That viral Hong Kong miniatures artist, Joshua Smith, is coming at last to see city for real, and show new stuff in street art exhibition

Streets of Hong Kong will showcase new miniatures by Smith, whose realistic scale model of a city block made from online images was an internet hit, and works from urban artists such as the King of Kowloon, Saut Wais and Xeme

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 7:32am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 11:04am

“Streets of Hong Kong” will stand out during a month of arts events featuring crowds, canapés and colossal prices.

The exhibition of Hong Kong street art will feature works on canvas by contemporary artists as well as photos of seminal urban art pieces, both new and old. One highlight for many will be the miniature buildings conceived by Australia’s Joshua Smith, who went viral in 2017 with his extraordinary 1:16 scale model of a Temple Street walk-up, which he created without ever visiting Hong Kong.

The exhibition, at co-working space Campfire in Causeway Bay from March 28 to 31 – coinciding with Art Basel – charts the evolution of Hong Kong street art through a combination of commissioned pieces and, given that street art is usually ephemeral, photographs, as well as ceramics, posters and calligraphy.

It’s “a history of Hong Kong street art past, present and future”, says Louisa Haining, general manager of SWL, the organisation behind the show.

Naturally, Tsang Tsou-choi, the graffiti writer better known as the King of Kowloon, will be represented in archive form, as well as in a portrait by Indonesian artist Yopey. But the exhibition will also feature a range of other artists such as Wais, with his bold, geometric, multicoloured abstract patterns; Dilk, with endless differently coloured and styled variations on his abstract tag; and Saut, with his next-level modern calligraphy.

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Other artists include Sinic, with his colourful abstractions; the pixelated, vintage video-game tag of Xeme; and Wong Ting-fung, with intensely detailed, photorealistic black-and-white collages.

However, it was the remarkable work of Smith that gave the exhibition its initial impetus. “I’d always wanted to work with Josh Smith, and I thought it would be good if we got him to Hong Kong,” says Haining. “And he pays homage to Hong Kong street artists and writers, so why not showcase them?”

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“I wanted to exhibit well-known people like Xeme, who anyone would want in a Hong Kong graffiti exhibition. But I also wanted to include newer people like Wong Ting-fung, who’s more like a traditional illustrative artist.”

While attitudes to street art are evolving in Hong Kong as it becomes more mainstream, Haining says the art market has yet to catch up.

“There are some really talented people here doing great street art, and this is something that’s less inaccessible than most art. But it’s telling that if we didn’t have Josh Smith, we probably wouldn’t have a show.”

Smith, who is visiting Hong Kong for the first time, is also creating a new work for the exhibition based on an abandoned building in Sheung Wan, plus smaller pieces such as shop roller doors emblazoned with tags by local artists.

As soon as I came across the Temple Street building, I knew it was the one I had to build. I knew it would be a challenge and would take a tremendous amount of time. There were so many times I thought I didn’t think I could do it
Joshua Smith, artist

His recent work doesn’t necessarily fit into the conventional definition of street art: meticulously crafted, roughed-up miniatures of real buildings from around the world made from fibreboard, cardboard and plastic, finished with paint and chalk, that take up to three months to complete.

But he’s a former street artist, and it was the challenge of reproducing street art in miniature that originally got him into model making.

Originally from rural South Australia, Smith would visit Adelaide at weekends as a teenager to practise stencil art, which eventually turned into a successful career. After more than 100 exhibitions around the world, he eventually opened the Adelaide art gallery, Espionage, which hosted about 80 exhibitions of more than 600 artists, and putting his own artistic endeavours on the back burner.

“I’ve always had an interest in miniatures and for the past 10 years it’s been a secret passion of mine to buy model kits and then make them, but rough them up,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be seen as: ‘This guy’s in his late 20s and he’s building model kits?’

“The turning point came when I was entering some work for a stencil art prize. I felt my stencil art hadn’t evolved. A a lot of stencil artists like to work on whole buildings and I noticed that nobody was doing stencils on 3D objects.

I thought, ‘What if I make a building with a stencil on the side?’ The first one I built was a parking garage and it was very rudimentary. But it won first prize. I realised I might be onto something.”

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A subsequent competition in Melbourne stipulated that all works had to be smaller than 12 inches (30cm) by 12 inches. Smith persuaded the organisers to add an extra dimension so he could enter a 3D work.

“I built a little corner shop, with an interior and working lights and a motion-activated security alarm. Something had just awoken in me. Overnight I knew that this was what I’d be doing. Stencils just fell away.”

As with 23 Temple Street, he usually makes models of buildings in places he’s never visited, working mainly from photos.

“The great appeal of stencils to me was problem solving – the colours, how to cut them out and so on,” he says. “It’s the same reason I love building miniatures. I’ve never seen a lot of buildings I create. I get people to take photos, so I need to build in 3D using 2D images.”

Weathering the models is the most challenging part, he adds – but it’s also his favourite.

“The more weathered and run-down a building is, the more difficult it is to do. I tried doing an architectural model last year and I had to restrain myself from adding grime and graffiti. I’ve certainly got an obsessive-compulsive streak. It’s got to be perfect, but with my work, perfectly imperfect.”

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Smith spent five hours on Google Street View looking around Hong Kong before discovering 23 Temple Street. The building became his most ambitious piece of work – and certainly his best known.

“I’ve always been a fan of Hong Kong cinema and I’ve long seen the buildings used as backdrops. The types of buildings we don’t have in Adelaide really appeal to me. As soon as I came across the Temple Street building, I knew it was the one I had to build.

“I knew it would be a challenge and would take a tremendous amount of time. There were so many times I thought I didn’t think I could do it.”

Even he was taken aback by the reaction when it was unveiled.

“People in Hong Kong have loved it. It’s something they can understand and relate to. And I’ve had a lot of people who’ve lived in Hong Kong and moved away say it makes them homesick. I didn’t expect the level of viral attention. I was really weirded out by it.

“I think I’ll be very hard pressed to top that work. It could be years before I do anything that matches it. If I’m having a slow day social media-wise, I just have to post another image of it and it goes crazy. It’s weird to think that it’s just plastic, fibreboard and three months of my life.”

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A highlight of Smith’s first visit to Hong Kong, clearly, will be a trip to Temple Street to see the building that inspired his creation. He says he says he’s going to try to meet some of the people who live and work there.

Smith has plans to model other Hong Kong buildings and will be on the lookout for new inspiration. He admits that the tendency to size up buildings around him as potential inspiration can be hard to turn off.

“I’ve already got a stack of buildings in Hong Kong lined up that I want to build and I’ll be on the hunt for new ones,” he says. “I’ve modelled cities all over the world, but Hong Kong is definitely my favourite.”

Streets of Hong Kong with models by Joshua Smith, Mar 28 to 31, Campfire, 9/F V Point, 18 Tang Lung St, Causeway Bay