October 22nd, 2014

The Urban Space of Occupied Hong Kong

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What surprised me most was the silence. Here I was, standing on what is normally an eight-lane funnel of angry traffic, and the only sounds I could hear were footsteps and the soft murmur of voices. Free of diesel exhaust, the briny scent of the harbour lingered in the air, and a warm breeze ruffled the nylon shells of tents laid out in tidy rows along the sides of the road.

I’ve been away from Hong Kong for six weeks. It seemed like a good time to get away, as the muggy heat of summer dragged on interminably, but two weeks after my departure, a student strike was met with tear gas and suddenly the city was occupied. This wasn’t just Occupy Central, the campaign of civil disobedience that had been promised for a year if Beijing and the local government failed to institute reforms that would allow free elections for Chief Executive in 2017. That campaign had become more of a bogeyman than anything else, a cudgel wielded by autocratic, unaccountable leaders whose box of governance tools consists of fear and intimidation and little else. I had doubts it would even happen. Instead, a much larger and more unwieldy phenomenon occurred: students and their supporters erected barricades in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, effectively wresting control of these important neighbourhoods from the government and placing them in the hands of a loosely affiliated band of citizens.

If you’ve been following the news, you know what happened next: a remarkably peaceful occupation was later attacked by bands of organized thugs, who beat protesters and destroyed their shelters as police shamefully stood by. The next day, protesters rebuilt their encampments and carried on. Each time the occupation seems to be waning, something comes along to jolt it back to life, be it triad attacks, police bullying or the spectacularly tone-deaf leadership of Chief Executive CY Leung, a Beijing puppet who recently told international media that Hong Kong can’t have real democracy because it would give too much power to the city’s many poor people.

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December 18th, 2013

The Last Days of 5 Pointz

5 ptz, Long Island City, New York, 2013.

Even if you don’t follow street art or hip hop, you might have heard the news: 5 Pointz is dead. Technically, the old warehouse in Long Island City is still standing — though it is slated for redevelopment — but its essence as an art space was stripped away in the early hours of November 19, when 20 years worth of graffiti was covered with white paint. Since 1993, 5 Pointz has been a mecca for artists and graffiti writers from around the world. Inside, 200 artists worked in subsidized studios, while the exterior of the building became an enormous canvas for just about every kind of street art you can imagine, from throw ups to paste ups to elaborate murals.

The building was sold to property developer David Wolkoff, and in August, the New York City Planning Commission approved its demolition. Though the new development will include low-cost housing and a “curated” space for graffiti — along with 1,000 condominiums — the 5 Pointz community has been vigorously fighting against it. The whitewashing was the developer’s attempt to make a point: we own this space now, not you, so fuck off. When I first heard what had happened, I was reminded of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and while that might seem like an extreme comparison, the two actions come from the same wellspring of contempt for cultural difference.

Not long after the whitewashing, I was emailed by Eric Lau, a New York-based designer and photographer. He wanted to share with me some photos he had taken at the last hip hop battle that occurred at 5 Pointz. The photos were taken on black and white film. Here’s a lightly edited version of what he told me about his experience.

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April 4th, 2012

Roadsworth’s Legacy

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Eight years ago, I was crossing Fairmount Avenue near my apartment in Montreal’s Mile End district when I noticed a strange addition to the zebra crossing beneath my feet: barbed wire. Not actual barbed wire, but a painted rendition of it along the edge of the crosswalk, half in yellow, the other half white, both colours indistinguishable from the other road markings on the street.

Strange, I thought. Is this a new initiative by the city to raise awareness of pedestrian rights? A nod to the sanctity of the crosswalk? Before I could finish crossing the street, a car sailed past me without bothering to stop.

By the time summer arrived, everyone had noticed the funny new road markings around town. Lane dividers were turned into giant zippers. Crosswalk zebra stripes became birthday candles. One crossing had become a giant shoeprint. Many of the works made brilliant use of nighttime shadows: owls stranded in the middle of asphalt during the day found a perch after dark. It was unlike any graffiti I had seen before. I wondered who had done it.

My answer came in July, when I visited Wooster Collective, a street art blog. There, I found images of the road stencils I had been walking past for month, and attached to them was a name: Roadsworth. They were accompanied by a brief Q&A.

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March 28th, 2012

The Other Colors of La Boca

Posted in Art and Design, History, Latin America by Christopher Szabla

The rainbow-hued streetscape squats somewhere on nearly every postcard of Buenos Aires — those, that is, it doesn’t dominate — like some psychedelic, bizarro-world version of the city, a clownish counterpart to the stately Second Empire apartment houses lining the boulevards of Retiro and Recoleta. “The Paris of South America” this isn’t — La Boca, as the neighborhood it’s located in is called, owes its architectural lineage to instead to Genoa, whose sons disembarked on the dirty banks of the Riachuelo River, south of the city center — only now being tidied up after two centuries of industrial effluence and studied neglect — during the 19th century. Throwing up wood and sheet metal tenements plastered in the paint colors left over from nearby shipyards, they promptly set out to build a distinctly different Buenos Aires.

Long before Jorge Luis Borges complained about the forced Gallicization of his native city, La Boca was a world apart from the rest of the city. As journalist José Ceppi, nom de plume Aníbal Latino, wrote in his book Argentinos y europeos, in 1888:

[C]ommunication [between La Boca and the rest of Buenos Aires] is convenient, easy, fast, continuous, by tramway and by rail, and yet [the neighborhood] has a character so different, so special, seems to be fifty miles away. Many, even in Buenos Aires, speak of La Boca as if it were out of town, not a neighborhood that is a few steps from the main square. The contrast derives from the different architecture of its houses — and more still, the nature, character, and morals of its inhabitants.

A “few steps from the main square” (the current Plaza de Mayo) was an exaggeration, but the cultural divide Ceppi noted was not. In 1882, the neighborhood had even seceded, briefly, from Argentina, raising above the neighborhood the Genovese flag. The attempt to make the rotten-smelling but riotously colorful slum the continent’s first Italian city-state had to be repressed with a show of arms.

Today’s invaders are more likely to be led by tour guides than military commanders, blithely oblivious to the crumbling destitution of most of La Boca barrio, stumbling through that postcard street — the Caminito — and packing another, Magellanes, which overflows with overpriced food and drink. Because of this incursion, there are really three Bocas: the brightly-painted, two-block tourist cloister at the neighborhood’s heart is one. Another is the greyscaled dirge of urban poverty that stretches to the barrio boundaries, encompassing burnt-out cars, homeless encampments, and streets with enough potholes to no longer qualify as “paved”. The third awkwardly straddles the chasm between them — a transitional region of slowly decaying storefronts and brightly painted tavernas alike.

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March 5th, 2012

Graffiti Republic

Posted in Art and Design, Latin America, Politics, Public Space by Christopher Szabla

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Before Greece erupted into riots against austerity measures, before the sit-ins that convulsed public squares across Spain, long before 2011′s tumultuous protests against world financial systems began “kicking off everywhere“, things had long since kicked off in Argentina. The 2001 protests that gripped the country during its madcap financial crisis offered a sort of preview of what was to come to Europe and — to a lesser, tamer extent — North America, ten years later. So, too, many writers have claimed, did it appear to offer lessons for the future of crisis-battered debtor nations.

The paint-splattered walls of central Buenos Aires, at least, still seem alive with the spirit of the dramatic standoffs that convulsed the Argentine capital over a decade ago, when they famously forced President Fernando de la Rúa to flee from the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, by helicopter. In the streets that border and radiate from the Plaza de Mayo, the country’s nexus of power, graffiti suffused with the economic themes that resonated in 2001 continues, after regular rounds of angry demonstrations, to climb the walls of even the most stately banks and government office buildings. Not even the Cabildo, a historic landmark that was the center of colonial government in the city, is spared; its freshly-restored facade is one of protest graffiti artists’ favorite targets.

Long after still-frequent demonstrations recede, the remaining graffiti renders the heart of the city redolent with palpable, present anger. The visual contrasts — incensed slogans set against the neighborhood’s slickly-suited crowds of commuters and imperious, alabaster edifices — suggest something akin to Occupy Wall Street, but the effect, particularly in its semipermanence, is far more intimidating than anything recent New York protests managed to muster. It’s as if militant slogans only slightly less charged than those that have crawled onto facades of cities linked to the uprisings of the Arab Spring had suddenly appeared in an environment that looks more like Washington or Whitehall.

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October 31st, 2011

New Art, Old Wall

Posted in Art and Design, Europe by Daniel Corbeil

If you walk through San Lorenzo, currently one of Rome’s most “trendy” neighborhoods (even if it’s also said to be “underground”) you will probably come upon this very old wall while jumping off of Tram no. 19.

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September 29th, 2011

Seen in Sheung Wan

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

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Though street art is not as pervasive in Hong Kong as it is in European and North American cities, it is very common in certain neighbourhoods. Sheung Wan is one of them. In the district’s many back lanes and quiet streets, just about every spare surface is covered with a tag, stencil or poster.

Last March, I wandered through the area and recorded some of what I saw. It’s very much a reflection of Hong Kong’s current state of mind. One of the pieces depicts a jasmine hawker selling jasmine flowers, a reference to both the Arab Spring and the response of Chinese activists to the increasingly harsh crackdown on mainland China intellectuals, human rights lawyers and dissidents. Another criticizes the Hong Kong government’s aloofness and unaccountability. One pokes fun at the ascendant Chinese art market, which has led to the concentration of major international galleries and auction houses in Hong Kong.

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September 8th, 2011

Brooklyn’s Fractured Faces

Posted in Art and Design, Politics, United States by Christopher Szabla

Know which leafy block to turn down off the numbered avenues of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, squint past the bright spots of sun and deep shadows dappling the ground late into a summer day, and you can puzzle them together — a series of portraits, “ghostly apparitions” as the New York Times called them — spanning the steps of front stoops of the brownstones lining a short span of Bergen Street.

This is an improbable venue for a public protest against the wildly expensive and potentially transformational real estate development several blocks north, let alone a global art sensation, yet the photos on Bergen Street manage to be part, nevertheless, of both. They’re intended as a demonstration of solidarity with immigrant shop owners, the subjects of the portraits, whose businesses, local residents fear, are in danger of displacement in the wake of the Atlantic Yards project, an effort to develop several blocks wedged between Park Slope and the adjacent neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights into a basketball arena surrounded by skyscraping office buildings and condo towers.

But the portraits have drawn more attention as a prominent local iteration of “Inside Out,” a worldwide participatory street art project orchestrated by JR, a seminonymous French photographer who rocketed to Banksy-level fame for his work, which began as a guerilla effort to bring portraits of marginalized suburban youth to the affluent streets of central Paris and grew to include pasting “supercolossal” photo portraits covering the roofs and walls of largely impoverished urban neighborhoods from China to Kenya to Brazil.

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April 30th, 2011

In Defence of Street Art


Ai Wei Wei projection graffiti, Hong Kong. Photo by Cpak Ming

This month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles opened a new exhibition on the history of street art and graffiti, the first such show at a major American museum. It has been greeted by controversy. One of the curators has been accused of having a commercial conflict of interest and street artists have accused the museum of censoring one of the graffiti murals it commissioned.

The exhibition has also suffered from broad-based attacks on its very subject matter. Last week, City Journal published a lengthy attack by Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald, whose argument against the show can be summarized as follows: graffiti is a cancer that destroys cities, yet it has been embraced by hypocritical cultural elites who rarely suffer the consequence of is damage. She seems utterly offended that a major art museum would consider mounting a show dedicated to vandalism.

Leaving aside a minute the fact that the Manhattan Institute is a think tank that promotes “greater economic choice and individual responsibility” — a euphemism for the neo-liberal policies that have dismantled social programs and financial regulations and ushered in an era of economic instability and a growing wealth gap — MacDonald’s piece is worth considering because it makes use of so many of the most common arguments against street art. To start, she trots out that tired old workhorse, the broken-windows theory, which suggests that any instance of neglect or disrepair in an urban neighbourhood will lead to higher crime rates and a breakdown of social order. MacDonald uses it to illustrate graffiti’s effect on cities:

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April 17th, 2011

Music for the Kinetic Metropolis

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Every so often a musician comes along that captures the mood of a city, or at least a certain subset of its time and population. George Gershwin’s compositions embodied the bittersweet optimism of the striver’s New York; more recently, LCD Soundsystem evokes the disaffection felt in the gentrified, Bloomberg-era city. And what better represents the angst and aimlessness of 1990s Montreal than the melodramatic nihilism of Godspeed You Black Emperor?

If anyone can be said to capture the zeigeist of Hong Kong in the early 2010s, it’s Choi Sai-ho, the experimental electronic musician and video artist who I profiled last year for CNNGo. His frenetic music feeds on Hong Kong’s relentless entrepreneurial drive, something that created created remarkable wealth in the 1970s and 80s but which lost its purpose after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. Hong Kong today is a hamster in a cage, spinning furiously with nowhere to go. The desire for constant advancement and enrichment has been perverted into a kind of civic OCD that, if left untreated, could leave the city utterly debilitated. Already the signs are there, including a yawning wealth gap that is growing larger every year.

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April 16th, 2011

Who’s Afraid of Ai Wei Wei?

At three o’clock on Wednesday morning, the air beneath the Central Mid-Levels Escalator became thick with the fumes of spray paint as a young university student left a message on the escalator’s pillars: “Who’s afraid of Ai Wei Wei?”

Over the past week, the student, nicknamed Chin, has blitzed some of Hong Kong’s most high-profile locations with the message and hand-cut stencil portraits of Ai, the Beijing-based artist and activist who was arrested on April 3rd while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong.

Now Chin is on the run from the Hong Kong police’s Regional Crime Unit, which normally investigates serious crimes like rape and murder. She risks being charged with criminal damage, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail. But she says she remains unbowed.

“It will be worth it if just one person sees what I’ve done and asks themselves, ‘Why should Ai Wei Wei be silenced?’’” she said.

“What I’m doing is not random tagging. I expected there to be an investigation at some point, especially since there is a political message here. If I am arrested, I have trust in the Hong Kong legal system that my case can be heard fairly. In the worst case scenario, I know that I might have to pay a fine and go to jail, and I’m prepared for that.”

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March 20th, 2011

Public Service Murals in Suzhou

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Sue Anne Tay

After spotting a series of public service mosaics around Shanghai’s old alleys, I’ve been keeping my eye out for similar posters on out-of-town trips.

My latest trip to Suzhou had been fruitful. I spotted this row of lovely painted murals while strolling through a quiet lane parallel to the busy Shiquan Street (十全街), which emphasized hygienic habits like picking up litter and washing your hands after meals.

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March 15th, 2011

Public Service Mosaics in Shanghai

Ruihua Lane (瑞华坊) is one of the many old alleys in Shanghai’s Luwan District (卢湾区), but it’s distinguished by its wonderful display of visual public service announcements made up entirely of large mosaic tiles.

Though slightly fading, the posters, in good Party-like slogan fashion, reminded the lane’s former residents of behaviors that went along with a civilized society: protecting the environment (绿化美化,保护环境), maintaining neighborly and familial harmony (邻里团结,家庭和睦) (with the classic two grandparents-two parents-one child family structure), keeping law and order (遵纪守法,遵纪秩序), helping others (in the footsteps of the exemplary revolutionary hero Lei Feng, 学习雷锋,助人为乐)  and promoting the belief in science to combat superstitions (普及科学破除迷). The cartoons were simply drawn, in a style made to resemble that of a young child, but effective.

When asked, an older resident walking his dog said the mosaics were put up sometime in early 2000s. But why here on Ruihua Lane, and not anywhere else?

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February 25th, 2011

Strange Graffiti in King’s Park

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

I’m a big fan of street art for all sorts of reasons: it is a sign of dynamic urban life, it is a jab in the face of authority, it makes my walks through the city more interesting. But street art, like all forms of art, can get stuck in a rut. When it takes itself too seriously I begin to lose interest.

That is why I am so fascinated by what might be termed outsider street art. This is the work creates by people who don’t see themselves as artists and who don’t necessarily conceive of what they’re doing as art. Their work is a means to an end, but because that end is often opaque, the message is seductively ambiguous. Two prime examples of this are the King of Kowloon and the Plumber King.

Last weekend, I came across another example while walking through King’s Park, a hilly green area not far from my apartment. On the side of a quiet road leading up to an underground reservoir, somebody had scrawled dozens of words, phrases and names on a white retaining wall. Some referred to history, others to literature, still others to common sayings. What they had to do with one another wasn’t clear.

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