From small beginnings

Anyone can Start From Zero, self-taught street artist Dominic Chan tells Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 3:05pm

Dominic Chan Yun-wai is leaning back in his chair and eyeing his cat, a black and white rescue sitting on his work table. He says he's busy, rising rents are forcing him to move from his studio and office in Ngau Tau Kok to a new shared space a few streets over, but he seems relaxed. He speaks slowly, wearing slippers and a pair of lived-in pyjama pants, and pauses often to gather his thoughts and stroke his beard.

Quiet and measured, you would never guess that Chan is one of Hong Kong's premier guerilla artists and founding member of the loose collective of street artists known as Start From Zero. His lack of a formal art education hasn't seemed to hinder him either.

After secondary school, Chan helped his father in his dry goods store "selling eggs, rice, oil, things like that". But, he says, he hated it; his interests already lay elsewhere.

It's illegal and it's exciting and I can do what I want. I don't need someone telling me how to do it

Street art can be hard to define and often people confuse it with graffiti. Chan explains: "Graffiti is street art but not all street art is graffiti." For Start From Zero, street art can be anything created for display on the street. "Everything can be street art. If you take a s*** on the street it can be street art."

Street artists tend to work in mediums that are fast to put up, to avoid police and suspicious passers-by, and difficult to remove. They use stencils and spray paint, stickers, or posters plastered on walls with wheat paste.

When Chan was in his teens, he saw his first street art: stickers and a poster pasted on a wall near Times Square in Causeway Bay. Intrigued, he began exploring the internet. The art and lifestyle he found online spoke to him. "It's illegal and it's exciting and I can do what I want. I don't need someone telling me how to do it. I do it myself."

When his father retired from the dry goods business six years ago, Chan took the opportunity to try his hand at designing T-shirts. He started meeting other artists with similar tastes and eventually partnered with a friend, Katol, who had a good eye for design and - more importantly - knew how to use computer design software. As their posters and stickers began appearing around Hong Kong on walls, signs and bridges, interest in their collective began to build.

So what is Start From Zero? For Chan, Start From Zero has many meanings. It is a literal description of his experience in street art - he started with no experience or training - and it is also his philosophy: "I want to encourage people, if they're unhappy or something like that, to start from zero. Don't worry about anything, just start again."

"Start" is also a play on words; it can stand for street art, or stencil art.

Today, Start From Zero has come a long way from pasting homemade stickers on walls. It now sells a wide range of streetwear, designer clothes and accessories. Stores in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau sell its art and attire, and two years ago Chan opened a dedicated store, Rat's Cave, on Tai Ping Shan Street, one of Sheung Wan's trendiest addresses.

Despite his apparent success, Chan insists that street art and street culture can be a hard sell in Hong Kong. "In Hong Kong we've had no success. It's difficult to survive. The rent is f***ing expensive … There's no space for people who want to do big things, who need space to prepare stencils or posters before they bring them to the streets."

But his problems with Hong Kong go beyond real estate gripes: "It's in the people's minds: they're afraid, afraid of something, afraid of their parents, afraid of the police."

If Hong Kong is lagging behind the trend, Taiwan has been quick to embrace street culture. Even though Start From Zero has become a recognisable Hong Kong brand, Chan admits that most of their sales are across the strait. "Taiwan really supports us." He says life is better for street artists on the island, too: "Taiwan is the best: the environment, the rent, the education and the people, the people's minds. It's better than here. They support local things."

When asked why he doesn't just move to Taiwan, he answers without hesitation, "my cat", and then quickly adds, "and my family is here and I'm from here".

Chan hasn't been out on the street for a while now. He blames his busy schedule and the stressful move, and insists that he will be back out there soon. But perhaps his tastes have changed too.

On the roof of his studio building, Chan has a large workshop space filled with tools and piles of wood. "I love wood. We've been doing lots of things with wood: furniture like chairs and tables and we build little houses like dog houses."

Wood may seem a strange choice. Street art is about speed and spontaneity; it's fleeting and proudly urban. Wood, on the other hand, takes time: it requires more work and furniture is solid, stable and domestic. But Chan sees no contradiction. "I think wood and street art are related to each other. I get it off the street. If I see some nice wood on the street I will pick it up."

He pauses again to stroke his beard, meeting his pet's eyes: "My cat is also from the street."