For graffiti artists, the writing's on the wall
Love it or loathe it, graffiti seems to be a dying art in Hong Kong.
In a city of seven million people, active graffiti artists estimate they are in a group of between 10 and 20.
Young 'writers', as they prefer to be called, are eager to start, but give up quickly as they see almost no opportunity to indulge in a passion others may see as mere vandalism.
Asia's foremost graffiti competition wrapped up in Taiwan yesterday with about 2,000 artists in attendance. Since 2008, the event has attracted teams from nine countries around the region, in a sign of graffiti's growing popularity in Asia.
But although the event was founded by a Hong Kong artist, this city's graffiti community appears to be in decline. One writer, Yumoh, said: 'The scene does not grow. It is a never-ending cycle of people coming and going.'
Yumoh started graffiti when he was 16 years old and has now been doing it for three years, mainly in Mong Kok and Sai Kung.
Big silver pieces are his favourites. While the scene was more active in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, many writers, from Hong Kong or overseas, acknowledge not much is going on right now.
The occasional tag identifying the artist (one word, usually painted in one single colour) may be spotted on walls or urban furniture in Central.
There are a few large-scale examples of graffiti in Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok and the New Territories, painted on rooftops or under bridges.
But the art form is not to be found here on the same scale that it is seen in the United States and Europe.
And with a few exceptions, public transportation in Hong Kong, usually a prized target in other countries, has been spared. Hobsek, a French graffiti artist who has been in Hong Kong for six years, finds two explanations for this. Firstly, 'the government cleans up everything,' said Hobsek.
Secondly, he blamed Hongkongers' attitude towards graffiti, an art form he see as 'a quest for adventure that you cannot find in real life'.
He asked: 'What are the young people going to complain about here? They live with their parents and can afford to buy the latest gadgets.'
Then there is also the law. Anyone caught writing any letter, character or figure on a public wall or private wall without the consent of the owner faces a fine of HK$500 or a maximum of three months' imprisonment.
In reality, the sentence is never that harsh. Jams, a graffiti 'writer' who started painting in 2005, has been arrested several times. 'Once the police just told me not to paint too late,' he laughs.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Jams joined a group of men in their 20s and spent four hours painting a mural under a bridge along a canal somewhere in the New Territories.
When they were done, Jams took a few minutes to photograph the mural from every possible angle, as none of them could be sure it would still be there the next day.
At the bottom of the piece, the men listed their names - Amson, Jams and Zim, all of them members of Sabcat, one of the most active graffiti crews in Hong Kong.
They regularly travel to out-of-the-way places like Kam Sheung Road in the New Territories to spray graffiti without being arrested.
That day, all the other walls supporting the bridge had been painted white, a sign that the cleaners had come to erase previous graffiti.
'It is funny,' said Jams, who wore a black T-shirt reading 'F*** Sabcat'. 'They painted over what you can see from the street, but not the inside, the part that is hidden.'
The subject matter of graffiti has more of bearing than the mere act of defacing or decorating a wall.
In May, a mysterious artist named Tangerine spray-painted a portrait of dissident artist Ai Weiwei on walls in the city. Police began investigating charges of criminal damage.
Wong Chi-chung, a radio show host and part-time DJ, said that regulations against graffiti were becoming increasingly strict.
The 46-year-old Hongkonger, who is now assistant director at the General Education Unit of Hong Kong University, said: 'Our culture does not embrace it. But where do we draw the line between destruction and creativity?'
As an answer to this question, many youth centres like Youth Square in Chai Wan or the Warehouse Teenage Club in Aberdeen a few years ago asked graffiti writers to teach teenagers. Well-known writers like Uncle, 31, are still teaching, but the experience is not always positive.
'When we paint legally by co-operating with local associations, there is usually a topic. It is never just about graffiti,' he said, adding that most times they have to bargain and cannot really do what they wish.
For Ken, whose company Dirty Panda imports spray paint for sale to graffiti artists, co-operating with youth centres can be difficult.
'They don't let you tell kids that you can do graffiti on the street,' he said. 'I always tell them that they have to be responsible for what they do. I don't want to lie about the true nature of graffiti, which belongs on the street, otherwise it becomes like a Japanese textbook.'
Last month, winners of the 'Wall Game Graffiti Competition' in November last year at Youth Square, were invited by a youth centre to do a mural in the public area.
The three graffiti artists (Ceet and Hobsek from France, and Uncle) had to submit their design at least seven days in advance to the management of Youth Square and the Warehouse, accompanied with 'a brief description detailing the rationale of the design concept' for confirmation.
According to the spokesperson, such requirements allowed the management to 'ensure the venue availability, insurance coverage, to arrange crowd control and pedestrian flow measures.'
He added that these were to 'ensure [the] safety [and the] minimal disturbance to both the participants and the users of Youth Square.'
Wong Chi-chung says graffiti artists may object to such arrangements, and 'if the kids don't like it, then they don't have to go to youth centres.'
But artists who are trying to get away from the graffiti's anti-social image have nowhere else to go.
'The security is very good in Hong Kong,' said Uncle. Hobsek, who sometimes paints with Uncle, said that Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world where he saw security guards at the entrance to abandoned factory sites.
MC Yan, a member of local hip-hop band LMF, who was one of the first to introduce graffiti to Hong Kong in 1994 from France, said that because the police were so efficient, graffiti did not last long.
'It is just for the picture,' said Hobsek, who used to paint the trams at the Sheung Wan depot and the MTR at night. Most artists have given up hope of getting a steady income from graffiti and have settled for jobs in fields such as graphic design.
To Gary Kramer, an American street artist and owner of the now defunct The Embassy art gallery in Hong Kong, the culture is not about pursuing your dreams. 'If it is not a business plan then I don't think the people will encourage it,' he said.
To Jams from Sabcat, it is not that easy. 'My parents, my friends kept asking me when I was going to get a job. Sometimes you have to go for the money, not for the dream.'
Jams works as a multimedia designer at a local company.
Many see the future of graffiti on the mainland. 'The scene is not even 10 years old but they have picked up very fast,' said Uncle. 'They have so much space and can paint freely, mainly because most people still don't know what it is.'
Hobsek, who paints rooftops of soon-to-be-demolished buildings, said that while graffiti in Hong Kong could have had its own identity, the opportunity has now passed.
'Nobody took over when the King of Kowloon died in 2007,' he said, referring to Tsang Tsou-choi, the Hong Kong citizen who painted Chinese characters on utility boxes, lampposts, pillars or walls.
'Can you imagine?' he asked, 'Seven million people and still, Hong Kong is a no man's land for graffiti.'
The amount, in HK dollars, paid at an auction for a board painted with Chinese characters by 'King of Kowloon' Tsang Tsou-choi in 2004