Graffiti Artist Cara "Caratoes" To on Materialism, Gender Bias and Repping Hong Kong Art
Three years ago, the Belgium-born-and-raised graffiti artist left her job at an advertising company to discover her Hong Kong roots. Today, when she’s not painting walls across the globe, she’s surprising international artists with the art Hong Kong has to offer.
Have you always been an artist? I’ve always enjoyed drawing. I got into graffiti while working in post-production for an advertising company in Amsterdam. I’d been living the way my parents and society told me to, and even did two years of biochemistry in university before switching to game design. I decided to stop waiting for someone to show me how it’s done, and fulfil my childhood dreams. I quit my job and moved to Hong Kong, where my parents are from. It was partly to discover my roots, and also to put myself through a personal boot camp to hone my skills.
What do your parents think of what you do? My parents are super traditional. One of the reasons I started painting alleyways was because they told me not to. I wanted to do things people say girls can’t do. They would call me a “gwei mui” and say I was going to marry a “gweilo” like it was a bad thing. I was confused, because in Belgium, we lived in a tiny village and we were surrounded by white people all the time. It was as if I had to choose to be either Chinese or Western. I wanted to be Chinese, but I also wanted to hang out with my white friends. But after moving here, I started understanding where my parents came from. They don’t know about computers, so while I was studying game design they didn’t understand what I was doing. But now they get what I’m doing because it’s visual. Walls have helped me communicate with them better.
Do you ever feel held back by commercial work? With commercial work I try to push set themes as hard as I can. When Tiger Beer told me about the concept of turning pollution into ink for the “Tiger Beer Air-Ink” campaign, it appealed to me because it’s so relevant to Asia. It’s really cool that someone had the idea to take dirt out of the air and make it into something we can use, turning it into a message: Global warming is real, and the ink reflects the amount of dirt in the air. Making a wall pretty isn’t my sole responsibility—it’s also my chance to put a message on a wall for everyone to see in their own time.
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Do people look at your art differently because you’re a woman? The art world is a man’s world. One time I was painting a wall in Richmond, Virginia. This guy walked up and asked who painted the wall. My friends told him it was me, but he just didn’t buy it. Now, when people ask me who the artist is, I tell them “you just missed him,” because I want them to see my art for what it is, and not a “girl’s work.” A part of me wants to speak up, because how many stories written from the male perspective have portrayed women unfavorably? But would speaking up rob me of other opportunities to travel and work on projects because people might think I’m “whiny”?
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How do you view your relationship with Hong Kong now? I only came back for two months last year, but now I come back more. At the end of the day, I want to represent Hong Kong: International artists are surprised by the quality of work here, because they see Asia as a place for rip-offs. It’s insulting. I’ve taken it upon myself to speak up for Hong Kong. I’m proud to be a Hongkonger.