Last week, a painting by Harlem painter and ex-graffiti artist JonOne sold for about $80,000. That’s not particularly scandalous, except the painting had previously been hanging on the wall at upmarket shareholders and members' club M1NT, and the canvas was, according to the exhibition’s press release, an exercise in “moving street art onto the canvas.” It’s not a new notion, especially when you consider Banksy once sold a green stencil of Mona Lisa at Sotheby’s for £57,600. But it is odd to think it has a place in Hong Kong’s art scene, often regarded as “nascent” and “still finding its identity” by various venerable street artists, and indeed, artists in general. But ad companies love the whole urban art vibe, as do fashion designers, media types and even banks. Standard Chartered flew French artist Andre in to paint a giant mural on Hang Lung Centre to push its Manhattan credit card in 2005. Prada enlisted another French artist/designer, Ceet Douchafleur, for an ad project last year. Seems there’s a lot of money in street art, or at least, something aping street art. But it’s questionable how much local artists see of it. One rather prolific group of street artists has made a name for itself not just for painting walls but for entering into commercial ventures - ST/ART. Founded by Jay FC of local design studio Chinastylus in 2004, ST/ART is a loosely associated group of 10 artists whose daytime occupations include graphic design, environmental protection and student. Their styles range from Graphic Airlines’ dark, detailed drawings to Katol’s abstract application of calligraphy-style brush stroke techniques to super-versatile HKR’s feminine style in stencils, graffiti and illustrations. Their projects as a crew include painting walls, making cool pieces out of rubbish, and collaborating with Reebok on a series of sneakers. At last year’s 450 Sq.Ft exhibition of 450 paintings, largely by the members of the ST/ART crew, nearly all the paintings sold, and the exhibition itself was covered by numerous publications in both the Chinese and English press, from Milk and East Touch to the SCMP and the Wall Street Journal. “One of our reasons for doing the exhibition was to bring the style of the work we do into a context where people can understand it, without the negative connotations, the overblown stuff that surrounds the scene,” FC says. He’s been fairly successful in raising awareness not just for ST/ART but also street art, beyond bombing walls and tagging the city. As a result, individual artists’ profiles have increased. The ST/ART name is all over collaborations at such events as last year’s Rockit festival and a Tamo toy exhibition at November's Asia Toy Expo. And the second pair of ST/ART-branded Reebok trainers will be released in July. “I’d say the urban art scene has definitely gotten bigger since we started,” FC says. “Generally, the whole culture has, globally, entered the mainstream in certain areas, in terms of the way urban art is used commercially. Specifically, I think we’ve also encouraged awareness locally, though it is still a very niche and underground thing.” But of course, everyone wants to be part of cool, niche things. “Street art has definitely been deemed 'cool' by the masses,” says artist Drift, co-founder of urban art and skateboard collective Sixkeyz. “But while the art scene may embrace [artists] Banksy and Futura, they’ll also say tagging isn’t art. They think they’re embracing it, but they are missing the point.” Certainly the whole commercial aspect makes urban art a very familiar style in mainstream galleries. “JonOne’s canvasses are popular with young professionals,” says Dominique Perregaux, founder of Art Statements Gallery. He represents JonOne and his gallery is also showing the artist’s work. “He comes from a graffiti background, and even though his work now has been tailored for the gallery, bankers like it because it means they can have a piece of the thrill without having to live it themselves. They can hang something from the ghetto on their walls.” He’s sold a number of JonOne canvasses at $55,000 to $100,000 a pop. The most expensive piece of art sold at 450 Sq.Ft was a nine-piece set by Graphic Airlines, which went for $5,000. Peanuts to the average Hollywood Road gallery, but then Hong Kong isn’t exactly home to the fever-pitch hype surrounding the Banksys and Futuras of this world. The cheapest piece went for a whole $10. Drift says, “I just painted a skull on a canvas. It was like arts and crafts, not art. I just want to price things according to where I really value them. Anyway, I thought it’d be cool that whoever wanted it first could just have it.” Not that he fancies himself some kind of starving artist. Sixkeyz hosted December’s Burn exhibition, which featured a skate ramp and pieces from Drift and partner Pen1. The pieces had price tags in the $10,000 area, and one monster piece was $30,000. So are we seeing widespread acceptance by the local art scene of street art, urban art, graffiti and whatever other tags come attached? “The ‘pop’-ness that street or urban art can bring is something people like a lot,” Perregaux says. “But there’s a gap between what will be accepted in the gallery or museum, and what’s on the street. And for street art to move, it needs to somehow mute and adapt. For example, some of our artists do not come from a graffiti background, but they do paint directly on the walls. This is technically graffiti. A lot of artists take the identity of graffiti and adapt it into a gallery space. Without the background of the street, but using it as inspiration.” While galleries are technically places of culture promoting artists and organizing regular exhibitions, they’re also shops and in Hong Kong, many seem particularly bent on profit. Currently, most (local) urban art works are just not valued as highly in that world. “[But] regardless what happens in the established scene, we’ll carry on. We might make some money if we’re lucky, but that’s not why we’re doing it,” FC says. At least there’s no more equivocating about whether selling art is selling out.