European street artist’s Hong Kong show speaks volumes

Rule-breaking guerilla artist’s exhibition a sign of the times

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 December, 2015, 11:12am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 December, 2015, 11:18am

One of Europe’s best-known street artists is going to unleash his creations in Hong Kong, but only after he’s left.

A traumatic encounter with the Japanese police has instilled a new fear of the authorities in Clet Abraham, a Frenchman living in Florence whose works have all been about breaking rules.

Abraham, on holiday at the beginning of the year with his Japanese girlfriend, had put his signature stickers on a few street signs in Osaka and Kyoto before flying back to Italy. There, he received a call from the police asking about the signs and readily admitted to being the culprit as he was already safely out of the country. Next thing he knew, his girlfriend was arrested for vandalism.

“She’d stayed behind to spend time with her family. I never thought this sort of thing was possible. She had nothing to do with the signs but she wasn’t allowed to return to Italy for six months and had to report to the police every day,” he says.

The team at Above Second Gallery in Hong Kong, where some of Abraham’s works are on show, have agreed to bear the risk of arrest for him. They will dress up local street signs under his instructions after he leaves.

“I don’t think we’ll get into trouble. Hong Kong has become more open to street art, as you can see from the change in how the French artist Invader is received here,” says May Wong, the gallery’s director.

The Highways Department was lambasted for removing Invader’s creations in the city last year but since then, a replica of one of those works managed to fetch nearly HK$2 million at a local art auction. PMQ hosted a major exhibition of his works in May.

Using cleverly designed stickers, the sign for a cul-de-sac, for example, can be turned into an image of the crucifix in the blink of an eye. The no entry sign can be turned into a pillory, or a man carrying a heavy load.

Many of his works carry a rebellious, anti-authoritarian message. All are very funny, even if the Japanese police didn’t appreciate the joke.

Elegantly dressed and soft-spoken, Abraham doesn’t fit the usual, rebellious image of a guerilla artist. In fact, the classically trained artist is relatively new to street art.

“I used to do ‘normal’ art and then five years ago, I became drawn to street art. In particular, the language of street signs is the most simple form of visual communication. Everybody, everywhere, can understand them. You don’t need to study art to understand my art and that’s very important to me,” he says.

The new show has a selection of new and old street signs for sale, including a variation of the Hong Kong bauhinia flag made out of a no-entry sign.

Outside Japan, Hong Kong is the first Asian city that will see his art on its streets. The choice is partly to do with last year’s Occupy movement, he says, since it brought Hong Kong to his attention.

Placing street art away from the street and putting a price tag on it does change its characteristics, he admits.

“But I have bills to pay,” he says, and sale proceeds will help fund his ongoing campaign to cover the world’s street signs with his stickers. Works by Australian artist Miguel Marquez are on show at the same time.

Hide and Seek, Above Second Gallery, 9 First Street, Sai Ying Pun, Tue-Sat, 1pm-7pm. Ends Dec 19