Secret Walls has street artists battle it out

A contest that pits two street artists against each other in a fight club atmosphere has swept the world and is now drawing in local crowds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 December, 2014, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 December, 2014, 11:13am

It's Monday evening, but it feels like Friday night. Nearly 200 people crowd into The Dairy, the Fringe Club's basement nightclub. The music is loud, mostly dubstep with a local MC rapping over the beat. For those close to Hong Kong's burgeoning street art scene, there are a lot of familiar faces in the crowd: graffiti artists, designers, DJs and MCs. And as people get drinks and mingle, their eyes keep glancing at the gleaming edifice onstage, two shining stark white walls.

This is Secret Walls, a global street art phenomenon that in the past two years has taken hold in Hong Kong. Secret Walls started in 2005 at a bar in East London as a way to bring the ethos of rap battling to street art.

Held in front of an often rowdy live audience, two artists are given 90 minutes and the use of a black felt tip marker and black acrylic paint to create a full mural on a white wall measuring 2.4 metres square. As in a rap battle, they are encouraged to take jabs at each other in their work and interact with each other in real time through their drawing. When the time is up, two guest judges choose a winner. In the case of a tie, the crowd decides - whichever artist they cheer louder for, measured by a noise meter, is declared the winner.

Monday's session was this year's grand finale, the culmination of seven preliminaries. Facing off on the stage were two Englishmen - Szabotage (Gustav Szabo, an architect and interior designer from Brighton) and Used Pencil (Ben Pickering, a special needs teacher from Kendal, Cumbria).

Secret Walls' presence in Hong Kong is largely the work of Sarah Ouellette, the founder of marketing agency Brand Tribe Asia. The Canadian says she often attended Secret Walls events in Sydney and Melbourne when living in Australia, and found them "really good fun".

"They were a really different kind of night out. When I came to Hong Kong, there was really nothing I could find like that," Ouellette says. "It seemed like a good fit."

With the much bigger spaces in Australia, Secret Walls events were large parties with live bands playing. In Hong Kong, space has always been an issue. Ouellette happened on a cheerful but increasingly dilapidated venue in Kennedy Town at a club named Les Boules, which has since closed. Even so, she had to adapt the contest to the cramped spaces here, replacing the band with an announcer who worked the crowd and provided a play-by-play of the action on stage.

The people who signed up for wall battles here also gave the event a different vibe. "In other places, the competitors are really competitive. They throw jabs at each other. They play the crowd," she says. But in Hong Kong, "that was really tough. People either were too afraid or really shy to do that. We had to show people it's OK to make fun of your opponent. It's not mean. It's what this is about."

Even today Hongkongers struggle to embrace the battle spirit seen in other cities, where it's really hardcore, she says.

Ouellette admits she didn't know how Hong Kong would view Secret Walls. "We were terrified it was going to flop."

But on the night of the first battle, more than 200 people jammed into the basement of Les Boules. As the event went on, word spread, and the crowd became increasingly diverse. What started as a crowd of people mostly from the street art scene grew to include bankers and professionals, hip hop heads and art lovers, locals and expatriates.

"People were so excited," she says, "they would call and say: 'What can I do to help you?' They wanted to be a part of it. It was amazing."

Mark Goss, a well-known Hong Kong street artist and a regular visitor to London's Secret Walls events, emerged the victor at last year's debut battle.

While conceding that the work is stronger in London, he says it's mostly a numbers game: "In London there are hundreds of artists. It's a lot more difficult to get into the competition to start with."

In the first year in Hong Kong, organisers had to reach out to artists they knew and educate local artists about Secret Walls.

It takes over your life. It takes over your work. You're thinking about it all the time
"Szabotage", this year's runner up

But after last year's surprise success, the organisers went all out. Ouellette recruited events manager Louisa Haining, and they found the Fringe Club's live music venue. They now work with a team of about 10 people, including DJs, videographers and sound technicians, who have turned Secret Walls into a series for music as well as art lovers. Featuring DJs at nearby clubs, the after-parties drew crowds despite being held on Mondays.

Goss, who has seen Secret Walls develop in Europe, has been amazed by the progress here. Hong Kong's events have mimicked in two years an evolution that took eight years to unfold in the West, moving from grungy bar events to nightlife institutions. Also this year for the first time, they had to turn contestants away.

The event also received a boost from an unexpected quarter - the umbrella movement. One by-product of the protests has been a growing interest in street art and a fascination with the amateur urban artist.

At the same time, the Occupy protests have furnished street artists with a potent new lexicon of imagery. During this year's Secret Walls battles, symbols such as the umbrella have become common in the murals. Occupy themes are not only a means for artists to express solidarity with the movement, but they are a sure-fire way to garner audience support. The crowds that attend Secret Walls seem to be full of vocal Occupy supporters.

This final battle has turned out to be a closely watched and hotly contested event.

Used Pencil, who embraces the contemporary school of street art, has built a following with his large, intricate and in-your-face style.

Szabotage, on the other hand, is known for his affinity for old-school graffiti, his murals often form a narrative about the other artist. He is also known for his onstage antics - wearing a monocle, painting evil villain eyebrows on his forehead, and working the crowd - and for his battling spririt. When he paints, he is on the attack, pulling no punches with his competitors, criticising everything from their artistic abilities to their physical appearance. His brash style has made him a few enemies on the circuit, but also won him every match he has competed in.

By the time they put their pens down, Szabotage had done a series of frames implying, among other things, that Used Pencil's "pencil" had gone limp. Conversely, Used Pencil created a caricature of Szabotage as "a s***, greedy genie" emerging from a spray can.

The judges were split over their choices, so the decision went to the audience who cheered hard for both, reaching 14.5 on the noise meter for Szabotage. But Used Pencil carried the day, hitting 15.

The event wound up with plenty of good cheer as the artists and spectators drank and danced the night away. But it was easy to see the real winner was the Secret Walls idea.

"It takes over your life. It takes over your work. You're thinking about it all the time," Szabotage says outside the club after losing. Then he smiled. "I would definitely do it again."

Organisers are collaborating with the Urban Bakery group to host a free Secret Walls battle royal to mark the launch of Urban Cafe Commune, pitting Mark Goss (last year's winner) against Used Pencil (Ben Pickering, this year's champion) on January 15 at their new restaurant in Mong Kok