The can-do spirit
Street artist Prairie has one simple message for the people of Hong Kong: release. This tag can be found across town on walls, pillars, phone boxes and right under the nose of security cameras.
'When I first started writing, it was just to get my message out to young people who would notice the little words that are written on the streets and would spend some time to read it and understand it, instead of just thinking it was some random thing on a wall,' says the 20-year-old who does mostly wheat-pasted posters, stickers and tagging in buzzing districts such as Central, Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Sha Tin.
What he does is still illegal in this city and that's why when he is out spreading - and spraying - his messages, he carries changes of clothing to throw any law enforcers off the scent. He believes it's worth the risk.
'At first I thought it wasn't working, until one day a friend of a friend came up to me and said she saw the word on a very stressed-out day and said she actually felt the message.
'The main reason why I [tag] is because people in Hong Kong are too uptight and never do what they like because of money and jobs and school. People put too much pressure on themselves.'
That may also explain why urban art - be it a simple tagging of an artist's name or larger graffiti pieces - never quite caught on here the same way it did in cities such as New York and London, even though this town has no shortage of talent. You can, for instance, see some edgy and fun works around Pottinger Street in Central, the alley that leads from Russell Street to Tang Lung Street in Causeway Bay, and the narrow passageway that runs from Pitt Street to Dundas Street in Mong Kok.
Start From Zero, a duo who have been blazing the urban art trail in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Taipei, say the number of street artists has dwindled in recent years because they either joined the rat race or got fed up with a lack of reaction to their work.
'Most people just don't know how to appreciate what we do,' says Katol, half of Start From Zero. 'Hong Kong people don't care about anything that doesn't make money. Also, it's hard to survive on street art alone. We are lucky in that we are also a design business and a brand, which supports our street work.'
Graphicairlines, whose art can be found in Asia as well as Europe and South America, is another design outfit who do painting, installation, sculpture and street art.
Jay FC, of creative/design studio China Stylus, blames the lack of recognition for local street artists on the city's conservative stance towards creativity. It is hard for talented youngsters to gain recognition without the means to promote themselves in an expensive city.
'Hong Kong has a habit of being a follower rather than leader,' Jay FC says. 'Sponsored 'velvet rope' events are the order of the day. It's all about the bling, the money, being a celebrity... fame.' He says urban art rarely fits into that world unless it has been 'pre-approved' by the so-called opinion-makers elsewhere.
'Hence [in Hong Kong] there are more imported urban art shows than there is real support for the local scene. Brad Pitt bought a Banksy, therefore it must be cool, right?'
Jay FC says that despite the lack of appreciation, 'The real artists will still be there, regardless - and there will be a united and strong independent scene that will always do what it wants and create something positive.'
Meanwhile, Prairie - whose favourite street artists include Dream Bat and Xeme - is taking a break to study in Canada. But he will be back.
'I've had people come up to me and say: 'I understand your message.' That's neat.'