GERMAN STREET ART duo Herakut are in the middle of celebrating four weeks of hard work over tumblers of champagne, when we meet at Joyce boutique in Lee Gardens.
Jasmin Siddiqui (Hera) and Falk Lehmann (Akut) have just pulled three all-nighters working on their in-store installations, which include limited edition T-shirts, posters, and furniture, while preparing the materials during the day at a warehouse in Aberdeen.
"There was this crazy coastline that's all big rocks, and some lonely fishermen; the perfect Chinese kitsch postcard," says Siddiqui. "We were 20 storeys high, with people moving boxes around everywhere." These boxes ended up becoming part of their improvised installation, as did vintage posters they found in an antique market in Central, which were turned upside down and painted on.
Before this, the pair had been working in the new Joyce in Shanghai, at iAPM Mall. "It was funny - all these glamorous stores were setting up, and then there was us, having fun, blasting loud music," says Siddiqui. This wasn't a problem, she adds, as the security guards liked their music.
Herakut has appeared in numerous galleries and museums, but the duo are best known for their large-scale works. Their most recent success was a series of murals they painted in different cities for their Giant Story Book Project, which will soon appear in print, and will eventually be made into a film. They say that they always wanted to do a children's book, but in spite of the title, this didn't turn out that way.
"This isn't for children, unless they're children who can handle a lot of brutality," jokes Siddiqui, comparing it to George Orwell's Animal Farm. "There's a social message wrapped in the cute girls and monkeys. We wanted to create something for children, but we're just not there yet."
When asked if they'll bring their giant murals to Hong Kong any time soon, she says they've spotted potential "Herakut walls", but need to find out more about the rules and restrictions here first. "It'd be fun to go up Monkey Mountain and, on the way, have some monkeys running towards it," says Siddiqui. "We'll be back, so ..."
The pair describe themselves as storytellers, and combine visuals with written messages. "We use every way of communicating that we can," says Siddiqui. "We give people who are on the way from A to B a little spark to take along. We don't want to just 'raise questions' and be mysterious. We put out a thesis, and people can react to that."
Lehmann, who has been scrawling graffiti since he was 14, was exhibiting his work and judging graffiti events by the time he was at university. "Falk invented spray paint photo realism, with his crew, Ma'Claim," says Siddiqui. "They had a book, Finest Photorealist Graffiti, which sold 40,000 copies before we met."
That meeting took place on the scaffolding at a graffiti fair in Seville, Spain. "We met in the 'graffiti' times, and now it's 'street art'," Lehmann says.
"With Banksy and all those big names, those million dollar pieces, it's been sort of established," says Siddiqui. "It used to be underground, always illegal and anonymous. Then, they coined the term 'street art', and you could put your name on it. There are still graffiti hardcore people, of course. But they'd say, 'That's so far from graffiti, we don't want anything to do with it'." What would they think of these two, flying over to Hong Kong and Shanghai, to spray-paint the walls of high-end boutiques?
"I think they would totally appreciate it, because we are super honest about it, and always have been," says Siddiqui. "We've both got our own graffiti backgrounds," adds Lehmann. "So the scene respects us, they give us respect for our careers."
Today, they take their work around the world, often accepting invitations from communities who can't afford to pay them, and sleeping on people's sofas when there's no budget for hotels. They joke that it's like being missionaries.
Many people describe their work as "dark" or "melancholic", but Herakut argue that it's all about context. "It's about the contrast. We create a darker stage for brighter thoughts," says Lehmann.
Siddiqui tells me about a piece they made across the street from a school in a tough South Central Los Angeles neighbourhood. "The kids there talk like they're straight out of a hip hop video. They were like, 'Yeah, we love the wall that you did and we're gonna kill anyone who's gonna touch it'," she says.
"And there were so many pigeons s****ing all over the place. Those pigeons were so nasty and everybody hated them. So we painted children who actually beautified the pigeons.
"We told them, if you take a bit of paint and some ideas, you can make the most out of something ugly. The line was, anything can be beautiful when you look at it with love. If that's dark for other people, so be it."
They also hope to demonstrate that you don't have to be perfect. "With a bit of confidence, anyone can express themselves. If it wasn't for those stupid art schools," says Siddiqui. "That's one thing about China and Hong Kong - everybody's like this nowadays - it's all digital. You put a filter on this, you press this button ... everybody knows how they want things to look, but they don't know how to get there with their own hands."
"Only amateurs discover new things," says Lehmann. "If you are a pro, you are stuck in the system. The amateur is free."
Born on different sides of the Berlin wall, Herakut not only come from different cultural backgrounds, they also have opposite skills and work styles. "Jasmin's got this fast outline, and I'm more for the slow detail work," says Lehmann.
Siddiqui compares the way they work together to a freestyle jazz session: "One starts with the rhythm and the other jumps in. He's the one doing the hardcore complicated stuff."
When they first met eight years ago, they initially mistook their compatibility for love. "You're not used to finding someone with a complete understanding. We were like brother and sister. We thought: 'Oh my god, let's spend all this time together'. But for the rest of the world the natural thing was we should get married," says Siddiqui. "A little while later we realised that we may have been too honest with each other, like when you know each other too well to be sexy."
Lehmann doesn't recommend bringing love into the workplace. "It turns into a 24/7 job," he says, laughing. "You can't go home, and say, 'Oh darling, how was your day?'"
"I read a little about artist couples and every time it was always that one person followed the other. In our case, we're too equal for that," says Siddiqui.