The women who brought street-art contest Secret Walls to Hong Kong

The Secret Walls event pits artists in live rap-style contests with music and wild crowds

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2014, 12:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2014, 12:31pm

Sarah Ouellette and Louisa Haining are worried about the amount of paint on their canvas. "I think we'll probably get one more use out of it," says Haining, peering closely at the giant canvas, arranged on a platform inside one of the bars in the Fringe Club in Central.

The reason their canvas is in such bad shape will soon become clear, when it gets that final use in a couple of hours: over the course of 90 minutes, it will play host to drawings in marker pen and acrylic paint by Used Pencil and Rodney Stratton, the two competitors in the second semi-final of the second Hong Kong edition of Secret Walls.

Before Secret Walls premiered here last year, the city had never seen anything like it. A live illustration competition between two artists in a battle format, with competitors encouraged - as in a rap battle - to be as rude about each other as they like, Secret Walls was born in a London bar in 2006 and has since spread to more than 25 countries. The founders set out a simple template that's followed around the world: battles last for 90 minutes; competitors can use only black markers or acrylic paint; no sketches or preliminary drawings are allowed; and the result is decided by a combination of crowd noise and two appointed judges.

With its heritage in hip hop, its battle format and accompaniment by DJs playing urban music, Secret Walls has the feel of a graffiti competition - but the restrictions on colours and materials and the ban on anything resembling stencilling mean it's pretty much impractical for graffiti artists to take part, and competitors are mostly drawn from the ranks of artists, illustrators, cartoonists and graphic novelists.

Ouellette and Haining brought Secret Walls to Hong Kong in 2013, Canadian Ouellette having attended such events while living in Australia, and Haining in her native Britain.

"What I really liked was the whole vibe of it," says Ouellette, who also runs or co-runs a marketing agency and an art-rental company. "It's great to watch something being created, but it's just a great event generally, and super-supportive of artists. When I moved to Hong Kong, I found that there was nothing of that ilk."

She met with the London-based founders of Secret Walls in New York and signed up to put on the first full Secret Walls series in Asia.

It took a year from conception to the first event happening. "Everyone I talked to was really interested in the idea, but not sure that it would work here," says Ouellette. "People said artists here wouldn't want to compete, and would be nervous in front of an audience." Many were indeed nervous, she says - but not to the extent that it impeded them.

As for competitiveness, "people here are more polite", says Haining, an event organiser, who handles most of the operational side of Secret Walls. "You should see the things they say about each other in London."

It’s great to watch something being created, but it’s just a great event generally, and super-supportive of artists

Expat competitors at the Hong Kong battles make up about half of the total number and are more likely to get into the combative spirit than Hongkongers, she adds.

The first series of events, which took place at Les Boules in Shek Tong Tsui near Kennedy Town, was eventually won by Mark Goss, who beat Cath Love in the final (women are still in the minority, making up two out of the eight in the 2014 competition; the age of the artists varies from early 20s to early 40s).

Six new and two previous artists lined up for the 2014 battles at the Fringe Club. The second semi-final was won by Used Pencil, who was one of the competitors to return from the previous event, and who went on to beat Szabotage in the final and scoop a first prize of HK$10,000 provided by sponsor Absolut. At least 100 audience members have attended each event, and more than 250 went to the finals. They don't just watch paint dry: there's also music from local DJs that has covered everything from hip hop to disco to drum'n'bass.

"We get a really mixed crowd," says Ouellette. "We get people who came to every round. One guy wears his Secret Walls T-shirt every time - he changes into it out of the suit he wears to work."

The audience is enthusiastic: Haining says this year Szabotage and Jay Cawdell both caused a stir; the latter, in fact, is a firm fan favourite, but has never won a round of the competition. "The crowd loved him this year, but the judges chose someone else," says Ouellette. "It caused a huge controversy."

Which brings us to one of the more interesting and potentially fraught aspects of the event: the judging. The winner of each battle is the winner of the majority among the three votes, one belonging to the crowd and two to the judges, selected each time by the organisers; they have included gallery owners, past winners and journalists. That can lead to disagreements between the crowd (particularly when competitors play to the gallery) and judges who tend to favour the competitor who's more true to the battle format and makes more incisive satirical points about his or her opponent.

Such disagreements can also happen when one of the competitors has a lot of mates in the crowd, and wins the vote more or less regardless of the quality of the work. "A lot of local guys especially bring a huge crowd with them, and that makes it very difficult to beat them," says Haining.

The pair are planning bigger and better events for next year, in a wider range of spaces, and exploring tie-ups with major music- and art-related events.

"I think the beauty of this is that it allows people to test themselves," says Ouellette. "Most of the feedback we received last year was along the lines of: 'We've never seen anything like this in Hong Kong before.' Making the connection with the crowd that this is a battle: that's now the most important thing to get through to people."

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