Illustrator Kristopher Ho, disillusioned with the local art scene, finds more innovation in China
The in-demand artist wants to change Hong Kong’s attitude to the creative industries
Kristopher Ho’s mother didn’t quite achieve what she was aiming for when she accidentally started him off on his path to becoming an artist and illustrator.
“I suffered from asthma quite badly when I was a kid,” says Ho. “We lived in Tiu Keng Leng, which was still a fishing village back then, and we had to go by ferry to see the doctor. We went there a lot, and I was full of energy and just wouldn’t sit still, so my mum just gave me a pen and paper as a way of keeping me quiet.”
Not only was his mother not expecting him to take that pen and make a career out of it – she also entirely failed in her aim of keeping him quiet. Ho, responsible for a Stakhanovite output of both personal and commercial illustrations that are hyper-detailed, meticulous and otherwordly, is also frank to the point of outspokenness when it comes the shortcomings of Hong Kong attitudes towards the creative industries. A faultless draughtsman he might be, but in a city that tends to reward technical competence over artistic vision, he also possesses an unflinching commitment to self-expression that marks him out as a design star of the future.
His work shows signs of influence from Chinese landscape painting to Japanese ukiyo-e, alongside contemporary peers such as Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo’s folksy dayglo maximalism, and Ho’s Hong Kong friends such as Start From Zero and Little Thunder. His biggest single influence, however, remains his first artistic love, manga, from legends such as Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka to contemporary illustrator and cartoonist Terada Katsuya to the wildly popular Doraemon series.
“I was interested in how they tell a story, how they get so much emotion into it,” he says. “For me a good artist or illustrator is someone who can convey that.”
Emotion is often to the fore in Ho’s work, which varies from the aphoristically philosophical to the provocatively witty to the romantic and tender. He is an unflinching dramatiser of the pain of romantic loss and the difficulty of honestly confronting one’s own emotions. “I’m not the type to hide anything,” he says. “I don’t really have any secrets. I just don’t see the point in holding myself back when it comes to expressing the way I feel.”
Ho moved to the UK at the age of 12 to attend boarding school, where he was encouraged to pursue art by his teachers, and he eventually decided he’d like to study it at university. In a familiar Hong Kong tale, however, his family had different ideas: they wanted him to study biology.
“My parents always wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer – it was very typical. My dad was mad when I told him I wanted to study art. ‘I spend all that money and then you want to do that?’ But I didn’t want to spend three years doing something I hated.”
Fortunately, lacking any idea about which art school to apply to, he asked a teacher, who recommended London’s Central Saint Martins – and Ho was so wrapped up in his drawing that his teacher also ended up writing his application’s personal statement for him. The school, however, wasn’t quite what he’d been expecting. “The buildings are really grotty, and I felt like some of the other overseas students were only there because of money. But the nice thing is that the university doesn’t really care what you do. I was on an illustration course, but they’d give you a brief and if you could communicate what you needed to, they didn’t mind how you did it. And some of my classmates were really talented, which makes you work harder.”
Many young creative people find themselves leaving Hong Kong and moving far overseas to places more inclined to value creative output, both culturally and financially. Ho, however, made the opposite move, living in London for two years and struggling to make ends meet while working in an interiors studio.
“I had really given up. Everything I earned was going on rent and bills, so I moved back to Hong Kong. And then it took me six months after I got back to get my first work.”
Fortunately, the client couldn’t have been much more prestigious for a visual artist: Lane Crawford, for which he drew a backdrop. He still struggled to pick up enough commercial work, however, until he was commissioned by an equally coveted client: Nike.
“I got a call from a friend saying that Nike were looking for someone to do a mural in their Shanghai campus. It was very exciting but also very stressful – if you get it wrong, you’re finished. I spent two weeks doing sketches, and then flew to Shanghai and spent two weeks doing a 15-metre mural. That really helped me out: on my CV I can say Nike, and then straight away people trust you.”
Interconnectedness is one of Ho’s central themes. His work often depicts things riding on other things, or somehow intertwined or dependent on each other.
“It’s all about how people connect with each other,” he says. “I’ve spent half my life in Hong Kong and half my life in the UK, so which is my home? It’s not about where you’re from or where you live, it’s about the connections you make with the ones you love.”
While he might have been born in Hong Kong, Ho is particularly trenchant when it comes to the city’s attitudes towards art. “In Hong Kong there are loads of really talented artists who just lack that opportunity to show off their work,” he says. “People here judge you by how much money you make, not by who or what you are. But if you wanted to make money, you wouldn’t be doing this.
“We all have to help other artists out – the best thing about art and design is the people, the exchange of ideas. People in Hong Kong often protect themselves – they won’t introduce their friends to clients in case they steal work off them.”
Commercial clients in Hong Kong, he adds, like to put people in boxes – to hire them for their ability to execute a specific thing, rather than for their artistic talent or vision. “In Hong Kong, often there’s only one ‘correct’ way of doing things. Men will only see a woman as pretty if she fits in with a particular look – that’s ‘pretty’. And people will only accept one type of art and design as ‘good’. I just feel so gutted that all this beautiful work is being ignored, restrained by the perception of what’s good and what’s bad, what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
Unexpectedly, there’s more tolerance of innovation over the border, he says. “Because China’s a developing country, they accept people trying things out – it’s quite ironic. Hong Kong is small and developed, and so people don’t take risks. People are forgetting the reason behind art and design.”