chief secretary as a “political reform killer.” Before doing that, Dom brushed up on his knowledge of Hong Kong politics, something he had never taken much interest in before. “Like when I go to school, I have to do some research and make a report and give it to my teacher, except now my teacher is Katol,” he says.

3. Find your medium

These days, street art is about more than just spray paint. German artist Jan Vormann travels the world patching up buildings with Lego. In Montreal, artists work with cardboard, copper plate etchings and woodblocks. And the latest fad is yarn bombing, which involves knitting wool cozies for lampposts, trees and coolest of all, street signs.

Hong Kong street artists have stuck with more conventional media: stencils, paint and posters. Part of the reason, says Dom, is economic. He uses thick paper to make the stencils and cheap mahjong paper for the posters, which are easier to stick to walls.

4. Pick the right spot and be quick

Choosing the right location to work is almost an art in itself. Katol says that the best places to work are those with a combination of high pedestrian traffic and grimy buildings where street art is left untouched. The areas around Times Square in Causeway Bay, Granville Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Graham Street in Central and the Broadway Cinematheque in Yau Ma Tei are favourites because they guarantee a large audience. Other, quieter areas, like a few strips along the East Rail Line in Mongkok and Kowloon Tong and the Oil Street waterfront in North Point are also popular because they give artists more freedom to work undisturbed.

On a Friday evening last month, Dom joined Tat from Graphic Airlines to put up some work in Kwun Tong, not far from their studios. Armed with a bag full of posters and two bottles of white glue mixed with water, they ventured out in search of the perfect spot to paste. Dom settled on the entrance to an underpass where he put up a Henry Tang poster in less than a minute. “You have to be quick,” he says.

5. Deal with the cops

Street art is usually illegal and if they’re caught by the police, artists risk getting charged with criminal damage. Luckily for Hong Kong’s street artists, the local police tend not to get worked up over it. “We haven’t got any complaints about it,” says Wan Chai district police commander Blake Hancock when asked about some of the street art around Causeway Bay. “If it’s something obscene, or if it’s a concern to public safety, we might intervene. But I’m personally not aware of it.”

Dom says he gets stopped by police about once a year. So far, he has never been arrested or fined. The key, he says, is to talk about art. “They ask me what I’m doing and I’ll say I’m making art, not graffiti, and if I talk about it long enough I can see they don’t care and they’ll just let me go.”

6. Cash in

There’s always been an uneasy relationship between art and money, but Start from Zero and Graphic Airlines don’t have any qualms about trying to earn a living from what they do. Last month, the two crews teamed up to open the Alley Shop, a clothing and accessory boutique in Tsim Sha Tsui. “Some people say we’re commercial, but I don’t care,” says Dom. “I’m just doing what I like to do.”

A couple of years ago, a crew of local French artists began crossing out Start from Zero’s posters. “I guess they thought they were boring or something,” says Dom. So he made a new stencil of a young boy, his mother and the caption: “Maman te dit de respecter.” Mother tells you to respect.

This article was originally published on CNNGo.


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