Tag team king ensures his future is in the can
KDG's first graffiti was a tag hastily written at night on the facade of the New World Renaissance Hotel (now the Renaissance Kowloon) in Tsim Sha Tsui in 1998. Fast forward 13 years and Ken (he wants to keep his full name private) is one of the three owners of Dirty Panda which, behind the tagline 'Keep your hands dirty since 2002', is the main importer of graffiti spray paint in Hong Kong.
Ken was born in Hong Kong 32 years ago but saw his first graffiti going to school in Australia when he was a teenager. 'I was not interested back then,' he said. 'I never thought I would be one of the guys starting it in Hong Kong.'
When he returned home in 1998, his interest was triggered by an interview given by MC Yan, graffiti writer and member of the Cantonese hip hop group LMF (Lazy Mutha F***a). He sent him an e-mail and several days later received a phone call.
'MC Yan and his crew invited me to join them and paint the New World Renaissance hotel,' Ken said with a smile. The graffiti lasted only one night before cleaners erased it, but the experience had Ken hooked.
The then 20-year-old started a 'crew' (most graffiti artists belong to a group) called FDC (F*** Da Cops or F*** Da City).
'By 2000, we were the biggest crew in Hong Kong. We would tag everywhere we would skate,' he said. Including the MTR, of course. 'It is always a fantasy for graffiti writers.'
After three nights of observation and planning, they tagged their first train in 2001. 'We did it in 10 minutes. It was very messy!' he said with a laugh. And it was not worth it: they waited until the next morning but never saw their work. It had already been washed away.
Painting was not enough for Ken. In 2002 he founded Dirty Panda. 'I wanted to take it to the next level,' he said. He stored his first order of spray paint - a pallet of 1,000 cans - in his bedroom and would meet his friends and clients in MTR stations. Back then, one could travel anywhere within two hours using one ticket, so Ken would schedule all his deliveries within that time.
In 2006, he settled in his current office: a tiny room, located in Ngau Tau Kok in Kowloon, filled with shelves going from floor to ceiling of spray paint. A sofa, boxes of T-shirts, markers and caps of all shapes and sizes occupy what is left of free space. Dirty Panda mainly sells Montana, a well-known Spanish brand from Barcelona (not to be confused with its eponymous German competitor).
'Forty dollars a can is not expensive. I don't make a lot of money with Dirty Panda. It is enough for the rent but not enough to call this a business,' Ken said.
What matters most to him these days is educating young people about graffiti. 'People in Hong Kong now at least know what graffiti is. Back in 1999, they had no idea,' he said. Even when people saw graffiti, they could not explain what it was when they called the police.
About six years ago Ken started getting involved with youth centres and he now regularly runs workshops to teach young people how to paint graffiti. 'After I do a workshop, I secretly hope that they will take to the street what I taught them.
'I love it when new kids come to the Dirty Panda office to ask questions. I am very proud to pass on what graffiti is.'