Tag and release

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 November, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong has been 'bombed' by a group of Britain's foremost urban artists. It's 3am, the shops are closed and Causeway Bay is still - except for the rats. And the street artists. Working meticulously with spray paint and stencils brought from London, Hong Kong's first Diesel-sponsored art wall begins to take shape and a riff on the classic Coca-Cola bottle appears with the slogan, 'Only the brave ... riot.'

If you've been riding the Mid-Levels escalator this week you may have noticed an invasion of the D-Dog, a slightly vicious-looking Pac-Man with wings. D-Dog is the signature character and alter ego of D*Face, a prolific London street artist who most recently populated his capital with massive, 1-tonne sculptures of spray cans. His name is now being mentioned in the same breath as the elusive Banksy, and he counts pop star Christina Aguilera among his collectors.

D*Face grew up in London during the 1980s when graffiti art, or tagging, was exploding onto the scene for the first time. 'As a kid I was really interested in graffiti. My Mum bought me the books Subway Art and Spraycan Art and they're pretty much the seminal graffiti books from the 80s,' says D*Face. 'The styles and the colours, the look and feel - that was completely fresh to this little kid growing up in London.'

Although graffiti art and later skateboarding culture had a big impact on D*Face, he doesn't call himself a graffiti artist. 'I've never really created my work in that way. I've never painted trains, I've never painted letter styles.'

'What it did teach me was to look at the city differently. So when I was travelling around, what might be a regular wall would essentially become a blank canvas.'

D*Face began 'bombing' his hometown 10 years ago when there was no such thing as street art. 'It wasn't something I thought of as a movement or genre. I was creating posters and stickers just for my own amusement. I was sticking them up as an idle form of release.'

By 2002 people were beginning to take notice, he says. 'The past three years have been monumental in terms of where it's come from and where it's going.'

Like the court jester, D*Face sees his role as subverting the images and icons of the body politic. 'The overall theme of my work is that it's about satirising imagery, taking it over, becoming part of it,' he says. The most emblematic example is his depiction of Queen Elizabeth as a D-Dog, sticking out her tongue. 'It was questioning the monarchy,' says D*Face. 'How important is it to us as a nation? How important to me as an individual?'

Whether his work is on the street or in a gallery, D*Face wants his viewers to question their relationship to images with which we are bombarded every day. 'My work is to get people to question their relationship to them.'

Whereas Banksy has remained anonymous, D*Face has put a face to his tag as Dean Stockton, and even founded the Stolenspace gallery in London's East End to nurture other urban artists.

'I'm not going to hide behind this person who works in the night and lurks around,' says D*Face. 'I think the work needs justification, I think it's important that it can be represented.'

Several of these artists have come to Hong Kong with D*Face this week to launch their new exhibition, Attention Spam, at the Schoeni Art Gallery.

As you walk up Old Bailey Street towards the gallery you will see a tongue-in-cheek Spider-Man mural and a D-Dog looming on the skyline. Gallery director Nicole Schoeni says their collaboration with Adapta Gallery in London to mount the exhibition does not indicate they are moving away from Chinese contemporary art. 'One of my gallery's main guiding principles includes broadening the experience of our audience in terms of what they perceive art to be. And as an urban child, born in the 1980s, the street and graffiti art have played a big part in my life.'

Word To Mother, aka Tom, is the youngest artist in the exhibition - D*Face's protege of sorts - although his style is entirely different. Hailing from Hastings on the southeast coast of England, Tom grew up by the sea, a recurring motif in his work. He especially likes to paint on driftwood.

'The wood for me says so many things. It's about recycling, it's about being aware of your surroundings ... I really like that it's had a previous history, a life somewhere else.'

Urban art has come a long way from the days of tagging to include illustrators such as David Bray among their ranks. His work shows an academic obsession with nudity and its relationship with violence. Bray says he tries to make the nudes as elegiac as possible and that he is the object of their gaze.

'In making them goddesses, it's kind of like worship. Women are in charge. I'm just a dumb man. I think women are pretty much in control.'

Vesna is the only female artist included in Attention Spam, a reflection of the 'boys being boys' attitude associated with the graffiti art scene.

'I think it was a guy's thing,' says Vesna. 'And, of course, for girls to get into this it used to be a lot more difficult. But I think now it's getting a lot more open ... people are experimenting a lot.'

While D*Face and his crew did become acquainted with local law enforcement on a bombing run in Hong Kong - they played the tourist card and talked their way out of it - it's clear that these late-night antics are no longer the focus of their work.

Urban art is beginning to make itself equally at home in the gallery as on the street. The Tate Modern in London recently invited six international street artists to cover the entire building with their murals and even the Democratic campaign of US president-elect, Barack Obama, commissioned a portrait of the candidate by influential street artist Shepard Fairy.

The danger now, according to D*Face, is that street art runs the risk of becoming too mainstream. For D*Face, who is friends with Fairy, the Obama poster is 'a real case of the anti-establishment becoming the establishment'.

'And it's happened with every underground movement in history,' he says. 'Skateboarding is now the biggest sport. Punk is no longer punk, is it? Everybody appreciates and understands that. What was once shocking is no longer shocking.' D*Face says he gets requests from big brands such as Prada and Ford all the time but that he won't make his art a product. The evolution from anti-establishment graffiti artist towards corporate acceptance seems to be moving with its own velocity, however. 'It's inevitable,' says D*Face. 'But what's important to me is that I don't make the inevitable happen.' Attention Spam, the five UK-Based Urban Artists' Exhibition, is a collaboration between Schoeni Art Gallery Hong Kong and UK Adapta, London. Until Dec 10, Schoeni Art Gallery, Main Gallery, 21-31 Old Bailey St, Central