Writing's on the wall in graffiti artists' own warehouse space

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am

Behind a metal grille on the sixth floor of an industrial warehouse in Chai Wan lies a plywood skate ramp. A worn-in leather couch occupies the space in front of a large window that overlooks dredgers in the port.

On the white-washed walls, blasts of colour, composition and form confront the senses. They are works of art that have come from the nozzle of a spray paint can.

Welcome to Six Keyz, named after the half-dozen men who rent the 800-sq-ft space and have the keys to access it. The space was born out of a mutual love for skateboarding, art and music - passions that have been woven together to create 'a place where we can all hang out, but where we can express our art too', says Drift, one of the project's instigators.

The skate ramp, the centerpiece of the room, was intended as an art installation, built by Drift and neighbouring artist Simon Birch. Drift and his friends wanted the luxury of being able to skate inside. 'Since the ramp's construction a little over two months ago, Six Keyz has evolved [rapidly],' says Drift.

The result of their efforts can be seen in today's exhibition, titled Burn, by New York graffiti artists Pen1 and Drift. The men decline to reveal their real name or identities because of the sometimes subversive and illegal nature of their work (public graffiti is still forbidden by law in Hong Kong). 'It's also nice to be known for the work you do, not for who you are,' says Pen1.

They first met about seven years ago through mutual friends who shared an interest in graffiti and were involved in the New York scene together. At similar times but for different reasons, both men ended up living and working in Hong Kong.

Pen1 returned to Hong Kong a month ago from Melbourne where he is now based and is pleased with the collaboration. 'I like that we can go into that room with two bare walls and create two pieces that go in different directions,' he says. 'In the graffiti sense, to 'burn' something is to not hold back. You paint with such intensity that you're essentially showcasing how far it can go.'

Although the idea of a legal, organised exhibition isn't uncommon (guerilla artist Banksy held a series of mainstream exhibitions in the US), in Hong Kong the trend has yet to be fully accepted. 'Hong Kong has such a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world,' says Drift.

He hopes to gauge people's responses with this exhibition. 'I don't care if they are old or young, love it or hate it. It's great to get a reaction. At the end of the day, it would be great to be able to quit my job and do this full time. Something of this size and nature takes a lot of work - particularly if, like me, you work up to 50 hours a week,' he says, alluding to his job in design.

Both his and Pen1's piece took between 70 and 100 hours to come to fruition - from drawing the concept to seeing how they could utilise the space, then painting.

Drift says one of the main reasons he decided to test the waters here was 'because I felt like I could be more of an adult here. I thought I'd put the spray can down for a while and focus on work. But there's a newness and openness in Hong Kong that I couldn't resist and that's why I started getting back into it,' he says. 'It has the same energy New York had in the 1980s graffiti movement.'

Pen1 says this exhibition could help nail him down in Hong Kong again. 'When I first lived here, I will admit I found it tough. If all goes well with this, then I may end up giving Hong Kong a second shot,' he says.

As for Six Keyz, the skaters, musicians and artists who frequent it are proud of their nook.

'It's an eclectic collective - there's a great mix of people involved and we know about cool things in Hong Kong,' says Drift. 'We're definitely thinking about a second exhibition as well as other projects. We just want things to get bigger and bigger.'

Today, 1pm-5pm, Six Keyz Gallery, Chai Wan Industrial City Phase 1, 6/F Unit 603, 60 Wing Tai Road