The timeless debate over what constitutes street art in Hong Kong and what’s next for the city’s emerging artists

Those who view the city buildings, streets and walls as open canvases rarely see eye to eye with officials – but things weren’t always that way

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 8:04am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 October, 2017, 8:03am

A battle over the age-old question “what is art” has raged between officials and those who practise one of the newer mediums – street artists.

On Monday, the renowned French artist Invader, whose works have fetched millions of dollars, lashed out at officials for removing his work on Des Voeux Road two days after it was recently installed, adding to the list of his work that has been erased in the city.

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Not that long ago the government seemed to be in favour of street art. As part of a 2011 policy address initiative to transform the former industrial hub of Kwun Tong into Hong Kong’s next core business district, the Art Promotion Office was tasked to “beautify” back alleys in the area by inviting artists to paint external walls.

While the scheme was hailed a success, street art elsewhere in the city was often called an act of vandalism and faced removal.

Has street art only recently blossomed in Hong Kong?

Not at all. One famous example is the calligraphy of the late Tsang Tsou-choi, better known as “King of Kowloon”. In his heyday in the 1990s, Tsang’s ink handwriting was found scattered across Hong Kong’s lamp posts, concrete walls, utility boxes and so on.

But it wasn’t until his later years or after his death in 2007 that his calligraphy gained recognition and was considered a work of art.

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A more prominent example in recent years is the mosaic works of Invader. The removal of his giant Pac-man installation on King’s Road in Tin Hau, as well as Hong Kong Phooey in Happy Valley in 2014, drew public outcry.

What is the government’s position on street art?

The Highways Department, which maintains the “integrity of the road network with particular emphasis on safety and serviceability” according to its website, reiterated in 2014 that unauthorised materials or graffiti on public facilities are “unlawful” and will be promptly removed.

But exceptions were made in the past. A pillar at Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui which carried Tsang’s calligraphy had protective screens installed to preserve its surface. A switch box in Kwun Tong is now being restored after workers accidentally painted over Tsang’s handwriting during a renovation project.

What are the laws governing street art?

Police stepped in last August after paintings of Pokemon characters on a Tsim Sha Tsui street were erased by government contractors. A police Facebook post explained that the paintings distracted and endangered road users, while the culprit may have broken the law.

Under the Summary Offences Ordinance, anyone who defaces a rock or roadcutting in or near a public place, or defaces any building, wall or fence with chalk or paint without the consent of the owner, has committed the “nuisances and miscellaneous offence”.

Those convicted could pay a fine of HK$500 or face three months’ imprisonment.

What do street artists think?

Hong Kong-based artist Barlo said there is always a balance between finding a high-profile location and risking the work being removed.

As street artists “you have to face the reality that your works would inevitably be taken down not just by the government, but also the management of private buildings”, he said.

The Italian artist said his latest work located on a staircase near the PMQ area on Aberdeen Street, was removed in less than 24 hours after it was put up last week.

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“I worked on it at night … But when I went back the next day to take photos in daylight, it was already gone,” Barlo said.

He said the lack of aesthetic consideration for the cityscape meant there would be limited space for street art.

“If you pay for a space to display an ad, people will accept it no matter how ugly it is. But they don’t understand why [an artist] would spend a whole day’s work to put something up for free, as there was no apparent gain in their eyes.”

How are street artists coping?

Esther Poon Suk-han, Hong Kong artist known for her yarn-bombing projects, said one way to stay out of trouble is not to make the works permanent.

“No one has raised any legal issues with us. I don’t think we’re breaking the law because we’re not littering. We’re just using non-permanent decorations and will remove them ourselves after two to three months.”

One of Poon’s most popular installations are the railing decorations at Pottinger Street in Central.

“When I’ve been installing my works, the police have walked by and said things like ‘Did you do that?’ and ‘They look great’. Because the installations are not permanent, they don’t seem to mind.”

Barlo, meanwhile, has resorted to a technique called paste-up, or putting up wall paintings by glue.

“The method is fast and does not damage the surface, so there is less risk. We would usually be let off with a warning even if we were caught.”

Luck also plays a part – during his latest visit in September, Invader and his team were stopped by guards at the Harbour City shopping centre while putting up their signature mosaic tiles.

After negotiations, the centre’s management let them carry on after recognising the artist’s works – and possibly the commercial benefits they will bring.

Eighteen pieces of his works are now on display around the mall, and likely preserved for good.

With additional reporting by Billy SK Wong

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