Tags 'R' us
Big brands co-opt street artists to tap the lucrative youth market. But there's a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, writes David Momphard
Japanese DJ/designer Hiroshi Fujiwara strums through Strawberry Fields Forever at a party for some of the city's trendiest twentysomethings. They've packed the invitation-only event not just for the food and free-flowing wine, but also for the Japanese tastemaker to tout limited-edition trainers and HK$1,300 T-shirts.
It's the latest of several marketing events that co-opt street artists for an added cool factor. Graffiti and street art grew out of a rebellious urban youth culture in the west, but it's increasingly appropriated by companies to gain credibility with young consumers. Are the artists selling out?
'This is one of the big debates in the scene,' says Jay Foss-Cole of the ST/ART street-art collective. 'I don't have a problem with making money at what I do. Artists deserve to be able to do their art and that means making a living.'
A former advertising designer, Foss-Cole ventured on his own seven years ago to start ChinaStylus, the design company which launched ST/ART. The firm started to make strides two years ago after it published a retrospective of past work, Creativity vs Commerce.
Foss-Cole says a tussle between the twin forces of creativity and commercialism takes place daily, especially at ST/ART. 'I try to strike a balance,' he says. 'I wouldn't want to sell myself short to firms I wouldn't want to work with.'
The collective has collaborated well with companies such as sportswear firm Reebok (for whom it designed clothing and sneakers) and casualwear brand Evisu (which enlisted local artists, including those from ST/ART, in a charity fund-raising project).
The Reebok representative was 'super open, in to what we were doing, enthusiastic and respectful of everybody as creative people', says Foss-Cole, a Briton who moved to Hong Kong 12 years ago. 'Of course, they were buying credibility, but that's done with sport stars or celebrities, too. That's what companies do. But the resulting product is true. I'm perfectly comfortable with it.' Other recent projects include a graffiti demonstration for K-Swiss shoes, an art project for sneaker company Royal Elastics, and designing backpacks for bag-maker Eastpak. Another ST/ART member, who wants to be known only as Dom, concedes commercial collaborations can be a leash or a lifeline. 'I'm so poor, I think it's okay. Artists also need money to maintain a life,' he says. 'It depends on the firm. Some companies will ask you to work with them and show what you've done. But others will take your ideas and just leave. Some huge brands act as if they're doing you a favour just by calling you.'
Foss-Cole is particularly scathing of a soft-drink company's proposal which ST/ART declined. For one, it wanted them to 'run around the streets illegally doing their [advertising]', he says, and they weren't prepared to pay particularly well for it.
He says the collective was equally offended by the drink company's approach to marketing, which often incorporates 'nonsense' hip hop, skateboarding or graffiti elements in its advertisements. 'They take anything that's vaguely cool and make a commercial out of it - and often they'll put it all in one ad,' he says. 'If you're a skater or a graffiti artist, you would laugh. They miss the mark every time.'
To others such as US-born graffiti artist Drift, the credibility of their art is threatened whenever they're closely linked with commercial ventures. The American, who helped found the Six Keys collective in Chai Wan, came to Hong Kong partly because he'd been twice arrested on graffiti charges in his native New York. Since quitting his job in toy design to devote himself to art, he's been reminded of the importance of street cred.
Drift concedes that although he often brags about being the city's top graffiti artist, he hasn't done anything in Hong Kong. 'I want to be selling my canvasses and be a more respected artist, but I don't have the street cred here to back it up. It bothers me,' he says. 'I think if I'm the No1 graffiti artist in town, I have to do graffiti.'
But what bothers Drift more is a lack of creativity and knowledge in the local street-art scene.
'If these kids claim to be passionate about graffiti, a big part of that is knowledge [about the roots of the art],' he says. 'You can't copy. If you do something that someone has done before, you suck. That's something a lot of people here don't really understand, which is what hip hop, street art, all this kind of culture is about - primarily it's about being original.'
He laments how youngsters are drawn to commercial material. 'The kids here don't really think for themselves or look for anything deeper,' he says. 'They only listen to pop music. They let Milk magazine tell them what's cool.'
Although his visit was sponsored by Milk and street outfitter F.I.L., Fujiwara echoes that sentiment. Known in Japan as the mentor of A Bathing Ape founder Nigo, he, too, mourns a decline in creativity among youngsters.
'Maybe now young people want to learn through me what style and fashion is, but as they grow up they should find for themselves what they think is cool,' says Fujiwara, who quit being a DJ and picked up a guitar instead when he approached his 40s and found himself out of synch with younger tastes in hip hop music. 'When I was young, the people of my generation wanted to do something creative. But now people only want to make money. To be rich is trendy.'
Fujiwara suggests that divide may be because the current generation lacks heroes. 'Everyone involved in street culture had heroes when they were young. But there are no heroes now. There's no subculture, there are no minorities. That's a big part of the problem.'
Instead, brands have taken the place of street-culture heroes. The only antidote is for companies behind the brands to be more respectful of genuine street culture, and nurture it rather than appropriate it, Fujiwara says.
'Big companies can too easily use something and throw it away ... They should keep [street art] underground. If they think it's cool, the companies shouldn't meddle with it so much. They can support it, but they don't need to touch it.'